NOTES ON ETHICS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
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These notes were written in 1972 and expanded in 1974 at the United Theological College, Bangalore, before being modified in 2007.
Part I: The
I. The command to do.
II. Depth of obedience.
III. Inclusive community
Part II: Biblical ethics as 'therefore' ethics
Part III: NT Ethics generally: The Neighbour and the Decalogue
I. Emerging centrality of the Decalogue
II. Love of the neighbour as central.
Part I: The Jesus-tradition
I. As presented in the Gospels, there is only one thing that appears to be unique to Jesus that cannot be readily paralleled elsewhere in any of the world's religions:
|Q tradition:||Matt 7.12: "All things therefore whatever you wish/will that people (hoi anthrópoi) do to you, even thus you do to them: for this is the Law and the Prophets,"|
|(In the chiastic structure of Matt 5.1-7.29 against 22.15-24.35 [see Matthew], this corresponds to the Summary of the Law: Love God and love your neighbour [22.34-30], the two commandments from which hang all the Law and the Prophets. I.e., Matt 7.12 is given a very central and significant position.)|
Luke 6.31: "Even you as wish/will that people (hoi anthrópoi) do you you, do to them likewise."
What appears to be is unique about this is
the positive command to do. Elsewhere one can readily find the
negative form: Do not do what you do not want done, but only in the
Jesus-tradition (and its influence) does one encounter the positive injunction
to do. (Thus if there is a specifically Christian sin, it is the
sin of omission, an act of love that one has chosen not to do.)
It is in keeping with this that the Matthaean pericope of the Great Assize (Matt 25.31-46) defines the ultimate heirs of the Kingdom as those who feed the hungry 'little ones' (hoi mikroi, probably meaning disciples, 'the least of these my brethren', v. 40), give drink to them when thirsty, welcome them as strangers, clothe them when naked, visit them when sick or in prison.
II. The Qumran community called for more obedience
to the Torah, as did a number of Jewish parties, but Jesus by contrast calls for
deeper obedience to Torah: depth, not breadth; qualitative not
quantitative. See especially in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7)
the "You have heard... but I say to you..." sections, 5.21-48, for
"You are to be perfect/whole/complete/mature (teleioi) as your
heavenly Father is teleios." (Cp. Luke 6:236: "Be
merciful (oiktirmones), even as your Father is oiktirmón".
I.e., God's character is the basis of what your character is to be, as it is in the OT. (Cf. the Holiness Code of Leviticus: "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy," Lev 19.2; cf. Lev 11.44, 45; 20.7, 26; 21.8) Note that Matt 5.48 and Luke 6.36 appeal to sons/daughters to show the character of their Father.
On depth in Matthew cf. 23.23 where the scribes' and Pharisees' breadth of tithing dill, mint and cummin, the garden hebs that the Torah does not require to be tithed, is not condemned but is rather contrasted to the depths of God's demands: "the deep things of the Law" that they are accused of neglecting, namely, "justice, mercy and faith."
(On this qualitative depth in Matthew versus quantitative breadth in Qumran cf. W. D. Davis, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (OUP, Oxford, 1964).
III. It is striking that although Jesus himself
probably moved only among Jews, especially among tax-gatherers, sinners, and the
am ha-aretz, 'the people of the land', i.e. those Jews whom scrupulous
Jews counted as unclean and unobservant, our earliest writings all bear witness
to an early movement out to the Gentiles. I.e., the central thrust of
Jesus' teaching (and actions) was so concerned with the unbounded and unlimited
love and mercy of God, apparently, that the appropriate response of the
Christian community was to move out to all people without limits (in accord with
the vision of the prophet Isaiah as in Isa. 9.1f,.).
Mark: Every controversy with the Jewish leaders is over the boundaries of the community (cf. also 9.38-40, his controversy with his own disciple, John, over the strange exorcist). We might characterize these as "Whom can we keep out, kick out, or make to be just like ourselves?" with Jesus' answer every time being "No one!". Matthew: Only gospel to quote (twice) Hosea 6.8: "I will have mercy and not sacrifice", Matt 9.13; 12.7. Luke: 4.19 carefully omits Isa. 61.2b ("and the day of vengeance of our God"), then 4.25-27 tells of the mercy coming to Gentiles in the days of Elijah and Elisha. Whereas in the OT "signs and wonders" are always God's judgements and punitive actions against the oppressors of Israel, in Luke-Acts they are always the "signs and wonders", sémeia kai terata, of God's mercy toward all people, Note that Luke 10.30-37 (the so-called Parable of the Good Samaritan) defines the neighbour to be loved as the Samaritan whom the Jews hated.
Part II: Biblical Ethics as "Therefore" Ethics:
I. Joachim Wach, The Sociology of
Religion (1948), drew a major distinction between the Christian and
the Jewish faiths on the one hand and all the world's religions on the other
He noted that all the world's religions are active, that is, they are concerned with people's actions as pleasing, placating or appeasing the gods in order that the gods may be propitious to them (or at least not bother them). That is, men act and the gods respond. Each of these religions is an acting cultus.
By contrast, for Judaism and Christianity, God has acted, and on the basis of his action, man is to respond (and is enabled to respond). His response is dependent upon God's prior action, and his response is one of faith, i.e., of trust in God who has acted for him.
Judaism and Christianity therefore are not religions, but faiths, and they are a reacting cultus.
Man acts, gods respond
God has acted, man responds
(i.e., man dependent upon God)
|All world's religions||Judaism & Christianity|
II. Thus the key word in all biblical ethics is "therefore":
God ha acted (in the Exodus; in Jesus) therefore we respond in faith by
the strength that God has supplied, is supplying, and will supply (corresponding
to faith, love and hope).
NT example: 1 John 4.19: "We love because he first loved us."
NT example: Ephesians 1-3 is basically a proclamation of what God has done for us in Christ. Eph 4.1 then begins with oun, "therefore", and the ethical consequences follow: "I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith you were called ...."
Part III: NT Ethics Generally: The Decalogue and the Neighbour.
I. Emerging centrality of the Decalogue.
The normative heart of the ethical demand is the Decalogue (the Ten Words) in their Christian interpretation.
|a)||The problem of the Christians re the Scriptures (i.e., the OT) in the mission to the Gentiles was two-fold: (1) how could they be used to support an ethical norm and also be used to undergird the presentation of Jesus, (2) without making all the laws and statutes binding on all Christians?|
|b)||Their answer (in good Jewish rabbinic-type reasoning): God himself spoke (Exod 19.9; 20.1; Deut 5.4) and wrote (Exod 24.12; 31.18; 32.15-16; Deut 5.22; 9.10-11) only the Ten Words; all the rest of the Torah came through Moses.|
|c)||Thus the Decalogue (as interpreted by Jesus and the Christians) is presented as binding on all Christians, but the rest is not. Confirmation of a sort on the impact of this Christian usage may be seen in that the Ten Words were in the Jewish Sabbath Synagogue liturgy in the first century C.E. but were dropped in the second century, apparently in reaction to the Christian emphasis on them. On the whole subject see R. M. Grant, "The Decalogue in Early Christianity," Harvard Theological Review XL (1947), pp. 1-17.|
|d)||1 Cor 6.1-10.33 is structured on the Decalogue twice over (see 1 Corinthians and the Decalogue)'; 14.19: the "five words" Paul would rather speak plainly may well refer to the Second Table of the Ten Words.|
|e)||2 Cor 3.1-11 indicates that the Decalogue has been 'internalized' so that it is no longer an external code written on tables of stone but an internalized orientation "written on tables of hearts of flesh" (2 Cor 3.3), so that we are "en-lawed of Christ" (ennomos Xristou) (1 Cor 9.21), "having the mind of Christ" (1 Cor 2.16), since we have been crucified with Christ so that is is no longer the egocentric "I" that lives but rather "Christ" within us (Gal 2.20).|
|f)||The 'ethical content' of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (Matt 5-7) is based on Commandments V (honour thy Father...) to IX (bear not false witness) in the order: VI (kill), VII (adultery), VIII (steal), IX (false witness), V (honour thy Father...) (Matt 5.21-48), which is the same sequence given in Matt 19.18-19 on entry into the Kingdom (with Lev 19.18 on love of neighbour linked in Matt 19.19b with honouring the Father in 19.19a, just as they are linked in 5.43-38). Note: X (not to covet) was seen in Jewish thought as a type of stealing, and thus subsumed under VIII.|
|g)||Note the shift from Mark's vice list of things which defile a man (Mark 7.21-22) in Matt 5.19 to elements only of the Decalogue.|
II. Love of the neighbour as central.
|a)||The basic content of the Decalogue and the whole Torah is understood in terms of love of the neighbour, which is the fulfilling of the whole Law (Gal 5.14, citing Lev 19.18 on love of the neighbour as oneself.|
|b)||He who loves God loves his neighbour as the inescapable corollary (Mark 12.29-31 & pars., citing Deut 6.4f. [love God] and Lev 19.18 [love neighbour]; cf. 1 John 4.20-21: He who does not love his brother does not love God.|
|c)||Note that the "fruits of the Spirit" in Gal 5.22-23 are all things that make for establishing, maintaining, deepening and extending interpersonal relationships and concerns, as in contrast to "the works of the flesh" (Gal 5.19-21), which have the opposite effect.|