One of the oldest forms of the Golden Rule comes down to us in the words of Moses: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). Though the emphasis in the lex talionis is on individual rights and complete reciprocity, the Golden Rule stresses the identification of another’s interest with one’s own, so that one’s sense of justice is qualified by the same right to justice as one’s neighbor. The Rule, however, is not merely sound thinking or prudent politics, it is rooted in the character of God himself: “I am the LORD.” Yahweh commands such behavior from Israel, because they have experienced such behavior at his hands. This connection between love and the identity, character and nature of God is later emphasized in the well-known Hebrew Shema (which in Hebrew means to hear). In his second of three final addresses to the children of Israel Moses exhorts them: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). Yahweh therefore connects the ideal of human character with the reality of divine perfection, and thus expresses the core of the covenant in terms of love, both for God (religion) and man (morality).
The Hebrew principle of love not only qualified and mitigated the effects of the lex talionis; it also engaged with other Eastern traditions, both Far and Near. The best-known statement of this principle in the Far East was elucidated and emphasized by Confucius. In his Analects we read, “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no feelings of opposition to you, whether it is the affairs of a State . . . or . . . of a Family” (XII.2). Two things stand out immediately to Western readers, the first of which is the statement of the Rule in the negative (Do not do to others) rather than the better known affirmative. The second is the pragmatic rationale employed in the Rule’s favor: “there will be no feelings of opposition to you.” Taken together, the Confucian form of the Rule emphasizes non-action versus wrong action, for the sake of blamelessness and harmony. As in Judaism such is not peripheral to Confucian teachings, but instead forms their center, as we later read: “Is there any single saying that one can act upon all day and every day? The Master said, Perhaps the saying about consideration: ‘Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you’” (Analects XV.23). In fact, the Rule can even be said to stand for the entirety of Confucius’ thought: “Our Master’s Way is simply this: Loyalty, consideration” (IV.15). Self-interest is therefore subordinate to the common good, for the happiness of both the individual and the community.
Christianity combined the Aristotelian ideal of virtue with the Golden Rule, transforming both by the life of Christ himself. The New Testament essentially assumes the same meaning of arête (which occurs only four times) assigned by Aristotle. Twice the word is used in reference to God (1 Peter 2:9; 2 Peter 1:3), and twice in reference to the character of the individual believer. As with Aristotle, virtue begins with the mind, therefore one who is truly spiritual will fill his mind with thoughts consistent with the gospel. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any [virtue], if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). But there is also an active side of this virtue, a refining influence that seeks to excel through consistent application of current beliefs and the desire to know all the more. “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5-7). Virtue is therefore an early and essential step on the Christian path to Christ-like love.
The Christian understanding of the Golden Rule combines the theological reflection of Judaism with the Confucius-like turn of the phrase, to establish the Rule in its most familiar form: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Christ incorporates the Hebrew ideal of love into Christianity by quoting the words of the Pentateuch above, and then adding, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). The real difference in Christian teaching on the subject is the power of Christ’s own example, especially his death on the cross. If the Son of God humbled himself, became flesh, was crucified as a wrongfully-condemned criminal, and is our example in all things, how else would the believer emulate Christ than as a living sacrifice (see Philippians 2:1-11; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 5:14; Romans 5:6-8)? So (as Aristotle knew well), Christians (at least, at their best) seek not only to do good things or to have a positive impact on the world, but also to be good—in fact, to live like Christ. They are commanded, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16), “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36), forgive “one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32), and love, “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
These twin fountainheads of Western thought – Greek philosophy and Christian theology – merge into a single stream during the fourth and last century of the Roman period, as is seen especially in the writings of Boethius. Throughout the Middle Ages, this emphasis on charitable virtue maintained a strong hold on the minds of many European thinkers, due especially to the influence of Aristotle on the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas. In a discussion of the triumph of the righteous over the wicked, Lady Philosophy explains to Boethius that his role in life is one of endurance in faith.
Moreover, virtue (virtus) is so-called because it relies on its strength (vires) not to be overcome by adversity. Those of you who are in the course of attaining virtue have not travelled this road merely to wallow in luxury or to languish in pleasure. You join battle keenly in mind with every kind of fortune, to ensure that when it is harsh it does not overthrow you, or when it is pleasant it does not corrupt you. Maintain the middle ground with steadfast strength. Whatever falls short of it or goes beyond it holds happiness in contempt, and gains no reward for its toil. (Boethius IV.7.19-21)
Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1979. iBooks.
Boethius, Anicius Manlius Serverinus. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. P.G. Walsh. Oxford: Oxford, 2000. Print.
Confucius. The Analects. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature, Book 1: The Ancient World, Beginnings-100 C.E. Ed. Paul Davis, et al. Boston: Bedford, 2004. 1591-1601. Print.
The ESV Study Bible. Ed. Lane T. Dennis & Wayne Grudem. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008. Bible Study with Accordance.