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The Ethical Teachings of Jesus

Much has been said by Christians and Christians theologians about the supposed originality and beauty of the ethical teachings of Jesus. The quotation below, by the Christian historian, Philip Schaff (1819-1893), is a typical example:

It is universally admitted...that Christ taught the purest and sublimest of ethics, one which throws the moral precepts and maxims of the wisest men of antiquity far into the shade. [1]

There is only one problem with the statement above: it is simply not true!

  • Where his ethical teachings are attractive, they were not original.
  • Where his teachings were original, they are repugnant.

It is clear that when the glasses of faith are taken off, the ethical teachings of Jesus is neither unique nor sublimely beautiful. As a teacher of ethics Jesus cannot be considered one of the greats. At best, he was an "also-ran".

Jesus Much Touted Ethical Precepts Were Not Original To Him

The teachings of Jesus, where they are attractive were not original to him. Take Jesus' preaching on love and forgiveness:

Mark 12:31
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Matthew 6:14
"For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you."

Matthew 7:12
"So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. "

This teaching, while commendable, are not original. We find similar teachings in the Jewish culture of Jesus. Hillel, the famous Jewish preacher had already taught such a doctrine:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow-man: this is the whole law, the rest is commentary. [2]

We find the same essence in the Old Testament:

Leviticus 19:18
You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself...

In other cultures too, we find preachers already preaching similar doctrines long before Jesus. The Chinese philosopher, Confucius (551-478 BCE) has this to say in his Analects:

A young man's duty is to behave well to his parents at home and to his elders abroad, to be cautious in giving promise and punctual in keeping them, to have kindly feelings towards everyone, but seek intimacy of the good. [3]

In the teaching about love and forgiveness, Jesus has no claim to originality. His teachings here did not set new ground. Even his famous dictum about loving one's enemies is not original for it has both precedents and in the general mileau of first century Hellenistic intellectual culture:

Matthew 5:44
"But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..."

The Old Testament archetype for this teaching can be found in Exodus:

Exodus 23:4-5
If you meet your enemy's ox or his ass going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the ass of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, you shall help him to lift it up

Similar parallels are found in the prevalent cynic and stoic philosophies of first century CE:

Epictetus (fl. circa end of first century CE)
"A rather nice part of being a cynic comes when you have to be beaten like an ass, and throughout the beating you have to love those who are beating you as though you were father or brother to them"

Diogenes (c412-323 BCE)
How shall I defend myself against an enemy? By being good and kind towards him replied Diogenes.

Seneca (4 BCE -65 CE)
Someone gets angry with you. Challenge him with kindness in return. Enmity immediately tumbles away when one side lets it fall. [4]

Another episode normally quoted by those who want to present Jesus as a moral innovator [5] is found in John 8:1-11. Leaving aside any problems of authenticity, even here, Jesus' teaching was not unique or original. The story in the first eleven verses of John tells of a woman who was caught in the act of committing adultery. The Pharisees reminded Jesus that according to the Law she must be stoned. Jesus' answer was:

John 8:7
"Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her."

The idea behind this saying is that since all have sinned, it is more prudent to reflect on one's own fault before hurling condemnations at each other. Again here, Jesus' teaching was not unique. His contemporary, the Roman stoic philosopher, Seneca taught the same thing in his essay On Anger:

No man of sense will hate erring, otherwise he will hate himself. Let him reflect how many times he offends against morality, how many of his acts stand in need of pardon; then he will be angry with himself also. For no just judge pronounce one sort of judgement in his own case and a different one in the case of others. No one will be found, I say, who is able to acquit himself, and any man who calls himself innocent is thinking more of [the absence of] witnesses than [his own] conscience. How much more human to manifest toward wrong doers a kind and fatherly spirit, not hunting them down, but calling them back! [6]

There were many thinkers, before and after Jesus who extolled teachings similar to Jesus'. They include, among others Lao Tzu (6th cent BCE), Mencius (4th cent BCE), Epicurus (342-270 BCE) and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE). But there is actually a difference between these humanists teachings and Jesus'. To them doing good comes spontaneously to the educated because he understands that man is a social animal. But to Jesus one must do good because the reward is great [7]:

Luke 6:35
"But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great..."

Matthew 6:3-4
"But when you give alms...your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

Matthew 5:12
"Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven."

Reward and punishment are primitive ethical concepts. Just as we do not think highly of any man who refrains from committing a crime only because he is afraid of getting caught, we cannot think highly of ethical teachings which promises reward ("Mummy will give you a lollipop if you stop pestering your baby sister") for doing good and punishment ("No more ice cream for you unless you stop crying") for doing evil. This concept, as the examples above show, is one suited for little children and morally maladjusted adults. For this reason, Jesus' ethical teachings are not as complete as the humanists thinkers.

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Some of Jesus' Teachings Are Repugnant

In those teachings of Jesus that does have some claims to originality, they are not the sort you would expect to be read in church. For instance, Jesus teaches abandonment of the family:

Matthew 19:29
"And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold..."

Luke 14:26
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters...he cannot be my disciple."

Some of his original teachings are so downright barbaric that even fundamentalists [a] wouldn't take it literally:

Matthew 18:8-9 (Mark 9:43-47)
"And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. "

Furthermore some of his teachings advertised as good and revolutionary are actually quite harmful. Take the oft-quoted passage below:

Luke 6:29-30
"To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. "

Much praise have been showered on the above teaching, but there is something fundamentally unsound about it. What Jesus was preaching was not passive resistance. By turning the other cheek to one who had just slapped you or by giving your coat to one who had just stolen you cloak, Jesus is teaching one to actively encourage oppression on themselves. Charles Bradlaugh's reasoning is absolutely correct:

Surely it is better to teach: "he who courts oppression shares the crime." There is a wide distinction between passive resistance and courting further injury at the hands of the wrongdoer. [8]

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a.Sad to say, I have been proven wrong here. Recently (April 7, 2004) a man in Sherman, Texas, actually did take this command seriously and plucked his own eyeball out! The 21 year old man was in jail for allegedly murdering his estranged wife, his four year old son and the woman's one year old baby. You can catch the news still on CNN. Many thanks to Markus Weber for alerting me to this news!

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1.quoted in McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict: p127
2.Maccoby, Revolution of Judea: p266
3.Knight, Humanist Anthology: p2
4.Price, Deconstructing Jesus: p151
5.Knight, Honest to Man: p28
6.Knight, Humanist Anthology: p12
7.Knight, Honest to Man: p27
8.Bradlaugh, Humanity's Gain from Unbelief: p60

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