Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Tarnished Golden Rule (Luke 6:31): The Inescapable Radicalness of Christian Ethics

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Tarnished Golden Rule (Luke 6:31): The Inescapable Radicalness of Christian Ethics

Article excerpt

Whether They Begin from natural-law principles or from a proportionalist calculus, articles on Christian ethics rarely reflect the extraordinary demands of Jesus' ethics, especially as these are presented in the Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain.

Surprisingly, this same lack is increasingly found in biblical exegesis. Recent work on the Sermon is more likely to investigate the social situation of Jesus or of the evangelist's community, or to investigate the roots of Jesus' tropes in classical rhetoric than to wrestle with his exigent ethics. The Golden Rule especially has been turned into the rehearsal of a Greco-Roman commonplace, and so has lost its extraordinary power as an example of imitatio Dei.

This article proposes to uncover and correct some of the exegetical oversights which have led to this obfuscation, and thus to engage exegetes and theologians in illuminating the paradoxical and penetrating power of Jesus' ethical demands. And so it prepares a two-fold enterprise: to enrich the present thinness of New Testament ethics, and to engage exegetes and Christian ethicists collaboratively in providing the power of Jesus' thought to contemporary Christian life.


Jesus' formulation of the "Golden Rule" is found in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31.(1) From the time of Grotius, Wetstein, and Resch, biblical scholars have collected texts from ancient literature which seem to adumbrate Jesus' own formula.(2) This research has so strictly located Jesus' maxim in the thought-world of his time that it has lost what previous generations of exegetes called its revolutionary character. Recently, however, H. D. Betz has called into question many of the assumptions on which the modern interpretation has been based.(3) It is opportune to study the issue anew.(4)

The Golden Rule was not submitted to systematic analysis until Albrecht Dihle's classic work in 1962.(5) Dihle rooted it in the oldest norm of human conduct, the principle of retribution (Vergeltungsprinzip). The most severe form of this principle, found in primitive law and primitive morality, was the lex talionis. A wide range of popular maxims in ancient literature exemplify a gradual mitigation of this severe principle on practical and theoretical grounds.(6) One of these mitigating maxims is the Golden Rule. Dihle found the earliest witness to it in Herodotus's use of a sophist maxim and postulated that it passed into Judaism only through Hellenistic influence in the second century. As a form of retribution theory he found it incompatible with Jesus' teaching of self-emptying love. Dihle took the poieite of Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31 as an indicative, expressing the current synagogue morality which the disciples were practicing. Jesus corrects them in Luke 6: 32-36.

Although subsequent scholars have challenged Dihle's conclusions about the incidence of the Golden Rule in pre-Christian literature and its place in Jesus' teaching, Dihle's conceptual framework still dominates the study of the Golden Rule.(7) Consequently, a remarkable degree of confusion still dogs almost all aspects of study of the Golden Rule, and any discussion of the Golden Rule must investigate all three principal aspects: the thought content of the rule, its literary form, and the alleged uniqueness of Jesus' version.


Although Dihle located the Golden Rule in the category of retribution, it really does not belong there.(8) Retribution addresses the kind and extent of sanction to be levied against the doer of a good or bad action: the lex talionis responds to injuries already done to one. The Golden Rule, however, in both its positive and negative form, is not a response to an action, but the consideration of an appropriate first action. The fact that one ponders what he or she would want others to do to him or her does not make his or her actions a response to the other's act; there is no other's act. …

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