Ethics in the Bible

Ethics in the Bible

Ethics is the branch of philosophy which examines the question of what actions are morally right or wrong and why. The Bible contains numerous prescriptions or laws and many narrative accounts of ethical relevance.

Ethics in the Hebrew Bible

Prescriptive utterances (commandments) are found throughout, some related to inter-human relationships (the prohibition against murder) while others focus on issues of worship and ritual (e.g. the Day of Atonement festival).

Jewish tradition classically schematizes these prescriptions into 613 "mitzvot" ("commandments"), beginning with "Be fruitful and multiply" (God's command to all life) and continuing on to the seven laws of Noah (addressed to all humanity) and the several hundred laws which apply specifically to Jews (such as the kashrut dietary laws). Jewish tradition also records the aforementioned distinction between commandment's that relate to man's interaction with fellow man (בין אדם לחבירו) and those that effect his relationship with God (בין אדם למקום Many commandments are remarkable in their blending of the two roles. For example, observance of the Shabbat is couched in terms of recognizing God's sovereignty and creation of the world, while also being presented as a social-justice measure to prevent overworking one's employees, slaves, and animals. As a result, the Bible consistently binds worship of the Divine to ethical actions and ethical actions with worship of the Divine.

The gem of Old Testament ethics is the Biblical command to "love thy neighbor as thyself." Later traditions recognized its prominence by claiming that all other commands are just means by which to accomplish this lofty goal.

The commands of the Old Testament appear in a particular context, namely that of an Iron Age Canaanite people. Thus, some commands, such as the prohibition of theft, are near-universal, while others, such as levirate marriage and the holding of slaves, record how to go about specific ancient practices. To understand the nature of these latter Old Testament commands, a full understanding of the ancient practice is necessary. In particular, understanding the way it was practiced in neighboring and pre-Biblical societies allows one to grasp the novelty of the Old Testament's preferred method.

This method has enjoyed considerable attention in the realm of Biblical court law. Understanding the Iron Age legal context highlights the ethics inherent in Old Testament legal theory. A quick survey of non-Israelite legal codes from the time produces the following patterns: punishment for mere economic crimes can be capital; punishment for murder can be a mere fine or economic recompense; a man's family can be punished for crimes he did; a high ranking ruler can pardon one subject from crimes he committed against another subject; executions were often highly symbolic, disrespectful, and unusual.

For example, certain forms of stealing were punishable by death, murder of certain individuals was punishable by supplying the injured party with new workers, if a man rapes, his wife is given over to the victim to be ravished, if a house collapses the builder is killed and his body is used in building the new home, etc.

The Old Testament adamantly opposes these popular Mesopotamian practices. In their stead, the Old Testament claims that life has no set monetary value; it claims that no economic crime should ever be punished with death; it claims that man can never punish someone for crimes not his own; it demands justice before the law, regardless of political or financial status; and it sets very specific, non-theatrical forms of capital punishment. These novelties of Biblical ethics are central to the modern conception of legal justice.

Unsurprisingly in an Iron Age legal text, several Biblical prescriptions do not correspond to modern notions of justice; this may concern concepts such as slavery (see Lev. 25:44-46), intolerance of religious pluralism (see Deut 5:7, Deut 7:2-5, 2 Corinthians 6:14) and freedom of religion (see Deut. 13:6-12), discrimination and racism (see Lev. 21:17-23, Deut. 23:1-3), subjugation of women, honor killing (see Exo 21:17, Leviticus 20:9), genocide (see 1 Sam. 15:3), religious wars and capital punishment for certain sexual behavior like adultery and sodomy (see the Bible and homosexuality) and Shabbat breakers (Num. 15:32-36).

Ethics in the New Testament

The nature and context of the books of the New Testament are seen by some as very different from that of the Tanakh, which Christians call their Old Testament. For example, the "New Testament" are texts intended to proselytize for a new teaching, not records of time-honoured traditions, according to some interpretations. The main dispute of the Council of Jerusalem (), whether non-Jewish converts should be considered bound to the 613 Mitzvot, are said to be addressed directly elsewhere in the "New Testament", e.g. regarding dietary laws:"Don't you perceive that whatever goes into the man from outside can't defile him, because it doesn't go into his heart, but into his stomach, then into the latrine, thus making all foods clean?" (Mark 7:18)

See also Mark 7.

or regarding divorce:"I tell you that whoever puts away his wife, except for the cause of sexual immorality, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries her when she is put away commits adultery." ()

See also Mark 5.

The central teachings of Jesus are presented in the synoptic Sermon on the Mount, notably the "golden rule" and the prescription to "love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek".:"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'"(Matthew 5:43):"But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."(Matthew 5:44)

See also Ministry of Jesus.

However, according to critics, numerous passages seem to contradict this teaching: Matt. 23:17,25-33, Luke 11:40, Matt. 11:20-24, Luke 10:13-15, Luke 19:27, Matt. 26:24, John 8:44, Acts 13:7-11, 1 Tim 1;20, Gal. 1:8, 2 Cor. 6:14-15, 1 Cor. 5:5,13.

See also But to bring a sword and Antinomianism in the New Testament.

Others dispute this. Meir Y. Soloveichik, a Jewish scholar, in his essay titled "The Virtue of Hate" writes

Asked by one of the Pharisees which is the greatest commandment in the law (Matthew 22:36), Jesus names as the central commandment of his teaching the practice of love (agape) both towards God and one's fellow men::"'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"This reply was, in context, conservative. Jesus' first commandment is actually the second line of the Shema, a passage from the Torah that priests recited in the Temple, and that other Jews recited in their prayers, twice a day; the Pharisees, like most Jews, considered this to be the most important principle in Judaism. Jesus' second commandment echoes the principle of Hillel, one of the most important Pharisees in the decades prior to Jesus' birth. In short, Jesus answers the Pharisee by quoting the two most important Pharisaic principles.

Elsewhere in the New Testament (for example, the "Farewell Discourses" of John 14 through 16) Jesus elaborates on what has become known the commandment of love, repeated and elaborated upon in the epistles of Paul (1 Corinthians 13 etc.), see also The Law of Christ and The New Commandment.

The Jewish Encyclopedia article on "Gentile: Gentiles May Not Be Taught the Torah" [ [ Gentile: Gentiles May Not Be Taught the Torah] ] notes the following reconciliation: "R. Emden, in a remarkable apology for Christianity contained in his appendix to "Seder 'Olam," [Emden, R. "Appendix to "Seder 'Olam," pp. 32b-34b, Hamburg, 1752] gives it as his opinion that the original intention of Jesus, and especially of Paul, was to convert only the Gentiles to the seven moral laws of Noah and to let the Jews follow the Mosaic law — which explains the apparent contradictions in the New Testament regarding the laws of Moses and the Sabbath."

See also Paul of Tarsus and his relationship with Judaism.

Theological issues

Divine command theory

A central problem in religiously motivated ethics is the apparent tautology inherent in the concept that what is commanded by God is morally right. This line of reasoning is introduced most famously in Plato's dialogue "Euthyphro", which asks whether something is right because the gods love it, or whether the gods love it because it is right.

God's benevolence

A central issue in monotheist ethics is the problem of evil, the apparent contradiction between a benevolent, all-powerful God and the existence of evil.

Theodicy seeks to explain why we may simultaneously affirm God's goodness, and the presence of evil in the world.

Some Jews, Christians, and Muslims say that God is not exclusively good, but transcends all opposites; or cannot be described. Thus, to call him "good" is as inadequate as to call him "evil" (see mysticism). Descartes in his "Meditations" considers, but rejects, the possibility that God is an evil demon ("dystheism").

The Bible contains numerous examples seemingly unethical acts of God.:*In the book of Exodus, God deliberately "hardened Pharaoh's heart", making him even more unwilling to free the Hebrew slaves (Exo. 4:21, Rom. 9:17-21).:*Cruel or genocidal commands of God in Deuteronomy, such as the call to eradicate the certain Canaanite tribes including children and infants (1 Sam. 15:3, Isa. 14:21).:*In the Book of Job, God allows Satan to plague His loyal servant Job with devastating tragedies in what is essentially a bet, leaving all his children dead and himself poor. The nature of Divine justice becomes the theme of the entire book.:*Sending evil spirits to people (1 Sam. 18:10, Judges 9:23).:*Punishing the innocent for the sins of other people (Isa. 14:21, Deut. 23:2, Hosea 13:16).



ee also

* Ethics in religion
* Christian anarchism
* Criticism of the Bible

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