Morality

Love your neighbour as yourself.  (Leviticus 19:18)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  (Deuteronomy 6:5)

One of his central commands is a commonplace of ancient philosophy, and is a conclusion at which most world religions eventually arrive: “whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Diarmaid MacCulloch – Professor Oxford)

“All religions emphasise reciprocity of action.  The Golden Rule is disseminated in almost all of them”.  (Gerd Theissen – Professor Heidelberg, visiting lectures Oxford and Cambridge)

Jesus’ moral doctrine was not without precedent. He taught that we should not render evil for evil; but so had Plato’s Socrates. He urged his hearers to love their neighbours as themselves; but he was quoting the ancient Hebrew book of Leviticus. He told us that we must refrain not just from wrong deeds, but from wrong thoughts and desires; Aristotle too had said that the really virtuous person is one who never even wants to do wrong. Jesus taught his disciples to despise the pleasures and honours of the world; but so, in their different ways, did the Epicureans and the Stoics. Considered as a moral philosopher, Jesus was not a great innovator: but that, of course, was not at all how he and his disciples saw his role. (Anthony Kenny – Professor Oxford)

The teaching of the sermon on the mount… Matthew and Luke introduce their collections of Jesus’ teaching with the Beatitudes, which promise the blessings of God’s kingdom.  While there is common ground in Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26 there are significant differences.  Matthew has nine Beatitudes, Luke four, including four “woes” not found in Matthew.  Matthew recounts the Beatitudes (except for the last) in the third person, Luke in the second.  Matthew’s version is concerned with attitudes and behaviour appropriate to God’s kingdom, Luke’s expects the reversal of distressing material conditions in the age to come.  It is difficult to say which set of Beatitudes is closer to Jesus’ teaching as each reinforces the message of the Gospel to which it belongs.  Matthew stresses the integrity of inner dispositions and behaviour.  Luke’s emphasis on reversal is one of his major themes (e.g.  Luke 1:46-55).  It is likely that both adapted Jesus’ sayings and that Matthew probably composed some Beatitudes (e.g.  5-10) based on the material available to him.  (John Bowker – Professor Gresham, Cambridge)

Aslan is well aware that in the turbulent atmosphere of first-century Palestine there were a good many wandering teachers like Jesus; like him, they healed people and worked miracles. Among the contemporaries of Jesus was the engaging Hanina ben Dosa. On one occasion Hanina was bitten by a poisonous snake but simply went on praying, and it was the snake that slunk off and died. ‘Woe to the man bitten by a snake, but woe to the snake which has bitten ben Dosa!’ his astonished disciples cried. Jesus, the evangelists Mark and Luke record, had likewise been given authority to tread on serpents. It may have been precisely the ideas and modes of behaviour which Jesus shared with his contemporaries and predecessors that were most significant at the time; they first won a hearing thanks to their familiarity to the local audience. One of Jesus’ central commands is a commonplace of ancient philosophy, indeed a conclusion at which most world religions eventually arrive: what has come to be known as the Golden Rule, ‘whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.’  (Professor Diarmuid Macculloch review of “Zealot” by Reza Aslan)

Stoics held that external differences such as rank and wealth are of no importance in social relationships. Instead they advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all human beings. Stoicism became the most influential school of the Greco–Roman world.  (wikipedia entry on Stoicism)

The basic assumption that Christian moral teaching was indeed or has to besomething different and unique still lingers on.  (Runar M. Thorsteinsson – University of Copenhagen)

Empires prefer a baby and the cross to the adult Jesus…  The adult Christ who calls his followers to renounces wealth, power and violence is passed over in favour of the gurgling baby and the screaming victim.  As such, Nicene Christianity is easily conscripted into a religion of convenience, with believers worshipping and gagged and glorified saviour who has nothing to say about how we use our money or whether or not we go to war.  Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312, after which the Church began to back-pedal on the more radical demands of the adult Christ… in the hands of conservative theologians, the Nicene religion of the baby and the cross is a way of distracting attention away from the teachings of Christ..  It’s a form of religion that concentrates on things like belief in the virgin birth while ignoring the fact that the Gospels are much more concerned about the treatment of the poor and the forgiveness of enemies.  (Giles Fraser – Church of England priest, Oxford)

Jesus offered a political manifesto that emphasised non-violence, social justice and the redistribution of wealth – yet all this is drowned out by those who use the text to justify a narrow, authoritarian and morally judgemental form of social respectability.  (Giles Fraser – Church of England priest, Oxford)

“About homosexuality, while Jesus said nothing on the subject, no one could be more vituperative than Paul”.  (Geza Vermes – Professor Oxford)

A distressing fact for modern Christians is that slavery is taken for granted in the Bible, even if it is not always taken to be a good thing, at least for oneself… Paul’s epistle to Philemon, in which the apostle asks his correspondent to allow him the continued services of his slave Onesimus, is a Christian foundation document in the justification of slavery.  (Diarmaid MacCulloch – Professor Oxford)

A distressing fact for modern Christians is that slavery is taken for granted in the Bible, even if it is not always taken to be a good thing, at least for oneself… Paul’s epistle to Philemon, in which the apostle asks his correspondent to allow him the continued services of his slave Onesimus, is a Christian foundation document in the justification of slavery.  (Diarmaid MacCulloch – Professor Oxford)

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter ii, 18)

Another difficulty… is the problem of reconciling some of the harsher pronouncements of the Old Testament with the stress on love in Jesus’s teaching… Nowadays we are likely to recoil form the idea that some of the measures intended for captives in war could ever have been part of the divine will (e.g.  Deut 20:16; Ps 137:9.  In such a situation it is hard to resist the conclusion that some of the doctrinal and moral statements in the Bible are not just inadequate but actually quite wrong, at least when set against the standards of later biblical perceptions. (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford)

18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. (Deuteronomy 21:18-22)

Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together. (Deuteronomy 22:11)

[Old Testament]  Men… controlled women, especially daughters, who could be sold as slaves, and whose value was dependent upon their virginity…  Slavery was an accepted institution.  (Michael Coogan – Harvard)

Because the Old Testament’s constituent parts were written over the course of many centuries, it is risky to generalise about the biblical view of almost anything, since on many issues there was development in thinking and also disagreement.  This is especially true when we try to determine what the ancient Israelites believed about life after death.  .. Only relatively late in the biblical period, partly in an effort to resolve the problem of inconsistent divine justice in this life, did Jews begin to develop a more elaborate set of beliefs about the afterlife as a place of reward for the just and punishment for the wicked.  This would eventually become the familiar heaven and hell, which Christians and Muslims adopted.  (Michael Coogan – Harvard)

“Unlike the Sermon on the Mount .. the fourth gospel says nothing about an ethic of non-violence, of loving enemies, turning the other cheek, renouncing divorce, walking the extra mile…..Unconcerned about ethical details”. (Harold Attridge – Professor Yale)

And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)

For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death (Leviticus 20:9)

20:13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death.  (Leviticus 20:13)

He and his immediate followers embarked on a lifestyle that embodied the values he was now espousing; namely, homelessness, rejection of property and family, based on a total dependence on God’s care for all… “values revolution” in an unconditional trust in the God of Israel.  (Sean Freyne – Professor Trinity College Dublin, visiting Professor Harvard)

“This is what the Lord Almighty says … ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Samuel 15:3)

“Do not allow a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18)

Taken literally, the New Testament in particular describes a cosmic battle between good and evil beings for control of the physical world.  These supernatural figures intervene not only in the operation of nature… but also in the lives of human beings.  The beneficent beings direct humans to do good; the malevolent ones compel them to do evil.   Taken literally, the New Testament describes a pre-scientific outlook… (Robert Segal – Professor Aberdeen, Stanford)

In the ancient world there was absolutely no assumption that every life was precious. Fathers had the right to kill their children in certain circumstances, masters their slaves; crowds flocked to see criminals or prisoners of war killing each other in the theatres; massacre was a normal tool of war. Some philosophers defended a theory of abstract human equality, but they were untroubled by the political facts of life in which lives were expendable in these familiar ways. It is a shock to realize just how deeply rooted such an attitude was. And when all is said and done about how Christianity has so often failed in its own vision, the bare fact is that it brought an irreversible shift in human culture. Human value could not be extinguished by violence or death; no one could be forgotten. (Rowan Williams – Professor Oxford and Cambridge)

However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46)

“I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I the lord do all these things”. (Isaiah 45:7)

“Go away from me with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink; I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, naked and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me. . . And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the virtuous to eternal life.”  (Matthew 25:41-46)

Perhaps more than any other feature of Egyptian religion, the idea of a final, inevitable reckoning before a divine judge had a profound and lasting impact on the subsequent development of beliefs.  Unlike hippos, hedgehogs and Shabtis, the last judgment was picked up by other religious traditions of the near eastern world, notably Christianity.  (Toby Wilkinson – Cambridge)

There was no good or evil in Greek and roman religion, and few mythological characters we0re wholly bad or wholly good.  Nor was there any single religious text, like the Bible or Koran, which laid down for people a moral code to follow.  Faith was not defined against disbelief as it is in most modern religions.  In fact, thinking in terms of “religion” as a separate part of life is misleading; the gods were involved in every sphere of activity… … It was the gods’ interactions with each other, and with mortals, that gave the myths meaning.  It was through their loves, enmities, alliances, and arguments that moral questions were raised and debated.  It was not important that the gods had moral authority; they did not.  They were unfaithful, vengeful, petty, and mean, just as humans are.  But it was important that humans recognised the difference between themselves and the immortals and honoured the gods in cult and through ritual, especially sacrifice.  If there were rewards for honouring the gods, and for leading a good life, they were enjoyed in this life, not the next.  There is no simple and unified picture of the afterlife that emerges from ancient sources, but what is clear is that there is no equivalent of the Christian categories of heaven and hell.  Most thought that the dead went to Hades, an unlovely place but not one that was feared. (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

Whoever spares the rod hates their children,     but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. (Proverbs 13:24)

It was the gods’ interactions with each other, and with mortals, that gave the myths meaning.  It was through their loves, enmities, alliances, and arguments that moral questions were raised and debated.  It was not important that the gods had moral authority; they did not.  They were unfaithful, vengeful, petty, and mean, just as humans are.  But it was important that humans recognised the difference between themselves and the immortals and honoured the gods in cult and through ritual, especially sacrifice.  If there were rewards for honouring the gods, and for leading a good life, they were enjoyed in this life, not the net.  There is no simple and unified picture of the afterlife that emerges from ancient sources, but what is clear is that there is no equivalent of the Christian categories of heaven and hell.  Most thought that the dead went to Hades, an unlovely place but not one that was feared. (Helen Morales – Professor California, Cambridge)

Christianity may be unique among the world’s religions in its emphasis on love, an emphasis, alas, that has not been borne out in the works and deeds of the imperial and later global Church.  But it is undeniable that the early Christians sought to distinguish themselves in the empire by works of kindness and charity (caritas, the root for our word charity is one of several Latin words for love and the King James biblical translators preferred it).  (Hoffmann – Professor Beijing, Oxford)

If there is a deity of the kind imagined by votaries of the big mail-order religions such as Christianity and Islam, and if this deity is the creator of all things, then it is responsible for cancer, meningitis, millions of spontaneous abortions every day, mass killings of people in floods and earthquakes-and too great mountain of other natural evils to list besides. It would also, as the putative designer of human nature, ultimately be responsible or the ubiquitous and unabatable human propensities for hatred, malice, greed, and all other sources of the cruelty and murder people inflict on each other hourly.  (A.C. Grayling – Professor Birkbeck, Oxford)

The absolute certainty, the unreflective credence given to ancient texts that relate to historically remote conditions, the zealotry and bigotry that flow from their certainty, are profoundly dangerous: at their extreme they result in mass murder, but long before then they issue in censorship, coercion to conform, the control of women, the closing of hearts and minds. (A.C. Grayling – Professor Birkbeck, Oxford)

We rightly abandoned Christian legitimizing of slavery about 150 years ago,
Christian legitimizing of sexism in the last 30 to 40 years, [and the]
Christian legitimizing of heterosexism more recently.  (Marcus J. Borg – Professor Oregon State)

There are many similarities between the Zoroastrian religion of
Zurvanism and Jewish apocalyptic beliefs of the kind recorded in the Dead Sea
Scrolls, and Jewish apocalyptic thought most likely reflects the influence of
Zoroastrianism. It seems to have been Zoroaster —an Iranian prophet also known
as Zarathustra who lived some time between 1500 and 1200 BC — who first
conceived of human life as a battle between light and darkness that could end
in a victory for light. Zoroastrianism is one of the most peaceful religions in
history. Nevertheless, through his formative influence on Judaism, Christianity
and ¡siam. Zoroaster may be the ultimate source of the history. Many traditions
have seen human life as a war between good and evil, but they have taken for
granted that the conflict will go on for ever. An unending alternation of light
and dark Is found In Egyptian myth. Some have expected the struggle to end in
darkness — the eighth-century BC Greek poet Hesiod pictured human history as a
process of decline from a primordial Golden Age to an age of iron in which
humanity would be destroyed. If there is anything resembling a perfect society
it is located in the past — it was never envisioned that the cosmic struggle
could end in victory for light. Even Zoroaster may not have believed its
triumph was preordained. Rather than announcing the end of the world,
Zoroastrian texts call followers of the prophet to a struggle whose outcome
remains in doubt. Even so, the belief that good could triumph was a new
development in human thought, and as far as we can tell it came from Zoroaster.
(John Gray – Professor London School of Economics)

… such gospel passages as Matt 23, which to any fair-minded reader, such as a man from Mars, would prevent the characterization of the gospels as expressive of love and only love. Christianity shared with other versions of Judaism both the ideal of the
love of one’s fellow-men and also a hostility to the out group. (Samuel Sandmel
- Professor Hebrew Union College)

‘Custom is king of all things,’ Herodotus proclaimed, arguing that if customs were like
goods in a marketplace, set out alongside other such goods, each people would
choose its own above all others. An experiment conducted by the Persian king
Darius proved the point for Herodotus. Greeks, who buried their dead, had been
confronted with Callatian Indians, who ate theirs: both groups were equally
disgusted.  (from book review by James Romm )

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one. (Marcus Aurelius – Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher)

love the people with whom fate brings you together, and do so with all your heart (Marcus Aurelius – Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher)

If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it (Marcus Aurelius – Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher)

Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good. (Marcus Aurelius – Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher)

He does not forget the brotherhood of all rational beings, nor that a concern for every man is proper to humanity.  (Marcus Aurelius – Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher)

In the longest chapter of the study, Chapter 9, a number of aspects of the moral teachings of Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism were compared under the headings of five broader themes. These themes included questions of similarities and differences with respect to Christian and Stoic views about (a) a particular morality or way of life as proper worship of the deity; (b) certain individuals (like Jesus and Socrates) as paradigms for the proper way of living; (c) the importance of mutual love and care; (d) non-retaliation and ‘love of enemies’; and (e) the social dimension of ethics. In all cases the comparison revealed a fundamental similarity between the Christian and Stoic sources. In other words, given the present choice of primary sources as well as of subjects to be compared, Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism are fundamentally similar in terms of morality or ethics. This conclusion does not mean that there are no differences whatsoever between the two. Of course there are differences, and the study has revealed some of them, too. But these are minor variations that do not affect the basic moral agreement seen in the teachings of Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism—except for one difference, which indeed was vital enough to be treated separately in the final chapter of the study. The final chapter, Chapter 10, discussed the ethical scope of the Christian and Stoic texts, that is, the question of whether the texts teach unqualified universal humanity or not. It was concluded that, contrary to common opinion, there can be no doubt that the Stoic texts teach such universal humanity, while the Christian texts do not. The latter reserve the application of their primary virtue for fellow believers, and thus set an important condition in terms of religious adherence. This condition, in turn, reveals a fundamental distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in Christian moral teaching. Such a distinction is not found in Roman Stoic ethics, for which unconditional universal humanity is absolutely basic. Here at last, then, we encountered a difference of considerable importance between the moral teachings of Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism.  (Runar.M. Thorsteinsson – University of Copenhagen)

contrary to the teachings and practices of almost all Christian
churches today, Jesus, according to Mark 10:2—12, forbade divorce
for any reason. (Dale Martin – Professor Yale)

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