Love Of Neighbor As Great Commandment In The Time Of Jesus: Grasping At Straws In The Hebrew Scriptures -- By: Henry Ansgar Kelly

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 60:2 (Jun 2017)
Article: Love Of Neighbor As Great Commandment In The Time Of Jesus: Grasping At Straws In The Hebrew Scriptures
Author: Henry Ansgar Kelly


Love Of Neighbor As Great Commandment In The Time Of Jesus: Grasping At Straws In The Hebrew Scriptures

Henry Ansgar Kelly*

* Henry Ansgar Kelly is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of English, UCLA, 415 Portola Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90095. He may be contacted at [email protected]

Abstract: One’s “neighbor,” generously interpreted to include everyone else in the world, even personal and impersonal enemies, looms large in the NT, especially in the form of the second great commandment, and in various expressions of the Golden Rule. The NT also contains expansive claims that neighbors have a similar importance in the OT. The main basis that commentators cite for these claims is a half-verse in the middle of Leviticus (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” 19:18b), as fully justifying these claims, supported by other isolated verses, notably, Exod 23:45, on rescuing the ass of one’s enemy. Relying on these verses has the appearance of grasping at straws in order to justify the words of Jesus, but it seems clear that in the time of Jesus they had indeed been searched out and elevated to new significance. John Meier has recently argued that it was Jesus himself who gave the Levitical neighbor his high standing, but because the Gospels present the notion as already known, this article suggests that it had achieved a consensus status by this time.

Key words: love, neighbor, Golden Rule, Great Commandment, enemy

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is made to say two problematic statements about the importance of treating “other people” well. The first, in the Sermon on the Mount, concerns what we know as the Golden Rule. Jesus says, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).1 Less radical but still not justified is his later assertion that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the second great commandment, on which (together with the first, love of God) “hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:39–40). Nothing like the Golden Rule appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, nor does any hierarchizing or summarizing of commandments seem to be found there;2 and the idea of love of neighbor is, for all practical purposes, nonexistent. In fact, all uses of “love” in a religious or moral meaning are rare in the Hebrew Scriptures.3 God’s love is spoken of on a score or so of occasions, but love for God is...

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