Jesus: Unoriginal Moral Thinker

Oftentimes a new conversation can be started with a single surprising statement.

Saying, for example:

I wish Jesus taught even one original moral principle.

Admittedly, this is worded in a provoking way -- so decide for yourself if and when to throw out such a statement. Also, you should have some idea what kind of response people might give.

It might be handy to have this verse in your back pocket:

Proverbs 12:16 (NRSV)

“Fools show their anger at once, but the prudent ignore an insult.”

There is this notion that even many non-believers share, that "Jesus was a great moral genius!" or some other variant.

I’m not sure exactly why people think that Jesus was a great moral teacher.

In my opinion, you have to have taught at least one new moral idea…at least something that was both original and a good idea.

Before I begin on the possible objections that you are likely to encounter, let me address why this an argument worth having. This argument is not meant to destroy a Christian's faith in one blow. But, if a Christian accepts the claim that Jesus did not teach a single original moral principle, he is accepting that God Himself came down to earth, and had nothing new to teach us, which should give most people pause.

At this point there are several reactions that may be on the tip of the tongue of the Christian you're talking with:

  • "How about 'Love you neighbor as yourself!'?!

Leviticus 19:18 (NRSV)

"You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord."

But… Jesus extended who your neighbor was beyond just ‘your people’ he was including more than that.

Right, just as Leviticus does further along in Chapter 19:

Leviticus 19:33-34 (NRSV)

"When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God."

I've actually heard the following given as an example of a Jesus-original moral:

  • “The moral of loving God with all your heart and soul…”

I’d contend that this isn’t even a moral command, but regardless, it still isn’t original:

Deuteronomy 6:5 (NRSV)

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

  • Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Rabbi Hillel (among many many others) stated the Golden Rule before Jesus' time.

Shabbath 31_a

"What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it."

Perhaps they will say something as silly as, "All moral teachings had been already stated."

Too bad that slavery is immoral, and the Bible does not speak out against it.

But, Jesus certainly said some original things!

Let's take a look.

Potentially Jesus-original moral statements

  • Cut off body parts that offend you and cause you to sin.
  • Thought crimes are equivalent to actual crimes.

Both statements are contained in the following:

Matthew 5:27-30 (NRSV)

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

Lusting after a woman is morally equivalent to committing adultery. I won't contest its originality, but I’m not sure that I would consider that an advance in morality.

Jesus does say a few other original things, but, the parts that were original it seems to me that Jesus was merely praising those that paid any attention to him: think beatitudes -- blessed are the poor outcasts that will listen to any itinerant preacher.

  • Turn the other cheek.

Here's the relevant verses with surrounding context:

Luke 6:27-36 (NRSV):

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Let's tackle this in reverse order.

  • "Do good, expecting no reward, and you will have a great reward."

That's a hard statement to take seriously.

  • "Love your enemies."

Perhaps we can also judge a 'moral teacher' by his actions … and as an atheist/enemy of Jesus, how does He promise to treat me, his enemy? He promises to show his love by punishing me with excruciating pain for eternity in hell. If you can get "Love you enemy" to mean "when you've captured this enemy, torture him forever"; well, words can mean literally anything you want.

  • "If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also..."

If you are a committed Christian, and you are wanting to seriously incorporate Jesus' teachings on how to lead your life, imagine that someone slaps you after you offered him your second cheek.

Now what?

Do you continue offering? Do you say, "hit me as many times as you wish?"

Jesus didn't say something like, "if someone strikes you on the cheek, run away to protect yourself."

He doesn't give a principle of how to act that can be applied, does He?

Perhaps: Allow yourself to be slapped repeatedly.

Finally, what about

John 8:7 (NRSV)

Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

Several points: First, what could the principle possibly be? Do not punish others for any crime? Ignore God's punishments? Second, this is entire story only appears in the Gospel of John, and appears to be a Later Addition to the Bible.

I conclude by wondering how Jesus came to be considered such an amazing moral teacher? Why is He respected by Christians and non-Christians alike as some kind of great moral philosopher? Perhaps I missed something amazing that Jesus taught. If so, please inform me.

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