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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

New Testament Ethics

i. Jesus and the Law

One of the central questions concerning Jesus' ethical teaching revolves around his attitude to the law of Moses. Did he accept and endorse the law, or did he intend to abrogate it in the light of his own mission and preaching concerning the coming of the kingdom of God? There are certainly passages in the gospels that imply a negative appraisal of the law on the part of Jesus. His actions and words were often at variance with the demands of the law: he healed on the sabbath (Mark 3: 1–6), enjoyed table fellowship with tax-collectors and sinners (Mark 2: 15–16), and broke down the traditional barriers between clean and unclean (Mark 5: 25–34; 7: 1–23). At one point Jesus suggests that divorce, though sanctioned by the law (Deut. 24: 1), was in conflict with the original will of God the creator (Matt. 19: 3–12; cf. Gen. 1: 27; 2: 24), and in the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount (‘you have heard it said…but I tell you’; Matt. 5: 21–48) Jesus implies that he is providing an entirely new and radical understanding of God's will. Other passages also suggest that the coming kingdom of God could not but set the law in a new light (cf. Mark 2: 21–2), and in Luke 16: 16 there is an explicit contrast between the law and the prophets, on the one hand, and the kingdom of God, on the other.

At other times, however, Jesus appears to reaffirm some of the commandments of the OT and to regard them as suitable guidelines for proper ethical conduct. For example, he endorses the provisions concerning loving God (Mark 12: 29–30; cf. Deut. 6: 4–5), loving one's neighbour (Mark 12: 31; cf. Lev. 19: 18), and honouring parents (Matt. 15: 4; Mark 7: 10; cf. Exod. 20: 12; 21: 17). Moreover, when the rich young man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus pointed to some of the commands of the Decalogue (Mark 10: 19). Such passages suggest that Jesus was deeply rooted in the moral teaching of his people, and that he regarded the continuing validity of the law as important.

The ambivalence in Jesus' attitude to the law was probably due to the fact that he was opposed, not to the law per se, but to a misapprehension of its purpose and significance, such as that exhibited by the Pharisees. They had given detailed attention to trifling matters of the law, such as the tithing of herbs from the garden, but had neglected its weightier demands, such as the need for justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt. 23: 23). Their rigid interpretation of the law is well exemplified in their attitude towards the sabbath. According to the Pharisees, it was forbidden on the sabbath to pluck grain from the cornfields or to heal any disease that was not immediately life-threatening; on the other hand, Jesus approved of both (Mark 2: 23–3: 6), and he justified his actions by stating that ‘the sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath’ (Mark 2: 27). The point that Jesus makes here is that God did not create the Sabbath—and, by implication, the law—to be an intolerable burden upon the people; nor was it intended to be a constraint upon human activities; on the contrary, the law was given as an act of kindness, and was to be regarded as a gift and an opportunity. To fulfil the law did not entail observing this or that commandment or embracing all its requirements; rather, it meant carrying out its intent, for what mattered to Jesus above all was the inward disposition of the individual. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus' statement that the content of the law could be summarized in the dual command to love God and to love one's neighbour (Mark 12: 28–31).

For Jesus, the command of love (Greek agapē) was the absolute norm to which all other commandments were secondary. Love was the fundamental, all-encompassing attitude that must always be exhibited in the lives of his followers. Jesus' emphasis on the primacy of love did not, of course, mean that all the other commandments were null and void, but love was to be regarded as the quintessence of all God's commandments and was to form a principle by which those commandments could be judged. Yet, the love demanded by Jesus was not an emotional or mystical relationship with God; nor was it a vague, abstract love for humanity in general; rather, it entailed concrete involvement and personal action, as Matt. 25: 31–46 makes clear.

ii. Jesus and Eschatology

NT scholars have generally recognized that Jesus' ethical teaching was profoundly influenced by his belief in the imminence of the kingdom of God (cf. Schrage 1988: 13–40). The significance of eschatology for Jesus' ethical teaching was long ago recognized by Albert Schweitzer, who argued that Jesus' world-view—like that of his contemporaries—was dominated by apocalyptic eschatology. The present was merely a time of preparation for the coming of the kingdom, and Jesus' ethical instruction, as exemplified in such passages as the Sermon on the Mount, was intended as an ‘interim ethic’ (Interimsethik), relevant only for the very brief interval between the proclamation of the kingdom and its imminent advent (Schweitzer 1910: 364; cf. McDonald 1993: 82–5). Even scholars who expressed considerable reservations concerning Schweitzer's interpretation of the kingdom in purely futuristic terms recognized that a link existed between his eschatological outlook and his ethical teaching. Thus, for example, C. H. Dodd, who argued in favour of a ‘realized eschatology’ (1938: 50–1), believed that Jesus' ethical teaching was intended to serve as a guide for positive moral action on the part of those who had already received the kingdom. Jesus' call for appropriate conduct was predicated on the assumption that ‘the zero hour in which decisive action is called for’ had already come (Dodd 1951: 60).

Although more recent scholars have tended to modify both Schweitzer's thoroughgoing eschatology and Dodd's ‘realized eschatology’, there is, nevertheless, general recognition that Jesus' ethical teaching cannot be divorced from his eschatological outlook. In Jesus' teaching, the eschaton, with its implied judgement, provided a powerful motivation for proper ethical conduct, as is evident from the so-called crisis parables (e.g. Luke 12: 54–6), and from Jesus' pronouncement that all would have to appear before God's judgement-seat and account for every careless word uttered (Matt. 12: 36–7) and every unjust action performed (Mark 12: 40). It was because the kingdom was imminent that Jesus issued his call to repentance: since God was about to make the final intervention in human affairs, the only appropriate response was for the people to abandon their sinful ways (Mark 1: 15). The call to repentance did not mean merely a change of attitude; rather, it involved a total reorientation that was to affect every sphere of life. But those who heeded Jesus' call to repent would reap abundant rewards, for they would partake in the blessings of the kingdom. Thus, in addition to the threat of judgement, the promise of reward also belongs among the eschatological motifs in Jesus' ethical teaching, although it is emphasized that such rewards are a gift of God's grace and are not to be regarded as a human claim upon God (cf. Schnackenburg 1965: 144–67). Indeed, the point of some of Jesus' parables (such as the parable of the master and servant in Luke 17: 7–10) was to dispense with all speculative calculation of reward and to emphasize that humans cannot put God in their debt. Those who will be rewarded will be those who seek no reward, for their actions will be based on love, and love cannot be motivated by any selfish concern.

Of course, the eschatological perspective does not determine the entire corpus of Jesus' ethical teaching in the Gospel tradition, and it is important to recognize other influences at work in the proclamation of Jesus' message. Some of Jesus' exhortations—such as the command to love God and one's neighbour (Mark 12: 29–31)—do not seem to have been directly affected by his expectation concerning the end of the present world order and the imminent advent of the new age. Moreover, his observations that humans cannot extend their life span by anxiety (Matt. 6: 25–34), and that taking a neighbour to court may prove to be a costly and futile exercise (Matt. 5: 25) appear to be based on common sense and rational insight, and such sayings are redolent of the type of sentiments expressed in the wisdom traditions of Judaism (cf. Winton 1990). Yet, it is important to recognize that many of the sayings concerning wisdom and folly in Jesus' preaching are imbued with an eschatological significance: thus the foolishness against which Jesus warns in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12: 16–21) is the folly of those who do not heed his warning concerning the approach of the eschatological hour; similarly, the prudence commended by Jesus in the parable of the shrewd steward (Luke 16: 1–9) consists in recognizing the imminence of God's judgement and acting accordingly.

iii. The Background of Paul's Ethics

Much attention has been given in discussions of Paul's ethics to the basis and background of his moral teaching (cf. Furnish 1968: 25–67). Were his moral norms grounded in the gospel proclaimed by Jesus, or was the apostle appealing to broader, common-sense standards of morality and decency? Did the OT and Jewish traditions influence his ethical pronouncements, or was he drawing upon the general moral wisdom enshrined in Hellenistic popular philosophy? Of course, these alternatives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and various sources probably contributed to Paul's moral outlook.

Clearly, the traditions concerning Jesus influenced his ethical teaching, at least to some degree (cf. Dunn 1998: 649–58). Although there are only three explicit citations of the sayings of Jesus in the letters of Paul which are generally regarded as authentic (1 Cor. 7: 10–11; 9: 14; 11: 23–5), there are occasional echoes of the gospel tradition in Paul's letters, such as his teaching concerning retaliation (Rom. 12: 14; cf. Matt. 5: 44; Luke 6: 27–8), defilement (Rom. 14: 14; cf. Matt. 15: 11; Mark 7: 15) and the importance of living in peace with others (1 Thess. 5: 13; cf. Matt. 5: 9; Mark 9: 50). The apostle also occasionally refers to sayings of the Lord where no clear parallels from the gospel tradition can be found (e.g. 1 Cor. 14: 37; 1 Thess. 4: 15). Yet, of far greater significance for Paul's ethics than the explicit citations or vague echoes of Jesus' teaching was the concept of ‘imitating Christ’ (imitatio Christi), which was a fundamental element in the apostle's vision of the moral life (cf. Tinsley 1960). In 2 Cor. 4: 10 Paul speaks of the life of Christ ‘made visible in our bodies’, and in other letters he provides concrete examples of how that should happen. In Rom. 15: 1–3, Paul implores the strong not to assert their rights, but to put the interests of others before their own, in imitation of Christ, and in the famous Christological hymn in Phil. 2: 5–11 the example of Christ's obedience, humility, and selfless service becomes the ground for Paul's appeal for mutual concern for others. Sometimes, Paul offers his own apostolic conduct as a model for imitation, in the knowledge that he himself has been an ‘imitator of Christ’ (cf. 1 Cor. 4: 16–17; 11: 1; 1 Thess. 1: 6–7). The Christian community was called upon to follow in the way of Christ's suffering, and the love that Christ manifested was to serve as the criterion of Christian conduct.

Any discussion of the background of Paul's ethics must also give due regard to the influence of his Jewish heritage. Although some scholars have questioned the extent of Paul's indebtedness to the OT (e.g. von Harnack 1928), there can be little doubt that the apostle, in his moral teaching, was much influenced by the Hebrew Scriptures (Holtz 1981; Hays 1996b). He frequently applied the moral lessons of the OT to his congregations, and saw the events of Israel's history as paradigmatic for the life of the church. Israel's sin with the golden calf (Exod. 32: 6) is cited in 1 Cor. 10: 6 as a warning to members of the Corinthian church of the dangers of idolatry, and in 2 Cor. 8: 1–15 Paul encourages the church to contribute to the collection for the relief of the poor in Jerusalem by referring to Israel's experience of God's provision of manna in the desert (v. 15; cf. Exod. 16: 18). In Rom. 4: 1–25, Paul refers to Abraham's exemplary faith (cf. Gen. 15: 6), and applies it to Christian believers in his own age, and in Gal. 3: 6–14 he argues, on the basis of the same passage of Scripture, that Gentiles were included in God's plan of salvation.

Paul was also indebted to the Jewish legal tradition for his moral instructions, although his attitude to the law of Moses is highly ambivalent (cf. Rosner 2003: 214–15). On the one hand, the apostle could claim that the law was written ‘for our instruction’ (Rom. 15: 4; cf. 1 Cor. 10: 11) and that it was ‘holy, just and good’ (Rom. 7: 12), and in Rom. 13: 9–10 he proceeds to list the prohibitions of the Decalogue concerning adultery (Exod. 20: 14), murder (Exod. 20: 13), theft (Exod. 20: 15), and covetousness (Exod. 20: 17). In appealing for financial support for the ministry (1 Cor. 9: 3–12) Paul quotes from Deut. 25: 4, and his condemnation of incest in 1 Cor. 5: 1 suggests that his view of the issue was guided and informed by the law (cf. Lev. 18: 8). Yet, paradoxically, Paul could state that ‘now faith has come we are no longer under the supervision of the law’ (Gal. 3: 25), and in Col. 2: 14 he claims that God has ‘cancelled the written code with its regulations’. The apostle sometimes felt able to set aside some of the explicit commandments of the law, such as those relating to circumcision (1 Cor. 7: 17–20), and he could even claim that the effect of the law was to stimulate and intensify sinful passions (Rom. 7: 5). The reason for the apparent contradiction, however, is that in Paul's view the believer now understands the content and force of the law in a new way: through the ministry of Jesus, the law's intention had been decisively revealed, and it no longer has a value as a norm independent of the believer's new life in Christ.

In addition to the OT, Paul's ethical teaching appears to have been influenced by traditions emanating from rabbinic Judaism (cf. Segal 2003). The apostle uses midrashic techniques characteristic of rabbinic exegesis to support his Christian arguments, and he was clearly familiar with various rabbinic ideas and modes of thought. While it may be going too far to call the apostle a ‘Christian Rabbi’ (W. D. Davies 1955: 145; cf. Furnish 1968: 38–42), he was clearly ready to deploy his rabbinic exegetical skills to demonstrate the power and truth of the gospel.

Paul's ethical teaching was also influenced by sources from the Hellenistic world. At one point, the apostle cites the Greek poet Menander (‘Bad company ruins good morals’; 1 Cor. 15: 33), although it is not clear whether Paul was here quoting directly from a literary source, or whether the words were an everyday proverb in common use. The term ‘conscience’ (Greek suneidēsis), which plays an important role in Paul's ethical teaching (cf. Rom. 2: 15; 9: 1; 13: 5; 1 Cor. 8: 7–13; 10: 25–30; 2 Cor. 1: 12; 4: 2), was evidently borrowed by the apostle from the Greek world (the word having no Hebrew equivalent), and his condemnation of ‘greed’ (Greek pleonexia; cf. Rom. 1: 29; 2 Cor. 9: 5; Col. 3: 5) and his commendation of ‘self-control’ (Greek enkrateia; Gal. 5: 22–3; cf. 1 Cor. 7: 9; 9: 25) would also have found a resonance in Greek philosophical ethics. Further, the catalogues of vices and virtues that Paul sometimes cites (cf. Rom. 1: 29–31; 13: 13; 1 Cor. 6: 9–10; Gal. 5: 22–3; Phil. 4: 8; Col. 3: 12) are entirely consistent with those encountered in the writings of the Greek moral philosophers of his day, and the so-called Household Codes (Haustafeln), reflected in such passages as Col. 3: 18–4: 1, were evidently in common use in many circles in the ancient world (cf. Longenecker 1984: 56).

Clearly, then, Paul's ethical teaching reflects the fusion of two cultures, and his ideas and vocabulary are drawn from both his Jewish and his Hellenistic background. It would be invidious, however, to try to compare the extent of the Greek as opposed to the Jewish influence on the apostle. The boundaries between the two were fluid in the first century CE, and in the Hellenistic society that formed the setting of Paul's ministry, various movements and traditions interpenetrated one another to such an extent that it is not always easy to identify the specific background of particular ethical pronouncements. All that can be concluded is that Paul was influenced by two very different, and sometimes opposing, cultures, and it would be misconceived to emphasize one at the expense of the other.

iv. Paul's Christology and Eschatology

There is widespread agreement among NT scholars that Paul's ethical pronouncements are integrally related to both his Christology and his eschatology. Paul's interpretation of the significance of Christ's death and resurrection was determinative for his understanding of the Church's ethical responsibility. The confession of Christ as the crucified and risen Lord brought with it an obligation for Christians to live out their lives in a way appropriate to their faith, for God's eschatological act of salvation in Christ was the basis and prerequisite for all Christian conduct. To be sure, there is, in Paul's letters, a tension between what Schrage (1988:168) calls the ‘indicative of assurance’ (‘you have been set free from sin’; Rom. 6: 22) and ‘the imperative of ethical admonition’ (‘let not sin reign’; Rom. 6: 12); and attempts to resolve the dichotomy have not always proved particularly convincing (cf. Parsons 1988). Older scholars sought to distinguish between the ‘ideal’ (the indicative) and the ‘actual’ (the imperative), arguing that the imperative served as a corrective to the apostle's idealism. More recent scholars, however, have tended to adapt and refine the type of approach advocated by Bultmann (1924; 1952: 332–3), who argued that in Paul's thinking the imperative proceeds naturally out of the indicative, so that the apostle is saying, in effect, ‘become what you are’. According to this interpretation, the indicative and the imperative are to be regarded as complementary rather than contradictory, for the former is the necessary presupposition of the latter. What Christ has done is the basis of what the believer must do, and in this sense, the imperative may be viewed as the outworking of the indicative.

Paul's ethical judgements are also worked out in the context of his eschatological beliefs. In Rom. 13: 11–14, Paul urges his readers to dissociate themselves from the present age and to refrain from drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, and jealousy in the knowledge that ‘the hour has come’ and the end is near. An appeal to eschatology as an incentive to moral earnestness is also encountered in 1 Thess. 5: 1–11, 23; indeed, it is the very imminence of the end that often gives to Paul's moral exhortations their urgency. Further, the expectation of future judgement and future reward provides an eschatological motivation for Christian obedience and an incentive for moral action. Those who judge others will themselves be judged when they appear before God, to whom they are accountable (Rom. 2: 1–16; 14: 10; 2 Cor. 5: 9–10); on the other hand, the reward of eternal life is promised to those who do not regard their good works as an end in themselves (Rom. 2: 7). For Paul, the sense of the nearness of the coming of the Lord, far from instilling in the people a sense of resignation and passivity, was intended to encourage them to pursue all the more anxiously the tasks of love and mutual service (cf. Hays 1996a: 19–27).

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