There is a wide variety of lists in the Bible. Some deal explicitly with behavior and with dispositions toward others, and so may be designated “ethical lists.” There are lists of commandments and offenses, numerical lists of moral wisdom, lists of virtues and vices, and lists of duties in the household (Haustafeln) or the community (Gemeindetafeln).

Among the lists of commandments or offenses are the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20.2–17; Deut. 5.6–21), the twelve crimes that bring the curse of God (Deut. 27.15–26), twelve sexual offenses (Lev. 18.6–18), and perhaps the crimes punishable by death now scattered in the text (Exod. 21.12, 15–17; 22.18, 19; 31.15). These lists of apodictic laws are certainly older than the texts within which they are found, and they may have originated in a cultic ceremony like that described in Deuteronomy 27, in which the people solemnly take upon themselves covenant responsibilities. The same kind of ceremony provides the context for a much later list in Nehemiah 10.28–39, which is based on the Deuteronomic legislation and represents the whole of the Mosaic law (“all the commandments”) while it focuses on items relevant to Nehemiah's reform. Other late lists shift the focus from the community to the individual (Ezek. 18.5–18; Job 31.1–40; 1 Sam. 12.2–5; and the entrance liturgies in Pss. 15.2–5; 24.3–6; Isa. 33.14–16; Mic. 6.6–8). The lists remain representative of covenant faithfulness rather than exhaustive, focusing the law rather than displacing it.

The wisdom teachers based their moral advice on experience, not directly on law. Their stylistic fondness for numerical lists along with their pedagogical concern for the formation of character and conduct yielded a number of ethical lists, for example, four kinds of sinners (Prov. 30.11–14), seven abominations (Prov. 6.16–19), three things delightful and three persons offensive to wisdom (Sir. 25.1–2). (The prophet Amos uses this form in his indictment of the nations [1.3–3.2].)

In the New Testament there are many lists of virtues (2 Cor. 6.6–7; Gal. 5.22–23; Eph. 4.2–3, 32; Phil. 4.8; Col. 3.12; 1 Tim. 4.12; 6.11; 2 Tim. 2.22; 3.10; 2 Pet. 1.5–7) and vices (Mark 7.21–22 par.; Rom. 1.29–31; 13.13; 1 Cor. 5.10–11; 6.9–10; 2 Cor. 12.20–21; Gal. 5.19–21; Eph. 4.31; 5.3–5; Col. 3.5, 8; 1 Tim. 1.9–10; 2 Tim. 3.2–5; Titus 3.3; 1 Pet. 2.1; 4.3, 15; Rev. 21.8; 22.15). Lists of duties in the household and in the community also occur frequently (Eph. 5.21–6.9; Col. 3.18–4.1; 1 Tim. 2.1–15; 5.1–21; 6.1–2; Titus 2.2–10; 3.1–2; 1 Pet. 2.13–3.8; 5.1–5).

Such lists were a popular form of moral instruction in diverse schools of thought in the first century CE and were evidently a common part of the Christian moral tradition. Various origins have been proposed for them: Hellenistic Judaism (cf. the lists of vices in Wisd. of Sol. 14.25–26 and Rom. 1.29–30, and their association with idolatry); Stoicism and other Greek philosophies (Phil. 4.8; 2 Tim. 3.2–5); Qumran (cf. 1QS 4.3–14 and Gal. 5.19–23); and Persian mythology (note the five‐member structure of the lists in Colossians and the pairing of lists of vices and virtues). The lists of duties have usually been traced to the Stoic emphasis on role responsibilities, but recently they have been attributed to the renewal in the first century CE of the Aristotelian view that in household management and politics relations between ruler and ruled are “natural.”

However the question of sources might be settled, it is clear that Christian moral tradition was not created out of nothing. But preexisting traditions are transformed: they are oriented to Christ and to the neighbor's good rather than to nature and reason, as in Greek philosophy, or to law, as in Hellenistic Judaism, or even to a cosmic battle between two equally powerful angels, as in Persian myth.

The lists of virtues and vices are not exhaustive; they point beyond themselves to other qualities (sometimes explicitly, as in Gal. 5.21), and finally to Christ. The lists are largely random, but sometimes the selection of qualities is especially relevant to the community addressed (e.g., the problems of sexual immorality and factions in the Corinthian church influence the selection of vices in 2 Cor. 12.20–21). The Haustafeln are not timeless codes; they bring existing relationships under the critical and transforming spirit of Christ, to whom all, both ruler and ruled, are to submit.

See also Ethics


Allen D. Verhey