Since the eighteenth century CE the familiar saying “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has been known as the “Golden Rule.” Often cited as the sum of Jesus' ethics, the saying also occurs in ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish writings. For example, Rabbi Hillel (first century BCE) answered a question about the Law's central teaching with the statement: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow creature. That is the whole Law; the rest is commentary” (b. Sabb. 31a).
Some seek to distinguish between the more common negative form just cited and the positive form found in Jesus' teaching by attributing the former to common sense based on self‐interest and the latter to Jesus' higher ethical concerns. This distinction, however, fails to hold because the positive form also occurs in extrabiblical writings (Letter of Aristeas 207; T. Naph. 1; and 2 Enoch 61.1) and the negative form appears in Christian literature, such as a variant reading in Acts 15.20, 29; and Didache 1.1.
By itself the rule could indeed reflect a commonsense principle of conduct based on self‐interest rather than conduct based on concern for others. But a closer look at New Testament usage reveals that the Golden Rule occurs in contexts calling for love for others. Matthew and Luke have the saying as part of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke 6.31 it is integral to Jesus' teaching about love for one's enemies (6.27–35). In Matthew 7.12 it comes at the conclusion of a series of demands pertaining to one's relation with others (5.21–48) and with God (6.1–7.11). Probably, therefore, Matthew took the saying from its traditional context of love for one's enemies (5.44–47) and used it as a summary of the preceding list of Jesus' demands. By adding the phrase, “for this is the law and the prophets,” Matthew places the rule in the broader context of the Sermon on the Mount as well as of his entire gospel. In 5.17 he introduces the series of Jesus' demands (5.21–7.12) by noting that Jesus had come to “fulfill the law and the prophets”; a “greater righteousness” (5.20) is now demanded in one's relationship with others (5.21–48) and with God (6.1–7.11). In 22.40 Matthew directly relates the rule to the love commandment by having Jesus declare that the “law and the prophets” depend on the love commandment.
In the context of Jesus' teaching, therefore, the Golden Rule, rather than being merely a commonsense, ethical rule of thumb, is a practical expression of the love commandment growing out of love for God and one's neighbor. The same connection between the Golden Rule and the love commandment is found in Didache 1.2, as well as in the variant reading in Acts 15.20, 29.
Robert A. Guelich