Biblical ethics is inalienably religious. Reflection on issues of moral conduct and character in scripture is always qualified by religious convictions and commitments. To abstract biblical ethics from its religious context is to distort it.

Biblical ethics is unyieldingly diverse. The Bible contains many books, and more traditions, each addressed in a specific cultural and social context to a particular community facing concrete questions of moral conduct and character. Biblical ethics does not provide an autonomous and timeless and coherent set of rules; it provides an account of the work and will and way of the one God, and it evokes the creative and faithful response of those who would be God's people. The one God of scripture assures the unity of biblical ethics, but there is no simple unitive understanding even of that one God or of that one God's will. To force biblical ethics into a timeless, systematic unity is to impoverish it.

The Torah.

The one God of scripture stands behind the formation and continuation of a people as liberator and ruler. The story was told in countless recitals of faith: the God of Abraham heard our groaning when we were slaves, rescued us from Egypt, and made us a people with a covenant.

The covenant of God and the people was like an ancient suzerainty treaty, acknowledging and confirming that God will be their great king and they will be God's faithful people. Like other suzerainty treaties, the covenant begins by identifying the great king and reciting his works (e.g., Exod. 20.2), continues with stipulations forbidding conflicting loyalties and assuring peace in the land (e.g., Exod. 20.3–17), and ends with provisions for periodic renewal of the covenant and assurances of faithful blessings upon faithful observance and curses upon infidelity (e.g., Exod. 23.22–33).

This story and covenant provided a framework for the gathering of stories and stipulations until the literary formation of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and its acceptance as having Mosaic authority.

“Torah” is often translated “law,” and much of it is legal material. Various collections can be identified (e.g., Exod. 20.22–23.19, the Book of the Covenant; Lev. 17–26, the Holiness Code; Deut. 4.44–28.68, the Deuteronomic Book of the Law) and associated with particular social contexts of Israel's history. The later collections sometimes included older material, but it is not the case that the whole Law was given once as a timeless code. Rather, the lawmakers were evidently both creative with, and faithful to, the legal traditions.

There are two forms of law, casuistic and apodictic. The casuistic regulations are similar in form and content to other Near Eastern law codes. The apodictic prohibitions, rejecting other gods and marking out the boundaries of freedom (and so securing it), seem an innovation.

There is no simple differentiation in the Law between ceremonial and civil and moral laws. All of life is covenanted. Ceremonially, the Torah struggles against the temptations to commit infidelity in foreign cults and nurtures a communal memory and commitment to covenant. Civilly, the Torah is fundamentally theocratic, and the theocratic conviction that the rulers are ruled too, that they are subject to law, not the final creators of it, has a democratizing effect. Morally, the Torah protects the family and its economic participation in God's gift of the land, protects persons and property (but persons more than property), requires fairness in settling disputes and economic transactions, and provides for the care and special protection of the vulnerable, such as widows, orphans, sojourners (see Alien), and the poor. This last characteristic is perhaps the most remarkable (though it is not absent from other ancient codes), but it is hardly surprising, given the story that surrounds the stipulations.

The legal materials never escape the story and its covenant, and “Torah” is, ultimately, better rendered “teachings.” The narrative and covenant preserve the responsiveness of obedience to the Law; gratitude then stands behind obedience as its fundamental motive. The story, moreover, forms and informs the Law and its use. The concern about the vulnerable reflects the story of one God who heard the cries of slaves (e.g., Exod. 22.21–23; Lev. 19.33–34). And the stories of Moses as the champion of the oppressed were intended to shape the use of the Law by any who honored its Mosaic authority.

The narratives of the Torah, it needs finally to be said, were morally significant in their own right; artfully told, they nurtured dispositions more effectively than the stipulations themselves. The Yahwist (see J), for example, had told the stories of the ancestors not only to trace the blessings of David's empire to God but to evoke the readiness to use the power of empire to bless the subject nations (e.g., Gen. 12.1–2; 18–19; 26; 30.27–28).

The Prophets.

The one God who rescued and established a people visited them in the prophets. They came always with a particular word for a particular time, but the word they brought was always related to covenant. Their “Thus says the Lord” was the familiar language of diplomacy in the ancient Near East for the announcements of a messenger of a suzerain. The prophets were not social reformers, nor were they necessarily skilled in the craft and compromise of politics; they were messengers of the great king and announced his word of judgment.

The sum of that judgment was always the same: the people have forsaken the covenant (1 Kings 19.10, 14; Hos. 8.1; etc.). Concretely—and the message of the prophet was always concrete—some specific idolatry or injustice was condemned as infidelity to the covenant. The infidelity of idolatry was never merely religious. The claims of Baal involved the fertility of wombs and land as well as a theory of ownership. The prophet's announcement of God's greater power freed the people to farm a land stripped of divinity but acknowledged as God's gift, and bound them to leave the edges unharvested for the poor. The infidelity of injustice was never merely moral, for faithfulness to the covenant acts justly, and the welfare of the poor and powerless is the best index of fidelity and justice. So the prophets denounced unjust rulers, greedy merchants, corrupt judges, the complacent rich, but they saved their harshest words for those who celebrated covenant in ritual and ceremony without caring about justice, without protecting the powerless, without faithfulness (e.g., Amos 5.21–24).

On the other side of God's judgment, the prophets saw and announced God's faithfulness to God's own good future. God will reign and establish both peace and justice—not only in Israel but among all the nations, and not only among the nations but in nature itself. That future is not contingent on human striving, but it already affects human vision and dispositions and actions, readying the faithful even to suffer for the sake of God's cause in the world.

Wisdom Literature.

The way and will of the one God can be known not only in the great events of liberation and covenant, not only in the great oracles of God's messengers, but also in the regularities of nature and experience. The moral counsel of the sage was not founded on the Torah or the covenant; reflection on moral character and conduct among the wise was grounded and tested, rather, in experience.

Careful attention to nature and experience allowed the wise to comprehend the basic principles operative in the world, the regularities to which it was both prudent and moral to conform. The one God is the creator who established and secures the order and stability of ordinary life. So the sage could give counsel about eating and drinking and sleeping and working, the way to handle money and anger, the way to relate to friends and enemies and women and kings and fools, when to speak and when to be still—in short, about everything that was a part of experience.

The ethics of wisdom literature tends to be conservative, for the experience of a community over time provides a fund of wisdom, but the immediacy of experience keeps the tradition open to challenge and revision. The ethics of wisdom tends to be prudential, but a little experience is enough to teach that the righteous may suffer and that there is no neat fit between morality and prudence (Job). The ethics of wisdom tends to delight both in the simple things of life, like the love of a man and woman (Song of Solomon), and in the quest for wisdom itself, but experience itself teaches the hard lessons that wisdom has its limit in the inscrutable (Job 28) and that the regularities of nature and experience cannot simply be identified with the cause of a covenanted god (Ecclesiastes).

Wisdom reflects about conduct and character quite differently than the Torah and the Prophets, but “the end of the matter,” like “the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1.7), is a reminder of covenant: “Fear God, and keep his commandments” (Eccles. 12.13). That beginning and end keeps the wisdom literature in touch with the Torah; between that beginning and end, wisdom struggles mightily to keep Torah in touch with experience and covenant in touch with creation.

The New Testament.

Jesus of Nazareth came announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand and already making its power felt in his words and deeds. He called the people to repent, to form their conduct and character in response to the good news of that coming future.

To welcome a future where the last will be first (Mark 10.31), a future already prefigured in Jesus' humble service, is to be ready to be “servant of all” (Mark 9.35). To delight in a kingdom where the poor will be blessed is now to be carefree about riches and to give alms. To repent before a kingdom that belongs to children, that is already prefigured in table fellowship with sinners, and that is signaled in open conversation with women, is to turn from conventional standards to bless children, welcome sinners, and treat women as equals.

Because Jesus announced and already unveiled the coming reign of God, he spoke with authority, not simply on the basis of law and tradition. And because the coming reign of God demanded a response of the whole person and not merely external observance of the Law, his words made radical demands. So Jesus' radical demand for truthfulness replaced (and fulfilled) legal casuistry about oaths. The readiness to forgive and be reconciled set aside (and fulfilled) legal limitations on revenge. The disposition to love even enemies put aside legal debates about the meaning of “neighbor.” The ethics was based neither on the precepts of law nor the regularities of experience, nor did it discard them; law and wisdom were both qualified and fulfilled in this ethic of response to the future reign of the one God of scripture.

Jesus died on a Roman cross, but his followers proclaimed that God had raised him up in an act of power that was at once his vindication and the prelude to God's final triumph. Moral reflection in the New Testament always looks back to the vindicated Jesus and forward to God's cosmic sovereignty.

The Gospels used the traditions of Jesus' words and deeds to tell his story creatively and so to shape the conduct and character of the particular communities they addressed. Each has a distinctive emphasis. Mark represents Jesus as calling for heroic discipleship, ready to suffer and die and ready as well to live in ordinary relationships with heroic confidence in God. In Matthew, the Law holds: Jesus is presented as upholding the Law and as its best interpreter even as he demands a righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt. 5.20). Luke's emphasis falls on care for the poor, women, and sinners, as well as on the mutual respect due Jew and gentile in the community. John tells the story quite differently so that his reader might “have life” (John 20.31) and might know that this entails love for one another.

The letters of Paul make little use of the traditions of Jesus' words and deeds. Paul proclaims the gospel of the cross and resurrection as “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1.16) to his churches, sometimes in the indicative mood and sometimes in the imperative. The indicative describes the power of God in the crucified and risen Christ to provide an eschatological salvation of which Christians have the “first fruits” (Rom. 8.23) and “guarantee” (2 Cor. 5.5) in the Spirit. The imperative acknowledges that the powers of the old age still threaten Christians; so, “if we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Gal. 5.25).

Reflection about conduct and character ought to be radically affected by God's power in the cross and resurrection. Paul provides no recipe for this new discernment, but some features are clear. Christians' self‐understanding as moral agents was determined by their incorporation into Christ (Gal. 2.20; Rom. 6.1–11). Their perspective was eschatological; the Corinthian enthusiasts who claimed to be already fully in the new age were reminded of the “not yet” character of their existence, while the Colossians, tempted to submit again to angelic powers, were told that Christ was already Lord. Freedom (Gal. 5.1; 2 Cor. 3.17) and love (1 Cor 13; Phil. 1.9) were values that provided tokens of the new age. The moral traditions of the church, the synagogue, and the Greek schools were not to be discarded, but selected, assimilated, and qualified by the gospel. Such discernment is applied to various moral issues: the relations of Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female, rich and poor, the individual and the state. The judgments are not timeless truths in the style of either a philosopher or a code maker; they are timely applications of the gospel to specific problems in particular contexts.

The unyielding diversity of biblical ethics is only confirmed by other New Testament writings. The Pastoral letters use common hellenistic moral vocabulary and urge commonplace moral judgment against the gnostics. The letter of James is a didactic text collecting instructions into a moral miscellany. The book of Revelation provides a symbolic universe to make intelligible both the experience of injustice at the hands of the Roman emperor and the conviction that Jesus is Lord, and to make plausible both patient endurance of suffering and faithful resistance to the values of the empire.

See also Ethical Lists


Allen D. Verhey