This entry contains two subentries: OLD TESTAMENT and NEW TESTAMENT.

Old Testament

The Old Testament presents many perspectives on a variety of ethical topics, including motivation (why people should act in moral ways), behavior (what constitutes ethical conduct), means (how moral goodness is achieved), anthropology (how the human condition affects one’s ability to pursue moral behavior), and moral space (the ethical opportunities and difficulties presented by the world humanity inhabits). While the Old Testament has served as a wellspring for ethical reflection, many interpreters find parts of it morally problematic.

Motivation.

Old Testament texts give several reasons why individuals should pursue upright behavior. First, God, as Israel’s king and judge, demands it. Indeed, many passages intertwine religious and ethical demands, seeing both as originating from God (e.g., Exod 20:22—23:19). Second, moral conduct is an appropriate response to God’s saving acts (e.g., Deut 6:20–25). In particular, God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt motivates obedience to the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6, 15) and not holding Israelites as slaves (Lev 25:38–42). Third and related, ethical conduct is required as part of the covenant agreement between God and Israel (cf. Exod 24:7–8). Fourth, the people should seek morality as a way of imitating God (Lev 19:2; Deut 10:17–19), who is frequently presented as the supreme example of ethical behavior (cf. Exod 34:6–7). Fifth, in biblical society, engaging in morally deplorable behavior brought shame, whereas ethical conduct led to honor (e.g., Prov 3:35; Jer 2:26; Dan 9:7–8). Sixth, people should obey God’s moral commandments because failure to do so could result in suffering, curses, and punishment (e.g., Deut 28). Finally and related, upright living is a pathway to the good life, which involves earthly blessings like fruitful gardens, abundant children, and holistic peace (e.g., Deut 28:1–14; Ps 37:1–40). (Only a few Old Testament texts envision rewards and punishments in the afterlife [e.g., Dan 12:2].)

Behavior.

While the Old Testament presents many perspectives on what constitutes moral conduct, particular themes emerge across the canon. Several of these themes pertain to the stability of Israelite society. What follows are some examples.

Violence.

One of the first divine demands is to avoid shedding human blood (Gen 9:5–6; cf. Gen 4:7–12). The Ten Commandments likewise prohibit killing (Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17). Other legal texts display an awareness that one person may unintentionally kill another, so various provisions are made for accidental deaths (Exod 21:13; Num 35:9–34; Deut 19:1–13). Additionally, several Old Testament texts condone violence in certain circumstances. For example, Abram receives blessings and divine promises after violently attacking those who captured his nephew Lot (Gen 14:11—15:21). Other texts see violence as sometimes necessary: the Israelites are commanded to kill both criminals (e.g., Exod 21:12–17) and Canaanites (e.g., Deut 7:1–2). At the same time, many passages emphasize that military victories occur through divine intervention, not through Israel’s own might, weapons, or military prowess (e.g., Exod 14–15; Josh 6; 1 Sam 17; 2 Kgs 6–7; 18–19). Some Old Testament texts even advocate care or restraint toward individual enemies (Exod 23:4–5; Lev 19:18; Deut 25:11–12; Prov 25:21–22). The Old Testament also contains texts that envision a future free from warfare and killing (e.g., Ps 46:9 [Heb. 46:10]; Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3; although cf. Joel 3:10 [Heb. 4:10]).

Sexual ethics.

The Old Testament praises sex in the context of marriage (e.g., Prov 5:18). Adultery is forbidden (Exod 20:14; Lev 18:20; 20:10; Deut 5:18; cf. Deut 22:22–24; Mal 2:14–16), as is incest (Lev 18:6–18; 20:11–21; Deut 22:30 [Heb. 23:1]). Sexual immorality is sometimes considered an affront to God’s holiness (e.g., Amos 2:7; cf. Lev 18:24—19:2). While the Old Testament does not explicitly condemn polygamy, several narratives show various hardships resulting from it (e.g., Gen 21:1–21; 1 Sam 1:1–7). Israelite marriage to foreigners is viewed negatively in some texts (e.g., Deut 7:3–4; 1 Kgs 11:1–11; Ezra 9–10) but not in others (e.g., Gen 41:45, 50–52; Ruth 4:9–22).

Parents.

In part because of the importance attached to the kinship group in biblical Israel, key passages emphasize honoring parents (e.g., Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16), which likely entailed caring for them in old age (among other things). While exceptions exist (e.g., Ezek 20:18), both young and adult children were generally expected to obey their parents (e.g., Prov 23:22). In particular, people should avoid behavior like drunkenness that would bring shame on their parents (e.g., Deut 21:18–21). Harsh consequences await those who insult or are violent toward their parents (e.g., Exod 21:15, 17).

Work and rest.

Several texts in the Torah and Latter Prophets uphold the importance of working six days a week and resting on the sabbath (e.g., Lev 23:3; Jer 17:19–27). The sabbatical commandments in the Decalogue stipulate that slaves, foreigners, and even animals shall participate in this weekly break from work (Exod 20:8–11; Deut 5:12–15). Rest extends to the land in some texts, which speak of fields, orchards, and vineyards lying fallow every seventh year (Exod 23:10–11; Lev 25:1–7, 20–22; cf. 2 Chr 36:21). Wisdom literature discusses labor but not the sabbath. The book of Proverbs emphasizes productivity, criticizing and even mocking laziness (e.g., 14:23; 26:15; 31:13–27). Meanwhile, Qoheleth appreciates resting from work (particularly with food and drink), as well as what limited enjoyment can be found in one’s labors (e.g., 2:24, although cf. 2:11).

Justice.

The Old Testament displays a profound concern for justice (mišpāṭ), envisioning it as something that (along with righteousness, ṣedeq/ṣĕdāqâ) should pervade all aspects of biblical society (e.g., Amos 5:24). Texts like Jeremiah 7:5–6 associate breaches of justice with oppressing the vulnerable, shedding blood, and following other gods (cf. Isa 5:7; Zech 7:9–10). To safeguard justice, the Old Testament condemns bearing false witness (e.g., Exod 20:16; 23:1; Deut 19:15–20; Prov 19:5, 9), bribing judges (e.g., Exod 23:8; Deut 27:25; Ezek 22:12; although cf. Prov 21:14), judging with partiality (e.g., Lev 19:15; 2 Chr 19:7), and failing to abide by divine standards (e.g., Deut 1:17; Isa 5:20; Mic 3:1–3; Hab 1:4; cf. Amos 5:15). God is expected to punish wrongdoers when humans fail to enact justice (e.g., Ps 7:6 [Heb. 7:7]; Mal 3:5).

Politics.

Many Old Testament texts yearn for rulers who will establish peace, maintain justice, provide security, and serve the broader good of the people (e.g., Deut 17:14–20; Ps 72; Prov 16:12; Isa 32:1–2). However, nearly all of Israel’s rulers fall short of these ideals (cf. 1 Sam 8:10–18). The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles repeatedly condemn kings, at times even their exemplar David (2 Sam 11–12; cf. 1 Kgs 15:5). Prophetic texts like Ezekiel 34 offer scathing critiques of the monarchy, describing both divine punishment for unethical rulers and divine care for those oppressed by them.

The poor and vulnerable.

The Old Testament upholds as an ideal that poverty shall not exist, even as it is realistic about its omnipresence (Deut 15:4, 11). Israelites were commanded to be generous toward the most vulnerable members of society: widows, orphans, and immigrants (e.g., Exod 22:21–27 [Heb. 22:20–26]; 26:12; Zech 7:9–10; cf. Deut 15:7–11). When harvesting, workers were to leave some of the crops behind for the poor to glean (Lev 19:9–10; 23:22; Deut 24:19–22; cf. Ruth 2). Laborers, meanwhile, were to receive their pay each day (Deut 24:15). Interest on loans to Israelites was forbidden (Exod 22:25 [Heb. 22:24]; Lev 25:36–37; Deut 23:19 [Heb. 23:20]). Families who lost their land as a result of debt were supposed to have it returned to them every Jubilee year (Lev 25:8–34). Other debts had a seven-year limit (Deut 15).

While some texts associate wealth with God’s blessing and poverty with God’s punishment (e.g., Deut 28), other texts are aware that wealth can flourish among the wicked while the righteous live in poverty (e.g., Amos 5:11–12; cf. Prov 19:22). The prophets in particular are outraged that the wealthy have more than enough while the poor are in need (e.g., Jer 5:27–29). They forecast doom for those who oppress the poor (e.g., Amos 3:15; 8:4–14; Mic 3:8–12), especially powerful rulers who seize land from commoners (e.g., 1 Kgs 21; Isa 3:14–15; 5:8–9; Mic 2:2).

Slavery.

The Old Testament looks negatively on Israelites being enslaved. Exodus and other texts sympathetically recount their plight in Egypt (e.g., Exod 1:8–22; Judg 6:8–9). When individual Israelites later needed to enter slavery because of debt, legal codes forbade their masters from treating them harshly or holding them in perpetuity (Exod 21:2; Lev 25:39–43; Deut 15:12–15). Foreign slaves, however, received different treatment (Lev 25:44–46).

Means.

The Old Testament presents several ideas about how moral conduct is achieved. First, ethical behavior takes place when individuals join themselves to a community that together loves God’s instruction (tôrâ; see, e.g., Ps 1). Indeed, many texts envision a community that “cuts off” those unable or unwilling to obey God’s Law (e.g., Lev 20:17). Second, faithful and ethical behavior is fostered through acts of remembering (e.g., Ps 119:52). Thus, alongside commandments to engage in ethical behavior, readers find admonitions to recall both God’s saving acts and God’s teaching (e.g., Deut 15:15). Remembrance can involve reenactment (e.g., 2 Kgs 23:21–23) and even reinterpretation of past events (e.g., Deut 5:3; Jer 16:14–15). Third, several texts present education as important to moral formation (e.g., Deut 6:1–9); teachers can be parents (e.g., Deut 11:19; Prov 1–9), community and religious leaders (e.g., Ezra 7:10), or even God (e.g., Ps 25:4). Fourth, ethical living is facilitated by liturgical acts that praise righteousness and denounce evildoers (e.g., Ps 141:4–5). Fifth, ethical behavior is cast as one part of a broader life of faithfulness that involves exclusive allegiance to God, holiness in worship, and obedience to a host of purity regulations (e.g., Lev 20:22–26). (Concerns for purity can be interpreted as having important links with ethical conduct; cf. Num 35:33–34.) Finally, ethical behavior is most likely to occur when people are entirely devoted to God, rather than simply going through the motions (e.g., Deut 10:12–16; Isa 1:4–17; cf. Isa 29:13).

Virtues and vices.

Along these lines, many texts call readers to reflect on inner qualities that lead to external actions. A variety of texts are concerned with the cognitive and affective center of the person (the heart, lēb[āb]), recognizing that the core of one’s being can drive outward behaviors toward either good (e.g., Prov 10:8) or evil (e.g., 1 Kgs 11:3–4; Eccl 8:11).

In terms of virtue, a key overarching category is righteousness (ṣedeq/ṣĕdāqâ). This term entails not only innocence (i.e., the absence of wickedness; e.g., Deut 25:1) but also proactive obedience to God (e.g., Deut 6:25) and faithfulness toward one’s community (e.g., Job 29:11–17). Righteousness thus entails fairness, justice, and truthfulness (cf. Lev 19:15; 1 Kgs 3:6). It is particularly important that the king rule with righteousness, allowing society to work harmoniously (e.g., 2 Sam 8:15; Jer 23:5).

Another important virtue, sometimes linked to righteousness (e.g., Zeph 2:3), is humility. Humbleness provides a check on self-deception, serving as a prerequisite to praising, submitting to, trusting in, and depending on God (e.g., Ps 34:2 [Heb. 34:3]; Prov 3:5–7). Coupled with a contrite heart, humility can assuage God’s wrath (e.g., 2 Chr 12:7, 12). Pride, however, is an affront to one’s Creator (e.g., Isa 2:11).

Love is seen by many people today as the most important virtue (Lev 19:18; Deut 6:5; cf. Matt 22:37–40). However, it is important to note that love must be directed toward the correct objects (God and neighbor) for it to be praiseworthy in the Old Testament (cf. Yoder, 2005). Thus, those who love deceitful speech or evildoing are condemned (e.g., Ps 52:3–5 [Heb. 52:5–7]). In fact, even hatred can be considered something of a virtue in the Old Testament, provided it is directed toward evil (e.g., Ps 97:10).

The Old Testament prizes wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and prudence (e.g., Prov 7:4; 18:15), even though there are limitations to what humans can figure out (Job 38–41; cf. Eccl 9:11). As with love, thoughtful reflection needs to be directed toward the ways of God, not of evil, for it to be praiseworthy (e.g., Jer 4:22). Knowledge of God runs opposite to unethical behavior (e.g., Hos 4:1–2). Foolishness, however, leads to wickedness (e.g., Prov 13:19–20).

Courage is an explicit virtue in many military contexts where soldiers are admonished to trust in God’s ability to bring victory (e.g., Josh 1:6–9). The narratives of Ruth, Esther, and Daniel point to the importance of bravery in nonmilitary contexts, showing key protagonists who successfully face risks for the good of themselves, their families, and their people. Courage is thus praised, but so is “the fear of the LORD.” In fact, this phrase functions as an idiom to describe faithful living (e.g., Deut 31:12–13). Fear of parents and authorities can likewise be beneficial (Lev 19:3; Prov 24:21).

Patience is an Old Testament virtue. While wisdom literature admires patience toward other people (e.g., Prov 15:18; Eccl 7:8), texts elsewhere emphasize the importance of waiting upon God, trusting that divine salvation will arrive even if it is not presently in view (e.g., Ps 37:7, 9, 34). Those patient with God are less likely to take revenge or fall into despair (e.g., Prov 20:22; Isa 30:18–19; Mic 7:7–10).

Desire is not innately evil; it can be directed toward the ways of God (e.g., Ps 19:9–10 [Heb. 19:10–11]). Nevertheless, several texts condemn desiring what belongs to one’s neighbor, which has obvious connections with greed and lust (Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21; cf. Prov 6:25; Job 31:1; Jer 6:13).

Moral Anthropology.

Although the Old Testament rarely, if ever, presents morally perfect individuals, many texts imply that human beings will be able to lead ethical lives. Thus, humans are made in the image of God and given the responsibility of caring for creation (Gen 1:27–30). The book of Proverbs presupposes that readers will both want and be able to join wise people who lead righteous lives, rather than fools who engage in wickedness (e.g., doubt 10:17). Many psalms move in similar directions (e.g., doubt 1, 119). Although earlier parts of the Old Testament foreshadow the difficulties Israel and Judah will have in keeping God’s commandments (e.g., Josh 24:19), other parts describe what people should do with the expectation that such commandments can and should be carried out (e.g., Deut 30:11–14). Even those outside of Israel and Judah are expected to abide by some standards of morality, as the prophetic oracles against the nations suggest (e.g., Amos 1:3—2:3).

While some parts of the Old Testament thus expect humanity to fulfill ethical obligations, other parts are acutely aware of humanity’s propensity for wickedness (e.g., Gen 6:5; 8:21; 1 Kgs 8:46; Ps 12:8 [Heb. 12:9]; Eccl 7:20; Jer 17:9). One reason humanity’s wickedness receives such a strong emphasis in the Old Testament is its concern with why God’s people suffered defeat at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians. The consistent conclusion is that Israel and Judah were conquered because of their pervasive sinfulness (e.g., 2 Kgs 17:7–23; 24:20; Lam 1:8; 5:16). The literary prophets had warned that unless the people turn from their sins, they would suffer or die (e.g., Ezek 5:1–17; 18:30–32). Although the prophets engaged in magnificent rhetorical feats to drive their messages home (e.g., Amos 5:1–6), the people plunged deeper into wrongdoing (e.g., Jer 8:5–6). In this way, the text presents humanity as unable to resist evil, even if wickedness entails catastrophic ruin. As a way of addressing this negative assessment of moral agency, some texts envision that God will one day transform the human heart (e.g., Jer 31:33–34; Ezek 36:25–27).

Moral Space.

Several texts suggest that creation is morally ordered in a way that reflects God’s will (e.g., Prov 3:19). Genesis 1:1—2:4A presents the world as pleasing in God’s eyes, the direct result of God’s spoken will. Other texts imply that individuals have a sense of right and wrong apart from special revelation (e.g., Gen 31:26). In wisdom literature, sages present truths derived through reflection on experience (e.g., Prov 7:6–27; Eccl 4:7–12). Many books of the Old Testament suggest that creation serves as God’s agent of justice, blessing those who obey God’s commandments and punishing those who engage in unethical behavior (e.g., Exod 23:25–31; Lev 18:24–30; 26:3–39; Deut 28:1–68; Prov 17:13; Jer 2:19; Amos 4:6–13).

However, other texts suggest that creation presents immense challenges for the ethical life. Genesis 2:4B—3:24 makes clear that humanity no longer inhabits a delightful garden where obedience to God requires little more than avoiding the fruit of one particular tree. Beyond Genesis 3, the human drama takes place on a limited stage, one marked by violence (e.g., Gen 4:8), barrenness (e.g., Gen 30:1), injustice (e.g., Gen 34), and famine (e.g., Gen 43:1). Even Abraham and Sarah do not always have access to God’s will; they make ethical decisions with the limited knowledge they have, and sometimes everyone suffers in the end (Gen 16, 21). Outside of Genesis, God’s chosen people face severe hardship for reasons outside their control (e.g., Exod 1:11–16). Attempts at a theocratic society where leadership arises charismatically can quickly degenerate into anarchy (Judg 17:1—21:25). The monarchy is thus deemed necessary (cf. 1 Sam 8, 10), even though rulers’ actions are frequently unjust and cruel, leading to divine punishment (e.g., Ezek 22:6, 14–15). In wisdom literature, the book of Job stresses that the righteous do not always receive blessings for upright living; much about God remains beyond human understanding. Qoheleth makes similar points (e.g., Eccl 8:14). Psalms of complaint question why the world does not reward those who follow God’s ways (e.g., Ps 44). The Old Testament thus exhibits not only positive but also negative appraisals of the world’s moral economy.

Ongoing Significance.

Communities of faith have viewed the Old Testament as inspired scripture, looking to it for ethical inspiration. However, those seeking to use the Old Testament in such a way face challenges.

Diversity of Old Testament ethics.

As the above discussion illustrates, Old Testament texts can be quite diverse. Although attempts have been made to merge the contents of Old Testament texts into a single unified ethical system (Kaiser, 1983), they have not met with great success. Influenced at least in part by postmodern trends, many studies now display a greater recognition of and appreciation for the Old Testament’s diversity (e.g., Rodd, 2001; Pleins, 2001).

Rather than attempting to synthesize all of the Old Testament into a single ethical system, recent studies tend to be structured around either an assortment of themes (Green, 2011; Rodd, 2001), books of the Old Testament (Pleins, 2001), forays into particular texts (Parry, 2004), historical developments (Otto, 1994), or sociological contexts (cf. Janzen, 1994). Studies of a more comprehensive nature tend to emphasize a fairly generic point of unity, such as Wright’s (2004) focus on Israel as an ethical paradigm or Rodd’s (2001) argument that Old Testament ethics differ from modern ethics.

Ethically problematic texts.

To Rodd’s point, the Old Testament contains a fair amount of material that people today find morally offensive. Objectionable material includes (but is not limited to) patriarchal and androcentric texts that value men over women (e.g., Lev 27), ḥērem texts that command killing enemy soldiers and noncombatants alike (e.g., Deut 20:16–17), laws with severe punishments (e.g., Exod 21:17), texts that portray God as wrathfully inflicting harsh suffering on people (e.g., Ezek 5:10), and passages that favor one ethnic group over another (e.g., Lev 25:44–46; Mal 1:2–5).

Several proposals have been made for dealing with this sort of material. One response is to reject Israel’s scriptures because of their ethical problems (cf. Tertullian’s characterization of Marcion in Marc. 1.24–27). A second response allegorizes ethically questionable material, assigning it a less offensive symbolic meaning (e.g., Origen, Hom. Gen. 6). A third response claims that problematic practices like polygamy reflect the customs of another time and culture (e.g., Augustine, Doctr. chr., 3.14, 18). A fourth response divides legal materials into three categories—moral, judicial, and ceremonial—claiming that only the moral law has ongoing significance (e.g., Aquinas, Summa theologica, 2.99; Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.14–16). In such a scheme, ethically questionable material (like the death penalty) can be excused as part of the judicial law whose significance has ceased. A fifth response, common among some dispensationalists, largely dismisses the Old Testament as belonging to a time when God related to humanity differently. Sixth and related, some interpreters, especially in the last two centuries, use the idea of progressive revelation to make allowances for particular texts, saying they reflect primitive ideas of morality that do not measure up to more developed ethical concepts found elsewhere in the Bible. Seventh, many biblical scholars employ ideological criticism (e.g., feminist and postcolonial approaches) to expose ethical problems in the Bible with the goal of preventing the perpetuation of such problems today. Eighth, a number of interpreters emphasize the polyvocality of the Old Testament, maintaining that although the Bible contains problematic voices, such voices are counteracted elsewhere. Proponents of this view suggest that the Bible as a whole is not definitively problematic; it invites readers to ethical debate and reflection, rather than forcing one ethical viewpoint upon its audiences. Finally, on a popular level, many readers of the Bible simply ignore material that appears ethically distasteful.

Particularity of Old Testament ethics.

Another difficulty for those wanting to use the Old Testament in a normative sense today is the contextually bound nature of biblical ethics. While the Old Testament presents some ethical expectations as extending to all of humanity (e.g., Gen 9:6; cf. Amos 1:3—2:3), other ethical concerns seem quite specific to Israel and Judah themselves. These specific concerns are rooted in God’s covenant and history with the Israelites, not God’s dealings with the world as a whole (e.g., Deut 4:8). At times, the text’s ethical demands are intended to make Israel different from other nations—hardly what one would expect if Old Testament ethics were universal (cf. Exod 19:5–6). Even within Israel’s legal codes, one finds evidence of changing standards from one time period to another (e.g., the freeing of female slaves in Exod 21:4, 7 and Deut 15:12). Particular texts also suggest that what works in one situation will not work in another (e.g., Prov 26:4–5). Furthermore, key ethical concerns today (e.g., genetic engineering) do not align with key ethical concerns in biblical Israel (e.g., goring oxen; Exod 21:28–32).

Many modern biblical scholars therefore warn against attempting to make straightforward applications from the Old Testament to modern times (e.g., Rodd, 2001; Otto, 1994). Those who do try to connect the Old Testament with modern issues tend to do so more by way of analogy (Wright, 2004), prizing creativity and imagination, rather than simplistically trying to implement Old Testament commandments as if they were universal laws that easily address all of the problems of contemporary society. For example, John Rogerson argues that while the Jubilee laws cannot be implemented in industrial societies, these laws can inspire ideas today about alleviating the indebtedness of developing countries (2004, p. 27; cf. Lev 25). Others argue that the Old Testament does not present rules for modern believers to follow; rather, it constitutes one authoritative source that can assist in developing character over time, shaping communal identity, constructing visions of the moral life, and understanding oneself in light of the grand narrative of God’s salvation (cf. Brown, 2002; Carroll R. and Lapsley, 2007).

Promising Avenues for Future Research.

Because Old Testament ethics received relatively little scholarly treatment prior to the 1980s, many avenues exist for further research. First, as Newsom (2012) pointed out in her address to the Society of Biblical Literature, more research is needed on models of the moral self in the Hebrew Bible.

Second, the difficulty of moral living needs more attention. Studies of Old Testament ethics often focus on the good things that people should believe, value, and do. However, biblical texts, especially narratives, often present good and evil as inextricably intertwined (cf. Joseph’s conduct throughout Gen 37–50). Scholars could do a better job analyzing the limitations biblical characters face and how incommensurate moral goods compete with one another within biblical texts.

Third, the above discussion noted that while it is nearly impossible to implement many Old Testament regulations today, one can make analogical connections between the biblical text and contemporary ethical concerns. What heuristics best govern the construction of these analogies (cf. Cosgrove, 2002)? How can one avoid forced connections that fail to do justice to the text itself or modern needs?

Fourth, how do emotions affect the moral life? Across the humanities, emotions are receiving fresh attention; how do findings there relate to the biblical text (cf. Schlimm, 2011; Yoder, 2005)?

Fifth, as noted above, many people today see love as central to ethics. How can other biblical themes, like holiness and justice, enhance contemporary moral visions?

Finally, scholars could conduct additional investigations of why Old Testament texts uphold ideas that today seem morally repugnant. It is easy to fault the Old Testament for not matching modern standards, but it is more challenging to discern why ideas that are questionable today were favorably received (or at least tolerated) by communities who inscribed, preserved, and eventually canonized the text.

[See also COVENANT; DECALOGUE; GOOD AND EVIL; HONOR AND SHAME; IMAGE OF GOD; JUSTICE, JUSTIFICATION, AND RIGHTEOUSNESS; REWARD AND RETRIBUTION; TORAH; and VIOLENCE.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Barton, John. Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003.
  • Brown, William P., ed. Character and Scripture: Moral Formation, Community, and Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002.
  • Carroll R., M. Daniel, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley. Character Ethics and the Old Testament: Moral Dimensions of Scripture. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2007.
  • Cosgrove, Charles H. Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002.
  • Green, Joel B., ed. Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011.
  • Janzen, Waldemar. Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1994.
  • Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. Toward Old Testament Ethics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1983.
  • Newsom, Carol. “Models of the Moral Self: Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism.” Journal of Biblical Literature 131 (2012): 5–25.
  • Otto, Eckart. Theologische Ethik des Alten Testaments. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1994.
  • Parry, Robin Allinson. Old Testament Story and Christian Ethics: The Rape of Dinah as a Case Study. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Milton Keynes, U.K.: Paternoster, 2004.
  • Pleins, J. David. The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
  • Rodd, Cyril S. Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001.
  • Rogerson, John W. Theory and Practice in Old Testament Ethics. London: T&T Clark, 2004.
  • Schlimm, Matthew Richard. From Fratricide to Forgiveness: The Language and Ethics of Anger in Genesis. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2011.
  • Wright, Christopher J. H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Academic, 2004.
  • Yoder, Christine Roy. “The Objects of Our Affections: Emotions and the Moral Life in Proverbs 1–9.” In Shaking Heaven and Earth: Essays in Honor of Walter Brueggemann and Charles B. Cousar, edited by Christine Roy Yoder, Kathleen M. O’Connor, E. Elizabeth Johnson, et al., pp. 73–88. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2005.

Matthew Richard Schlimm

New Testament

The church has always regarded the writings of the New Testament as sources of moral instruction, but “New Testament ethics” as a distinct subject for scholarly study emerged roughly in the mid-nineteenth century. Prior to that time, attention to biblical teaching on moral topics was found in books of theology and ethics and in other churchly efforts at instructing the faithful, but New Testament ethics was not addressed as a subject in its own right. In fact, historical studies of New Testament ethics did not appear until the latter half of the nineteenth century. When Hermann Jacoby published Neutestamentliche Ethik in 1899, he was able to refer to only one other work on the topic, namely, Albrecht Thoma’s Geschichte der christlichen Sittenlehre in der Zeit des Neuen Testaments (1879). Moreover, Thoma himself knew of no antecedents to his own historical approach to ancient Christian morality. Jacoby overlooked George Matheson’s Landmarks of New Testament Morality (1888)—either because it was in English or because he did not regard it as historical in the critical “scientific” sense.

Ethics in Antiquity.

The modern word “ethics” goes back to the Greek word ethika, which means “matters of character.” Aristotle famously used this word in the title of his Ethics (or Ethical Discourses, later called Nicomachean Ethics). Our word “morals” derives from the Latin moralia (“matters of custom”), which translates ethika when moralia is used in a philosophical sense.

For ancient Greeks, ethics was not about the dilemmas that arise when moral principles conflict; nor was it an inquiry into divine norms for the personal and social behavior of human beings. Ethics concerned the nature of happiness and how to achieve it. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (and Eudemian Ethics) discusses virtue, practical reasoning, friendship, continence, pleasure, etc. and is practically oriented to how the human being (more precisely, a man of a certain class) can find well-being through personal character formation. For the most part, “right” and “wrong” as societal norms are taken for granted. This holds generally for Greek ethics through the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Still, we do find different opinions about appropriate behavior, and sometimes those opinions are explained and defended. Plutarch’s Moralia, for example, presents opinions on a wide range of topics—parenthood, superstition, dinner-party music, how to study poetry, virtue and vice, borrowing, statecraft, and so on. Included are also various philosophical discussions not directly related to how to live well (the face that appears in the moon, whether land or sea creatures are more intelligent). Yet the title Moralia was preferred by the ancients as a collective name for these sundry essays and speeches, which shows that to the ancient mind “ethics” could be understood as anything useful to the formation of mind and character.

Some scholars use the words “ethics” and “morality” more or less interchangeably, whereas others make a formal distinction between them. Wayne Meeks defines “morality” as “a pervasive but, often, only partly conscious set of value-laden dispositions, inclinations, attitudes, and habits”; and he distinguishes this from “ethics” as a “reflective, second-order activity, morality rendered self-conscious” (1993, p. 4). By these definitions, the New Testament contains a good deal of moral exhortation but little “ethical” reflection. It is possible, however, to analyze New Testament morality for its underlying assumptions and rationales. Through this approach, scholars seek to tease out something of the implicit ethics of the New Testament (Zimmermann, 2009).

The Concept of New Testament Ethics.

Books on New Testament ethics typically describe the diversity of moral teachings and assumptions in the New Testament. Some who write on the subject also organize this diversity into some degree of unity. Interest in synthesizing usually entails the conviction that the New Testament should inform Christian ethics and cannot do so well if its various writings present no more than a jumble of diverse and even contradictory views. It is generally agreed, however, that any unity in New Testament ethics is not immediately evident and must be demonstrated, even “constructed.” There is also a consensus that the historical and cultural distance of the New Testament from contemporary life requires hermeneutical mediation if there is to be any application of New Testament instruction to contemporary moral questions.

This way of conceiving New Testament ethics reflects the influential legacy of Johann Philipp Gabler (1753–1826), whose inaugural address at the University of Altdorf in 1787 defined “biblical theology” as a historical and descriptive discipline, distinct from dogmatic theology. Gabler’s program, which continues to influence the way churchly scholars conceive the relation of biblical studies to Christian theology and ethics, called for three steps: (1) interpreting the different books and voices of the Bible in historically sensitive ways to identify the sacred ideas peculiar to each in its time and place; (2) synthesizing these sacred ideas to form a unified statement of biblical theology; and (3) constructing, on the basis of this synthesis, a dogmatic theology adapted to contemporary times. The enduring influence of Gabler is evident in Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996), which proposes and carries out four tasks: the descriptive, the synthetic, the hermeneutical, and the pragmatic.

Most treatments of New Testament ethics do not discuss the role of the New Testament in contemporary moral reflection but are more purely descriptive. Usually, however, the scholars who take up this work make some effort at synthesis. Frank Matera (1996), for example, describes the “ethics” found in each gospel and each letter of Paul (with attention to original social location and purpose) and concludes with a synthesis of the “legacies of Jesus and Paul.”

Many who approach the question of New Testament theology and ethics historically also assume the concept “New Testament” as a normative theological idea. But the subject of what the New Testament writings teach about moral matters is also treated in a more strictly historical sense as part of early Christian religion generally. One sees this already in Thoma’s focus on moral teachings “in der Zeit des Neuen Testaments” (“in the time of the New Testament”), his inclusion of evidence from 1 Clement and the Epistle of Barnabas, and his effort to set forth the historical developments of early Christian morality from Jesus through “early Catholicism” and the rise of Gnosticism. A century later a much more contextual historical reconstruction of early Christian morality was undertaken by Wayne Meeks in two books: The Moral World of the First Christians (1986) and The Origins of Christian Morality (1993). Meeks situated early Christian moral teaching in its Greco-Roman environment, and this broader historical orientation has been a focus of investigation for subsequent scholarship (see, e.g., Horn et al., 2013).

A comparison of Meeks’s The Moral World of the First Christians with Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament reveals a significant agreement about historical-critical method in the interpretation of ancient Christian texts. But Meeks’s book is not a “New Testament ethics” since it treats writings outside the New Testament and does not operate with any particular assumption about the New Testament as canon. By contrast, Hays looks for ways to construct a unified vision from the New Testament as the church’s scripture. The difference highlights an ambiguity in the expression “New Testament ethics.” Does this term refer to what the various writings in the New Testament happen to teach about moral subjects, or is New Testament ethics a branch of Christian theology, a legacy of Gabler’s program, an effort to work out a synthesis of New Testament moral teaching serviceable for Christian ethics?

Gabler believed that biblical-theological synthesis could be achieved by separating the merely “human” from the “divine” and by utilizing universal ideas (notiones universae) as the translation keys for unifying the various voices of scripture. Today, it is widely recognized that the frameworks we use for synthesizing tend to reflect our own social and cultural locations. Moreover, those frameworks must reflect some contemporary standpoint if the results of the synthesis are to speak to a contemporary situation. One could argue that a purely descriptive, historical account of the ethics of the New Testament writers has no real historical justification if it is not carried out as part of the reconstruction of early Christian morality generally. A corollary would be that where “New Testament ethics” entails a theological conception of the New Testament as scripture, it can be justified as a scholarly task only theologically and, therefore, can be done responsibly only if it is carried out under the auspices of a credible hermeneutic. Some of the hermeneutical challenges have been explored by Scroggs (1985) and Cosgrove (2002).

Jesus and New Testament Ethics.

The historical approach to the Bible that led to the conception of New Testament ethics as a historical-descriptive task also provoked the question of the relation of the historical Jesus to that task. Does New Testament ethics properly include the ethics of the Jesus himself, as critically reconstructed and distinct from the ethics of Jesus in the gospels? The ethics of Jesus is in fact taken up in books on New Testament ethics by Rudolph Schnackenburg (1965), Wolfgang Schrage (1988), J. F. Collange (1980), Allen Verhey (1984), and Russell Pregeant (2008). Other scholars confine themselves to the writings of the New Testament without presenting separate reconstructions of the ethics of Jesus (Hays, 1996; Matera, 1996). Hays explains that his aim is not to trace a historical development but to describe New Testament ethics and show how it should shape the church’s life. Since the historical Jesus as reconstructed by scholarship is not part of the New Testament, Jesus in this sense does not figure into Hays’s portrait of New Testament ethics. Hays does, however, give a short sketch of what he thinks scholarship has established about the historical Jesus; and he argues that it is essentially congruent with the gospel portraits (1996, pp. 158–167).

Whether they treat the historical Jesus as foundational or attend only to the gospel portraits of him, most who take up the task of New Testament ethics describe Jesus as extending companionship to those whom the elites of society regarded as disreputable, showing special kindness to the weak and vulnerable, teaching love of neighbor as God’s most fundamental demand (and defining the neighbor as every human being, including enemies), advocating nonviolence as a rule of life, and preaching prophetic diatribes against the wealthy and powerful. There is a general consensus that his preaching about wealth is based on the perception of a “limited good,” which implies that the wealth of the rich is possible only at the expense of the poor, an extortion of their share of the common good. There was no doubt a good deal of truth in this economic assumption in Jesus’s time. The society in which he lived was based largely on agriculture, and a small minority of wealthy persons held most of the arable land, which they let out at high rents to poor tenant farmers or operated through managers, paying workers at best subsistence wages. Seen from this perspective, Jesus was an advocate of social justice for the oppressed. There is less scholarly unanimity, however, about the nature of that advocacy—whether to conceive Jesus as the leader of a Jewish renewal movement who sought to reform the nation of Israel or as an apocalyptic prophet who called for repentance in preparation for God’s imminent and cataclysmic intervention in history. For some, if not most, of the contemporary interpreters surveyed above, Jesus’s mission entailed something of both (see, e.g., Hays, 1996, p. 163; Verhey, 1984, pp. 14–15, 30–33).

Moral Reasoning in the New Testament.

The New Testament writers and those who shaped the moral teachings on which they draw were ancient persons accustomed to ancient Mediterranean modes of thought. Hence, they were oriented to the “example,” a basic and pervasive focus of ancient moral discourse, both popular and philosophical. Teaching by example reflected a basic ancient assumption about moral formation—that individuals and communities evolve to maturity through imitation. This is no doubt assumed by all the New Testament writers, even if the explicit language of imitation appears in only some of them (e.g., in Matt 5:48; John 13:15; 1 Thess 1:6–7; 2:14; Gal 4:12; 1 Cor 4:16–17; 11:1; Phil 2:5; 3:17; 4:9; Eph 5:2; Heb 6:12; 13:7; 1 Pet 2:8–15; 3 John 11).

The example.

The example (Gk paradeigma, Lat exemplum) held an important place in Greco-Roman deliberative rhetoric, the effort to move an audience to embrace a particular course of action. It was axiomatic that teachers instruct through word and their own example (Quintilian, Inst. 2.2.8). Plutarch recommended for dinner-party conversation topics of history and current events as sources of edifying examples (Mor. 614a–b). By Strabo’s day, the revered myths were being treated as sources of examples (Strabo, Geogr. 1.2.8). And in Hellenistic Jewish literature, too, we find frequent use of the example as a mode of teaching and exhortation, notably in 4 Maccabees, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and Philo. Hence, it comes as no surprise that New Testament writers appeal to examples. We find example stories in Luke (10:29–37; 12:16–20; 16:19–31; 18:9–14). James draws on scripture for examples (Abraham and Rahab in Jas 2:20–25; prophets in 5:10; Job in 5:11; Elijah in 5:17–18). Paul gives brief summaries of Christ’s exemplary ways (2 Cor 8:9; Rom 15:3; Phil 2:6–11). He also presents himself as a model (see 1 Thess 1:6; Gal 4:12; 1 Cor 4:16–17; 11:1; Phil 3:17; 4:9) and holds up others as worthy examples (1 Thess 1:7; 2 Cor 8:1–6; cf. 1 Tim 4:12 from the post-Pauline tradition). One could know an example personally, as the Corinthians knew Paul; but examples were also preserved for posterity through words and memory, and even the living example was made effective through testimony and remembrance: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me,” an absent Paul tells the Philippians (Phil 4:9). Or, as he says to the Corinthians, Timothy will “remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor 4:17). The Greek word for “ways” here (hodoi) reflects the Hebrew concept of halakha, a word for “walking” commonly used as a metaphor for behavior. Paul also employs the Greek term peripatein, “to walk,” in this sense: “walking in love” (Rom 14:15); “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4; see also 1 Thess 2:12; 2 Cor 12:18; and Rom 13:13; cf. Eph 5:2). The book of Acts speaks of the gospel as “the Way,” which indicates how closely the gospel was associated with a way of living (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4). The “Way” metaphor also appears in Mark 12:14; Matthew 21:32; 2 Peter 2:21; and 1 John 2:6. The language of “walking” and “way” is used not only of right thinking and doing (as in nearly all the preceding instances) but also, with cautionary intent, of wrong behavior and attitudes (Acts 14:16; 1 Cor 3:3; Phil 3:18; Eph 2:2; Jas 5:20; Jude 11). It should be noted that translations do not always reflect the underlying figures of walking or way.

The value of the example is basic to the very concept of a biography in antiquity. In the introduction to his life of Alexander, for example, Plutarch announces that he will focus in a selective way on incidents that display the man’s virtues and vices because he writes not history but biography (Alex. 1.2). Ancient Christ-followers would have assumed that one important purpose of the gospels was to present edifying examples, Jesus being the chief model. This conception of the gospels finds expression in Justin Martyr’s statement that in Sunday worship the president gives an exhortation after a lengthy reading of the “memoirs of the apostles” or “the prophets,” encouraging his listeners to “imitate” what they have heard (1 Apol. 66.3–4).

Modes of moral reasoning.

Method in moral reasoning was sometimes taken up as a topic in Greco-Roman philosophy. Stoics, for example, debated the proper role of the moral precept in moral reflection and exhortation (see, e.g., Seneca, Ep. 94). The New Testament does not contain reflection of this kind. We meet sustained moral teaching about the law in the Sermon on the Mount but no discussion of the legal assumptions that inform it. No doubt the author of Matthew believes that the teaching in Matthew 22:34–40 about the whole law “hanging” on the commandments to love God and neighbor informs all the specific teachings in the sermon, but the sermon itself makes no effort to show how, much less to provide “middle axioms” for moving from the general principle of love to specific life circumstances. We find something closer to moral reasoning in Paul, who gives rationales for some of his instructions, notably in his guidance about various topics in 1 Corinthians and in his discussion of the practices of “the weak” and the “strong” in Romans 14. Especially revealing is his appeal at two points in 1 Corinthians to the same principle (perhaps modifying a Corinthian slogan): “all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial” (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23). Limiting one’s freedom for the sake of the weaker member of the community is also a principle of his instructions in 1 Corinthians 8–10 and Romans 14. Clues such as these suggest that Paul approaches questions of behavior, at least to some extent, by applying general principles to specific situations; but it is evident that he also operates with certain unquestioned rules about right and wrong. For example, whether to engage in sexual relations outside of marriage is not a matter of discretion or consequentialist judgment for Paul; it is intrinsically wrong, as is a man’s cohabitation with his stepmother (1 Cor 5:1–2). So are lying, stealing, murder, and coveting. According to Paul, love itself warrants the commandments that prohibit these things (Rom 13:8–10), which suggests an inherent relation between the principle of love and specific rules of behavior. Paul does not explicate that relation, however; he only asserts it.

Yet occasionally Paul and other New Testament writers explain a general concept by giving examples that reveal something of the way in which the concept serves as a principle of behavior. In Luke Jesus defines love of neighbor by offering a story about a merciful Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Paul, urging the Corinthians to imitate the “grace” (kindness, generosity) of Jesus, describes how Jesus became “poor” so that others might become “rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Hebrews 11 gives a series of scriptural instances of “faith” in action. Negative examples, too, explicate general teaching. James vividly describes the communal sin of favoritism in a congregational meeting (2:1–7), and other writers make brief cautionary references to the people of Sodom (2 Pet 2:6; Jude 7) and Cain (1 John 3:12) as infamous sinners.

The New Testament literature is informed by a variety of apocalyptic expectations. Most (perhaps all) of the New Testament writers believed that history had reached its final stage and that a new age (new creation, Kingdom of God) was about to appear and was already manifest in provisional ways through Christ’s resurrection and the activity of the Spirit. This eschatological consciousness led some early Christians to put into practice, in the present, certain ideals that they ascribed to the coming future age—existence beyond bodily appetites and gender differentiation being two salient marks for them of transcendent life in Christ. Paul affirmed but also sought to constrain tendencies of this sort at Corinth. He believed that the new creation spelled the end of the organization of social life through differentiations between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free (Gal 3:28). This conviction made him something of an egalitarian in his vision of church life. Nevertheless, whether for pragmatic or other reasons, he was unreservedly active in promoting only the full equality of Gentiles with Jews in the churches—not the end of gender distinctions or freedom for slaves. Moreover, in Paul and in other New Testament writers, the eschatological horizon informs moral exhortation most often as threats of future punishment or promises of reward; less frequent are explicit references to norms of the new age as a basis for admonition. Yet we find an eschatological conditioning of moral vision in Matthew’s assumption that the Kingdom of God demands a new ethic (exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount) and in the belief of the other gospel writers, as well as Paul, that the normativity of the Law of Moses or (at least the normative interpretation of it) has been fundamentally altered by the appearance of the messiah.

Grace and Ethics in Paul.

Paul’s teachings about the Law of Moses have been a topic of considerable scholarly debate. It was long assumed in Protestant scholarship (especially in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions) that Paul champions “justification by faith” in the sense that salvation is a completely unconditional gift and not dependent on one’s moral behavior before or subsequent to baptism. This view has been challenged in recent decades. Many scholars now hold that “justification by faith” is not about an opposition between “faith” and “works” generally but concerns more narrowly Paul’s contention that Gentiles need not practice the Law of Moses.

As a missiological principle, “justification by faith” may in some contexts refer to salvation as based on Christ’s own faith (faithfulness), understood by Paul as “obedience” to God (Rom 5:19; Phil 2:8) and an act of self-giving love for the sake of others (Rom 15:3; Gal 2:20). Hence, the missiological principle also entails ethical implications, inasmuch as Paul understands Christ’s death as a symbol of the obedience and self-giving love that believers are to imitate (see above). Moreover, he warns his churches that if they do not practice righteousness in imitation of Christ but engage in the sinful “works of the flesh,” they “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21). Hence, divine “grace” in Paul’s understanding is not the traditional Protestant notion of “legal” immunity from divine judgment. It is better understood as divine generosity, expressed in both the mercy offered through the atonement (Rom 3:24–25) and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the latter being both a reassuring sign to believers that they belong to Christ (2 Cor 5:5; Rom 5:5; 8:15–17) and a morally transforming power by which they are enabled to please God (Gal 5:22–26; 7:4–6; 8:1–13). In the end all will be judged on the basis of how they have lived; but if believers walk by the Spirit, they can be confident that they will receive praise and not condemnation in that final adjudication (see 1 Thess 4:2–7; 1 Cor 1:7–8; 3:10–15; 4:5; 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 2:2–12; 14:10–12).

Cultural Distinctives.

The New Testament writers share many of the assumptions of the wider culture regarding upright behavior, but they also dissent at points. For example, where a man having sex with a female prostitute or other unmarried woman is not frowned on by most Greeks and Romans, Paul subsumes all sex outside of marriage under “fornication” (1 Cor 6:13–20; 7:2). Presumably, so do Matthew and Mark in consonance with Jewish tradition (Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21). Matthew and Mark also regard marriage after divorce as adultery (Mark 10:11–12, with a qualification; Matt 5:32, unless the divorce was caused by adultery).

At a broader level, at least some New Testament writers challenge the agonistic values of Greco-Roman culture, values that assume a hierarchy of social status and make every social interaction an exchange of honor. In response to these cultural norms, Paul speaks of special honor for the lowliest (1 Cor 12:22–23) and declares that God has chosen the ignoble to shame the reputable (1 Cor 1:27–28). In the gospels, too, we find challenges to prevailing notions of honor (e.g., Luke 14:7–14; 22:24–27; John 13:3–16).

It is sometimes said that “love of neighbor,” rooted in the Jewish tradition and emphasized in the New Testament, is not a core ethical norm in pagan ethics. Pagan writers, however, do speak of love (philia) in the context of various relations, including the bonds of society—e.g., “civic friendship” in the Greek philosophical tradition (see, e.g., Aristotle, Eth eud. 7.1241a–1243a) and among Roman Stoics, such as Cicero (Amic.). Moreover, charity and public benefaction were highly approved by Greeks and Romans, and Stoics in the first century taught that generosity should extend even to one’s enemies (Seneca, De otio 1.4). That said, pagan writers do not argue for generosity to others as imitation of God’s compassion for the weak and needy, which is foundational to Exodus 22:26–27 and Leviticus 19:34, as well as to the teachings of the gospels (e.g., Luke 6:36). They conceive love and friendship chiefly in terms of personal and social utility. Both Aristotle and Cicero consider the practicality of friendship as a basis for sociopolitical cohesion and health, something quite different from the New Testament teaching that love is a personal duty to any neighbor in need. The contexts are not the same, of course. Aristotle has in view the Greek polis, Cicero late republican Rome; the New Testament writers belong to millenarian communities that expect the near end of the world and therefore think of their duties in personal religious terms, not political ones.

Integration in New Testament Ethics.

Most interpreters agree that love is the closest thing to a unifying concept or ethical principle in the New Testament. It is taught and exemplified by Jesus in the gospels (Mark 12:28–34 and pars.; Matt 5:43–46//Luke 6:27–36). It is urged by Paul (1 Cor 13; Rom 13:8–21) and central to his understanding of Jesus as an example for his churches to follow (2 Cor 8:9; Rom 15:3). It is emphasized by the Johannine epistles (1 John 2:7–11; 3:11–24; 2 John 5–6), as well as by Hebrews (10:24; 13:1), James (2:8), and 1 Peter (1:22; 2:17; 3:8; 4:8; 5:14). It is not clear, however, that love is understood in the same way by these different writings (not all, for example, speak of love for outsiders or enemies); and none of them takes up love as a topic in order to demonstrate that it is the foundation of ethical relations.

Absence of abstract or systematic discussion is not surprising. The New Testament, with the possible exception of James, is not “ethical literature.” Hence, any effort to identify the underlying logic of New Testament moral teachings and to synthesize those teachings into an integrated pattern faces special challenges.

[See also DISCIPLESHIP; ECCLESIOLOGY; HERMENEUTICS, BIBLICAL; and HOLINESS.]

Bibliography

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Charles H. Cosgrove