A Comprehensive History of Western Ethics: What Do We Believe?

In the second chapter of his work A Comprehensive History of Western Ethics: What Do We Believe? Warren Ashby examines the development of the western moral personality, through an analysis of the ethics of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews.  
A Comprehensive History of Western Ethics:
What Do We Believe?
by Warren Ashby
Chapter 1: Greek Ethics

The Social Sources of the Ethic
The Presuppositions of Greek Ethics
The Sophists
The Unique Contribution of the Greek Moral Philosophers
Chapter 2: The Biblical Ethic

Social Life of the Eighth Century B.C.E.
The Presuppositions of Prophetic Ethics
"Second Isaiah"
Is There a Prophetic Ethic?
Social Sources of the Ethics of Jesus and Paul
Ethical Presuppositions
The Experience of Jesus
Paul's Interpretation of Human Life
The Ethic of Jesus and Paul
The Unique Contribution of the Hebrew Prophets, Jesus and Paul
Summary: The Greek Philosophers and the Hebrew Prophets
Chapter 3: The Ethics of Roman Stoicism

The Ethic of Marcus Aurelius
"To Himself" : The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
The Ethic
The Moral Relations of Life
The Unique Contribution of Roman Stoicism
Chapter 4: The Ethics of St. Augustine

Eternal Rome: The Failure of the Classical Ideal
Augustine: Life and Point of View
The Ethical Life of The Confessions
Augustine's Religious and Philosophical Ethic
The Unique Contribution of St. Augustine
Chapter 5: The Ethics of Medieval Christendom

Social Context of the Ethic
Presuppositions of the Medieval Ethic
Abelard and Heloise
Francis of Assisi
Thomas Aquinas
The Unique Contribution of Medieval Ethics
Chapter 6: The Ethics of The Renaissance and Reformation

Societal Influences upon the Ethic
Presuppositions of the Renaissance and Reformation Ethic
The Ethic of the Renaissance
Pico della Mirandola
Niccolo Machiavelli
The Ethic of the Reformation
Martin Luther
John Calvin
The Unique Contribution of the Renaissance and Reformation
Chapter 7: The Ethics of the Religious and Scientific Revolutions

The Seventeenth Century
The Social Background of the Puritan Revolution
The Presuppositions of the Puritans
John Lilburne
John Bunyan
The Puritan Ethic of the Seventeenth Century
The Ethic of the Scientific Revolution
The Presuppositions of the Ethics of the Scientific Revolution
Thomas Hobbes
Benedict Spinoza
Scientific Ethics of the Seventeenth Century
The Unique Contribution of the Seventeenth Century
Chapter 8: The Ethics of the Enlightenment

What was the Enlightenment?
Presuppositions of Eighteenth Century Ethics
John Locke and Great Britain in the Eighteenth Century
Adam Smith and The Economic Revolution
Thomas Jefferson and The Political Revolution
Immanuel Kant and The Philosophical Revolution
The Unique Contribution of the Enlightenment
Chapter 9: The Ethics of Romanticism

Presuppositions of the Ethics
Social Sources of the Ethics
TheLyrical Ballads
William Wordsworth
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Wordsworth's Discovery and Shaping of the Self
The Unique Contribution of the Romantics
Chapter 10: The Last Western Century

Social Sources of the Ethics
Presuppositions of the Ethics
Charles Darwin
Presuppositions in the Ethics of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Friedrich Nietzsche
Sigmund Freud
The Unique Contribution of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud
Conclusion: Retrospect and Prospect: A Personal View


We are children of the Greeks. And we are also children of Israel. In our living we resemble both sides of our family, the Greek and the Israelite. Indeed, much of our conflict and confusion in ethics stems from the fact that sometimes we think and act like the prophets or the priests of Israel and sometimes like the philosophers of Greece. Other societies, of course, have helped to shape our ethical outlook, and these later influences must not be minimized. But these later societies were themselves conditioned by the earlier. So it is important to remember that, in a sense, the entire story of our lives is a story of the development of Hebraic and Greek viewpoints: the attempt, at times, to develop each in isolation from the other, and the attempt to inter-relate the divergent approaches. Still, these two are the primary perspectives for Western ethics and it is perhaps helpful initially to distinguish between them.

The Greeks, as we have seen, thought of ethical life as they thought of other aspects of existence, as a natural, developing, object. Here the important word is object. For this was the assumption that enabled the Greeks to approach the ethical life rationally, to put questions to it, to analyze the meaning of moral existence. You can look at a tree, or a dog, or any other natural object. You can define, analyze, classify, discover relations, and describe "laws" relating to the natural object. Man, to the Greek perspective, is an object: he is an animal, a rational animal, to be sure, but none the less an animal. His ethical life, therefore, can be approached objectively; it can be defined, analyzed, classified, relations found and "laws" disscovered. All of this is to be accomplished by the rational, objective approach, by looking at.

The Israelites began from an entirely different perspective. They began from their experience of inter-personal relations. Now, while a sociological and psychological description of my family is one thing, my own experience--my actual relations with the members of my own family--is quite another. The Israelites started with a sense of that "family" or community, and their approach to the moral life was as participants, not as rational observers. This does not exclude reason and an objective approach, but both are placed in an entirely different context. Consequently, for the Israelite the understanding of the ethical life is not a matter of looking at but of responding to.

In order to comprehend the Biblical ethic, therefore, it is essential to look with the prophets and not at them. In order to discover any meaning in what they see, it is necessary to make some sense out of their assumptions, that is, their view point. It is also important to recognize the continuity of the Israelite perspective. There is a Biblical point of view that is basically the same throughout the history of the "Old Israel" and into the creation of the "New Israel." Within this community and continuity of a way of seeing there are many disagreements just as there were disagreements within a common framework among the Greek philosophers, but the disagreements developed within the same tradition.

It is impossible to date the beginning of the Biblical point of view since the sources of this unique approach to human life go back beyond the ages of recorded history. It first appears in the historically dim figures of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for whom there are no certain dates. The important fact about each was that he felt himself chosen by a god (a god not yet known by the name of "Yahweh") and that he and his god make a compact together:

When Abram was ninety-nine, the Eternal appeared to Abram and said, "I am God Almighty; live ever mindful of my presence, and so be blameless; I will make my compact with you and multiply your descendants greatly . . . I have appointed you to be the father of my nation."

The perspective develops into a clear focus with Moses and the departure from Egypt. This event, dated by various scholars between the sixteenth and thirteenth centuries, was the real beginning of Israel proper. That beginning was marked by a covenant between Yahweh and his people.

Then Moses went and told the people all the orders and regulations of the Eternal, and the people all answered, with one voice, "Whatever the Eternal has ordered that will we do." So Moses wrote down all that the Eternal had said; and next morning he erected an altar . . . . He sent the youth of Israel to offer the burnt-offerings of oxen to the Eternal, while Moses himself took half of the blood and put it into basins, splashing the other half on the altar. Then he took the scroll of the compact and read it aloud to the people who said, "Whatever the Eternal has ordered, that will we do obediently." Then Moses took and splashed the blood on the people saying, "There is the blood of the compact which the Eternal has made with you on those terms."

Following Moses the viewpoint became even clearer in the life of the people through the work of courageous nabi of the tenth and ninth centuries, men like Nathan, Elisha, and Elijah. nabi is the Hebrew word for "prophet" (which is a derivative from a Greek term) and means, literally, "spokesman." The nabi, then, were the spokesmen for Yahweh; and, claiming themselves to be chosen by Yahweh as His "messengers" and "interpreters," they helped to develop and clarify the Israelite faith. But it was with the prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries that the full fruition and flowering of the Israelite faith came: men such as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and the "Second Isaiah."


The social history of the Israelites involved transitions from a nomadic existence, to an agricultural and small village life, and then, about the beginning of the eighth century, to a society that consisted of large farms and large cities.

After the conquest of Canaan in the eleventh century Israel became a land of small farms and independent farmers. For the next three centuries the strength of the nation was in the free landowner who worked his own farm. The Hebrew family, or clan, was thus the center of Hebrew life. The importance of this for the moral life was that relations were maintained on a personal basis so the individual felt a part of and responsible to the whole community. Within the life of the clan the head was supreme, holding authoritatively the power of life and death. His despotic power was checked by the rules that had been created by centuries of experience.

The Hebrew villages were controlled politically by the elders. Through the ninth century the villagers' world was the local community. There were no law courts, but the elders judged cases on the basis of traditional legal codes that reflected a relatively high ethic.

By the time of the prophets, the mid-eighth century, all of this social structure had been changed by an economic revolution. The peasant farmer all but disappeared under the impact of a more complex commercial society. The land was now parceled out in large estates, and it was owned mainly by absentee landlords who lived in the larger cities. The older unity of the society, of the clans and the villages, was shattered; a growing economic wedge separated the classes. It was in this revolutionary, disintegrating social situation that the prophets appeared.


There were many reasons for this changing economic status among the Hebrews: the growth of commerce, heavy taxation, bribery of corrupt officials, increasing debts on the land caused by an inflation. But basic to all of these reasons was the international conflict in which the Hebrew nations were embroiled.

In the latter part of the eleventh century the process of invading and settling new territory, a process that had been continuing for several centuries, was completed and the clans were united under Saul. For less than one hundred years Israel was one nation. Following the death of Solomon in 933 the Northern section revolted and became an independent country, Israel.

Israel in the North, Judah in the South, and other Semitic areas bordering the two countries were placed geographically in the center of the fertile crescent of the Eastern Mediterranean. This central position meant that the Hebrew peoples were on the crossroads of the empires, Egypt and Assyria. By the ninth century the Assyrian empire was on the march Westward, and the Semites became the buffer states in a position to be crushed between rival great powers. With the death of the powerful Assyrian ruler, Shalmaneser III (824 B. C.), who had systematically conquered the West forcing most of the smaller nations to pay him tribute, Assyria was left comparatively weak for almost one hundred years. During this time both Israel and Judah developed expanding economies: it was the high level of Palestinian prosperity through international commerce. This was the period of the growth of large commercial centers. Toward the end of the hundred years Assyrian strength was rebuilt, and, under strong leaders, the march to the Western sea began again. In the face of this renewed threat the only hope for the Palestinian kingdoms was to cooperate against the invader, but instead the political areas engaged in insane internecine warfare. Israel, the Northern Kingdom, threatened to attack Judah. Facing this threat Judah appealed to "protection" from Assyria. Tiglathpileser answered the appeal by invading Israel; Assyria secured tribute from Israel because it had been captured and from Judah because it had been protected. Ten years later the Northern Kingdom refused to pay the tribute. Assyria moved against the tiny obstinate nation, subduing the people so completely in 722 that Israel never again became an independent country. Twenty-seven thousand of the aristocracy were deported to Assyria.

In 701 a new Assyrian king, Sennacherib, set out to conquer the West. He reached the sea-coast, then marched South through the fertile valley toward Jerusalem. By his own account he subdued forty-six cities in Judah on that march and shut up the king Hezekiah like a caged bird within Jerusalem, his royal city. He camped outside the city and was ready to march upon it when a disaster, explained by most historians as a plague, struck his army and he was forced to withdraw.

For seventy-five years there was comparative peace in Judah. Then in 626 hordes of barbarians broke into the fertile crescent from the North, devastating Judah and striking a mortal blow at the decaying Assyrian empire. By this time a new Eastern power, Babylon, with imperialistic ambitions, was increasing in power. The rivalry was now between Egypt and Babylon. It was Judah's fate to be crushed between the two world-powers. In 608 Judah was defeated by Egypt, and then three years later the king of Egypt was defeated by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Judah, along with other kingdoms, became a vassal state of Babylon. Dissatisfied with this relation Judah revolted in 597 and again in 586. Both revolts were immediately suppressed and following the latter rebellion Jerusalem was destroyed. Only the impoverished peasants, the largest and least creative group, were left in the city. The next largest number of persons, went into self-imposed exile to Egypt. The wealth and culture of Judah was taken to Babylon. "Old Israel" was destroyed as a political nation but the unexpected significance for the future of Western culture was that it survived as a religious community.


It was in this history that the specific point of view of Israel developed. Its perspective was shaped by its unique relation to Yahweh, its specific social and economic structures and events, and its contacts with other nations. But fundamentally, Israel's experience was the experience of faith, a faith that involved relations and actions between a community and its God. Within that faith-experience there were six presuppositions that were the ground of Israel's moral outlook.

1. "Yahweh has chosen us: we are his people."

In reflecting upon their own lives the Israelites felt that what was most important about themselves was that they had been chosen by their god for a specific destiny. It was He who had called Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac; it was He who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. It was because of his call that they became one people. By the conviction that they had been chosen by Yahweh the Israelites were affirming the primacy of his action. Everything important in their religious faith and moral thought stems from this belief: Yahweh has acted and we, thus, are enabled to respond to his action.

2. "We, thus, have a covenant with Yahweh."

The idea of a covenant relation, of a special agreement that is made between God and a people, is the expression of a distinctive experience and faith that is determinative for the entire moral attitude of Israel. This is the real basis of that peculiar perspective, so un-Greek. The compact between Yahweh and his people, entered into freely by both sides, indicated that they are forever bound to one another. Each promised endless fidelity. But for an individual or community to be bound to a particular God means that they must live according to the will of that God. Human beings are not independent creatures; they cannot make themselves or their communities after their own image; they are no longer free to do anything as they would wish. Their true freedom is to be found in abiding by the desires of their God.

It is especially important to know that the covenant was first made by all of the people as a people and not as individuals. "We are his people: he is our God." There was no concept of individual self-realization or the development of individual personality. There was no suggestion that what was important was the value of the individual. Quiet the contrary: the presupposition of the covenant meant a thoroughgoing Theocentrism. God is important, not man; and in so far as man was important it is not the individual but the whole community, which also meant the individual-in-community, that was significant. There was, on the basis of the covenant faith, an intense individual responsibility and individualism. But it was never the autonomous individual or the rational individual of the Greeks. Likewise, individual disloyalty was not just disloyalty to the self, or to abstract reason. It was a disloyalty of the individual, involving a disloyalty of the total community, to Yahweh.

3. "The activity of Yahweh we see especially in history, but his activity is everywhere."

The Israelites never argue to the existence of God. They think from their experience of God. They did not look at nature and ask if the vast universe of living creatures and inanimate objects were the manifestation of a first cause. They did not look at history and ask if the moral nature of human life was indication of a Divine Being. They did not see a pattern in nature and history and therefore believe in God. They had a religious faith, a personal-community relation with Yahweh, and therefore saw patterns in history and in nature.

Yahweh's activity was seen especially in history, both in the history of their community, and in the lives of its individual leaders, for example a Moses or a David. There are indications that suggest that initially Yahweh was only a tribal deity: "Other nations have their Gods, but our God is Yahweh." But with the prophets the assumption is made that Yahweh has revealed himself in all history, that he acts in the life of all peoples: "I brought up Israel from Egypt, yes, and Philistines from Crete, from Kir the Aramaeans."

While the activity of God was most clear in history, his acts were manifest in nature as well. Since Yahweh was the only Creator of the earth and the heavens, all of nature was subject to his control. Earthquakes, drought, eclipse--all natural events were the work of Yahweh.

4. "He makes his will known to us: it is in large part moral command."

Yahweh had a will for his people. That will touched upon every human activity. But essentially it was a will that his people, recognizing his sovereignty, worship him through a living dependence upon him and through the establishment of justice in human relations. The individual prophets described in detail their interpretation of the moral commands but their interpretation was never expressed by rational analysis or by legal regulations. There was no attempt made to create a universal ethic. The interpretations were always made according to the particular requirements of the specific, unique occasion.

5. "It is essential that we respond to His activity: we must be obedient with our will and our action."

Here there was the logical extension of the primary presupposition regarding the personal relations of a community and its God, and the compact made between them. The clue to the meaning of this presupposition is to be found in those personal relations where a child arrives at self-consciousness through the consciousness of another person who has knowledge of the child and who acts toward him. The child is enabled to respond to the knowing and activity of the other. For the Israelites it was a part of their experience that God had created them, had knowledge of their lives, and acted in relation to their community. This prior relation of God required the response of imitative activity. That activity would mean a proper will directed toward God, and, because the Hebrews did not differentiate sharply between will and action, the proper will would include moral activity.

6. "When, failing to respond to Yahweh, we commit evil He will act again toward us with a corrective punishment."

The activity of Yahweh was neither stereotyped nor random but was always relevant to the situation. If the Israelites broke their side of the compact with Yahweh, it was not supposed that He would automatically cancel the covenant. He was God and not man. Nor was it supposed that he would continue to act toward his people as though nothing had happened. The punishment of history would follow the sin of the community. That punishment was never thought of as blind, historical fate but as a planned punishment. Swiftly and surely Yahweh brought doom upon a rebellious people. That punishment was always corrective with the purpose of reestablishing the covenant.

These personal presuppositions of a living faith condition all of the prophets' activities. But because their assumptions did not consist of impersonal, rational propositions, their task was never that of developing systematically an ethical theory. Their entire vocation was to "hear the word" of Yahweh and to speak that word to His people. In all of this they believed that their interpretation was the only valid view, and they insisted that their understanding was not the product of their imagination or discovery but of their being discovered; it was Yahweh's imagination working in them. They felt that there was something unique about their work. Yet they did not think that what they said was new. It was a truth as old as the covenant made between Israel and Yahweh, and it went beyond the covenant ratified by Moses to the beginning of history. All that they were doing was to remind the people of what they, as a community, had known and had forgotten.

To understand their ethics it is necessary to look with some of the individual prophets to see how the presuppositions were a part of their lives and how, in particular situations, they developed inner coherent meanings from these assumptions.


About 760 b.c. something happened to an obscure farmer in the southern kingdom of Judah that provided him with a new sensibility. It is impossible to know exactly what his experiences were, not merely because the inner life of every one finally retains its secrets but chiefly because he was not concerned with what happened to him. Still, while little is known about his unique experiences, very much is known about his view of their meaning.

All that Amos told directly about himself was in the simple claim of his credentials:

"I am no prophet, no member of any prophets' guild; I am only a shepherd, and I tend sycamores. But the Eternal took me from the flock, the Eternal said, 'Go and prophesy to my people Israel.'"

The wilderness of Tekoa was twelve miles southeast of Jerusalem. It was a barren land, marked with soil-erosion and dotted with scanty vegetation. This country was the wild steppes of Judah, not at all a likely place for creative thought to develop. Through his refusal to be associated with the nabi Amos revealed his independent and isolated spirit. Through his complete lack of sympathy with city life, his denunciations of ease and pleasure, he revealed his approval of the simple and rugged life of the countryside. Through the vivid style of his writing, the clear outline, the pointed imagery, the crackling, rhythmical poetry he showed his burning convictions. Those convictions which he expressed were so deep that it is likely they matured over a long period of time as he brooded in the solitude of his work and as he witnessed the corruption of city life when he marketed his wool and fig-like sycamore fruit.

In the account he has left he first appeared not in his own kingdom but at Bethel which was the national shrine of the northern Kingdom. There he declaimed against the enemies of Israel. His introduction was based upon a keen insight into mass psychology that enabled him to secure an audience. Only when his hearers were enthusiastic about the fate he foretold for their enemies, did he turn his attack upon Israel. Carefully, point by point, he made his charges:

After crime upon crime of Israel
I will not relent
for they sell honest folk for money,
the needy for a pair of shoes,
they trample down the poor like dust,
and humble souls they harry;
son and father go in the same girl
(a profanation of my sacred shrine!)
they loll on garments seized in pledge,
by every altar,
they drink the money taken in fines
within the temple of their God.

Because of these evils he saw only destruction for the nation, and he foretold the destruction despite the prosperity of the times. The destruction would come from an external foe, Assyria or Egypt, because the internal life had rotted the foundations of society: "The Foe shall overrun the land, laying your forts level, plundering your palaces." The prophecy was not popular with the priests nor with the people and Amos had reason to believe that the chief priest, Amaziah, was an informant to the king and it was Amaziah who turned his wrath upon the lone prophet: "Be off to Judah and earn your living there; play the prophet there, but never again at Bethel, for it is the royal shrine, the national temple." Here, for Amos was the final irony of the official religion, accusing him of "playing a prophet" while it used religion for its income, and referred to the religious sanctuary in nationalistic terms as "the royal shrine, the national temple." The reasons that caused this farmer to be the first prophet to write are not known, but some of those reasons may be bound up with this narrow justification of a state religion which forbade him to speak.

The message of Amos occurred within the framework of the prophetic presuppositions and was conditioned by his own specific calling and unique outlook. That message had four essential notes: (1) the affirmation of a moral will manifest in nature and history, (2) the specific charges that reveal the failure of Israel to meet the requirements of Yahweh, (3) the demands of a righteous God, and (4) the doom that Yahweh will bring to Israel.

1. The affirmation of a moral will manifest in nature and history. Amos insisted that the basic issue which confronts individual and society is the religious issue of ultimate loyalty. Through his relation to Yahweh, the God of righteousness, Amos was convinced that all of human history rested upon moral choice. Not the impersonal working of a moral law but a personal moral will confronts human beings. That will, since it is the will of the One God, was inescapable, and no society, least of all a religious institution, could escape the judgment of that righteous will. The qualities ascribed to Yahweh had never been so pointedly presented. He is the one, universal God. He is inescapable. He is absolutely righteous.

2. The specific charges that reveal the failure of Israel to meet the requirements of Yahweh. Living with such a God Amos was sensitive to the corruption of his time and brought a specific bill of indictment against the community. Those evils were mainly economic, social, and religious. He had a bitter scorn of the prevalent commercial practices and an indignation at the way the poor had become more impoverished:

Listen to this, you men who crush the humble,
and oppress the poor,
muttering, "When will the new-moon be over
that we may sell our grain?
When will the sabbath be done,
that our corn may be on sale?"
(small you make your measures, large your weights,
you cheat by tampering with the scales)--
and all to buy up innocent folk
to buy the needy for a pair of shoes,
to sell the very refuse of your grain.
He had a scorn of the social life of the aristocratic families of Israel:
Woe to the careless citizens,
so confident in high Samaria,
leaders of this most ancient race,
who are like gods in Israel . . .
lolling on their ivory divans,
sprawling on their couches,
dining off fresh lamb and fatted veal,
crooning to the music of the lute,
composing airs like David himself,
lapping wine by the bowlful,
and using for ointment the best of the oil--
with never a single thought
for the bleeding wounds of the nation.
But with the most bitter invective of all he lashed out at the accepted religion: (speaking for Yahweh) he proclaimed
Your sacred festivals? I hate them, scorn them;
your sacrifices? I will not smell their smoke;
you offer me your gifts? I will not take them;
you offer fatted cattle? I will not look at them.
No more of your hymns for me!
I will not listen to your lutes.

3. The demands of a righteous God. The demand that Amos brought to Israel was as simple as it was revolutionary. The demand was for a religion whose dependence was upon the one righteous will and not upon external authority: "Seek me and you shall live, seek not Bethel, go not to Gilgal, cross not to Beersheba, seek the Eternal and live." The basic demand was for the reestablishment of justice in the common life, to "let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream."

4. The doom that Yahweh will bring to Israel. Amos had no hope that the demands would be met, so he saw that an inevitable doom would fall upon Israel. As far as the Kingdom of Israel was concerned his book ends in helplessness. Never has there been a more thoroughgoing pessimism than this. Most scholars agree that the last of the book (9:5-6, 8b-15), which expresses some hope for the future of the nation, was added by later editors. The major portion of the future as seen by Amos was all dark; the day of the Lord, as he said, was to be "pitch dark, with not a ray of light."

He reported a series of visions which told of the doom. He saw destruction by locusts and by drought, the Eternal with a plumb-line testing the people, the Eternal with a basket of ripe fruit indicating that "doom is ripe" for Israel, the Eternal standing beside the altar commanding that it be destroyed and all the people killed. It is impossible to know the nature of these visionary experiences. While mystical trances were rare among the prophets and while a supernatural vision was out of keeping with the personality of Amos, the visions may have been akin to trances. But it is also possible that the visions as reported by Amos were nothing more (nor less) than the poetic imagination at work. Here was a new sensibility like that of any great artist, a sensibility that took the common things out of the prophet's own experience and found in them meanings and messages undiscovered by any other man. Amos as a farmer knew the fear that came every year from plagues of locusts and of drought; he saw, at the end of each season, baskets of over-ripe fruit that would spoil in a day; he had used a plumb-line in trying to build a strong wall. Amos as a man of faith had been to the temple and, accepting the ancient tradition, had believed that this was the place of God: "I saw the Lord standing beside the altar." But he saw each of these ordinary experiences in an entirely new light when he came to them with his faith.

Throughout his life as prophet Amos was not a visionary and not concerned with possession of mysterious, esoteric knowledge. He was a realist who saw the events of his time in the light of his faith and who with his religiously motivated intellect developed his understandings of those events to logical conclusions. In this he anticipated a later prophet in suggesting that Yahweh uses the corrupt forces of history to overthrow his own people. His attitude toward Yahweh shaped his view of ethics.


Not many years after the experience of Amos, perhaps twenty or thirty, the second of the great prophets of Israel taught in his native Northern Kingdom. The initial message of Hosea was essentially the same as that of Amos in its main impact. He recognized that Israel was dealing with a universal, righteous will which harshly judged the prevalent evil, made demands upon the people, and would bring doom upon them. There were, of course, some repetitions of Amos as well as significant different emphases in these convictions of Hosea. In the denunciation of the sin of Israel the list of social evils was much the same as that stated by Amos, though expanded:

No fidelity, no kindness,
no knowledge of God in the land,
nothing but perjury, lying, and murder,
stealing, debauchery, burglary--
bloodshed on bloodshed . . . .
Your daughters play the harlot,
matrons commit adultery . . .
The men themselves go off with harlots
and sacrifice with temple prostitutes
This brings a senseless people to their ruin--
liquor and lust deprive them of their wits.

The condemnation of a religion concerned with ritualistic practices and unconcerned for the common welfare of the people was also present. But while Amos was particularly shocked by the economic oppression of the poor, Hosea was troubled by the intrigues of international politics. There was little in the former about politics. There was almost nothing in the latter about economic injustice. This change of perspective indicated the different personalities and occupations of the two men as well as the development of a more critical international situation. Here he speaks of Ephraim, the most important of the northern tribes, and for him they represent the chosen people.

Ephraim allows himself
to be mixed up with foreigners;
Foreigners eat away his strength,
unknown to him . . .
Ephraim is like a silly, senseless dove,
crying to Egypt, flying to Assyria . . .
They set up kings, but not with my consent;
they set up chiefs, but not with my approval . . .
Ephraim herds the wind
and hunts the sirocco,
piling up fraud and falsehood daily,
striking a bargain with Assyria,
carrying presents of oil to Egypt.

The demands of the righteous Yahweh were understood in much the same manner by Hosea and Amos: "Love I desire, not sacrifice, knowledge of God, not any offerings." And the future for Israel and Judah, as Hosea saw it, would mean great suffering and widespread destruction:

Ephraim shall be laid bare
upon the day of punishment
(true is the doom that I declare
upon the clans of Israel) . . . .
for I am like a lion to Ephraim,
like a young lion to Judah,
I tear, I go my way,
and none can rescue my prey.

But while Hosea had essentially the same understanding in the beginning of his prophecy, the end was entirely different. Hosea reached his beliefs through suffering. In the introduction to his prophecies Hosea left a "diary of the writer" that provided the perspective for all of this thought. The meaning of these leaves from his notebook is not clear. Critics have long debated the interpretation of his diary, whether he wrote about his actual marriage experiences or whether he wrote in purely imaginative, allegorical style. It makes some difference for the understanding of Hosea which view is accepted, but in either case it is obvious that he went through intense spiritual suffering.

Hosea married a woman for whom he had a great love. Gradually he learned that Gomer was faithless to him; and then she left him for other men. Through debauchery and the indifference of her new lovers her condition gradually became intolerable until she was to be auctioned as a slave. It was then that Hosea learned he could not hate her since the impulse to love was stronger than his bitterness. He viewed that impulse as having a divine origin, so he bought her at an auction; and then, with full legal rights over her, he kept her in solitude that she might recover. In his anguish he came to believe that his experience with Gomer was parallel to the experience of Yahweh with Israel: if he, a mere man, somehow continued to love a faithless wife, how much more perfect and intense must be the love of Yahweh for his faithless people. Thus through a faith in the divine love he was led to affirm the mercy of Yahweh, a mercy that would punish to correct and forgive to restore. In his magnificent poem, unmatched in the history of religion, he saw the history of Israel in the care of a God of forgiveness. He heard Yahweh:

I loved Israel when he was young
ever since Egypt I called him my son.
But the more I called to them,
the farther they went from me . . .
Yet I taught Ephraim to walk,
holding them in my arms;
with human cords I led them,
I drove with a harness of love,
but heeding not my care for them,
they broke away from me;
so I smote them on the face,
I turned against them, overbore them.
They must go back to the land of Egypt,
or Assyria must be their king . . . .
Ephraim, how can I give you up?
Israel how can I let you go? . . .
My heart recoils,
all my compassion kindles;
I will not execute my anger fierce,
to ruin Ephraim again,
for I am God, not man,
I am among you, the Majestic One,
no mortal man to slay.

The Holy One of Israel brought to his people a righteous judgment and a merciful love. In so far as it is possible to speak of beginnings, the great prophetic faith began with Amos and Hosea and their understanding of this judgment and love. And while both placed clear-cut demands upon the people, they did not attempt to universalize, rationalize, or define precisely those demands. Neither had a carefully thought-out ethic. They believed, rather, that the people themselves, if they fully comprehended the work of Yahweh, would be enabled both to see and to do what was required of them. The later prophets worked from the point of view created by these men. It is impossible to examine the details of that development, but it is important to understand some of the significant, newly created convictions. Only then can there be an inquiry into the meaning of the prophetic faith for ethics.


The kingdom of Israel was destroyed in 721, perhaps while Hosea was still alive. The faith of Israel, if it was to survive, had to grow in the economically poorer and culturally less mature Judah. Isaiah, who accepted from his older contemporaries, Amos and Hosea, convictions about a God of judgment and mercy, was largely influential in preserving and deepening the purity of the prophetic faith. The first thirty-nine chapters of the book that goes by his name reveal him as a man of sensitive culture and profound religious faith. His deep feeling, his comprehension of ideas, his analysis of the political situation, his mastery of language made him one of the greatest of the prophets. He was perhaps the most theocentric of all for he is most concerned with the activity of Yahweh and less interested in interpreting the ethical response of man.

He first dealt essentially with a description and condemnation of the inner life of Judah.

Ah, sinful nation . . .
from the sole of the foot to the head,
no part is sound;
nothing but bruises and gashes,
and raw bleeding wounds,
unsqueezed, unbandaged,
unsoftened with oil.
Your land lies desolate,
your towns are burned,
and foreigners ravage your soil
under your very eyes.

The fundamental reason for this disastrous condition was the corrupt internal life of Judah. The political, economic, social, and religious life was permeated by iniquity:

Your rulers are unruly men,
hand in hand with thieves,
every one fond of his bribe,
keen upon fees,
but careless of the orphans' rights,
and of the widow's cause . . . .

What mean you by crushing my people,
and grinding the face of the poor? . . .
Woe to men who add house to house,
who join one field to another,
till there is room for none but them
in all the land! . . .
Woe to those who are brave--at drinking!
mighty at--mixing bowl!
who let off guilty men for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of his rights! . . .
Their land so full of idols,
no end to their images,
they worship what their own hands make,
things their own fingers fashion! . . .
Woe to those who call good evil,
and call evil good,
who make out darkness to be light,
light to be darkness,
who make out bitter to be sweet,
sweet to be bitter!

When he dealt with the internal life of Judah, Isaiah described the ethical requirements of Yahweh which the people must satisfy, the doom that was to befall them, and the restoration that would come in after days.

Following his concern with national life Isaiah turned to international relations. He did not refer again to the inner unrighteousness. His gaze became fixed upon the foreign policies of Judah and the movement of the large empires. He wanted to discern the activity of the living Yahweh in foreign relations, and with his perspective he developed the beginning of an attitude toward history that became important in the West for ethics and a philosophy of history. Historical movements, he taught, have within them the impulse and shaping power of a divine action. The nation Israel, disloyal to Yahweh, was to be punished unless it changed radically its way of life. For the punishment Yahweh was to use an unrighteous expansive empire, Assyria, that, while it thought it was independent, was yet under the control of the righteous God. In this punishment some of the people of Israel would be turned toward a loyalty to Yahweh, and, through penitence and obedience, would abandon confidence in themselves and in human machinations, seeking Him alone: "A remnant, a mere remnant of Jacob, shall come back to the mighty God."

The message of Isaiah, therefore, in a time of trouble was notArenew your energy and accept national responsibilities.@ It was rather a plea that the people return to Yahweh through a thoroughgoing repentance and become obedient to him through submission to corrective punishment. The penitence was not for this or that superficial sin. It was a recognition that the people=s trust had been placed in human power and pride and not in the righteous One. The acceptance of punishment involved an understanding of what was being done with them. Following the penitence and acceptance there would possibly come moral activity, but nowhere does Isaiah describe what would be involved in that activity.

Thus it is that one of the greatest of the ethical monotheists was the least ethical. There are various reasons why this was the case. Isaiah was almost completely concerned with Yahweh, and his only advice to the men of Judah was to A) trust Yahweh, a trust he left unspecified and defined only as an inner intent and devotion. It may have been that the chaotic times did not allow him to say, in general, what actions were required though finally, it is likely that he believed that the responsibilities for any man could become plain to him only as he looked at his crumbling society and his disorganized life from the standpoint of recognizing the activity of the Holy One in the world.


In 701 the Assyrian army applied a scorched-earth policy to Judah, lay siege to Jerusalem, and advanced against Egypt. The invader was unable to capture Jerusalem and, after an unexpected catastrophe on the Egyptian border, returned to Assyria. Unfortunately for Judah, it was not a victory since the land was ravaged, the treasury empty, the morale exhausted. A generation later another Assyrian king advanced into the West and Judah became a province of the empire. With this measure of security, reaction, both political and religious, set in, and the prophetic movement was driven underground. It emerged about 621 with the A) discovery of a law book that became the basis of internal religious reforms and the nucleus of Deuteronomy. The document was the attempt to codify many of the moral and religious advances made by the prophets of the previous century. At the center of the reform of Josiah, who was then king, was the destruction of idol worship and the creation of one temple where the religion could be kept pure. The reformation failed. Not only did centralization of the religion take a nationalistic and legalistic turn, but the society became embroiled in the vacuum that was created by the fall of the Assyrian empire and the rise of Babylon as the new world power.

It was in this situation that Jeremiah, the son of a village priest, lived his message. Because of his denunciation of his people, his prediction that the nation would be destroyed, and his opposition to the official military and political policy, he was bitterly hated and his life was often threatened. In reality, from the nationalist point of view he was a traitor, and any loyal Judahite felt justified in advocating that he be put to death when he insisted that the city would fall to Babylon. "This man deserves the sentence of death, because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears." He was acutely sensitive to the scorn cast upon him and he thus explored, subjectively, the inner recesses of his own consciousness more thoroughly than any of the other prophets. Throughout his writings were the influences of Amos and Hosea and Isaiah. He began with their principles of the just and merciful God who is sovereign over history and he followed their development of these principles, even employing many of the same figures of speech which they used. But there was originality in his own response to the times. He revealed that the chaos and suffering as predicted by the earlier prophets was in his time present in Judah; he showed the intrigues and deceptions of power politics, the secularization and pollution of the religion. In all of this Yahweh was acting in his condemnation.

Jeremiah made his greatest contribution in stating explicitly what had been implicit in the earlier prophets: he saw the relation of Yahweh to his people as involving an inner and individual spirit. God had chosen his people; they had rebelled, breaking their covenant with him; he had punished them and was still punishing. What of the future?

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband to them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord:

I will put my law in their inward parts,
And in write it in their hearts;
And will be their God,
And they shall be my people.
And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor,
And every man his brother,
Saying, Know the Lord:
For they shall all know me,
From the least of them unto the greatest of them,
saith the Lord:
For I will forgive their iniquity,
And I will remember their sin no more.

It is not possible to say that with Jeremiah religion, for the first time, became concerned with the inner life of the individual. All of the prophets were concerned with the spirit of faith, the inner relation with Yahweh rather than the nature of ritualistic practice and with the individual-in-community. But no one, before Jeremiah, had stated with such clarity the role of the individual; and, though all of them looked to the time when the covenant relation between Israel and Yahweh would be reestablished, not one of them thought of it in terms of a new covenant that would be unlike the old since it would be based upon Yahweh's action in relation to the inner life of the individual in Israel.


In 586 Jerusalem was destroyed. In the face of the advancing Assyrians, refugees crowded the roads to Egypt taking with them, as captive, Jeremiah. Many more were taken as prisoners to Babylon. Nearly a half century passed and a new empire, Persia, arose in the East replacing Babylon. The king, Cyrus, had no personal interest in the Jews in Babylon and thus allowed them to return to Palestine. Since most of the Jews had become satisfied in their new land, only a few who were interested in the restoration of Israel returned to Jerusalem. In their group was one of the greatest prophets of Israel; but he left only his magnificent poetry, nothing more about himself, not even his name.

If there is any prophet who apparently was unconcerned with ethics it was this man. His poetry was concerned with the One God and His ways with human beings, particularly with Israel. Yet underlying all of his work was the intense consciousness of responsibility which he had to his God and to the meeting of this responsibility he called his people. In one particular conviction his attitude, while not "ethical" in the most frequent sense of that word, involved the transformation of the entire life, including ethics.

This view was his understanding of the role of suffering in human life, and, in particular, the suffering of the "innocent," revealed most clearly in the last of the four "Servant of Yahweh" poems. (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 53) There has been much debate as to the identity of the "suffering servant." Probably the view most often accepted by scholars is that the servant refers to Israel, to a true or ideal Israel that has never been faithless to Yahweh. At any rate, it was this innocent servant who, despised by men and wounded by a divine will for the sin of a rebellious people, accepted the humiliation and death thrust upon him for the sake of others and through his suffering is vindicated by Yahweh:

Therefore shall he win victory,
he shall succeed triumphantly,
since he has shed his life's blood,
and let himself be numbered among rebels,
bearing the great world's sins,
and interposing for rebellious men.

This is the first clear appearance in Western culture of the conception of the willing suffering of the innocent for the sake of the guilty. It is a conception, that in various times and various ways has radically transformed the entire ethical outlook and life.


With this anonymous poet of the returned exiles the prophetic faith reached a new height from which it fell into an abyss of shame. Many of the prophetic insights were transformed into the life of the people, but the articulated faith was not restored until Jesus placed himself in the line of the prophets. This does not mean that there were not later individuals and writings that continued to reveal the prophetic spirit, but none revealed the depth of faith and the comprehension of thought that can be found in the men from Amos in the eighth century to the unnamed prophet of the sixth.

There are other prophets in that two hundred years flowering of faith that we have not observed; the two most important were Micah and Ezekiel. There are also many other prophetic writings to be found in the Bible. The Psalms and, indeed, the entire canon of the Old Testament is conditioned for the most part by prophets and their spirit. But none of the other prophets added materially to the prophetic view as expressed by Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the nameless poet. Their outlook became an enduring part of Western culture. But with all of the contribution of the prophets one question needs to be carefully answered: In what sense, if any, is there a prophetic ethic?

This question did not have to be asked about the Greeks. Not only is the question itself a "Greek" question, but from the start it was obvious that the ancient philosophers had an explicit ethical theory. However, It is by no means clear that the prophets developed a moral philosophy. Ethical thinking never existed for them except as a part of their living relation to Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel.

But if they did not think ethically and did not construct a moral theory, is there any sense in which it can be said that the prophets had an ethic? If by ethic is meant "the science of moral conduct" the answer to that question is clearly "no." But such an answer cannot satisfy any person who is concerned with the history of ethics in the West, with the ancestry of personal ethical views and the development of an adequate ethical theory. The dissatisfaction with the answer may be because the prophets of Israel have had an influence upon ethical attitudes in the West that equals and perhaps surpasses the influence of the ancient philosophers; and they have had an influence upon ethical reflection that is scarcely less significant than that of the Greeks. Moreover, the dissatisfaction stems from the fact that the term "ethic" may properly refer to more than a theory of the moral life: it can refer to the moral life as well, or to an attitude that conditions and impels actual moral decisions. With this understanding of the word it is clear that there is a "prophetic ethic."


While the prophets did not outline their moral philosophy or systematically answer ethical questions, it is possible, because of the similarity of their outlook, to discover their answers to some central moral problems.

(1) What is the nature of human being and society?

By observing how the prophets talked about human life, three generalizations may be made of their view of the nature of human beings and one conclusion about the nature of society. The first is a descriptive statement about the structure of human nature; the second and third are existential statements of human relations and activities.

(a) A human being is a unity.

The clearest way to interpret this unique view is by negative statements. The prophets had no conception of the immortality of the rational soul as is found in Plato for the simple reason that no entity such as the rational soul existed. The prophets would not have developed the problem of the relation of mind and body even if they had been philosophically minded because they were incapable of thinking of mental and bodily structure or functions in isolation from each other. Consequently for them an individual was never thought of as an embodied soul but as an enlivened body: as a unity. An understanding of this unity can be grasped by recognizing the meanings of the Hebrew words that have been most frequently translated in English versions of the Hebrew scriptures as "soul," "spirit" and "heart". These three usually have a spiritualistic emphasis that has been almost exclusively the product of the peculiar ways Greek meanings have been incorporated into Western comprehension and Hebraic understanding have been ignored.

The Hebrew word nephesh, most often translated "soul," had as its primary meaning "breath," and it was sometimes so used in the Old Testament. But the term also meant "life," "self," "human consciousness," especially the emotional aspects of consciousness. The nephesh thus referred to the "life-principle." The necessity of breath for life provided the clue as to why this particular word was used. The breath-principle also became connected with the blood-principle (blood, of course, also being essential for life); so that the nephesh (or life-principle) was thought to be in the blood. Ruach, generally translated "spirit," originally meant "wind;" it came to refer to the "spirit of Yahweh" that manifested itself in an unusual activity or person. In the late prophetic period the ruach was understood to be the life principle in all animate life, and this conception gradually developed into the notion of individual consciousness. The term for heart (leb, lebab) in the Old Testament referred most often to the intellectual or volitional aspect of being human, quite often to the whole personality, and much less frequently as a synonym for the vague term "heart" which may refer to emotions such as joy and sorrow.

This understanding of Hebrew words that have been translated "soul," "spirit," and "heart" is sufficient to indicate that the comprehension of the Biblical conception of what is human has often been misleading because of typically Greek and Western spiritualized connotations. There was no thought of a soul, or spirit, or mind existing apart from the body since each individual is an organic unity. The Hebrew thought indicated that the nephesh, or ruach, or leb of an individual was dependent upon Yahweh and subject to infusions of "breath-soul", or "spirit" or "heart". It was this very fact that the person was subject to influence from without that made the prophetic consciousness possible. But it was not merely a part of the personality that was influenced by Yahweh. It was not only the prophet's rational thought, or feelings, or choices, or physical activity; it was the unitary and total person that alone had existence. And it was the whole person that had a relation to Yahweh.

(b) A human being is a creature.

Every individual is a creature in the original meaning of the Latin term creature: a created thing. For the prophets human beings were thoroughly a creature in this sense, and for them the notion conveyed two connotations: (i) every individual was created by Yahweh and (ii) every individual was completely dependent upon Yahweh for the fulfillment of creation. A human being was not thought of as a "thinking animal," or as a "tool-making animal," or as a "symbol-making animal," or as an "animal who can will." The human being was a "God related animal." This relation was both of a general and a specific sort. The general Yahweh-relation applied to everyone, and there was little further said about the fact that every individual had been created by and was dependent upon Yahweh. The specific relation referred to the fact that the people of Israel had been chosen by Yahweh for a special destiny and special obligations. And it was this specific relation that was uppermost in the prophetic conception of man. Here, once more, was an illustration of how the prophets dealt with the individual and not with the universal. Yahweh had chosen his people to become Israel, therefore these people could "image" this selection by choosing Yahweh. Yahweh dealt righteously (i.e., faithfully with justice and mercy) with Israel; therefore, the people of Israel, dependent upon Yahweh, were enabled to deal righteously with Yahweh and with one another. Yahweh chose freely, therefore each individual was free to choose the god whom they would serve.

(c) A human being is a rebel.

"Creature" is a relational term; so, too, is "rebel." Without someone or something against whom an individual can revolt there could be no rebel. Once more the absolute theocentrism of prophetic consciousness manifested itself in the conviction that it was Yahweh against whom individuals revolted. Each person owed fealty to Yahweh alone. But individuals are not satisfied with their status as a created and dependent animal. Each desired to be the creator and to be independent. So each manufactured idols that they might express their absolute freedom and might worship themselves as creator. This was the reason that acts of immorality were believed by the prophets to be such heinous crimes. It was not merely that in these acts that individuals mistreated themselves, or that they mistreated other humans. Sexual infidelity, drunkenness, bribery, corrupt business practices, the accumulation of wealth, selfish political alliances: all were the expression of the attempt to replace Yahweh with other gods. All reflected a distorted creature who revolted against dependence upon Yahweh and turned to a dependence upon partial, limited, even demonic realities, and to their own incomplete existence.

(d) The nature of society: society is an organism.

The conception of society was analogous to the conception of individual. The individual person was a unitary being in both structure and function, yet each of the parts possessed a semi-independent activity. So society was considered an organism. The notion of a "corporate personality" was especially strong among the prophets. It was the society, Israel, that was called into being by Yahweh. That social being may have been personified later in an individual (Abraham, Isaac, Moses), but the compact was not between Yahweh and an individual person; it was between Yahweh and the total community. A society, therefore, was not merely the sum total of individual persons who came together by chance, or by mutual agreement. There was no conception of individualism. Yet, paradoxically, there was throughout the prophetic period a strong consciousness of individuality. God called individual men--Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah--for specific tasks. Yahweh made demands upon individual persons--Hezekiah, the wives of wealthy officials, farmers--for righteousness. The individuals, however, always existed within a community context. The tasks, as well as the very being of the particular individuals, were conditioned by the community of Israel in which they lived.

Since there was a community personality there was recognition of common loyalty, common guilt, common punishment. Individual responsibility was, in reality, thought to be responsibility for the whole individual sin polluted the entire community; individual suffering was shared by all.

(2) What is the ethical norm?

The ultimate basis for moral judgment was the activity of Yahweh. The ultimate basis for the norm was the character of Yahweh which was his "righteousness." His righteousness was shown in faithfulness to the covenant which he made with Israel, his exercise of a judgment of justice upon the rebellious people, and his mercy that would renew the covenant. The absolute righteousness of Yahweh became the final norm, and this righteousness was normative for the response of the individual in that there must be absolute obedience. Humans must take with complete seriousness the covenant made with Yahweh. The demands of Yahweh were ultimate and must be recognized as such and the obedience must be that of a responding righteousness.

(3) How are ethical requirements known in a specific situation:

For the prophets the problem of howan individual can know in specific situations what is morally right or good did not exist. They were as unconcerned with such a practical question as they were unaware of a theory of knowledge with such problems as "What is the origin, the nature, the limits of knowledge?" Yet an answer may be given for the prophet to the definite question,"In practical life how would an individual know in a unique situation what is required of him or her, or what is morally good?" If the prophets had thought in these un-Hebraic categories they would have said clearly:

(a) The morally good or right cannot possibly be known (i) in advance of the unique situation and (ii) apart from personal involvement in the situation. While they would affirm that the ultimate norm does not change, the righteousness of Yahweh may differ in requirements to meet the confluence of time and place, unique situation, unique individuals, unique community.

(b) The morally good or right can be known only to the people of Israel from the prophetic presuppositions. The prophets did not deny that other peoples might have moral standards. They were simply uninterested in those standards since the morally right or good for Israel depended upon the only righteous Yahweh who had special relations with Israel.

(4) How are the ethical goods accomplished in a specific situation?

Again, while the prophets did not answer this question directly since they did not ask the question in this form, an answer can be made from their conceptions of the relations between Yahweh and Israel.

(a) The people of Israel must begin from within the covenant made with Yahweh, and by living within this covenant, they could discover what was required of their lives. (b) This vantage point, especially the recognition of the absolute obedience required, led to a self-criticism. When that self- criticism is made from the viewpoint of Yahweh (when a prophet can say, "Thus saith the Lord") there was a recognition of the rebellion of the people against Yahweh, which meant that Israel had been disloyal to its God. (c) This recognition required repentance, a turning again to Yahweh. The disloyalty revealed in misplaced trust in other nations, or in idols, or in ritual had to be replaced by a living trust, a return to the Holy One of Israel. (d) Following the repentance there must be an acceptance of what Yahweh would do. This acceptance involved a response to the renewed divine activity. It was this response that enabled the people to do what was required of them. Just as every part of life was claimed by Yahweh so every right action was dependent upon Him.


Jesus and Paul thought of themselves as prophets of Israel, but the Israel in which they lived was not, of course, the same as the Israel of Amos and Isaiah. Yet they believed that they belonged to a people who, no matter how much they might seem to change, possessed an historical continuity. There have been differing views as to whether Jesus and Paul were correct in their particular, unique ideas of Israel and in their new faith-relation to God, but there can be no doubt that they were correct in placing themselves in the line of the prophets.

This means that as far as their ethic was concerned they did not possess a moral theory apart from their faith-experience. For them, their ethics were dependent upon and inseparable from their religion. Yet in other ways these two men, who shared similar ethical convictions, could not have been more different. While there was probably not more than ten years separating their ages, and while it is doubtful whether Paul ever saw Jesus, it is certain they did not know each other. Their separate childhood and youth were literally worlds apart: the one born in a tiny town of Palestine and the other born in a large and important city of the Greco-Roman world. There were even wider differences between the experiences of the one who never traveled more than seventy-five miles from his home and who was brutally killed after he had worked for less than four years, and the other who was one of the most traveled men of his time and who died, an old man, thirty years after his conversion. There are also important differences in their religious experiences, as well as in their "theology" if, as is doubtful, Jesus can be said to have had a theology. Yet, in spite of these wide variances of experience and personality, there is a fundamental similarity in their ethical outlooks. Paul's claim that he had the mind of Christ was accurate as far as the moral aspect of that mind is concerned.


1. The Political Order

Jesus lived in the small Roman province of Palestine; Paul traveled throughout a large portion of the Roman empire. They were thus subject to different cultural influences, and their teaching reflects in many ways the places where they lived. But more important than the places they traveled was the fact that Paul and Jesus were Jews. They belonged to Jewish history.

Following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 by a Babylonian army under Nebuchadnezzar Israel became a pawn in the power struggles of the empires. The condition of her political life depended upon the policies of the controlling nations toward conquered peoples. Babylon attempted to control Israel by repatriation of the best citizens. The peasants left in Israel did not possess the power to continue the customs and ideology that give a clear identity to a people, and many of the exiles found new homes and new loves in Babylon. But there were a few, inspired mainly by the prophetic hope for a restored Israel, who were described by the Psalmist:

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and wept

When we remembered thee, O Jerusalem.

A half century after the fall of Jerusalem Persia gained control of Babylon, and the policies toward defeated enemies were softened. Jews were allowed to return to Palestine; the temple in Jerusalem, the center of the religious community, was rebuilt; and for two centuries the Jews peacefully lived in Jerusalem while a mixed-race, with whom the pure Jews refused to have any dealings, occupied all of the land outside the city.

The conquest of Alexander late in the fourth century did not immediately change the political situation. But the introduction of the Greek language which, while it did not replace the traditional Aramaic, opened the way for the influence of Greek customs and Greek thought. When, following the death of Alexander in 323, internal struggles for power divided and weakened the Greek empire, Palestine became a buffer state between Egypt and Syria ruled by the Seleucid kings, a dynasty (312-64 b.c.) founded by Seleucus Nicator, a general of Alexander. The Ptolemies of Egypt controlled Palestine until 198 b.c. and left the Jews alone, even encouraging the development of purely Jewish communities in Egypt. When the Seleucids gained power there began a conflict between Hellenism and Hebraism: it was a struggle between Greek and Jewish culture that did not cease in Palestine until the complete destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

The Seleucid kings at first gradually impregnated the Jewish culture with Greek ideas. But one of the kings, Antiochus Epiphanes, became impatient at the slow Hellenizing of Palestine. So in 168 he directly attacked the religion of Judaism, offering pagan sacrifices on the Temple altar and making the rites of Judaism--circumcision, Sabbath observance--punishable by death. The fire of religious loyalty stirred the common folk to open rebellion. The guerrilla warfare of the Maccabees was successful in conquering much of Palestine and establishing a practical independence that lasted until 63 b.c. when, following a Syrian alliance with Rome, Pompey invaded the country

Palestine became the trouble-spot of the empire. For a time the land was kept under control by a clever and unscrupulous half-Jew, half-Arab named Antipater. Through brilliant intrigues he succeeded in having his son, Herod, named King. Herod was an administrator of great ability who, through brutality when he deemed harshness necessary, was able to establish peace by treating Jews and Greeks with relative equality. Upon his death the Romans divided the rule over Palestine between two of his sons, Herod Antipas (the Herod at the time of Jesus's ministry) and Archelaus. This latter son was a miserable failure; and, after his deposition in 6 A. D. Roman officials called "procurators" were sent to rule Judea and Samaria. In all of the divided land Jews and non-Jews lived side by side.

In structure the dominant empire was Roman. Extensive measures of autonomy were given to the conquered territories. So long as the provinces were able to control themselves peacefully and to become a working part of the empire they were allowed a large degree of self-control. For both economic and political reasons an enlightened Roman leadership allowed persons living in the provinces to become citizens of Rome. But while the empire was Roman in structure, it was essentially Greek in culture. The official language of the empire was Greek. And with the language there entered Galilee some bits of Greek culture, but the Hellenistic influence was quite limited in the predominantly agricultural region. The greatest influence of Greek life was felt in the large commercial centers of the empire, especially in Asia Minor. It was in one of these cities that Paul grew up, it was in this region that he did most of his teaching, and it was in this Hellenistic world that the early church made its first most rapid developments. This was partly a product of the geographical relation to Palestine, and partly the result of affinities between the cults of mystery-religions, the Stoic universalism and individualism, the Greek ideal of education and early Christian ideas and practices.

2. The Intellectual and Religious Life of Judaism

The impact of Hellenism was strong within the early church, and that impact is reflected throughout the New Testament. The Greek influence is revealed especially in the language with which the faith was expressed, in some of the ideas, and in the ways of thought. (Particular examples of these influences are the use of the Greek word "Christ" for the Hebraic "Messiah," the Logos-doctrine of the gospel of John, and Paul's way of thinking theologically, especially in his more systematic writing such as Romans.) But if Hellenistic influences are present, the basic ideas have their foundation in Judaism; and it is this fact that makes it possible for Paul to have the mind of Christ despite the wide disparity of their experiences and personalities.

During the life-times of Jesus and Paul Jerusalem was the center of Judaism, with strong elements of Judaism in all of the larger cities of the Mediterranean world. Paul, living in the Jewish community in Tarsus, Cilicia was subject to many of the same intellectual and religious influences as Jesus, living in Nazareth, Galilee.

Jewish thought and religion were singularly free from dogma. Wide latitude was given the individual believer in his interpretation of the basic faith. Judaism was founded upon three key ideas relating to God, the life of man, and hope for the future: (1) there is one God who, as creator and sovereign ruler, requires worship; (2) the will of God is revealed in the Law; and (3) salvation will come to man from God. While the diverse understandings of the first key- idea--the view of the nature of God, the meaning of His sovereignty, the kind of worship required--were fundamental in all disagreements within Judaism during the Roman rule, the interpretation of the Law and salvation were the major points of open debate. To comprehend this debate and its influence upon Jesus and Paul it is necessary to recognize the major groups within Judaism, all of which originated in the time of the Maccabees (circa 166-161 b.c.).

(a) The Sadducees were the "Temple party." With strength in Jerusalem the Sadducees belonged to the priesthood and the upper-classes. They insisted upon the letter of the Law and a scrupulous obedience to the requirements of ritual. Since they were professional religious and leisured people, there was both the time and the money for satisfying the literal Law requirements. With their religious and economic status they were, of all Jewish parties, most sympathetic to Hellenism in non-ritualistic matters and most cooperative with Roman rule. In their view of salvation there was no belief in resurrection or in the imminent coming of a Messiah, whether "religious" or "political."

(b) The Pharisees were the most influential group outside of Jerusalem. Originally Pharasaism began as a lay-movement concerned to keep Judaism pure from Hellenistic tendencies. This purpose was accomplished mainly by an emphasis upon the Law, with moderate interpretations attempting to relate the Law to the common life. Before the destruction of the temple in 70 A. D. there were two predominant Pharasaic schools, the "Shammai" which was the stricter group, and "Hillel" the more lenient.

The positive contribution of the Pharisees to Judaism was in their emphasis upon the spiritual as known through the Law, the development of the synagogue, and the influence of religion on the home. But within the group, too, as attested by the self-criticism of Pharasaism in the Mishnah, there were legalistic Pharisees who considered themselves different from and superior to the common folk. And in their interpretation of the law, even though it was frequently liberal, there was left the clear implication that the ceremonial demands were primary and the requirements of man's relation to man only secondary.

The Pharisees had a belief in the resurrection of the dead. They had an implicit trust, too, that their God who was King would deliver his people from their foes. They thus looked toward the coming of a Messiah who would be both a political and spiritual king. But, for the most part, leaders of the Pharisees refused to clothe this hope with predictions of how and when the Messiah would come, and they refrained from any violent action that would assist or pressure the will of God in this regard.

(c) The Zealots were the religious and nationalistic activists. They were like the Pharisees in their love for the Law, but they were unlike the Pharisees in that they read important sections of the Law literally so that they found it intolerable to obey the "flesh and blood" of Roman rule since God alone was king. Through rebellion against foreign rule they were trying to hasten the triumph of the Messiah and this Messianic hope was, throughout, nationalistic.

(d) The Essenes, who existed from the second century b.c. to the first AD, were a communal group. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees they had arisen in response to the Macabbean rule, but unlike the former two, rejecting the secularization of Judaism, they refused to participate in public life and considered themselves a new Israel of the new and eternal covenant. They emphasized, as did the Pharisees, the law of Moses, the sabbath, and ritual purity. Estimated to have about 4,000 members at the time of Jesus and Paul, they were scattered in their communal ownership of property throughout the villages and towns of Palestine, and they thus had an impact upon the society as models of the ideal of perfection in religious observance.

(e) The Scribes were not a group in the same sense as the previous four, and they had a more ancient lineage having developed about the fifth century. They were a combination of lawyer and theologian, a respected class of teachers who interpreted the Torah and gave guidance for daily living. Persons from the other groups could be scribes. The fact that Jesus was often quoted as linking "the Pharisees and scribes" indicated the influence of these groups and the dominance of the Pharisees in religious teaching. Jesus, like the scribes, sat to teach, he gave guidance for living and opinions about the Torah, he debated, he had disciples, he was addressed as "Rabbi." But he was clearly not one of their number: there is no indication he had careful training in the schools or that he wore the robe of a scholar or that he sat in the place of honor in the synagogue.

(f) As in every society so in Judaism there were unorganized groups that were important to the community. The most significant of these were the pious, unsophisticated religious folk of the small villages. They were closest to the Pharisees and many identified themselves with Pharisaic beliefs and practices. But the differences between the Pharisaic leaders and the poor of the land was evident most clearly in their different attitudes toward the Messiah.

All of Judaism looked toward the coming of the Messiah. With the Sadducees this belief was vague and placed so far in the distant future as to be of no practical importance. The Pharisees, Zealots and Essenes were more definite with their hopes for a spiritual and political messiah. But on the whole the leaders of these groups refused to predict the time or to picture the coming of the kingdom of God, though all prayed for the coming of the Davidic prince. This was not so with many of the religious folk who, through the years, had developed an apocalyptic hope. The apocalyptic hope was based upon the view that space and time are divide into two areas: (a) heaven and earth, and in (b) the present age and the age to come. God allows evil kingdoms to rule on earth in the present age, but He has a plan for the near future when he will send his emissary to judge and transform the present world. The details of this picture varied, but indispensable to apocalyptic believers was the conviction that the details of the world-shaking plan could be known to man. Those details were expressed by many writers in imaginative language that was taken with varying degrees of literal interpretation. Despite many differences in apocalyptic interpretations this way of thinking that was especially prevalent among the common folk had a strong influence upon both Jesus and Paul.


It was in this political and religious order that Jesus and Paul lived, and it was out of this society and the historical community of the prophets that their ethical presuppositions developed.

Jesus and Paul despite their wide diversity in experience and personality shared similar assumptions which underlay their ethical beliefs. Where there are differences between them, these differences can be explained by two facts: (1) the unique situation of each provided particular ways of thinking and speaking, e.g., Jesus was reported to have spoken of himself in Messianic terms as the Son of Man while Paul thought and spoke of Jesus as the"Christ;" and (2) Paul had more of a Greek and theological temperament than Jesus. Despite this, the moral assumptions of Paul, like those of Jesus, were based upon the Hebrew prophets and not the Greek philosophers, and perhaps the best approach to the subject, therefore, is to state their presuppositions and ethics from their point of view and in their own words condensing their presuppositions into three sets of beliefs.

1. "All the prophets and the law prophesied until John . . . . The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good."

This frequently expressed attitude to the prophets and the law is a clear indication that Jesus and Paul accepted and transformed both the law and the meanings of the prophetic ethical presuppositions.

(a) In the earliest tradition of the church Jesus was remembered to have made apparently contradictory statements about the law: on the one hand he spoke of himself as being the continuation and fulfillment of the law and on the other he spoke as though he were replacing the law with something entirely new. The same apparent contradictions appear in Paul though he was much more emphatic than Jesus in emphasizing the discontinuity with the Jewish law. They both claimed a relation with Israel, and at the same time insisted that something entirely new had been brought into Israel, something creative that superseded the old law. They both recognized the written and oral traditions and accepted the Torah as the revealed will of God for man, but they believed that the will of God had been given a new expression in the person of Jesus. Thus for the early church the experience of Jesus and the mind of Christ became the norm by which the law is both judged and understood.

(b) Placing themselves in the prophetic line, they accepted and altered the presuppositions of the prophetic ethic. (i) They felt that they, and their community, were chosen by God. But the "elect" were no longer a nation but had become the "Church." Paul thought of the church, a new universal community that broke all boundaries constructed by man, as the chosen people of God. And while it is doubtful that Jesus used the term "church" his relations with his disciples represented his belief that theirs was a new and unique fellowship brought into being by God. (ii) Jesus and Paul accepted the idea of the covenant, but it was a New Covenant. In the earliest tradition concerning the last supper Paul quoted Jesus as speaking of "the new covenant in my blood," and in a way that Jeremiah had not anticipated the new covenant was believed to be "written on the heart" in the fellowship of the disciples and the Christian community. (iii) Like the prophets Jesus and Paul saw God revealed in history. But their assumption about historical revelation involved a new selection of history. They were not primarily interested in the history of the nation but in the lives of individuals, especially the prophets, and the life of Jesus. Paul believed, too, that the activity of God was manifest in his own life and the creation and life of the church. (iv) They believed that God had a will for man that was, in large part, moral demand. But the nature of the demand was conditioned entirely by their beliefs about God and their personal relation to God. (v) Like the prophets they assumed that man must respond to God's activity with both will and action. The emphasis was shifted in that the will--an absolute trust--was made more dominant than in the prophets. (vi) Finally, with the prophets they assumed that when man does not respond properly God will act again with corrective punishment. But the notion of punishment was radically altered to the idea of the suffering love of God. In all of this Jesus and Paul widened and deepened the basic beliefs of the prophets, but they did not bring to those beliefs anything new except their experiences.

2. "The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand: Repent, and believe in the gospel."

Jesus and Paul spoke of the kingdom with three distinct, but not entirely separable, meanings: (a) the present rule of God in heaven, (b) the manifestation of God's sovereignty on earth, and (c) the future age in which this world would be transformed. The most important usage for ethics was the third, the reference to the coming kingdom.

Jesus and Paul expected the imminent end of the world and the establishment of the rule of God on earth. Their entire ethic was spoken against this background of belief. Neither was apocalyptic in the sense of predicting when and how the rule of God was to be established, but both were thoroughly eschatological in expectation that the final end of the old history was soon to come and an entirely new history would begin.

3. "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

With both Paul and Jesus there was a Messianic consciousness (with Paul, of course, believing that "Jesus was the Christ") and a view of the significance of suffering for ethical attitudes.

While the concept of the Messiah was taken over from their lives in Judaism, the view of the Messiahship involved a thorough rejection of the nationalistic and political hopes of Israel. It was not through power but weakness, not through glorification but through suffering that the Messiah was made known. In this way the suffering love of the sovereign God became the basic presupposition of the entire ethical theory. It was this love that Jesus thought of himself as revealing, and Paul accepted this interpretation.

With these assumptions Paul and Jesus possessed (1) a will of God ethic, (2) a Kingdom of God ethic, and (3) a Christ-ethic. These three sets of beliefs form the presuppositions of their ethic, and it was the full implication of these beliefs as they were worked out in their unique experiences that produced their moral views.


It is impossible to reconstruct in its entirety the life and the thought of Jesus. This is true partially because of the deficiency of the sources. The writers of the gospels were not primarily interested in biographical details or in teachings. They had a belief that Jesus was the "Christ," and it was this, rather than an orderly account of his life or a systematic study of his teaching, that they proclaimed. But while the sources for the understanding of Jesus leave much to be desired, the main reason for the difficulty is similar to that of an understanding of anyone whose moral theory and moral experience are inseparable. For this means that one's moral views depend upon one's experiences. And any person's experiences--the inner struggles, the anguish and joy, the attitudes, indeed the whole spiritual life--are largely private. Since the most important aspect of Jesus's ethic was not what he taught but what he was in his own inner life, and since he did no writing and could not reveal directly what those experiences were, all that is essential for a complete comprehension of his ethic cannot be reconstructed. As with Socrates, the prophets, Paul--and others since their time--sparse clues must be followed with sympathetic insight. Those clues are essentially the main outlines of his life, his conflicts with loyal Jews, shifting emphases in his teaching, and the account left of his death.

When he was about thirty-two years old, Jesus was baptized, apparently indicating his acceptance of the teaching of a man referred to as "John the baptizer." That teaching was in the prophetic tradition as influenced by more recent apocalyptic Judaism and its essential points were clear: it was a call to preparation for the imminent appearance of the Kingdom of God and the Messiah who would judge all people by the rigorous standard of whether they have obeyed the Law of God. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand . . . . You brood of vipers! . . . Bear fruit that befits repentance."

Following the baptism, Jesus withdrew from society for a period and then, according to the earliest gospel, when John was arrested, returned to begin his Galilean ministry with essentially the same message as John, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."

At first his work in the rural province of Galilee was encouraging and he had a measure of public success. This, no doubt, was the result of the political and nationalistic hopes for the coming kingdom, the deeply ingrained pious faith in God, and the healing activities of Jesus. But opposition soon developed: religious hostility by the Pharisees who understood clearly the purposes of Jesus, and the political hostility of Herod Antipas who saw the social consequences of the activity of Jesus.

The animosity of the Pharisees was caused by what they considered to be Jesus's fast and loose treatment of the Law. From their viewpoint they were correct. While Jesus had respect for the Law and apparently was scrupulous about keeping the commandments, his attitude to the Law was unlike that of normative Judaism. The difference was apparent, for example, in the treatment of the Deuteronomic decree regarding divorce. The Pharisees accepted the law as final but gave it various interpretations. But Jesus, when asked about divorce, pointed to the law, interpreted its origin ("For your hardness of hearts" this law was made) and then rejected the law going back to his conception of the original intention of God for marriage. The point was that in marriage, as a divine institution, a question about divorce should never arise.

Again, the law of Sabbath observance was one of the most sacred institutions of Judaism. The purpose of the law was that the people of Israel properly recognize and relate themselves to God. This law forbade any work on the Sabbath, and it fell to the rabbis to define what was meant by work. In the time of Jesus their definition contained a list of thirty-nine different types of labor that were forbidden, from "sowing" through "making a knot" to "carrying from one tenement to another." If Jesus had merely disagreed as to what was illegal work the situation would not have been serious. But Jesus did not question the interpretations made by the Pharisees; he brushed away the law. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." Laws exist for the sake of human beings; human beings do not exist for laws.

The difference here was fundamental. It has existed throughout the history of institutions, and good men (as in the case of Jesus and the Pharisees) have honestly disagreed about the major point at issue. That basic issue was bound up with the legal and the prophetic mind at work; and their differences were:

(1) The Pharisees were interested primarily in their society and the religious community, and for them what made Israel a unique people was its religion. This religion was embodied in the Law and therefore any social reform must come through changed interpretations of the Law; whereas Jesus was not interested in the social reform that would come through a modernization of the Law but concerned with the individual and the internal reform of individuals. The Pharisees were not unmindful of the individual. Indeed, they gave moderate interpretations of the Law so that the individual could keep it. But the emphasis was upon the Law not upon the person. Jesus was not unmindful of the community and its cultus. He apparently kept the laws and advised his disciples to do the same. But his emphasis was upon the original intention of God for man, and, whenever the Law obscured that intention, he transcended it.

(2) The Pharisees, concerned with law observance, emphasized the external activities involved in keeping the law; whereas Jesus was interested primarily in the disposition of man. For him nothing else really mattered.

(3) The Pharisees, with their law interpretations were attempting to make generalizations that would apply for all persons, to treat each individual just as every other person would be treated; whereas Jesus was interested in the uniqueness of the individual.

The Pharisees saw what Jesus was doing: he was giving the law a kiss of death. To accept his interpretation would mean to undermine Judaism. It would replace the religion based upon the law of God embodied in the Torah with an entirely new religion. The Pharisees, concerned for the purity of Israel's faith, looked upon Jesus as an imposter.

The political hostility of Herod Antipas on the other hand was caused by the actual and potential disturbances produced by the teaching of Jesus. Herod's position depended upon keeping peace in the land. He was quite aware that the Jews expected a Messiah who would overthrow the constituted authorities, and his administration was troubled by the rebellious Zealots. It did not matter greatly to him whether or not Jesus thought himself to be a political Messiah. He knew that many of the followers believed just that, and he was a good enough ruler to know that the best way to quell a rebellion is to destroy the leadership before the movement gained too much momentum.

Herod's resolution to kill Jesus became publicly known, and this hostility of the ruler had an effect upon both the attitude of the masses and the actions of Jesus. The conflict between the political authority and Jesus intensified the belief among many people that he was the political Messiah. The combination of nationalistic popularity and official antagonism was reflected in the rapid journeys from town to town, the attempts to hide, and finally the trip to Caesarea Philippi which was outside of Herod's jurisdiction. Jesus was troubled, too, by the effect of the events upon his disciples. Would they leave him when the danger from Herod increased? Would they forsake him when they understood thoroughly the attitude of the religious leaders? Would they come to accept the popular view that he was a political activist?

The journey to Caesarea Philippi, free from the speaking and responsibilities to large groups of people, free, too, from the threats of Herod, marked a turning point in the ministry of Jesus and probably in his conception of his work. It was on this trip that he asked the disciples their opinion of him, and received from Peter the answer "You are the'Christ'." This is the clear center of all of the synoptic gospels, and from this point on all was different. It is likely that in this period Jesus's own understanding of his life was clarified. The tensions and conflicts--the knowledge that his life was in jeopardy as long as he remained in Galilee, the open hostility of the best people of the region, the mass pressure for him to lead an armed rebellion, the doubts about the loyalty of his closest friends--forced him to reexamine his understanding of God's will for his life.

(1) Jesus, for the first time, spoke to the disciples of the inevitable suffering that he foresaw. The synoptic authors all relate the profession of his Messiahship to his view that he must suffer: "From that time," said Matthew, "Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things." In view of the personal suffering through which he had already lived, his forecast that further intense suffering was ahead, and the events of his visit to Jerusalem, a unique attitude toward suffering came to have a large place in his ethical view.

(2) Following Peter's confession Jesus more frequently referred to himself in the presence of the disciples as The Son of man and, for the first time, demanded not repentance but personal loyalty. The precise meaning of the phrase Son of man is debatable, but its general import is perfectly clear: it had a direct connection with the Messianic consciousness. Jesus, then, began to express the belief that in his life the purposes of God were being manifest. Thus what was required of the disciples was not a vague relation to God but a responding loyalty to the kind of qualities he exhibited in his relation to God, his regard for others, and his suffering. The requirement that "Whoever would come after me must take up his cross and follow me" referred to actual suffering that would come to those who were loyal to Jesus and his cause.

(3) Following the confession his teaching is directed often to the inner circle of his disciples. Jesus did not create a philosophical theology or ethic applicable to all men in the sense that it merely has to be recognized as true. His teaching was directed to those who could respond to the forces working in and upon his life. He did not make the general statement, "Whoever would be great must be a servant;" he spoke directly to the disciples, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. (But) It shall not be so among you;"

(4) Jesus began to speak increasingly of men entering the Kingdom of God. This shift in emphasis had a double significance: (a) There was the recognition that the Kingdom was not merely future but, in some sense, already present. "But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you." There was the explicit notion that through his activity the Kingdom of God was becoming a part of history. (b) What was required for entrance into the kingdom was not merely repentance but allegiance to God, who was Sovereign of the Kingdom, and an acceptance of his realm as a gift. "Fear not, little flock," he said to the despondent followers, "For it is your Father'=s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom."

(5) After the disciple's recognition of Jesus as the Christ there was a deepening of his own spiritual life. Jesus rarely if ever spoke directly of God as Father except to his disciples and even when he began to speak to them in this way it was only after Peter's Confession. God was spoken of as Father long before Jesus by the Jewish prophets, and the fatherhood of God was a familiar idea in contemporary Judaism. There was nothing new in this aspect of Jesus's concept of God. If there was anything new in Jesus in this connection it was in the quality of his experience. Beginning with the data available it is reasonable to suggest that here--in his experience--was a quality previously unknown to Judaism. (a) He spoke of God as Father primarily after his acceptance of himself as the Messiah, in conversation with his disciples, and in prayer. The most valued experiences of a man cannot be communicated to a large public; they can be expressed only to intimate friends, and even then they are not completely expressed since there is something forever private and forever secret about the spiritual life of an individual. So for Jesus: the faith in God as Father was not a theological doctrine but an experiential fact. (b) The records suggest that there was a genuine sense in which he did not want to obey God and yet he exhibited absolute trust and perfect obedience. The night before the crucifixion his disciples heard him pray, in anguish, "Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt." In his relations with persons as well as his own death he exhibited an obedience and a caring that he believed revelatory of God. It was this selfless, concerned regard for others that his disciples found characteristic of his life; and that attitude was the direct consequence of his certainty of God as Father.

Jesus's ethic therefore was an ethic of the inner life: the intention, the character of the individual was all important. Moreover, the fruits of the ethical life were made possible by the forgiveness of sins. Just as God forgave the sins of those who had been disloyal to him, so the spirit of forgiveness should become characteristic of inter-personal relations. The ethical life, then, requires suffering and self-denial, not for any ascetic interest whereby one might pay the entrance fee into another world, but solely as the result of a positive experience of God's love.

Only now, in this context, is it possible to recognize the full meaning of the fact that the ethic of Jesus rests upon the two commandments:

Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength . . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

It was this love that had brought him to be haughtily dismissed by the procurator, crudely beaten by the police, reviled by a mob, tortured, impaled upon rough wood between two petty criminals, mocked by one of the suffering thieves; and--was this not the worst?--completely forsaken by his friends. According to the earliest gospel, in the midst of his agony he uttered but one cry, "My God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?" But certainly for Jesus, in this his time of greatest need, in the midst of this suffering despair, it must have been possible for him in a moment of intense consciousness to be instantaneously aware of the whole of the 22nd Psalm, and to be aware that the terrifying question that begins that ancient poem, ends with the certainty of God's presence. But whatever the uniqueness of his private inner experience, those about him heard only this: "Why hast thou forsaken me?"


It is possible that a young student, Saul of Tarsus, was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. If he did not see Jesus, then he must have heard, from his fellow Pharisees, about a renegade Jew. Saul was, at the time, thoroughly convinced the punishment was justified, and he was pleased that the death sentence was legally executed by Roman authorities. Having gone to Jerusalem to study Jewish Law under a leading Pharasaic scholar, he was a completely loyal and extremely promising "Pharisee of Pharisees"as he himself later put it. But he was also a Roman citizen, a status which gave him legal privileges many of the Jews did not possess, and he had been exposed to the best in Hellenistic culture. It was the combination of these three--Hebrew faith, Hellenistic culture, and Roman citizenship--that had significant consequences for his life and for the future of Western civilization.

After his education in Jerusalem he joined the group of loyal Jews that were intent on correcting the heresies caused by Jesus of Nazareth. First by persuasion, later by religious and legal pressure, they tried to bring into line the obstinate followers of the crucified political criminal. When these methods were not successful, they incited a mob to violence. About three years after the death of Jesus they charged a young man, Stephen, with blasphemy, rushed him outside the city, and stoned him. "The witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul," says the historian, perhaps indicating that it was Saul who gave the signal when the stoning was to begin. "And Saul was consenting to his death." As Stephen was being stoned Saul saw him kneel and cry, in a prayer almost identical to that reported of Jesus at his death, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." It may have been the first time that Saul had seen the brutality of death by stoning; it was surely the first time he had witnessed a man die praying that his persecutors might be forgiven. But that emotional shock, and secret doubts about his own position, only intensified his patriotic defense of Judaism, until gathering in intensity the inner conflicts deepened and his loyalties were radically changed. Following what he knew as revelatory experiences that now led him to become one with those he had persecuted, he went into exile in Arabia, returned with a friend, Barnabas, to Jerusalem where he was scorned by the Pharisees and coldly received by the disciples, and then returned to his home in Tarsus. It was only some time later that Barnabas made a special trip to Tarsus to ask Saul (now called Paul) to come to Antioch to help the new church. There began a restless, energetic teaching activity that has probably never been matched.

The meaning of Paul's faith developed out of his personal experience, and it was worked out in his almost constant conflicts--conflicts with the disciples, with the churches he founded, with former friends in the synagogue, with political authorities. The most important, and perhaps bitterest, of these conflicts was with the disciples and other Christians over the nature of the church. There was a powerful faction in the early church that thought of Christianity as a reformed Judaism, so the only way to become a Christian was through the Jewish law. This meant that Greek converts had to keep scrupulously the Jewish laws. They had to be circumcised, they must rigorously observe the Sabbath, they could not sit down to a table to eat with non-Jews. But Paul had a different religion. He proclaimed complete freedom from the Jewish law in declaring that the Christian's sole authority was the spirit of the love of God which had come in Jesus who, for this very reason, was manifest as the "Christ."

After Paul had established the church in the province of Galatia, some Judaizers followed him to the region, preached a Jewish Christianity, and cast aspersions upon the man who was not even an apostle. Paul was enraged; his religious beliefs and his personal relation to God had been called into question. The white heat of his anger and the fervor of his faith is revealed in his letter, Galatians. He called down the curse of God upon those who preached a gospel different from his own, he appealed to his own personal call by God and his life in the new faith, he argued in Pharasaic fashion by commentary upon the scriptures, and he arrived at his enlarged view:

The law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Conformance to the law, therefore, meant absolutely nothing and worse than nothing since it blocked a living comprehension of the love of Christ. "For freedom has Christ set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."

Paul's interpretation of "freedom in Christ Jesus" was the door to his ethical life and thought: nothing matters but "faith working through love." The freedom of the Christian, therefore, is not a freedom to do as one pleases but a freedom to be "led by the Spirit" and "through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'." The entire law for Paul, as it relates to ethics is "fulfilled," that is, completely stated and realized, in a law that is no law. For love cannot be commanded. A man can be forced to be circumcised, or to keep the Sabbath, or not to eat with those of another race, but a person cannot be forced to love. Love is rooted only in a free spirit, and it transcends all law.

Paul's ethic, therefore, was grounded in his life and has a religious base. (1) His views involved a new analysis of human experience and (2) an interpretation of who Jesus was and what he did. (3) The ethic had its roots in man's faith-response to "God in Christ;" and (4) its sole motivating and manifest spirit was "love."

(1) Paul's detailed interpretation of human life--the personal predicament of man and the activity of God--was something quite new. It was unparalleled in Greek thought. There are some hints in the prophets that bear similarities to his views, but the closest analogues to his views are in those parables of Jesus, like that of the prodigal son, which related obviously to man's sin and God's forgiveness.

For Paul, man is a helpless sinner. Through the Law man has some comprehension of what is required of him, but he is incapable of living as he should. His incapability is the consequence of his sin, and his sin consists in no particular acts but the corruption of his will. It is an all-pervasive power that turns the creature toward a love of the self rather than the love of God, and it has its roots in the "works of the flesh" rather than the "fruit of the spirit." His list of the specific ethical consequences of the free life "in Christ" were meant to be illustrative and not exhaustive: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law." His examples of the "works of the flesh" apply to a specific time and place situation though, he would say, they may be typical of every time and all places: "Immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party-spirit."

Paul thought of sin as permeating the life of the individual and humanity. All persons are "under the power of sin." This had been suggested in the prophets, but Paul went far beyond prophetic teachings and even farther than the remembered statements of Jesus in his (a) interpretation of the dire need of man for reconciliation and (b) psychological analysis of the tragic situation of human beings. He thought of man as needing not only a forgiveness that would obliterate past sin, i.e., make the person "innocent," but that reconciled man to God. The act of reconciliation could only come from the one who has been offended. Man cannot initiate the proceedings that would recreate his personal relations with God. To suppose that a person can take the necessary steps was to fail to understand the seriousness of the human condition:

We know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do . . . . For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

(2) Man escapes from the tragic and despairing human maze only by an act of God: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." The full meaning of this was developed by Paul in complicated ways and in accord with the theology and legal philosophy of his time. But fundamentally he saw Jesus as the "Christ" who, obedient unto death, revealed the love of God. Man was reconciled to God "through Christ;" and this reconciliation produced, in man, a new creation.

(3) What was given to the person was a faith-response. This enabled one to trust God absolutely as it was previously impossible to trust; life could be turned toward God rather than toward the self. The faith-response was given. It was not something that man could create. This had far deeper implications than intellectual assent to a creed. Paul did not bother to work out the details of his view of faith as a gift of God and man' s responsibility for receiving faith, but he was convinced grace and freedom belonged together. Paul merely emphasized that faith was a gift, and, at the same time, he thought of man as having responsibility for acceptance of the gift.

(4) From the side of man faith-response is primary. But the essential consequence is love. Paul's fresh conception of the moral life came from the fact that when he wrote his poem to love he was thinking of Jesus and of the kind of life Jesus exhibited.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love of Christ I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not the love of Christ, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not the love of Christ, I gain nothing. Jesus was patient and kind; Jesus was not jealous or boastful; he was not arrogant or rude. Jesus did not insist on his own way; he was not irritable or resentful; he did not rejoice in wrong, but rejoiced in the right. Jesus bore all things . . . he endured all things.

It was the suffering, selfless love of Jesus that appealed to Paul. He considered that faith became effectual when the individual reached the point of sharing in Christ's sufferings, that is when acting from the same spirit that had dominated the life of Jesus. The implications of this for his attitude toward the role in the ethical life of (a) the law, (b) a natural law, (c) reason, and (d) pleasure became clear. (a) The law which formerly possessed mainly an informative value of suggesting what should be done is eliminated by a faith which, leading to suffering love, provides a deeper insight into what is required of man and the motive power to fulfill the obligations. The Christian is no longer limited by the law. Through faith in God a person is free to do whatever love allows. But this means that the person is bound by what love requires. (b) Paul took over the idea of a natural law, apparently from the Stoics, and suggested that even the Gentiles have a law "written on their hearts." But his experience of "faith working through love" goes far beyond what he conceived to be the demands of a natural law. Like the Jewish law the natural law was a "custodian;" but the divine will known in the love of Christ replaced the natural law. (c) Reason was employed by Paul in his ethic, but it was reason in the service of absolute "trust in God," not reason that served a "trust in reason." (d) Pleasure, self-seeking are excluded . . . "on the principle of faith."

If the implications for the personal ethic of Paul followed directly from his attitude toward love, the implications for his social ethic were conditioned more by his eschatology and his view of political power than by his principle of "faith working through love." His political doctrine was expressed in his advice and assertion,"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God."

Paul's ethic was dominated by his attitude toward Jesus and by the common presuppositions he shared with Jesus. Thus in a moment of fervor he advised some of his closest friends:

Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant . . . . He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross.

Paul did not claim to have attained the perfection that he saw in Jesus. Perhaps he was too aware of his temper, his inner and outer conflicts, but he did affirm simply, "We have the mind of Christ." In justification of this affirmation he could point to his life: his sufferings that were the result of discipleship; the beatings, the imprisonment, the shipwrecks, the starvation, the scorn of the Jews, the opposition of some disciples, the disloyalty of some friends. So he could say that he was the slave of Christ, that he tried to bring every thought and word under the subjection to the obedient love he saw in Christ, that he shared in the sufferings of Christ. "Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus."


The "ethic" of Jesus and Paul had a basic similarity to the prophetic ethic and simultaneously a fundamental disagreement with the prophets' view. Jesus and Paul, like the prophets, did not have an ethic in the Greek, and usual philosophical, meanings of the term. There was no development of a moral theory based upon reason or philosophical analysis. There was no interest in ethical generalizations that possessed the validity of universal truth. But the ethical views of the prophets, Jesus, and Paul were grounded in a specific religious faith. These faith-views determined both moral understanding and moral action. The understanding was an interpretation of what should be done in unique situations; the action implied the resources to fulfill real obligations. But there always had to be a return to the religious source. To attempt to divorce the ethical attitude from the religious faith would leave only a meaningless jumble of moral maxims.

But while Jesus and Paul were closer to the prophetic ethics than to the philosophers there was also a significant disagreement with the prophets. For they both were convinced that something new had happened which, they believed, deepened or fulfilled the prophetic view. God had acted again in history in God's unique way. This action did not come from the human discovery of a new philosophical truth, or with a new command or law. The new action was a new life. That life constituted the ethic.

In examining the answers of Jesus and Paul to some of the major questions of ethics it is well to remember that while neither consciously asked these questions, Jesus was farthest from looking at the questions in this form. Paul was not a philosopher, but he sometimes employed the language of Greek philosophy, and his thinking at times resembled the Socratic dialectics. He was, however, much more a Pharisaic interpreter of the law than a systematic Hellenistic thinker. Jesus was even less philosophical, or rather not philosophical. Many of his clearest meanings are revealed by a simple story or assertion. Still it is possible to examine their views through exploring five significant ethical questions.

(1) What is the nature of man and society?

Both Jesus and Paul accepted the Hebrew psychology. The human being was thought of as a unity, a creature of God, and a rebel against his creator. The statement of Jesus about loving God with all of one's "heart and soul and mind and strength" was understood in the terms of Hebrew psychology. And the statements at the last supper, "This bread is my body--this cup is my blood," had a unique meaning with the fact that, for the Hebrews, the body was the expression of the total personality and the blood was thought of as life and the locus of the spirit of life. Paul was especially susceptible of misinterpretation in his view of the nature of man. "Flesh" and "spirit" were, for him, primarily religious and not psychological (or even metaphysical) terms. They represented two different kinds of life. The conflict was not (as in Greek thought) between physical appetite and the rational mind. The body was not evil. He thought of the body as "corruptible," but so, too, was the human spirit, since, for example, "knowledge" and "prophecy" were imperfect and would be superseded by the perfect knowledge after the resurrection. His belief in resurrection was not a belief in the immortality of the soul but an affirmation that the Christian would receive a spiritual body just as in this life he had a physical body.

For both Jesus and Paul the nature of man was understood fundamentally in relational terms. Man was man because he had been created by God. Apart from this relation to God the person would not exist, and apart form this relation it could not be understood. As a creature his basic dependence was upon God, and his primary loyalty belonged to God. But as a sinner the human shifted his allegiance from God to self. Jesus did not make any statements about the universality of sin. His attitude toward the righteous of his time and his recognition that all of the disciples would forsake him were indications that he recognized that the root trouble with most persons was their inability to love properly. But Paul expressly charged that "all men are under the power of sin;" and this sin involved a corruption of the will that man was powerless, of himself, to change.

Society for both Jesus and Paul was understood in a dualistic sense. In the first place they had a conception of the social-political order, mainly in terms of the Roman rule. Their interpretation of this rule was conditioned by a social realism involving the recognition of power and, in Paul, an appreciation of the advantages offered by an orderly government. More basic was the eschatological belief of both that the political order would soon be overthrown. It existed by the permission of God who had established its rules for his own purposes. Advisory statements about living with this order "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's" and "Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due") were spoken against the background of these beliefs and to a specific situation. The precise meaning of the words depended upon a knowledge of that situation, though neither the disciples nor the early Christians would know exactly what belonged to Caesar and who should be respected.

However finally Jesus and Paul were not interested in the social-political order. They were much more concerned with the society made up of the disciples and the early church. With both there was the view that they thought of these living social organisms as the"remnant," or the "Israel of God." This society was made of individuals who have a relation to one another because they possess a common loyalty.

(2) What is the objective of the moral judgment?

A moral judgment referred fundamentally to the intentions or the will. This was the meaning of the replacement of the law by Jesus with his view of the purpose of God: "You have heard that it was said of old time . . . But I say unto you--Do not be angry with your brother, do not lust in your heart, love your enemies, pray in secret." The root evils were not the external actions of men, and the basic good was not the consequences of action. Good and evil reside in the inner life.

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; . . . . The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good and the evil man out of his evil treasures produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

This emphasis upon the intentions of man was also apparent in Paul's distinctions between "works of the flesh" and "fruit of the spirit." Again, Jesus and Paul recognized that love was the ethical characteristic of the good person, and love was a matter of an attitude of the spirit toward others and not a mere means of keeping punctiliously the code of a polite society, or of obeying any rules. Genuine love for the neighbor was an inner attitude that would have consequences for external action and would be manifest in the total personality.

(3) What is the norm of the moral judgment?

(a) The ultimate norm of any ethical judgment was the will of God. The ethic was based exclusively upon the religious conception of God: God was lived with as Creator, Sovereign Ruler and Judge, and Merciful Father. It was the character of the divine as it was expressed in His activity of completely selfless and suffering love that became root foundation of all ethical life and ethical judgment.

When moral judgments were made, Jesus and Paul did not intend to blame or approve. They were interested not in who was to blame but in the fact of a serious condition of a man that must be improved. Whenever there is moral disapproval it was given to clarify what for them was the more terrible fact of a false religious faith. In speaking of the unethical men of his time Paul declared emphatically:

Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator . . . therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves . . . . And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and improper conduct.

Precisely the same view was shown in Jesus's harsh denunciation of the religious leaders as hypocrites and blind guides whose actions might appear righteous but whose inner lives were directed toward wrong goals. The wrong goals were that they had "taken away the key of knowledge," that they had neglected "justice and the love of God," and that they knew "neither the scriptures nor the power of God."

(b) If the ultimate norm was the will of God, then the human moral norm was love. But love was not a norm that could be defined. It could be spoken of in negative terms as completely selfless, or disinterested. Love could be spoken of, too, in positive terms as a genuine regard for the neighbor, a gift of the self to the other to fulfill the other's needs. The neighbor was neither humanity in general nor the one who lives in the next house. The neighbor was any specific human person who was in need of what love could offer. The qualities of love could be characterized, as in Paul's poem in his letter to Corinthians, but finally, for Paul as for Jesus, love could not be defined. It could only be pointed to, and illustrated. Paul pointed to Jesus and said, "There was love."

(c) Finally, for Jesus and for Paul there was a specific norm that was applicable to the life of the particular person. This was not a norm even in the same sense that the will of God and love became moral norms. It was a standard that the individual, meeting certain conditions, could understand what was required of him. There was the recognition that since persons were different so what love specifically required would also be different. Jesus illustrated this point by the parable of the differing amounts of money given to various servants. The sharpest focus on this aspect of his thought was the report that when, after the resurrection, he gave specific orders to Peter and Peter inquired about the commands for John, Jesus replied, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?" Paul's concept of differing vocational responsibilities appeared in his view of the different abilities and therefore requirements that are placed upon individuals in the church.

(4) How is the moral good known in a specific situation?

For a person to be related properly to God was to understand what he should be, and this relationship would let him know that he must love. Nothing else was required. Paul and Jesus apparently had great faith that the knowledge of specific requirements would come through a proper relation of self to God's will and a comprehension of the human events that posed the moral problem. But it was not evident that they indicated how one achieved a satisfactory comprehension of the meaning of the events or whether the situation might be so complex as to make impossible a certain knowledge of precisely what was required.

(5) How is the moral good achieved in a specific situation?

The ability to achieve good in any situation was not a matter of man's own will; it was not the product of rational thought, or of a love for virtue. It was supplied by God who alone was good. But this did not mean that nothing was required of man or that the achievement of the good would be easy. Quite the contrary. Everything was required. All must be offered to God and all became at once more difficult and more simple. The individual's life became more difficult because it involved actual suffering, a sharing, as Paul put it, in the suffering of Christ. But all became simple, too, for through the sacrifice of the self-will there was the dependence upon another more inclusive, more intense will.


There are a number of difficulties that face us in discussing the question, "What new and lasting contribution did the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and Paul make to the Western ethic?" First, to phrase the question in terms of individuals obscures the fact that behind the individuals was a community, and that within the community were other types of individuals with contending and legitimate points of view. This difficulty is partially overcome by recognizing that the prophets, Jesus, and Paul spoke for their community, or more accurately for the authorities that transcended and made the community possible.

Second, we are dealing with long and separated time periods. There are at least 250 years encompassing the lives of the prophets we have observed, and then separated by over five centuries, a scant 30 years encompassing the lives of Jesus and Paul. But here it is the Hebrews themselves who suggest how to deal with this difficulty since they taught us to think in terms of the continuity of history, and so if continuity can be found in the moral thought the difficulty presented by the span of time is not a real one.

The third difficulty, however, is probably insurmountable. This is the difficulty of knowing how to place Jesus and Paul in relation to the prophets and, indeed, in their relation to each other. Historically even if Jesus and Paul have often been seen as existing within the prophetic tradition, all parties have also seen them as distinct from the prophets and from each other, both in thought, temperament and self-conception.The question is whether these separations help us to understand their ethics or obscure the ways ethical truth has been discovered and given to Western moral thought. Since there is no obvious solution to the "placing" of Jesus and Paul the question must first be asked about the new, important contributions of the prophets to the Western ethic and only then, in the light of this answer, to inquire about the contributions of Jesus and Paul.

So, what were the unique contributions of the Hebrew prophets?

1. In the first place, the most important issues in human history, social and individual, were seen as religious issues. And although for the prophets religious experience and language could be immediately translatable into moral life the religious dimension of life was never reducible to the moral dimension.

The religious issue is that of authority. What is the basic source for existence, especially of human life? What is the sustenance of human life? Who or what are the guides to life? These religious questions of authority were the questions important for the prophets, and in answering them they believed they also answered the moral questions. This uniting of religion and ethics in such a way that if each is adequately understood they can be differentiated yet never separated was a fateful insight destined to have repercussions throughout Western history.

2. Life, which means moral life, is lived in community whose authority is beyond itself. The prophets were not "individuals" and could not conceive of individuality, certainly not apart from community. If now they are thought of as individuals, the most that would be accurate to claim for them is "individual-in-community" with the emphasis on community. And just as an "individual" is dependant upon the community for existence so the community is dependent upon the sacred unnamed One who brought it into being, sustains and guides it. This One, this Other becomes determinative for what the community, and individuals-in-community, should be and become, that is for ethics.

3. Basic, therefore, to the moral life is the fact of the covenant. It was believed to be a special choice of the Holy One of Israel, a special set of promises and expectations, a special bonding that brought Israel into being. This covenant became determinative for the content and form of the ethic adding significantly to the ethic of the West. This covenant implies certain conditions:

a. Promise making becomes central in human life and, therefore, in ethics.

b. This, in fact, means that the ethical life is grounded upon trust, upon trusting and upon being trusted.

c. Response, responsibility are recognized as key aspects of human life. The concepts of faithfulness, of loyalty, of duty become consciously present in shaping the form of moral experience.

d. Motives also become central in moral experience. Accomplishments and consequences in themselves are insignificant. It is not what the community or individual-in-community achieves that is morally significant but what they intended to achieve or, more accurately, what they ultimately intended in the achieving.

e. Freedom is also assumed as essential for ethics. This was not the freedom of the Greeks. Neither that concept nor the possibility of rational debate ever occurred to the prophets. It was, rather, the freedom to respond or not respond, to be responsible or not responsible.

4. The fact that promise-making and promise-receiving is so important for human life implies the possibility that the promise may be broken. With the manifestation of a broken legitimate promise (sin) there arises the question of how to deal with violations of the religious-moral covenant. The answer is given in the immediate reality of forgiveness. That idea, introduced in various forms by the prophets has been of great importance for moral experience in the West while it has also caused enormous difficulties for moral thought.

5. Given the religious origin of the ethics it followed that both justice and love are expected of human beings who participate in the basic covenant. At first these qualities extended only to the community of Israel but with the more imaginative, morally sensitive prophets the expectation of justice and love was universalized. Once more, as with the idea of forgiveness, the prophets did not hesitate to introduce concepts that, often contradictory, would provide great tension in ethical experience and enormous problems for ethical thought.

6. Along with this sense of justice and love was the awareness that fidelity to the covenant could also result in suffering. This suffering, often of an intense kind for both individuals and for the community, was also seen as part of the plan of the Holy One who continued to act in history as a partner to the chosen people. While each of the prophets accented the importance of this suffering in their own way, certainly, in a balanced depth and breath the suffering servant songs of "Second Isaiah" go beyond anything previously known. Suffering itself becomes a part of the covenant, and a recognition of one of the essential aspects of love and justice.

6. Finally, the prophets recognized that human life is life in history, at the same time that it is life related to the God beyond History. They taught human beings how to live in the present by living in two worlds at once, both beyond yet within the present. This lesson, whether true or false, has been continually re-learned by many persons and has had profound effects upon moral experience and thought. The nature of moral experience is potentially given new breadth and depth by this larger context. And moral thought must now include the past as well as the mystery of the not-historical other in its reflections.

In the light of these contributions of the Hebrew prophets to Western ethics the question can be raised about the contributions of Jesus and Paul. It is a question that is probably impossible to answer. There is no doubt that they have had a profound effect upon western sensibilities and the ways persons have dealt with moral perplexities. But what contributions are directly attributable to them is uncertain.

One thing that is clear is that these are no new moral ideas in Jesus and Paul that cannot be found in the prophetic or prophetically influenced writings. Whether Jesus gave the ideas a new unity cannot be known. There is no clear evidence that he did so. Certainly Paul gave no new unity to ethics even though he placed it in an impressive coherent theological framework.

If we are to look for their unique contributions we must look away from their words to their lives. Here there can only be imaginative conclusions based upon the scant evidence that is available. The most important bit of evidence is that Jesus gave some persons the impression that he embodied the prophetic ideals and that he was unselfconsciously aware that he embodied them. Paul put this impression into theological language with the claim that A) Jesus is the Christ, that is the Messiah. Later authors of the gospels confirmed the impression by associating Jesus with the Suffering Servant. Others recognized that Jesus embodied the moral ideals he taught; and it is clear that he consented to the way those ideals worked themselves out to his own destruction. The ethical ideals themselves had a depth and breadth but their presence in the moral experience of Jesus may have given those ideals a new intensity and inclusiveness. Now moral ideals were not just ideals but had been given actuality in a life.

Paul was a vastly different person from Jesus in temperament and moral experience, and he was clearly aware of those differences. But he claimed to have the mind of Christ and inferred that mind was in control. He, too, embodied the moral ideas of the prophets and let those ideals work their way in his life with great personal loss and also to his own destruction. And certainly he man who wrote the Hymn to Love, as well as the many spontaneous moral admonitions, must have known such love as a living source of life itself.


The essential task performed by the Hebrew prophets and the Greek philosophers for ethics in the West was the creation of a basic moral personality. Since their times, at least until the twentieth century, individuals and communities have been able to look back to persons in either or both of these ethical communities to say they established our identity. In establishing an ethical identity they also set the channels for further growth by setting down the presuppositions through which we would face the tasks that their work left uncompleted. Through arduous labors they received their ethical insights, insights which became ethical truths transmitted through their speaking and writing. But these truths were incomplete truths in a dual sense.

First, the conceptual truth not only contained errors and inconsistencies that required harmonizing and corrections, but the style through which the truths were expressed inevitably had limitations. "Inevitably" became our moral problems. The Greeks focused upon specific aspects of moral experience, thinking in special ways. The aspects and the ways were legitimate. The Hebrew prophets also selected difficult elements of the moral life to examine, and they appropriated those elements with their own unique style. These elements and style were also legitimate. However each thought style and ethical perspective only provided partial truths that needed supplementing.

Second, the conceptual moral truths required enactment. Both the Greek philosophers and Hebrew prophets recognized that moral truth is a marriage of human becoming and being as well as human thinking and thought, of human acts as well as words. Ethical truth is confirmed by life as well as language, and without the confirmation of life it remains an uncompleted, even uncertain, truth.

All ethical experience and thought since the establishment of the ethical identity in the West has been related to Hebraic and Greek experience, though it is far from certain that this will be the case in the future. Thus, almost all later discoveries of truth in Western moral life and thought have been the development, elaboration or modifications of the basic moral personality. There have been two primary ways this has occurred.

First, there have been new discoveries within the formulations provided by the Greeks and Hebrews. This has sometimes involved, in act or word, a clearer or more consistent realization of what was present in the earlier ethic. At times, this has been a more limited and narrowly focused clarity and consistency. At other times the discoveries have been of what was implicit but not evident in the previous ethic until fresh experience and thought brought it to light. Or again, in moments of ethical creativity, the new discovery built upon and then went beyond previously known moral truth. In every case the new truths overcame tensions and dissolved conflicts whether in the self or in the nascent Western ethical personalty.

The second major way of new discovery has been from outside the moral structure of the Greek or Hebraic thought. At least prior to the twentieth century, these discoveries had integral relations with that thought. Indeed, the categories of "inside" and "outside" are not strictly applicable. What is certain is that these discoveries have presented serious challenges to Greek and Hebrew style and ethic. For example even after 300 years it is far from certain whether the ethics of science can be harmonized with the earlier, uniquely Western ethic, and after 100 years it is even less certain whether the technological results of science can be tamed and controlled by that ethic. Nor is it clear whether the ethic of the late nineteenth century--that of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud--can be integrated into the Western ethical personality, or if it cannot what significantly new metamorphosized moral style and concepts will shape human life in the future. It is also equally certain that our contemporary life will bring to the Western ethic new challenges from discoveries in anthropology, from intimate contacts with other non-western cultures, and from the stimulus of the works of the imagination from around the world.

Consequently, there are reasons it may be appropriate to refer, with proper attribution, to the twentieth century as "The Last Western Century." However, whether the Western ethic has a future it certainly has a past. That past has been deeply woven into contemporary life. Whether these patterns are now antiquated it is impossible to know. It is certain, however, that the patterns of the Western moral personality will continue to have to be dealt with, either through painful reflection or painful restructuring. To perceive how that personality developed in our past may provide new moral insights into our future and help prepare the way for the challenges to come.

© Donald Williams 1995-2002.
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Page updated: 20 September 1999