[Ed. – During my last visit with Dr. Flusser in Jerusalem, he gave me a copy of his book “Jesus” and permission to reprint excerpts in the BLON. The following is from chapter 5. To save space we have eliminated the footnotes.]

Both Jesus and Hillel before him saw the Golden Rule as a summary of the law of Moses.  This becomes intelligible when we consider that the biblical saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Lev. 19:18) was esteemed by Jesus and by the Jews in general as a chief commandment of the law.  An old Aramaic translation of this biblical precept runs like this, “Love your neighbor, for whatever displeases you, do not to him!” This periphrastic translation turns the phrase “as yourself” into the negative form of the Golden Rule. The saying, “Love your neighbor,” was understood as a positive commandment, and the words “as yourself” as the negative commandment included in it.  You are not to treat your neighbor with hatred, because you would not like him to treat you in that way.  Therefore, by means of Jewish parallels we are able to see how the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12) and the commandment to love our neighbor (Matt. 22:39) are related within Jesus’ teaching.

There was yet another explanation of the phrase “as yourself” in the biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor, so important in those days. In Hebrew the phrase can also mean, “as though he were yourself.”... Rabbi Hanina, who lived approximately one generation after Jesus, explicitly taught that this commandment to love one’s neighbor is “a saying upon which the whole world hangs, a mighty oath from Mount Sinai. If you hate your neighbor whose deeds are wicked like your own, I, the Lord, will punish you as your judge; and if you love you neighbor whose deeds are good like your own, I, the Lord, will be faithful to you and have mercy on you.”

A man’s relationship to his neighbor ought, therefore, to be determined by the fact that he is one with him both in his good and in his evil characteristics.  This is not far from Jesus’ commandment to love, but Jesus went further and broke the last fetters still restricting the ancient Jewish commandment to love one’s neighbor. We have already seen that Rabbi Hanina believed that one ought to love the righteous and not hate the sinner. Jesus said, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). It is true, that in those days semi-Essene circles had reached similar conclusions from different presuppositions, and Jesus’ moral teaching was influenced by these circles. Yet, influences do not explain everything.

He who avoided his parental home in Nazareth and became the “friend of publicans and sinners” felt himself sent to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  It was not simply his total way of life that urged Jesus to express loving devotion to sinners; this inclination was deeply linked with the purpose of his message. From the beginning until his death on the cross, the preaching of Jesus was, in turn, linked with his own way of life. The commandment to love one’s enemies is so much his definitive characteristic that his are the only lips from which we hear the commandment in the whole of the New Testament. Elsewhere we hear only of mutual love, and blessing one’s persecutors. In those days it was obviously very difficult for people to rise up to the heights of Jesus’ commandment.

Jesus mentioned the biblical commandment when he was explaining the sum and substance of the law of Moses. “You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (Deut. 6:5). This is the great rule in the law. And the second is similar to it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18). On these two commandments depends all the law” (Matt. 22:35-40).

It is almost certain that here Jesus was teaching an older tradition, because he saw it as important for his own message. This happened on other occasions, too. He simply borrowed a saying of a scribe. “And he said to them, `Therefore, every scribe... is like a householder who brings out of his granary what is new and what is old`” (Matt. 13:52). Jesus’ saying about the double commandment of love clearly was coined before his time. We have already seen that the biblical saying about love of one’s neighbor was also described elsewhere as “the great commandment in the law.”  This commandment is truly like the other – the commandment to love God – for both verses from the Bible (Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18) begin with the same word. The many rabbinical passages that compare fear of God and love of God elevate love much higher than fear, for it was in harmony with the new Jewish sensitivity to serve God out of unconditional love rather than from fear of punishment.

All that has been said explains how the double commandment of love existed in ancient Judaism before, and alongside, Jesus. The fact it does not appear in the rabbinical documents that have come down to us is probably accidental. Mark (12:28-34) and Luke (10:25-28) show that on the question of “the great commandment” Jesus and the scribes were in agreement...

The same is true with the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus presumably defines his own personal attitude towards the law of Moses (Matt. 5:17-48). In the sermon, Jesus in a certain sense brings old and new out of his granary. The sensitivity within ancient Judaism evolved a whole dialectic of sin, in contrast to the simple view of the Old Testament. When man ceases to be regarded as an unproblematic being, sins themselves become a problem. If a person is not careful, one sin can lead to another. Even an action that does not appear sinful can cause him to become entangled in a real sin. There was a saying, “Flee from what is evil and from what resembles evil.” If we apply this concept to the commandments, we discover that the lesser commandments are as serious as the greater.

Jesus’ exegesis in Matt. 5:17-48 should be understood in this sense. The exegesis proper is preceded by a preamble (Matt. 5:17-20) where Jesus justifies his method. It would seem that exaggerated importance has been attached to the first sentence (Matt. 5:17) of this introduction. Jesus simply intended to say, “Think not that I come to cancel the law; I do not come to cancel, but to uphold it.” Thus, following the customary language of his time, he avoided the accusation that the exegesis of the law which followed, abrogated the original meaning of the words of the Bible. He could not have wanted to do this because the law, as written, is mysteriously bound up with the existence of this world. Even the minor commandments are to be obeyed. This implies a tightening up of the law, not regarding ritual, but in respect to the relationships between people. This attitude was also present in Judaism at that time, as the following saying exemplifies:  “Everyone who publicly shames his neighbor sheds his blood.”

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The first two biblical expositions of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are constructed on this conceptual and formal scheme. It is not just the murderer, but he who is angry with his brother, who is condemned (Matt. 5:21-22), and “every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28)....

The continuation (Matt. 5:29-30) has an interesting parallel in rabbinical literature. Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, for it is better to lose it than for your whole body to go into hell.” The same is said about the hand and the foot. Earlier (Matt. 5:28), Jesus said that every one who looked at a woman lustfully had already committed adultery with her in his heart. There was a Jewish opinion that the word “to commit adultery” in Hebrew had four letters in order to warn us that adultery could be committed by hand, foot, eye, and heart. Jesus began his exegesis of the scriptures by stressing the importance of the lesser commandments. In this spirit he was then able to equate anger with murder and lust with adultery. . .

. . . . These biblical commandments speak of our relation to our neighbor, and so the real conclusions of Jesus’ exegesis is his commentary (Matt. 5:43-48) on the great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Those who listened to Jesus’ preaching of love might well have been moved by it. Many in those days thought in a similar way. Nonetheless, in the clear purity of his love they must have detected something very special. Jesus did not accept all that was thought and taught in the Judaism of his time. Although not really a Pharisee himself, he was closest to the Pharisees of the school of Hillel who preached love, and he led the way further to unconditional love—even of one’s enemies and of sinners. As we shall see, this was no mere sentimental teaching. -