The Great Commandment
The Rule of Love or Great
Commandment in Mark 12.28 is probably the best-known part of the four
gospels. It has been perceived by Christians over two millennia as summing
up the essence of Jesus. The letter of Paul to the Corinthians, probably
the earliest piece of Christian writing we have, celebrates the Rule in
And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but
the greatest of these is love.
As always with what the scholars like to call the "pronouncements" of
Jesus, the question arises, "Did Jesus actually say this, or something
The first test of the passage's historicity is to check
whether or not the Markan passage is duplicated in the other gospels. It
does reappear in Matthew (22.34-40) and Luke (10.25-29), who seem to
use either Mark's material or the same original source for their somewhat
Matthew's version changes the scholar (scribe) into
an expert about Hebrew religious law (not a lawyer in the modern sense)
who seems to be trying to trap Jesus into making an heretical statement.
The author of this gospel has produced a version shorter than Mark's.
Luke also introduces the subject through a lawyer, again one who wants to
test Jesus. We might suspect that Luke and Matthew are using the same
source and that Mark has either got it wrong or is using a different text
or verbal tradition. Only a more detailed examination of the texts will
give an answer.
A good starting point is to put this pronouncement in a
context. Many Christians think that Jesus thought it up. This far from the
truth - though that doesn't mean it wasn't central to his life and ethic.
The author of John's Gospel, for example, thinks that love (agape
in Greek) is that by which everyone will recognise the followers of Jesus
(13.35). But note that this writer calls it a "new commandment", probably
because he was at some distance in time and culture from the original
setting of the gospels.
The first available context is that of the Hebrew Bible (the Old
Testament). It was normal for Jewish people - and Jesus was, of course,
Jewish, not Christian - to know and quote the Old Testament in support
of a viewpoint. Jesus refers to two passages, both of which would have
been well known to everyone. The first is Deuteronomy 6.5 which commands
that we love God with everything we've got. The second is Leviticus
19.18 which instructs us to love other people in the same ways we love
The second context is that of wider Judaism. These two passages were
widely recognised as important. The passage from Deuteronomy was often
used to drive home monotheism. The Jewish writer Josephus says, for
The statement that God [Yahweh] possesses the universe is regarded as
the first principle of the Jewish people.
The passage from Leviticus, on the other hand, was intended to
reinforce a sense of solidarity with all human beings, regardless of their
origins. Rabbi Akiba (died 135) is reputed to have said about the
Leviticus passage that it is "a great and comprehensive principle in the
Torah" - though he would have meant it to apply only to fellow Jews
. And the Jewish philosopher Philo, who was a contemporary of
Jesus, wrote about the Hebrew faith:
There are so to speak two basic doctrines to which the numerous
individual doctrines and principles are subordinate: in respect of God
the command to worship God and be pious; in respect of human beings the
command to love one's fellow men and be just ... 
The upshot is that this was not a "new commandment" at all, at least to
those early Christians who came from a Jewish background. The Greek- and
Latin-speaking non-Jews who made up the bulk of the early Church, however,
could well have found it novel.
Some scholars think that the Great
Commandment has been overlaid by the gospel authors and the traditions of
the communities to which they belonged . Luke,
for example, uses it to introduce the story of the Good Samaritan. This a
completely different context from that of Mark.
Having said that, the
way in which Jesus isolates the Great Commandment from its traditional
context is important. Elsewhere he makes it plain that the Hebrew Torah,
and especially its multitude of petty rules, must make way for a new
order. This new order is one which no longer allows us to set up barriers
between God and humanity.
The way in which Jesus selects the Old
Testament passages here used makes it plain that love of God and neighbour
underpins the new order. Jesus relies on their ancient source rather than
a parable or pithy saying to make his point. Perhaps the author of Luke's
Gospel (writing mainly for non-Jews) recognised that this background would
be alien to most of his readers and used the story of the Good Samaritan
to bring home the point.
Because it is so obviously central to the life
and teaching of Jesus, this passage has attracted enormous attention over
the centuries. As a result, there are many interpretations of his words
and how they should be lived out by Christians. The abiding question has
been, "How is it possible to live out the Great Commandment amidst all the
ambiguities and conflicting demands of real life?" Theory is all very
well: but how about the real world?
A medieval approach was to suggest that the Great Commandment
could be lived out only by genuinely holy people like monks and other
saints. This may seem strange to moderns, who don't know how very
rigidly many ancient societies were organised. It was natural to have
special types of people who were set aside for equally special callings.
Ordinary folk, especially those at the bottom of the pecking order,
could not be expected to live this out. If they tried they were usually
bound to fail - and hence needed the be shriven by the truly holy folk.
Others have suggested that the words of Jesus in this respect
were uttered mainly in order to, as it were, convince or remind us of
our inherent sinfulness. It is impossible for sinful creatures to live
up to the Great Commandment. Jesus knew this and nevertheless gave it us
as something to aim at - though we are bound to fail. A variation of
this perspective is that the saying helps us by pointing up Jesus as the
only one who has ever properly loved in this way.
A modern version, espoused in particular by liberation
theologians, is that the Great Commandment is to be held close to us as
a maxim which conditions our approach to the world. It is thus
timelessly valid, whereas the concrete ways in which it is expressed are
historically conditioned. Thus a freedom fighter will exercise it
validly by killing the oppressor, while a nun will exercise it in very
Some theologians have proposed that Jesus did not mean us to be
held to the Great Commandment. Instead, like many of his other
pronouncements, it was a sign of the way God will one day do things when
history is brought to a close. We may long for this way of life, but
it's going to be realised in full only later. Albert Schweitzer thought
it was only an "interim ethic", a sort of emergency rule which Jesus
imposed during the short time (as he saw it) before God's new
dispensation came into being.
To sum up: The Great Commandment has been partly obscured by the gospel
authors and their communities. But we nevertheless have an expression,
close to the original words, of a part of the Hebrew ethical system
through which Jesus expressed the essence of his life and teaching.
Because it appears impossible to live out, Christians have always sought
to express it is ways which distinguish between the Great Commandment as
an ideal, and real life which demands that we do something different if we
are to survive and prosper.
 Quoted in The Historical Jesus, Theissen & Merz,
SCM Press, 1996
 The Five Gospels, R W Funk & the Jesus Seminar, Polebridge