Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
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 Chapter 13:

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 very similar?"

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 different versions.

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 ourselves.

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 example, that

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 [1]. 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 ... [1]

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 [2]. 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 different ways.

  • 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.
[1] Quoted in The Historical Jesus, Theissen & Merz, SCM Press, 1996
[2] The Five Gospels, R W Funk & the Jesus Seminar, Polebridge Press, 1993

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