Years ago, I was part of a study and discussion group in what would later become a Progressive Christian community. This was before the term "Progressive Christian" was very well known in most circles. In this group, traditional beliefs about Christianity and particularly the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible were under constant scrutiny.
In one of our meetings, while taking a swipe at the idea that the Bible is inspired by God, one student asserted, “Confucius thought of the ‘Golden Rule’ before Jesus. Jesus stole it from him.” Mind. Blown. What was he talking about?
It's important to understand that ideas comparable to the one Jesus expressed in Matthew 7:12, "Do to others as you would have them do to you," can be found in antiquity. Before Jesus walked the earth, similar sentiments existed in ancient Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Greek philosophy. (1) So what do we make of this? Here are 3 thoughts to consider:
1. We might have pre-conceived ideas about the Bible that are not actually biblical.
When this challenge was first brought to my attention, I didn't realize that my ideas about what the Bible should be aren't necessarily in line with what the Bible actually is. I had imposed my own subconscious assumption that every idea and command in the Bible would somehow be entirely unique in the history of the world. This is not only illogical but unbiblical. Why? Romans 2:15 tells us that God's law is written on the hearts of human beings. It would actually be absurd to think that before the New Testament was written, no one would have discovered that being kind to each other is the right thing to do.
Ancient civilizations certainly stumbled upon truths from time to time and recorded those ideas. For example, some of our biblical wisdom literature bears striking similarities to other ancient Near Eastern texts. (2) Paul quoted Stoic philosophers, Jude quoted Enoch, and many other extra-biblical books are mentioned in the Bible. (3) This doesn't mean those external sources are divinely inspired, nor does it diminish or negate any truth found in the Bible.
2. What Jesus communicated in Matthew 7:12 was actually quite different from what Confucius said.
Prior to the time of Jesus, these types of ideas were most commonly known in the negative form.(4) Confucius said, "What you don't want done to yourself, don't do to others."(5) Compare this with what Jesus said: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." There is a stark contrast between the more passive "don't do" of Confucius, and the pro-active command of Jesus, to "do." One version allows you to be indifferent, the other is a call to action.
Jesus' point in giving this command was to "sum up the Law and the Prophets," whereas the Eastern versions focus on more humanistic rewards like personal happiness, nobility, and living in peace with others. The purpose of the Mosaic Law was to reveal the holy character of God and expose the sinfulness of people's hearts, illuminating our need for a savior. In other words, "Do unto others" can't be done perfectly—therefore, we need Jesus.
3. Jesus' "Golden Rule" corresponded with Jewish and Biblical sentiments that were much older than Eastern versions.
Who ripped off who? In Jesus day, the negative form of the "Golden Rule" was well known in rabbinic writings and teachings. Typically attributed to Hillel the Elder (110-10 BC), (6) it's likely that Jesus would have been aware of it. Jesus, Hillel, and other Jewish teachers got this idea from Leviticus 19:18 which states, "Love your neighbor as yourself." The book of Leviticus was written in the 1400's BC, making it almost 1,000 years older than its Buddhist, Hindu, Greek, or Confucianist counterparts.
Did Jesus rip off Confucius? No. But it shouldn't surprise us if people throughout history who are made in the image of God and have His law written on their hearts discover some timeless moral truths, and record those truths for posterity.
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(1) Confucianism: Analects 12:2; Buddhism: Udanavarga 5.18; Hinduism: Anushasana-parva, CXIII; Greek philosophy: Diogenes Laertius, Vit. phil. 1.36 .
(2) See Bill T. Arnold & Bryan E. Beyer, Readings From the Ancient Near East, "Words of Ahiqar", and "Instruction of Amenemope."
(3) Acts 17:28; Jude 14; The Book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13, 2 Samuel 1:18); Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14); The Annals of King David (1 Chronicles 27:24) and many more.
(4) There are a couple of obscure exceptions: Confucian philosopher Mencius said, "To strive to act with reciprocity, there is no closer approach to humanity" (Mencius VII.A.4); Ancient Egyptian story The Eloquent Peasant states, "Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do." Both statements imply that doing good to another will reap a benefit for oneself, which still miss the point Jesus made in summarizing the law and prophets. It is stated in both the positive and negative form in the Hindu Mahabharata as a means of attaining personal happiness. (Anushasana-parva, CXIII.)
(5) Analects 12:2
(6) Talmud, Shabbat 31a