Moral teachings of Jesus

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The moral teachings of Jesus are of central interest to Christianity and arguably form the core of this group of religions. Many people who do not belong to any Christian denomination often claim that even though Jesus might not have been divine or divinely inspired, he is still a great moral teacher and thus worthy of respect. A famous exponent of this stance was Thomas Jefferson, himself a deist, who published the Jefferson Bible. Upon closer investigation, however, some of the teachings of Jesus turn out to be strange, misguided, absurd, or even outright immoral, while the "good part" is anything but novel. Therefore, the popular reputation of Jesus as a great moral teacher is more appropriately interpreted as a result of Christian privilege and a concerted effort on the part of others not to offend them, rather than a result of his true merit.

Similarly to Socrates, Jesus did not personally author any surviving works, and the first written accounts of his life appeared decades after his death. Furthermore, the gospels of the Bible do not all agree on any significant details about Jesus' life, with non-canonical gospels showing even more variation. Therefore, separating the true teachings of Jesus from the moral opinions of the authors of the gospels is difficult, if not wholly impossible, and what is popularly considered to be Jesus' moral code may more accurately be described as the moral code of early Christianity.

Problematic teachings[edit]

Many of the statements below would be innocuous if understood as hyperbole, satire, or poetic exaggeration on the part of Jesus or the gospel authors. However, they are usually interpreted literally, and thus the criticism will focus on their mainstream Christian interpretation.

Do not worry about tomorrow[edit]

Matthew 6:34 "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." This is typically interpreted as support for asceticism. Literal adherence to this precept would cause one to jeopardize one's well-being and that of one's dependents.

Put religion above your family[edit]

Matthew 10:34-37 "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (…) Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." This teaching is highly destructive, as it puts strict adherence to religious belief above family relations. The passage is often used as support for religious fundamentalism and culture war.

The same sentiment is echoed in Matthew 12:48-50 "He replied to him, 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' Pointing to his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.'" Attitudes like this are conducive to the emergence of cults. Also, aren't we supposed to respect our parents? Disavowing one's mother in public seems a gesture of strong disrespect.

People do evil because they are evil[edit]

Matthew 12:35 "A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him." This is essentially the genetic fallacy. Explaining the acts of people by their internal traits rather than the circumstances they were in at the time is known in psychology as the fundamental attribution error.Wikipedia

Turn the other cheek, love your enemy[edit]

Luke 6:29 "If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them." Following this advice would cause one to be mercilessly victimized and exploited in the long run, as well as powerless in the face of oppressors. A more practical approach would be to try to settle disagreements amicably, and confront one's enemies if attempts at negotiation fail.

Furthermore, this teaching is misguided in light of game theoretic research on the iterated prisoner's dilemma, an abstract mathematical game played in a sequence of turns. On every turn, each player can choose either to cooperate or to defect. Players get a reward when they both cooperate and a penalty when they both defect. If one player defects and the other cooperates, the defecting player gets a large reward and the cooperating player a large penalty. The game is often used as a simple model for interactions based on trust. Always cooperating or "turning the other cheek" is a very poor strategy, and leads to severe penalties if the opponent reacts rationally to the pattern. Strategies close to optimal must be nice (cooperate initially), retaliating (punish enemies), forgiving (sometimes attempt cooperation with a defecting opponent to avoid being locked in a string of mutual defections), and non-envious (not seeking to reach a score higher than the opponent). Therefore, one should extend a helping hand to strangers, avoid known enemies while making occasional attempts at reconciliation, and avoid envy from informing one's decisions.

It has also been arguedWikipedia, however, this also meant to subvert the authority of those times instead as the discipliner of someone of lower social status was faced with a dilemma: The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed. An alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality (and such hand could be hurt). Thus, by turning the other cheek, the persecuted was demanding equality. Likewise, in handing over one's cloak in addition to one's tunic the debtor has given the shirt off his back, a situation forbidden by Hebrew law as stated in Deuteronomy, from Deuteronomy 24:10 to Deuteronomy 24:13. By giving the lender the cloak as well, the debtor was reduced to nakedness, with public nudity having been viewed as bringing shame on the viewer and not just the naked one, as in Genesis 9:20-Genesis 9:23 when a plastered Noah was seen going skyclad by his sons.

Do as I say, not as I do[edit]

In Matthew 15:22-26 and Mark 7:25-27, Jesus refuses to heal the possessed daughter of a Canaanite (Matthew) or a Greek (Mark), comparing them to dogs. While it's true that he then relented and agreed to help her daughter, that was only after she offered a snappy comeback. This hardly seems a fitting lesson from a divine teacher of morals.

Conspicuous by their absence[edit]

Perhaps the most interesting teaching missing from the gospels is a denunciation of slavery. Jesus encourages masters to be gentle to their slaves, but nowhere does he even suggest that treating people as property is wrong.

Jesus also never denounces anything that happened in the Old Testament, including the God-ordained genocides. Matthew 5:17 says: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill."

See also[edit]

External links[edit]