13 August 2015

The Great Commandment, or Mitzvah, a history

The Great Commandment (Great Mitzvah), or Summary of the Law (Summary of the Torah) in the Book of Common Prayer, is one of the best known exegeses of the Torah put into the mouth of Isho bar Yossef the Nazorean (Jesus Christ) by the authors of the gospels. 

Most Christians believe, and most Christian theologians teach, that this conjoining of two separate positive prescriptions was unique to Isho.  It was not.  Nor was the question about which commandment, or mitzvah, of the Torah is the greatest.  Both go back at least two centuries, maybe longer. 

The Great Commandment, or Great Mitzvah, is, both by its essence and its history, inextricably bound with the Golden Rule.

The examples proceed by the order in which they were written, not the time period in which the events they depict take place, thus the gospels follow Paul.

Several examples come from works of the early Christian period known as “church orders”, which dealt with moral issues, church polity, the calendar, and liturgy, to varying degrees from document to document.

Antecedents in the Torah

Both prescriptions in the Summary of the Torah quite naturally originate in the Torah.

‘Hear, O Yisrael: Yahweh your God is one Yahweh.  You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.’ (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

‘You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am Yahweh.’ (Leviticus 19:18)

In the same chapter of Leviticus, that prescription extends to cover foreigners among the Israelites in their land, and by doing so in effect extends the mitzvah to love to all humanity.

‘The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am Yahweh your God.’ (Leviticus 19:34)


This deuterocanonical work, part of the Septuagint Tanakh, the canonical Old Testament of the Roman and Eastern churches, and the Protestant Apocrypha, tells the story of Tobit, who was taken captive to Nineveh in Assyria, and his wives Hannah and Sarah, the archangel Raphael, and the demon Asmodeus.

Composed in the late third century BCE, the work is related to the Jewish wisdom literature written in this same time.  It contains the oldest known Jewish expression of the Golden Rule:

‘And what you hate, do not do to anyone’. (Tobit 4:15a).


Formally titled Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Joshua ben Sira and also known as the Wisdom of Sirach, this work from the early second century clearly belongs to the wisdom category of Jewish religious literature.  It contains a paraphrasing of the Golden Rule in which the message is identical:

‘Judge your neighbor’s feelings by your own, and in every matter be thoughtful’. (Sirach 31:15)

Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs

This is an apocalyptic work originally written in the mid-second century BCE, which in its final form circa 200 CE included many Christian interpolations that Jewish scholars have nonetheless easily separated out.  Though all the full copies we have are in Greek or Latin, it was originally written in Aramaic or Hebrew. In form, it is the final testaments of the twelve sons of Jacob. 

In three places, the work gives versions of the conjoined mitzvot which together make up the Great Mitzvah.

‘But love Yahweh and your neighbor.’ (Issachar 5:2)

‘I loved Yahweh; likewise also every man with all my heart.’ (Issachar 7:6)

‘Love Yahweh through all your life, and one another with a true heart.’ (Dan 5:3)


Written during the reign of John Hyrcanus (134-104 BCE) and originally composed in Hebrew, it purports to be secrets revealed to Moses by Yahweh atop Mount Sinai/Horeb/Paran.  It covers the same time period as Genesis, but is greatly expanded.  Noah’s last words (Jubilees 7:20), Avrahim’s last words (Jubilees 20:2), and Yitzak’s final words (Jubilees 36:4) all include the admonition to the hearer(s) to “Love their neighbor”.

Hillel and Shammai

The earliest story of someone asking a teacher about which mitzvah is greatest of all involves the two sages who were the last two Zugot and the first two Tannaim, founders of the two major schools of the Pharisees in the first century CE, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.  It is this story which specifically ties the Golden Rule and the Great Mitzvah together.

In the tale, a proselyte comes to Shammai asking to teach him to whole Torah standing on one foot.  Shammai tells him he is crazy, because there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah, plus all the commentary on and rulings about each mitzvah.  So the proselyte goes to Hillel to make the same request, and Hillel responds by standing on one foot and saying:

“Whatever you do not want done to you, do not do to others; all the Torah rests on that.  The rest is just commentary”. (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

It is this story which binds the Golden Rule and the Great Mitzvah together.

Doctrina Apostolorum, early 1st century

This work, an exposition on the Two Ways, the Way of Life and the Way of Death, or the Way of Light and the Way of Darkness, is basically an earlier version of the Didache’s first six chapters.  It probably originated as a Jewish catechetical manual in the late first century BCE or early first century CE, and has only been made “Christian” by a doxology appended onto the end.

In the document as we have it today, the only part of it that points to Christianity is a doxology appended on the end.  It may have first been an Essene document, though other sects had versions of the two ways.  Its first chapter (Doctrina Apostolorum 1:2) contains the following:

‘The way of life is this: first, you shall love the eternal God who made ​​you; second, your neighbor as yourself, and what you do not want to be done to you, do not do to another’.

The third prescription matches Hillel’s version of the Golden Rule in its negative prescription.

Flavius Philo Judaeus, early 1st century

In The Decalogue 22:108-110, Philo writes that love of God and love of one’s fellow humans are both necessary to be righteous.  Without specifically citing the two prescriptions that make up the Summary of the Torah, he arrives at the same end, with exponentially more words.

In Every Good Man Is Free 12:83, Philo writes that Jews center their lives on and judge events by the threefold basis of ‘the love of God, and the love of virtue, and the love of mankind’, the two prescriptions of the Great Mitzvah with love of virtue added under influence of Hellenistic philosophy surrounding him in Alexandria.

James the Just, mid-1st century

Probably called Yaakob bar Yossef in life, he was Isho’s eldest brother and succeeded him as leader of The Way, the Nazoreans.  The Church anachronistically refers to him as the first Bishop of Jerusalem.  Yaakob wrote what most scholars consider to be one of the authentic general epistles, meaning that he himself actually wrote it.  His offer to this conversation is: 

‘You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’ (James 2:8)

Paul of Tarsus, mid-1st century

Self-described as the Pharisee son of a Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, better known by his Roman name Paul, attended a school in Jerusalem headed by Gamaliel, son of Hillel the Elder.  In his letter to the church at Galatia in Asia Minor written in about 53 CE, Saul, said:

‘For the whole Torah is summed up in a single mitzvah, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’ (Galatians 5:14).

In his letter to the Christians at Rome, Saul included the following:

‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Torah.  The mitzvot, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other mitzvah, are summed up in this decree, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Torah.’ (Romans 13:8-10)

Didache, late 1st/early 2nd century

The first six chapters of the Didache (short for, The Teaching of our Lord through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles)match those of the Doctrina Apostolorum in essential content, but surpass them in verbiage, its additions being obvious Christian interpolations.  Written in the mid-first century, its overall length is greater also, extending to sixteen chapters, almost all of it clearly deriving from or at least patterned on Jewish antecedents.  Nearly identical to its predecessor, its version of the greatest mitzvot is:  

‘Love the God who made you, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not to others that which you would not wish them to do to you’.

The gospels

None of these were written before the end of the Great Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE that ended with the almost complete destruction of Jerusalem (according to Josephus, nothing left standing but the western wall of the city and three of its towers).  The Temple was completely burned and its mound fortifications completely dismantled, all of them.  Three of them (Matthew, Luke, John) may not have reached their current form until the end of the second century.

The Summary of the Torah in the gospels

In all three Synoptics, this passage quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 followed by Leviticus 19:18.  Also known as the Great Mitzvah, this comes, in Mark and Matthew, after an exchange in which someone from the crowd asks Isho about which mitzvah of the Torah is the greatest.  Luke places the exchange much earlier and orders this story a bit differently.

Only Mark begins the summary with the Shema Yisrael:

‘One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which mitzvah is the first of all?”  Isho answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God is one Yahweh; you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other mitzvah greater than these.”’  (Mark 12:28-31)

Almost immediately, the scribe rephrases the summary back to Isho:

‘Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all one’s heart, and with all one’s understanding, and with all one’s strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  When Isho saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.’ (Mark 12:32-34)

The version in Matthew was included in the service for the Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican churches from the sixteenth century until the later twentieth, and still does in some communions.  In the original service, at least beginning with the second BCP of 1552, the service began with the Decalogue followed by the Summary of the Torah.

‘When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which mitzvah in the Torah is the greatest?” He said to him, ‘You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first mitzvah.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two mitzvot hang all the Torah and the Prophets.”’ (Matthew 20:34-40)

In a different take, Luke puts the summary in the mouth of the lawyer, or scribe, who asked Isho the question.

‘Just then a lawyer stood up to test Isho.  “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the Torah? What do you read there?”  He answered, “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”’ (Luke 10:25-28)

When the lawyer then asks, “But who is my neighbor?”, Isho replies with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, asking at the end, “Which one of these was a neighbor to the victim?”.

The scribes had traditionally interpreted such references to “neighbor” as referring solely to one’s fellow Jews, even of other ethnic groups, though not Samaritans.  The parable may have originated as a polemic against worldly and self-absorbed clergy, with a lay Israelite following the priestly Cohen and the clerical Levite.  A Samaritan was substituted for the Israelite here to demonstrate that even a despised outsider could be a neighbor more than one of higher religious status.  This expansion of the definition of “neighbor” would have been consistent with how the Pharisees were trying to redefine “neighbor” in the first century to include all fellow humans.

The pericope of the rich man

All three of the Synoptics include a very similar summary in the exchange presented as taking place on the road through Judea to Jerusalem in which someone asks what he must do to have eternal life.

Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”  And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the mitzvot.”  He said to him, “Which ones?” And Isho said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 19:16-19)

As he [Isho] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Isho said to him, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.  You know the mitzvot: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” (Mark 10:17-19)

A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Isho said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.  You know the mitzvot: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’” (Luke 18:18-20)

This are the same passages which end with the rich man sad after being told to give up his possessions, with Isho saying, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.  Which is another way of saying that wealth is the date-nut trapping the monkey’s hand inside the coconut shell because he won’t let go of it.

Note the inclusion in all these passages Isho saying that there is no one good but God, God in the third person and in a separate category entirely.

Love your enemies

In a couple of place in the gospels, the writers go beyond love of neighbor or love of resident alien to love of one’s enemies.

From Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’. (Matthew 5:43-44)

From Luke’s Sermon on the Plain: ‘I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’ (Luke 6:27-28)

A new mitzvah

In two places in his conversation with the disciples after the Last Supper, Isho gives admonitions to them that mirror those of the Patriarchs of Jubilees and of Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs to their children and grandchildren.

‘”I give you a new mitzvah, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”’ (John 14:34-35)

‘This is my decree, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ (John 15:12)

Golden Rule in the gospels

There is a close version of the Hillel’s saying in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, but with a positive rather than negative prescription:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Torah and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Plain, the Golden Rule is given more simply as:

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)

Rabbi Akiva, c. 120 CE

In the early second century CE, Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, a significant contributor to the Mishna and the Midrash halakha and, later, spiritual leader of the Bar Kokhba War of 132-135, said of the mitzvah in Leviticus 19:18 that:

“‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ is the greatest principle of the Torah”.  Which is almost exactly what Saul of Tarsus wrote to the church in Galatia.

Epistle of Barnabas, late 2nd century

The epistle lays out the Way of Light in chapter 19, giving both prescriptions of the Summary of the Torah but separated by several negative prescriptions on morality and behavior.

Love him who created you: glorify him who redeemed you from death.  Love your neighbor more than your own soul.

Didascalia Apostolorum, 230

This church order includes the Summary of the Torah and the Golden Rule in its opening paragraphs.

‘Love God who has made you, with all your heart, and glorify him who has redeemed you from death, which is the first mitzvah.  But secondly, love your neighbor as yourself, which is the second commandment, those on which hang all the Law and the Prophets. All those things that you dost not wish to happen to you, do not do to others.’

Apostolic Church Order, 300

This church order also begins its discussion of the Way of Life with the Summary of the Torah and the Golden rule..

First, love the God who made you, and glorify him who ransomed you from death, which is the first mitzvah.  Secondly, love you neighbor as yourself, which is the second mitzvah: upon which hang all the Torah, and the Prophets.  Everything that you not wish done to you, do not do to another; that is, what you hate do not to another.

Apostolic Constitutions, 375

Book VII, Chapter II of this compilation is based largely on the Didache, including the Two Ways, generally following its source, but heavily edited.  The exposition of the Way of Life begins with the Summary of the Torah and the Golden Rule.

‘Love the Lord God, who is the one and only God, besides whom there is no other, with all your mind, and with all your soul; and your neighbor as yourself.  And whatsoever you are unwilling to have done to you, that do not do to another.’

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