Do and Don’t: The Golden Rule and Its Negative Version
Kevin James Bywater
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While at a British New Testament Conference in 2007, I participated in a number of seminars focused on interpreting the New Testament in light of the literature of Second Temple Judaism. One presenter discussed the positive and negative formulations of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It was noted that most often in the literature of the early church the rule appears in a negative form: “Don’t do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”
Now, some have proposed that this negative form has a more limited force since it merely discourages doing harm to others rather than encouraging the doing of service for them. As such, the negative version may lend itself to a more restrictive application (e.g., “Hey, I didn’t hurt anyone!”). Also, it is conceivable that someone could use the negative form to justify inaction. However, others have proposed that the two forms imply each other. For me, while I could see the positive formulation implying the negative, the opposite is more difficult to manage.
One person suggested that one way to see that the positive version implied in the negative version was through the following illustration:
If my vehicle were disabled on the motorway, I wouldn’t want to be ignored;
therefore, I shouldn’t ignore someone broken down on the motorway.
But I suspect this is little more than a quick transposition of the positive version with a double negative: notice the contraction of should not coupled with ignore (= to take no notice of). Of course, such an ad hoc translation is quite reasonable.
Another person suggested that the negative form of the rule is expressive of a more legalistic religion of prohibitions. (I doubt that necessarily is the case, as I’ll explain below.) It was noted that in the Early Church Fathers one usually encounters the negative version, and that the Fathers even typically attribute this negative form to Jesus, while we only have the positive version recorded in the gospels.
Still another participant suggested that perhaps Jesus did speak the negative version, though we don’t have a record of it in the canonical gospels. Indeed, Jesus certainly said many more things that are not recorded in the gospels (given that they are naturally selective accounts); and probably what is recorded was said multiple times in various ways (which would explain a number of the variations we encounter in the gospels).
As the conversation progressed, I pondered the possible significance of the positive and negative versions of the golden rule. Then I recalled that I had used both the negative and positive forms. As a father, I had instructed my children with the golden rule, in its positive form, hoping to orient them toward virtuous care for and generosity toward others. However, I had also instructed them with the negative form of the rule. This has taken place when I have had to correct them for some wrongdoing: You should not do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you. I noted that I am quite certain I have stated the negative version and even attributed it to Jesus, just as we found in among the Early Church Fathers (and most likely not because I gleaned this from reading the Early Fathers, though I have spent some time in their writings). This brought some chuckles from the discussion group.
Then there was some convergence of opinion that the negative version is quite easily derived from the positive version when one is addressing a context of correction. Perhaps that would explain the negative version as found among the Early Church Fathers. (It definitely would be worth of investigation.) In the end, my own practical experience in instructing my children provided what seems to me (and to the others) a rather meaningful way of approaching the historical, theological, and moral questions attending the positive and negative versions of the golden rule.
I must admit that it is quite enjoyable when real life intersects scholarly discussions of history and theology and ethics. It can be very enlightening, and very satisfying.
(Earlier versions of this post were published on 16 September 2007 and 10 July 2012.)
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While at the conference mentioned at the beginning of this post, I offered a presentation related to the material in these blog posts: