Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

The Bad Jesus, Love, and the Parochialism of New Testament Ethics

Many scholars of New Testament ethics claim that Jesus brought an innovative teaching when he urged his followers to love their enemies. Hector Avalos, author of The Bad Jesus (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015), argues that such a claim is historically untrue, and reflects the parochialism of New Testament ethics, which often degrades the ethical accomplishments of pre-Christian Near Eastern cultures in order to enhance the ethical “advances” of the putative founder of Christianity. As such, New Testament ethics is still situated within an ecclesial-academic complex that is more engaged in apologetics than it is in historical-critical scholarship.

See Also: The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015).

Fighting Words: The Origins Of Religious Violence (Prometheus Books; 2005).

Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013).

By Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
July 2016

Click here for article.

Comments (9)

I have long thought that the second edition of John's Gospel went to some pains to introduce in chapter 15 the ideas of friends of God and of laying down life for friends, previously found in the Symposium, ie to comment on those already famous ideas.
The element of comment on existing ideas brings us to the question of the Jesus of tradition vs. the Jesus of history, the person represented in the texts we read vs. the person(s) who, on analysis by us, would underlie those representations. There seems to be some ambiguity in Professor Avalos' discussion between these two figures.
The traditions about Jesus created by Christian intellectuals must have been influenced by all sorts of other traditions, most importantly those found in the Septuagint but also those found elsewhere. That is how the intellectual classes operate. They may not have achieved complete originality in ethical ideas - who does, who could? - but I think we may credit them with a restatement, remix and reconstruction of existing ideas in an exceptionally vivid way. It is through John, not directly from Plato, that most people know about the idea (I don't assume that it's a good idea) of sacrificial friendship. It is possible to write by way of response and commentary and still achieve a form of originality. I think we could say the same of the Hebrew-Greek Bible which draws so much on an international library of pre-existing texts but is still something important, for good or ill, in its own right. To be personal, Virgil is my favourite poet, the only one I have read every year of my life since schooldays, even though he draws so much on Homer and others. I find that he brings his inherited material into something which I can recognise as the power politics of our 'developed' world: I consider this to be originality.
Levine et al. raise the further question of whether there was a historical person accurately represented by the tradition and of whether the degree of originality that appears (or appears to my mind!) in the tradition is due to the insights of
that person. The kind of evidence adduced here from over a millennium's worth of sources is hardly enough for this purpose, I would think. We would need information quite narrowly focused on Palestine in the early first century and I doubt if that is available.
#1 - Martin Hughes - 07/28/2016 - 16:41

I think there are a few more examples of people being kind to their enemies in the Hebrew Bible besides the two you mentioned.

David was not allowed to kill Saul because he was G-d's anointed, even though Saul was trying to kill him in 1 Samuel 26:9-11. Ahab was kind to a king who tried to kill him and that other king's advisors even said that the kings of Israel were kind in 1 Kings 20:30-34. In 2 Kings 6:18-23, a prophet told the king of Israel to feed enemy soldiers that were blinded by G-d and brought to the king of Israel and not to kill them.

Kenneth Greifer
#2 - Kenneth Greifer - 07/29/2016 - 03:45

This essay is truly on target. It reflects Hector Avalos’ substantial body of work, in which he highlights major (and often heavy-handed) biases in New Testament scholarship. Why don’t (or can’t) NT scholars see the box they’re trapped in? –or as Avalos calls it, the “…ecclesial-academic complex that has no counterpart in any other area of the humanities.” How can these scholars ever achieve objectivity about Jesus—even a certain threshold of critical thinking would be welcome—as long as they are weighed down by a faith commitment? They put the best possible spin on Jesus, or as Avalos puts it, NT scholars want to convince the world that “Jesus never did anything wrong.” It’s almost as if these scholars don’t expect “ordinary” readers to notice the grievous ethical flaws that stand out in Jesus’ teachings. Luke 14:26 is perhaps the biggest stumbling block—the famous “hate your family” text. In The Bad Jesus Avalos demonstrates that the word “hate” in this verse means exactly what it seems to mean. The full, devastating implication of this text is that Jesus was a cult fanatic—certainly the gospel author who created this Jesus-script was.
And the adjective “delusional” can be added if Jesus really did expect the Son of Man to return, bringing a frightful swath of death and destruction: there would be more suffering than at the time of Noah. What does that say about “love” (for enemies or others) being one of Jesus’ greatest values? Why don’t people grasp that Jesus earns major demerits for this? Avalos quotes Amy-Jill Levine’s take, namely, she calls it “God’s justice breaking in.” This amounts to giving horrendous divine vengeance the best possible spin, in the interest of keeping Jesus clean. Knocking all the rough edges off of Jesus seems to be the main concern. As long as the church remains a primary influence in NT studies, rigorous scholarly honestly about Jesus will be compromised. By the time I finished my PhD work in Biblical Studies at Boston University, I had become an atheist. I had learned too much at seminary! I opted for a career in business, rather than immerse myself in an academic world that took God for granted. And, by the way, I consider it a moral failing to teach, “Love your enemy.” That is far beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Of course, there can be standards of behavior in relating ethically to enemies, e.g., treat them decently as fellow human beings, do no harm, etc. But love? If Jesus counseled this, he had little understanding of the complexities and limitations of human emotions.
#3 - David Madison - 08/01/2016 - 18:41

"Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ." (Ephesians 6:5)

Considering that slaves could be beaten (even to death), sold, or prostituted, this injunction to slaves is nothing short of an amazing lapse, incognizant of basic human dignity. So much for the supposed transcendence of Christian ethics.

Jesus refers to gentiles as curs (Mark 7:27; Matthew 7:6), and Jesus says he was sent "only" to Israel (Matthew 15:24). The fact that the mother church in Jerusalem resisted gentile conversions without full conversion to Judaism supports an ethnocentric Jesus.
#4 - Robert Conner - 08/01/2016 - 21:09

Avalos' exegesis of the "hate" passage, at least in its original iteration in Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (I have not yet read his last two books) is utterly ludicrous, as I demonstrate in How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test for Faith. Facing hundreds of passages carrying some of the most eloquent teachings on love in human tradition, Avalos asserts that it would be "arbitrary" to privilege THAT interpretation of Jesus, because there are also "hate" passages. In practice, this one passage on "hating your parents" is made to do almost all the work of supporting Avalos' argument. (Because the others tend to say things like "hate evil and love good.") And he accomplishes that miracle of eisegesis by proving tone-deaf to the rhetorical device Jesus is using, which surely ancient peasants could have picked up on in a moment (as has most of humanity) even if Dr. Avalos remains deaf to it. And of course that one highly rhetorical mention of "hate" is vastly outweighed by hundreds of imprecations towards and examples of love.
#5 - David Brooks Marshall - 08/02/2016 - 01:51

Mr. Marshall, by his own admission, has not read The Bad Jesus. That book devotes a whole chapter to Luke 14:26 that is far beyond anything in Fighting Words in terms of evidence and attention to the different defenses that have been used, including so-called "rhetorical" devices. Mr. Marshall might find it useful to read The Bad Jesus, and address its specific arguments, before commenting.

The subject of this essay, in any case, is not Luke 14:26, but the claim that Jesus was an innovator when it comes to loving one's enemy. Mr. Marshall neither addresses the evidence in this essay nor refutes my conclusion regarding this claim.
#6 - Dr. Hector Avalos - 08/02/2016 - 04:13

David, what is the rhetorical device Jesus is using? If you were to put Luke 14:26 into words that did not use any rhetorical devices, but whose meaning was the plain and direct meaning of the words, what would it say?
#7 - Paul Rinzler - 08/02/2016 - 14:21

I have just spent a very unedifying hour looking up commentaries and interpretations of Luke 15. Perhaps I hate myself for doing it. The sheer awfulness of the arbitrary, blandly assertive rewriting which goes on certainly helps to make Professor Avalos' point. The frequent appeal to hyperbole makes me feel rather ill. What could we make of an instruction to feel a constant, maybe mild (!) sense of disapproval and dislike of our children and at least a steady wish that we were dead?
There seem to be many NT passages that reflect or are notes upon a tangled theological debate of which we know so little that the passage makes no sense. I was thinking that of Galatians 6 the other day - perhaps I'm being too autobiographical! - after being assured in church that it was a neat summary of the whole Epistle. I just can't make out what it means.
On the history side, I think this tells us of a fairly long and controversial process of editing before the NT came fully into the light of day.
However, I'll venture to say that the strange nature of the text is part of its claim to originality - ie to present via 'the Jesus of tradition' an idea about love of enemies etc. that was and is vivid, memorable and powerful in a way that no predecessor was. The appearance of suddenly strange and conflicting elements in the text actually helps it to work, surprising readers and stopping them from finding the whole thing insipid, as the author of Luke 14 might put it. I don't say that this is a deliberately planned effect, but an achieved effect I think it is. Perhaps an effect ruined by the commentators and their maddening rewrites.
#8 - Martin Hughes - 08/02/2016 - 16:49

I agree 100 percent that religious Bible scholars are biased and try to protect their religious beliefs, but I also think that anti-religious Bible scholars are biased and only want to see negative things about G-d and the Bible. Actually, I also think that "neutral" Bible scholars are biased and only see what they want to see in the Bible because every human being is biased. Maybe someday Dr. Avalos will write a book about anti-religious Bible scholars only seeing the negatives in the Bible. Until atheists are considered biased too, I don't trust what atheist Bible scholars say any more than what religious ones say. They all have to tell half-truths and leave out what they don't want you to know because their arguments will be weaker if they tell the whole truth.

Kenneth Greifer
#9 - Kenneth Greifer - 08/04/2016 - 12:30

Use the form below to submit a new comment. Comments are moderated
and logged, and may be edited. You must provide your full name.
Inappropriate material will not be posted. Please do not post inappropriate web sites, they will be deleted.

E-mail (Will not appear online)