Where Did the Golden Rule Come From? October 2, 2010

Where Did the Golden Rule Come From?

What? You mean the Golden Rule didn’t originate with Christianity…?

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  • JulietEcho

    Nice. I wish those had dates attached, or that there was some indication that they’re in chronological order (I think they are?) but otherwise, nice presentation.

    Of course, the easy Christian answer is that the God-given moral sense that all humans possess inspired those pre-Biblical writings. I’ve found that whenever you point to something Christianity borrowed, or has in common with many other, older belief systems, conservative Christians just take that as further proof that God is awesome. They treat them almost like prophecies.

  • The Talmud is Hebrew, while the Mahabharata & the Hadith post-dates the New Testament fwiw. (and how did Jesus even hear about Buddhist or Confusious’ teaching?)

    The modern version of the golden rule seems to be:

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – unless they don’t agree with you, in which case it’s open season.

  • Technically, none of the students mentioned the Golden Rule, which promotes positive behavior. They all used the Silver Rule, which prohibits negative behavior.

    However, the Golden Rule also has origins much deeper than Christianity, so the point remains the same.

  • I have a professor who swears that the golden rule came from Christianity, so he finds it ironic that Humanists use it.

  • Chris S.

    As near as I can tell, the oldest of those would be the Analects, the Dhammapada, the Babylonian Talmud (thought it wasn’t written down until much later), and the Mahabharata in no particular order. It’s hard to tell with some of them, though, because they enjoyed such a long oral history before they were written down. The Hadith is most certainly the youngest, though.

    As far as the “Golden” vs. “Silver” version of the rule mentioned above, I much prefer the negative version. Some people would want a lot of things done to them that I would never want done to me, after all.

  • Robert

    To be more accurate, the golden rule first appears in the Bible in Leviticus which was written about 1440 B.C. So it predates Christianity.

  • Bob

    So, if the Golden Rule comes from Christianity, and it’s impossible to arrive at this conclusion through rational thought or any other belief structure, then …

    … how is it, exactly, that God created man to be so abysmally stupid and without morals? Heckuvajob there, God!

  • Believe it or not, Andrew, the Greeks would have had some notion of the existence of Buddhism at least. Following Alexander’s conquests, already-Buddhist areas of central Asia were infused with Greek aesthetics, leading to a style known to us as Greco-Buddhism.

    As somebody who studies Classical Greco-Roman history and geography professionally and Asian history and geography as a hobby, I find that fact to be particularly spine-tingling. Central Asia was a very interesting place about 2000 years ago, and it makes me rather sad that Islam had to happen to it.

    Unrelatedly, I find it slightly disappointing that some other clever student in the comic didn’t cite Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

  • Edman said:

    Technically, none of the students mentioned the Golden Rule, which promotes positive behavior. They all used the Silver Rule, which prohibits negative behavior.

    That’s an interesting way to look at it. Does that mean that christians who do good to others expect something in return? I mean, other than rewards from god, but something in return from those they did good to? Does the ‘silver rule’ mean that you don’t expect something in return?

  • John Small Berries

    That’s the first time I’ve heard the assertion that the “Golden Rule” appears in Leviticus, Robert – any chance you could provide the book, chapter and verse of it?

  • @Seseron – that’s quite interesting.. I mean, it’s one thing to say that the Asian-religious ideas predate Christian ones, or whatever, but it’s quite another to show that borrowing actually took place. While I accept that there could very well have been some influence with greek through by Buddhism, in general it’s very difficult to place Jesus outside the dominant second temple Judaism (which as has already been said, had this idea in the Torah anyway – Leviticus 19)

  • CosmicThespian

    I pointed this out to my brother once (a pretty hardcore Christian) and his retort was that the Bible is the first time it was defined as a positive vs a negative (i.e. “do” versus “do not”). The Bible stated it as a positive action, something to do, rather than something not to do….if that makes any sense. I’m not quite sure what the significance of that is supposed to be. Nor am I even certain of its validity — I didn’t really care enough at the time to look into it more. Seeing this comic just reminded me of that.

    Carry on.

  • Leviticus 19:13-18

    Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight. Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD. Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD. Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.

  • JB Tait

    Be excellent to each other.
    – Carlin

    The New Testament golden rule doesn’t necessarily work. What if the other doesn’t want done unto them what you want done unto you?

    I would rewrite it, “Do unto others with kindness and compassion, and try to ascertain what would please them.

  • Stephen P

    I assume that Robert is referring to Leviticus 19:18 – “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” – which isn’t quite the golden rule, but is close enough.

    I would however like to know the source of his claim that it was written around 1440 BC – partly because I doubt it’s as old as that and partly because I’m sure that no-one can date it accurate to the nearest decade.

  • JB Tait

    19:18 Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge against the children of your people.

    You must love your neighbor as [you love] yourself. I am God.

    Right next to:

    19:19 Keep My decrees:

    Do not crossbreed your livestock with other species.

    Do not plant your field with different species of seeds.

    Do not wear a garment that contains a forbidden mixture of fabrics.


  • mcbender


    I’ve heard that response from Christians before, and I think it’s important to point out that the “positive” formulation is not necessarily a good thing. Let’s think of it this way:

    Suppose I enjoy having something done to me that most people do not (e.g., I’m a masochist or some such). Does that then mean I should go and do this thing to other people, even though it will be unpleasant to them, simply because it’s what I would like them to do to me?

    The negative formulation seems to work a bit better, if only because people tend to have more in common in terms of what they don’t want to experience than what they do. Either way, however, I think the “golden rule” or “silver rule” or whatever you want to call it is overly simplistic. The Kantian Categorical Imperative seems to work a bit better, but it too has its problems…

    The golden rule cannot be used to define morality. It can be a convenient rule of thumb if you interpret it as “if you are considering doing X to somebody, and if you have no other way of determining whether or not it is a good idea, consider your own reactions and extrapolate to determine whether people in general would like it if X were done to them”. However, that is not a moral rule – it’s just a convenient approximation for people who don’t have time to work everything through.

  • Robert

    Numerous Biblical scholars date the first five books of the Bible to between 1600-1400 B.C.

  • Stephen P

    @Robert: maybe, but what is the source of their assertions about the dates? Are they basing their assertions on what they would like to be the case if the whole story was true as written, or on evidence as to when it was actually written?

    According to Tim Callahan, for example, the Priestly material of the Pentateuch (which makes up much of Leviticus) can be dated to later than 700 BC by the Assyrian names found in it.

  • DaveD

    Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. 😉

  • Andrew:

    I’m not saying that Buddhism actually did influence anybody in Judaea two millennia ago, just that it’s easily plausible. There was communication between Buddhists and Greeks, and between Greeks and the people of Judaea (side note: contrary to what crackpots like Mel Gibson think, the Roman authorities in Judaea would have spoken Greek, because it was a common-enough lingua franca in the eastern Mediterranean at that time that Latin never caught on over there, which is why most of the Romance languages [French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese] are in the west).

    I think it’s far more likely that some permutation of the Golden Rule was one of our species’ primordial moral tropes, having outperformed most other competitors in the memepool, than that Buddhism directly influenced Christianity (though there’s plenty of evidence for Christianity borrowing oodles from more nearby pagan religions, most flagrantly Mithraism, which was derived from an Iranian cult and therefore a close cousin to the Dharmic faiths).

  • fiddler

    A great many biblical scholar estimate the first appearance of the “tribe of israel” and it’s writings between 350-500 bce. Very few estimate it’s age more than 1000 bce.

  • nankay

    Ooo..this hits a sore spot. 20+ years ago when I was in my 1st year of teaching (geography/world cultures) I would make a point of showing some sort of common thread that ran through various cultures. In one unit I used the very same writings used in this cartoon and man o man did the Sh*t hit the fan. One student (8th grader) said in no uncertain terms that Jesus said and she didn’t believe anybody else had. I pointed out that just because other people over the course of centuries had said the same thing didn’t lessen the importance of the message. Sigh. Next thing I knew I was blasted by angry phone calls from parents and a sit down “talking to” by my principal who was less than supportive.

  • Platinum Rule:
    The Platinum Rule is a moral principle related to the Golden Rule that people should treat others as those others would like to be treated.


  • Fentwin

    I’ve always heard that a sadist is nothing more than a masochist following the golden rule.

  • Hilary

    “You’ve heard of the Golden Rule, haven’t you? Whoever has the gold, makes the rules.”

    – Jafar, Disney’s “Aladdin”


  • Hitch

    Rule 1: Simple rules fail in some cases.
    Rule 2: Rule 1 applies to Rule 1 and Rule 2.

    In any case the Platinum Rule beats the Golden Rule because it encodes perspective-taking and empathy beyond projection.

    The problem with the Golden Rule is that it has the “I can tell you what’s right because it’s right for me” problem.

  • MH

    So we have the silver, gold, and platinum rules. To round out this collection of coinage metal rules, we need the copper rule!

  • nankay

    Copper rule: Shit Happens

  • JimG

    The “Silver Rule” is really just a condensed version of saying you wouldn’t do, or haven’t done, anything nasty or unfair; and a detailed version (42 objectionable action long, to be specific) can be found in the Negative Confession of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (more properly called the Book of Coming Forth by Day, to be really pedantic about it). At least parts of that date back into the sixth millennium B.P., which puts it more than 2,000 years before the oldest parts of the Bible. And Egyptian religion was very much alive just south of Judea, so it’s quite possible the authors of Leviticus had a little inspiration.

  • Robert

    They are basing their assersions upon archeology, studies of other cultures mentioned in the books and the evidence we have of when those cultures existed, where those events as described fit with the known dates in other parts of the bible, etc. Throughout history most biblical scholars have dated the book to between 1600 and 1400 B.C.E. Some say it was not completed until later but would have undoubtedly been based upon oral tradition dating back for centuries.

  • ihedenius

    lol @nankay

  • Secular Stu

    I pointed this out to my brother once (a pretty hardcore Christian) and his retort was that the Bible is the first time it was defined as a positive vs a negative (i.e. “do” versus “do not”). The Bible stated it as a positive action, something to do, rather than something not to do….if that makes any sense. I’m not quite sure what the significance of that is supposed to be. Nor am I even certain of its validity — I didn’t really care enough at the time to look into it more. Seeing this comic just reminded me of that.

    That isn’t true.

    There’s Leviticus which says “love they neighbor as thyself”, but it wasn’t until the NT that the specific positive Golden Rule shows up. That would be around 33 A.D. if you’re being generous, yet other religions have positive versions that predate that. (If the internet is correct: “A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated. – Jainism. Sutrakritanga 1.11.33” and “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence. – Confucianism. Mencius VII.A.4”)

    Even if you were to give credit to Leviticus for the Golden Rule, and even if that statement in Leviticus predated all other religions that said the equivalent of “love they neighbor”, it would be possible to give credit to the Bible but not to Jesus. When Jesus mentions the Golden Rule, he’s just quoting existing law:

    Matthew 7:12: Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

    And then there’s Luke 10:25-28:

    And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

    So even a lawyer could come up with the Golden Rule:)

  • Matt

    So nobody else here, thought that the golden rule was: “The person with the gold rules”?

  • muggle

    Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

    Excellent rewording. The other way is so egotistical.

    I’ll also second JB Tait.

  • Vicenta

    Even though I am among fellow minded her (mostly) I must say it’s a little disappoint to see that you only search for the origin of rules like “the golden rule” in different texts.

    As an atheist I look to science, and psychiatry has answers to the origin of morality, that in fact it’s innate and knowing a basic wrong from right is found even in animals as it’s been a necessary step in evolution.

    Yes – morality goes hand in hand with Darwin.

    That this golden rule appears in texts everywhere is logical as it is PART OF HUMANITY. We don’t need to hear it from anyone else – it’s pure logical survival.

  • evinfuilt

    I was pretty sure the golden rule was “He with the gold makes the rules.” Citizens United Ruling, 2010 USA.

  • Commenter

    Who invented the term “Golden Rule”? And when? To me these questions are vital if we want to understand a concept. I haven’t been able to find anything about this side of the subject anywhere. Anyone out there care to enlighten me?

  • Ebaffsprung

    What makes Christianity unique is not its ethical rules which have much in common ( as has been proven) with that of other religions & cultures. It is the historical truth-claims about Jesus & God’s history with the Jewish people that makes that faith unique. If Jesus was in fact resurrected, it makes his ethics plenty worth listening to. 

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