“What is love?” asked the older Sunday school student.
The professor replied, “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.”
Alas, the student did not get the joke. The professor tried to turn the tables with another song lyric: “I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.”
Being the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature the professor ceased playing with rock song lyrics and required the answer to come from 1 Corinthians 13. This segued into what was sometimes a mantic or divinatory reading of the passage. Thus to render this ancient passage relevant to modern and personal interests there were times when they interpreted it the way ancient priests read meaning from the entrails of a sacrificed sheep or the way astrologers have always interpreted the heavenly lights. Apply the rule that scripture is a self-explaining system and see what meanings emerge when the word “love” is treated as a cipher for God, or for oneself. (The semantic game itself is flawed, however, because 1 Corinthians does not “define” the word for “love” per se; rather, it offers a series of things love “does” or how it is expressed.)
A more reliable way to understand what the Bible means by “love” is to take Professor Hector Avalos‘s approach in the opening chapter of The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics and examine the way the word is used in the biblical literature as well as in the literature of the wider cultural context (Near Eastern, Greco-Roman) of those scriptural texts.
Though Avalos’s focus is on the figure of Jesus his discussion embraces the wider context of the cultural and literary heritage as it comes together in the words attributed to Christianity’s beloved Son of God. Avalos expresses some dismay that so many biblical scholars (and not only Christian ones) routinely attribute to Jesus an ethic of love that was astonishingly advanced for his day. If these scholars were as well informed about the wider world of ideas from which the Bible emerged as they are about the Bible itself they could scarcely make such claims, Avalos argues.
Take Jesus’ teaching to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Many of us know that this is not really original but is really a citation of Leviticus 19:18. Jesus was quoting the Old Testament. Avalos reminds readers that “your neighbour” in the Leviticus passage
is actually best understood as ‘your fellow Israelite’.
For the details he refers to Harry Orlinsky’s essay, “Nationalism-Universalism and Internationalism in Ancient Israel” in Translating and Understanding the Old Testament; Essays in Honor of Herbert Gordon May (1970), and to John Meier’s fourth volume in his Marginal Jew series, Law and Love (2009).
Indeed, Lev. 19:18 does not obligate universal love, but, in fact, is premised on privileging love for fellow Israelites over love for non-Israelites. (p. 33)
Attempts to reinterpret the passage to make it conform to ideals of universal brotherhood are without “sound linguistic parallels” and “supporting documentation” — and are entirely speculative.
Not that the ancient world was bereft of the concept of “unconditional universal humanity”. The moral teaching of early Christianity was “conditioned by adherence to a particular religion.” To find “modern” ideas of the universality of human kinship one must turn to the predominant philosophy in the Roman world, Stoicism. (The link is to Wikipedia’s notes on the social philosophy of Stoicism.) Avalos cites various scholars including the following (although I have quoted my own selections from them):
In short, Stoic theory is decidedly universalistic in its scope and makes no ethical differentiation between particular groups of people. (Runar M. Thorsteinsson, Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality, p. 192)
Thorsteinsson certainly grants that various moral teachings in the New Testament epistles enjoin a peaceful disposition towards society at large,
However, a closer examination of the texts shows . . . there is a fundamental division between those within and those outside the Christ-believing community. (p. 205. The reference here is specifically to 1 Peter and the epistle of Romans.)