What Did Love Mean to Jesus? Pt 2, or How Can Love Be COMMANDED? (Avalos and The Bad Jesus)

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by Neil Godfrey

Assyrian king's treaty commanding love from his vassal.
Assyrian king’s treaty commanding love from his vassal.

I am overviewing only one chapter in The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. There is much more to Hector Avalos’s critique. Some of the points I touch on here are elaborated more fully in subsequent chapters. (I am looking forward to catching up with those subsequent chapters though I probably won’t be able to post on them individually. See my earlier post for a list of the topics covered. Note that Avalos’s chapter 3 concerning Jesus’ command to hate has been raised in part in earlier publications and touched on in my 2010 post The Dark Side of Jesus: His call to hate one’s family to be his disciple: note also the more extensive depth in which this theme is tackled in the contents of The Bad Jesus.)

The most striking point for me about Avalos’s analysis of the concept of love as found in the Bible is his explanation of how it pertains more to an antiquated master-slave/lord-vassal relationship (or to use Thomas L. Thompson’s metaphor, a Mafia Godfather family relationship).

Far from being mutual or self-less, agape [=love]may describe behavior that entails violence, not to mention other hierarchical behaviors. Part of the reason for the change [towards the realization of this lord-vassal context of love] is that previous scholars had been too eager to divorce the New Testament use of agape from corresponding words and concepts in the Hebrew Bible. After all, Christianity was often thought to be bringing something radically new.

The word ‘love’ often designates the attitude and set of behaviors that a Lord expects from his vassal in the ancient Near East. (p. 39, my bolding in all quotations)

Avalos gives us a glimpse of an ancient Assyrian “treaty” (seventh century BCE) with a subject king:

(You swear) that you will love Ashurbanipal, the crown prince, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord as (you do) yourselves. (See Wiseman, “The Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon”)

The full treaties are of interest beyond the snippets quoted by Avalos. Notice below how the obligations they contain sound so very much like both the directives of the Bible’s “loving God” as well as “ideal love” in our sense of the word — if only they were not part of the master-slave “contract”:

You will not seek any other king or any other lord . . .

(You swear) that you . . . will die (for your lord). You will seek to do for him that which is good. That you will not do to him (anything which) is not good. . . .

(You swear) that you will love Ashurbanipal, the crown prince, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord as (you do) yourselves. That . . . you will not slander his brothers, his mother’s sons. That you will not speak anything that is not good about them . . .

Avalos asks readers to compare these sorts of sentiments with others we find attributed to Jesus. Disciples are to love God more than themselves, to die for Him, to have no other loyalties apart from their devotion to their Lord — to the extent of hating all prior loyalties such as parents — and, of course, to speak no evil. And curses are pronounced upon those who disobey just as they were threatened against the Assyrian vassals.

A very influential 1963 article by William Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy” (CBQ 25.1 1963 pp. 77-87) is important for Avalos’s argument. I quote sections from that article directly:

Love in Deuteronomy is a love that can be commanded. It is also a love intimately related to fear and reverence. Above all, it is a love which must be expressed in loyalty, in service, and in unqualified obedience to the demands of the Law. For to love God is, in answer to a unique claim (6:4), to be loyal to him (11:1, 22; 30:20), to walk in his ways (10:12.; 11:22; 19:9; 30:16), to keep his commandments (10:12; 11:1,22; 19:9), to do them (11:22; 19:9), to heed them or his voice (11:13; 30:16), to serve him (10:12.; 11:1,13). It is, in brief, a love defined by and pledged in the covenant — a covenantal love.

Moran pointed towards implications this has for the teachings of Jesus in the gospels:

If . . . the old sovereign-vassal terminology of love is as relevant as we think it is, then what a history lies behind the Christian test of true agape — “If you love me, keep my commandments”!

I have also tracked down another important article for Avalos, “The Personal is Political: Covenental and Affectionate Love [‘AHEB, ‘AHABA] in the Hebrew Bible” by Susan Ackerman, (Vetus Testamentus, 52, 4 (Oct 2002). pp. 437-458). Building on Moran’s insights, Ackerman concludes that the Hebrew Bible’s words for “love” (both verb and noun forms, and that are translated by the Greek “agape” — the form of love that supposedly indicates the higher form of spiritual or godly love in the New Testament) virtually always point to an unequal power relationship. Love is primarily what the superior gives to the inferior. Example: Jacob loves Rachel but Rachel is nowhere said to love Jacob, and this is true of most male-female relationships. Parents love children, but children are not said to love parents. The exception in the Book of Jeremiah is where the people love various gods, yet this is understood to be a satirical reversal of the norm, a mockery of the inversion of what the power relationships should be.

Avalos concurs to a point but raises a question. Moran had shown that it was normally the inferior party that owed love to the superior in a covenant partnership. So why does the Hebrew Bible speak so regularly of the dominant party, not the lesser, doing the “loving”? Avalos answers:

I believe that this puzzle can be solved if we add one more element to this hierarchical and political view of love. The element is individual privileging. Love functions as a manner to express status differences in which a superior party selects an object of love, who can only return gratitude, affection and service in return. Inferior parties cannot or do not select their superiors, masters or parents.

The idea that the superior party selects the inferior one is repeatedly found in the Hebrew Bible, as in Deut. 7:6. . . . This selection can be acknowledged as simply arbitrary: ‘As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”‘ (Rom. 9:13). (p. 41)

I think Avalos may be correct. At least, this view seems to me to cohere with a similar explanation of covenantal relationships I have read by Thomas L. Thompson.

Nor does Jesus come to relax this hierarchical and commanded-debt form of “love”. Quoting Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, (translated by Philip Watson),

But the love of man for God of which the New Testament speaks is of quite a different stamp. It means whole-hearted surrender to God, whereby man becomes God’s willing slave, content to be at His disposal, having entire trust and confidence in Him, and desiring only that His will be done. 

That’s not the warmly affectionate feeling of love that wafts through My Sweet Lord. It is, however, the foundation of a religion that potentially enables serious followers of the command to do literally anything in the name of that God .

There is much more in this chapter — the relationship between love and violence in Jesus’ teaching and example, the self-interested nature of the ethic, and more — but I think I have covered enough to give readers an idea of the sort of gems they can expect to find in Hector Avalos’s latest book.


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21 thoughts on “What Did Love Mean to Jesus? Pt 2, or How Can Love Be COMMANDED? (Avalos and The Bad Jesus)”

  1. Jesus seemed to spend his life caring for those that society cast away. This was his life of love. This was also the message in the old testament. We read Deuteronomy 10:18 17″For the LORD your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. 18″He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. 19″So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.… (Deuteronomy 10:18)

    1. God in Deuteronomy does not show love for the aliens outside the land of Israel. He is speaking exclusively of those who are among the “people of the covenant”. The miracles of Jesus are evidently signs of fulfilled prophecy, signs of the kingdom as per Isaiah 35. In Mark Jesus is angry with the leper, does not heal anyone who lacks faith (though he could and does elsewhere), would have followers tear apart their families for his sake, etc. But in Matthew yes, he does act more like a wise and caring philosopher — as I will post about soon. Jesus is a figure whom authors use as an agent to teach their respective theologies.

      1. Hi Neil. Happy to be debating passages with a fellow atheist.

        It is incredible that Jesus deals with the leper at all. Leviticus 13:45-46 says 45 “Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt,[a] cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”

        Many manuscripts of Mark 1:41 say Jesus was filled with compassion, not that he was indignant.

        But anyway, I think the point is that Jesus, even though he might have had some understandable revulsion toward the leper, immediately reaches out and touches the leper. If this is not a compassionate ethics in the sense of caring for widow, orphan, and alien, I don’t know what is.

        1. Yes, all but one manuscript (iirc) has “compassion” so the problem is how to explain the one with “indignation”. The principle of the more difficult reading being the original is the rationale for believing “indignation” to be original. One can understand scribes changing that word to compassion but not the reverse.

          Jesus is the ultimate symbol of compassionate ethics for religious and nonreligious alike. The Gospel of Mark is a very strange fish, however. Its Jesus is a dark, mysterious figure who leaves awe mixed with a strong dose of fear in his wake.

          1. Regarding the possibility of the one manuscript changing “compassion” to “indignant,” part of the theme of Mark 1:40-45 is “keeping the secret.” We read that “43 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: 44 ‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone.'” One possibility is that the one manuscript changed “Jesus was compassionate” to “Jesus was indignant” because that redactor wanted to emphasize the theme of “the secret.” In that case, maybe Jesus was indignant at the leper asking for help because he knew he had to heal him, but he really didn’t want the secret getting out.

            1. One can see Jesus as a figure for whom compassion overrode rituals and regulations, and as someone who built a following among the socially despised, including even tax-collectors. But exorcising demons, restoring the dead to life, and curing “lepers” and “withered hands” raise two questions (at least): (1) did these miraculous healings actually happen, and (2) do they not confirm that health is more desirable than disability as a human condition?

              Was this compassion itself a result of his own uncertain paternal heritage and some physical flaw?

              As for Jesus spending his while “life” caring and sharing, this was not all he reportedly did during the maximum three years of “active ministry”. What was he doing in the “missing years” – learning medical and “magical” arts as his early Jewish opponents alleged?

              1. My recent reading on Stoicism has informed me that good health was believed to be neither here nor there — it was an “indifferent” value that stood apart from true values of the soul/character. At the same time, having health is a “preferable indifferent” to ancient Stoics — one can accomplish more good with it than without. This is quite a different concept from the modern view of good health as a right, medical services as a social obligation (well, maybe not so much in the usa? :/( ) and indifference towards suffering as an evil.

                Not that the author of Mark’s gospel was conveying Stoic ideas (he wasn’t), but this was a popular or widespread view at the time. Mark’s miracles serve theological and symbolic (parabolic) functions. They were ciphers to be understood but they were not understood by the disciples (note their and Jesus’ response to the two mass-feeding healings). Their very narrative components were derived from OT allusions to drive home this “parabolic” message — one that was kept secret from the characters but revealed to the readers.

            1. The question arises from two different words: splanchistheis, meaning compassion, and orgistheis, anger. The latter appears in Codex Bezae. The article you linked to argues the confusion arose over similar sounding consonants in the Syriac but I have come across this type of argument several times before and I cannot accept it.

              In cases of homonyms in a context where one is expecting to hear a positive word about Jesus then any potential ambiguities are going to be heard as the one that is favourable to Jesus and in accord with one’s beliefs and wider cultural teachings about Jesus. It is more likely that a monk would be quite perverse to twist “compassion” into “anger” in that context. If he thought he heard “anger” at first he is more than likely to have rethought what he heard and quickly opt for “compassion” for the contextual reasons above. The argument to the contrary defies how humans work, in my opinion, treating them as no more intelligent than a machine.

              Another explanation is mentioned in an earlier post Why Jesus healed the leper in anger — another explanation?.

              I actually thought your earlier explanation above makes sense, too.

  2. The OT gives some mixed messages, as does the NT. Both are collections of many different texts, and are not just one single big inerrant textbook inspired by God. The chief note with Jesus that comes across is indeed compassion for the unfortunate and despised, but that is not the only note. There are other more extravagant and even objectionable ethical demands in the texts as transmitted, allowing for the linguistic and situational contexts.

    1. These are our conventional cultural views of Jesus but Avalos is questioning their validity by critically analysing the evidence, and raising a wider awareness of other scholarship that has likewise done so.

      1. Avalos is on the right track.

        Among related questions is the use of healing miracles and exorcisms at all – quite apart from their selectivity. Not difficult to be “caring” if you can literally raise the dead, cure the blind, multiply food for thousands, etc.

    2. Jesus seems to me to be the embodiment of these sentiments from Isaiah:

      Isaiah 58:6-10 New International Version (NIV)

      “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
      to loose the chains of injustice
      and untie the cords of the yoke,
      to set the oppressed free
      and break every yoke?

      Is it not to share your food with the hungry
      and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
      when you see the naked, to clothe them,
      and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

      Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
      and your healing will quickly appear;
      then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
      and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

      Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
      you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

      “If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
      with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

      and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
      and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
      then your light will rise in the darkness,
      and your night will become like the noonday.

  3. Neil,

    Can you ask Dr. Thompson to release this paper in the form of an e-book? $40 for the article from 1995 is a rather excessive a price. And the only library with it in North America is the University of Quebec in Montreal. I am pretty sure 20 years is enough time passed that the journal wont be offended by publication.

    1. There are older journal articles in different disciplines that are even more expensive. The pricing of academic journals and texts seem intended to put them out of the reach of those without financial means. If you buy the whole issue for $114, that might ease the pain?

    2. The publishers are not likely to surrender the rights they have taken from authors. (Fortunately there is a growing awareness, still relatively incipient though, among authors of the benefits of retaining more of the rights over their scholarly work but that’s no consolation in this case.) Taylor and Francis does allow pre-publication versions to be made open access in a university’s repository but I don’t see it in the University of Copenhagen’s collection and it has been very rare for any academic to retain earlier copies of articles once they are published.

      The article itself addresses the language of patronage in both the Bible and ancient remains: “City of…, house of…, Lord, King, Messiah, Father, Son, Servant, Retainer ….”. Yahweh is in the role of patron, ruling “his house” through kings of Judah. So much to post about! :-/ (Can you find TLT’s email on the web? Maybe he can help? — But I use interlibrary loan services fairly regularly.)

      1. I also checked to see if the article appeared in a recent published collection of Thompson’s essays. No luck.

        Taylor and Francis occasionally provides free access to older issues of the SJOT, so it may not be a bad idea to contact them directly.

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