Religious Syncretism: Pagan Origin of the Golden Rule.

Christianity, like most ancient religious traditions, did not evolve within a vacuum.  It was influenced by the adoption and modification of non-Christian (and non-Jewish) cosmologies, mythologies and rituals.  Although subtle, the synchronizing of Christian theology with Greco-Roman philosophy was exceedingly influential in its initial development, and eventual acceptance by non-Jewish communities.  A philosophical tradition founded and promulgated by Greek Pagans. 

Christianity’s Golden Rule

In The New Testament of the Bible, the books of Matthew and Luke purport to record Jesus’ pronouncement of the Beatitudes, during what many Christians refer to as ‘The Sermon on the Plain‘.  In the following verses Jesus tells his followers that they need to love their enemies, turn the other cheek and to do unto others as they would have done unto themselves.   Per the Book of Luke (6 verses 27-31):

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.  Do to others as you would have them do to you. [Emphasis added]

The Pagan Golden Rule by Aesop

GooseDog

Amphora stopper with a dog and a goose inspired by the Aesop’s fables from Antinopolis. Egypt (dated c. 4th-6th century CE).  Getty Collection

Modern Historians and Classicists are divided whether or not Aesop was an actual person or an invention of ancient historians who predated Herodotus.  For those who believed Aesop was a historical person, it was commonly believed that Aesop had been a slave before obtaining his freedom.  Aesop’s manumission had been the result of his profound intellect and ability to give sound advice, not only to his master, but also those outside his master’s household.  On a rather tragic note, Herodotus records that Aesop was wrongly killed (murdered) at Delphi by a mob of people.  If Aesop was an an actual person, he most likely lived during the mid (or late) seventh through early (mid) sixth century BCE (c. 650-550 BCE).  For the purposes of this discussion, whether Aesop actually existed is of little importance.  What is important are the fables (moral stories) attributed to him.  As a brief aside, there is strong evidence to suggest that some of ‘Aesop’s Fables’ originated in ancient Sumeria (c. 1500 BCE).

This corpus of fables, known in antiquity as the Aesopica, where not just simply children’s stories.  Even the term fable is problematic, implying some dubious or mythological origin to them.  The Aesopica were basic tenets of Greek morality (proverbs) taught widely throughout the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods.  In fact, the Aesopica were routinely referenced by Greek and Roman philosophers and often served as the basis of further philosophical inquiry, examination and critique.  So widely known were the Aesopica that few Greeks or Romans would not have known some, if not most, of the 725 fables of the Aesopica.  Even those who were partially or completely illiterate learned the core body of the Aesopica via oral tradition and/or rote memorization.  In addition to the story (narrative text), an important feature of the Aesopica was the inclusion of ‘the moral of the story’, often as a single line of additional text which defined the philosophical, religious and/or moral truth of the proverb.

The Fox and the Stork

          A fox was jealous of his neighbor the stork for her elegance and grace. He longed to find a way to make her look foolish, and at last he had an idea. “My dear friend,” he said, hiding his cunning with gracious manners, “would you be so kind as to join me for dinner?”

          “Why, I’d love to,” replied the stork.

          But when the stork arrived at the fox’s house, all he served her was a thin broth in a shallow bowl. The hungry stork could only wet the tip of her long bill, while the fox lapped up his dinner eagerly. But the stork didn’t complain, for she was hatching a plan of her own. “What a delicious dinner!” she said politely. “You must dine with me tomorrow, good neighbor.”

          When the fox arrived at the stork’s house the next day he smelled a delicious fish soup. He licked his lip eagerly. But when he got to the table, the soup was served in a tall glass jar with a narrow neck. With her long bill, the stork drank her soup easily, but the fox could only lick a few drops from around the neck of the jar.

          “What is this?” he growled. “I can’t eat this, and you know it!”

          “My dear friend,” replied the stork calmly, “I’m sure you will enjoy this dinner just as much as I enjoyed the one you served me.”

                  Moral- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. [color and italics added.  Also See Notation Below.]

Discussion

Can historians definitively attribute the origin of Christianity’s Golden Rule to the Aesopica?   The simple answer is no.  What is important to examine and consider is the nearly four centuries of pervasive Greek (followed by Greco-Roman) cultural influence upon the regions of ancient Syria, Judea and Egypt- which were themselves the key origin points of early Christianity.  What is the likelihood that Hellenized Jews absorbed, in whole or in part, the philosophical tenets of the Aesopica?  While somewhat allegorical, Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BCE to 50 CE), serves a powerful example of the synchronization (often referred to as harmonizing) of Greek and Roman philosophy with Jewish religious and cultural practices.  The other source of synchronization is academically undeniable- that is, knowledge the Aesopica by Greek or Roman converts to Judaism and/or Christianity.

So what does Greek philosophy have to do with religious synchronization?  What is important to remember is that in antiquity philosophy covered a broad-range of inquiry, such as: nature and existence of the gods, cosmology, naturalism, the nature and origins of evil, to name just a few.  For the Greeks and Romans and despite numerous schools of philosophical thought (Neo-Platonists vs. Epicureans vs. Stoics for example), these philosophical traditions were intrinsically tied to religion (with various degrees of religiosity or complete lack thereof).

As previously mentioned, Christianity’s Golden Rule is referenced only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  While Matthew is generally considered to have been written between 80-90 CE, the dating of Luke is much more problematic, with a disputed range of 80-100 CE (or later in some cases).  In either case these are later accounts of Christian theology date 30 to 50 years after Paul’s authentic epistles and the conversion of an unknown number, no doubt considerable amount, of formerly Greek and Roman Pagans.  While inconclusive, there is undeniably strong evidence to suggest that the origins of Christianity’s Golden Rule was neither Christian nor Jewish, but in fact Greek and thus Pagan.  That is assuming of course the story of The Fox and the Stork originated in Greece and not in ancient Sumeria (also Pagan).

Notations and References:

Biblical Text- New International Version (translation).

Regarding translations of The Fox and the Stork, several alternatives are know to exist.  Some which include no moral statement at the end (in red text above) or which give the alternate text as “One bad turn deserves another.”

 

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About Patrick Lowinger

Patrick Lowinger holds a M.A. in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University (AMU) and B.S. in Microbiology (1993) from California State University, Long Beach.
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