The rise in secular ethics corresponds with the decline in transcendent-based ethics. Within the former I understand there is a growing interest in Classical Values, like the four Roman Cardinal Virtues ? ‘courage’, ‘moderation’, ‘prudence’ and ‘justice’. These were the ideals of the upper orders, which were also self-regarding, if not self-centred.
The one voice from a lower stratum in antiquity was that of Jesus from Nazareth, an artisan and self-educated rabbi. His rabbi’s judgements were applicable back then to all social levels from bottom to top. Since then they have proved timelessly applicable at all times and in all cultures.
Take for example his judgement on payment of a tax now to be paid by each person direct to Caesar. To deny the tax in line with zealot agitation would condemn him as another troublemaker and to approve the payment would unite him with the corrupt temple authorities.
His ‘render to Caesar the things of Caesar and to God the things of God’ brilliantly saved his life, but more importantly pegged the ground for relationships with Caesar and God. Keep the two separate was his shrewd advice. Pay the taxes to ‘the powers that be’ (to use St Paul’s words) and fulfil all duties and privileges of a citizen. When you turn to worship, however, let it not be to ‘Tiberius Caesar, Pontifex Maximus, son of the deified Augustus (words on the denarius coin), who is a mere mortal. Direct your worship to the Almighty. No theocracy here nor sectarian separation, but a clear demarcation between the realms of Caesar and God. This is a basis for liberal democracy.
Another judgement was his interchange with a religious lawyer over the question: Who is my neighbour? The parable narrated the practical care a hated Samaritan showed to a Jew in trouble, whose two fellow Jews (each religionists) ‘passed by on the other side. ‘Good Samaritan’ is universal language for charity for those in trouble. The early Christians put this into effect by initiating hospitals and hostels for anyone in need, regardless of creed or nationality. The apostate emperor Julian attempted unsuccessfully to copy the ‘Galileans’. This was to come later in the welfare state.
The hero of the story was a not a broadminded Jew who somehow found it within himself to help a contaminated, untouchable Samaritan. Unimaginably in those racist, tribal times, it was an ‘unclean’ man who helped a ‘clean’ man who fell among thieves.
Other examples relate to ‘family life’. In Jewish society only men could initiate divorce, which they did by handing a wife a certificate. In Roman society wealthy men and women initiated divorce, which they did with such frequency that it was said they did not mark the year by the elected consul but by the new spouse. In Graeco-Roman society it was not unknown for men to marry sisters and mothers. Their gods had shown the way.
Rabbi Jesus quoted Genesis, ‘From the beginning God…made them male and female’ who in marriage become ‘one flesh’. He added this ideal, ‘What therefore God has joined together let not man separate’. To his words about lifelong, faithful marriage he added that children were not to be brushed aside but deeply valued. The bones of children have been found in Roman sewers, confirming reports of the maiming and exposure of unwanted infants.
Hard working parents dedicated to the care and education of their children help create stable societies.
The Mishnah (c. AD 200) reports numerous judgements and counter-judgements by the great Jewish teachers but it is no surprise that the words of the founder of Christianity do not appear. Church and synagogue had separated by then. His judgements sound deceptively mundane but their universal and timeless applicability raises the possibility of transcendent origin.