The Golden Rule - “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” - is normally attributed to Jesus of Nazareth and is considered to be one of the greatest contributions of Christianity to the world.
However, the saying did not arise within a vacuum, as if some white, long-haired, blue-eyed englishman in funny looking clothes made it up. It was developed from and heavily depended on, previous Biblical and Rabbinical sources. This is not to take away anything from Jesus’ contribution but to better understand the role in which he played within normative, first-century Judaism.
The Torah first depicts an early form of the Golden Rule in the following two verses.
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Leviticus 19:18
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God. Leviticus 19:34
Upon this framework, Rabbi Hillel (110 BCE - 10 CE), one of the foremost authorities on which contemporary Rabbinic Judaism is built, is said to have been one of the earliest sources to which the modern form of the Rule is developed. The following passage describes how it came to pass:
[I]t happened that a certain heathen came before [Rabbi Shammai - a contemporary and rival of Rabbi Hillel] and said to him, 'Make me a convert, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.' Thereupon [Shammai basically smacked him upside his head for wasting his time]. When he went before [Rabbi] Hillel, Hillel said to him, 'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.' - Talmud, Shabbat 31a
In the same way, Jesus summed up what the entire Torah taught, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12.
However, Jesus’ version differs from that of Hillel in an important and profound way. Hillel’s version was a negative command - to refrain from acting badly; however, Jesus’ version was a positive command - to act uprightly. There is a very large difference when carrying out both versions. One requires only to refrain from doing evil, while the other, not only requires that, but also requires good deeds to be done to others.
The significance that this would have raised in the minds of first-century Jews would have been profound. They knew the famous teaching of a renowned rabbi of the time, but Jesus takes that saying, and by changing it slightly, grants it deeper meaning, aligning it more closely to the Torah command.
The Golden Rule is a tool whereby one who is unknowledgeable of the Torah can utilize it to determine what is generally required by it. Hillel used it in such a way, and Jesus said nearly the same in Matthew (above) and in Luke (see below).
And one day an authority on the law stood up to put Jesus to the test. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to receive eternal life?” What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you understand it?” He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.’(Deut. 6:5) And, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ ” (Lev. 19:18) “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do that, and you will live.” Luke 10:25-28