What is the Great Commandment?

Great Commandment [Gr. entole megale], in Christian thought, refers to the question asked of Jesus in Matt 22.36, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”, often translated, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” (cf. parallel passages in Mark 12.29-33; Luke 10.26-27) and to Jesus’ answer, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment” (Matt 22.37-38). What is surprising about Jesus’ answer is that he does not refer to a specific commandment of the Decalogue, that is Ten Commandments. Instead, Jesus’ answer refers back to several Old Testament passages from Deuteronomy, specifically 6.5; 10.12; 30.6. Jesus also goes on in his answer to cite Lev 19.18 which he refers to as the as “the second” great commandment. The implication for Christian ethics is that love for God and love for others cannot be separated. Matthew does not relate any further discourse between the questioner and Jesus though Mark 12.32-34 records that the questioner, a scribe, agrees with Jesus, adding that these two are “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

This question is asked of Jesus in the context of a series of controversies recorded by Matthew between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. This question is the second in a series of three whose apparent aim is to trip Jesus with regard to the fulfillment of the Law. Had Jesus not responded to this test appropriately, his Jewish opponents could have accused him of trying to abolish all or parts of the Law. While Deut 6.5 and Lev 19.18 (the basis for the second part of Jesus’ answer) were often quoted together for purposes of rabbinical ethical discussion, Jesus’ use of them as a summary for all the law and the prophets was new and creative. It was also a brilliant answer to the Pharisees who tested him because it allowed Jesus to go beyond the mere external requirements of the law to the inward devotion and commitment required of those who sought to live righteously before God rather than simply to impress others.

These two great commandments are related to what are known as the “Two Tables of the Law”. The first four commandments make up the first table which relate a person’s duties to God and so include prohibitions against idolatry (inward or outward) in the commandments one and two, a prohibition against dishonoring God’s name in commandment three, and a command to observe the Sabbath in commandment four. The second table of the law explains a person’s duties to their fellow human beings in commandments 5-10 which begins with a commandment to honor parents, which is the foundation of all order in society, and continues through prohibitions against such things as adultery, theft, and covetousness. Jesus also provides, in Matt 7.12, a summary of the Law that relates to this second table of the law).

The Great Commandment is not alluded to as such in the rest of the New Testament or in early Christian literature except in Didache 1.2.

In Jewish thought, the Great Commandment is the second greatest commandment stated above, commonly referred to as “The Golden Rule” or “ethical reciprocity”. Rabbi Hillel (110BCE-10CE), who lived before Jesus, cited Lev 19.18 as the great commandment in Talmud, Shabbat 31a, the “Great Principle”. (The Talmud is the written collection of rabbinic teaching on the Jewish Law).

Paul’s use of the Jewish form of the great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” in Rom 13.9 and Gal 5.14 demonstrates his background in or familiarity with rabbinic thought.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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