We previously discussed the concept of brotherhood in earliest Christianity (1 2 3). We saw that conversion involved a transfer of one’s fundamental identity. Individuals who were compelled by the message about Israel’s God and His Son effectively betrayed their families, their peoples, and their gods and in the process gained a new family, a new people, and a new God. These new social relationships required the same loyalty as the old ones: sons and daughters were to do the Father’s work and brothers and sisters were to carry each other’s burdens. In return, the Father would prove zealous for His people.
I want to now make some observations concerning another social category relevant to early Christianity: the neighbor (πλησίον). While it has been popular to understand the term neighbor as referring to all humanity, I believe the distinction between brother and neighbor is less than clear in the New Testament texts. So let’s ask, Who was an early Christian’s neighbor?
We should begin by identifying the origins of Jesus’ neighbor-love command in Leviticus 19. Whatever innovations Jesus may have made, we should expect him first to be a Torah-obedient Jew.
The book of Leviticus is a constitution for life in community. It is eminently concerned with the behaviors necessary to preserve Israel’s life in the land. The threat of God’s wrath against sin sits ever present. If the community does not cut off wicked practices, the land will surely vomit the people out.
In this context, as in the early Christian context, all sin is of communal significance and therefore must be dealt with as a community. The courage to reprove a fellow Israelite is thus of great importance because it safeguards the sinner and the community from divine judgement. Likewise, the self-control required to reprove rather than resort to vigilante justice prevents the community from descending into chaos and annihilation. Out of these practical concerns comes Leviticus 19:16-18.
You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
The word neighbor is here used interchangeably with “your people,” “anyone of your kin,” and “any of your own people” (cf. Jeremiah 9:4). Jay Sklar acknowledges this Hebrew parallelism and writes in his commentary “these verses teach Israelites how to respond when wronged by a fellow Israelite.” We should conclude then that what is at issue in this passage is the life of the covenant community; it is not a general command to love all people or treat all people the same.
While this appears to be the best reading of Leviticus, one existing in the 1st century (cf. Matthew 5:43), many argue that Jesus broadened the definition of the term by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. That might well be the case. But I’d like to test that hypothesis among other New Testament instances of the word in a systematic fashion. I list all instances of πλησίον below and attempt to ascertain the referent in each case.
Matthew 5:43—”You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”
The neighbor is a non-enemy, a friend. Jesus makes a parallel statemen in the following verse, using “brother” as a synonym for “neighbor.”
Acts 7:26-27— “And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ But the man who was wronging his neighbor pushed Moses aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?'”
The neighbor is the Israelite’s brother, his kinsman.
Romans 13:9-10—”Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
The neighbor is a member of the church. By loving “one another” the Christian fulfills the love of neighbor-love.
Romans 15:1-2— “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.”
Paul writes this in the context of controversy within the church (Romans 14). The neighbor is the weaker brother or sister.
Galatians 5:13-15—”For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Paul is again speaking on the topic of community cohesion, much like Leviticus 19. The neighbor is a brother or sister.
Ephesians 4:15—”So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”
The neighbor is a member of the body of Christ, a believer.
James 2:1-17—”You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’… What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
James introduces the royal law in the context favoritism shown among those who “come to your assembly.” He asks “have you not made distinctions among yourselves…?” James then juxtaposes the rich person who is favored with the examples of a destitute believer who is not cared for. The neighbor is therefore very likely a member of the church community.
James 4:11-12—”Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?”
The neighbor is a brother or sister.
So what are we to make of these uses? If Jesus did broaden the definition of neighbor, the authors of the New Testament don’t appear to be aware. A revisiting of the parable of the Good Samaritan is therefore justified.