Some Christians mistakenly believe that Jesus was the first person in history to express the ethical precepts taught in the Golden Rule. Many of the things Jesus said and did were unique in history, but we must also remember that Jesus’s intent was to fulfill the Hebrew scriptures. Much of what Jesus says and does are then based upon the words already recorded in the Old Testament. In addition, the Bible teaches that God has etched the moral law into the heart of every man (Rom 2:14-15) , so that nobody can claim ignorance of it. Therefore, it would be surprising if an ethical maxim like the Golden Rule had never been uttered by anyone before Jesus. So what is the history of the Golden Rule?
Michael Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), writes about the Golden Rule:
This maxim is a commonly accepted basis of human civilization, and has been expressed in other contexts throughout history in both positive and negative forms. Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca (4 BC– AD 65) expressed the principle positively, ‘Let us show our generosity in the same manner that we would wish to have it bestowed on us’ (De Beneficiis 2.1.1), while Chinese philosopher Confucius (551– 479 BC) stated it negatively, ‘Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you!’ (Analects 15: 23; for other examples, see Betz 1995, 509– 16).
The precept appears to have been a common theme in Judaism at the time of Jesus. Tobit gives a negative form of the principle, ‘Watch yourself, my son, in everything you do, and discipline yourself in all your conduct. And what you hate, do not do to anyone’ (Tobit 4: 14b-15 NRSV). Hillel the Elder, an authority on Jewish Law (c. 70 BC– AD 10), supposedly held this motto, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.’ In the only text in the whole of rabbinic literature that attributes the saying to Hillel, the Elder goes on to say, ‘That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn!’ (b. Šabb. 31a; see Alexander 1997, 363– 88).
Wilkins goes on to address the criticism that Jesus is adding nothing new to the Golden Rule with his teaching.
Critics have denied the uniqueness of Jesus’ teaching because this Golden Rule has been expressed in other contexts throughout history. Although the basic idea can be found elsewhere, Jesus’ expression of the Golden Rule represents a more demanding interpretation of love of one’s neighbor than was normal among other teachers of the time (France 2007, 284). Jesus’ teachings were significant because of the authority with which he taught as the Son of God who has come to fulfill the Law (5: 17– 20; 7: 28). Whereas other expressions of this saying indicate ethical aspiration, Jesus declares that the Golden Rule is the normative manifestation of his followers’ discipleship.