I pass this synagogue on the way to church on Sunday mornings- the sign outside hasn’t changed since I was a student, but I thought it would be good to check out who Hillel was and I was not unrewarded.
Hillel was a Jewish rabbi who taught in Jerusalem not long before Jesus started his ministry. In fact, he seems to be one of the most important figures in Jewish history.
When I was looking at other stuff he said, I found this:
That which is hateful for you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation. Go and study it.
-Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a
This sounds familiar:
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law (Torah) and the Prophets.
– Matthew 7:12
I don’t think there’s much to say with regards to the fact Hillel uses a negative and Jesus a positive, though Jesus includes the prophets in his version (Joshua- Kings and Isaiah-Malachi), suggesting that he has a higher view of what we now call the Old Testament than Hillel did.
Nevertheless, this is not an uncommon sentiment in the ancient world. There’s a lot that Jesus says about life on earth and concerning other people that many, if taken out of context, would be sympathetic towards without having any specific religious leanings (“Do not judge”, the Good Samaritan, etc), so why would the people follow him over previous great teachers such as Hillel?
Matthew qualifies this at the end of the sermon on the mount:
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
The scribes would have preached based on some other rabbi’s (such as Hillel) authority. It’s clear to everyone that Jesus knows what he’s talking about and everyone is listening to him, and thus his ministry is established. Something special is happening. Then healings. Calmed storms. A feast for thousands from a boy’s packed lunch. A voice from heaven saying “listen to him!”. Rising from the dead.
All these point to who Jesus is -God’s son, with all authority.
Maybe the quote should be:
“If you aren’t going to listen to him now, then when?”