"Testing" scholars with riddles-and God's vindication of the divine wisdom given to his servant-is at least as old as King Solomon (1 Kings 10:1; elsewhere, for example, Ep. Arist. 187-291). In this context, however, the intent is more malicious (compare 16:1; 19:3), related to that of the supreme tempter (4:1).
Some Pharisees ask a question they had probably practiced before, since their own teachers debated among themselves which commandment was the greatest. Although all commandments were equally weighty in one sense (see comment on 5:19), rabbis had to distinguish between "light" and "heavy" commandments in practice (see comment on 23:23).
Jesus' view does not contrast dramatically with views held by his contemporaries. In the late first century Rabbi Akiba regarded love of neighbor in Leviticus 19:18 as the greatest commandment in the law (Gen. Rab. 24:7; Vermes 1993:42); while this is not where Jesus ranks it, it is close. Other Jewish teachers also conjoined love of God with love of neighbor (Test. Iss. 5:2; 7:6; Test. Dan 5:3; Philo Decal. 108-10). Following the Jewish interpretive principle gezerah sawah, it was natural to link two commandments on the basis of the common opening Hebrew word we'ahabta ("you shall love"; Diezinger 1978; Flusser 1988:479).
Yet Jesus' combination of the two as the greatest commandments, which exercised an authoritative influence on subsequent Christian formulations (including Paul's frequent triad of virtues with love as the greatest-1 Cor 13:13), is distinctive (see Vermes 1993:43). Amid the multiplicity of proposals concerning the greatest commandment in antiquity, only Jesus wielded the moral authority among his followers to focus their ethics so profoundly on a single theme (compare Meier 1980:257). Thence comes the early Christian "law of love" (as in Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8; Jn 13:34-35; compare Manson 1963:80).
The first passage Jesus cites in fact portrays the love of God as a summary of the law (Deut 6:1-7); one who loved God would fulfill the whole Torah (Deut 5:29). This passage about loving God was the central and best-known text of Judaism, the Shema (Sema`). Likewise, the command to love one's neighbor as oneself (Lev 19:18; compare Lev 19:34; Mt 5:43; Rom 13:9) expresses a general principle, though its original context applied it to a more specific situation. As in 7:12, Matthew reminds us that these commandments epitomize all the commandments in the Bible.
If left to ourselves, we tend to grasp for power rather than seeking to serve, and this can apply even to the ways we interpret the Bible. In contrast to some modern readings, Jesus here assumes rather than commands self-love (so also Piper 1977; Gundry 1982:449). Thus he elsewhere emphasizes that true love for neighbor is demonstrated beyond one's own circle of favored people (5:43-47; Lk 10:29-37); some texts in Scripture even warn us against self-centered love (2 Tim 3:2; Paul here warns against selfishness, however, rather than advocating masochism or self-punishment, which is also self-centered). But while Scripture summons us to love that is other-directed, it also assumes that all of us-including Christians-need other people's love. Perhaps as we Christians learn to love and affirm one another better (for example, Prov 12:18; 16:24; Eph 4:29), especially the most wounded and vulnerable among us, we will not require as much talk about self-love. Until we learn to behave that biblically, however, it is difficult to blame broken people who desperately try to affirm themselves when no one else will.