EDIT: I added "humanitarism" to the title for a lack of a better word - for me it's clear that Jesus teaching was far more radical than even today's humanitarism (one of the consequences is that hardly anyone faithfully follows his teaching today and Christian clergy doesn't push it).

The New Testament was written no later than 2nd century AD. From my understanding, the world during that time was harsh/cruel/ruthless from today's perspective, but it was completely natural for people living at that time. Surely the Greeks and Romans had pretty advanced statehood, including democracy. But that didn't mean that present day values such as compassion, mercy, forgiveness, unconditional love etc. were values for anybody. Instead, they had slavery, eye for an eye, torture, stoning, gladiators, revenges, cult of money - basically a value system completely different from the Christian one. The Old Testament doesn't go nearly as far as the New Testament in that regard either.

Now, it is rather known fact that many people who call themselves Christians had done all those bad things and hadn't followed Christ's teaching for many centuries afterwards. But that's not the point.

The point is: has someone else from that era or others come up with ideas similar to those of the Christ? 8 blessings, "turn the other cheek", giving everything to the poor, "cast the first stone", "love your neighbour" etc. Aren't such ideas very revolutionary for that period? Is there a known case of someone promoting such values before Jesus or after him but with no prior knowledge of Christianity?

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    Today's standards with regards to harshness/cruelty/ruthlessness (in what calls itself Western Civilzation) are at best from the last 100 years. Even during the industrial revolution life was harsh by today's standards, Dickens would make a good example of this. – Carmi Mar 13 '12 at 12:19
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    I do not think that there was any greater cult of money in pre-Christian Roman era than it is now. Many classical authors regarded wealth as an evil, and similarly Jewish Essenes refused wealth. So blaming all pre-Christian word as being affected by overwhelming cult of money is completely incorrect. – Anixx Mar 13 '12 at 19:56
  • I think you're confusing governance with religion, which is an apples/oranges distinction. "give everything to the poor" sounds really nice, but if the Roman government had spent nothing on aqueducts & sewer cleaning, everyone would have died of disease. "Give Caesar his due" comes to mind. The two – Mark C. Wallace Mar 11 '13 at 13:29
  • All those quotes you mention originally came from either the Old Testament or other Jewish writtings. The teachings of Jesus are contemporary Jewish teachings, usually from the Hillel school (not that suprising knowing that the early Christianism was a Jewish sect). The one "revolutionary" idea in those is that everybody has to follow these teachings not just the Jews - so making it a proselytizing religion in contrast to the original Judaism. Which in turn had a huge factor in why there were later on inquisition and co... – David Herskovics Jul 28 '15 at 9:35
  • It's a pity that a very interesting question about the context of the New Testament had been turned into flaming and trolling by the OP, specially in comments. – Pere Jul 17 '18 at 20:02

Yes, there were some, more than one and surely more than we know. These known ones were from times about 6 centuries before Christ.

Scriptures of Buddhism were not less revolutionary. Buddha is considered as a teacher of people and gods. Christ had never reached so far.

Avesta of Zarathustra was the first documented teaching of kindness.

Even in the Bible itself there are prophets, that were before Christ.

Being good, kinder than people around you is always hard. In times of Christ, 600 years before him or 2000 years after. Christ became the symbol of kindness for really many people, but historically he was not unique in his kindness. (Thank God.) Yanush Korczak, for example, chose to go into gas cameras of the death camp with his orphans.

As for probability, every time when some society degenerated in morals, sooner or later came somebody or somebodies, who created new moral system that originated a new society. The rarity of the Crist/St. Paul's feat is in the fact, that their feat was not forgotten. And I would say, that the fact that they could live long enough to create Christianity and even to become known personally shows that the society they lived in was far from being the most cruel one.

  • "every time when some society degenerated in morals, sooner or later came somebody or somebodies, who created new moral system that originated a new society" that would be the first absolute law in history, as there are no absolute laws in history. Please don't state things you can't prove. – Jeroen K Jan 10 '14 at 12:09
  • @JeroenK It is not an absolute law. It is a working rule of thumb that works until the human kind exists. When this rule fails, the humanity will die off. – Gangnus Aug 1 '18 at 21:43

First of all I want to point out that Christianization did not bring any improvements in moral standards at the time. Conversely, the moral was gradually degrading whether due or not the advent of Christianity.

Ancient Rome had possibly the most extensive legislation on social care and charity at the time, which included orphanages, pensions, alimentary systems, free public schools, free food distribution and so on. This spanned all the free population but with advent of Christianity was restricted only to Christians.

Judaism at the time also had a tradition of charity and helping the poor.

Regarding many of the Jesus teachings they were either universal principles accepted by most peoples (such as helping the neighbors, which is necessary for the people's survival), borrowed from Judaism or just impractical and never implemented such as turning the other cheek (the principles of deterrent, retribution and self-defense are very ancient ones and were never abandoned to this day).

Regarding slavery, the early Christianity and the Jesus' teachings were not opposed to it. The rights of slaves were gradually improving in Roman Empire before Christian age and this pattern continued under Christianity. At the same time the status and rights of a free man, citizen were gradually degrading in favor of the rights of the nobility.

You also mentioned stoning which I suppose was a kind of capital punishment. But Christianity never opposed capital punishment, only the methods could change. Capital punishment is widely used in Christian countries up to this day.

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    reasons for the downvote? – o0'. Mar 13 '12 at 18:45
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    @RobertLee, I do not think giving everything to the poor had led to any extensive practice among wealthy Christians. Anyway both Judaism and Romano-Greek cultures had extensive traditions of asceticism, temperance and abstention to the extent of refusing all wordly pleasures. – Anixx Mar 13 '12 at 19:05
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    I suggest you to read this book that sheds light at asceticism and self-sacrifice in ancient world: scribd.com/doc/27204597/Asceticism-in-the-Graeco-Roman-World Quite close to your question, Diogenes persuaded Crates to reject all his wealth. Regarding your claim that those who do sins are not Christians any more, I doubt this doctrine is adopted by any Christian church. The both Catholic and Orthodox churches agree that even priests including the pope can sin. What is important in Christian doctrine is sincere repentance rather than just not doing sins. – Anixx Mar 13 '12 at 19:29
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    You are whining, you are flaming, you are trolling. I'm pretty sure Jesus wouldn't have done that, please behave, and stop. – o0'. Mar 14 '12 at 8:42
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    RobertLee, you asked what was similarly revolutionary as the Jesus teachings, and I just put that I think Jesus teachings were not revolutionary at all. Many of things he said were a compilations from older teaching or common sense. I am quite sure he was familiar with stoics as he spoke Greek. – Anixx Mar 14 '12 at 14:30

Actually, I'd say there's a pretty good chance you are misinterpreting some of these things. For instance, "Turn the other cheek" is often misinterpreted by modern people. It really should be known as "Turn the left cheek". It isn't about "humanitarianism" at all, but rather dealing with an oppressor. See the accepted answer for When do we as Christians draw the line on self-defense? on Christianity.SE.

As for your general question, The Beatitudes I think are fairly instructive here. To Christians (such as myself) this is arguably centerpiece of Jesus's teachings. However, most of the concepts in the Beatitudes can be found in the Old Testament, so the ideas themselves had clearly been around in Semitic philsophical/religous cirlces for hundreds of years.

What was unique about the Jesus movement was that the teachings and writings were popularized over such a wide area so effectively. The only prior example I know of in history that I'd consider similar would be the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (complete with its own version of the Golden Rule) which spread around the Asian continent at roughly 200 BC.

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