Jesus the Philosopher

There is no doubt that in his own day people thought of Jesus as a philosopher, the kind of teacher you found all over the Roman Empire. His speech patterns and the content of his teaching were the first clue. He used vivid and figurative language, like parables, to enable people to see the world in a different way. Jesus the philosopher proclaimed his own authoritative view on the nature of true happiness in the “Beatitudes,” addressing a major topic in ancient philosophy. He described what it means to be a whole and virtuous person (in Greek, teleios, one of Aristotle’s favorite words) and sharply contrasted the two ways of the “fool” and the “wise person” (the phronimos one, another Greek favorite) by showing their varying outcomes of destruction and flourishing.

Jesus also acted like a philosopher. He called a band of learners to leave their former way of life to adopt his vision. He also modeled for them a certain way of being in the world.  He walked far and wide inviting people to join his traveling school so that they could find true life, both here and in the age to come. Tradition says that Aristotle’s famous philosophical school in Athens went by the name Peripatos because of Aristotle’s habit of walking about while he lectured. Jesus was a peripatetic philosopher extraordinaire.

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At the same time, Jesus claimed to be (and his disciples understood him to be) more than a philosopher. The Gospels and the rest of earliest Christianity proclaimed that he was the anointed heir of the royal Davidic line, an exorcist and healer with unheard of power, the Son of God incarnate. 

It is also appropriate to call Jesus a prophet. All throughout the Gospels we see actions and words that intentionally resonate with the Hebrew people and evoke the well-known stories of Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, and Elisha. These prophets from Israel’s history proclaimed God’s will with divine authority. They performed miracles as testimony to their calling. They warned of impending judgment and gave comfort by reminding the Hebrews of God’s merciful nature.

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This combination of philosopher and prophet can be seen most clearly when Jesus reasons with the Jewish leadership of his day. Whether it was with the political leadership in Jerusalem or, more commonly, with the professional teachers of Torah, Jesus embodied this combined role of prophet and philosopher. Or maybe better said, he showed up in dialogue with his fellow Jewish teachers as a prophetic-flavored philosopher, not entirely unlike Socrates, and with a similar result—annoyance, trial, and forced death. Jesus was a prophetic philosopher, a Jewish thinker among Jewish thinkers in a Hellenized Jewish world, prophetic in his tone and philosophical in his reasoning.

One place we see this at work is near the end of the Gospel of Matthew. With opposition mounting, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to a very mixed reception. The ragtag crowds of the poor and the healed from all over Galilee accompany him to the capital city with great fanfare, celebrating him as the anointed king who has come to bring the kingdom back to Jerusalem (Mt 21:8-9). The Jerusalemites don’t quite see it that way, especially the established religio-political leaders (Mt 21:10-16). Jesus doesn’t win any of them over by causing a small riot in the Temple precincts, turning over tables and chairs and sending pigeons flying (Mt 21:12-14).

These actions result in a direct collision with the chief priests and elders of the city who confront him openly: “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” (Mt 21:23) They are attempting to discredit him, to shame this uneducated outsider with a Galilean accent in hopes of quelling this chaotic scene.

What follows is an elaborate series of stories that read like the climactic scene in a screenplay. Or in first-century parlance, like a Socratic dialogue. First, Jesus turns the tables on his opponents (this time, metaphorically) by responding to their pointed question with a query even more weighty (Mt 21:24-27). He asks them to clarify whether they think the prophet John the Baptizer was sent from God or not. This is a stumper for them because they were no fans of this wilderness prophet John, who bore similarities to Jesus. Yet they also know that he was wildly popular and considered a faithful martyr. As a result, Jesus’ opponents can only answer that they do not know. This is not going well.

Then Jesus the philosopher goes on the rhetorical offensive. He again takes the role of prophetic philosopher by speaking three parables of increasing complexity and challenge (Mt 21:28-22:14). It becomes clear that he is throwing down the oratorical gauntlet with these fable-like stories. This is sounding more and more like a Greek symposium minus the banquet – an impressive and persuasive philosophical speech directed at his opponents.

Now it’s their turn at bat. He has publicly shamed and bested them so far. No more. The Jerusalemite leaders now try their hand at this battle of words. They will play into their strength: theological and biblical acumen. In turn, various subsets of the leadership ask Jesus three theological questions—about tax paying and loyalty to God, about the resurrection age, and about the proper weighing of the Torah’s commandments (22:15-40). In every case Jesus not only answers accurately, but with memorable sagacity. He is quick and witty, a wisdom teacher worthy of the title “philosopher.”

The story could end there with Jesus the philosopher prophet at least holding his own. But the indisputable victor of this public rhetorical sparring is about to become utterly clear. Jesus does not stop at his successful answering of their questions. He concludes this encounter by asking his own question (Mt 21:42-45)—What is going on in Psalm 110 when David calls his own royal descendant “Lord”? How can David be both the ancestor of the Messiah but also submissive to him, a person who exists in a special relationship to the Lord God? The fact that his opponents were not able to answer him at all and “no one dared ask him any more questions” (Mt 22:46) reveals who won.

Ancient or modern Jewish readers may object, saying that this scene is not totally representative of all Jewish thinking and practice. Fair enough. It would be wrong to assume that Matthew was anti-Semitic; he is not attempting to describe all of 1st-century Jewish people but only segments in the leadership that did oppose Jesus. But we can certainly say that Matthew, an authoritative representative of early Christianity, is powerfully presenting Jesus in a way that combines the best of the Greco-Roman philosophical rhetorical ability, Jewish wisdom tradition, and prophetic-reasoning interpretation of Torah.

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