Was Jesus a philosopher?

A local philosophy mailing list has announced a talk being given by a philosophically inclined plumber on Jesus’ philosophy. This rather begs the question* that he was indeed a philosopher. Jesus certainly held ethical principles and taught doctrines, but that is insufficient to make someone a philosopher. Many people have taught things that are in themselves vaguely philosophical, but they are no more philosophers than a reporter discussing political developments is a politician.

So, what is needed to make someone a philosopher? I think that there are two preconditions: one, that the topics are themselves philosophical, and two, that the way the person has arrived at conclusions regarding these topics is through reasoning, and not merely intuition or inheritance. Let’s look at both of these conditions…

I have previously said on this blog that I tell my students that there are basically three broad kinds of philosophical questions:

1. What is there? This is the question of metaphysics. It is not a question about what science tells us there is, because that is physics. Metaphysics is what you are left over with when the facts do not fix the solution. When they do, that is science. Metaphysics includes questions about the reality of numbers, the nature of the physical world, the existence of God, and so forth. When popular bookshops categorise texts as “metaphysics”, they often have quite the wrong idea, treating mystical or doctrinal teachings as being of this “above-science” kind; when in fact they are just claims, unsupported by argument. This raises a point about philosophy that our second precondition engages: philosophy is about argument, not assertion.

2. How do we know it? This is the question of epistemology (from the Greek word epistem?, which originally meant “opinion”, but now means “knowledge”), the study of knowledge methods. In other words, what is knowledge, and how do we get it?

3. What is it worth? This is about morality, aesthetics, and other value-laden matters such as the just society or war. Since the Greeks, this has been cast as what it is that makes a Good Life.

Now, to be a philosopher, and not merely a reporter, one has to present arguments for conclusions. The rational hearer will consider the premises of the argument, and if they are acceptable, will decide if the argument from these premises leads to a particular conclusion. If it does, one is rationally compelled to accept the argument.

So, Jesus: is he a philosopher? I think not, and here is why:

Jesus does not reach his teachings via reason. He does not start with agreed premises, or debate the premises. In fact, if the Gospels are to be believed, he never argued except with the Pharisees (who were in all probability his teachers) and then not for the premises, which he and they shared. This was theological dispute, not philosophy. He does not establish a method by which one can check or assess his conclusions, either. It is revealed to him by God, and his authority as a spokesperson for God is what validates his claims. And there is no way to validate that, either.

His moral claims do not form a system, apart from “God has the right to declare what he wants to be right”, which doesn’t survive the Euthyphro Dilemma. He merely repeats or arbitrarily revises the religious teaching of his time and tradition. There is no reason to think that this applies to all reasonable people, despite what his later publicist Saul of Tarsis tried vaguely to argue in his letter to the Roman church.

His metaphysics are likewise either the product of revelation, intuition, or authority. There is no attempt in Jesus’ teachings to develop any ontology, not in his ipsissima verba nor in the Gospels and sayings preserved elsewhere in the New Testament.

I do not think Jesus is a philosopher. Rabbi Hillel seems to be more of a philosopher, and Philo of Alexandria definitely was. But Jesus is a teacher of religion, and a reformer of religion; however, he is no philosopher. Besides, he never published, and that is death to a philosopher, from which no career can be resurrected.

And he’s not a political philosopher either…


* “Begs the question” means that it presumes its conclusion in its premises, bitches. It doesn’t mean to raise the question, no matter what occasional lexicographers might think. Prescriptivism rules in logic, if nowhere else.


Filed under Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion, Sermon

27 Responses to Was Jesus a philosopher?

  1. Alex

    I recently listened to a Philosophy Bites episode in which Don Cupitt argued that Jesus is best understood as a philosopher (specifically, an advocate of humanistic ethics) when one looks at what his actual historical sayings probably were (he used the findings of the Jesus Seminar). I think “moralist” would be a much better descriptor if it turns out that Jesus didn’t actually focus on religion that much. People can belong to both the philosopher and moralist camps (e.g. Peter Singer), but one shouldn’t conflate the two.

    • John S. Wilkins

      I think when people like Cupitt argue that Jesus is a philosopher there is a fair bit of special pleading going on – their own theology is heavily philosophical and so they project that on Jesus, just like everyone else does. Moreover, the “historical Jesus” is unrecoverable, Jesus Seminar or no. I am convinced that a half dozen sayings or so are ipsissima verba, like the ones that have an Aramaic base (“Talitha Cumi”, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani”, and so on) but that is about it.

      Moreover, the very fact that people need to make Jesus a philosopher indicates that they are faintly embarrassed at the lack of status that being, as you say, a simple moralist and religious teacher gives him. Philosophy: it’s a high status job (yeah…)

      • lama sabachthani is a quote from the Aramaic translation of Psalm 22. I suspect that almost all the Aramaic phrases we have from Jesus are from works before his time.

      • John S. Wilkins

        Yes, but the view of scholars is that the Aramaic only has resonance as a true saying of Jesus because there is no other reason to quote it but it being an oral tradition from the source. That Jesus quoted scripture is hardly surprising.

  2. I have a cassette tape copy of a public lecture given by a Christian philosopher about the New Age, which starts off with those same three philosophical questions (how do we know, what is true, what is good). I wonder if it would be fun to listen to this with you holding the pause button so that you can interrupt to argue/agree as appropriate.

    As for Jesus, I think the closest he comes to an argument is when he works backwards from a conclusion in order to prove that the Hebrew scriptures say something or other (e.g. Matthew 22:31-32).

  3. I’m not completely sure I agree with your argument. In particular, while you are correct to point out the Euthypro dilemma, this merely makes Jesus a bad philosopher. It doesn’t make him not a philosopher (how bad a job does one need to do before one loses the label? I’m not sure).

  4. Jeb

    “they are faintly embarrassed at the lack of status that being, as you say, a simple moralist and religious teacher gives him. Philosophy: it’s a high status job.”

    I think the fictional nature of Religion is its strength, in that it can organise and give a seemingly solid basis of authority to such claim’s of a fictive kinship between diffrent kinds of things.

    It’s also rather flexable as the claim can cut both ways, it can seek to give Jesus a status boost or can be used to give philosophy (and indeed the philosopher) a status boost and legitimacy to both choosen career and subject among the faithfull.

    Win win situation.

    I rather like the way the 6th century Irish aristocracy viewed the status of Jesus. He was a man “who had followed a woman’s buttocks across a boundary”.

    This is a straight forward legal definition for a member of the aristocracy who’s male relationships are not local and claims authority status and legal right through marriage and female status (i.e Mary). He is legaly what is termed a cu glass (blue/grey, Wolf/dog).

    An outsider but one above all one with a legit claim to Irish aristocratic top dog status.

    Partly my thoughts on what you mentioned about Rossano’s view on religion as one of relating. I would emphisis its role in creating (rather than relating) and giving authority and status to fictive forms of kinship.

    The status claims of 6th century Ireland seem little diffrent from the contemporary philosophy claim.

    The would be top dog can argue in person but finds it usefull to have a fictive dog with a repetative and familiar bark.

  5. Prescriptivism rules in logic, if nowhere else.

    Only if your logic is not fuzzy!

  6. Ian H Spedding FCD

    Fuzzy logic can be cured by shaving it with Occam’s Razor.

  7. I don’t think Jesus was a philosopher, either; but wouldn’t your criteria cross out quite a few names from the canon? Was Heraclitus a philosopher? There are damn few arguments of any kind in the fragments.

    Maybe “philosophy” is like grue in that it involves proposing fundamental patterns of explanation before Socrates and making up rational arguments after Socrates. Or maybe the agenda-setting role of philosophy as a sort of higher politics of thinking is always its most important function.

    • John S. Wilkins

      The Fragments are, well, fragments. Imagine we only knew Putnam from a few quotes in some other philosopher…

      One need not always be eaten by a grue.

  8. Ian H Spedding FCD

    I agree with John here. It seems to me that Jesus, whatever else he might have been, was an itinerant preacher not a philosopher. His purpose as revealed in Scripture was not to debate issues or develop new arguments, say, for the existence of a god but to disseminate a revealed truth. He was not even a theologian since he never presented arguments for the existence of his god, except, perhaps, in his discussions with the Pharisees. It’s a shame there are no surviving copies of a transcript of the debate although there is a reference:

    Pharis E E, Sadduce E, Christ J H. “Splitters? Is Christianity opening an irreversible schism in the faith? A debate” Galilean Philosophical Quarterly X(II) pp CLIV-CLXXII

  9. Scott Belyea

    I can be much pettier than previous commenters.

    Inspired by the peevish footnote on “begs the question,” I’ll take a swing at “I think that there are two preconditions…”.

    OK, I’ll accept those as preconditions. But where then are the conditions??

    I mean, preconditions surely precede and require conditions.

  10. Peter Kreeft answers the title question in the affirmative in his book The Philosophy of Jesus. The four sections of the book:

    Jesus’ Metaphysics (What is real?)
    Jesus’ Epistemology (How do we know what is real?)
    Jesus’ Anthropology (Who are we who know what is real?)
    Jesus’ Ethics (What should we be to be more real?)

    Haven’t read the book myself, so I can’t comment on his arguments.

  11. Allen Hazen

    Damn! I can’t remember the reference, or the scripture passage. But… a few years ago I looked at a collection of essays by contemporary Christian philosophers that was on the “New Books” display shelf at the U of M library, and one was called something like “Jesus as a philosopher.” Author pointed to ONE episode in the gospels in which, it seemed to him, Jesus was engaged in philosophical analysis. Of course, he started his essay by admitting that essays could also be written on “Jesus as a comedian” and several other as-a’s as well: there’s sarcasm in some of the sermons that makes me think your man was damn good at stand-up comedy!

    Mind you: your characterization of what a philosopher is stresses the activity of philosophy, the process rather than the product: even someone who isn’t a philosopher in that sense can have “a philosophy”!

  12. MPL

    It seems unlikely that Jesus would have considered himself a philosopher, either in the historical context (????????? was a decidedly Gentile habit at the time), or in some anachronistic modern context (hard to imagine him publishing in a university somewhere). I don’t see much sign his followers would have considered him one either.

    • John S. Wilkins

      I think he would have fit in well in the sociology department of the University of Watermouth around 1972…

    • John S. Wilkins

      After 2009, sure. That’s where the sociologists are these days…

      • MPL

        Not in New York, not after Guliani, Bloomberg, and all the law-and-order stuff. Keep those sidewalks clear!

        • John S. Wilkins

          Sociologists aren’t clever enough to steal and they aren’t respectable enough to beg. I’m sure they are permitted in Times Square…

          [Oh, now that's going to start a disciplinary spitting contest. So just to head it off: I'm kidding, okay? Philosophers and theologians are also permitted in Times Square, for the same reasons. It's scientists who should not be allowed out without minders...]

  13. george bardsley

    To the extent the authors of the Gospels were influenced by the the Hellenistic and Roman culture of the first century, they were well aware that 0ne common understanding of the philosopher was based upon and analogy with the physician.

    The aim of the physician is to seek healing of diseases of the body; the aim of the philosopher is to seek healing of diseases of the psyche. Just as one sees Jesus seeking the healing of the visually blind, so too one sees Jesus seeking the healing of the mentally blind; for example, when he asks Simon a Pharisee in Luke 7.36-50, “Do you see this woman?” Simon only thinks he sees or knows her; Jesus is aiming at Simon correcting his vision or knowledge. Simon will then be able also to see and judge Jesus more correctly.

    • MPL

      The metaphor of a teacher/leader/whatever as spiritual physician is hardly unique to philosophy—it’s a common feature of many religious traditions.

      Moreover, the question was not, “was he a philosopher as the word was used in the first century CE”, but “was he a philosopher as the word is presently used”, and the answer is definitely no.

  14. Jesus was definitely engaged in politics. He argued perhaps to mildly in some of you opinions yet he did. I will just list a few examples..things that are still going on in the middle east which are appalling to us.He opposed burnt offerings which stole money from the poor with false promises. He argued for fair wages and looking as a society as a whole, what was best in everyones interest. He argued against the hatred between tribes and social racism. He argued against stoning, against retaliation but made the golden rule a standard for peace….Take a marker and get an inexpensive bible and get busy and you will find a man ‘strangely involved in politics, social welfare and change..and just as Socrates he had scribes, as did many other philosophers.

Leave a Reply