The Strange Exile of Jesus
Liberal education, among other things, aims to engage the most influential and significant thinkers in history. Professors urge their students to join the great conversation on matters of goodness, truth, justice, and beauty. The ideas and arguments of recognized philosophers form a firm part of the canon. Recently, many have argued that this canon should be widened to include the voices of women and non-Western thinkers. If we read Aristotle, why not Confucius and Mary Wollstonecraft?
One thinker remains oddly exiled—outside nearly everyone’s canon of noteworthy intellects, despite the fact that no one has transcended his influence in global history. He wrote no books, but neither did Socrates or Buddha. The historicity of the documents that record his life and thought have been disputed, but this is true for nearly all ancient thinkers. The four short accounts of his brief life have generated more historical and literary analysis than perhaps any other texts. While the thinking of those who were inspired by his life and teachings—whether Augustine, Aquinas, Martin Luther or Martin Luther King—is often studied, the actual philosophy, argument forms, and worldview of Jesus of Nazareth is too often omitted from the curriculum of higher education, and from the academic world overall.
There are myriad materials on “the historical Jesus”—what he said and who he thought he was. But these discussions rarely take place outside of religious studies contexts and often fail to address the philosophical dimension of Jesus’ recorded teachings. Most reference books in philosophy omit mention of him. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967) has no entry under “Jesus” or “Christ.” The newer and well-respected Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998) has no entry for “Jesus” or “Christ,” but includes one on “Buddha.”
Many take Jesus to be more of a sage, exorcist, mystic or prophet than a philosopher. Even those who hold to the theological doctrine of the Incarnation sometimes devalue Jesus as a thinker, since they emphasize his statements as authoritative on the basis of his deity, not his intellect.
I was challenged to encounter Jesus as a philosopher when secular philosopher Daniel Kolak asked me to write a volume on Jesus for the Wadsworth Philosophers Series. Scrutinizing the canonical Gospels, I encountered a philosophical mind at work on matters pertaining to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and gender relations. Amidst Jesus’ exorcisms, prophecies, and prayers, one finds a disciplined and discriminating intellect.
But several scholars deny that Jesus was a careful thinker. Historian Humphrey Carpenter claims that Jesus could not be a philosopher because he was a Jewish theist and not Greek. That principle, of course, would exclude Maimonides and many other Jewish philosophers. Neither does it do justice to Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the Gospels. Philosopher Karl Jaspers asserts (with little evidence) that Jesus’ thinking was unsystematic and contradictory, yet shows no appreciation of Jesus’ various ways of reasoning or the coherence of his worldview. Contemporary philosopher Michael Martin argues that Jesus disparaged rationality, since he praised the faith of children. But Jesus commended the humility and sincerity of children, not their ignorance or stupidity. When asked to state God’s greatest commandment, he answered that one should love God with all of one’s being, including the mind.
While Jesus did not articulate a systematic philosophy in the manner of Plato or Descartes (few philosophers have), his teachings, debates, and even prayers indicate a mind ready to think logically and to tackle great issues. The Gospels document Jesus making judgments in the prophetic mode, but not at the expense of Jesus’ use of reason, evidence, and analysis. If the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a philosopher are a strong and lived-out inclination to pursue truth about philosophical matters through the rigorous use of human reasoning, and to do so with some intellectual facility, then Jesus qualifies as a philosopher. Consider two examples of his reasoning.
Recently, philosophers have been exploring the role of moral character in epistemology. Philosophers still rightly ask what makes beliefs qualify as knowledge (truth plus justification or warrant), but increasingly philosophers are also wondering what makes believers good candidates for acquiring knowledge. This is called virtue epistemology; it has a long pedigree going back to Aquinas and Augustine in the Western tradition. Intellectual virtues have classically included patience, tenacity, humility, studiousness, and honest truth seeking. Vices to be avoided are impatience, gullibility, pride, vain curiosity, and intellectual apathy.
There is a strong emphasis on character in Jesus’ epistemology, which is closely intertwined with his teachings on ethics and the knowledge of God. He not only gives arguments and tells parables, he calls people to intellectual rectitude and sobriety. Jesus’ familiar moral teaching about the danger of judgmentalism contains an epistemological element easily and often overlooked.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye (Matthew 7:1-5).
This passage is frequently taken to forbid all moral evaluation, as if Jesus were a relativist. But Jesus has something else in mind: a clear-sighted self evaluation and a proper evaluation of others based on objective standards. He stipulates that all moral judgments relate to the self as much as to the other. When one judges others, one is implicitly bringing oneself under the same judgment. One will be measured by the same measurement one employs. Therefore, a person needs first to search her or his own being for any moral impurities and seriously address them (“take the plank out of your own eye”). Only then is one in a good epistemological and ethical position to evaluate another, to “see clearly” the speck in another’s eye.
If I fail to evaluate myself by my own standard, I cannot rightly discern the moral status of others. Accurate moral evaluation requires knowledge of the self, and allows for no special pleading. The hypocrite is not only morally deficient, but epistemologically defective as well. By failing to be subjectively attentive to one’s conscience, one fails to discern moral realities objectively. Thus people will often condemn others overly because they ignore or obscure their own transgressions.
Several incidents in the Gospels illustrate Jesus’ ability to escape deftly from between the horns of a dilemma when challenged. One famous response from the twenty-second chapter of Matthew is quite philosophically nuanced. Disciples of the Pharisees and several Herodians asked Jesus a controversial political question. The Pharisees were ardent nationalists who opposed the rule that Rome had imposed on the Jews in Palestine. The Herodians, on the other hand, were followers and defenders of the Herods, the Roman rulers who strictly governed Palestine. After some initial flattery about Jesus’ integrity, they tried to spring a trap. “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Jesus faced a dilemma. If he sided with the Pharisees, he might be seen as an insurrectionist and a dangerous element (as were the Zealots, Jews who defended violent revolution against the state). If Jesus affirmed paying taxes, he would be viewed as capitulating to a secular and ungodly power instead of honoring Israel’s God. He would be denounced as disloyal. As Matthew tells us, the Pharisees had “laid plans to trap him in his words.” Jesus responded by asking for the coin used to pay the tax, a denarius. He asked, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” They replied that it was Caesar’s. Jesus uttered the now famous words, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” At this the delegation dispersed in amazement at his answer.
When confronted with a classic dilemma pertaining to what we would call church/state relations, he finds a way out logically. Jesus gives a place to the rule of Caesar under God without making Caesar God. Caesar’s portrait on the coin (a bust of Tiberius) had an inscription ascribing deity to the emperor. In differentiating Caesar from God, he strips Caesar of his supposed deity.
Jesus’ saying, while short and pithy, has inspired many political philosophers to explicate and apply the concept of a limited state in relation to religion and the rest of culture. While not offering a developed political philosophy (no one was asking for that, anyway), Jesus shows a deep awareness of the issues involved and responds intelligently under public pressure.
In light of these examples (and I could cite many more; see my On Jesus), I encourage professors in the humanities to rectify the omission of Jesus from the canon of philosophers by asking philosophical questions of the figure dominating the Gospels—questions about Jesus’ worldview and patterns of reasoning. Challenge students to bring new questions to these old texts—questions that don’t fit nicely into stereotypically religious molds. One might discover new dimensions of Jesus’ thought and new significance as well. Jesus, the philosopher, should be released from the religious ghetto and welcomed into the classroom as an intellectual participant in the discussion of things that matter most.