Was Jesus a Philosopher?
This question was posed by the moderator at an early Republican presidential debate in 1999: “Who is your favorite political philosopher?” George W. Bush surprised, if not stunned, his fellow candidates, moderator, and audience when he tersely declared, “Jesus Christ, because he changed my life.”
At the philosophical level, we might say candidate Bush dropped the ball. He gave a religious or devotional justification for his choice of Jesus as favorite philosopher instead of stipulating just what it was about Jesus as a philosopher that he valued above other philosophers.
The responses to Bush’s one-liner ranged all over the political map. Was his response just shameless, pious posturing? Or was it a sincere and disarmingly modest confession—or just inappropriate in that setting however sincere it may have been? In any event, Bush’s clipped but controversial response raises a deeper question largely if not entirely avoided in the popular press: Was Jesus—whatever else he may have been—a bona fide philosopher? If the answer is Yes, several other engaging sorts of questions emerge: What kind of philosopher was he? What did he believe and why? How does his philosophy relate to that of other philosophers? Does his philosophizing have anything to contribute to contemporary philosophical debates? Further, just what is a philosopher anyway?
Jesus and the Philosophers
Jesus remains a potent symbol for influencing opinion, political or otherwise. Some teenagers wear bracelets with the initials WWJD, which stands for “What would Jesus do?” This reveals that they regard him as a moral exemplar, the ideal ethical agent, who should be emulated because of his character and insight. The same perspective is expressed in the classic medieval text on spiritual devotion, The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas á Kempis.
Some today claim to know Jesus’ essential philosophy and use it for marshalling mass opinion. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) launched a campaign in 2000 claiming that Jesus was a vegetarian. One of their advertisements features an iconic depiction of Jesus surrounded not by a nimbus, but by an orange slice. It reads: “Be merciful. Go vegetarian.” Claiming that an ancient Jew who celebrated Passover was a vegetarian is highly implausible. Nevertheless, the campaign shows the importance people place on Jesus’ outlook.
No one can sanely question the global, historical, and perennial influence of Jesus of Nazareth in every area of human endeavor. In a work limited to Jesus’ influence in Western culture, the esteemed historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote:
Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?
In the last several decades the most explosive growth of Christian belief has occurred not in the West, but in the developing world. Moreover, Jesus’ influence has never been confined to the West. He was, to steal a term from Hegel, a “world-historical” figure, whose life continues to radiate and resonate worldwide.
But none of this directly answers the question before us: Was Jesus a philosopher? Most reference books in philosophy apparently think that Jesus was not a philosopher, given the lack of references to him. For example, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967), long a standard reference work, 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.” Even the recent resurgence in Christian philosophy, evidenced by the size and influence of the Society of Christian Philosophers, seems to have done little to counter these conspicuous omissions. Karl Jaspers includes Jesus (along with Socrates, Buddha and Confucius) in the first slim volume of The Great Philosophers (1957), but this is rare. As we will see, Jaspers did not esteem Jesus as a philosopher in the classical sense.
Jesus certainly influenced philosophers and thinkers of all kinds (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Pascal, Kierkegaard, etc.), and countless thinkers have philosophized about him (how could he be both divine and human?) but this, in itself, does not make Jesus a philosopher. The philosopher Augustine was very influenced by his pious mother Monica, but that does not make her a philosopher.
One’s religious commitments do not necessarily answer this question a priori. One may worship Jesus as God Incarnate yet be puzzled or even offended at the notion that he was a philosopher. “Isn’t philosophy something the Apostle Paul warned against?” one might object, based on a certain reading of the second chapter of Colossians (verse eight), which warns of “hollow and deceptive philosophy.”
But even those with no fear of philosophy per se may demur at defining Jesus as a philosopher. In a move unlike virtually all other recent histories of philosophy, the Protestant philosopher Gordon Clark devotes several pages to Jesus’ thought in his once-popular history of philosophy, Thales to Dewey (1957).
Conversely, contemporary Christian philosopher Dallas Willard insists that Jesus was the most intelligent person who ever lived. He laments that so many fail to take note of this and instead view Jesus as “a mere icon, a wraithlike semblance of a man, fit for the role of sacrificial lamb or alienated social critic, perhaps, but little more.” For Willard, a religious commitment to Jesus entails a certain view of his intellectual abilities: “‘Jesus is Lord’ can mean little in practice for anyone who has to hesitate before saying, ‘Jesus is smart.’ He is not just nice, he is brilliant.” Willard certainly does not shy away from deeming Jesus a philosopher.
It seems that the presence or absence of Christian faith does not automatically answer the question of whether Jesus was a philosopher. We must delve deeper into the matter by attending to Jesus’ statements in the Gospels.
Jews, Greeks, and Philosophers
Some have excluded Jesus from the ranks of the philosophers simply because he happened to be an ancient Jew, and not a Greek. Historian Humphrey Carpenter entitles a section of his short book on Jesus, “Jew, Not Philosopher.” His assessment trades on the well-worn notion that Jews never developed philosophy because they, unlike the venerable Greeks, were too theological, and, therefore, not speculative. Reason was not their tool of enlightenment. Jews were called to believe and obey a higher authority, which they rarely questioned and never investigated in any truly philosophical fashion.
Carpenter asks if Jesus’ teachings would appear remarkable when contrasted with those of Plato and Aristotle. His answer is that “such a comparison is meaningless.” This conclusion was not reached because of their different ideas about humanity and the good life, but because of their different approach to knowledge. Plato and Aristotle constructed “elaborate philosophical models of man and the world, from which they deduced ethical conclusions.” But Jesus supposedly lacked such a system. His modus operandi was “inspirational,” not discursive or systematic. Jesus was unsystematic to the point that he had “no concern with consistency in his teaching.” Although Carpenter allows that philosophers may glean insights from Jesus, “Jesus himself…was no philosopher; his mind was characteristically Jewish.”
Carpenter’s position is puzzling. First, he seems to identify philosophy per se with the Greek philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. While these giants are paradigmatic philosophers, a thinker need not resemble them in every way to be a philosopher. Nietzsche, for instance, is deemed a philosopher by nearly everyone; yet he was not systematic and took pride in that fact. Moreover, he often wrote in parables, stories and aphorisms—methods used by Jesus himself.
Carpenter’s criteria for being a philosopher would appear to shut out Socrates, a character vital to the philosophy of Plato and all subsequent philosophy. Socrates built no system but engaged in protracted dialectic with a host of interlocutors. He was a gadfly and a midwife, not a builder of an intellectual edifice. Worse yet, like Jesus, he wrote nothing. What we know of him is preserved in other’s writings, principally Plato’s. This is another parallel to Jesus, whose words are recorded by others in the Gospels. Moreover, Socrates himself operated in the “inspirational” mode when seized by his “daimonion,” an unphilosophical thing to do, according to Carpenter.
Interestingly, in his discussion of Jesus’ approach to the Jewish Law, Carpenter notes that Jesus did not endorse blind obedience to the Law, “but the kind of reasoning obedience which considers why God has given some particular commandment to men.” Carpenter further maintains that if Jesus thought in terms of conscience, “he would presumably have regarded it as the will of God expressing itself clearly in human reason.” Jesus, according to Carpenter, uses reason in his understanding of God, the Law, and the proper human response to God—yet he is somehow not a philosopher because he was non-rational and unsystematic. This looks inconsistent.
What is a Philosopher?
These reflections show that we cannot proceed further in answering our question, “Was Jesus a philosopher?” without thinking more clearly about the term “philosopher.” What qualifies someone as a philosopher? We can certainly point to uncontroversial specimens, such as Plato and Aristotle. This is an ostensive definition: we pick out a referent that fits the category. But what of harder cases, such as Jesus? Of course, philosophers philosophize, but not everyone who philosophizes is a philosopher, just as not everyone who works on an automobile is a mechanic. We think of most philosophers as intelligent, but not all the intelligent are philosophers. Many individuals’ intelligence may not be invested primarily in philosophy. Neither can we limit the philosophers to those who are formal academics, those who hold professorships in philosophy. Some philosophers, such as Hume, Spinoza, and Pascal, have lacked institutional affiliation, but not philosophical credentials.
Rather than chase down further definitional dead ends, I propose that the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a philosopher (whether good or bad, major or minor, employed or unemployed) 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. The last proviso is added to rule out those who may fancy themselves philosophers but cannot philosophize well enough to merit the title. Even a bad philosopher must be able to philosophize in some recognizable sense. By “philosophical matters” I mean the enduring questions of life’s meaning, purpose, and value as they relate to all the major divisions of philosophy (primarily epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics).
What makes a question philosophical may be highlighted by the following: To explain the physical basis of vision is not, in itself, a philosophical matter, but a scientific one regarding physics and physiology. But to ask whether vision allows us to know the external world as it is in itself is a philosophical question regarding realism and nonrealism. Likewise, to ask whether a personal agent may be immaterial (such as God or an angel) is a philosophical question.
Yet one may speak to life’s meaning, purpose, and value in a nonphilosophical manner—by merely issuing assertions or by simply declaring divine judgments with no further discussion. A philosophical approach to these matters, on the contrary, explores the logic or rationale of various claims about reality; it sniffs out intellectual presuppositions and implications; it ponders possibilities and weighs their rational credibility.
Therefore, the work of a philosopher need not include system- building, nor need it exclude religious authority or even divine inspiration so long as this perspective does not preclude rational argumentation. Being a philosopher requires a certain orientation to knowledge, a willingness to argue and debate logically, and to do so with some proficiency. On this account, was Jesus a philosopher?
Was Jesus a Philosopher?
Despite Jesus’ inclusion in the Great Philosophers series, Karl Jaspers discounts Jesus as a traditional philosopher because he “preaches not knowledge, but faith,” and he “shows little concern for logical consistency.” Jesus was a prophet heralding the end of the world and calling people to a new order of life in light of this immanent urgency, “not a philosopher who reflects methodically and systematically orders his ideas.” He cannot take a “place in the history of philosophy with any rational positions.” However, if Jesus’ lack of concern for knowledge ordered into a system disqualifies him as a philosopher, it should also exclude Socrates, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, who built no systems.
Inconsistency in philosophy, or elsewhere, is no virtue, but a vice. If one affirms A and non-A in the same way and in the same respect, one has affirmed nothing—except a classic defect in reasoning (violating the law of noncontradiction). Nevertheless, some philosophers have viewed consistency with some skepticism, thinking that reality is too complex or opaque for such stipulations. That may have rendered them bad philosophers, but it does not disqualify them from the ranks entirely. Besides, philosophers who explicitly prize consistency (the vast majority) sometimes contradict themselves anyway. This philosophical failing can have small or great consequences for the cogency of the philosopher’s views, but the presence of inconsistencies within a philosopher’s viewpoint does not, by itself, disqualify the thinker from being a philosopher.
In any event, the consistency of Jesus’ teachings cannot be so easily impugned. Jaspers cites just two cases of Jesus’ supposed inconsistency and explores no possibilities for how these might be reconciled. One example contrasts Jesus’ teaching on not resisting evil (Matthew 5:38-42) with his statement that he came not to bring peace, but a sword. How can one be a sword-brandishing pacifist? Yet the passage about bringing a sword (Matthew 10:34-39) has nothing to do with self-defense or military situations, but with the fact that one’s allegiance to Jesus will bring strife and division when one’s family members do not follow Jesus. Therefore, the contradiction between Jesus’ two statements is only apparent and not real.
Jaspers juxtaposes two more sayings of Jesus, which he claims are logically inconsistent. Jesus says that (1) those who are not against him are with him, but in another place he says that (2) those who are not with him are against him. Jaspers does not explain what the inconsistency between these statements might be, so we are left to guess. However, statement (2) could easily be seen as another way of putting statement (1). Thus there are those who are not against Jesus (that is, those who are with him) and there are those who are against Jesus (that is, those who are not with him). So, statements (1) and (2) seem correlative, not contradictory. The point in both cases is that there is no neutral ground; one must be either with him or against him.
But consider the events occasioning both of Jesus’ statements. These two statements are made in different dialogical contexts and serve different purposes. The context for Jesus’ statement that “those who are not against us are for us” is a case where those not in the inner circle of his disciples are seen casting out demons in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:38-41). Jesus tells his disciples that these others are following him as well, although they are not known to the disciples. He explains, “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me.” The context for the other statement, “he is who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30), is Jesus’ confrontation with his theological opponents over his authority to drive out demons. Rather than widening the circle to include those who are already really following him (as in the first case), here Jesus is drawing a clear contrast between his followers and his detractors. While the contexts and purposes differ, there is no logical contradiction between Jesus’ two statements.
Despite Jasper’s claim that all Jesus’ “direct statements are vehicles of a meaning which ultimately evades rational interpretation,” Jaspers later approvingly quotes Hegel on Jesus: “Never have words so revolutionary been spoken, for everything otherwise looked on as valid is represented as indifferent, unworthy of consideration.” Whether this assessment of Jesus is accurate or not, it belies the notion that Jesus’ message is “beyond rational interpretation,” since Jaspers and Hegel rationally interpret Jesus’ message as “revolutionary.”
Jesus did not build a philosophical system in the same sense that Spinoza or Hegel did. Wittgenstein, arguably the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century, did not build a system at all, although he developed a distinctive philosophical method, which in some ways attempts to dissolve philosophical questions. But the fact that Jesus did not “build” a philosophical system does not preclude the possibility that he thought in terms of a well-ordered and logically consistent account of reality and argued rationally with those who disputed it. If he thought and spoke in this manner, he was a philosopher indeed—and the most influential one in Western history.
Some may bar Jesus from the halls of philosophers by virtue of his prophetic or supernatural orientation toward teaching and the rest of his activities. It is assumed that a prophetic or oracular disposition makes philosophizing unnecessary or even counterproductive. If one receives a revelation from above, why argue from premise to conclusion? Why bother with induction, deduction, abduction, reductio ad absurdum or a fortiori arguments and the like when one is divinely inspired? Why criticize another’s argument as fallacious? One would simply announce, declare, or proclaim—or bring down fire from heaven to end the argument entirely. Some Christians might even regard the notion that Jesus was a philosopher as ill-advised or blasphemous, since they take him to be God Incarnate. God has no need of human philosophy, after all.
These objections can be met in two ways. First, one need not bristle at the thought that even God Incarnate might philosophize with lesser beings, if it were for the purpose of engaging their God-given reasoning abilities. After all, the Apostle Paul—taken by many to be a superlative authority on Jesus—claimed that all knowledge and wisdom is found in Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:9). According to orthodox Christian thought, Jesus is not only divine, but truly human: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). However Christians may understand the relationship of deity and humanity in the person of Jesus, they must confess that God in Christ took on a genuinely human nature—reasoning abilities and all. As I will later argue, a close look at many passages in the Gospels reveals that Jesus does engage in careful reasoning regarding the afterlife, his own identity, political obligations, and more. He was not above a good debate. The Hebrew Scriptures, which Jesus revered, report that the prophet Isaiah, speaking as God’s oracle, said, “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18). Jesus would agree.
Second, and more generally, a claim to divine or supernatural inspiration (whether explicit or implicit) need not rule out reasoning and debate in principle. Authority can be established through sound reasoning and the ability to interact rationally with disputants. While the sacred books of theistic religions offer divine pronouncements sans argument, this is not the only mode of divine disclosure possible.
However, as we will discover later in this book, the tone, style, and content of Jesus’ teachings and his debates with the leading thinkers of his day are very different from, say, the manner of Socrates, the quintessential philosopher (if unpublished). Jesus was a unique kind of philosopher. Jaspers underscores this in a passage worth examining:
Jesus teaches by proclaiming the glad tidings, Socrates by compelling men to think. Jesus demands faith, Socrates an exchange of thought. Jesus speaks with direct earnestness, Socrates indirectly, even by irony. Jesus knows the kingdom of heaven and eternal life, Socrates has no definite knowledge of these matters and leaves the question open. But neither will let men rest. Jesus proclaims the only way; Socrates leaves man free, but keeps reminding him of his responsibility rooted in freedom. Both raise supreme claims. Jesus confers salvation. Socrates provokes men to look for it.
I will argue that Jesus’ “proclaiming glad tidings” (the gospel) is not incompatible with prodding people to think; he often did so. Demanding (or, better, encouraging or calling for) faith can occur alongside the rational exchange of ideas, and Jesus illustrated this. While Jesus spoke with “direct earnestness,” sometimes he did communicate indirectly, especially in his parables. Jesus and Socrates do differ dramatically in that Jesus is never described as searching for truth or being gripped by uncertainty. Although Jesus proclaims ideas from a certainty of knowledge, he does leave some questions open (such as the number of those redeemed, why certain evils occur, and the timing of his return). Socrates is a kind of philosophical goad and midwife while Jesus exhorts his listeners to be “born again”—but not without reason and argument in support of the faith and commitment enjoined.
 Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 1.
 On this movement, see Kelly James Clark, ed. Philosophers Who Believe (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).
 Gordon Clark, Thales to Dewey: A History of Philosophy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957), 210.
 Ibid., 95.
 Humphrey Carpenter, Jesus in Founders of Faith (UK: Oxford University Press, 1986), 243.
 Ibid., 244.
 Ibid., 241; emphasis in the original.
 Ibid., 243; emphasis added.
 Karl Jaspers, The Great Philosophers, Volume 1: Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Ralph Manheim (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962), 71.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 94.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid. Jaspers does not cite his source for the quotation.
 See Jaako Hintikka, On Wittgenstein (
 George Mavrodes explores different modes of divine revelation, which include revelation through reasoning, in Revelation in Religious Belief (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).
 Jaspers, 94.