Was Jesus not a teacher after all?

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by Neil Godfrey

Image by Tim Ellis via Flickr

Every scholar engaged in Jesus research is by profession a teacher and so every construction of Jesus the Teacher is formulated by a teacher. These teachers, professors by trade, should wonder if there is not a bit of a Jesus-Like-Us in their constructions. (Stevan L. Davies in Jesus the Healer, 1995)

Most of the Jesus Seminar fellows think that Jesus was not an apocalyptic teacher, so they think that Jesus was a great wisdom teacher, and that helps them to actually preach Jesus, because you can go to the pulpit and say Jesus was a great teacher. (Gerd Ludemann in interview with Rachael Kohn 4th April 2004)

Most scholars, “practically all historical scholars engaged in Jesus research” (says Stevan Davies) “presuppose consciously or unconsciously that Jesus was a teacher.” Davies quotes E. P. Sanders as representative of Jesus research scholars generally and responds with what should be a most fundamental observation:

E. P. Sanders writes, for example, “I do not doubt that those who find the teaching attributed to Jesus in the synoptics to be rich, nuanced, subtle, challenging, and evocative are finding something which is really there. Further, in view of the apparent inability of early Christians to create such material, I do not doubt that the teaching of Jesus contained some or all of these attributes. In short, I do not doubt that he was a great and challenging teacher.” And so, it should follow, we know what Jesus taught. But we don’t. (p. 10, my emphasis)

And this paradigm of Jesus the Teacher usually leads scholars to think of all of Jesus’ activities as teaching moments:

  • Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple” is seen as Jesus’ teaching of the irrelevance of the Temple
  • Jesus’ exorcisms and healings are said to be teachings about the power of the Kingdom of God
  • Jesus’ social interactions and with sinners and sabbath activities are teachings about the Torah
  • Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem for Passover is a teaching about self-sacrifice, etc

So writes Stevan Davies and he sums it all up —

From the “Jesus the Teacher” perspective everything he is supposed to have said and most of what he is supposed to have done constitute one or another sort of teaching. (p. 10)

But there is a problem highlighted by Davies. All the efforts of scholars and king’s men to find out what Jesus taught “do not, in the end, produce a comprehensive and credible picture.” We have, for example,

  • Jesus a Cynic teacher
  • Jesus a rabbinic teacher
  • Jesus a socially radically teacher
  • . . . .

He taught that

  • the kingdom of God was present here and now
  • the kingdom of God was to come in the future
  • one must love all unconditionally
  • one must hate one’s family
  • Israel must be reformed
  • Israel must be destroyed
  • etc etc etc

So does this mean that scholars (as of 1995 when Davies’ book was published) had not found the correct way to understand Jesus’ teachings? Or were Jesus’ teachings simply incoherent? Or was he not principally a teacher at all?

Or is the problem that we fail to understand the social setting in which Jesus lived so that what was clear to his contemporaries has been lost to us?

Davies comments on the work of John Dominic Crossan who attempted to resolve that last question by delving into all he could learn about the social, religious, cultural and political environment of first-century Galilee. Crossan’s work was predicated on the assumption that Jesus’ contemporaries understood him. But did they?

What the principal sources indicate about Jesus the Teacher

Paul: Paul occasionally proof-texts his own opinions with something from the Lord, “but Jesus the Teacher is otherwise of no interest to him.”

Paul swears to the Galatians “Before God I am not lying!” that he made no effort to learn about Jesus and his teachings from eyewitnesses easily accessible to him (Gal. 1:1-2:15).

John: Nor does John’s Gospel contain real teachings of Jesus.

Q and Thomas: Appear to contain teachings of Jesus, but they disagree at many points. Thus Q has Jesus speak of the imminent arrival of the son of man, but Thomas has Jesus speak of the present reality of the kingdom. Those teachings in common are very similar to what other scholars (The Jesus Seminar, Crossan) have deemed authentic, but . . .

But this list conveys no program, has no ideology and, to put it bluntly, makes no clear sense. (p. 12)

What we do find in Q and Thomas, according to many scholars, is a mix of authentic and inauthentic sayings of Jesus. The point of the inauthentic additions was to “impose meaning on” the authentic ones.

Mark: This Gospel expressly states that Jesus’ parables and proverbs were incomprehensible to his audiences. See Mark 4:10-12, 33-34. When the Gospel does say Jesus speaks plainly “we hear Mark’s voice, not Jesus'” (Mark 8:31-32). Even Jesus’ own disciples failed to understand him according to this gospel.

The idea that Jesus’ contemporaries did understand him, even though later generations do not, is a point of view Mark very explicitly denies (8:17-21).

Matthew and Luke: Matthew and Luke disagree over what Jesus taught. Scholars acknowledge that the teachings in each gospel have been worked and edited by their respective authors.

Mark and Matthew and Luke contextualize and supplement sayings [of Jesus] to impose meaning.

Acts: As for Acts, when we read of the apostles summarizing Jesus’ mission, as in 2:22-36 and 10:36-43, there is no sight of Jesus the Teacher. The apostles in Acts show not the slightest interest in preaching the teachings of Jesus.

So are we to conclude that the authors of Q, Thomas, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did not have a clear idea what Jesus’ teachings were? Or were they simply not interested in genuine teachings of Jesus? Or did they disagree with what he taught? Or did they not trust their sources and so revised them accordingly?

Something odd is going on here. (p. 13)

Davies suggests:

[I]t may well be that the very idea that Jesus was primarily a teacher came into being only after his death. Perhaps it was not the case that Jesus’ coherent “message” was distorted after his death and thus we have several very different views of it. It seems more likely that Jesus was thought to have a coherent “message” only after his death and so we have several different creations of it. (p. 12)

It should not be this hard

So Stevan Davies is baffled by many of his colleagues’ confidence that Jesus was surely a teacher.

It should not be this hard. When Sanders, standing in here for nearly all Jesus research scholars, says, “I do not doubt that he was a great and challenging teacher,” I am baffled. Mark doubts it (4:10-12, 8:17-21), neither Paul nor John pay significant attention to those teachings, Luke cares little about the matter (taking Acts as representative of Luke’s bottom-line assessment). (p. 13)

Davies speaks of scholarship being in “a state of near conceptual chaos regarding the message of Jesus the Teacher”:

  • countercultural wisdom sage?
  • peasant Jewish Cynic?
  • Pharisaic rabbi?
  • antipatriarchal communalist?
  • eschatological preacher?

If we cannot know for sure what Jesus’ message was, and if even his near contemporaries were equally uncertain, then on what basis do we think Jesus was “a great and challenging teacher”?

Jesus, like everyone else, no doubt at times gave advice, expressed opinions, argued a point, disagreed with some, shared ideas, etc. But it does not follow that he was “first and foremost” a “great and challenging teacher.”

What was the program?

The idea that Jesus was a teacher implies, or at least leads to, the idea that Jesus must have had “a Purpose, a Program” of some sort to which he was dedicated and driven, whether it was to deliver an eschatological message or seek a reformation of how people lived. If he were a teacher then he must have had some purpose or program that he was teaching about. Great teachers are usually thought to have lived their lives according to their programmatic teachings.

But Davies turns back to a similar doubt expressed by Henry Cadbury in Peril of Modernizing Jesus and remarks that his own view has a similar origin:

What I wish to propose is that Jesus probably had no definite, unified, conscious purpose, that an absence of such a program is a priori likely and that it suits well the historical evidence. Further I think that this explains some of the phenomena connected with his teaching. The sense of purpose, objective, etc., as necessary for every good life is more modern than we commonly imagine. . . . My impression is that Jesus was largely casual. He reacted to situations as they arose but probably he had hardly a program or a plan.

The present book evolves out of a point of view similar to Cadbury’s.

The reason scholars are always finding such a diverse range of possible authentic teachings of Jesus, Davies believes, is that the paradigm through which they are working — of Jesus the Teacher — is problematic.

Interestingly the alternative paradigm Davies explores is one involving spirit possession and healing. I am especially interested in his discussion of spirit possession to the extent that it potentially overlaps with other studies of vision-mysticism in early Christianity and other Jewish and pagan religious sects or cults of the time.

Related posts:

  1. Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names;
  2. Creativity with the Name of Jesus the Healer in the Gospel of Mark.
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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Was Jesus not a teacher after all?”

  1. “Interestingly the alternative paradigm Davies explores is one involving spirit possession and healing.”

    A group of friends go to the same cafeteria for lunch every day. They’ve been told it has the best food in town. Each day they try a different entree, but every time they find that it tastes terrible, makes them sick, or both. However, that doesn’t dampen their optimism as they continue to try to find exactly which dish helped the cafeteria earn its reputation.

    “They must be really good at something,” the friends say, and soldier on. Today’s meatloaf was just awful and gave them food poisoning, but they have great hope that tomorrow’s chicken a la king will be delicious.

    Sadly, even the most conspicuous evidence can’t force us to examine our underlying assumptions.

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