Was Jesus a Great Teacher?

Before addressing the question of “Was Jesus a Great Teacher“, I think it is crucially important to make explicit the assumptions of anyone who answers the question.  Below are some of the important questions behind the “Great Teacher” question.  I won’t discuss these just now, but instead, would love to know what you think of these questions and if you can think of others.

  • Did Jesus exist?  How fictionalized is Jesus?
  • How do we decide what Jesus taught or is purported to have taught?
  • Do the Gospels contain the teachings of more than one person but all using “Jesus” as their voice?  How do we separate these teachings?
  • What qualifies as “great” teachings?
  • Were any of his actual or purported teachings “great”?

Like many apparently simple questions, I think it is obvious that without exposing these underlying positions and discussing them, two people could waste time in long fruitless debates.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

10 responses to “Was Jesus a Great Teacher?

  1. Hi Sabio,

    I have one more question: Is the teaching of Jesus only what we read in the Bible or inspired words by later generations or signs/miracles are also his teaching?

    Christmas greetings from Hungary,


  2. Hey roni,
    Great question. As you know, this same process applies for the teachings of the Buddha, Mohammed and Socrates …
    It seems like you have two questions — am I right?
    (1) Can’t we count his actions (fictitious or not) as teachings
    (2) Can we count the non-textual, yet tradition-bound teachings also?

  3. Yes, this question occured to me while thinking about similar questions about the Buddha.

    Yes, you can split it that way.🙂

  4. With the big caveat that my studies are not yet complete, so this represents a best-guess at this present understanding…

    * Did Jesus exist? How fictionalized is Jesus?
    Yes, Jesus did exist, but much, if not the majority, of what is recorded in the Gospels is fictionalized, especially as it pertains to prophesy tied to the Old Testament.

    * How do we decide what Jesus taught or is purported to have taught?
    The Jesus Seminar was a good start. Although, such approaches do have an inherent flaw in the assumption that Jesus was a thoroughly consistent teacher. If we assume Jesus is God, consistent teaching is a reasonable assumption, but if Jesus was human than he, too, had many selves. 😉

    * Do the Gospels contain the teachings of more than one person but all using “Jesus” as their voice? How do we separate these teachings?
    Absolutely. Someone needs only study Matthew and compare it to John to see that, if they are willing to accept that possibility. I would say you could start the separation by pruning John out of the canon. However, just because Jesus didn’t really say it, it doesn’t mean that it is without value.

    * What qualifies as “great” teachings?
    I guess today we would call a teacher great if he was inspirational and clearly and effectively. Jesus was inspirational, but his overall message was not clearly and effectively communicated. The squabbles over circumcision and reaching the Gentiles of his Apostles recorded in Acts is a testament to that.

    Great teachings, themselves, I would define as teachings which can profoundly improve perspective, understanding, and/or quality of life.

    * Were any of his actual or purported teachings “great”?
    From the temporal perspective, it would be hard to say Jesus’ teachings were great. Followed to the letter as they are in the Gospels, they would lead to a life of commiseration in a self-sacrificed state of utter poverty and abuse.

    If you abstract from the literal teachings a bit, if you instead follow the (neutered) “spirit” of the teachings, they can nudge you on to being a more compassionate and merciful person. The teachings become good, not great, if you have a healthy head on your shoulders already.

    Yet, if you throw the Christian eternal afterlife into the equation as an assumed truth, then the teachings become great indeed.

  5. Just a short note to let you know I am still reading and enjoying your posts. My blogging and trying to fit it into my busy life limits the time I have for participating in the blogs of others. I know you understand.

    To take a stab, if I may, at the questions you raise here – and it is a subject I have addressed more than a few times in my own blog musings – let me offer my brief thoughts.

    I accept that Jesus was a historical person. I’m not dogmatic about it, but I accept it because I don’t believe a watertight case has yet been made against that proposition. I note also that the Romans of old who wrote against the Jesus movement don’t use that as an argument in their opposition.

    As to the question of how I decide what Jesus likely did or did not teach, I look for consistency in his message. The picture I get is that the historical Jesus was a Jewish apocalyptic preacher, looking for an imminent end of his world system and the establishment of God’s kingdom of earth. He seemed to have expected that come in what we now consider that first century of the Common Era.

    With regard to whether he was a great teacher or offered great teachings and insights, I tend to think not. Sure, he was a proponent of the Golden Rule (along with the teachers of the many of the world’s great religions). He had a strong concern for the poor people, which I think is commendable and even inspiring. However, those things are counterbalanced, I believe, by his stern message of judgment. And inasmuch as his present world system to not come to an end with the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, I feel that makes him a false prophet.

    But mythology is helpful, I believe, and the Jesus of popular thought (the Jesus of the Golden Rule and concern for the poor, minus an emphasis on hell and judgment) is a nice myth. It is this Jesus who usually gets credited with being a great teacher. It seems to be so well entrenched in popular thought as to be impossible or nearly so to amend. Of course, mythology is not based on fact, anyway.

    Well, I said would be brief but see now I wasn’t. Sorry.

  6. OK, you posted on this faster than I expected. Cool.

    Although I have not looked into the question of Jesus’ existence in any depth, I believe that there are enough early references to Jesus to make it very probable that he lived. Obviously, I do not believe all that has been said about him in the Bible, e.g. the virgin birth, resurrection, miracles, etc. Most of that was put on after his death – either to explain the discrepancies between his dying and his message (a great book called When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter provides some insight to that process) and also to make his life fit old Testament prophecies and to in general fit in with what was expected at that time of a messiah.

    In regards to what can be reliably stated about what Jesus has said, we cannot ever be totally sure on this, although I believe some good old historical scholarship can provide some good information here. The Jesus Seminar is one such source. Also, Albert Schweitzer wrote a book titled The Quest for the Historical Jesus which was excellent. A more modern work is A Marginal Jew by John P. Meier. The common thread here is that all of these works and people examine Jesus using the standard methods of historical research.

    As for whether Jesus was a great teacher, let me first just ask a couple of questions in return.

    – Does all of a person’s teachings have to be correct or great in order to be considered a great teacher? If so, then mankind has never had a great teacher.

    – Does the effects of that person’s teachings also count? I would say yes. Part of the reason that Mahatma Gandhi is considered such a great teacher is what he inspired, e.g. Martin Luther King’s non-violent protests.

    – Finally, does what that teacher teach have to be original? I would argue no. To take an example from science, the fact that Darwin came up with the idea of natural selection first in no way takes away the fact that Wallace also had a great insight into the workings of nature.
    Having stated all of that, I believe that Jesus was a great teacher. His concern for the weak and hurting was laudable. The fact that he went to those shunned by society – the tax collector, the leper, ect. was extremely laudable.

    If you believe that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King to be great men then you should also give some thought to the fact that both considered the words of Jesus and his actions to be a source of their actions. From Luke 6: 27-30

    “27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”

    Given that his life and words inspired a new religion, no matter what your thoughts on whether it was for better or worse, and no matter whether it was intentional or not, is evidence that he was a great teacher. A poor and uninspiring teacher with a poor message would not have the followers with the strength of belief to accomplish this.

    I realize that not everything attributed to him was probably said by Jesus. However the fact that they were attributed to him says something about what his original message probably was.

    Again, I do not agree with everything that is attributed to Jesus. In fact, there is much I disagree with. However that does not change the fact that there is also much that is good in his teaching and that the results of his teachings and life continue to have an effect on us even today, almost 2,000 years after his death.

    That takes greatness not mediocrity.

  7. CRL

    Give an oppressed people a man who’s a little bit good and a little bit crazy, kill him for political reasons, and you will have a yourself a Messiah. Now, to your questions:

    1. Yes, I believed Jesus existed, mainly because I have not done enough research to make a credible argument in the other direction. (And also, I’ll admit, because it is more convenient not to argue in the other direction, since I prefer not getting my head bitten off by even the most tolerant of Christians.)

    2. To some extent, consistency. If it appears repeatedly in the New Testament and other sources, it is more likely to have been one of Jesus’s central tenants than something mentioned once. Sadly, however, 2,000 years is a long time and we will never know for certain.

    3. Yes, probably. I would say we could eliminate those teachings which are inconsistent with the rest, however, as The Wise Fool said, Jesus had many selves too. Again, we will never know for certain.

    4. Great teachings=those that effectively promote positive social change?

    5. We return to the many selves. In some ways yes. His teachings on aiding the poor, giving as much as you can, etc. certainly qualify. Many Christians today should re-read the passage about not casting the first stone, and many churches should remember the one in which Jesus threw the moneylenders out of the temple. So a quite a few good lessons, yes. That said, Jesus’s morality (and religious morality in general) can be called selfish, in a way, as it focuses on improving the individual, (so as to get them to heaven) rather than on improving the world for humanity and everyone else to enjoy. And, of course, anything coming from that time is bound to be rather sexist, and the New Testament is no exception.

    Also, I’d assume this post, too is motivated by your re-read or recollection of Mere Christianity? I didn’t have as much to say on your last post (or, rather I did, but I was a bit late to the party) but I, too, read it on my way out of the fold, since receiving it (along w/ Chesterton’s Orthodoxy) as confirmation presents led me to seriously think about religion for the first time, turning me from quasi-spiritual deist/apathetic Catholic into atheist in about a month.

  8. Curt

    I find this series of recent topics very nice. Now, If only they would get read by the people who need to read them.

  9. I had almost forgotten why I love reading your blog so much after I stopped coming by for so long.

    One point that befuddled2 mentioned,
    “However that does not change the fact that there is also much that is good in his teaching and that the results of his teachings and life continue to have an effect on us even today, almost 2,000 years after his death.

    That takes greatness not mediocrity.”

    This really stood out for me. At first I generally agreed with that, using lasting impression or positive influence to categorize “greatness”. Then I thought, can we also add the question, “Are the teachings truth?” As in timeless, in which sense, 2000, or 100,000 years would seem only an instant. Also note of course that Homo sapiens have been traced to have existed from about 200,000 years ago and modern humans about 50,000 years ago.

    For a truly useful teaching, I’d ask these following three questions.
    1. Does it benefit me?
    2. Does it benefit others?
    3. Is it verifiable?

    So every message I encounter going through consideration as a teaching, I should be objectively asking these. I do note I would have to run through these questions again if verifiable evidence comes into knowledge refuting past accepted “truths”.

  10. @ Wise Fool :
    Are our studies ever complete? Smile !
    I think when people say “Great Teacher” they mean much more that “He was as great as my 6th grade Social Study teacher. She was fantastic!”
    Also, did he say anything unique?
    I largely agree with your analysis.

    @ Doug B :
    I agree, I don’t think he was such a great teacher. I agree with your last paragraph too.

    @ befuddled2 :
    Good questions about what is needed for a Great Teacher.
    Good point on originality.
    Jesus, or one of the voices for Jesus in the NT, said to sell everything and foresake family. Doesn’t sound great to me.
    We don’t know if his life inspired a new Religion — Paul certainly did and Paul seemed to know precious little about Jesus — or at least that is my read.

    @ CRL :
    Love your first quote.
    “Consistency” is easy if they are copying each other’s manuscripts.
    Thanx for hammering on the many-selves theme — loved it.

    @ Curt :
    Indeed! I write these posts so that when I am discussing things with others on their sites, I can refer back to them. I don’t expect too many Christian readers and am very please with those who do read.

    @Soe Min Than :

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