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Thread: Jesus Christ as a Philosopher?

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Jesus Christ as a Philosopher?

    Jesus Christ as a philosopher was the subject of some back-and-forth between Brad McFall and Richard Carrier:

    The first of these documents, by Brad McFall:

    Douglas Groothuis, in his book "On Jesus", has as his first chapter "Was Jesus a Philosopher?", noting his omission from some notable encyclopedias of philosophy, even though the Buddha gets some mention in some of them.

    His second was "Jesus in History", but I'll skip over that. His third was "Jesus’ Use of Argument", where according to DG, JC shows "contain argumentative encounters that reveal a strong concern for logic and argument". That strikes me as hooey. JC never tries to distinguish a good kind of argument from a bad one. By comparison, Aristotle discussed several fallacies in his book "Sophistical Refutations".

    His fourth was "Jesus’ Metaphysics". DG stated that unlike the Buddha and Confucius, "Jesus articulated clear ideas about the reality of God, and He made that reality the core of his teaching". But he doesn't say much about the nature of that entity. BMF made an aside about the volume of Buddhist scriptures. Theravada: 11 * size of entire Bible, Mahayana: 5,000 volumes.

    His fifth was "Jesus’ Epistemology". DG stated that JC used "factual evidence" to support "many of his affirmations". That's not the same thing as trying to work out what is knowable and how we can know something.

    His sixth was "The Ethics of Jesus". JC asserted a *lot* of moral teachings, and he makes arguments for some of them, but here also, he is short on broader theories.

    His seventh was "Jesus’ View of Women". Like many Xian apologists, DG tries to make JC seem like some proto-feminist. But that does not have much connection to philosophy in general.

    His final chapter was "Who Do You Say That I Am". That was about who JC was. Also not very relevant.

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    The second, by Richard Carrier:
    Finally, what Jesus "does" isn't really what a philosopher does. Consider the three most vital branches of philosophy: epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics (the other two branches are aesthetics and politics). Jesus was certainly an ethicist, but he did not address serious ethical problems and questions in the methodical way Plato's Socrates did, nor in the systematic way of Seneca or Epicurus, much less Aristotle. Jesus also says very little on the subject of what knowledge is or how one discerns true knowledge from false. And what Groothius apparently discusses under the heading of "metaphysics," isn't really that at all, but what the ancients called physics (and what is today no longer the province of philosophy, but science--and, one might allow, theology). Metaphysics in the proper sense is the study of the nature of nature itself, of matter and thought and being.

    Jesus has some things to say that relate to all these things, but not enough, nor anything with enough precision or detail, to be matched with real philosophers of his time. In fact, Jesus seems uninterested in these fundamental philosophical questions, just as he has no apparent interest in the issues of logical or dialectical method, or in the outstanding philosophical problems debated in public forums even when Jesus lived--and even in his own neck of the woods: public debates on serious philosophical questions were raging in Tyre throughout the 1st and 2nd centuries, as exemplified by Maximus of Tyre in his extant lectures.
    He concedes that the "rambling mountain" of Buddhist texts is a "failing", but he thinks that JC has not done nearly enough to create a well-worked-out philosophical system.

    RC then discusses the question of the sources for Socrates vs. the sources for JC. He concludes that Socrates had much better sources.

    Then on whether JC ever concerned himself with what are good arguments and what are bad ones.
    First, Logic and Argument were then and still are fields in dispute. Thus, the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus definitely had "a strong concern for logic and argument," because he discussed what logic and argument were, and settled questions of whether they are useful and how they are to be properly conducted. Jesus did no such thing. Chrysippus is thus properly called a philosopher. Jesus is but a thinker and teacher. He may have had a logic, he may have used a logic, but he didn't do what philosophers do: discuss logic.

    More importantly, Logic and Argument are, and were in Jesus' day, skilled fields of inquiry subject to a careful method. Their very point was to limit error through systematic adherence to various well-proven principles. Jesus shows no awareness of the canons of logic or argument accepted by his peers. He simply spouts "responsa" to questions and paradoxes. Indeed, in many cases his reasoning is overtly fallacious, yet his opponents are not allowed to continue debate on the matter, in contrast with Plato's Socrates', whose discussion of the methods of reasoning is explicit, and whose opponents were allowed to engage him at length, sometimes even to a stalemate.
    RC then discusses some of JC's arguments, like how he cannot be working for the Devil, since he is attacking the Devil's minions, and the Devil cannot fight himself. RC has a chuckle over that argument.
    If Jesus really did care about logic and argument, he would have engaged these issues and resolved them. But he does not. Instead, his reasoning and argument is always thin and brief, and thus ultimately ambiguous and incomplete. It is also presented as absolute: Jesus leaves little opportunity for anyone to debate him. Once he has presented his argument, discussion ends. There is no rebuttal allowed.

    ...
    A real philosopher makes his reasoning explicit, and addresses all issues of an argument, aiming at a complete discussion of the facts and obvious questions. The pursuit of truth demands no less, and "philosophy" means the "love of truth." But Jesus never does this. He simply pronounces, and ends all debate with a single clever quip, often with little more than an argument full of holes and ambiguities which are never addressed in public, and hardly much more in private. Mark even has Jesus saying he is being deliberately obscure and will reveal his true meaning only in secret to a select few (e.g. Mark 4:33-34). That is definitely not the behavior of someone who has a deep concern for logic and argument.
    Actually "philosophy" means "love of wisdom". But RC is essentially correct about JC and the shallowness of his argumentation.

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    Then, the "JC the feminist" argument.
    Jesus was certainly more liberal in his treatment of women than other Jews of his day. The rampant misogyny that has characterized Christianity comes from Paul, not Christ. But there is nothing Jesus said or did that was at all uncharacteristic of any educated Gentile. The Jews were far more reactionary toward woman than their Greek neighbors, a point that was often a matter of contention between the two communities. The Romans, in turn, were even more remarkably liberal compared to the Greeks. But as one might say today: anyone looks like a liberal next to Pat Robertson. Or Paul the Apostle.

    In short, the claim that "only a handful of philosophers" had views of women at least as favorable as Jesus is false. To the contrary, it was common among all the educated Greco-Roman elite to have views on the matter comparable to what we can deduce from what Jesus said and did. And this liberal attitude originates with the Classical and Hellenistic philosophers, centuries before Jesus.

    ...
    It is more significant that many pagan philosophers wrote explicitly in defense of the improved treatment of women, yet Groothius is forced only to "infer" such doctrines indirectly from things Jesus said or did.
    RC then takes on DG's claim that "ultimately skeptical rejection of Jesus' resurrection hinges more on one's personal philosophical outlook than it does on evidential arguments of historical significance." RC notes that defenders of Biblical miracles are often very skeptical about miracles elsewhere, and that he uses the same skepticism there also.

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    The third is Brad McFall again. It strikes me as rather weak.

    The fourth is Richard Carrier again. He expands on what he stated earlier, and he criticizes BMF's arguments.

    Why the Buddha?
    Second, though Buddha and his belief system do get mention in good philosophical reference works, this is because Buddha (unlike Jesus) was a systematic thinker and did expound detailed doctrines on "the nature of all aspects of being" through the Indian tradition of logic and analysis.[1] Buddha expounded on epistemology and metaphysics, not just ethics, and organized a relatively complete system or "worldview" (see below). And though there remain many problems of tracing just what really originated with him, it is undeniable that he originated a fundamentally distinct and novel philosophical system, whereas Jesus did not fundamentally differ from numerous other Jewish thinkers of his day (as is more than evident from the findings at Qumran and the countless parallels between things Jesus said and things said by dozens of other rabbis in the historical record).
    He avoids the question of how much was due to some historical Buddha and how much to the Buddha's followers. Though who wrote what would be an interesting question to address.

    RC also argues that Socrates was much more of a philosopher than JC, pointing out some examples of him as a philosopher. He gets back to the Buddha, quoting a dialogue between him and a certain Potthapada. Here is a bit of RC's quote:
    Potthapada: "Now, lord, does perception arise first, and knowledge after; or does knowledge arise first, and perception after; or do perception and knowledge arise simultaneously?"

    Buddha: "Potthapada, perception arises first, and knowledge after. And the arising of knowledge comes from the arising of perception. One discerns, 'It's in dependence on this that my knowledge has arisen'. Through this line of reasoning one can realize how perception arises first, and knowledge after, and how the arising of knowledge comes from the arising of perception."

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    Here is some of the rest of Richard Carrier's commentary:
    16. Was Jesus Just Some Stupid Hick?

    McFall engages in some anti-elitist sniping when he accuses me of basically being a snob about Jesus. For example, McFall says:

    For Carrier, who has been academically trained, Jesus' sayings appear "obscure and simplified" because they lack the scholastic jargon and detailed constructs he's accustom[ed] to.

    Translation: "Richard Carrier is a snob because he expects philosophers to discuss methods of inquiry and the nature of things, to carefully define their concepts, and to reason their way to conclusions through a transparent and critical analysis of those concepts and the empirical evidence. What a jerk!"
    That is how BMF argues that JC was not a real philosopher even though he didn't act like one.
    18. Is Biblical Exegesis the Same Thing as Philosophy?

    McFall then tries to pretend that biblical exegesis counts as philosophy. But it very definitely does not.
    I agree. Seems like BMF is desperate for JC to qualify as a philosopher.
    19. Do Real Philosophers Use Dry Prosaic Language?

    McFall continues his "pop teachers are better than real philosophers" anti-elitist bigotry when he says "Jesus could have used dry prosaic language, like the guys in academics" but instead, unlike them, he "opted to use colorful language" and "pithy expressions" in order "to heighten crowd interest." Again, that does not make Jesus a philosopher—to the contrary, it more likely takes him out of that category and puts him in that of popular teachers (like Mark Twain, George Carlin, Pat Robertson, et al.), unless Jesus also did what philosophers do, which is, for example: (1) present a logical analysis involving definitions of terms, and (2) reason to a conclusion from an examination of the nature of things. But Jesus didn't. And McFall concedes this, admitting that "Jesus didn’t leave us a system of thought." So in every respect that defines a philosopher, Jesus fails to adhere, and in every respect that defines what is merely a popular teacher, Jesus conforms perfectly.

    ...
    20. Was Socrates Just an Artful Dodger?

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    Then about women.
    McFall also belittles the copious evidence that women were treated as near equals to men in the realm of education and the intellect. He seems to think that is trivial. Of course, to think that is trivial is itself rather chauvanistic. ... It is thus very significant that the Greeks and Romans gave this to women, but Jesus spoke narry a word against his fellow Jews denying their own women this. (education)
    Though RC notes that JC never praised learning at all.
    Even now, in this country, I can find misogynistic statements and disrepectful treatment of women. But it would not follow that 21st century America is a bastion of oppression for women. Quite the contrary: it represents the farthest women have ever come toward freedom and equality. Much farther than I'll bet Jesus would ever have sanctioned, and certainly much farther than he ever explicitly advocated. But even more so, many misogynists remained in antiquity.
    That seems overly optimistic for the US, since there are some nations that do at least as well. But even then, the US is rather close.
    I am surprised, for example, that McFall did not cite Juvenal or Livy, famous for their diatribes against all the freedom and respect women were getting in their day. Perhaps McFall avoided them because their rants only prove my point: these men would not be writing such angry tracts unless the liberty and status of women really was so commonly high among elites as I said. After all, why would they attack what wasn't true?
    RC asks if there is anything attributed to JC that is anything like this:
    Women, as well as men...have received from the gods the gift of reason...and the female has the same senses as the male...one has nothing more than the other. Moreover, not men alone, but women, too, have a natural inclination toward virtue and the capacity for acquiring it, and it is the nature of women no less than men to be pleased by good and just acts and to reject the opposite of these....Yes, but I assure you, some will say, that women who associate with philosophers are bound to be arrogant for the most part and presumptuous, in that abandoning their own households and turning to the company of men they practice speeches, talk like sophists, and analyze syllogisms, when they ought to be sitting at home spinning. I should not expect the women who study philosophy to shirk their appointed tasks for mere talk any more than men, but I maintain that their discussions should be conducted for the sake of their practical application. For as there is no merit in the science of medicine unless it conduces to the healing of man's body, so if a philosopher has or teaches reason, it is of no use if it does not contribute to the virtue of the human soul. (Musonius Rufus, "That Women Too Should Study Philosophy")

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    Super Moderator ruby sparks's Avatar
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    Putting Jesus in the category, ‘philosopher’ seems to me a bit of a stretch.

    Now, he might, if he existed, have had views that might broadly be considered philosophical.

    And all things considered, including historical context and zeitgeist (in ancient Judea I mean) maybe ‘philosopher’ is one label among others that could be used.

    One caveat I’d add is that the texts we have today may very well represent the views of people who came after him rather than his own. This seems likely to be true to at least some extent. It may also be possible that some of the original views are in the core of the texts.

    Personally, I think it is possible, and possibly preferable, to assess the underlying ‘philosophy’ in the views, rather than dwell on who first articulated them. Imo, some of the philosophy is actually very impressive, by the standards of the time.
    Last edited by ruby sparks; 05-31-2020 at 11:09 AM.

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    I tend to think of Jesus, assuming there was an actual Jesus, as an activist, a radical socialist of his times. He despised and condemned wealth, didn't seem to like greed, supported the idea of giving up one's wealth to the poor, etc. I think if this person were alive today, and lived in the US, he'd support the expansion of programs like SNAP, SS, Medicare, Medicaid, public housing etc. I wouldn't call him a philosopher, as much as an activist who wanted more power to the people. If only more Christians would take that part of his message and ignore the bullshit about salvation, being saved, hell, etc. If I were a Christian, I'd consider those parts as additions by the powerful who wanted to use and distort the original message of Jesus to control and harm the people. To me, that is the antithesis of the original message of Jesus.

    After all, it was just a bunch of men who got together and decided what parts of the writings of those times that were supposed to reflect the message of Jesus be included in the book that Christians usually consider to be a direct message from a god. The belief that he died and then was risen is a common myth, not just in religion. Think of all the people who swear that they've seen Elvis after his death. Same thing. Different celebrity.

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    Veteran Member Lion IRC's Avatar
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    If Buddha, Socrates, Confucius were omniscient, they wouldn't have bothered with philosophy either.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Lion IRC View Post
    If Buddha, Socrates, Confucius were omniscient, they wouldn't have bothered with philosophy either.
    If they were omniscient, they'd know thinking people would need reasons and so they would give them. They'd know only blindfaith believers would fail to ask for reasons.

    I wonder, how can you know JC's right about his all-knowing utterances if you are not also all-knowing?

    At least in Socrates' case, the goal was "an examined life" as a well-lived, meaningful life. The process mattered to him, because what point is there in a life if a person doesn't engage it, explore it, wonder at it?

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