Jesus Christ PhD

People have often wondered, what was Jesus doing in the “missing years”? In the New Testament, there is a gap in his CV between the age of 12, when he briefly chats with rabbis in the Temple, and the age of 30, when he suddenly appears out of nowhere as a preacher. Why would anyone leave it till the age of 30 to start his teaching career? And apparently have nothing to show for it by that time?

To anyone familiar with modern academic life, surely the answer is obvious. It is the same reason that is usual for smart people in their twenties who disappear for years without anything to see. He was writing his thesis. As is customary in these cases, it took forever.

Perhaps Jesus did not write a literal PhD, as there were no doctoral degree-granting institutions in those days. But intensive research is a Jewish tradition. It is clear from the gospels that he must have put in a long course of original research and reached some well-founded conclusions based solidly on the original sources.

And although we don’t have the text in full, we do know quite a lot about it.

First, we have a brief account of the beginnings. Jesus did well in the initial scholarship exam when as a 12-year-old he spent three days in the Temple, “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.” That is an educational experience as it should be on both sides, with listening, respectful questions, and positive feedback for good work. It will have suggested to both sides that the student was a promising candidate to pursue higher studies.

We know nothing about the supervision of the thesis, strictly speaking. But we can work out which of the existing research traditions Jesus’ work was close to. There are some hints of his initial direction of research in two sayings of Hillel the Elder, the dominating figure of Judaic thought in Jesus’ childhood (though by the time of Jesus’ teaching a more strict and literalist school had succeeded him). Hillel gave a negative version of the Golden Rule, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation,” and the maxim “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place.” Valuable leads for a smart student ambitious to revolutionise the field. Jesus’ approach to Scripture is close to that of Hillel’s school rather than alternatives like the more legalistic school of Shammai (which resembles the Pharisees as negatively portrayed in the New Testament), or the secularist Sadducees, or the narrow and ritualistic community of Qumran as shown in the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Greek-style scholasticism of Philo of Alexandria.

More tellingly, we have an account of the oral exam. It came at the end of his forty days in the desert – no doubt his last chance to submit before deadline. The examiner, a leading researcher in the field with an extensive track record, was unsympathetic and had some devilishly tough questions, but Jesus proved to be on top of the material and could answer them. Is making bread out of stones permitted? (That is, as Dostoevsky interprets it, should material progress replace spiritual?) No, Jesus answers, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Satan, as an expert on the topic, next tries quoting Scripture himself. Taking Jesus to a high point, he says, “If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down: For it is written, ‘He shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you.’” Jesus replies, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  Satan finally makes an offer of immediate tenure, saying, “All these things I will give you if you fall down and worship me.” Jesus is not fooled, knowing the problems of the institution in which tenure is offered. He says “Away from me, Satan! It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and only Him shall you serve.’

It is evident from those questions and answers what was the approximate topic of the thesis. It was entitled something like “An examination of the general principles underlying sacred scripture, with special reference to the role of the Messiah and with deductions on ethics.”

We can gain a reasonable idea of the content by looking at those parts of Jesus’ gospel teaching where he includes the citations. Having citations ready is a sure indication of having done the research thoroughly earlier.

It seems that three chapters in particular gave him difficulty, and not surprisingly since they were the ones where his results considerably extended those of earlier researchers.

The first was the introductory chapter where he explained his methodology of extracting general principles that underlay the particular propositions and commands of scripture. While the approach had been used earlier in another context by Euclid, it had not had a high profile in Jewish legal studies. In extracting from the Law as foundational the very general commandments “Love God” and “Love your neighbour” and declaring “All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments,” Jesus imports an axiomatic structure to the law that is foreign to older approaches which are more particularist and legalist. (It does however resemble some of Hillel’s Rules of Interpretation, which allow inference to generality in such a case as extending a rule mentioning grapes and corn to plants in general.)

The best view we have of his methodology and the kind of results it produces can be gained by taking the Gospel accounts of the early stages of Jesus’ teaching career, leaving out the actions such as miracles, putting to the background the “free-standing” and unfootnoted teachings such as the parables and the Sermon on the Mount, and foregrounding those parts where Jesus draws conclusions from sometimes surprising but reasonable interpretations of quoted pieces of Scripture.

The clearest extract is in Matthew chapter 5, beginning with the careful disclaimer “Do not think I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them.” That means the propositions of the law are retained – neither deleted nor dismissed as merely symbolic – but extended in natural ways. Jesus continues:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” The novel feature is the emphasis on intention over action. He says in the same vein, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The move from outward action to intention as morally significant was a crucial one for Jesus. It is invisible in any other ancient ethical thought, whether Hebrew, Greek or other. (Or almost: Jesus does note Isaiah’s saying, “These people honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.”) Our modern assumption, in law and ethics, that motive and intention are morally central and that actions flow from them, is post-Christian.

The next pair of sayings in Matthew 5 mark a revolutionary extension of Scripture in a different way:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also … You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

The original “Love your neighbour” text in Leviticus is subtly different. Comparing it with the conclusion Jesus draws from it shows how his research plan worked. The original says, “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.” That is a principle of great generality but it does give the impression of being premised on a distinction between neighbours and non-neighbours. The original text does not say “Hate your enemy”, but it is a possible interpretation of it, found in the Qumran texts. It is a stretch to extend the text to imply love of enemies, and it needs considerable reflection on its inner logic to make that seem at all feasible.

Jesus’ methodology of looking for the general “spirit” or principle of scripture that stands behind its particular rules, rules which it would be a distortion to follow slavishly if in tension with the principle, is especially evident in the accounts of his reasoning about Sabbath obligations. As Matthew tells it, when Pharisees complained about Jesus’ companions that picking a few ears of corn on the Sabbath violated the law against working on the Sabbath, Jesus was ready with an answer backed up by his research: “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests … If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent … If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” The combination of explicit general principle with scriptural precedent illustrating it is characteristic of his method.

A modern post-Christian reader may miss another thing in this passage. In the ancient context, “How much more valuable is a person than a sheep” is not a platitude but a radical conclusion. Greek and Roman ethics do not suggest that people are of equal worth, or any worth at all, nor that slaves and gladiators are more valuable than sheep. The Hebrew scriptures do not discuss the worth of persons explicitly either, although the Psalms represent God as having special concern for the poor, orphans and strangers. So Jesus is being much more explicit and general than any tradition in saying, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground outside your Father’s care … So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

The second chapter of the thesis that was hard to write was the result of feedback on early versions which identified the difficulty of defining “neighbour” in the “Love your neighbour” axiom. As the parable of the Good Samaritan begins, “Who is my neighbour?” Earlier commentary on the law had tended to identify the Jewish people as exclusively favoured by God and hence the primary referents of “neighbour”. A non-Jewish discussant on an early draft of the thesis pointed out that calling non-Jews “dogs” was an unfortunate choice of terminology. But scripture contained other possibilities, as Jesus explained in one of the first seminars he gave on his work.  Speaking at Nazareth, he said “there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.” This and other passages, he points out, suggest God has a universalist approach to humanity. The Jewish law may be God’s word, but in some sense it, or its implications, are for everyone.

The third difficult chapter concerned the predictions of the Messiah and his own occupancy of that role. The relevant scriptural passages on that topic were especially scattered and difficult to interpret. It is hard to say which texts do refer to a Messiah, which suggest that the role is not warlike or political, and what it is about Jesus that means he fits the role. No wonder the thesis took forever. As we saw, his role as Messiah was the topic of the tough questions in the oral exam. It was a theme throughout his teaching, even in his first Nazareth seminar, where the depth of his studies made him able to speak “with authority”. Unrolling the scroll of Isaiah, he reads “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor;” then declares “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The resulting controversy did nothing for his grant prospects.

By comparison the ethics material was straightforward to deduce once the axioms were established, though the theorems were substantially different from those fashionable in the research paradigm of the day. Given that the reference of “neighbour” extends to humans indefinitely and that God values humans more than sparrows and sheep, a positive version of the Golden Rule is easily enough deduced, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Love as a central virtue surely follows. That is again far from what was usual in ancient ethics – the list of Greek virtues included courage, justice, temperance and prudence but nothing corresponding to the whole range of love, charity, care and benevolence, while the meaning of the Hebrew “Love your neighbour” was, as we saw, difficult to determine. “Love your enemies” is a corollary reached with more difficulty, but logically hard to avoid.

Careful attention to how Jesus uses scripture and draws from it principles that imply radical conclusions gives insight into the nature of his intensive earlier study. It is a complex and difficult task. Certainly, the program of reconstructing Jesus’ PhD from his later seminars and Q&A sessions is only in its infancy.

Much further research is needed.

It would make a good topic for a PhD.

16 thoughts on “Jesus Christ PhD

  • Peter Smith says:

    Enjoyed this James.

  • Macspee says:

    Very well done. Got the PhD concept well in hand,

    Incidentally and bye the bye, I thought Jesus nicked off to Cornwall for while which is why he disappeared for a few years.

  • Biggles says:

    BTW, the possessive of Jesus is Jesus; no apostrophe.

  • Helmond says:

    I suppose that Jesus might have been a real person. I find the notion of there being a God that created the universe and is interested in what we humans do to be pretty unbelievable. So, Son of God makes no sense to me.

    I gave up believing in a God when I was about twelve. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. And I really don’t care.

    But back to Jesus and his PhD. There are more than a few instances where there are direct quotes attributed to Jesus and they appear to be treated as hard cold facts.

    So who recorded these utterances? Who kept the transcripts? The gospels that we know were written quite a while after the life of Jesus so, believing that we know what Jesus actually said is a massive leap of faith.

    But that’s it, isn’t it. Faith that the gospels are the the inspired word of God. If the gospels say that Jesus said something, then he must have.

    Anyway, if there is a God, He must be pretty disappointed with how things have turned out. It surely can’t be long before He reaches for His celestial eraser and wipes the slate clean.

  • lbloveday says:

    The “English Language Bible”, Fowler’s disagree:
    Fowler (1940) says “In verse, and in poetic or reverential contexts, this custom [formerly, when a singular ended in -s] is retained, and the number of syllables is the same as in the subjective case, e.g. Achilles’ has three, not four; Jesus’ or of Jesus, not Jesus’s.”
    A more lengthy discourse:
    Q: I hear the possessives of “Jesus” and “Moses” pronounced two different ways: with or without an “uz” sound at the end. Are both pronunciations correct?
    A: For many years, it was customary to add only an apostrophe in forming the possessive case of a biblical or classical name already ending in a sibilant sound, like “Jesus” or “Euripides.” The final possessive “s” was neither added nor pronounced.
    So, for example, the traditional practice was to write “Achilles’ heel” (not “Achilles’s heel”); “Jesus’ sake” (not “Jesus’s sake”); “Hercules’ strength” (not “Hercules’s strength”); “Moses’ commandments” (not “Moses’s commandments”), and so on.
    Most style guides still follow that tradition, but the practice is no longer universal. Increasingly in recent years, classical and biblical names have come to be treated more like modern ones—at least in the way they’re written.
    The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), which is widely used in the publishing industry, now recommends that biblical and classical names form the possessive with both an apostrophe and “s,” even if they already end in “s,” “x,” or “z.”
    Among the examples given are “Jesus’s adherents” and “Tacitus’s Histories.”
    But what about pronunciation? Generally, the addition of the apostrophe and “s” adds a final syllable.
    But the Chicago Manual makes an exception for certain classical name: those ending in an “eez” sound, like “Sophocles” and “Aristophanes.”
    The editors write: “In a departure from earlier practice, Chicago no longer recommends the traditional exception for proper classical names of two or more syllables that end in an eez sound. Such names form the possessive in the usual way (though when these forms are spoken the additional s is generally not pronounced).”
    The “eez” examples given in the style guide are “Euripides’s tragedies,” “the Ganges’s source,” and “Xerxes’s armies.”
    So if you were following Chicago Manual style, you would write “Achilles’s heel,” but you would pronounce the possessive name without the extra syllable: a-KILL-eez heel.

    However, this wouldn’t apply to a classical name like “Zeus,” which doesn’t end in an “eez” sound. So “Zeus’s wrath,” according to Chicago, would be pronounced with the extra syllable: ZOOSE-uz rath.

    Keep in mind, though, that style customs are not written in stone; they change over time. And most style guides still recommend the old practice (an apostrophe without “s”) with biblical and classical names ending in a sibilant sound.
    We just wanted to alert you to the fact that the ground here is slowly shifting.
    However, it’s safe to say that if you add an apostrophe plus “s” when writing the possessive form of a name like “Jesus” or “Moses,” then you should add the extra syllable “uz” when pronouncing the name
    But if you write the possessive forms in the traditional way (“Jesus’ name,” “Moses’ wisdom”), then don’t pronounce what’s not there.

  • James Franklin says:

    I did look into the apostrophe issue and concluded both could be OK, but “Jesus’s” pushes you to mentally pronounce an extra syllable when you don’t feel inclined to. So I kept to “Jesus'”.

  • Harry Lee says:

    My view:
    Best that Christians can do now is to influence the Church to focus more resources on providing Ordinary People with the means to communicate directly with God.
    It’s an urgent matter.

  • James Franklin says:

    “Helmond”‘s theory (above) that we don’t know what Jesus said is hard to make work, and the closer you look at it the harder it is to make work. The “character’ of Jesus is a coherent whole with an intelligent and unique message. Either it’s reporting a real person, or someone equally smart had to make it up and conspire with others to foist it on a made-up personn (then cunningly conspire some more to make the four gospels cunningly diverse). The former theory is a lot simpler than the latter. It’s true that after a few decades of memory their could be a bit of editing and it might not be word for word, like with e.g. the memories of Hitler’s bunker told by the secretaries who came out of the woodwork decades later. But the basic story is clear enough.

  • Harry Lee says:

    One of the mysteries:
    There are people who spend more energy arguing over the nature of Jesus than exploring their relationship with God.
    Priorities, if not balance?

  • James Franklin says:

    I don’t understand Harry Lee’s distinction between relationship and knowing the nature. Surely with human relationships, part of it just is getting to know the person better. Why not the same for a relationship with the divine?

  • Stephen Due says:

    My old headmaster once said about boys who were rowdy during a performance of classical music: “Do not imagine you are judging this music. It is judging you.” Certainly that is true of the Bible – although in this case it is literally true. The Bible is a book of judgement, as it tells the reader on every page: it is judging the reader, not the other way around.
    Secondly, the Bible is a spiritual book that requires spiritual understanding. The problem the Bible presents is the problem of how the reader, a corrupt and sinful creature, can exist and flourish in a universe ruled by a holy God.
    The answer is to be found in Jesus Christ, whom God describes as the “Chief Cornerstone” of the people of God. That same Jesus is also described as a “Stone of Stumbling” to others.
    Throughout the Gospels – the spiritual ‘biography’ of Jesus – this dichotomy is constantly reiterated. Jesus Himself says that there is only one way to be on the right side of this spiritual divide, and that is to be on His team. Thus He said to Nicodemus: “You must be born again” (John 3).
    To read the Gospels as if they were a protracted lecture on ethics is an elementary error. They say this themselves repeatedly.

  • bruce_ploetz says:

    Thank you, James Franklin. A masterpiece with the tongue firmly placed in its proper location.

    As many critics have pointed out harshly, the Christian bible is written in Greek quoting only the Greek translations of the Old Testament. The few Aramaic expressions are carefully translated in the text for the convenience of non-Aramaic-speaking readers. Despite some who theorize that Matthew was translated, we have to acknowledge the origins as being essentially Hellenistic. Hellenized Judaism (Abomination!), or a pagan reflection on Jewish thought? Or some other syncretistic hodge-podge we can’t even imagine, the original documents all having been sheep-dipped through the devout centuries or destroyed by the Islamic conquerors that swept through the Levant a few centuries later?

    Very little is truly known about the influence of important thinkers like Hillel on the Christian thought of the first century. Yet many of the words of Jesus are direct quotes. Most of Christianity was really evolved in the second century with very important Hellenistic influences and some very important revisions (like the Trinity) in the third and fourth centuries.

    Truly it is a religion very like a mirror. Folks are always finding bits in it that they “always knew” but dared not say. As a universal civilizing influence it comes very close to working, incorporating as it does pagan elements without the violence.

    True, or “mere’ if you will, Christianity does not pretend to have all the answers to every question and counsels humility in the face of eternal truths. Twisted every which way by charlatans of every persuasion, like science, still it points to a greater reality that we can’t truly understand in this life.

    The bible itself counsels us to look beyond it and search for truth for the sake of truth. “The truth shall set you free”, though it is implied that all will truly only be known in the hereafter.

    To quote Bob Dylan “When you see your neighbor carrying something, help him with his load. And don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road”. (“Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”)

  • James Franklin says:

    True, the gospels are not a protracted lecture in ethics. But the lectures on ethics in there are important.

  • Harry Lee says:

    James Franklin. yes, the two matters are related and overlap and inform each other.
    The emotional and spiritual attention to usefully communicating with God -that is, being open to what God has to say about the best ways we (ourselves, individually) could spend our daily lives for the Higher Good is not necessarily best well-served by exploring the nature of Jesus and/or arguing about that nature with others.
    All best, Harry.

  • Harry Lee says:

    There’s “research” as a method of inquiry for comprehension of complex matters -and it might be labeled the PhD approach.
    Then there’s a method that was once engendered by “art” and its appreciation.
    Obviously this latter method is out of fashion at present, given what art has become -“artists” presenting images to civilians that seek to destroy the existence and therefore the appreciation of Beauty, the Good, and the Truth.
    Just as science is currently failing (or has been hijacked) in the the “human use of fossil fuels causes climate change” scam/sham/hysteria-
    -then so has art been corrupted to destructive aims and ends.
    Anyway, to find one’s way on Earth and to live a worthwhile life, one must develop and pursue modes of engagement with Reality that include and go beyond the various (and often corrupted) modalities now being mistakenly (in ignorance or in malice) employed by the so-called scientific and so-called arts communities.
    (Among others, Roger Scuton presented excellent materials on these matters)

  • whitelaughter says:

    well done!

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