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.