by John Dickson
There is a typical way of talking about Jesus, he’s the Lord, or Saviour, Christ. Maybe even Jesus, my healer or teacher. But what about philosopher? I doubt that would wash in any contemporary church, but in ancient times it was a thing. From the start, Christianity was seen as a philosophy started by Jesus and it was in competition with the other major philosophical schools. Like the Stoics, who believed in fate and an ultimate God, and in the importance of controlling all your emotions to live a self-controlled life. Or the Epicureans, who believed in God or the gods but believed that they weren’t really interested in us or affected by us. That the goal of life was just to get on, minimising the experience of pain through the pursuit of earthly enjoyments like friendships, banqueting, and contemplating. The Apostle Paul clashed with precisely these two philosophical groups in the book of Acts, he’s in Athens and we read:
So Paul reasoned … in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. [Acts 17:17-18]
Paul’s teaching was seen as a direct challenge to the two biggest philosophical schools of his day. In Athens he looked like a philosopher, with a philosophy derived from Jesus.
A couple of generations after Paul the greatest evangelist in the ancient world was Justine Martyr. He too described Christianity as the greatest philosophy. Justine wandered around dressed in the easily identifiable philosopher’s robe with the short cropped hair of the philosopher, taking on anyone who would debate with him concerning the big questions of philosophy: What is ultimate reality? How could we know? How do we live in accordance with it? That’s really what philosophy is about, that’s metaphysics, epistemology, and practical philosophy. Justine’s answer in the three writings he left for us was basically – the Creator is ultimate reality, the mind behind the logic of the universe; while we can know God through reason, we can only know God personally if he discloses himself to us and that’s what’s happened in Jesus Christ; and when we live in accordance with his revealed wisdom, his philosophy, we find ourselves living in harmony with ultimate reality. This is how many Christians in ancient times thought about Christianity and Jesus. As a philosophy from the greatest philosopher ever.
One of the oldest churches ever uncovered is in Dura-Europos in Syria. It’s basically a house converted into a church, and has these marvelous frescoes still visible on the walls. And on one of them Jesus is depicted wearing the philosopher’s robe with the philosopher’s distinctive short haircut. This isn’t because they downplayed Jesus’ death as Saviour or resurrection as the Lord. It’s just that they also knew that a huge part of his mission throughout all of the gospels was to teach God’s comprehensive wisdom for life, to teach a philosophy. It’s something noted in one of our early non-Christian references to Jesus by Mara bar Serapion, who was himself a philosopher. He explicitly describes Jesus as a philosopher, he compares Jesus to Pythagorus and Socrates, two of the greatest philosophers of Ancient Greece. And then he says that following Jesus’ execution:
The wise king did not die out altogether. He lives on in the new law he laid down.
Jesus frequently casts his teaching as ‘wisdom’, that is the truth about what’s real in the world and how we live in the light of it. That’s the work of a philosopher. I count more than twenty references in the gospels to Jesus as ‘wise’ or his teaching as ‘wisdom’. That’s the Greek term sophía from which we get ‘philosophy’ the ‘love of wisdom’. There’s a really good book about all of this by Jonathan Pennington called Jesus the Great Philosopher published in 2020. The book is convincing about the idea of Jesus as a philosopher really was part of the ancient understanding of Jesus. In any case, the wisdom of Jesus the philosopher is nowhere more succinctly put than in a line from Luke 6:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
For Jesus, the most basic metaphysic is that there is a God of love and mercy, that’s the animating principle of the universe. And the wise life, the authentic life, the life in sync with ultimate reality? Is the life of love and mercy toward others. Ancient Christians spotted this as a philosophy, and they thought of Jesus as the greatest philosopher.
5 Minute Jesus: The Greatest Philosopher