Was Jesus Just a Good Moral Teacher?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

There are people who take the Gospels to be more or less reporting history, but who claim, nevertheless, that Jesus was merely a good man, and nothing more. I am not here talking about skeptics who question virtually everything in the Gospels, who believe that almost all of the material is legendary.

The people I am referring to generally have a cursory knowledge of the New Testament and are turned off by traditional religion. They are fans of Jesus in a shallow way. If you stopped them on the street and asked them what they thought about Jesus, they would say he was a great teacher of peace and love, an exemplary moral figure. Jesus is still popular, even nowadays.

What is frustrating about these shallow-Jesus-fans is that they have completely missed what Jesus stood for. The only group that would be more frustrating would be the Jesus-is-a-great-carpenter club. C. S. Lewis gives voice to this frustration in Mere Christianity by pointing out the absurdity of the shallow-Jesus-fans:

Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world Who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.

Norm Geisler and Frank Turek, in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, ask us to imagine our neighbor making these kinds of claims:

“I am the first and the last—the self-existing One. Do you need your sins forgiven? I can do it. Do you want to know how to live? I am the light of the world—whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. Do you want to know whom you can trust? All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Do you have any worries or requests? Pray in my name. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. Do you need access to God the Father? No one comes to the Father except through me. The Father and I are one.”

What would you think about your neighbor if he seriously said those things? You certainly wouldn’t say, “Gee, I think he’s a great moral teacher!” No, you’d say this guy is nuts, because he’s definitely claiming to be God.

Shallow-Jesus-fans, don’t be ridiculous. Jesus did not come to teach moral platitudes in a long line of religious moralizers. No, he came to demand your allegiance to him, for he is King.

  • Well…as always with New Testament Studies…it is not quite so cut-and-dried. As Rome was a client/patron society, a client could have the right to speak on behalf of his patron. Perhaps the closest modern day equivalency would be an Ambassador.

    So if the United States Ambassador told someone, “I can bring 25,000 troops here tomorrow” we understand it is not the Ambassador themselves hand-carrying personnel—they are speaking with authority vested within.

    In the same way, Jesus could have said many things recorded in the gospels as a representative of God. When Jesus forgives sins—he is really saying God (his patron) is doing it through Jesus (the client.)

    Read in that light, Jesus could be perceived as a moral teacher, actually. (Obviously, as you know, I am in the legendary crowd regarding most Jesus claims, but it should be noted these statements are not to be perceived in the 20th century mindset, but rather in the society and culture of the times.)

  • To my knowledge, no other representative of Yahweh ever said the same kinds of things Jesus said. You don’t find Abraham, Moses, Elijah, or any other OT prophet making the same kinds of claims Jesus made.

    Jesus’s words have to be interpreted in the Jewish milieu in which he lived, so in order to support your theory, you would need to find examples of ancient Jewish prophets talking just like Jesus did.

  • staircaseghost

    Dude. Moses claimed to have talked to God face to face and received a set of instructions on what everyone henceforth would or would not be able to do with their genitals and serve at their Japanese restaurants.

  • You are correct, Bill Pratt—if I was merely making this claim as a “just-so” story, I would be as guilty of disabusing the text as Christian apologists who claim they would find Jesus’ statements “nuts” if given in the 21st Century.

    And upon reviewing the material, I should note I was incorrect. Jesus was not the client—Jesus was acting as the broker between the Patron (God) and the client (1st Century Palestinians.) Dr. Malina extensively demonstrates these types of relationships and numerous, numerous examples within the synoptic Gospels throughout his Commentary, but especially at pg. 388-390. Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. A quick google search would indicate Crossan likewise subscribes to this position.

    No, Bill Pratt, this is not my “theory”—this is basic research into the history of the time. Do you agree there was client-broker-patronage relationships in the 1st Century Mediterranean? If not, do you understand what is being claimed?

    I guess was irks me is the idea of taking statements from a different time (1st century), different locale, (Mediterranean), and completely different culture (honor/shame, client/patron, polytheistic, altered states of consciousness, etc.), not to mention a completely different language (Koine Greek) and then say, “Gee, if my 21st century neighbor said this in MY culture and in MY language and in MY time and MY locale—I would find them nuts!” That may be, but it really has nothing to do with how a 1st Century person would understand them.

    Imagine how a person in 4013 CE, in a different language and different culture, would review our English idioms:

    “I was cut off.”
    “Cut it out!”
    “The radio cut in and out.”
    “I will cut you.”

    To realize only one (1) of those has to do with a knife. Likewise, why are we looking at 1st Century idioms and claiming they would be “nuts” now, so they must have been “nuts” then?