Jesus is the solution to mankind’s greatest problem, but He also offers the answers to mankind’s greatest questions. We would do well to consider Him, as Jonathan Pennington encourages us, as a philosopher of the ancient variety who thought and taught wisdom. Ancient philosophers quested for truth and knowledge, the right, and the good. All of us, in our own way, seek what they sought. Pennington skillfully demonstrates that our deep questions about life are not new. Nor are they unanswerable. Jesus profoundly answered them as no other philosopher could—ancient or modern. The beauty of Jesus the Great Philosopher is that it intelligently presents Christianity as the ultimate philosophy.
I do not disagree with calling Jesus a philosopher. There is no quibble from me about calling Jesus’ teaching a philosophy. As John Frame writes,
Philosophy generally is understood as an attempt to understand the world in its broadest, most general features….If one seeks to develop a truly Christian philosophy, he will certainly be doing so under the authority of Scripture and thus will be applying Scripture to philosophical questions, As such, he would be doing theology, according to our definition (85).
Philosophy and theology are closely intertwined. No question. But I do question Pennington’s claim that contemporaries of Jesus considered him a philosopher. Pennington marshals the evidence of ancient biography to show that the Gospel writers viewed Jesus as a philosopher since they used the genre of bioi. But bioi were also written about other important figures as Pennington, himself, concedes. Although there was indeed a general difference in how biographies of philosophers were written. As Burridge points out,
Lives of generals, politicians or statesmen tend to be more chronologically ordered, depicting their great deeds and virtues, while accounts of philosophers or writers are more anecdotal, arranged topically around collections of material to display their ideas and teachings (337-338).
Truth be told, when it came to Jesus, the Gospel writers were dealing with someone with great deeds and virtue along with a collection of teaching material. This point would benefit from further study. Other potential weaknesses in making the case Jesus was considered a philosopher is that none of the Gospels ever refer to Jesus as such. He is called “Lord/Master,” “Teacher” and “Rabbi.” Instead of a philosopher, these titles of address show that others viewed Jesus with respect and considered Him a teacher of Jewish law. (As far as I can tell, no one has yet written a book entitled Jesus the Great Rabbi in case someone wants to jump on that opportunity.) A case could be made that Jesus having disciples supports the claim he was a philosopher. But discipleship was also an integral component of Judaism (203). Pennington adds that the Gospels treat Jesus as a philosopher by arranging His teachings into epitomes. But, according to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, a Greek epitome is an abridgement of a long work. The material in the Gospels does not seem to fit this bill. None of the writers ever describe their material as an epitome. Did the contemporaries of Jesus consider Him a philosopher? Perhaps. But the lack of compelling evidence makes it difficult to state with anything more than conjecture. It may also be worth noting that no reference is made in the Apostolic Fathers to Jesus as a philosopher. My final point in this area of discussion is that when Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?”, philosopher is not one of the answers given. (Prophet was.) It’s Peter who nails what the Gospel writers wanted to communicate: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29).
Despite my lengthy engagement of a single point from the book, it is excellent. The message is valuable and should be shared. In a world dominated by blue-lit screens fueled by a never-ending supply of media, few of us are probably giving the big questions of life enough thought. This is a deeply encouraging book to read. It will give you a greater appreciation for who Jesus is and what He taught. By the time I reached the end, I was thanking the Lord that life has meaning and that the truly good life is found in knowing Jesus. I’m sure you can think of someone you know who would benefit from embracing this philosophy.
Special thanks to Brazos Press/Baker Academic for a free digital review copy of this book. This did not affect my thoughts so far as I know.