Jesus Was a Teacher
The documents describing Jesus’s career—the four Gospels—make clear that he was a teacher. He proclaimed, and he instructed; the New Testament makes little distinction between these two activities. In dozens of instances, his contemporaries referred to him as “teacher” or a related term such as “rabbi,” and he accepted the description (Mark 10:17–18; John 13:13).1
Writers who compare Jesus’s teaching to a Western schooling model of education tend to approve of all his techniques. Educator H. H. Horne’s Jesus, the Master Teacher “discusses every conceivable personal and pedagogical trait, judging Jesus to be highly accomplished on every item.” More recently, Roy Zuck advises church educators to adopt Jesus’s manner of picturesque expressions or, more plainly, to use his storytelling approach. These writers apply ancient techniques directly to a modern setting.2
Jesus was (and is) an unusual teacher. Even those who received special instruction—the twelve disciples—were confused at times (e.g., Mark 8:15–16; John 6:5–9; Acts 1:6). In Matthew 13, Israel appeared to have decided against Jesus. The disciples asked Jesus why he taught without clear meaning (v. 10). He replied, in effect, that the hearers had no right to know. He said he used parables to veil the truth.
Recent scholars seek to understand Jesus in his historical context. Some take the Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire as the appropriate frame. Philosophical teachers in the Hellenistic context moved about from place to place. Accordingly, Jesus has been cast as a Cynic philosopher, a magician, or a spirit-possessed sage.3
How Jesus understood himself in his context is essential background to understand his behavior. Many scholars in the current “third wave” of Jesus studies accept Second-Temple Judaism in Palestine as the most relevant context. They see that Jesus taught a dissenting view of Israel’s covenant with her God. Jesus’s unusual manner of teaching gains a clear rationale once viewed through his understanding of his mission.4
Jesus’s actions illustrated his understanding of the generous reign of God centered on himself.
Taught with Parables
Jesus taught in the tradition of a wisdom teacher in Israel. He rarely used scholarly or technical language. He employed wisdom sayings, or mashalim—including puns, similes, metaphors, and proverbs sometimes in extended discourses. None of his techniques were unknown in the culture, and he used them with proficiency. Parables were already recorded in the Old Testament book of Judges as well as during King David’s reign (Judg. 9:8–15; 2 Sam. 12:1–4). First-century religious leaders also employed them.5
Parables were Jesus’s characteristic teaching technique for his provocative, symbol-redefining, dangerous mission. First, their oblique way of presenting truth was (and is) difficult to resist. Second, their storytelling form invites hearers to identity themselves in the narrative and to implicate themselves in their response. Third, they fulfill scriptural predictions of Israel’s lack of response. And finally, Jesus prevented early termination of his mission through these opaque stories.6
Second-Temple Jews understood their cultural Symbols and rituals to reflect reality as God had ordained it. Temple, land, Torah, and racial identity symbolically reiterated Israel’s God-directed history. In worship and festivals, particularly Sabbath and Passover, Israel replayed its animating narrative each year. Jesus’s parabolic teachings and parabolical actions defied dominant understanding of the day.
In Matthew 12:9–14, for instance, Jesus healed on the Sabbath. On a surface reading, Jesus’s generous act brought on legal wrangling. His restoration of a withered hand violated the contemporary understanding of Torah. But a breach of legality was not the only problem. If it were, remedies were available to the penitent. However, Jesus intensified the offense by asserting his sovereignty over the Sabbath. In the way that King David’s God-given mission overrode the normal application of the law (1 Sam. 21:1–9), so Jesus’s God-given mission overrode the law. Jesus validated his claim with Scripture. The healing itself indicated the complicity of a supernatural power. No wonder the reaction from the guardians of the nation was that Jesus must die (Matt. 12:14).
How Jewish contemporaries understood Jesus also enables modern readers to grasp their reactions to him. For example, why did the high priest tear his robes at Jesus’s trial (Matt. 26:65)? Jesus said that the high priest would see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven. While “seated on the right hand” and “coming on the clouds” appear to contradict each other, Second-Temple Jews knew exactly what Jesus was claiming. “Right hand” refers to Psalm 110:1, generally understood to predict the Messiah. “Coming on the clouds of heaven” refers to Daniel 7:9—the return of God’s chariot throne. Jesus claims to be the human being of Daniel 7:13, the Son of God, and the expected Messiah in one breath. Jesus thus asserted that he would sit on God’s throne and judge his accusers. Israel’s most basic affirmation was the Shema of Deuteronomy 6: God is one. Jesus’s language is thus highly charged. The high priest, refusing Jesus’s affirmation, tore his clothes at the apparent blasphemy.7
Taught with Cultural Texts
Jesus was an authoritative teacher who challenged his society’s leadership from their own national texts. Modern-era parallels include Martin Luther King Jr., who challenged America through biblical narrative and the Declaration of Independence; Nelson Mandela challenged white South Africa; or Mohandas Gandhi, who challenged Great Britain. In each example, a minority’s determined non-violence dared a Christian society to harm innocent fellows. Like these modern-era leaders who were inspired by him, Jesus taught that defying majority understandings means living the way of the cross. His disciples could expect that offense, pain, and even death would accompany the Messiah’s cause.
Taught through Symbolism and Events
Jesus’s symbolic acts teach a new reign of God. Nearly everything Jesus did educated his disciples about his new world order. He selected precisely twelve leading disciples. He healed untouchables such as blind persons, lepers, and an unclean female with an incurable flow of blood. He fed five thousand in a desert area with bread. He inverted the relationship of master and servant by washing his disciples’ feet. Finally, he remade the traditional, divinely established festival of Passover to center on himself. Jesus’s actions illustrated his understanding of the generous reign of God centered on himself. Jesus was always at the task of challenging and re-interpreting the dominant worldview. His actions were remembered and recorded precisely to instruct a new generation. Jesus knew that teaching could not be only verbal if disciples are going to absorb it. He taught didactically at times. However, he was as much or more a teacher through his embodied statements and actions, which make sense in a specific context.
As with Israel, God’s direction of history made the disciples’ education holistic, even existential. Israel’s discontent after the daily miracle of food in the desert gave an opportunity for correction (Numbers 11; Psalm 95). In Mark 6, Jesus’s disciples similarly saw five thousand men fed, with twelve baskets left over (Mark 6:43–44). In Mark 8, Jesus again fed about four thousand people (Mark 8:9). This time, seven baskets were left over. Thus, the disciples revisited events that had already occurred in Mark 6. After the second demonstration of power, Jesus expressly asked them why their trust remained weak (Mark 8:14–21). Like Israel, the disciples learned from providential events.8
1. J. Stanley Glen, The Recovery of the Teaching Ministry (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960); Robert C. Worley, Preaching and Teaching in the Earliest Church (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1967).
2. J. T. Dillon, “The Effectiveness of Jesus as a Teacher,” Lumen Vitae 36, no. 2 (1981): 156; Jesus as a Teacher: A Multidisciplinary Case Study (Bethesda, MD: International Scholars Publications, 1995); Herman H. Horne, Jesus, the Master Teacher (New York: Association Press, 1920); R. B. Zuck, Teaching as Jesus Taught (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995).
3. Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (InterVarsity Press, 2006).
4. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London and Minneapolis: SPCK and Fortress, 1992), 76–77.
5. Pheme Perkins, Jesus as Teacher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 38; Gary M. Burge, Lynn H. Cohick, and Gene L. Green, The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament within Its Cultural Context (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), 152.
6. Perkins, Jesus as Teacher, 38; Burge, Cohick, and Green, The New Testament in Antiquity, 152; Jack Sammons, “Parables and Pedagogy,” in Gladly Learn, Gladly Teach: Living Out One’s Calling in the Twenty-First Century Academy, ed. J. M. Dunaway (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005), 46–66.
7. C. A. Evans, “What Did Jesus Do?,” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 110–11; “The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith: Toward Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” in Who Was Jesus? A Jewish-Christian Dialogue, ed. Paul Copan and C. A. Evans (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 63–66.
8. Walter Wink, “The Education of the Apostles: Mark’s View of Human Transformation,” Religious Education 83, no. 2 (1988): 277–90; Mary Ann Tolbert, “How the Gospel of Mark Builds Character,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible & Theology 47, no. 4 (October 1993): 347; J. Ted Blakley, “Incomprehension or Resistance?: The Markan Disciples and the Narrative Logic of Mark 4:1—8:30” (University of St. Andrews, 2008).
This article is adapted from Education: A Student’s Guide by Ted Newell.
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