Jesus of Nazareth has forever impressed upon the human race a whole series of truths which Millions regard as normative for life. This fact rates him as one of the world's pre-eminent thinkers. Should he then properly be called a philosopher?
Certainly not in the modern technical sense of the term philosopher common or in the ancient sense of the term as the Greeks understood and used it.
Philosophy is esteemed as the gift of the Greeks to civilization. But there is an important difference between Jesus, and Plato and Aristotle. These latter men, as typical philosophers, were primarily interested in an intellectual understanding of the universe in which we live and of which we are a part. Jesus shared that interest, certainly, but speculation was not his primary concern.
His primary interest was morality and religion, and about these, his thinking was not abstract, but concrete and practical.
In its literal meaning, philosophy means "love of wisdom." Philosophy is not merely the "love of wisdom," it is the best wisdom of the lovers of wisdom. The Jewish people, in New Testament times, had their lovers of wisdom.
They were known variously as wise men, the wise, sages, or teachers of wisdom. They were the educators of their day, men whose special interest lay in knowing and producing the kind of thought which is technically termed Wisdom.
Such sages were usually men of professional scribal training, but a Jew, such as Jesus, might gain a knowledge of the Hebrew language and the Hebrew Scriptures outside of a formal School.
The Jewish sages did not form Schools of thought as the Greeks did. But they were differences among them, especially in regard to the nature of the divine government of the world, and regarding the dignity and possible happiness of human life.
From the Seventh to Second Centuries, BC, there was growing an increasing body of Jewish wisdom teaching. Among these can be classed the Book of job, Ecclesiastes, the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, The Testament of the twelve Patriarchs, the Wisdom of Solomon, and 4th Maccabees.
While the Greek philosopher sought to read the riddle of the universe by the investigation of natural phenomena, the Hebrew philosopher already held in his hand the key of Revelation, and with the help of this, sought a closer understanding of the ways of God and the duty of man.
Jewish Wisdom, therefore, was not a view of the universe distinct from God much less a view of God distinct from the universe it was a view of the universe with God dwelling in it.
Jesus’s thinking likewise was built on the same fundamental Axiom of Jewish thought. No doubt about the existence of God ever crossed his mind. He never argued about or sought to prove the reality of God. He was too much profit to feel the need for any such proof. Nor did he attempt a systematic presentation of the idea of God. Jesus assume the existence of God, not because it was traditional to do so but because of his own inner experience of God.
Like every prophet, Jesus was a man of insight and action. "Not learning, but doing, is the chief thing," was a basic principle of Jewish wisdom teaching. That principle set the motive for Jesus. Life was something to be lived, rather than something about which to speculate or construct a systemic Theory.
Jesus thought and taught Jewish wisdom. The spirit of the wise was in him. To consider Jesus as a teacher has long been commonplace. What kind of teacher he was has not been so clearly pointed out. Jesus is properly to be integrated with the wisdom teachers of Judaism. This interpretation not only does not modernize Jesus, emphatically orients him, historically.
In Galilee, Jesus's Ministry was primarily that of a prophet and a teacher. The most certain fact that we know about Jesus is that he was a teacher. As the Fourth Gospel quite fittingly ascribes to Jesus this self-appraisal: "You call me Teacher, and Master, and rightly so, for such I am." (John 13:13)
His ethical teaching shines through every account of his life. In Mark, he says, "Let us go elsewhere into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because I came out for this reason." (Mark 1:38)
Mark records that Jesus was saluted as a rabbi by his disciples. Mark refers to the long, tasseled, teacher's robe which Jesus wore, on which some in the crowd tried to grab.
This picture of Jesus as a teacher is not one that Mark would have invented. It was not a role that was expected of the Messiah.
Here then, Jesus is understood as a man of Wisdom. He is depicted as an itinerant teacher. He preached in the synagogues, for example in Nazareth, Capernaum, and elsewhere. He addressed people in the villages; not only in synagogues, but on the streets. He taught them in the countryside wherever he met them, by the lake, in the field, or on the hillside.
This method of Jesus is characteristically that of the Wisdom teachers. Jesus pursued his ministry in the manner of friendship and intimate personal relationship. He deliberately chose this method rather than any other for his work, for it was a customary method with Jewish teachers.
Such itinerant teachers are popularly called philosophers. The whole emphasis of philosophy in the first century was ethical, its aim was the formation and guidance of moral character. But Jesus did not write down his Wisdom, instead, he embodied the living spirit of his teaching in his life.
(Adapted from "The World-View of Jesus," by Elmer W. K. Mould, 1941)