Sunday, August 07, 2005

Did Jesus Know Socrates?

Did Jesus know Socrates?

Of course not, the two men lived four hundred years apart.

But did Jesus know of Socrates?

"No," you say?

A carpenter's son in Judea couldn't have heard of a Greek philosopher. Or could he?

What about that story about Jesus staying behind at temple, absorbed in conversation with the priests?

“Well, what about it?” you say. And you might add, “It may never have happened. It may be just that: a story.”

But to me it's very telling. True, it may never have happened, but it speaks of a young person full of curiosity, and that rings true in light of the path that the carpenter's son took in life.

If you believe Jesus’ path was pre-ordained by His divinity, then surely by this time you have parted company with me. There wouldn't be any need to believe that it would take an unusual individual, with a particularly enquiring mind to forsake the life of a tradesman in favor of a street ministry: not if you believe that wasn't really a carpenter's son on the cross.

But then, for those who take their religion according to the Nicean Creed, it's silly to ask even my beginning question. Of course Jesus knew Socrates. Jesus was, and is, all-knowing.

And yet, I sense that some of you may still want to venture further with me down this path of speculation, and never fear, I am only too happy to oblige you.

Let us say, then, that the young Jesus, having expressed himself with clarity and compassion among the priests, caused one of his interlocutors to remark something along these lines, "Why, what you are saying sounds much like the words of that Greek, Socrates, whom I have heard discussed among the Romans."

In the ancient Mediterranean world, and particularly at the peak of the Roman Empire, learning was quite well able to spread across borders.

You might feel it to be a dubious proposition that the thought of Greece's Golden Age could have reached small-town temples in Judea. "How,” you might ask, “are we to give credit to such a thing, when so little was in written form that the Gospels themselves did not appear until decades after the Crucifixion?"

But, allow me to remind you that, in the ancient world, most information spread by word of mouth. In fact, the transfer and dissemination of information in this way was a high art form, even a profession. Oral history, it's called; Alex Haley's book, Roots, does a wonderful job of educating us as to the memorization and passage across generations of whole volumes of information.

In Roots, the purpose of oral history is primarily concerned with genealogy, but the talents of oral historians were not reserved for family histories. Rather, they were harnessed for the "recording" of politicians' speeches and much else, including academicians' lectures. In The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides furnishes speeches that took place at virtually the same time in Athens and Sparta. To do so, he must have relied on oral historians. Closer to Jesus' time, Cicero was known to do the same in pursuing his passion of making a complete record of the doings of the Roman Republic (or at least of his own year as Consul).

And so the stories, or "histories" if you will, might have made their way all 'round the Mediterranean. From Athens, eastward and southward, and from Alexandria, the great center of learning of Jesus' day, eastward and northward, into Judea. Ultimately, with four hundred years to do it, the oral historians could well have conveyed a fairly accurate rendition of the Socratic dialogues to anyplace learned men served, even the Temple in Jerusalem, or Nazareth. After all, the dialogues are themselves oral history, aren't they? They are the remembrances of Socrates' student, Plato, trying to faithfully record his mentor's conversations with fellow citizens in the streets of Athens.

Well then, if you are at least willing to humor me in this conceit, what I would like to point out is that, if it is not so unreasonable to assume that Jesus had contact with the thinking of Socrates, then this may explain much about the version of Judaism that Jesus came to stand for.

Think of the way of Socrates worked. I have a feeling that Socrates would have had an attraction for an intellectually curious carpenter's son who set out to share a message with the world. Socrates worked in a similar way; he left no written works. Everything he did was by his spoken word.

Furthermore, think of the similarity between Jesus' ministry among the common people and Socrates' peregrinations in the streets of Athens, willing to accost any of his fellow citizens.

And there are parallels of thought as well, ones that, I feel, throw light on who the true Jesus was. By comparing Jesus and Socrates, I think that we can perceive where the real Jesus ends and where begins the embellishment of his story by later writers.

You could even retell Jesus' story, write it all anew, not as a Gospel of course, but as an alternative story. Call it historical fiction, perhaps; in any event, like all good fiction, in the telling, it would get us thinking. It would get us to wonder: what did Jesus really stand for?

There is even a similarity in the way the two men ended. Both were executed, essentially murdered by action of their governing authorities. Both went to their deaths courageously, and not only that, with forgiveness in their hearts. Could Socrates' trial, his refusal to beg for mercy or to flee into exile, have been on Jesus mind in his last days?

"Well, this is all very well and good, you say. Good, clean fun, but utterly unprovable and therefore, just a lot of speculation."

True, it is unprovable, or at least, given the present state of our scholarship, our archeological capabilities, it's unprovable for now. Indeed, it’s not apparent how it could ever be provable. Or at least, one cannot imagine how it could ever be verified one way or another.

But the last century or so has seen several advances in Biblical scholarship and in the archeology of the ancient world that have revealed much that was hitherto thought to be beyond history's veil. Might there be more in store, might it be that eventually some scholar or archeologist will uncover evidence of this connection?

In that case, what would we learn about Jesus? I believe what we would learn is that he was trying to redirect behavior in the here and now. He wanted to tell people, by showing them, being himself an example, that they can choose how to live their lives, can make changes. He hoped that people would take up his path rather than continue trying to assert their perceived rights against others. His message was that life could be better, even blissful, even a kingdom on earth, if they focused on cooperating with each other, even loving each other, certainly caring for all, especially the weak.

We might also learn what was not part of Jesus' message. We might discern what was added later: things like hierarchy (both on earth and in heaven), judgment and punishment, saving and damning, hell and hell fire.

In my next post, I’ll compare some things that Jesus said with things that Socrates said.o

3 Comments:

Blogger Jim H said...

This is Jim H, checking in from Holbrook, Arizona.

I'm not sure that I can get my arms around this mental exercise. How can we compare in any meaningful fashion what Jesus said with what Socrates said? We have no idea what either of them REALLY said. In each case, isn't our only evidence the testimony of their followers, which is inherently unreliable because of bias and the disciples' need to serve their own self-interest? Peter, or Paul, or Plato probably put as much--or more--spin on their "historical" accounts as we get from our government. Jesus might have said "green," but if Peter or Paul later decided he said "red," then "red" is what our historical record says. What we have are not the words of the man, but the words of the carefully maintained legend.

August 09, 2005 7:33 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Sorry, folks, but you are barking up the wrong philosophical tree. It is all well and good to act like the Greeks and have endless discussions about who knew what, when and how. But you are overlooking some historical, verifiable facts.

What Jesus said, or more acurately what is written that He said, is reliably recorded in the New Testament. Those who spend endless hours trying to cast doubt on that are like the X-Files' Mulder, just knowing "The truth is out there!"

The fact of the matter is that many of the New Testament writing were recorded during the lifetimes of thousands of witnesses to the ministry of Jesus. They were recorded in a culture that had a vested interest in destroying the credibility of Jesus and the Apostles. Had they been able, they would have gladly discredited the New Testament authors. In addition, there are more copies of original New Testament writings than of ANY other ancient texts. Comparisons of these copies shows them to be well over 90% in agreement with each other. The differences are in spelling and phrase order (such as Jesus Christ instead of Christ Jesus). Again, witnesses who had a stake in showing Jesus and his disciples to be liars had ample opportunity to document the lies. Yet not one example of this is found today.

Did Jesus know of the teachings of Socrates? You make the point that, as Divine, He would have to. That aside, however, one only need to remember that truth is truth. That one person said it and another echoed it changes not one thing. Jesus also quoted Old Testament writers. Does that mean that he plagerized them? No. He said that he came not to destroy the law but to fullfill it.

You may entertain yourselves as you will with tail-swallowing arguments. But the truth of the matter is that it takes more faith to disbelieve than it does to believe.

August 19, 2005 7:50 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

I think this is a valid area to explore (remember Freud used to do similar mental exercise, wondering whether Moses might really have been Egyptian royalty after all). What you have in your favor is that recently there has been a discovery of a first century AD Roman bath house near Nazareth. The similarities of Jesus' teachings with that of Greek philosophers are many and I myself have wondered whether Jesus did not represent a synthesis, albeit faint, of both cultures. On the face it might seem far fetched, but remember that influences needn't be direct. It is incontrovertible that the Greeks and Romans had a presence in the area. Certainly, if Jesus hadn't heard of Socrates others he knew would have. Also, as someone pointed out, if there had bee a Roman colony associated with that bath house (a near certainty), it is likely that Jesus' father, a carpenter, would have found work there. I know that we might never know the answer, but wouldn't it be interesting if Jesus found inspiration in Socrates in the same way that Martin Luther King did in Ghandi?

June 26, 2008 2:47 PM  

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