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Teaching Methods of Jesus

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The teaching of Jesus

So large a proportion of the gospels is taken up with the teaching of Jesus that the importance of what He said is at once seen to be as great as what He did. He was regarded by many as a rabbi and was pleased to accept this title for Himself. Yet, the question immediately arises to what extent His teaching in methods and content can be considered typical of Jewish teachers of the 1st cent. The populace at least were discerning enough to note one important distinction. Contrasted with the scribes, Jesus taught with authority. He did not, as they continually did, appeal to older Jewish authority. Even when He cited the law, He claimed authority to go beyond it. Approaching His teaching, therefore, one is conscious of His uniqueness as well as His indebtedness to contemporary thought. These two aspects will be brought out in the following survey of His teaching.

His teaching methods

It will be valuable to note the major characteristics of the teaching methods of Jesus as a prelude to the study of the content, because this will help to place the teaching in its life-situation (Sitz im Leben).

Its adaptability

In the gospels the first feature which strikes the reader is the way in which Jesus adapted His teaching to the type of hearer with whom He was dealing. There are many kinds of audiences mentioned. The common people gathered in crowds to hear Him and to them He spoke in parables, drawing from a wide range of everyday illustrations. He did not generally address discourses to multitudes, although a notable exception is the Sermon on the Mount, if this is to be regarded as a continuous discourse. There is a marked difference in the style of His teaching to the Galilean crowds and to the intelligentsia in Jerusalem. Further, the synoptic gospels draw a distinction between His teaching to the multitudes and His teaching to the Twelve, for the latter portion of the ministry of Jesus is devoted to the disciples.

There is no doubt that for Jesus the teaching ministry was a means to an end. As far as the Twelve were concerned, it was part of the process of training, although without question Jesus also had in mind the future ministry of the Church and the incomparable value that His teaching was then to have. This factor of adaptability is particularly seen in His readiness to use every opportunity to impart some spiritual truth, whether it was an ordinary incident such as a rich young ruler’s request to Him, or some festival occasion as the Feast of Tabernacles. It is not surprising that the high priests’ officers sent to arrest Jesus returned without Him, but with a deep impression of His incomparable teaching. A further illustration of His adaptability was the readiness of Jesus to impart teaching to an audience of one if occasion demanded.

Use of rhetoric

Jesus is never portrayed in the role of an orator, although He used certain rhetorical devices (but always in a natural way). This may be illustrated with examples. He used the dialogue method, sometimes posing questions Himself and sometimes responding to the questions of others. The collection of controversies recorded as taking place in the Temple area, prior to the Passion, is a marked illustration. The attempts of Pharisees and Sadducees to trick Him with difficult questions were simply regarded by Him as opportunities to express principles, a process which invariably silenced His questioners. When Jesus was asked about His own authority, He posed a counter-question about the authority of John the Baptist and put His questioners on the horns of a dilemma, which effectively made them withdraw their question. In John’s gospel are preserved, moreover, instances of Jesus engaging in extended dialogue with various Jewish groups (e.g., John 6), in which cases He not infrequently used rabbinical methods of argument, which would have been appreciated by His contemporaries, although the force of it may not always be apparent in modern times. An example from the synoptic gospels is the statement regarding the Resurrection (Matt 22:32). It must be recognized that even when Jesus used rabbinical methods, He was doing so to express a deeper spiritual truth than appears on the surface. The truth does not depend on the form in which it is expressed, but on the validity which it possesses.

Logical devices

On occasions Jesus used various logical devices which are worth noting. An example of a fortiori type of argument may be seen in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus proceeds from the lesser example of the heavenly Father’s care for the birds to the greater example of His care for men. “Are you not of more value than they?” (Matt 6:26) He asks.

Another method is reductio ad absurdum, a classic example of which is the controversy with the Pharisees over Beelzebub. Their charge that Jesus was casting out devils by the prince of the devils would make the devil war against himself, which is unthinkable.

The type of argument known as ad hominem (on the basis of an opponents’ premises) was often used when Jesus appealed to the teaching of the law. A typical example is when He cited the law as saying, “you are gods” (John 10:34), in support of His own claim to be the Son of God.

Many times Jesus left His hearers to apply His illustrations on the strength of an analogy between the physical and spiritual worlds. Thus to demonstrate the Father’s willingness to give, He appeals to what might be expected from earthly fathers (Matt 7:9).

The use of repetition

One important aspect of the teaching method of Jesus was His practice of repeating His sayings. Many source theories have been based on the assumption that this did not happen, and consequently similar sayings were regarded as variant duplicates in the tradition. This method of dealing with the teaching of Jesus is open to criticism on the ground that it does not sufficiently take account of the usual practice of repetition among Jewish teachers (see B. Gerhardsson’s Memory and Manuscript [1961], which cites evidence for this prevalent procedure). Moreover, this is a basic educational method. It cannot be expected that profound truths will be grasped at one hearing and it must be accepted that this principle was recognized by Jesus. This may well account for a considerable amount of the variation in the synoptic gospels when they report the sayings of Jesus.

Examples of repetition may be found both in content and in verbal form. Some themes, for instance, the kingdom or the law, frequently recur. The repetition is always purposive. In the Sermon on the Mount, there is a sequence of instances introduced by the formula, “You have heard it said...but I say,” which heightens the effect of the distinctive teaching given. There were other techniques which Jesus used to aid the memory of His hearers. Of special interest is similarity of form, as, for instance, the Beatitudes, which would be easier to retain in the mind than a collection of dissimilar sayings.


No one can read the gospels without being impressed by the colorful character of Jesus’ teaching. He made frequent use of metaphors, often of the most striking kind. His self-description as Light, Door, Vine, Shepherd, are drawn from common illustrations which were all the more effective because of their simplicity. He promised that His disciples would be “fishers of men” and “the salt of the earth.” The contemporary Jewish teachers were “a brood of vipers.” Other examples abound in the gospels. It is sufficient, however, to note that the teaching of Jesus was never dull. It was intended to be recalled. Similarly, He made constant use of similes, of which the best examples are in the parables, but by no means exclusively so. For instance, the disciples are as “sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt 10:16), while the Twelve are to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

There can be no doubt that as a teacher Jesus possessed a sense of humor, as is seen by the extraordinary exaggerations which He sometimes mentioned. The log in the eye (Matt 7:3ff.) was intended to heighten the contrast with the speck, but would be wholly inappropriate as a possible obstruction in the eye. Similarly, a camel in a needle’s eye (Mark 10:25) was surely not to be taken literally. With the same purpose of arresting attention is the use of paradoxical sayings, e.g., those who would be great must become slaves (Matt 20:27), or of apparently contradictory sayings, which speak of the purpose of Jesus to divide households (Luke 12:51ff.), although He came to bring peace.

Poetic forms

Some comment needs to be made on the subject of rhythm and rhyme, since these elements, if found in the sayings of Jesus, would focus even greater attention on the artistic methods which He employed. The form of the statement, “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine” (Matt 7:6), has an unmistakable rhythmic quality, which could be illustrated in many other sayings. This demonstrates again that Jesus was not unmindful of the form of His teaching. It is not possible to illustrate Burney’s claim that Jesus used rhyme. Burney has first to tr. the sayings of Jesus into Galilean Aram. to demonstrate his contention, and not all scholars would follow his reconstructions. It is important, however, to recognize the Aram. medium used by Jesus and to consider the possibility that He used every literary device to make His teaching more effective.

The influence of the OT

The teaching of Jesus was without doubt influenced by the OT. He was constantly making use of allusions to OT incidents in such a way as to appeal to the knowledge of the hearers. The reference to Lot’s wife, for instance, is not enlarged upon, but knowledge of the details of the story is assumed (Luke 17:29). Similarly, the allusions to Solomon’s magnificence (Matt 6:29) or to the queen of the south’s persistence (Matt 12:42) are remarkably concise and incidental. This emphasizes an important feature about the teaching of Jesus. It was addressed to people who were versed in OT ideas and who were able to understand the allusions. Any attempt therefore to interpret the teaching of Jesus apart from its OT background would be to wrench it out of its proper context.

This factor is further borne out by the gospels, which show that Jesus’ work of teaching was a direct continuation of the preaching of John the Baptist, who is portrayed in terms which suggest that he is the last of the OT type prophets. It is not without significance that Jesus began proclaiming the same message as John about the need for repentance owing to the imminence of the kingdom (cf. Mark 1:4, 14). At the same time, the teaching of Jesus soon went beyond that of John, whose task was essentially preparatory.

Parabolic forms

The most characteristic form in the teaching of Jesus is the parable, which was particularly used in the latter part of His ministry. The purpose of the parabolic form often has been debated, esp. in view of the statement of Jesus that this form was used “because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matt 13:13; cf. Mark 4:11, 12; Luke 8:9, 10). It is certain that Jesus did not use this form to obscure the message, and His words must exclude such a meaning. There is no doubt that a parable is relatively easy to remember and for that reason caused people to think. Those spurred on by no more than idle curiosity would gain nothing, and in this sense would be unable to see or understand.

Many problems have surrounded the interpretation of the parables, which cannot be discussed here. It must be noted, however, that it is this form of the teaching of Jesus which has led to many misunderstandings. Some schools of interpretation have considered that spiritual importance must attach to every detail of the story (e.g., the allegorical school). Others have gone to the opposite extreme and restricted the point of the parable to one generally applicable principle of a moral kind (moralizing school). Others have considered the eschatological relevance to be uppermost (eschatological school). No interpretation which does not relate the parable to the historic situation of Jesus is likely to be correct. Joachim Jeremias (The Parables of Jesus [Eng. tr. by S. H. Hooke, 1962]) has done this, but he excises many supposed influences which he considers to have obscured their original form. The interpreter may make good sense of the life situation of these parables without resorting to editorial methods.

One or two of the parables recorded are more in the nature of allegories, e.g., the Sower and the Tares. These come nearest to the allegorical forms found in the fourth gospel (Shepherd and Vine allegories). There are also many sayings in John which are parabolic in style although not in form; but too rigid a distinction must not be drawn between the synoptic gospels and the Johannine tradition in this field (cf. C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel [1963]).