The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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The Intellect of Jesus

Therefore our knowledge of Jesus consists in a small collection of short sayings which may or may not be authentic; the longer "sermons" being artificial creations of the evangelists. This collection of sayings is simply too small for us to come up with a definite assessment of the intellect of the man behind them. One of the most irritating feature of conservative Christian literature is the often cocksure conclusion their authors have about Jesus' intellectual capability. This conclusion come, not from a thorough study and understanding of the material, but from dogmatic preconceptions. Take, for example, the pronouncement of the Christian theologian and historian, Philip Schaff (1819-1893) on the intellect of Jesus:

such an intellect-clear as sky, bracing as the mountain air, sharp and penetrating as a sword, thoroughly healthy and vigorous, always ready and always self possessed. [1]

Another theologian, Charles Dodd (1884-1973) has this to say:

[The] whole body of sayings...betray a mind whose processes were swift and direct, hitting the nail on the head without waste of words. [2]

Needless to say, these starry eyed view had been challenged by skeptics. One of them is Charles Guignebert (1867-1939) who was Professor of History of Christianity in the Sorborne. His observations on Jesus' intellect are as follows:

we find in it no abstractions, no theories concerning man, life, the world of God, in short, not the slightest interest in rational and objective knowledge. He observes the world and quite simply records his impressions in what he says.

Jesus' intellect, according to Guignebert is not that of a keen and lively type but that of a dogmatist:

When he feels himself opposed by a doubt, he makes no attempt to refute it, for there is nothing for him to say. He neither argues nor discusses, proves nor confutes; he knows the truth and he utters it, and when he realized that it is not believed he grows angry and depressed. [3]

A good example of what Guignebert is saying can be found in the incident where Jesus was preaching in a synagogue in Capernaum (Mark 3:1-6). The crowd was not responsive to Jesus and this was his reaction:

Mark 3:5
And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts...

Jesus intellect,as we would expect, is very much a product of his environment:

it is important to remember that we are dealing, according to the synoptics, with a man of the people, born and brought up amongst humble folk in a little town in Galilee; that he was surrounded by companions of the same class as himself; that he, as a rule, spoke only to audiences of peasants and common people; and that the extent of his culture was bounded by his religious education...We have to do, then, with an ignorant man, not so much because he did not pursue liberal studies, which, as a matter of fact, would have been of little use to him in his Palestinian country, but because he had only a limited horizon. He does not appear to have known anything outside Judaism, and he was familiar only with the social environment of Galilee. [4]

In short, Jesus' mind was simple and rural, a lot like many fundamentalist Christians today. His knowledge of his contemporary world was dismal, as Ernest Renan (1823-1892), the French historian pointed out:

That he had no knowledge of the general state of the world is apparent from each feature of his authentic discourses. The courts of kings appear to him as places where men wear fine clothes [Matthew 11:8]. The charming impossibilities with his parables abound, when he brings kings and the mighty ones on the stage, prove that he never conceived of aristocratic society but as a young villager who sees the world though the prism of his simplicity. [5]

That Jesus was incapable of deep and abstract thought can be seen in the episode below:

Mark 2:23-26
One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?" And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions."

The scripture cited by Jesus in defence of his disciples' action has very little to do with the present situation. For David and his band of soldiers were hungry and were invited by the High Priest himself. The disciples, on the other hand, were simply strolling along and frivolously picking ears of corn. The fact that Jesus was satisfied with such a defence show the unsophisticated state of his intellect. [6]

Another point to note in that passage above is that Jesus' memory is not all that great. For he mentioned that Abiathar was high priest during that time. Actually this was a mistake. The incident happened when Ahimelech, Abiathar's father, was the head priest! (Samuel 21:1-6) Abiathar was Ahimelech's son (I Samuel 22:20) and was only appointed high priest when David became King (I Chronicles 15:11).

Note also that the authors of Luke and Matthew both discreetly omitted the name of Abiathar in their versions of the same story (Matthew 12:1-8 and Luke 6:1-5).

The balance of evidence, far from proving the remarkable intellect of the Jesus of the fundamentalists, show him to be an unsophisticated and ignorant Galilean peasant; very much the product of his environment.

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1.Schaff, Phillip, The Person of Christ, New York 1913, quoted in McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict: p107
2.Dodd, The Founder of Christianity: p49
3.Guignebert, Jesus: p248
4.Ibid: p178
5.Ernest, The Life of Jesus: p44-45
6.Guignebert, Jesus: p179

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