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Socrates and Jesus

by on March 21, 2011

                Recently I came upon a wonderful essay concerning what is called ‘The Socratic Problem.’ Quickly stated, historians and scholars to this day don’t really know much about the actual, historical Socrates. There are two dominant sources for Socratic scholarship; Platonic Dialogues and Xenophon’s Memorabilia. This same problem seems to exist within the historical scholarship of Jesus. As Donald Morrison comments:

‘What do we know about the real, historical Socrates who lies behind the varying literary evidence? The “the problem of the historical Socrates” is a famous scholarly crux, akin to the problem of the historical Jesus.” (Cambridge Companion to Socrates, pg. xiv)

                Now, as far people to admire from ancient times, I doubt there are two figures worthy of more consideration than Jesus and Socrates, and yet, we know very little of their actual lives. Now, within the context of Jesus, the Bible of course serves as the dominant source for learning about Jesus’ and his teachings. However, any honest person can see some of the blaring contradictions within just the Synoptic Gospels themselves.

Well, the first question that arises is, does it really even matter? As of now, Socratic scholarship has more/ less accepted what Aristotle termed the ‘logoi sokratikoi,’ which is a certain level of literary freedom behind the writers of Socrates, representing him in ‘their own way.’ Yet, even though this is now the accepted status of Socratic scholarship, the problem in understanding who the real Socrates (and perhaps the historical Jesus) shall ever remain. I honestly don’t feel that this is such a terrible thing, for perhaps it is the lack of the clear cut history of such figures that helps not only our own investigation in to these people have merit, but our own heart, our own ideals enter into the discussion. These two sources of inspiration, then, may be alive within us through the transcendence of their teachings. The fact that we really don’t know all that much about these figures historically, nor that we can verify the testimonies of their acts, to me, signifies really nothing other than that period of time in certain historical writings. And the liveliness of these two figures today can stand as testament to the power these figures still have on people.


From → Philosophy

  1. Read ‘The Republic’ by Plato.


  2. I have read alot of Plato, including large portions of the Republic. The problem lies in which Socrates is best represented. Plato’s dialogues are usually broken up into three portions- early, middle, late. Not only that, but for example, the metaphysical postulates of the Forms which were expressed by ‘Socrates’ seems highly conflicting with his initial aims in the early dialogues. Plus, one has to compare the more conservative representation of Socrates in Xenophon with the more ‘revolutionary’ representation in Plato. In fact, due to Xenophon’s occupation as a soldier/politician, the Memoriabilia was for a long time seen as dubious as far as an accurate protrayal of the historical Socrates. For an example of this, read Schleiermacher’s 1818 study, ‘The Worth of Socrates as a Philosopher.’

    There are in fact roughly a total of 7 Socratics to which we have only substantial information on two- Plato and Xenophon, however, the remaining 5 would be under the same scrutiny as Plato and Xenophon are. With the literary freedom involved in ‘logoi sokratikoi’ it seems even harder.
    Thanks for the recommendation though, it is a great read.

  3. gondoliere permalink

    What I find fascinating about both Socrates and Jesus is that so many different ideas have arisen from their followers. Socrates had disciples and Jesus had disciples, and have take there teachings to bring up different sects of though from them.

  4. I can understand your argument, however, one has to be careful when saying that Socrates had ‘disciples’ and that his teachings have brought up differeing ‘sects.’ Socrates was more of a teacher obviously than the divine Son of God. I would also point out that there were really no differing sects of Socratics. The Socratics wrote some different things concerning their views of Socrates, but there really was no sects. In fact, there is plenty of similiarities between the two main competing texts on Socrates. Later philosophy did appropriate Socratic teachings- Roman schools, etc. but the differences between the schools were not specifically based on Socratic readings nor the schools themselves specifically founded on Socratic principles. So, take the Protestants vs. Catholics of the Reformation- those could be considered sectarian differences, but I of course do see the overall point you are making and do generally find myself in agreement.

  5. Christianne permalink

    I read this when you posted it to FB, but didn’t realize you had written it. The whole time I read it, I was thinking, “this is so Aldi…” Should’ve known! Anyway, yeah, I think Jesus’ greatest credibility comes from the following he gained in the centuries following his death, and even today. That’s a great point in your last paragraph. I’m still trying to figure out which inconsistencies in the synoptic gospels make them un-trust-worthy. I know I studied this in Bible college, but can you refresh my memory?? I’ve read the Gospels so many times, and I don’t really see “glaring contradictions”…

  6. I will admit, this may be quite lengthy but informative nonetheless. Okay, the first series of information comes from Elizabeth Vandiver Ph.D who is an assistant professor of classics at Whitman College. The information comes from a lecture series called ‘Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition 2nd Ed.
    Some of the information may not fall under contradictions, but will serve as a template in Jesus’ scholarship:
    1. The four Gospels were written after Paul’s letters. They traditionally bear the names of two apostles and two disciples of apostles, but scholars agree that these were not the actual authors- a) the apostles were almost undoubtedly illiterate, b) Like Jesus, the apostles spoke Aramaic, but the Gospels are written in Greek, c) Apparently the apostles’ stories were first transmitted orally and were later written down by Greek-speaking writers for dissemination to a Greek-speaking world.
    2. There is a general agreement that Mark is the earliest of the four canonical Gospels and that John is the latest- a) Mark, the shortest Gospel, was probably written in the late 60’s, b) Matthew may have been written around A.D. 85; Luke cannot be dated with any precision, c) John was written perhaps as early as A.D. 90 or perhaps much later.
    3. Thus, the Gospels are not memoirs written by eyewitnesses. At best, they were written by followers of eyewitnesses- a) The earliest Gospel, Mark is also the shortest and perserves the fewest of Jesus’ thought, b) The longer Gospels were written at least 50 years after the events they describe, c) At that remove of time and with a shift of language, exact accuracy cannot be expected.
    —We must include the problems involved with the Gospels that were not included in the Bible
    4. Christians tend to conflate the Gospel narrative into one version- a) For instance, Matthew mentions the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ; he says nothing about the shepherds, b) Luke recounts the shepherds’ visit but doesn’t mention the Magi, c) Christmas pageants and creches show both Magi and shepherds.
    5. Such differences may depend in part on each evangelistst’s emphasis and assumed audience- a) Matthew, who emphasizes Jesus’ role as the Jewish Messiah, is especially concerned to stress Jesus’s royal heritage, b) Luke, who may have been a Gentile, is more concerned with Jesus as a universal savior and puts emphasis on the poor and the outcast.
    6. The Gospel of John, the only non-synoptic canonical Gospel, differs from the synoptics in several important ways- a) It contains no story of Jesus’ birth but begins with the declaration that the divine Logos took on flesh, b) There is no Sermon on the Mount and no Lord’s Prayer, c) It contains long monologues by Jesus in the place of the parables, d) John’s Gospel seems to reflect Gnostic influence.

    –Now the above is taken word for word from the lecture, such information provides sufficient information as to the questionable validity of the historical Jesus. Now for contradictions. The following is taken from Dan Barker’s ‘Godless.’ Dan Barker is a well-known evangelical minister and Christian songwriter who later gave up his faith:

    Dan Barker points out that the earliest writings about Jesus are those of Paul, ‘who produced his epistles no earlier than the mid 50’s C.E. Strangely, Paul, who never met Jesus, mentions very little about the life of the historical Jesus. If Jesus had been a real person, certainly Paul, his main cheeleader, would have talked about him as a man.’ It is stated that Paul futhers this ambiguity by never talking about Jesus’ parents or the virgin birth or Bethlehem, Nazareth, nor ever refers to Jesus as the ‘Son of man,’ which was common in the Gospels, ‘avoids recounting a single miracle or deed committed by Jesus (except for reciting the Last Supper ritual), and does not fix any historical activities of Jesus in any time or place, nor makes any reference to any of the 12 apostles by name, omits the trial and fails to place the crucifixion in a geographical location.’
    Paul contradicts Jesus’ teaching on divorce (1 Corinthians 7:10)- allowing for none while Jesus permitted exceptions.
    Jesus taught a trinitarian baptism while Paul and his disciples baptized in Jesus’ name only.
    —Now, all of the above are literary/historical/etc. problems in the scholarship of the historical Jesus, but the overall teachings of Jesus, the overall message is not necessarily lost. The cost of these problems (among numerous others) result in a relunctance in a real Jesus- but I don’t feel that this makes a Christian any less/more moral, nor the lessons less/more valid.

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