Did Jesus Debate?


     It is evident from the scriptures that Jesus was the Master Teacher (cp. John 7: 46, Matt. 7: 28, 29). Alas, while Jesus is no doubt the most famous man to have ever lived, many know very little about Jesus, his nature, deeds, and purpose. Mixed into this lack of knowledge and misinformation is Jesusí teaching style (the style can provide insight as to what Jesus taught and his identity).

     Many believe today that all religious debating is necessarily sinful. Indeed, from a scripture perspective, the idea of "debate" often carries with it a bad connotation. In truth, though, the word "debate" in the King James is used both positively and negatively.  The wise man wrote, "Debate thy cause with thy neighbor himself..." (Prov. 25: 9).  In this verse, the teaching is when one has a serious difference with another, he is to confront ("debate") the matter with the neighbor and not simply talk to others behind his back.  This is essentially Jesus' teaching (Matt. 18: 15 ff.).  "Debate" (eris) is also used in the sense of strife and unjustified contention and is forbidden (2 Cor. 12: 20).

     Having thus acknowledged the immediately foregoing, controlled religious debating or disputing, for the purpose of testing teaching and arriving at the truth, is often observed in the New Testament and is a trait of Spirit prompted preachers (cp. Acts 15: 1, 2, 17: 2). Apollos is seen as a powerful debater in the early church (Acts 18: 24-28). Many do not care for debating today because they do not care for the truth and the necessity of establishing the truth relative to Bible subjects (cp. Acts 17: 11).

     There are a number of descriptive Greek words used by the Holy Spirit to describe the preaching of the First Century.  Luke used dialegomai to describe Paul's style while in Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, and Troas (Acts 17: 17; 18: 4; 19, 19: 8, 9; 20: 7). Dialegomai is found about seven times in Acts, the first time being Acts 17: 1, 2. The word "reasoned" in the referenced verse (KJV) is the word dialegomai (dialegomai involves comparing positions and discussing attendant differences). Hence, one is correct in concluding that Paul was a skilled and accomplished debater.

     Another Greek word of interest is apologia ("defense,"). Apologia is defined as, "A speech made in defense" (W.E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). Regarding "Öset for the defense of the gospel" (see Paulís statement in Philippians 1: 17), the Pulpit Commentary comments: "Öto his work of preaching the gospel, which was both apologetic, meeting the objections of adversaries and aggressive, asserting the truth" (Vol. 20, p. 3).

     Words more directly involved in a study of establishing whether or not Jesus was also a debater are the Greek words apokrinomai, antapokrinomai, and hupolambano. Apokrinomai, both noun and verb forms, is used about 249 times in the New Testament and is often used of Jesus in various teaching situations where there was dialogue. A simple definition is, "To give an answer to a questionÖor to speak, but always where something has preceded, either statement or act to which the remarks refer" (W. E. Vine). Antapokrinomai means, "Anti, against and aprokrinomai, a strengthened form, to answer by contradiction, to reply against" (Ibid.). Antapokrinomai is used in Luke 14: 6, showing that the Jewish lawyers and Pharisees could not successfully disprove or refute what Jesus had taught.

     Perhaps at this point we need to establish a backdrop anterior to proceeding to notice Jesusí style of teaching and to see whether or not Jesus debated.

     Several centuries before Jesus was born, there were three, especially two, men who created a basic "norm" in the matter of dialectics and logical protocol. They were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Of these philosophers and teachers, Socrates is the most polemically influential (see addendum 1). On a simple level, the Socratic style of debate involved the asking of an initial question, usually of a disputant or interlocutor holding a contrary view. The "answerer" was expected to provide as concise answer as possible. The "questioner" would then pose a second question, based on the provided answer and to further probe and test his opponentís position. While such dialectic dialogue could continue, the probing questions and the provided answers could often only involved a few questions and answers, assuming the questions and consequent answers were replete and skillfully targeted the essential and core differences.

     One thus explains and comments on the Socratic method of debate, a method that continues even to our time:

     "The Socratic method (also known as method of elenchus, elenctic method, Socratic irony, or Socratic debate), named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against the defense of another; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, thus strengthening the inquirer's own point" (Online Dictionary).

     Having practical understanding as to how in general the Socratic method was used to educe truth and fact, one can easily see that the Jews and even the Son of God himself often used this form of logical argumentation. A key rendering in our translations is something to the effect, "Jesus answered." The "answer" often involved the debate format, the dialogue and context being the determining and defining factor.

     Let us now briefly consider some of the teaching situations in which Jesus was involved and see if we can determine the presence of the debate style format and some observable facts. First consider Matthew 19: 3-9.

     "3: The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4: And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5: And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6: Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. 7: They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? 8: He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 9: And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery."

     The questioner was often improperly motivated (v. 3, however, testing and probing was the goal). In the immediately above dialogue, there was a great controversy that existed between two known groups of religious teachers and thinkers of Jesusí day, the school of Hillel and Shammai. Those of the persuasion of Hillel believed divorce could be for any cause and those of Shammai contended adultery alone was the cause. They differed in their understanding of "unclean" found in the Deuteronomy 24 text. It is probable that the Pharisees were attempting to array Jesus with one or the other school. Notice the first question (v. 3). It is important that we appreciate that Jesus was not of the too common today clique mentality. Jesus went beyond the thinking of either school, back to the original and universal marriage law (Gen. 2, see Jesusí answer, vs. 4-6, quoting Genesis 2: 21-24).

     The Pharisees second dialectic question is designed to exposed what they think is a contradiction in Jesusí teaching (they are referencing the concession law found in Deuteronomy 24, see vs. 7). In Jesusí answer to their second question, Jesus answers them by explaining the concession law and practically expanding and restoring the original moral marriage law (vs. 8, 9, see addendum 2).

     Let us now consider the question/answer for debate that occurred in Matthew 21: 23-27 that involved one of the most basic of questions:

     "23: And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority? 24: And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25: The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? 26: But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet. 27: And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things."

     Involved in any dispute or difference is authority. In religious matters today, Jesus has all authority (Matt. 28: 18). However, it is of interest to observe that involved in the question/answer dialectic, not all questions must be answered. First, an initial answer may demand a qualification or example as to what is meant or the nature of what is meant (v. 25). Notice that the chief priests and elders knew that their polemic question had backfired on them and would reveal their own inconsistencies, even their insincerities (v. 25). They were trapped (v. 26). Their "we cannot tell" meant that they could not tell without exposing their own doctrinal and moral weaknesses. In the Socratic style, if the questioner failed to provide a needed answer for the sake of qualification, they forfeited the right to proceed. Furthermore, in this circumstance, the answerer was under no obligation to provide an answer to the first question (v. 27).

     Jesus and the lawyer debate the commandments, which is the greater of the commandments (Matt. 22: 35-40):

     "35: Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, 36: Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37: Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38: This is the first and great commandment. 39: And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40: On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

     Matthew chapter twenty-two has been described as the debate chapter, because there are four separate debates involving Jesus in chapter twenty-two. Jesus had just engaged the Sadducees in debate regarding their false doctrine of materialism (no resurrection teaching, Matt. 22: 23-33). The word was out as a result of this debate with the Sadducees that Jesus had silenced them or defeated their doctrine (Matt. 22: 34). No doubt the Pharisees viewed their particular lawyer as a champion with great polemic acumen.

     There was an ongoing question among the Jewish rabbis as to the number of commandments in the Law of Moses and their descending order. Hence, another famous question is used for this exchange. Depending on the greatest command given, manís primary responsibilities could be determined. Would it be the Sabbath law of Exodus 20: 8, the do not murder prohibition of Exodus 20: 13, the allowed and disallowed foods (Lev. 11), or medical matters (Lev. 12)?

     Jesusí answer goes straight to the heart of law, addressing the impetus for manís substantive responsibilities both to God and fellow man (vs. 36-39, see Deuteronomy 6: 5 and Levitus 19: 18). Jesusí answer provides not only an answer for the asked question, but also anticipates by providing the answer to a second sequential and related question. These answers are underlying and rather than make secondary on a descending order other commands, set forth the two commands that produce all other commands.

     Another famous debate Jesus had was the exchange with Nicodemus found in John 3: 1-13:

     "1: There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: 2: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. 3: Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. 4: Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? 5: Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6: That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7: Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. 8: The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. 9: Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? 10: Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? 11: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. 12: If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? 13: And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven."

     I mention the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus for several reasons, one being it is a little different in that this exchange is one on one (single "disputant") and does not involve an audience. The exchange also involved more questions and answers (three each, respectively).

     The first question seems implicit rather than explicit (Nicodemus seems to have something perhaps not overt in his statement that could be precipitating, v. 2). Jesusí answer appears to subtly answer Nicodemus (v. 3). Nicodemusí second question challenges Jesusí answer by questioning the possibility of the answer (v. 4). Jesusí responsive answer explains how as well as challenges Nicodemus to spiritually think (vs. 5-8). Nicodemusí third question again attempts to extract truths as to the nature of the new birth and its possibility, gently challenging Jesus (v. 9). Jesus designs his third corresponding answer to chide Nicodemus and urge him to consider the difference between physical and heavenly matters (vs. 10-13).

     In the next two dialectic endeavors Jesus is clearly seen as himself initiating the exchanges. The first one is observed in Luke 14: 1-6:

     "1: And it came to pass, as he went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the sabbath day, that they watched him. 2: And, behold, there was a certain man before him which had the dropsy. 3: And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day? 4: And they held their peace. And he took him, and healed him, and let him go; 5: And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day? 6: And they could not answer him again to these things."

     The debate as recorded by Luke is brief, but powerful. There were many questions about the Sabbath day regulations and Jesus and his disciples were on different occasions accused of violating the Sabbath law. In this particular circumstance Jesus was apparently invited to dine with a "chief Pharisee" (v. 1). The meal was on a Sabbath day (Ibid.). We are told that "they watched him" ("watch" is from the Greek paratereo, "Öto observe with sinister intent," W. E. Vineís Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). The boldness of Jesus is seen in Jesus taking the infirm man and before them, healing him on this Sabbath day, thus prompting them to debate with the question, "Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day?" (vs. 2, 3).

     They did not respond to Jesusí probative question (v. 3). Jesus who knew the hearts and minds of men is once again seen anticipating their unanswered question of "yes" (vs. 3-5, John 2: 25). They are once again speechless and unable to retort (v. 6).

     Jesusí final debate was recorded by Matthew in chapter twenty-two, verses forty one through forty-six.

     "41: While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42: Saying, What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? They say unto him, The Son of David. 43: He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, 44: The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? 45: If David then call him Lord, how is he his son? 46: And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions."

     Each of the recorded debates (there are many, no doubt, that were not recorded, cp. John 20: 30, 31) had a particular and peculiar slant and emphasis. This "final" one consisted of a critical discussion involving Jesusí linage and, moreover, his deity. Jesus again is seen as the initiator and, thus, the questioner. Whose son Jesus was went to the heart of the issue of essential nature and relative position (question asked in verse 42). Their answer "Son of David" was interesting (v. 42, cp. Ps. 110: 1). Jesusí second question probed their answer (v. 43). If Jesus is the Son of David, how could, then, Jesus occupy a superior position to David, Jesus pressed (Ps. 132: 11). They are being forced to concede a dual nature involving Jesus, physical as Son of David and also divine as superior. Since they refused to acknowledge this twofold nature, they could not or would not answer Jesusí second question. Thus, they relinquished the debate.

     Out of these exchanges, many wonderful truths emanated and continue today to resonate. The deity of Jesus; the new birth; the greatest commandments and their foundational nature; the matter of requisite authority; and divorce and marriage to another are a few of these great truths. In each of these instances, whether implemented by others or by Jesus, Jesus only debated the most capable of his day. It is often observed that Jesusí disputants used the wrong standard of authority or simply altogether refused the scriptures and they were both functionally illiterate in terms of the scriptures and often very prejudice. In Jesusí debates, he upbraided his opponents when they displayed prejudice and willful ignorance and exposed them to those whom they led (Matt. 15: 3-9, 13, 14). When Jesus could, he commended right answers (cp. Luke 10: 28). Responses to the debates were: "They marveled" (Matt. 22: 22); "they were astonished" (Matt. 22: 33); "they could not answer" (Matt. 22: 46); and they were "filled with madness" (Luke 6: 11). The greatest arrogance manifested by any opponent of Jesus is seen in the debate Jesus had with the devil himself (Matt. 4: 1: 11, notice the commanding nature and all assuming posture of Satan in this debate).

     People are generally familiar with the great parabolic style of the Master Teacher (cp. Matt. 13), but most people, including many preachers, even in the Lordís church are unaware that a high percentage of what Jesus taught was in a polemic or debate format. Still we hear: "I do not believe in religious debates, such are wrong!" Really? Was Jesus wrong for debating? Jesus believed in the truth and its exclusivity (John 8: 32, 4: 24). Jesus hated error (cp. Mark 3: 1ff.). Hence, Jesus had many debates with the religious leaders, even his own brethren of his day. So much has been learned from Jesusí exchanges and much can be learned today when debates are conducted for the purpose of eliciting the truth (cp. I Pet. 3: 15; Jude 3).  (Visit the "Polemic Exchanges" section to consider a number of included debates, similar to the style used in the First Century, click here.)

     Addendum 1: While Socrates (ca. 470-399 B.C.) is by Aristotle given the credit of introducing the "question/answer" style of polemics or debate, I am confident there were many others who thus understood and used this method of testing and arriving at truth long before Socrates.

     Addendum 2: "Moral laws" are laws that are axiomatically true, as they contain a moral enunciation and principle that is not subject to culture, time, or circumstance. Hence, while Matthew 19, verse 9 originally involved the time milieu of Genesis two and the Law of Moses, the stated truth is just as true and applicable today.