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WAS JESUS A HUMANIST? (January 2005 issue)

By Brian McClinton

UNDER ANY REASONABLE definition of the term, it is clear that many renowned early thinkers and teachers were Humanists. Lao Tzu, (literally, ‘the old master’) possibly born about 600 BC and an older contemporary of Confucius in China, is known through the text popularly called the Tao (‘The Spirit or Way’). It rejects the idea of a personal god and the ethic of violence, stressing compassion and humility. “Recompense to none evil for evil; repay evil with good”. The pacifist code of the Tao is clear and consistent.

Many modern scholars doubt the existence of Lao Tzu as a historical figure and regard the text as composite and datable to as late as the third century BC. But the existence of Confucius, who lived 500 years before Jesus, is not in doubt. He suggested keeping the gods far off. As to serving them, “How, if you know not to serve men, can you serve ghosts?” This is an essentially Humanist sentiment because it implies that the meaning of life is not part of a supernatural ‘plan’ but instead lies in the enrichment of the lives of others.

The teachings of Confucius are summed up in the word ‘jen’, which means love, humanity or goodness. Central to his ethic was the so-called Golden Rule, which he expressed as: “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself”. Virtue, according to Confucius, ‘is to love humanity’ and wisdom is ‘to understand humanity’.

The same is true of Gautama Siddhartha, ‘The Buddha’ or ‘Enlightened One’. He rejected the idea of a soul and believed that the universe had no beginning and no end. Self-enlightenment lay in the ‘middle way’, forgiveness of enemies and non-violence. All three of these ancient eastern sources - which clearly predate Jesus - can reasonably be labelled ‘humanist’, which is therefore older and more universal than Christianity.

In the West, Humanism also developed before the Christian era. In ancient Greece several philosophers could be given the label. The 6th century BC Milesians - Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes - believed that the earth was made of material substance and that it evolved. Anaximander said that all matter consisted of a single substance, that it was ageless and that no god made it, and that the world evolves, animals evolve and that man is descended from fishes.

Protagoras, a teacher and philosopher of the 5th century BC, formulated the dictum that man is the measure of all things, by which he probably meant that there is no objective standard or ultimate truth outside human values derived from human experience. Protagoras also taught that justice is a matter of agreed rules, not divine commands. His book On the Gods began: “With regard to the gods, I cannot feel sure either that they are or they are not, nor what they are like in figure; for there are many things that hinder our knowledge - the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life”.


This is the context in which we should examine the question whether Jesus was a Humanist. First of all, a Humanist is a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, who seeks to answer basic questions about life and the universe. When asked who was his favourite political philosopher, George Bush replied, ‘Jesus Christ’, but we do not normally apply this label to the founder of Christianity. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy has no reference under ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’, though it does include one on ‘Buddha’. A similar absence applies to The Oxford Companion to Philosophy: nothing on ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ or ‘Christianity’ but an article on ‘Buddhist Philosophy’. Why is this so? Why, in the view of most professionals, does Jesus not qualify as a philosopher?

If we read the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, we do not find a systematic, reasoned analysis of truth, knowledge, logic, the meaning of life or basic ethical principles, but what we are offered instead is a series of statements, so-called ‘divine’ judgments and parables. Rousseau said that if Socrates lived and died like a philosopher, Jesus lived and died like a god.

That is the point: Jesus and his followers made claims far beyond any that a true philosopher would make. No true philosopher would presume to know the mind of a God, and no true philosopher would demand unquestioning faith in him. Indeed, throughout the Gospels there is an explicit rejection of reason in favour of faith. To say that men must become like little children or they will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3) is to praise uncritical belief, and this is the precise opposite of philosophy. What renders a creed or ideology a ‘philosophy’ is that its proponents set out arguments for it and invite others to examine and debate the case. Otherwise, it is merely a dogma.

So although in many respects Jesus was a rebel, it is not enough to go against the grain to be a philosopher . It is also necessary to reject faith in favour of reason. For what is faith if not irrational belief? And what is philosophy if not the rational pursuit of wisdom? Jesus did not seek wisdom; he claimed he already possessed it. Such arrogance contrasts with the genuine humility of the true philosopher.

Indeed, this is precisely the reason why many Christians themselves would reject the label of ‘philosopher’ as applied to Jesus. They would see it as lessening his importance. It would mean that he was no greater than Buddha, Confucius or Socrates, whereas they see Jesus as the Christ, the One who died and rose again so that we can be reconciled to God. As far as they are concerned, if people only believe in him as a philosopher, then they don’t believe who he himself said he was, namely God incarnate. Believing in the philosophies of Confucius or Buddha, in this view, will not get you closer to God - only Jesus can do that. Yet, here again, we discover another reason why Jesus is not a true philosopher, which is the fact that philosophers are not concerned whether people should believe in them and their special qualities, divine or otherwise - only that they should accept their ideas about truth, virtue and reality. A mystic like Jesus asks people to follow him; a philosopher merely asks us to agree with him.


From our ancient examples, it is clear that Humanists question the existence of god(s). Their sceptical open-mindedness leads them to doubt orthodox explanations of the origin and meaning of the universe. As Protagoras implied in the earlier quote, this does not mean that they are necessarily atheists, if by that term we refer to dogmatic disbelief; it may mean that they just don’t know - they are agnostic - and think that, given our state of knowledge, there are more important things in life than theistic conviction.

In this important respect, the Jesus depicted in the Gospels was definitely not a Humanist. For not only did he believe in God, but also he believed he had a special relationship to God. In John’s Gospel he is not recorded as saying the exact words, “I am God”, but he does say: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). And in John 10:30 he even goes so far as to state that “I and the Father are one”. Later, he says: “I am God’s Son” (John 10:36). And again: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And yet again: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9).

Whether Jesus is actually saying that he is God incarnate, however, is another matter. The Synoptic Gospels do not make such a claim. The early Church had broadly three views on this question: the doctrine of logos - he was a divine being but subordinate to God; the doctrine of adoptianism - he was filled with a divine power (‘adopted’) by God; and the doctrine of modalism - he was a mode of appearance of God. At the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) it was laid down that Jesus was God.

No Humanist would ever claim to be God or be happy that supporters of his (her) views regarded him (her) as God. This is probably true of both Confucius and the Buddha. The latter in particular would be horrified to discover that he has been elevated to divine status and is worshipped by millions in the East. As far as Jesus is concerned, on the other hand, the extracts quoted above suggest that he would have been pleased to achieve such a status. Indeed, we could argue that worship of him as a divinity was precisely what he sought to achieve.


Humanists believe in individual rights, tolerance, reason, understanding, love and compassion. Did Jesus promote such values? As we have already seen, he was not a great advocate of reason. So let us consider tolerance. We could say that Jesus showed tolerance to the lepers, the paralytics, the deaf and blind, to Zachaeus the tax collector who was ripping the people off, to his disciples even when they lacked faith, to Peter when he denied him three times, and to the thief on the cross. In John 8 we also read about the woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus. He showed love to this woman by not condemning her, yet telling her, “Go and sin no more” (vs. 11). He tolerated the woman, but he did not tolerate the sin. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) he taught tolerance of difference. Last, but not least, he showed tolerance to those who arrested him, tried him and crucified him. He prayed, “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

The people to whom he was intolerant were rival religious leaders and doubters. He condemned the former for their hypocrisy and he certainly wasn’t afraid to get in their face. In Matthew chapter 23 he laid into them in no uncertain terms, calling them hypocrites who ‘go over land and sea to make a single proselyte and then make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves’ (Matthew 23:15) and who are ‘like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones’ (Matthew 23:27). He even went as far as to condemn them to eternal hellfire: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33). And, of course, there was also the occasion when he went into the temple and turned over the tables of the moneychangers (John 2).

As for the doubters, Jesus continually threatened them with eternal burning in hell for not believing in him: “He that is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30). In his view, you were either a sheep or a goat, and to the latter he showed no mercy: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). A similar point is made in Mark’s Gospel: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16).

What emerges here is a very mixed picture. The Jesus depicted in the Gospels was both tolerant and intolerant, and in this respect he was not much different from the majority of the human race. However, his animosity towards the religious and sceptical elites suggests someone who wanted to make a populist appeal.


Jesus was also contradictory on the matter of peace. On the one hand, he delivered the Sermon on the Mount, telling the crowd to ‘turn the other cheek and ‘love your enemies’ (Matthew 5). And, of course, “First be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matthew 5:24). On the other hand, he made statements like: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34); “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one”; and “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me” (the last was spoken in a parable in Luke). And how about this: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth...and men gather them into the fire, and they are burned” (a verse cited by the Inquisition).

And what are we to make of his attack on family values? “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother” (Matthew 10:35). “And a man's foes shall be they of his own household”. And again: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple”. When one of Jesus’ disciples asked for time off to go to his father’s funeral, Jesus rebuked him, “Let the dead bury the dead”. Of course, Jesus never used the word ‘family’. He never married or fathered children.

He spoke approvingly of those who would ‘become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’. Even to his own mother he said, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?”


Was Jesus concerned with civil and religious liberty? Was he concerned about equality and the rights of women? Was he concerned about the spread of science and education? Was he, in short, a social and political reformer? The answer is that the political philosophy of Jesus - if we can give a series of disjointed and contradictory pronouncements such a grandiose title - is not at all progressive, and certainly not Humanist. In no way was this man a socialist, as is sometimes claimed. For a start, he encouraged the beating of slaves. (Luke 12:47). He never denounced slavery and incorporated the master-slave relationship into many of his parables.

As for poverty, he certainly seemed to align himself with the poor and oppressed and condemned the rich, who would find more difficulty than a camel going through the eye of a needle in entering heaven. Luke 6:24 is quite explicit: “Woe unto you that are rich, for you have received your consolation”. When the rich man asked him what he needed to do to ‘inherit eternal life’ (Mark 10:17), his reply was unequivocal: “Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21). But, although he condemned the rich and lived among and preached to the poor, he did nothing or said nothing that could be construed as a coherent policy to alleviate poverty. On the contrary, “Ye have the poor with you always”.

The message instead seemed to be that the poor should be content with their state, for their reward would come in the next life: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). The essence of the Sermon on the Mount is that the poor, the hungry and the wretched should accept the status quo because they will receive justice eventually in a spiritual dimension beyond this world. As such, the political philosophy of Jesus is a profoundly reactionary message which fails to provide any practical scheme for the good of society. To tell people to ‘trust in god’, to disregard the world, to have no thought for tomorrow, to welcome poverty, to neglect their home and families, to let evil happen is really to compel them to opt out of the human struggle in favour of an escape into an unreal mental world. Jesus is saying that religion is a drug. In his teachings he thus confirms the words of Karl Marx that religion is the opium of the people.

Ernest Renan, who wrote a Life of Jesus, knew his subject well. Jesus, he says, ‘had no knowledge of the general conditions of the world’, was unacquainted with science, ‘believed in the devil, and that diseases were the work of demons’, was ‘harsh’ towards his family, was ‘no philosopher’, went to ‘excess’, aimed ‘less at logical conviction than at enthusiasm’, ‘sometimes his intolerance of all opposition led him to acts inexplicable and apparently absurd’ and ‘bitterness and reproach became more and more manifest in his heart’.

These are less the qualities of a Humanist than of a mystical, deluded lunatic. If there really was a preacher in some ways similar to the one depicted in the Gospels - without the supernatural powers, of course - then he said some good things which are indeed worthy of remembering, but he contradicted himself so often and talked so much nonsense on other occasions that it would have been better if we had let him rest in peace instead of transforming him into a deity. The Jesus package, taken as a whole, is not the ideal purchase.

Table of Contents

Page title Most recent update Last edited by
WAS JESUS A HUMANIST? February 13, 2009 8:47 AM Nancy G.
Seeing and Believing February 12, 2009 8:14 AM Nancy G.
About Downeast Humanists and Freethinkers February 12, 2009 6:32 PM former member

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