Did Jesus Use “Socratic Method” in His Teaching?

Here are 6 examples of Jesus using this method...

James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus Preaches in a Ship”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus Preaches in a Ship” (photo: Public Domain)

It can hardly be disputed that anyone (Christian or not) who studies philosophy or thinks logically at all is indebted to Socrates (469-399 B.C.) — one of the fathers of philosophy.

In a nutshell, the Socratic method is questioning an opponent in dialogue (or sometimes “turning the tables”), to see if what he believes can withstand scrutiny. Jesus and St. Paul did this all the time. Paul frequently disputed and argued with both Jews and Greeks, as the Bible informs us. Jesus questioned His hearers: often the Pharisees or Sadducees, who disbelieved in Him and in various theological or spiritual truths. Here are six examples of Jesus using this method. Surely many more can be found:

Matthew 6:26-30 (RSV, as throughout) Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?

This is a series of four Socratic-type questions, illustrating the principle of God’s provision by analogy. God feeds the birds, and flowers (without working at it) are beautiful, so why worry so much about food and clothing?

Matthew 12:10-11 And behold, there was a man with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?”

In this instance, Jesus asks a Socratic question and makes an accompanying reductio ad absurdum (i.e., demonstration that the logic of a position leads to absurdity). He shows that the logical consequences of an extreme adherence to the law is ludicrous: a sheep is hurt or left to die merely because it is the sabbath day.

Matthew 21:23-27 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you a question; and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we are afraid of the multitude; for all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Here, Jesus showed the wrongness of their position through the question that He asked. In truth, John the Baptist was indeed a prophet from God, but they didn’t believe this; hence, they couldn’t answer His question.

Matthew 22:41-45 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet’? If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?”

They reply to the Socratic question and then Jesus “traps” them by explaining the difficulty of their position.

Luke 22:67-68 “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I ask you, you will not answer.”

In usual circumstances, Jesus would, in reply, question His accusers and opposers. He implies that here but notes (in His omniscience) that they would not answer any such question from Him anyway.

John 10:31-36 The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?” The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?”

This is a brilliant series of three Socratic questions: all of which demonstrate the theological bankruptcy and incoherence of the denial of Jesus’ divinity.

St. Paul describes the Socratic striving after knowledge (through questioning):

1 Corinthians 8:2 (Moffatt version) Whoever imagines he has attained to some degree of knowledge, does not possess the true knowledge yet.

The starting point for Socrates was to acknowledge that he did not know (relatively speaking). He said: “What I do not know I do not think I know.” If we begin with that premise, we’ll always be able to learn more. It’s quite possible that St. Paul (being well acquainted with Greek philosophy) had something of the sort in his mind. He’s writing to the Corinthians, after all, who were very much cultural Greeks and thus heavily into philosophy.