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Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher?


Do you think Jesus was a great moral teacher?

If you think this is the case would you mind blogging about it. Fundamentalist are using C.S Lewis approach in this matter. Apparently they are happier if people call Jesus a lunatic vs. a great moral teacher.



I think this question is going to require at least a couple of posts: one on Jesus as a moral teacher and one on the claim by C. S. Lewis and others that if it’s true that he was a great moral teacher then we cannot very well think he would flat-out lie about the most important aspect of his teaching: his personal identity as God. (That latter is what lay behind the end of the question.)

So first, Jesus as moral teacher. As it turns out, this is a complicated question. The short answer, of course, is that Yes, Jesus was a great moral teacher. The complicating factor is that Jesus was not a great moral teacher in the sense that people today think of great moral teachers. That’s because the basis for morality for Jesus – the very heart of why he taught morals – is completely different from what people today think of as the basis of morality.

So let’s start with today. Most people today who teach morality teach it for the sake of all of us and for the good of society. If people were to behave morally, the thinking goes, society will be better for all of us for the long haul. There would be no hateful and harmful activities toward others if we all behaved in the way we should, not murdering, stealing, betraying, harming, screwing the other person to get ahead, and so on. If we all behave morally, we will all get along for the long haul, and life will be better for us both as a society and as individuals within it.

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The Problem with Liar, Lunatic, or Lord
My Problem with Fundamentalism



  1. Avatar
    zemi  January 16, 2013

    Thank you for the interesting post. It would be, I’m sure, a good read if you could perhaps later comment on the uniqueness of Jesus – in what things he was unique viewed in his Jewish context. I’m sure it also raises a question of what precisely uniqueness is. For example, a painter is unique not because he invents a new color, but because he uses all the colors that had already been invented in a new, unique way.

  2. Avatar
    Adam  January 16, 2013

    The view that we must choose between the options of Jesus being a liar, lunatic, or lord (which I think was suggested or at least championed by C.S. Lewis) seems flawed to me. It assumes that the gospels we have are completely accurate in what they say Jesus said, did, and/or thought. Another option I see, if we want to keep the “L” theme, is “legend.” Jesus was clearly a real person, but in my opinion, much of what is recorded about what he said and did is legendary or parabolic.

    • Avatar
      Adam  January 16, 2013

      I’m sure you have thought about it already and have many other books on the go or book ideas, but I think the general public would love a trade book on how Jesus’ teaching (the teaching OF Jesus) was transformed into a religion ABOUT Jesus…and the resulting differences between the two….it’s fascinating even to scholars today considering the “Was Paul the founder of Christianity” question still continues.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 17, 2013

      Yes, that is what I arged in Jesus Interrupted. And will argue again in today’s post!

  3. Avatar
    dallaswolf  January 16, 2013

    I really look forward to reading your posts, Bart.

  4. Avatar
    Ed  January 16, 2013

    It also seems that C.S. Lewis in proffering his now famous trilemma, (i.e. liar, lunatic or Lord) made a glaring omission, and in so doing committed a grave fallacy of reasoning. The omission of the word legend may be a false dilemma.

  5. Avatar
    tcc  January 16, 2013

    Jesus’ apocalyptic ethic just isn’t livable, though (turning the other cheek and not resisting evil are both horrible ideas when you’re a victim of abuse, or when someone invades your home), and the eternal torture of those who aren’t on Jesus’ side is an idea that’s tortured the minds of kids (and many adults) for centuries.

    Also, WHY should I love my enemies? If I love indiscriminately, that cheapens love. Even if there were an apocalypse coming, cheapening the whole idea of love would still be a terrible idea.

    I can’t take Jesus seriously as a moral teacher at all. I think many Christians (CS Lewis included) are better moral instructors than somebody who bounced from a completely irrational level of pacifism to eternal torment of non-believers.

  6. Robertus
    Robertus  January 16, 2013

    With respect to later Christianity’s unfortunate shift from the teachings of Jesus to salvific faith in teachings about Jesus, what do you think of the so-called new perspective on Paul, eg, his use of the subjective (rather than objective) genetive, etc. Have these scholars succeded in reinterpreting Paul in his Jewish context? Or is Paul still a Lutheran?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 17, 2013

      I hold to the new perspective, as does just about everyone except Lutheran theologians. Paul is now put firmly in his Jewish context. But I still hold to the view of an objective genitive in “faith in Christ” rather than “faithfulness of Christ” (which I take to be an attempt to get more historical Jesus into Paul….

      • Robertus
        Robertus  January 17, 2013

        It also seems to create a better understanding of what Paul may have had in common with other Jewish Christians. No need to assume they always disagreed about everything, ‘though they all appear to be a fairly disagreeable lot if you ask me, not much better or worse than Luther and his opponents!

  7. Avatar
    Jim  January 16, 2013

    Regarding “religion of Jesus (i.e., the one he proclaimed) became the religion about Jesus (the one that proclaimed him)”, it seems that orthodoxy won the battle on several fronts.

    Compassion did not seem to be a common virtue among the Romans. One gets the impression that mercy was discouraged because it only helped those who were too weak to contribute to the Empire. So in the cramped/unsanitary warrens of a typical Roman city during times of plague and famine, the sick could not look to public institutions for care. There seems to be indications that some second and third century Jesus followers were involved in caring for the sick and feeding the poor. These Jesus followers were probably not wealthy, were not skilled in rhetoric, probably could not read/write and are only remembered vaguely in history (reflected in second century literature like Shepard of Hermas/Didache/Apology of Aristides). The names of these caregivers are long forgotten, while those “Christians” who focused on developing dogma around a religion that proclaimed “a message about Jesus” are still remembered by name to this day (i.e. Church Fathers etc.).

    So Orthodoxy not only won the battle against heretics, but also over the message that Jesus proclaimed regarding concern for others as a primary indicator of following him.

    Can anyone recommend any good books that cover historical documentation of Christians and compassion in the first two or three centuries of Christianity? Thanks in advance.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 17, 2013

      Great question. No books really come to mind, apart from Rodney Stark’s Rise of Christianity.

  8. Avatar
    hwl  January 16, 2013

    Would it be more correct to say that some of Jesus’ followers after his death still maintain following the law was essential alongside believing in Jesus? For example, Matthew insisted on the necessity of keeping the law. James, the brother of Jesus, continued to be a faithful law-observing Jew.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 17, 2013

      Yes indeed! Some did. Although they ended up losing out when it came to defining what Christainity would be….

  9. Avatar
    maxhirez  January 17, 2013

    Interesting-one has to recognize the variety of moralities to acknowledge your point here. Let me throw this at you:does Jesus’ instruction to his audience in Luke 19:27 fit into this morality of an apocalyptic prophet? How about his smarting off to his mother at the wedding in John 2 or basically telling the crowd that she was no mother of his in Mark 3:33? Further, wouldn’t doing either of those things be seen as dishonoring her in that society and thus not only breaking the commandment to honor your father and mother, but also kind of begs the question of how Jesus would like to be treated in light of the Lev. 19 verse mentioned?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 17, 2013

      Yes, good questions — even apart from the issue of whether any of these things is “historical” or not….

  10. Avatar
    Scott F  January 17, 2013

    Really hoping that you give your impressions of C. S. Lewis in a upcoming post. Christians make such a big deal out of him and I just don’t get it.

  11. Avatar
    Mikail78  January 17, 2013

    Bart, I think you make an excellent point in “Did Jesus exist” when you say that the historical Jesus was most likely NOT a traditional family values kind of guy. I don’t think I’ve ever heard men such as James Dobson and Tony Perkins promote Jesus’s statements on the family, and I think we know why. Perhaps organizations like Focus on the Family and The Family Research Council should think twice before claiming to promote their agenda in the name of Jesus. As you imply, the historical Jesus was probably as far from “traditional” family values as one can get!

    On a related note, I recently heard an evangelical radio host complain that America is moving further and further away from “Biblical” marriage. Is she not aware that “Biblical” marriage could include polygamy? 😉

    • Avatar
      hschick  January 18, 2013

      I have often wondered what basis there is for the fundamentalist certainty about what constitutes marriage. Apparently the Romans had two kinds, basically differing in matters of inheritance. One could also argue that Christ’s presence at the wedding of Canaan was a sort of “endorsement”. But what exactly made that a “marriage”?
      To go back, why was Sarah Abraham’s wife but Hagar was not?
      Please excuse this divergence from today’s topic.

  12. Avatar
    samchahal  January 17, 2013

    In the kingdom there will be no war, and so Jesus’ followers should be peace-keepers now. In the kingdom there will be no hatred, and so Jesus’ followers should love all people – even their enemies—now. In the kingdom there will be no illness, and so Jesus’ followers should heal the sick now. In the kingdom there will be no demons or devil, and so Jesus’ followers should cast out demons now. In the kingdom there will be no loneliness, and so Jesus’ followers should visit the lonely now. In the kingdom there would be no poverty, and so Jesus’ followers should give their money to the poor now. In the kingdom there would be no injustice, and so Jesus’ followers should intervene for the lowly and the oppressed now. And so on and on.

    thats a great analogy of Jesus’s teaching best i have ever heard! it makes the sermon on the mount/beautitudes so clear now… “blessed are the peacekeepers” Bart you are a top man!

  13. Avatar
    Joshua150  January 18, 2013

    IMO …”That’s because the basis for morality for Jesus – the very heart of why he taught morals – is completely different from what people today think of as the basis of morality.”
    ….Is essential to all historical examination of the question and Christianity today. It negates the gospel answers as viable in today’s world.

    • Avatar
      mtelus  August 11, 2018


      I don’t think this is the issue with the morality of Jesus.

      Religion falls short because it forces people to confront their drives and aggressive impulses in a very forceful way, which can be traumatic and doesn’t produce results as good as psychology or self-reflection.

      Psychology is shown to be for more effective in increasing morality. Whether someone sees a therapist or do their own self-reflection, it will increase a person’s self-awareness and hence their morality.

      Neuroscientist Patrick McNamara in the Neuroscience of Religion describes what happens in the brain during a person’s religious journey, and a person is literally rewiring their brain similar to the process which occurs when learning a new skill. But different brain pathways are involved and McNamara fully describes them.

      Basically, you are trying to absorb religion into your system.

      Paul Ricœur describes this as the Second Naiveté, and explains that if done effectively it should produce a well balanced individual. But Ricœur acknowledges its a painful and difficult process, some people will fall short.

      I’m glad I started to look into religion much later in life, it would have been too much for my mind to handle at a young age, my brain would have been doing double duty.

  14. Avatar
    mtelus  August 11, 2018

    Here are some books by Patrick McNamara.

    His Spirit Possession book might be of some interest as well. He goes over the neuroscience of demonic possession.

    Patrick McNamara, The cognitive neuropsychiatry of Parkinson’s Disease, MIT Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-262-01608-7[5][6]

    Patrick McNamara, The neuroscience of religious experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0521889582[7][8][9]

    Patrick McNamara, An evolutionary psychology of sleep and dreams. Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 9780275978754[10][11]

    Patrick McNamara and Wesley J. Wildman, Science and the world’s religions, Praeger, 2012, ISBN 978-0313387326[12]

    Patrick McNamara, Where God and science meet : how brain and evolutionary studies alter our understanding of religion, Praeger Publishers, 2006, ISBN 0275987884[13]

    Patrick McNamara, Nightmares : the science and solution of those frightening visions during sleep, Praeger, 2008, ISBN 978-0313345128[14]

    Patrick McNamara, Spirit possession and history: History, psychology, and neurobiology. Westford, CT: ABC-CLIO. 2011.

    Patrick McNamara, Mind and variability: Mental Darwinism, memory and self. Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood Press. 1999.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2018

      Look fascinating!

      • Avatar
        mtelus  August 13, 2018

        McNamara’s Neuroscience of Religious Experience is very accessible and is not overly technical so its a good read for the general public. Many believers think being religious is something that should come second-nature so they teach it to their kids at an early age, but parents are really dealing with their kid’s first-nature. Its like trying to get a child that is born (first-nature) left handed to write with their right hand, its possible, but their brain is wired to write with their left hand. McNamara describes the brain processes involve, both neurologically and psychologically, in the development of faith.

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