In On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2003), I argue that Jesus was not an irrational mystic, but was a kind of philosopher who valued reason and who had an well thought out worldview. Moreover, he engaged in rational arguments with his interlocutors. Here is a section of that book from chapter five, “Jesus’ Epistemology.” May it encourage us to highly value truth and rationality.
Noncontradiction as a Test for Truth
Jesus reasons from the Scriptures and he reasons against his critics. When presented with an apparently irresolvable dilemma concerning the resurrected state or political allegiance (Matthew 22:15-22), he finds a tertium quid that avoids either horn of the dilemma. In this, and in all his other use of argument, Jesus implicitly endorses the law of noncontradiction as a necessary test for truth. A statement and its negation cannot both be true in the same way at the same time. Jesus never accepts a proposition and its negation as both true; nor does he revel in irreconcilable paradoxes as a way to disarm rational thought and make room for faith. Jesus at no time invokes an irresolvable paradox when pressed into a logical corner—although he will often employ a paradox to give a memorable ending to a pertinent teaching. When accused of holding contradictory teachings or of opposing the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus argues in order to resolve the apparent contradiction and vindicate his teaching.
Nevertheless, some interpreters attempt to make Jesus into a Jewish Zen-Master or guru by claiming that he employed mind-stopping contradictions. They compare several paradoxical sayings of Jesus to Zen koans. A koan is a riddle having to do with a logical impossibility; it is given to a Zen student in order to induce the student to transcend normal logical analysis and rational processes. Zen epistemology involves transcending all dualities and antitheses through various practices, such as contemplating koans and sat-zen (meditating on a blank wall for hours) in order to attain the state of “no-mind.” A famous Zen koan is, “What is the sound of one hand [clapping]?” This question has no resolution, because one hand cannot clap (in any standard sense of clapping).
Jesus utters statements that are prima facie similar to koans, such as, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first (Matthew 19:30). But Jesus’ use of paradox is pedagogical, not illogical. It has nothing to do with Zen or any other kind of mystical practice that abandons rational categories as a means to enlightenment. Jesus’ paradoxes are given not as epigrams, but as memorable conclusions to his teachings. They have an intellectual context and communicate propositional knowledge. The statement, “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” is not affirming that “first equals last” (a contradiction), as would a Zen koan. Rather, Jesus is speaking of the final reward of those who give up much in this life to follow him. This reward more than compensates for the losses they experience. Therefore, many who are “first” (or fortunate in this life) will be “last” (or unfortunate in the next), and vice versa. Jesus’ phrasing is paradoxical, and, therefore, pedagogically provocative; but it has a determinative and intelligible meaning (see Matthew 19:16-30).