…As Jesus Taught

Last week in Elders’ Quorum, we had a “lesson” based upon the principles elaborated in Teach As Jesus Taught.” Much of the time was spent discussing the need for discussion :-), and how to encourage discussions with masterful questions. Explicitly, it was proffered that Jesus taught by the use of questions. Implicitly (perhaps explicitly, but I don’t remember the exact discussion), it was advocated that Jesus taught this way to encourage discussion and therefore deeper learning.

I spent much of the week pondering this, and then decided to take a look at His questions as written in the scriptures (the four gospels, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price) to further study the above assumptions. I decided to classify each question in one of five categories with the number found in each included within in brackets.

Brief Summary of Results
  1. Questions that initiated learning though discussion [I found none];
  2. Questions that anticipated a response as part of a teaching moment [18];
  3. Questions that anticipated a response that was not a teaching moment [45];
  4. Rhetorical Questions [295]; and
  5. Questions I don’t know how to classify [99].
“Discussion”

Creations of this kind of taxonomy are typically fraught with difficulties and errors, especially when classification requires a subjective decision (the existence of category 5 should indicate this “study” is no less problematic than most). Multiple individuals may classify/categorize the same question differently. For example, In Luke 20:3 we read, “the baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men?”  This resulted in a discussion, but was it enough of a discussion to be classified in category 1? If we learn from this, was it a “teaching moment?” If so, then why not category 2? If that doesn’t appear to be a primary consideration (it doesn’t…but is it…?), why not category 3? In another example, “Jesus saith unto them, Have ye understood all these things? They say unto him, Yea, Lord” (Matthew 13:51). Clearly there was a response, but it isn’t clear what, if anything, He taught here. Did you get that, or do I need to further elaborate, seems to be question. In other examples, His questions seem to be doing multiple things simultaneously. Thus, included category 5.

One could make a case that all things done by the Savior represent a teaching moment. Nevertheless, by way of example, many of the questions in category 3 appear primarily as rebukes. For example from Moses 5:35, “And the Lord said: What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood cries unto me from the ground.”

Another problem with this analysis comes from the redundancies existing between the different records, weighting the results towards those things most repeated. However, even with redundancies excluded, the rhetorical questions still overwhelmingly dominate.

Conclusions:

First, I find no evidence that Jesus asked questions with the intent of encouraging a discussion in order to deepen learning.

Without question, the vast majority of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical in nature. Use of this method may have been a variation on the common use of repetition as a form of emphasis (ancient Hebrew and Greek do use no punctuation as we do in English). We have no way to know if the questions were added by those recording the history in an attempt to capture Jesus tone and emphasis, or whether it was exactly how Jesus spoke, or both. It is pretty clear that the Gospel of John has far fewer occurrences of rhetorical questions than do the other gospels. Is this because of John’s writing style, his memory, or simply the context of the incidents he recorded?

All in all, this makes sense. While Hebrew tradition uses the reading of scripture and subsequent discussion as a means to pry loose from the highly ambiguous nature of Hebrew scripture verse a plethora of meanings, and while it might have been okay to challenge a rabbis’ interpretations (out of respect, usually in the form of a question :- ), why would someone do the same with God sitting at the head of the table?

References

Category 2:

  • Matthew: 21:31; 21:40; 22:20
  • Mark: 8:19, 20; 8:27,29; 10:3; 12:16
  • Luke: 7:42, 9:18,20; 10:26(2), 36
  • John: 21:15,16,17

Category 3:

  • Matthew: 9:28; 15:24; 17:17(2); 20:23; 23:34
  • Mark: 5:95; 8:21; 9:16,21; 10:36,5; 11:3; 14:6,14,48; 15:34
  • Luke: 2:49(2); 8:30; 12:13; 18:41
  • John: 1:38; 5:6; 6:5,67; 9:35; 11:26,34; 18:4,7
  • 3Ne: 17:7(2); 27:2; 28:1,4
  • D&C: 7:1
  • Moses: 4:15,17,19; 5:22(2),34,35
  • Abraham: 3:27

Category 4: all not listed in Categories 2, 3, and 5.

Category 5:

  • Matthew: 13:51; 15:16,17; 16:13,15; 17:25(3); 20:21,22; 21:25(2); 22:41(2),45,46; 26:10,40,50; 27:46
  • Mark: 4:13,40(2); 5:30,39; 6:37,38; 8:5; 9:33; 10:18; 10:38(2); 11:30; 12:24; 14:37(2)
  • Luke: 8:25,45; 9:41; 12:56,57; 17:17(2); 18:18; 19:31; 20:3,23,34; 22:35,46,48,52; 24:17,19,38(2),41
  • John: 1:50, 2:4; 3:4,12; 5:47; 6:61,62,70; 7:19(2); 8:10(2),46(2); 10:32,36; 11:40; 13:38; 14:9(2); 16:31; 18:11,21,23,34; 20:15(2); 21:5; 21:22
  • 3Ne: 9:13; 23:9,11; 27:4,5
  • D&C: 6:22(2),24; 7:4; 9:12; 122:6(2)
  • Moses: 4:17

While not exhaustive, another thing I did as part of this analysis was to look at examples of translation from Hebrew and Greek into English, to see if there sufficient evidence that these questions were correctly translated. Finding no evidence of error in my sample, I moved on.

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