Jesus as a Teacher: A Multidisciplinary Case Study

reviewed by Nick L. Smith - 1995

coverTitle: Jesus as a Teacher: A Multidisciplinary Case Study
Author(s): James T. Dillon
Publisher: International Scholars Publications, Location Unknown
ISBN: 1883255740, Pages: , Year: 1995
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By studying master teachers we can learn about teaching. By applying modern conceptions of teaching, learning, competency, and effectiveness in the study of historical master teachers, we learn not only about the master teacher, but also about the limits of our current conceptions. In Jesus as a Teacher: A Multidisciplinary Case Study, James T. Dillon presents a scholarly, highly original analysis that leads inexorably to an intellectually honest and nonpatronizing view of Jesus as a teacher. The book provides new insight into the high competence of Jesus as a teacher, confronts us with the meager evidence of his teaching effectiveness, and illustrates the limited scope of our present conceptions of teaching and learning.

Dillon poses eight questions, each of which serves as a subtitle for a chapter. The eight chapters can be grouped into three sets: three largely descriptive chapters that discuss "Who was Jesus?" (Chapter 1), "Where and when did Jesus teach?" (Chapter 3), and "Who were the people taught by Jesus?" (Chapter 4); three analytic chapters covering "What did Jesus teach, and why?" (Chapter 2), "How did Jesus teach by actions?" (Chapter 5), and "How did Jesus teach by words?" (Chapter 6); and two evaluative chapters summarizing "Who learned what from the teaching?" (Chapter 7) and "How good a teacher was Jesus?" (Chapter 8). Although Chapter 2 would have been better placed as Chapter 4, the writing does progress to a general conclusion concerning the primary query of the book: "How may we understand Jesus as a teacher?"

As source materials for answering these questions, Dillon uses primarily the three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; he draws some related material from Acts and three of Paul's letters. His analysis of Jesus covers the period from Jesus' baptism to his death, as reported in these sources. The analysis methods Dillon uses, which are scholarly, detailed, and systematic, are outlined in an important appendix.

To aid in analyzing and interpreting these source materials, Dillon draws heavily on previous work in two areas: educational studies and New Testament studies of Jesus and his teaching. Dillon lists six dozen books, chapters, and journal articles on Jesus as a teacher that have been published over the last 100 years. He refers to this tradition of study repeatedly throughout the book to place his analysis within this body of previous work, to illuminate alternative interpretations, and to contrast his findings with mainstream conclusions. This interconnection with previous work is a significant aspect of Dillon's analysis, not only because some of his findings differ from previous studies, but also because most of the preceding authors did not refer to prior studies, many even claiming that previous educational studies of Jesus's teaching had never been done.

The descriptive Chapters 1, 3, and 4 provide the necessary background for the subsequent analysis and evaluation of Jesus as a teacher. The best part of Chapter 1 is Dillon's discussion of the distinctive features of Jesus' teaching and of the ways he was like and unlike other teachers of his day as well as those of today. In Chapter 3, Dillon presents a concise account of the Hellenistic, Roman, and Judaic milieu within which Jesus taught. He continues this contextual theme in Chapter 4, in which he describes the kinds of people Jesus taught, their stations in life, motivations, preparation for instruction, and reactions to his teaching. Dillon convincingly illustrates how much better we know Jesus as a teacher when we understand the milieu of his teaching. His analysis explains better why people reacted to Jesus' teaching as they did, and why some things that puzzle us today were perfectly understandable to his contemporaries.

The three analytic chapters deal with what Jesus taught (Chapter 2), how he used actions to teach (Chapter 5), and how he used words to teach (Chapter 6). The substance of Jesus' teaching was "The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent!" (Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17). The teaching is about an activity and the desired teaching outcome is a responding action, indeed, not a specific action, but a generic action of putting God's ruling first. Dillon characterizes Jesus' teaching content not as locational, static, abstract, or propositional, but as concrete, dynamic, and actional. Jesus taught about an ongoing activity, with the intent to get people to take action in response to that ongoing activity. Thus the student is not expected to "learn" the teaching content in the conventional sense, but to react to it.

Not only was Jesus' teaching about an activity, and the desired student response was also an action, but Jesus used actions to teach his message. In Chapter 5, Dillon explains that although the use of parables and parabolic actions to teach may seem peculiar to us, it was a familiar way of thinking and living to first-century Palestinian Jews. They immediately understood what he was teaching by his feasting with outcasts; it was unmistakable and most people took immediate exception to it.

Through the examination of numerous examples of Jesus' parabolic actions (e.g., feasting with outcasts, keeping bad company, etc.), Dillon illustrates how these actions were educative acts. In contrast to most biblical and educational scholars who praise jesus for practicing what he preached, Dillon gives pedagogical primacy to the actions themselves:  

To the contrary, Jesus was not a teacher who teaches by example. He does not practice what he preaches, he does not live what he teaches; more accurate to say that Jesus preached what he practiced and taught what he lived. Jesus taught by actions. His actions are what he teaches, not an example of something that he teaches. (p. 68; emphasis in original)

The language of Jesus is consistent with and complements his teaching acts. The pedagogical language of Jesus is taken up in Chapter 6, which is exceptionally thorough, well-written, and convincing. Through numerous examples using the original Aramaic language in which Jesus taught, Dillon illustrates the alliteration and assonance in Jesus' speech, the rhythm and rhyme and word play. He analyzes how the structure and form of the language (including Jesus' use of vituperation and argument) are consistent with Jesus' actions and reinforce the educational message. Dillon provides a more comprehensive and satisfying understanding of Jesus' pedagogical language than the previous scholarly studies against which he compares his analysis.

The last two evaluative chapters address the questions "Who learned what from the teaching?" (Chapter 7) and "How good a teacher was Jesus?" (Chapter 8). In these two chapters, Dillon separates the two independent but interrelated issues of teacher competence (How well did Jesus teach?) and teacher effectiveness (What results did Jesus achieve as a teacher?). His conclusion is that Jesus taught masterfully, but without comparable learning taking place. It is Chapter 7, which concerns Jesus' effectiveness as a teacher, that is likely to receive the greatest critical attention. Dillon argues that few of the people whom Jesus taught learned what he was teaching them; that many people subsequently learned a great deal, but not as a result of Jesus' teaching. This conclusion is foreshadowed in an earlier discussion of Jesus' negligible social impact as reflected in historical accounts written soon after his death (Chapter 3), and in a review of the actions of his closer "students" after his death (Chapter 4).

Dillon acknowledges that Jesus' life and death had tremendous impact, but argues that few learned from his teaching. In measured steps he assesses the evidence, identifies the unresolvable questions, and emphasizes the lack of information. He then reviews the previously published assessment~ of Jesus as a teacher, noting the near universal agreement that Jesus' teaching was "exemplary in every respect and . . . perfect on every account" (p. 169). Dillon reviews the basis of these claims, claims supported by assertions of self-evidence, divinity, or aposteriori arguments of impact. He concludes that the demonstrable impacts came not from Jesus' teaching the Kingdom of God, but from others teaching about Jesus; they did not teach his message, nor use his methods, and there is little evidence that he taught them how to teach. Dillon's more modest claims take on increased credibility next to the superlative but intellectually shaky assertions of previous work.

Dillon's analysis in this chapter, however, is weaker than the rest of the book. He confuses "reactions" to Jesus' teaching with evidence of positive or negative learning, even though experience from psychotherapy would suggest that positive learning is sometimes accompanied by initial negative reactions to therapeutic content. He looks for evidence of learning for each separate event or action, without consideration of such issues as treatment strength, accumulation and transfer of learning, individual response differences, available versus observable behavior, and so forth. Although he provides lists of Jesus' teaching acts, he gives no rule or principle to define what constitutes such an act, and some examples seem aposteriori. Similarly, evidence of learning is defined as an action, but the specific nature of such actions is never identified. Indeed, since Jesus did not teach specific behaviors, it is not clear what acts he took as evidence of learning, nor what we should count as evidence.

Dillon implicitly uses modern conceptions of teaching and learning in his assessment of Jesus' effectiveness, tools that do not fit this teacher or his milieu very well. It is difficult to apply a view of teaching as predominantly purposive, goal-oriented behavior that is directed toward the transfer of cognitive material with the expectation of specific, measurable learner outcomes to a case in which the instructional content is actional, it is delivered by actions, and the desired learner outcomes are generic, not specific, reactions. Dillon seems to sense this mismatch and does not push the approach too far. It would have been better if he had, highlighting the limitations of our conceptions and forcing us toward more developed views of teaching and learning.

No conception of teaching and learning is likely to resolve all the questions raised about Jesus' competence and effectiveness. The clearest conclusion one can draw from Dillon's careful and painstaking review is that these texts provide insufficient evidence to answer the questions posed. Dillon quite property starers that there is little evidence of learning resulting from Jesus' teaching. He mistakenly proceeds, however, to the unwarranted conclusion that there is therefore evidence of little learning. This is a curious oversight since Dillon does not make that mistake in his earlier publication (Dillon, 1981) on Jesus' effectiveness. We simply cannot tell how effective Jesus was as a teacher, based on these sources.

One final comment on the basic approach Dillon brings to this work. Although he treats the teaching of Jesus within a theological context, that is, Jesus as a religious teacher, he does not rely on theological studies or interpretations in his review. Dillon employs only educational and New Testament frameworks. He gives no reason for this omission, an omission that raises reservations about the completeness of his analysis.

Dillon convincingly illustrates how a more complete understanding of Jesus' teaching requires viewing it not just from a twentieth-century perspective, but within the milieu of first-century Jewish Palestine. Correspondingly, how much more complete would our understanding of Jesus' teaching be if it were additionally interpreted from a theological perspective? Certainly a number of elements of the present analysis would have to be reconsidered; for example, an additional aim of the teaching as the fulfillment of prophecy, and the inclusion of teaching acts after his resurrection. If one were to employ a theological interpretation, then surely Jesus' death and resurrection would have to be considered a teaching act of the highest order, which would materially change the analysis of what was taught and most likely the book's conclusions about the effectiveness of Jesus' teaching. The omission of the theological framework is thus a serious limitation in this otherwise strong work.

The book evidences high intellectual integrity and honesty through Dillon's attempt not to succumb to the "devotional bias" that characterizes much of the previous work on this subject; as he admits in the preface, "The conclusions of this study may seem odd or unsatisfying or even objectionable. That is the way they work out" (p. iii). His conclusions do differ in marked and unsettling ways from prior studies. Dillon includes careful reviews of previous work and weighs the competing evidence, in most cases with the result that his conclusions are the more convincing. This impressive book has shortcomings, but it deserves serious attention for what it tells us about Jesus as a teacher, for what it suggests about the limits of our conceptions of teaching and learning, and for its example of honest scholarship.


Dillon, J. T. (1981). The effectiveness of Jesus as a teacher. Lumen Vitae, 36, 135-162.  


NICK L. SMITH is professor, instructional design, development, and evaluation program, Syracuse University. He is the coauthor, with P. Mukherjee, of "Classifying Research Questions Addressed in Publishing Evaluation Studies," Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 1994.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 2, 1995, p. 338-342 ID Number: 1439, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 8:50:26 AM

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