What did Socrates learn from the rabbis?

About the time that Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet, gave his final prophecy, things were stirring around eight hundred miles to the west. It was the 4th Century BC and a small country was busy churning out a never-ending collection of amazingly clever people. Socrates was the key man at this time. A pug-ugly little man in flowing robes, he was incredibly influential then and now, yet wrote nothing down. That was left to Plato, his pupil.

Taller, younger and more dignified, he cast his teacher as the chief character in a series of dialogues with others. He explains:

Before my learned teacher entered the scene, we philosophers concerned ourselves with the world around us. Is the world made up of earth, air, fire and water, or are there smaller building blocks? Does mathematics govern everything? What about poetry? Socrates changed all that. What he taught us is to look within, at our moral beings, at what makes us tick …

Socrates was indeed influential, even for modern day thinkers. So key was he that all who preceded him were lumped together in a single classification, the “Presocratics”, the string of warm up acts, preparing the audience for the main performer. Socrates was a familiar figure in the streets of Athens. He was an effective teacher, his classrooms mainly the public spaces, his pupils taken from the rich young men of his day, with time on their hands and rebellion in their hearts. He taught them logic and the ability to reason. On the positive side, one effect of this teaching was the jettisoning of the sorry, pathetic and argumentative bunch of Greek gods that had held sway for so long. Not so positive for him was that he was condemned to death by a repressive city government for ‘corrupting the young’ and, most tellingly, ‘neglecting the gods’.

Plato was Socrates’ disciple. He was his biographer and recorded his ideas and became, in his own right, perhaps the most influential of all Socrates’ pupils. He founded a school in Akademia, a suburb of Athens, the very first “academy”. There people were instructed in mathematics, geometry, law and the natural sciences, as well as philosophy. He also wrote much. Many of his early writings were expanding on the ideas of Socrates, who now comes under the spotlight.

There’s a theory regarding Socrates, that he drew much from the rabbis of his day. One clue is in the similarity between their ways of teaching; the Socratic method is the way that he teased the truth out of his students through the continued asking of questions, often exposing a fallacy or contradiction in the initial argument, but arriving at a conclusion together, which is more satisfying than the listen-to-the-lecturer-and-shut-up-approach to learning! This is the same approach used often by Jesus himself, for instance, when he was quizzed on a matte­­­­­r of authority in Matthew 21:23-27:

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

The question to ask is whether Jesus was using the Socratic method or whether Socrates was using the Jesus method or, to be more specific, the rabbinic method that Jesus would have been trained to use when he was growing up. Personally, this is just a sideshow and a question that scholars have, as of yet, failed to fully answer, though there is an intriguing passage in the Jewish writings, the Aggada, where it is remarked that Socrates was a disciple of Ahithophel, one of Israel’s greatest ever sages and a counsellor of King David. He was, unfortunately, also a bit of a rogue and managed to betray David, followed by a suicide, said to be a type of Judas Iscariot’s similar behaviour. Seems rather a strange role model for Socrates to have, but legends can often be ancient expressions of Fake News, so we shouldn’t take such episodes too seriously.

Nevertheless, there is the possibility of an intriguing link between the rabbis of the Old Testament and Socrates of ancient Greece and the reason I bring this up is suggested by the theme developed in the previous chapter. We were looking at the Hebrews’ relationship with God in Old Testament times and arrived at two classes, those through whom God communicates and those He doesn’t. The first group, the ‘spiritual’ ones, comprise prophets, priests and kings, and the rest are the ‘physical’ ones, the great body of the People of Israel. Hold on to that thought as we return to Socrates … next week.

This is an extract from the book, Shalom, available for £10 at

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