Answering Questions with Questions

The Jews of Jesus’ day were meticulous educators, as they have been throughout most of their history. A passage from the Mishnah demonstrates their active concern about what their students absorbed:

There are four types of people who sit in front of the sages: The sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sifter. The sponge – it soaks up everything’ the funnel – it takes in at one end and lets out at the other; the strainer – it lets out the wine and retains the dregs; and the sifter – it lets out the bran dust and retains the fine flour.

In order to stimulate the student not to just “memorize the right answers,” the teacher, or rabbi, would ask questions of his students. Not only were the students expected to be able to answer the questions,, but they were also expected to answer them by phrasing equally good questions, showing that thought through the original questions thoroughly. Perhaps this is why Rabbi Hillel said, “A timid student does not learn.” David Bivin, the director of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Studies, writes:

The pattern of answering questions with questions was so that in the Hebrew of Jesus’ day the word for “question” came to be a synonym for “answer.”

Bivin gives several examples which illustrate the deep Jewish roots of Jesus’ learning and teaching styles:

Twelve-year-old Jesus was lost and finally discovered by his parents, “sitting in the Temple among the rabbis, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). The gospel writer comments in the following verse, “And all those listening to him were amazed at his wise answers.” If Jesus was only asking questions, how is that the listeners were impressed by his answers? This would seem very strange indeed if one did not know that is the rabbinic would in which Jesus lived, a student’s answers were given in the form of questions…

Jesus answered a question with a question on other occasions as well. When was asked by the Temple authorities what right he had to do “these things” (cleansing the Temple), he answered by saying, “I will also ask you something. Now tell me, was John’s baptism of God or of men?” (Luke 20:3-4)…

The best example in the teaching of Jesus of he kind of question a rabbi commonly would ask his students is found in Luke 20:41-44, in which he asked:

How can one say that the Messiah is the descendant (literally “son”) of David? David himself says in the book of Psalms, “the LORD said to my lord, ‘Sit here at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool’” David calls him lord, so how can he be his descendant?

This is a typical rabbinical riddle based on a seeming contradiction in a passage of Scripture.

pp. 238-239

Excerpt from He Walked Among us: Evidence for the historical Jesus by Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson (Thomas Nelson, 1993.)

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