Was Jesus Straussian?

Peter Thiel seems to think so:

…I think Christ is a very complex, very ambiguous figure in many ways, which makes the interpretation quite difficult. I think almost everything that Christ said could be described as an answer to something that’s true, that most people did not agree on.

And I think for the most part, it was necessary for Christ to be very careful how he expressed himself. It was mostly in these extremely parabolic, indirect modalities, because if it had been too direct, it would have been very dangerous.

It was John Locke, in The Reasonableness of Christianity, said that Christ obviously had to mislead people, since if he had not done so, the authorities might have tried to kill him.

COWEN [Tyler, interviewing Thiel]: There’s a kind of Straussian Christ here?

THIEL: That’s the Straussian interpretation of Christ. It didn’t end in a particularly Straussian way, but it was at least true for most of his ministry.

‘Straussian’ here essentially means speaking/writing on multiple levels, with a surface level meaning that obscures or even contradicts your real meaning. By doing so, you repel the wrong readers and attract the right ones – the right ones are able to figure out what you really mean.

To disagree with Thiel slightly – or make things more specific – it’s right to say that Jesus Christ is sometimes Straussian, but the gospels books are not.

For example, in the parable of the sower, Jesus admits to being what Tyler and Peter Thiel now dub Straussian. Read it in full here.

Jesus tells the people a seemingly simple story about a farmer who sows his seed. Much of the seed is trampled, eaten by birds, or choked by thorns, but some falls on the good soil and yields a hundredfold. (Jesus was about 2000 years ahead on the ideal venture capitalist strategy.)

The parable is left to hang there for the wider audience, but when Jesus’ disciples ask him what the parable means, he tells them: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” In other words, parables are a way of speaking so that only certain people understand. They’re Straussian!

Often, Jesus includes explanations of his parables like this, even when the wider audience is still around. In Luke 15:1-10, for instance, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are explained to the Pharisees and scribes. But the next parable, which seems to be addressed to the same group, goes unexplained – although, having heard the previous explanations, it’s obvious that Jesus is calling out the judgemental Pharisees.

Thiel is right that Jesus is very deliberate about how he reveals himself – in Mark’s gospel, he predicts his death, but does so privately before his disciples. And at times he instructs people not to tell others about their healing; it seems he wants to reveal himself on his own terms. Much of what he does in the gospels is weird and esoteric, even baffling.

But the gospel writers themselves are a lot less Straussian than Jesus himself. They include these explanations, and often share an explicit purpose in writing all this down in the first place: Luke wants to give certainty about what his addressee has been taught (Luke 1:1-4); John writes so that the reader may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:30-36). (Matthew and Mark don’t have clear purpose statements, but their gospels emphasise particular theological themes, especially Jesus’ Messianic identity.)

So, an oft-Straussian Christ and non-Straussian gospel writers. I’ll leave the rest of the Bible to future posts…

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  1. Thinking… The first natural response to this that I have is to accuse Jesus of failing to give out good things. Why is He withholding anything glorious? In Exodus 33, Moses asks to see the glory of God. God shows Moses only what Moses can handle, for safety reasons. The image of God “covering” Moses with his “hand” is sweet. I wonder if we decide to come at this question starting with the assumption that Jesus was giving out the maximum goodness possible, does the picture change?
    You make a good point that the writers of the Gospel seem very direct. There is a huge contrast between their style and Jesus’s style.

    1. Thanks for reading!

      That’s helpful. I’m reading ‘The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment’ and similarly the author points out that a Christian can be contented when he lacks something (like wealth), because he knows that God has withheld it from him to guard him from sin/temptation and troubles in this world.

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