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A couple of years ago I read a little book by Roman Catholic New Testament scholar Raymond E. Brown (d. 1998) Jesus: God and ManIt’s a short little book, 2 chapters in fact, each of which first appeared in journals in the mid-1960s, about the time I was going to first grade with my Monkees lunch box.

In the first chapter, Brown looks at whether the New Testament calls Jesus God, and what that even means. I’d like to to get back to that when things slow down a bit (aka, don’t hold your breath).

In the second chapter, Brown addresses the question, “How much did Jesus know?” I found what he had to say very clear and helpful—and a reminder that reading old books may not be a bad idea.

The issue lurking in the background for Brown is the common Christian assertion that Jesus, being divine, “knew everything”—at least everything of religious importance.

Brown goes through every relevant text in the Gospels and shows how the biblical evidence is a lot more—wait for it—diverse than can be captured in sweeping assertions.

Brown looks at Jesus’s knowledge with respect to several categories: about ordinary affairs of life, religious matters, the future, and his own self-knowledge and of his mission.

In working through these categories, Brown shows where Jesus is at times ignorant and at times displays superhuman/extraordinary knowledge, at times clear and at times uncertain, and at times expressing himself in terms of common expectations of the day.

For example, the Gospels include scenes where Jesus knows what is happening elsewhere or what others are thinking (e.g., Mark 2:6-8; Mark 11:2; John 1:48-49).

This may seem to support the “Jesus is God and therefore knows everything” idea, but even in these passages (and others Brown gives) we need to be careful, Brown writes, “about any theological assumption that would trace such knowledge to the hypostatic union…” (i.e., the Christian belief that the human Jesus was also fully divine, p. 49). The Old Testament attributes the same kind of knowledge to Old Testament prophets, like “Ezekiel living in Babylon [who] has visions of events occurring in Jerusalem” (p. 49).

In other words, extraordinary knowledge like this is not an argument for Jesus’s divinity, especially since he also displays ignorance of things as well. And those two features—extraordinary knowledge and ignorance—are not mutually incompatible, since we see them both in the Old Testament prophets.

In his conclusion, Brown reminds us that his evaluation of the Gospel evidence “does nothing to detract from the dignity of Jesus,” by which he means:

If in the Gospel reports his knowledge seems to have been limited, such limitation would simply show to what depths divine condescension went in the incarnation—it would show just how human was the humanity of Jesus (p. 100).

Here again we are reminded of the offense and humiliation, indeed the mystery, of the incarnation—perhaps even our discomfort, if we’re honest, with a Jesus who was fully human and therefore participated in the limitations of being human.

Here is Brown’s conclusion to the book, where he addresses a reaction to all this that I’ve heard many times myself, that Jesus can’t be limited in his knowledge like other humans, because, despite that humanity, “Jesus is God”

But when all is said and done, the great objection that will be hurled again and again against any exegete (or theologian) who finds evidence that Jesus’ knowledge was limited is the objection that in Jesus Christ there is only one person, a divine person.

And so, even though the divine person acted through a completely human nature, any theory that Jesus had limited knowledge seems to imply a limitation of the divine person.

Perhaps the best answer to this objection is to call upon Cyril of Alexandria, that Doctor of the Church to whom, more than to any other, we are indebted for the great truth of the oneness of the person in Christ. It was that ultra-orthodox archfoe of Nestorianism (two persons or powers in Christ) who said of Christ, 

“We have admired his goodness in that for love of us he has not refused to descend to such a low position as to bear all that belongs to our nature, INCLUDED IN WHICH IS IGNORANCE.” (my formatting; emphasis original; pp. 101-2).

And then in his epilogue, Brown writes:

A Jesus who walked through the world knowing exactly what the morrow would bring, knowing with certainty that three days after his death his Father would raise him up, is a Jesus who can arouse our admiration, but still a Jesus far from us.

He is a Jesus far from mankind that can only hope in the future and believe in God’s goodness, far from a mankind that must face the supreme uncertainty of death with faith but without knowledge of what is beyond.

On the other hand, a Jesus for whom the future was as such a mystery, a dread, and a hope as it is for us and yet, at the same time a Jesus who would say, “Not my will but yours”–this is a Jesus who could effectively teach us how to live, for this is a Jesus who would have gone through life’s real trials.

Then we would know the full truth of the saying: “No man can have greater love than this: to lay down his life for those he loves” (Jn 15:13), for we would know that he laid down his life with all the agony with which we lay it down.

We would know that for him the loss of life was, as it is for us, the loss of a great possession, a possession that is outranked only by love.” (my formatting; pp. 104-5).

For Brown, much is at stake theologically for Jesus not knowing everything. It means grappling with the implications of the incarnation, no matter how challenging those implications may be to our own theology. I’m with Brown on this.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • JustAnotherChris says:

    What’s an example of Jesus displaying ignorance of things? I know we’re told he grew in wisdom, but in what ways does he display ignorance? That’s not a challenge, just a question.

    • Guarionex says:

      some examples: Mark 13:32, Mark 5:30, Mark 9:20–21.

    • neshort says:

      Here’s an example (maybe not the best):
      Mar 11:12-13 (NRSV)
      12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.

      Some people cannot imagine Jesus as a person who was ever hungry or who ever needed to relieve himself. In this passage, he learned that the tree had no figs by investigating. He didn’t “just know” nor did he employ common logic ahead of time (it was not the season for figs). He learned by investigating for himself.

    • Veritas says:

      This is one I can think of. Matthew ch 24:36

      “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,* but the Father alone.

    • Veritas says:

      Here is another where Jesus is not all knowing;
      Luke ch 8
      And a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years,* who [had spent her whole livelihood on doctors and] was unable to be cured by anyone,
      came up behind him and touched the tassel on his cloak. Immediately her bleeding stopped.
      Jesus then asked, “Who touched me?” While all were denying it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds are pushing and pressing in upon you.”
      But Jesus said, “Someone has touched me; for I know that power has gone out from me.”

    • David Wilson says:

      The classic case which throws the inerrantists into fits of casuistry is Mark 2:26. Who was the high priest when David took the consecrated bread?

  • Pete, for decades I have believed that Jesus was fully human and was not omniscient. I would never call Jesus ‘God’; God is the loving Father/Mother. However, I do believe that Jesus was selected by God as his/her unique representative on Earth. It is this historical, human, resurrected Jesus whom I follow. I am not much for the ethereal ‘Cosmic Christ’ that many envision.

    Thank you for writing this post.

    • Dallas says:

      JWB: interesting perspective. Do you believe in the Trinity? I believe a theologian in the 1800s named Horace Bushnell had similar views. Have you read any of his works?

      Do you think Jesus became who he was when he came up from the water at his baptism (and the Spirit of God descended upon him)? Before that, was he just some guy?

  • Guarionex says:

    Say it loud and say it proud: Kenotic Christology 🙂 I’m joking! I am not sure you are arguing for that. You could also be hinting at Two Minds Christology a la Thomas Morris). I actually like your point about “extraordinary knowledge” not being an argument for Jesus’s divinity.

    In my view, the logical center between Nestorianism, (two persons in one body) or Apollinarianism, (God hijacking a human body) seems to lean closer to the “Kenotic” view of Christ, (Jesus voluntarily divested himself from some of his divine attributes in the incarnation, (“omniscience” for example). This would portrait “extraordinary knowledge” as a gift bestowed by the Spirit upon human minds. Thanks for forcing us to think!

    • Pete E. says:

      I’m not arguing directly with Kenotic Xology but it is a view that I like to think about.

      [FYI, Guarionex’s comment that is gibberish to you, “kenosis” is a Greek word that comes from Phil 2:7 where Christ “emptied” himself (NRSV; “made himself nothing, NIV) and took on the nature of a servant. The “Jesus is God” Christology doesn’t always do a good job of address this humiliation/humility (which is why Paul brings it up in Phil 2 in the first place.)

  • Rena Guerin says:

    I grew up with the divine Jesus, the omnipotent but suffering Savior who floated above this messy world, not the middle eastern Jew who participated in it and taught its people how to live. When the conundrum of divine/human, God/man becomes too great to understand, as it always does, I fall back on II Corinthians 5:19 …..that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself……and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation (KJV, because that’s what I grew up with.)

  • Robert F says:

    Jesus did not know everything, and Jesus was sometimes wrong; both go together with being human.

    • Dale says:

      Agreed. But (at the risk of eternal damnation and/or purgatory) I could assert that the limitations on either certainty or contemplation are not restricted to only humans and god(s). Take for example my cat: It is an open question as to whether she acts out of inspired instinct, or studied mischief.
      So, the larger question might be this: Just why and how did it come about that one specific collection of Christian humans, at some interval of time in last couple of millennia, have decided that their own personal views of a “resurrection” is both unique and worthy of wars (and such other mayhem) as to be acclaimed as unique over and against all the other (humans only, please) inhabitants of the planet?

      • Pete E. says:

        Stop challenging us to think, Dale. Please. It’s giving me a headache.

      • Robert F says:

        Instead of trying to figure that out, why don’t we just agree that we will not wage war over any definition of resurrection, or of Jesus’ nature, or of how redemption works, or of exactly what happened on the cross, or etc., and then stick by our agreement.

  • Robert F says:

    Peter, What is the basis for your own belief in the Incarnation? Scripture, tradition, experience, a combination of them? Since taking the human nature involved in Jesus Christ’s incarnation seriously is central to insisting that he didn’t know everything, I think it’s necessary to ask how we come by our knowledge or experience of his incarnation. All our sources for such knowledge are human, or touched by human transmission and interpretation, so they necessarily are also, like Jesus, given to incompleteness of knowledge (ignorance) and error. How then do we know that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God in human being? Isn’t it possible that we are wrong in believing this, since our belief in such things must necessarily be on the basis of incomplete knowledge, or even the result of ignorance? I’m not sure how we, or the Bible or tradition, could claim any more certainty in these matters than Jesus himself.

  • Pete E. says:

    1. A combination. That, and i am in a continual process of working through it.
    2. “How then do we know that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God in human being? Isn’t it possible that we are wrong in believing this”–It is always possible that we are wrong about everything. We have no epistemological certainty that Jesus is the incarnate son of God.

    Frankly, we’re not even sure of what we mean precisely when we say “incarnation.” One of the pillars of the Christian faith, incarnation is steeped in mystery.

  • Joe Deutsch says:

    So if I’m at trivia night at the local establishment, and Jesus walks in, it isn’t “game over?” 😉 Back in my fundamentalist youth, that was the version of Jesus I was given–that he knew everything, even the answer to every trivia question. I think if that version was the real one, he would have been a very difficult human to be around.

  • James says:

    I don’t see the need to pick out a particular (what we used to call) divine attribute, omniscience in this case, and say it doesn’t apply to Jesus. We might as well tackle omnipotence next and go on to omnipresence after that, a fruitless exercise, in my opinion. Rather, let’s bask in the mystery of the incarnation and marvel at each paradoxical trait, both human and divine, we find in Jesus according to best practices of biblical interpretation. Sounds like Brown has wrestled well with the subject matter, but I don’t think he states absolutely (according to the quotes given) that Jesus was knowledge deficient. Would he find Jesus power and space deficient too?

  • Michael says:

    Brown said in his epilogue, “A Jesus who walked through the world knowing exactly what the morrow would bring, knowing with certainty that three days after his death his Father would raise him up, is a Jesus who can arouse our admiration, but still a Jesus far from us.” Is he saying Jesus didn’t know he would rise from the dead three days after his death?

    • Pete E. says:

      He might very well be saying that.

      • Michael says:

        Pete, I’m definitely on board with Jesus not knowing everything, but I do believe he knew he would rise from the dead three days after his death. (John 2:19-22) Also, I wanted to let you know I’m currently reading “Inspiration and Incarnation” and love it so far! (“The Evolution of Adam” is patiently waiting in my iBooks library 🙂 )

  • dorseym says:

    Seems to me that for X to be fully one of us, he had to accept his divinity the same way we do… by faith.

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