“Young Messiah” and the Self-Consciousness of Jesus

Young Messiah

Some Catholic apologists are up in arms about the recent Hollywood film, “Young Messiah,” because, they say, it presents an “heretical” portrayal of the child Jesus as not being fully omniscient at age seven. I haven’t seen the film yet and so I don’t want to comment on the film itself. However, the question of what sort of knowledge Jesus had, and what his own awareness of his mission and status was, are very much of interest.

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I like both of the Catholic apologists in question and have learned a lot from both of them. The lay Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong wrote about “Young Messiah” in his Patheos blog and concedes that many Catholic bishops were delighted with the film and found little in it problematic. Dave refers to the Catholic writer Brad Miner, editor of the blog The Catholic Thing, who says he found “Young Messiah” to be “appalling.

Both of these writers refer to some Catholic (non-magisterial) statements on Jesus’ self-knowledge. Dave quotes, not official statements of ecumenical councils, but Dr. Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. In that classic text, Dr. Ott asserts that it is theologically certain that “Christ’s human knowledge was free from positive ignorance and from error.(Sent. certa.) Cf. D2184 et seq. (p. 165).”

Does that mean Jesus, the human Jesus, was omniscient at age seven? The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in stature (2:52),” which seems to imply that Jesus did learn as he grew. This is a very complicated question. IN the past, theologians would distinguish between Jesus’ acquired human knowledge (how to nail a board) and his divine knowledge of his own nature and mission (the beatific vision). They asserted that there is no contradiction between the two.

These are interesting questions because, first, they effect how we view the historical Jesus and, second, because they have an impact on how Christians go about apologetics and evangelization.

As most of my readers know, I think the only honest way to approach these issues, at least at first, is to acknowledge what we don’t know. We don’t know what Jesus knew. All we have are the writings of the New Testament and, secondly, the reflections of later Christians on what these writings tell us.

When facing the issue of miracles in the New Testament, Christians, I think, must be mindful of two dangers when they approach these texts. The first danger is to read more into the texts than the texts actually say.

The life of Jesus has been retold thousands of times over the centuries, in all sorts of media – from stained glass windows in medieval cathedrals to “rock operas” in films. Many times Christians interpret what the texts say in the light of these popular retellings even when a close reading of the text does not justify such an interpretation. This is particularly true of the various miracles attributed to Jesus.

For example, in the story of the feeding of 5,000 people – reported in all four gospels – we Christians naturally assume that Jesus miraculously materialized bread out of thin air, like the replicator on the old Star Trek TV show. That’s certainly possible.  But a close reading reveals that the text doesn’t actually say that. In Mark’s version, Jesus went off with his disciples to a lonely place but throngs of people discovered when he was and came there. Jesus felt sorry for them, because, he said, they were like sheep without a shepherd, so he taught them “many things.” But as the hour grew late, Jesus’ followers took him aside and told him to send the crowds away so they could buy themselves something to eat. Jesus replied, “You give them something to eat!” At that point, his followers protested, sarcastically asking if they should buy two hundred denarii of bread – that is, 200 days’ wages – and give it to the crowds.

As a result, Jesus asked his disciples how many loaves of bread they had. Mark reports that the followers took inventory and told Jesus they had only five loaves of bread and two fish. Now, here is what the Gospel text says next:

“Then he commanded them all to sit down by companies upon the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied.”

Note: no replicator so far. Jesus simply broke the loaves and fish and had them distributed.
Here comes the miraculous part, though: “And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.”

So, this is what the text actually says: (1) Jesus blessed, broke and distributed the five loaves and two fish; and, afterwards, (2) they collected twelve baskets of leftovers.

Still no replicator, not really. When I was in high school, my Jesuit teachers proposed a simple explanation for this. As Jesus took what little food he and his disciples had and willingly shared it with everyone, others, too, shamefully “discovered” that they actually had some food hidden in baskets and cloaks.

As the food was passed around, people began to add what they had – a half a loaf here, some olives there, maybe a package of dates. When everyone was finished eating, they discovered that the amount of food left over filled twelve baskets.

Was it a miracle that so many people were fed? Certainly. Does it require that we believe Jesus could materialize food out of thin air whenever he wanted to? No, it doesn’t. That isn’t what the text says.

I realize that this approach will strike many educated readers like the absurd rationalizations proposed in the 19th century by the early practitioners of “higher criticism.” The difference is that I am not saying miracles, as we commonly understand them, can’t and never happen. I am only saying that we shouldn’t immediately jump to conclusions that are beyond what the Biblical texts actually say.

This leads me to an even bigger danger that Christians face: the danger of heresy. Many modern Christians appear to be afflicted by the ancient heresy of Docetism – which is the doctrine that Jesus only appeared to be a human being.  Apologists like Dave and Brad are no doubt concerned about the opposite heresy of Arianism, that Jesus was in no sense divine.  But it’s possible, and I believe actually more likely, to fall into the heresy of viewing Jesus as in no sense really human.

In this view, Jesus pretended to be cold and hungry but wasn’t really. He pretended to fear death… but, being God, he didn’t really. In other words, Jesus was really Superman dressed up like Clark Kent. He wasn’t from heaven but from the planet Krypton. Jesus could never really be hungry or fearful because he could magically materialize any food he wanted. He didn’t really fear death because, being divine, he knew already that death would be only a brief instant.

This is a profoundly unbiblical doctrine because, if there is one thing that the New Testament teaches and reveals, it’s that Jesus was a very real man – like us in all things but sin, as the Catechisms put it. Yet we humans do get hungry. We do fear death. We can be killed. Jesus did fear death – and he most definitely was killed.

My point is simple: if Jesus did perform miracles as we commonly understand them – supernatural violations of the laws of nature – they were rare, highly unusual occurrences even for him. Out of the thirty-seven miracles ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament, fully twenty-five, or 67%, were miracles of healing.  Only twelve were non-healing miracles, and of these twelve at least six were likely “doublets” — the same event reported twice.  That leaves only six non-healing miracles.

Even more properly, Jesus himself likely did not “do” them because he, if he had, then he wouldn’t have been really human – because human beings can’t walk on water or raise people back to life. Of course, I realize that many contemporary Bible scholars don’t believe Jesus worked any miracles in the strong sense, that these stories are legends (theologoumena) not meant to be taken literally.

But that is not what I am saying. Since I wasn’t there, I can’t really say what “really happened.” All I can say with certitude is what the texts say… and the texts say that these supernatural events were rare. Miracles in the strong sense are violations of the laws of nature that only an all-powerful God could be capable of – and indeed, that is precisely what the New Testament (mostly) says. Usually whenever a “big” miracle happens – like, say, Jesus raising Lazarus back to life – Jesus doesn’t perform the miracle. Instead, he prays and asks God to – and God answers his prayer.

For the first thousand years of Christianity, of course, the greatest minds in Christendom pondered what it could possibly mean to say Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. How would that work exactly? If Jesus was fully divine in the sense of omnipotent divine power, then he couldn’t be really human. And of course, the New Testament itself insists that Jesus didn’t have super powers: in Philippians 2, St. Paul says that “though [Jesus] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” All sorts of complicated theologies have been developed to try to explain how this divine-human matrix could be explained or at least imagined. Theologians speak of the “two natures” in Christ, one human and one divine, but united in one person (homoousios).

The upshot for scripture scholars trying to make sense of the biblical texts was that Jesus’ mind and will appeared to have been united with God – he willed what God willed – without himself having omnipotent physical and mental powers.

Again, if he did have omnipotent divine power – the power to walk on water at will, the power to materialize anything he wished – then I don’t see how he could have been really human.  Human beings can’t walk on water, at least not without help.  Thus, the way I think about this is that Jesus, as God’s son, knew what God wanted but was as limited as any real man. He “increased in wisdom and in stature,” as Luke put it (2:52). If this were not true – if Jesus had, for example, omniscient divine knowledge of the future – then he wouldn’t have feared death.

Some theologians say that Jesus was omniscient, that he feared only the pain of crucifixion, but that doesn’t seem to fit what the biblical texts say. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus cried out on the Cross, as any real man might have, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? (15:34)” Yet if Jesus possessed total divine omniscience, he would have known that God had not abandoned him, that within moments he would be glorified and “all power on heaven and earth” would be given to him.

I realize that these are difficult topics that are hotly debated in Christian circles. Many Christians really do think of Jesus as a kind of Jewish Superman who only pretended to be like an ordinary man. He could really have waved his hand and made anything he wanted to happen. I think this is Docetism, personally, but it’s a fascinating topic to debate.

I only bring this issue up so non-Christian readers and modern skeptics can understand how Christians wrestle with these issues – and with the New Testament texts. We certainly shouldn’t read more miraculousness into the miracle stories than is actually in them – and should accept as at least possible natural explanations whenever they seem plausible. For example, I have no problem seeing the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand as involving Jesus’ ability to soften people’s hearts more than a Star Trek-like replicator, magically making loaves appear out of thin air. It’s possible that this is actually what happened – I wasn’t there and anything is possible – but that isn’t strictly what the texts actually say.

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