Jesus’ Nature

At church this last Sunday, the priest once more discussed the nature of Jesus. According to him, Jesus did not find out that he was God at any particular point in his life; rather, he always knew about his divinity, even as a baby, for being God implies the possession of omniscience. He characterized the view that Jesus learned about his divinity as an old heresy. As far as the priest was concerned, Jesus didn’t need to learn anything, for he knew everything throughout his life.

The priest tried to explain away the biblical passages in which Jesus seems to learn. According to him, when Jesus was asking questions in the temple (Luke 2:46), he wasn’t seeking information that he did not know. Rather, in typical Socratic fashion, he was asking questions to make the doctors think. Like the rabbis, Jesus sat while his pupils (in this case, the doctors) stood. For the priest, when Luke 2:52 says that Jesus grew in wisdom, that doesn’t mean that he was learning new things. Rather, it indicates that people were teaching him as he submitted to their tutelage. The priest asserted that Jesus already knew how to make a table, but he let Joseph teach him and did things Joseph’s way out of respect for his father.

The priest has a point about Jesus in the temple. I can envision Jesus asking questions to learn more about the Bible, but I can also understand if one would have a problem with Jesus “learning” from the religious establishment. I personally think that the rabbis taught some good things, but the Gospels often present the scribes, Pharisees, and priests as the bad guys. Why would Jesus want to learn their doctrine as he went about his Father’s business? Maybe he sought to understand the doctrine of his opponents so he could refute it when he grew up.

The priest’s second point is quite a stretch, in my opinion. Luke 2:52 doesn’t merely state that Jesus let people teach him. It affirms that Jesus grew in wisdom. If he grew in wisdom, then his understanding was not always perfect, otherwise there would have been no need for growth.

There is a view that Jesus emptied himself of several divine attributes when he became a human. Philippians 2:7 says that he ekenosen, or emptied himself. People who believe like the priest interpret the verse to mean that Jesus became a person of no reputation, not that he lost his divine attributes. But there are other passages that affirm that Jesus did his miraculous works through his Father, not his own ability (John 5:19, 30; 8:28; Acts 2:22). In becoming a man, Jesus made himself utterly dependent on God for his wisdom and power.

Or at least this is one view in the New Testament. Many scholars contend that Matthew tries to make Jesus appear more divine in his telling of one of the stories. In Mark 5:25-34 and Luke 8:43-48, the woman with an issue of blood touches Jesus’ garment, prompting Jesus to inquire, “Who touched me?” Jesus does not ask this question in Matthew’s version (Matthew 9:20-22). Perhaps Matthew was thinking, “Jesus wouldn’t ask this. He already knew who touched him. He was God, after all!” Or (for more conservative believers) he could have thought, “Look, Mark and Luke were just presenting Jesus as asking a rhetorical question. He wasn’t seeking new information! But, to avoid any confusion, I’ll just omit the question in my version. I want to make clear that Jesus was God.”

Sometimes, the same book can present different Christologies. As we saw above, there are passages in John’s Gospel in which Jesus is utterly dependent on the Father for wisdom and power. At the same time, John 2:19 says that Jesus was responsible for his own resurrection, for it states that Jesus will raise his own body after three days. This is in contrast with Paul, who affirms that God raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 4:24). Maybe one can reconcile the two ideas by saying that God gave Jesus the power to resurrect himself.

The New Testament itself contains a complex approach to Christology, so I’m reluctant to dismiss someone as a heretic just because he doesn’t phrase the issue in a certain way. And there are people from all sorts of perspectives who toss around the label of “heretic.” Some say that Jesus was fully human, so he had sexual desires and lacked omniscience as a child. For them, any other view of Jesus is docetism, the belief that Jesus only appeared to be human but really wasn’t (since he was fully divine). Personally, I trust the priest more than Protestant renegades on what the church fathers considered orthodox. At the same time, I don’t support explaining away biblical passages to make them conform to the “orthodox” perspective. I embrace the Bible in all its complexity, as I try to learn from its different facets and nuances.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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