Baker Academic

Friday, September 14, 2012

You trying to say that Jesus Christ can't hit a curveball? (Part II) - Le Donne

IMHO, Baruch Spinoza was
the first modern Jesus scholar
In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza argued that Scripture (he meant both Hebrew Bible and Christian Writings) was made up of two kinds of writing: history and revelation. Revelation was a very subjective thing, according to Spinoza, always reflecting the opinions and personalities of the prophets. History, on the other hand, was more apt to be without such biases. He considered the Gospels to be in the “history” category with a few caveats.

Occasionally, the Gospels might tell us more about the epistemological limitations of the perceivers of events.  Within Spinoza’s program of substance monism of divine character, the “supernatural” was not possible. This is not to say that remarkable events did not occur, but they were not super. To the naïve ancient minds (still following Spinoza’s line here) certain remarkable natural events were attributed to the supernatural. Along these lines, demons did not exist.

Perhaps telling of the philosopher’s opinions, Spinoza’s Jesus was not hindered by premodern naiveté. When Jesus spoke of “demons” he was simply speaking in terms that would be understood by his naïve, premodern disciples. At first glance, I wondered whether this view of Jesus might betray a high Christology—Spinoza wouldn’t be the first “heretic” to be inconsistent. But, better considered, Spinoza’s Jesus isn’t especially triune so much as he is a prototype of the modern human. For Spinoza, Jesus was anachronistically enlightened.

In this way our excommunicated Jewish friend is not much different than the modern Evangelical. Elsewhere I have claimed that Spinoza is the first modern historical Jesus scholar. If this is true, it should come as no surprise that modern Evangelicals (even those with anti-modern tendencies) betray particular affinity here.  The standard Evangelical view is that Jesus carried all of the mysteries of the universe in his noggin.

My most recent employer was a small, Christian, liberal arts institution, not unlike many others in the U.S. and Canada. At such institutions, every subject matter must incorporate some curricular reference to Jesus. The judicious classroom expert will quote Augustine on the subject of Truth and leave it at that. But reflecting the variance of Evangelical perspectives in this particular institution, one student mused, “In professor X’s classroom, Jesus knew all of the intricacies of astrophysics; but in professor Y’s classroom, Jesus didn’t even know how to read.”

Did Jesus carry all of the mysteries of the universe in his noggin? The historical Jesus scholar must answer no. There are three reasons why this must be and these answers create overlapping spheres relating the interests of the historian, theologian, and Evangelical.

(1) Jesus was a fully contextualized human living in a particular time and place. Hence language, education, bias, etc. apply as such.
(2) Jesus was fully human; thus the tried and true stance of Christian orthodoxy.
(3) Matthew 24 says that Jesus didn’t know certain things (in this case, on matters of eschatology).


  1. In light of all the fancy footwork needed to figure out the "historical" Jesus these days, it is nice to see someone reverting back (or, perhaps more aptly, ahead) to plain common sense. Kant, THE critic of pure reason, put a lot of stock in good old common sense (I like to call it "street smarts"). Reading through the gospel accounts would certainly lead a humble reader to believe that Jesus didn't know everything. Was he divine? I think so. Was he human? Yes. Seems to me, in the order of street smarts, that a divine dude living in the first century would know a lot about God, but not necessarily a lot about syntax. In fact, aren't we supposed to believe that Jesus came to lead us to intimate knowledge of God (Jn 17:2-3)? Or was to increase our knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the emergence of a Semitic-Greek syntax? I get that we need to dive deep into this stuff (and hell, its fun!) to come to a deeper understanding of who Jesus was, but lets not forget the reason.

  2. Thanks Sheryl,

    Scottish Common Sense philosophy is one of the key subjects of my introduction of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. In my estimation, it has influenced American/British Evangelical thinking like few other factors. Thank you for highlighting this crucial factor - it is so important to know how we became who we are because we will inevitably project our identity onto our portraits of Jesus.

  3. I wonder if the best answer (and a 'Biblical' one at that) is 'no'. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus says that not even he knew the day of the Parousia. Luke talks about Jesus learning and growing in wisdom (and even growing in favor before God). The author of Hebrews describes Jesus as learning obedience to God. This steps out of being just a 'historical Jesus scholar' answer, into being one that everyone who reads the Bible should be familiar with, but the typical Christian practically refuses to address.

    Like Sheryl above, I do believe Jesus was 'divine', but we can't let that belief be used to override or even erase his decided humanity.

  4. It's whether or not Jesus is conducting business as Yahweh or a man.

    John 11 is a beautiful example of both.

    He knows Lazarus is dead before being told, He knows He will resurrect Lazarus, He does resurrect Lazarus, but, when he gets there He has to ask where the body is buried.

    Everything in the universe was in His head if He wanted to exercise it as Divine , He created it all and of course it was not if He is acting as a human. Jesus is both, 100%.

    Matthew 23 He pronounces judgment as Yahweh on 30 AD Jerusalem, not as an agent of Yahweh's like the OT prophets did and in Matthew 24 as noted He doesn't know when the judgment is to be executed. Kinosis in action, IMO.

  5. Anonymous,

    I suppose that I should push back a bit here. I do appreciate your comment. John 11 is a really interesting (and funny) case study on Jesus' epistemological limits. It must be pointed out that you seem to be appealing to John as if it were a courtroom transcript of what Jesus said and did. So from a historical-critical point of view, it's difficult to begin a conversation about the significance of the Lazarus episode. I would point you to the conversations by the John, Jesus, and History project for a better starting point (look for the name Tom Thatcher if you google it). Or, at least, begin with a Raymond Brown's reading. Moreover, from a theological point of view, I can't help but think that you've collapsed the paradox of the incarnation a bit too simplistically. Perhaps the theologians among us can suggest a resource or two concerning the incarnation?

  6. correction: ...begin with Raymond Brown's reading.

  7. Chalcedonian christology, the product of the fifth century ecumenical council that tried to effect a reapproachment between Alexandrian and Antiochene christologies, emphasizes that it is only meaningful to talk about Jesus as both God and man if these two natures are united; specifically, united in a singular divine person. This "hypostatic" union means, among other things, that one cannot look at the gospel narratives and separate the Jesus who is "acting" human from the one who is "acting" divine. A historically orthodox Christology will always refuse any facile distinctions of this kind. A good place to begin to get a handle on these issues is Athanasius' On the Incarnation, which was written over a century before the Chalcedonian formula.

    1. Chalcedon is one thing, but the Gospels themselves indicate all over the place that those around Jesus perceived him in non-divine terms until they later learned better. Thus, the Johannine narrator tells us that the disciples in John 2 did not understand the Temple saying until after the resurrection and some Christological exegesis of the Scriptures. I'm afraid your position would put the author of John outside the historically orthodox camp and undermine the narrative representation of Jesus' identity in this Gospel (and others) that's a bit more complex than Chalcedon allows. At the end of the day, if it's not permissible to separate Jesus' identities in terms of how he was perceived by those around him, it's difficult as well to explain how he ended up on the cross. Would you agree?

    2. Chalcedon is attempting to deal with these questions in metaphysical terms. Clearly you are right that the gospels present those around Jesus as not grasping his divine meaning until after the resurrection. The metaphysical question is a different one though. Did they not realize he was divine because he was merely accessing his human nature? Did they only later realize he was divine because he suppressed his human nature? Clearly not. I am not sure how later dogmatic definition would undermine the Johannine author's theology. In Raymond Brown's reconstruction of the Johannine community, he argues that the pre-existence christology of Jn 1 a distinctive of the community of John and was only later accepted by the apostolic churches. Perhaps this is neither here nor there. Chalcedon's (and orthodoxy's) point is to try to answer a question like this, "In light of the gospel's portraits of Jesus, what kind of ontology is necessary for this to be true?"

  8. Well I wish I could take credit for a name like "Sheryl," but my name is actually John. Once upon a time I ran a blog for a children's home in Kenya. Then I read "When Helping Hurts." Anyway, I wanted to respond to something.

    I'm noticing a trend (though I'm fully aware that this is nothing new) in discourses about the bible and/or Jesus. There are these constant little one-ups and "scholarly" insults that make this field a lot like the 6th grade locker room. Sure, the words sound fancier and if you don't know the inside lingo you won't catch on, but there are some incredibly hostile things being said. And if they aren't hostile then they're just plain arrogant. I just want to post an old challenge: Lets love each other. Lets study hard, but lets encourage each other. Instead of constantly pointing out fault (though good criticism is invaluable) lets say good game and let a few ass slaps fly (no grabs).

    The End.

    Oh, Le Donne, I just finished "Historical Jesus." Good Game.

  9. Thanks for the reminder John. I do believe that much can be gained by way of good argumentation. I suppose that this is what you mean by "good criticism". We can definitely try a bit harder to avoid hostility. Arrogance is a tougher nut to crack, and probably has more to do with the eye of the beholder.

    So glad you liked the book.


  10. I would agree that, to be on the safe side at least, you have to acknowledge that the historical Jesus did not posses the knowledge of everything in the universe. To say that Jesus did in fact know everything would be to project the portrait of the Jesus Christ of faith. We do not have any evidence that would support Jesus was omniscient. Even in the gospel, Matthew claims that Jesus did not know certain things.

  11. I must admit that I'm confused about the questions being asked here. Can we all agree that we have a better understanding of what it means to be human than what it means to be divine? From what we know about being human, is it possible for us to “carry all the mysteries of the universe in [our] noggins?” Even the most arrogant person is logically forced to say no. If we also agree that Jesus was as human as we are (as even Christian orthodoxy asserts), it follows that he could not know everything. In fact, he would be as limited or as gifted as we know ourselves to be. At this point, referencing the Bible for passages that infer Jesus' dual nature seems irrelevant, if it is agreed that he was ever a human being. Perhaps divinity does entail humanity, but from what I know about being a human, humanity doesn't entail divinity. Granted, much of this is subject to definition.

  12. Going off of Andrew's statement, we are not able to prove that Jesus possessed all the knowledge of everything in the universe but what about Jesus possessing Logos? That could be considered a special kind of knowledge and to others it would seem like Jesus knew "everything" but really he was just revealing the way of God. Jesus' logos made him seem knowledgeable and mysterious which could have led to people thinking that he possessed knowledge of the universe.

  13. This question leaves me quite torn. Part of me wants to say, "Yes, of course he carried all of the mysteries of the universe in his noggin." and the other wants to say, "Of course not. He was human." Growing up, my parents would always tell me God (while pointing at a portrait of Jesus on the cross) knows everything. He's before the beginning of time and after. He created everything and knew you, and everyone else, before you even existed. However, the other part of me argues, "But God (Jesus) became flesh." He was a human and therefore he had to have some limitations. The Bible helps reiterate his human side through several passages where Jesus shows how being human limits his knowledge.