Book Club: Did Jesus Know He Was God?

Thousands Meet For  2nd Ecumenical Kirchentag

Readers get the conversation started:

I find Ehrman too reductive in his search for what’s true. The same lens of critique that he applies to the literalist – that a certain passage is contradicted, or impossibly out of context – can also be applied to his own conclusions.

For instance: So Jesus is not quoted as explicitly stating that he is God. Does that mean that he himself didn’t believe it? We know that the gospels can’t be trusted as a source of word-for-word quotation – that’s a central part of the author’s set-up. That means finding a lack of such clear self-proclamation doesn’t mean that in Jesus’s own mind, or in his private conversations, he didn’t expressly believe in his own divinity. Perhaps there are rhetorical reasons for why the authors of the gospels withhold such an explicit declaration? Perhaps it’s more powerful and compelling for how it is revealed?

Similarly, we’re left with a problematic assertion if we see Jesus primarily as how-jesus-became-godan apocalyptic preacher: He was wrong, unless you interpret his “prophesy” as being epochal in time span rather than immediate (in the mind of God a generation could last thousands of years, one supposes). But isn’t it equally possible that this clear assertion of his apocalyptic preaching are also examples of rhetorical flourish on the part of the writers – to convince people through fear to change their fundamental belief system?

In the end, what do we know? I think you should consider staying clear of words like “truth,” and instead position the gospels and religion as sources of “meaning.”

These are two sharp points. I’d summarize them this way: The very limits of what these texts can tell us about what actually happened not only leaves the possibility that Jesus had no idea he was God, but for that very reason also leaves the possibility that he did. Both are in the texts. And when you zoom out a little, the very limits of our understanding of this man – filtered through the game of telephone of repeated oral memories – leave a span of possibilities open. The Gospels themselves offer us a variety of contradictory interpretations and factual accounts of many aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching. Maybe instead of trying to make them all make sense, we should let go a little, and accept that we will never fully know and never fully understand. Jesus, to borrow a phrase, is a known unknown and also an unknown unknown. And the very fallibility of the texts make this an unavoidable conclusion.

The Incarnation itself is, of course, utterly baffling. Ehrman shows this by charting an exhaustive survey of how early Christians tried and kept failing to understand it. A human who was exalted to divine status at his death? At his baptism? At his birth? Before his birth? From the beginning of time? You can watch the Christian imagination expand as the years go by when grappling with the ineffable concept of a person both fully human and fully divine. And at every resting point, the idea eludes any rational understanding.

To wit: If Jesus were divine, he would know everything, including his future resurrection, right?

And yet he is clearly racked with fear and agony and doubt throughout the Gospels – sometimes because, we infer, he knows what is about to happen (as in the Garden of Gethsemane), but sometimes also because he appears not to know what is about to happen (did he let Lazarus die by mistake or by design?). How, for that matter, could an omniscient God cry on the cross at his hour of death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The narrative of Jesus makes no sense if he is merely a divine omniscience inhabiting a human shell. And it makes even less sense if he is a fallible human being completely bewildered by what is happening to him.

book-club-cartoonSo for me, over the years, as I have thought and prayed and simply wondered about this, I’ve come simply to the conclusion that it makes sense only to God, to a consciousness far greater than a human one, and that if we are to believe, we have to believe in this doctrine as essentially a mystery. I know agnostic and atheist readers will find this a cop-out, and it is, rationally speaking. All I can say is that my own experience of Jesus as a living God in my own life forces me to this unsatisfactory position. I cannot rationally reconcile the divine and the human as single concept. But my faith, my personal experience of Jesus, forces me to accept it.

But if I cannot rationally accept it, what do I mean by accept? I mean an embrace of wonderment at what the force behind all things can be beyond any human understanding. And I mean the sacrament of the Mass which, far from attempting to explain Jesus’ divinity in human form, merely claims to demonstrate it in ritual. I mean the sacrament of nature, where what is absolutely subject to rational understanding, from the viewpoint of science, nonetheless escapes those parameters when one simply regards it with awe. I mean an afternoon in early autumn at the end of Cape Cod, where light and water congregate and commune in something I can only call transcendent. We live in a universe both material and wondrous – and neither denies the other. That is how I have come to accept the incarnation as mystery and as necessity – both in Jesus and in the world.

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(Photo: The monumental main cross, symbolizing the Christian faith, is silhouetted in a puddle at the Theresienwiese during dusk of day 1 of the 2nd Ecumenical Church Day in Munich, Germany on May 12, 2010. By Johannes Simon/Getty Images. The original post contained the rather English term “Chinese whispers”, which confused many readers, so I’ve change that phrase to “game of telephone” which is the American equivalent. )