In a recent blog post I discussed the question of theistic evolution and the beliefs of first century Jews about the creation narrative. There I argued that the inconsistency between the beliefs of those individuals, even of Jesus himself, and evolution is not an insuperable problem to an evolutionary account of human origins. As I put it, “Jesus had all sorts of false beliefs in the kenosis of the incarnation. Why couldn’t this be one of them?”
Wilbur replied as follows: “that’s a pretty big and vague statement. what were these so many beliefs that jesus was wrong about? other than the messianic complex, which must be what he had if he was so wrong about everything.”
Here’s a simple example. It starts with my daughter rather than Jesus, but before you consider that too presumptuous hear me out.
When my daughter was in grade two her teacher taught her that Canada is the largest country in the world by land mass. She believed it. After all, her teacher was a trusted authority and the evidence of the map in the classroom didn’t automatically falsify it. But when she got home I told her that this was in fact false. Canada is about the same size as Siberia, and since Siberia is a part of Russia, it follows that Russia is larger than Canada.
Did my daughter do anything wrong or blameworthy in her initial commitment to believe her teacher? Of course not. On the contrary, she did everything right. And yet she still came up with a false belief.
Now think about the average Jewish boy sitting in school in a Nazareth classroom around AD 4. Do you think he might have come to believe a few truth claims from his teacher which, given the false beliefs of science and history at the time, coupled with the inherent limitations and fallibility of any human teacher, might have in fact been false? Of course. Even while incurring no epistemic blame those many children in the classroom would have gained false beliefs.
Now let’s place little Jesus in that classroom. If all the other children came to hold false beliefs in a non-culpable way from their teacher, why not Jesus as well?
Someone might say “Because he’s God and knew everything.” But in Luke 2 Jesus is twice described as growing in wisdom. That certainly entails, among other things, the gaining of true beliefs over time which means he didn’t know everything always. Even if you claim that there was a point in the earthly sojourn of Jesus where he became omniscient and thus came to know that the proposition “Randal Rauser blogs about me on November 17 2011” is true, there was also a time where he clearly didn’t know this. So Jesus had many false beliefs.
Or maybe you might want to posit Jesus having an innate truth detector. On this modified view he may not have always known the truth but he could always tell when a proposition is true and when it is false. Maybe he could smell truth the way a bloodhound smells pretty much everything else. (Or, better yet, he could discern the truth from falsity the way a banker can tell real money from counterfeit.)
That’s a rather curious sense to have if you’re talking about propositions rather than money or some other physical object with literal physical characteristics. How does “Canada is larger than Russia” strike one inherently as false while “Russia is larger than Canada” just seems right?
This forces us back to another possibility. Perhaps somebody else (the Holy Spirit perhaps; or if you can live with a Nestorian-leaning christology then perhaps the divine Logos) whispered in Jesus’ ear (subconsciously) every time he was hearing something true (Psst: True.)
But why go through these tortured machinations? Why not just admit that Jesus was a product of his time and thus could have non-culpably held to some false beliefs including false beliefs about science, politics, history, and human origins? Jesus can still be the savior of the world, even if he believed Canada is larger than Russia. In fact, he could still have been the savior of the whole world even if he had never even heard of Canada. Don’t get me wrong. I think Canada’s a decent country. I just don’t think the reconcilation of the world to God is dependent on Jesus’ earthly knowledge of it two millennia ago.