The question of the knowledge (and ignorance) of Jess exploded back onto the blog this week when Andy Derksen commented the following in my article “How many wrong beliefs did Jesus have?”
unless Jesus was in fact wrong about his very identity and mission(!) … whatever he actually *taught* as recorded in the gospels–including statements that have a bearing on evolutionary theory–is TRUTH.
And if this is not the case, then we might as well abandon the faith right here and now.
The bluntness of Andy’s reasoning caught my attention. I responded as follows:
Let’s take Jesus at his word and say that he thought the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds. He was wrong. Thus, by your reasoning “we might as well abandon the faith right here and now.” Think about it. You have made your entire faith contingent upon the view that Jesus did not really believe the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds. That strikes me as an absurd set of priorities.
The point here is not that Jesus did teach the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. The point rather, is that it is problematic to tie the authority of Jesus to incidental details he may have believed (and taught) about seed sizes. Paul said that if Christ has not been raised our faith is in vain. Case closed. I don’t think he would have said if Christ got the sizes of seeds wrong then our faith is in vain.
This launched a lively discussion with MGT2 and Mike Gantt in particular. Mike Gantt chastised me for being “provocative” even though I hadn’t been. Rather, as the conversation progressed I was merely seeking to flush docetic tendencies which would seek to deny the human psychological development of Jesus out into the light of day.
But since I had already been charged with provocation, I thought: why not live up to the charge? So I called the latest installment in this conversation: “The fallible Jesus?”.
Let’s begin with Philippians 2:6-8 which confesses that Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man….”
What is required for Jesus to have “made himself nothing” and been made “in human likeness”?
I am going to assume that my interlocutors are agreed that it minimally requires this: there was a time when Jesus had no beliefs at all (just like every other human zygote … fetus … neonate). The problem then arises when these same interlocutors want to claim that as Jesus acquired beliefs he would have acquired no false ones. Every other child in history has acquired some false beliefs at some point in time. This is minimally a reflection of the fallibility and finitude of the doxastic communities in which all children are reared. There has not been a doxastic community in history that had only true beliefs about theology, science and history (to name but three areas).
And that was certainly true of the Palestinian community in which Jesus was reared. So if every other child in history would have acquired some false beliefs as a result of the falliblity of his or her doxastic community, why think Jesus would be the single exception?
Possibility one: if Jesus had a false belief the faith collapses
This is the type of scenario suggested by Andy Derksen. But this isn’t a good reason to accept that Jesus could have no false beliefs because the faith wouldn’t in fact collapse if he did. (Admittedly, the faith of some individuals might collapse if they came to believe that Jesus had false beliefs, but that’s a different issue.) As far as the beliefs of Jesus are concerned, what matters for the Christian faith is not that Jesus only held true beliefs throughout his life. What matters, rather, is that the main lineaments of his teaching are trustworthy and true.
Possibility two: having a false belief is equivalent to a sin
I believe that Jesus was impeccable. He could not have sinned. If someone equates having a false belief with sinning then one might find themselves dogmatically committed to insisting that Jesus never held a false belief in the same way I am dogmatically committed to insisting that Jesus never sinned.
But there is nothing sinful per se with holding a false belief. In the kenosis described in Philippians 2 Jesus enters into a broken, suffering world. There were docetists in the early church who balked at this notion. They thought it was offensive to suggest that Jesus suffered. He could not have suffered, in their view. Fortunately the church rejected this gnostic idea.
Sometimes it is sinful to hold a false belief as it is when some of those following Jesus’ ministry attributed his miraculous works to the devil. Their belief was a sinful one, an eschewing of epistemic virtue based upon the constraints of their confirmation bias. But there is nothing inherently sinful with holding a false belief. And thus when Jesus entered into a broken world he subjected himself to the likelihood not only that he would suffer non-culpably but that he would hold some false beliefs non-culpably.
Example? Here’s one of countless possible scenarios on which to end.
Jesus (at four): Mamma, why is the sky blue?
Mary: Well Jesus, when God created the world he made a hard dome and placed an ocean above it. That’s why the sky is blue!
Jesus (in wonderment): Wow! A whole ocean. Does it have boats too?
Mary (laughing): No Jesus. At least I don’t think so!