1. How were we raised in thinking about Jesus Christ? We might think that he was all-knowing even when he was still living with and doing his mission with his disciples. In other words, before Easter he was already all-knowing with super knowledge. So he knew, for example, how and when he was going to die. It was not unknown to him. While he was living with his disciples he already predicted the time of his death. He knew it, he was not ignorant about it.
2. Of course it can be a problem too. If we say that Jesus knew everything, as God, then do we say he was only pretending to be limited in knowledge when he was with his disciples? If we say yes, then we might be following Docetism.
3. If we say that Jesus knew nothing about himself as God and his knowledge was purely limited like human knowledge, then we might be following Arius.
4. If we say that Jesus sometimes knew all and sometimes was limited, then we might be following Nestorius.
5. The early Christians—during the early centuries of Church history—did not think of this limitation of knowledge as a problem. In general the early Christians were recognizing the limits in the knowledge of Jesus. If Jesus was, indeed, the Word made flesh and who “emptied himself” and became human, then it was perfectly understandable that he had limited human knowledge. He took the human condition. It applied to him. The Word became flesh—became human—and was subjected to the same human conditions as all humans. If, from birth, Jesus knew everything already, he would be a monster!
6. The plan of God to save humanity had to include the human limitations of Jesus. It had to include the Incarnation and all the conditions of being incarnate. Jesus had to be one with humanity without exemption.
7. Jesus may have sensed that he was Son of God and that the Lord God was his Father. But that did not raise a problem. He can be Son of God and be limited at the same time. As Son of God he had the task of revealing the Kingdom to people, and he showed authority in doing that. But Jesus was, at the same time, respecting the reality of the human condition. To have full super knowledge outside human limits would be a violation of the Incarnation. It would be incompatible with the humanity of Christ. For the early Christians it was alright that Jesus came “from above” and be limited in a human way.
8. But then arose certain questions about the knowledge of Jesus. A debate was provoked by a passage in the gospels, as we read in Mark: “But of that day or hour, nobody knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, only the Father knows” (Mk.13/32). Could the verse be proof that Jesus, as Son, had ignorance about the final days? Some people started to insist that Jesus had ignorance as human ignorance. This point of view came to be known as “agnoecitism”. It provoked a crisis in the Church.
9. Some Christians could not accept this. If we allow ignorance in Jesus then he cannot really reveal what is from God. Jesus cannot be instrument of God’s revelation; Jesus cannot therefore save. If Jesus is to save and judge the world he cannot have ignorance. But Jesus is Saviour, so he cannot be ignorant. Maybe people are ignorant of the final days, but not the Son of God.
10. In fact there were later Christians who really denied any limitations in Jesus and said that even while in the womb of Mary Jesus already knew everything!
11. The trend was to protect the divinity of Christ. People just found it so difficult to blend the humanity and the divinity in Christ. The rejection of any ignorance in Jesus continued until the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages there were many variations in trying to prove the absolute, super knowledge of Christ. We can look at one perspective, that of Thomas Aquinas.
12. For Thomas Aquinas Jesus had three ways of knowing. He had in him “beatific vision” in which he had direct contact with God’s knowledge. Here Jesus was really super all-knowing. Then Jesus had “infused knowledge” or the knowledge of angels. Angels, being dis-incarnate, could see the essences of all things. Jesus had this special knowledge too. Finally Jesus had knowledge which is the same as the knowledge of any human being. This was called “acquired knowledge”. Like all human Jesus had to learn and acquire knowledge over time.
13. Thomas Aquinas made a fascinating “theory” about the knowledge of Christ but it tended to make Christ unlimited. The humanity of Christ was somehow downplayed.
14. The Church continued this path of accepting Christ as all-knowing and there was so much hesitation to accept his human limitations. Modernity came, however, and it started to be critical about the absolute super-knowledge of Jesus. Modernists wanted to emphasize the humanity of Jesus and they wanted to show how Jesus was really like all humans—developing, growing in understanding, limited. Church Magisterium reacted against this modernist trend. For the Magisterium it was impossible for Jesus to be limited, it was impossible for Jesus to have ignorance. The modern approaches were too risky for faith. Hence teaching modern ideas was prohibited in schools and seminaries.
15. This does not mean that the Church was completely anti-modernity. The Church was simply prudent and felt that Catholic schools and seminaries were not ready for assimilating modern ideas. The Church Magisterium never stopped anyone from discussing and debating with modernity. In fact there were quite a number of theologians who went deep into modern thinking.
16. Modern trend—up until today—does not hesitate to recognize the human limitations of Jesus. Interesting here is the return to Scriptures, especially the return to the Gospel accounts. Modern theologians would say that over centuries the Bible was not a strong reference for knowing Christ. So why not return to the Gospels and investigate what the Gospels really show about Jesus?
17. The Gospels show a tension between the super-knowing Jesus and the limited earthly Jesus. Mark, for example, presents Christ as very human with ignorance and limitations. But at the same time Mark is ready to present Jesus as strongly intimate with God. Jesus can read people’s hearts and minds. So in Mark was this tension between the “super” and the “earthly/human” sides of Jesus. Matthew and Luke seem more opting for a more “super-knowing” Jesus but they too had their passages showing a limited Jesus. On one hand Jesus may have been all-knowing even in the womb of his mother—as the Visitation story seems to say. But Jesus also grew and developed in wisdom; he had to pass through normal, human development. John may look like he emphasizes fully the divinity of Jesus. But if, for John, “the Word became flesh” (1/14), there was still the reality of “becoming flesh”. Hence Jesus was not completely in the divine loop; he was also limited.
18. There is this tension between the heavenly glorious Jesus and the earthly limited Jesus in all four gospel accounts. We can understand the tension. Remember that the Gospels were written after the Easter experience. So the gospel authors, in retrospect to the life of Jesus, wanted to show that the exaltation of Jesus in the resurrection was already present in the before-Easter time. The Easter experience influenced the writing about the life of Jesus. The Gospel authors were, on one hand, working with the impact of the historical Jesus and they were, on the other hand, interpreting that impact with the Easter experience. It was not perhaps so easy to write that way; so there is a tension in the Gospel texts.
19. This tells us that the Gospel authors recognized both the super-glorified knowledge of Jesus and the limited-human knowledge of Jesus. Somehow the authors may not have resolved the question of what exactly was the knowledge of Jesus. But that may not have been the interest of the Gospel authors. Live with the tension.
20. So if we go back to the question of Jesus knowing about his death, modern theology and Biblical interpretation will answer that differently from the Medieval theology. Medieval theology will immediately go for the full-knowledge of Jesus, no ignorance. Jesus knew in advance his death. But modern Biblical interpretation will prefer looking at the Gospel texts, recognize the tension, and evaluate them in the light of the historical conditions of Jesus.
21. How will modern Biblical interpretation see the knowledge of Jesus about his death. Historically Jesus saw himself slowly getting into trouble with some people, notably the religious authorities of Palestine. Jesus was beginning to realize that his mission provoked the anger and jealousy of certain persons and his mission can, indeed, make some people want to kill him. Jesus may have known that and it was historically true. Jesus then expressed his concern to his disciples.
22. Now, the Gospel authors wrote about that after Easter. So they painted that event with their views of Easter and the glorification of Jesus. The knowledge of Jesus about his death, in the historical sense, was interpreted by the Gospel authors in the light of the Resurrection.
23. Of course nobody is to stop us from believing still in the absolute super-knowledge of Jesus. But let us pause for a while and ask ourselves why insist on removing any form of ignorance from Jesus. Indeed, if the Word became flesh, what is wrong then if the knowledge of Jesus had the same conditions as that of human knowledge? His ignorance does not necessarily delete his divinity. His ignorance can, in fact, be interpreted positively. Because of limits in the humanity of Jesus, his mission respected the “pace” of the people of Israel—and the Church. Just like the humanity he served Jesus also took time to open room for growth and knowing. Jesus and humanity can be like “two dancers” in the desert, together pacing in slowly entering into the reality of the Kingdom.
24. This is not the full answer to our struggle, but hopefully it can help.