On Jesus’ human knowledge and “The Young Messiah”

What did Jesus know and when did he know it?

A reader writes:

Our family loves Sean Bean (Boromir! Woot!) so we’ve been really looking forward to The Young Messiah. I read your interview with the director and it sounds really interesting. After watching the trailer, though, I have some concerns about how Jesus is portrayed. (I know you said not to watch the trailer, but I saw it before reading your article!)

I don’t see how Jesus could be God and not know who he is. My aunt read the book and she says Jesus does miracles by accident, without even meaning to. She says this is heresy. What would you say to that?

I would begin by letting your aunt know that The Young Messiah has been highly praised by the likes of Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, and Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, among others.

Archbishop Chaput called the film “a portrait true to biblical faith” and “an exceptional movie.” Cardinal O’Malley described it as “captivating, inspiring, and deeply moving.” Archbishop Wenski believes this film may “open[] a door into people’s hearts that otherwise would have been shut because either of their fear of God, anger with God or indifference to God.” Bishop Olmstead praised the film’s depiction of “the way that faith is challenged in very complex situations,“ adding that “there is a clarity that shines through and a simplicity of the faith that is just inspiring.”

These are all solid Church leaders whose names are well known to orthodox Catholics. They are not about to sign off on anything theologically suspect, let alone heretical.

There are many things I love about The Young Messiah, as my review elaborates, but the way it imagines Jesus’ consciousness at the age of seven is one of my favorite things about it.

Like many things about the Incarnation, Jesus’ consciousness is a mystery that we can’t fully understand or imagine. We can say some things about it, and avoid certain clear errors, but attempts to imagine Jesus’ experience must remain speculative.

Art can help us to imaginatively grapple with mystery, to approach it through the faculty of imagination. Artistic interpretations may not depict Jesus as he really was, but even exploring different ideas of what he might have been like can be rewarding and enriching, as long as the results aren’t clearly at odds with important truths. (These are issues I talk about this at some length in my excoriation of The Last Temptation of Christ.)

As Catholics we believe that in Jesus the Eternal Word assumed human nature to himself. From the first moment of his conception, then, Jesus was and is fully divine and fully human.

In the fullness of his divinity the Son of God always possesses the fullness of omniscience. In the fullness of his humanity, on the other hand, Jesus

worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin. (Gaudium et Spes 22, CCC 470; emphasis added)

Like all human beings, Jesus had a human mind and human knowledge that was finite, not infinite. The Bible tells us that Jesus “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52) and “learned obedience” (Hebrews 5:8).

Catholic teaching rejects a range of heretical errors that picture Jesus’ humanity as a sort of “man suit” in which the divine Word, as it were, dresses up as a human being without truly assuming human nature in all its fullness.

The full-blown version of this heresy, called Docetism, teaches that Jesus was fully divine but only appeared to be human. More nuanced versions of the error include Monothelitism, which teaches that Jesus has a divine will but not also a human will, and Apollinarianism, which affirms that Jesus had a human body but no human rational mind or soul; instead, the divine Word was “plugged in” where the human mind should go.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks at length against this error on the reality — and the limits — of Jesus’ human mind and human knowledge:

Apollinarius of Laodicaea asserted that in Christ the divine Word had replaced the soul or spirit. Against this error the Church confessed that the eternal Son also assumed a rational, human soul.

This human soul that the Son of God assumed is endowed with a true human knowledge. As such, this knowledge could not in itself be unlimited: it was exercised in the historical conditions of his existence in space and time. This is why the Son of God could, when he became man, “increase in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man”, and would even have to inquire for himself about what one in the human condition can learn only from experience. This corresponded to the reality of his voluntary emptying of himself, taking “the form of a slave”.

But at the same time, this truly human knowledge of God’s Son expressed the divine life of his person. “The human nature of God’s Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God.“ Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father. The Son in his human knowledge also showed the divine penetration he had into the secret thoughts of human hearts.

By its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the Word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal. (CCC 471–474)

The idea of Christ’s knowledge being limited is startling to some believers who are used to the Gospel accounts of Jesus manifesting divine knowledge, from the secrets of people’s souls to prophecies about the future (e.g., the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70).

On the other hand, even in the Gospels there are occasions when we glimpse the limits of Jesus’ human knowledge. As the Catechism notes, he says point blank that he himself doesn’t know the day or the hour of the coming of the Son of man in judgment (Mark 13:32).

He shows amazement (Matthew 8:10, Mark 6:6, Luke 7:9) and seems not to know who touched him in a crowd (Mark 5:31). (The latter passage is particularly notable because it shows a person being healed by Jesus’ power without his active knowledge or intent — performing a miracle by accident, you might say. This does happen in the book, by the way, but not in the film, at least not clearly.)

As a one-celled zygote in the reproductive tract of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and for at least the first week or so of his existence as a multicellular blastocyst, he had no brain cells at all, and therefore no active human intellect, human consciousness, or human knowledge as we understand and experience them.

Most mysteriously of all, despite his own repeated predictions of his crucifixion and resurrection, in the Garden of Gethesemane he seems to genuinely contemplate the possibility that he might not have to suffer and die after all — that there might be another way.

There are complex theological mysteries here, and it’s not possible in a blog post even to address them all, let alone to resolve them.

At the risk of oversimplifying, we may say that, like any other human being, Jesus’ human mind and human consciousness was bound up with the grey matter in his head — once he had grey matter there in the first place. (Theology note: St. Thomas distinguishes between “acquired knowledge,“ in which he says Christ grew through the senses and the “active intellect,” and “infused knowledge,“ which he says Christ possessed via the “passive intellect.” In the current context I am only prepared to discuss acquired knowledge and the operations of the active intellect. Again, in his divine mind Jesus was of course always omniscient.)

As a one-celled zygote in the reproductive tract of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and for at least the first week or so of his existence as a multicellular blastocyst, he had no brain cells at all, and therefore no human consciousness or human knowledge as we understand and experience them.

As his brain formed, he went through the same process of neural development and formation that all of us do in the process of becoming conscious and aware. At some point as an embryo he began to be aware of sounds, from the beating of his mother’s heart to the pitch of her voice and that of St. Joseph; in time, even in the womb, he learned to recognize familiar voices and words and distinguish them from unfamiliar ones.

Our brains are shaped by our experiences. Exposure to the phonemes and rhythms of Aramaic and Hebrew formed Jesus’ brain, long before he was humanly aware what those sounds meant, prepared him to think and express himself in certain ways.

When he slept, his human mind really slept. There were things he really didn’t know, thoughts his human brain in those early stages was not yet sufficiently developed to form. There were things Jesus never knew in his human consciousness; the human brain is not infinite in capacity, and the omniscience of divinity cannot crowd into a finite set of brain cells.

Like anybody else, Jesus had to learn to walk, talk, think, pray, etc. If his development was more or less normal, around the time he was six to nine months old he started to become humanly aware when others were paying attention to him, and around the time he was two or three he started to be consciously aware in a human way of the mental states of others (theory of mind).

Humanly speaking, there was a first time in baby Jesus’ life that he recognized his own hand. There was a first time he recognized the face of St. Joseph. There was a first time that he understood that that familiar sound “Yeshua” referred to him. There was a first time he understood that people are male and female, and that he was male.

Likewise, I suppose that there was a first time that he consciously understood, humanly speaking, that he was different from other human beings. There was a first time that he heard the story of the Annunciation and the Nativity, of the shepherds and the Magi.

There was a first time that he understood that God was his Father in a special way that he was not the Father of other people. And there was a first time that he understood that he was the Messiah.

Jesus’ human understanding of these two things — his identity as Son of God on the one hand and Messiah on the other; what theologians call his “filial consciousness” and “messianic consciousness” — did not necessarily come to him at the same time.

Some Bible scholars and theologians, noting the clear connection in all four Gospels of Jesus beginning his public life in connection with the ministry of John the Baptist, have speculated that perhaps it was only at the revelation at his baptism (when the voice came from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”) that Jesus clearly understood in a human way that he was the Son of God.

However, this is contradicted by Luke 2, which tells us that already at the finding in the Temple Jesus was aware of God as “my Father.” From this we can say that Jesus was clearly already aware of his special relationship with God the Father as a 12-year-old youth.

On the other hand, from the fact that he continued to work in obscurity as a carpenter or handyman for another 18 years or so until his encounter with John, and then embarked on a dramatic new chapter in his public life that ended in his crucifixion, some have suggested that while Jesus manifested “filial consciousness” even as a boy, it was not until the baptism in the Jordan that he displayed “messianic consciousness.”

Even this seems somewhat undermined by Jesus’ explanation to his parents at the finding in the temple (“Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” or “about my Father’s business?”). And while it’s true that there’s nothing in scripture to suggest that for the next 18 years he did anything out of the ordinary for a rural Galilean laborer, it’s also true that that silence doesn’t mean he didn’t do anything out of the ordinary either.

Beyond that, obviously there’s a difference between displaying messianic consciousness and possessing it. Most Catholics have more or less imagined Jesus working in his father’s carpentry shop year after year in full awareness that the time for him to begin his public work had not yet arrived, and of course there’s nothing in the world wrong with this picture.

But nothing in scripture or in Incarnational theology makes it heretical to suppose that it might have been different. Even as a boy Jesus knew he was God’s Son, but he didn’t know everything, humanly speaking. As Pope Benedict XVI has written:

On the one hand, the answer of the twelve-year-old made it clear that he knew the Father— God— intimately. Only he knows God, not merely through the testimony of men, but he recognizes him in himself. Jesus stands before the Father as Son, on familiar terms. He lives in his presence. He sees him. As Saint John says, Jesus is the only one who rests in the Father’s heart and is therefore able to make him known (cf. Jn 1: 18). This is what the twelve-year-old’s answer makes clear: he is with the Father, he sees everything and everyone in the light of the Father. And yet it is also true that his wisdom grows. As a human being, he does not live in some abstract omniscience, but he is rooted in a concrete history, a place and a time, in the different phases of human life, and this is what gives concrete shape to his knowledge. So it emerges clearly here that he thought and learned in human fashion. It becomes quite apparent that he is true man and true God, as the Church’s faith expresses it. The interplay between the two is something that we cannot ultimately define. (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p. 127)

There are three things it seems to me we can say with confidence:

  1. At the very beginning of his earthly life, before his brain had sufficiently developed to support consciousness and thought processes, Jesus had no conscious awareness or acquired knowledge as we understand them.
  2. At least by the finding in the Temple, Jesus clearly manifested an awareness of his divine Sonship (filial consciousness).
  3. At least by the baptism in the Jordan, Jesus clearly manifested an awareness of his messianic mission (messianic consciousness).

Beyond those three fixed points, when and how Jesus came to the conscious human knowledge of his identity that he did not have at conception is not a matter of clear scriptural teaching or defined Catholic dogma. We can argue and speculate about what the best or mostly likely picture is, but there is room to explore different possibilities in contemplating the full humanity of Jesus.

In particular, storytellers contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation may be accorded considerable creative license (within the constraints fixed by dogma) to explore different pictures that might help us understand or think about what it could have been like, and thus what it means for God to become man.

We know that at 12 Jesus understood in a conscious human way he was the Son of God. We don’t know what he understood in this way at seven. The picture proposed by The Young Messiah isn’t necessarily correct, but it’s a reverent, thoughtful, psychologically credible picture that will rightly be widely embraced by devout Christians, and will even be of interest to open-minded non-Christians — but that’s a topic for my review.


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About Steven D. Greydanus 12 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is the film critic for the National Catholic Register and the creator of DecentFilms.com. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle Society and a permanent diaconate in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.