Did Jesus Know He Was God? Revisited

Author: Fr Anthony Zimmerman


Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D

Published as a response, in The Priest, September 1993.

Charles DeCelles (The Priest/April '93) refutes those who claim that Jesus did not know He was God, but I find the praise of DeCelles to be faint and insufficient.

In the Gospels Christ typically acted in a manner which reveals total awareness of His divine personhood and power. Who would go walking on the Sea of Galilee if He did not know that the sea belongs to Him? Jesus did so, expecting the sea to hold Him up in obedience to His creative power. Peter tried the same, but began to sink the moment he took his eyes off Christ.

Who, in his right mind, would stand up during a storm at sea to rebuke the wind and tell the waves: "Peace! Be still!"(1) if He were not aware of divine power? Jesus would risk embarrassing himself before the disciples if He were uncertain about who He is.

He Knew Well Whence He Came

Christ prayed: "Father, I desire that those also whom you have given me, may be with me, where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world."(2) He well knew whence He came, and whither He was going. "I am not alone, but the Father is with me," He said.(3) He prayed that we be enabled to tread the way to go where He already is. (We do not discount John's Gospel just because some people think it contains a bias of early Christians.) But, opine learned scholars according to DeCelles, "Jesus admits that he does not know the exact time of the end of the world," and this "admission of ignorance" is consistent with erroneous prophesies. Jesus was mistaken, so claim the scholars, about the time of the coming of His Kingdom in power.

The mistake must be our interpretation, not Christ's lack of knowledge. We tend to think with too little sophistication, to reduce our estimate of Christ's mind so that it may fit more comfortably into the mold of our smaller world of thought; whereas the Gospel challenges us to allow our faith to expand and so achieve a sense of awe before Christ's cosmos-spanning wisdom.

The apostles made the mistake of underestimating Christ initially, of boxing His lofty thoughts into their narrow day-to-day concerns. They assumed, for example, that Christ meant bread baked in an oven when He warned them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. Christ was not amused. He took the occasion to shake them up, to goad them on to more sophisticated ways of thought:

They said to one another, "It is because we have no bread." And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? And do you not remember? ..."(4)

And more. We imagine that the apostles rowed the rest of the way across the lake with heads hanging down, fearful of opening their mouths lest they put their foot into it again.

Later on, when Christ appeared to them after His Resurrection on the shore of the lake, and cooked their breakfast, "none of the disciples dared to ask Him, 'Who are you?'"(5) They knew that Christ expected them to believe, and that He would not be easy on them if they didn't want to measure up to His expectations.

So, I believe, we ought to be cautious about attributing ignorance to the human Christ. The ignorance is more likely to be ours than His. The disciples increased their faith when they saw Him read minds, forgive sins, give sight to the blind, call the dead back to life, promise to prepare a mansion for them in the next world. In the end they would say without hesitation: "Now we know that you know everything."(6)

True communicator

Before we examine the passage in which Christ spoke about "ignorance" of the Day of Judgment, let us recall that He was a consummate communicator; He was not at all above using mental reservations, for example. "Go to the festival yourselves," He said at one time. "I am not going to this festival." But then He went anyway,(7) "not publicly but as it were in secret." So we ought to look with a bit of sophistication at the passage about alleged ignorance: "As for that day or hour, nobody knows it neither the angels of heaven nor the Son but only the Father." (8)

If we accept this to mean that the Son of God, in His divine nature, did not know something which the Father knows, we make Christ a heretic, like Arius. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons, are one God, One Divine Substance. God's knowledge is God's substance. What the Father knows, the Son knows also, and the Spirit knows, since they subsist in the same nature. The Son of God, then, in His divine nature, knows the time of the Last Judgment equally with the Father and the Spirit.

But did Christ confess that He did not know the time of the Judgment with His human knowledge, in His human nature? Thomas examines this problem.

He responds, first of all, that Christ certainly knew it with His divine nature; that Arius and Eunomius understood this saying about the divine knowledge of the Son of God, whom they held to be less than the Father as regards knowledge. "But this will not stand," replies Thomas,"since all things were made by the Word of God, as is said in John 1:3, and amongst all other things, all times were made by Him. Now He is not ignorant of anything that was made by Him."(9)

Thomas goes on to explain that Christ used a mental reservation here; He knew the Day very well, but chose not to reveal it:

He is said, therefore, not to know the day and the hour of the Judgement, for that He does not make it known, since, on being asked by the apostles,(10) He was unwilling to reveal it...Hence, by saying "only the Father" we are given to understand that the Son knows, not merely in the Divine Nature, but also in the human, because, as Chrysostom argues, it is given to Christ as man to know how to judge�which is greater�much more is it given to Him to know the less, viz. the time of judgement (loc.cit.).(11)

Thomas explains Christ's human knowledge as follows. First, Christ had the beatific vision from the time of His Incarnation. The soul of Christ, which is a part of the human nature, through a light participated from the divine nature, is perfected with the beatific knowledge whereby it sees God in essence.(12) This is a knowledge of the Divine Essence known immediately, not by way of an intermediate species or image: "the divine essence itself is united to the beatified mind as an intelligible to an intelligent being."(13) Christ therefore "knew all things that God knows in himself by the knowledge of vision, but not all that God knows by the knowledge of simple intelligence."(14) The created soul simply cannot comprehend in itself the infinite knowledge which is God.

Christ did know, however, those things which pertain to His dignity: "Now to Christ and to His dignity all things to some extent belong, inasmuch as all things are subject to Him. Moreover He has been appointed Judge of all by God, because He is the Son of Man, as is said;(15) and therefore the soul of Christ knows in the Word all things existing in whatever time, and the thoughts of men of which He is the Judge..." (16).

Second, Christ had infused knowledge....an infused or imprinted knowledge, whereby He knows things in their proper nature by intelligible species proportioned to the human mind. (17) This knowledge was also habitual, so that Christ could use it when He pleased. (18)

Finally, Christ acquired human knowledge by way of abstraction and experience; He could understand things without turning to sense images or phantasms; conversely, He could also understand in the manner we do, by focusing the mind on phantasms. (19)

Room to speculate

And here is some room to speculate about the limits of Christ's human "awareness." We know that there is a difference between our knowledge which, on the one hand, we can anchor on the imagination and sense images, of which we are "conscious and aware;" these thoughts are easily understood when viewed on the console of our sense images.

On the one hand, our perception of spiritual realities are fleeting, like the wind, they come and go without our knowing whence they come or whither they go. (20) We have faith in God and believe firmly, but we cannot anchor this faith on sense images. We receive the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but the subtle things of the spirit are beyond the grasp of our brain to capture them with sense images.

We have universal concepts, but cannot really be aware of them unless they are illustrated in the imagination or sense images. We know the meaning of a concept but we search restlessly for a proper word to express what we mean. When we translate from one language into another, we abstract the concept from the original language, and put its meaning on "hold" until we find a proper word on which to house it in the new language.

Fleetingly aware

We are keenly aware of the words, but only fleetingly aware of the concept. Our neurological operations operate superbly to project sense images to our awareness on which we then anchor our thoughts; but spiritual realities elude the brain's electrochemical grasp, and so we do not "see" our faith, nor do we "feel" the fountain of waters springing up within our bosom. (21)

During His mortal life on earth, Christ could, indeed, know spiritual realities in themselves, as He was comprehensor as well as wayfarer. He could know separated substances in the same way as we will be able to know them in the next life. But Christ's 13 billion nerve cells of the brain had limited carrying capacity, could contain only so many "bytes" of discrete and conscious knowledge; could display images of only a limited number of knowledge bits at one time.

We may believe that Christ wanted that brain to function fully as a natural organ; that He would not overload the brain circuits with matters of such extraordinary complexity as doing the calculations for stopping the storm at sea and flattening the waves�reversing all those energies, and neutralizing the resulting inertia of the moving air mass, lest destructive vacuums occur downwind.

Nor would His human brain, we may think, take on the challenge of performing all the operations necessary to restore life to a corpse, (Naim, daughter of Jairus, Lazarus). The several hundred trillion cells of the dead persons had to be reactivated and coordinated to function as one whole�an enormous task befuddling the imagination if assigned to a mere human faculty; even the 12 billion brain cells of Christ could hardly be expected to take care of all those details.

Finally, perhaps Christ had not seen fit to cram into His short-term memory, supported on the neurological circuits, pathways, and automatisms of the 12 billion brain cells, the myriads of sense images needed to display the conditions which would finally trigger the Day of Judgment. Christ, then, though He saw the Day of Judgment in His divine substance as God, though He also saw it in his human soul joined to God in vision as well as in the infused knowledge which comprehended the created cosmos with all its times and seasons.

Nevertheless, He may not have had the Day itself displayed on sense images. He could say that He does not see the Day of Judgment in concepts based on sense images, on imaginative representations of all the conditions, which would lead to the decision about the Day of Judgment. There was no need to overload His neurological circuits to display the knowledge on a sense screen which He already could know by spiritual vision and infused knowledge.

Matter of judgment

He could, when He so desired, project truths that He knew by vision and by infused knowledge upon the neurological circuits of the brain, to render them more palpable for "conscious" human awareness. When it was proper to do so, and why, was up to His judgment. Perhaps He saw no need to excite His human neurological potential to bring up a sense-image on which He could rest His knowledge of the Day of Judgment.

When Christ spoke, He expressed in human language what His brain understood with the support of sense images, we reason. He would hardly affirm with human speech what He didn't know with His human brain; He would hardly put into verbal signals what did not issue forth from His previously formed cerebral concepts; He would not depend on His beatific vision and infused knowledge alone, I think, and translate this into human language without the mediation of the brain which would be fully aware of what it was saying.

His speech organs were not those of a robot which responded to manipulations operated by disembodied knowledge of His vision and infused knowledge. His human speech, in other words, did not short-circuit a connection between spiritual knowledge not mediated by the brain, and robot-like organs fashioning human speech. He did not speak of things He did not really also know with His brain.

When He spoke the words, "I AM," the words followed concepts formed in the brain which were anchored on sense images. He therefore spoke truthfully from what He knew in a human manner. His human speech organs produced those two words, I think, employing the neurological automatisms and pathways of ordinary human speech. This involved not only the hundred and some muscles of chest, throat, and lips, but first of all the areas of the brain specially involved in cognition, including Broca's area, Wernicke's area, the prefrontal cortex, and the motor association areas, as well as the auditory checking processes of the speech under production.

Since the brain as we know it produces speech in response to the concepts which it has already formulated, and then proceeds to speech production by activating the motor area which sends the electro-chemical messages to the proper muscles via the connecting nerves, we expect that Christ also used these human faculties when He spoke. When He said "I AM" He spoke with the human consciousness of the Person WHO IS. He had this divine concept of His personhood as the basis for His speech and action.

Worked in unison

The concepts anchored on the intelligible images of His floating short-term memory were involved in His speech, and the short-term memory was diffusely connected with the stored memories of past events, available for reference when needed, which gave Him awareness of His continuity in being.

In other words, Christ's beatific vision, His infused knowledge, and His cerebral electro-chemical processes worked in unison to give Him that unique certitude and awareness that He is, indeed, the I AM. His brain circuits could call to the console of sensible awareness, when He so chose, the vision of himself in the Word, and the knowledge of himself as this was infused spiritually into His soul.

The Gospel is best understood, I believe, when we perceive that Christ allowed His human brain to keep Him constantly aware of His divine Personhood, to project on the screen of consciousness a palpable and sensible awareness of His divine Sonship. Mindful of His eternal existence, now also housed in created furnishings, Christ issued with confidence the creative command at Naim: "Young man, I say to you, rise."(22)

He was humanly aware that He is the God who can do this. It belonged to the fullness of Christ's mission to know, also with human awareness, supported on the console of His brain with sense perceptible images, that He is indeed the I AM. He spoke with authority as the ONE and unique Teacher who knows where He is from, and whither He goes. He could, with equanimity, tell the apostles:

"I solemnly assure you, there is no one who has left home or wife or brothers, parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive a plentiful return in this age and life everlasting in the age to come."(23)

Conclusion: It is not true that Christ made mistakes or was ignorant. Rather, our real ignorance inhibits our understanding of Christ's feigned ignorance.


1 Mk 4:39.
2 in 17:24.
3 in 16:32.
4 Mk 8:16-18.
5 in 21:12.
6 in 16:30.
7 in 7:8; 11.
8 Mk 13:32.
9 ST III, 10,2.
10 Acts 1:7.
11 Hom 78 in Matt.
12 ST III, 10,2.
13 ST III, 10,3.
14 ST III, 10,3.
15 in 5:27.
16 ST III, 10,2.
17 ST III, 9,3.
18 ST III, 11,5.
19 ST III, 11,2.
20 Cf. in 3:8.
21 Cf. in 4:14.
22 Lk 7:14.
23 Lk 19:29-30.

Copyright Anthony Zimmerman, 1993. Father Zimmerman writes from Nagoya, Japan, and is a regular contributor to The Priest.

Further writings by Fr. Zimmerman may be found athttp://zimmerman.catholic.ac/

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