The Tentative Apologist
1/7/10 at 09:38 AM 0 Comments

Did Jesus have any false beliefs? A look at the Gospel of Mark

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A brief recap

In this post we return to our exploration of the omniscience of the incarnate Son of God. To recap all too briefly, we saw that a blastocyst cannot be omniscient, and therefore at the point where Jesus was a blastocyst (or fetus, or neonate) he could not be omniscient. Further, our intuitions on deity leave us to conclude that omniscience is a necessary property of divinity such that if a creature is not omniscient then that creature cannot be divine. But the church has declared that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem he was Immanuel (God with us). According to the theologians this meant that Jesus was born both human and divine (that is, with a human nature and a divine nature). But how is this possible?

At that point I presented a two minds theory of incarnation according to which the human mind of Jesus was finite in knowledge (it had a normal, human psychological development) while the divine mind was omniscient. I haven't finished with that model yet, but first I want to consider a related issue: did Jesus have any false beliefs?

Here's the problem. Remember that a standard definition of omniscience is "believes all truths and no falsehoods". We have already seen that if there is evidence that at T1 (blastocyst stage) and T2 (fetus stage) and T3 (neonate stage) that Jesus did not know all truths, then it would seem that Jesus could not be omnsicient. Here we see that it is even more of a problem if at T4 (toddler stage) and T5 (teenager stage) and T6 (young adult stage) Jesus acquired beliefs that were false. Now we see that in two ways it seems Jesus cannot be omniscient.

Jesus'alleged false beliefs as recorded in Mark

But why think that Jesus had any false beliefs? Let's look at three examples from the Gospel of Mark.

Let's begin with Jesus' knowledge of the natural world. In Mark 4:31 Jesus compares faith to a mustard seed, a seed which he describes as the smallest of all seeds on earth. So here's the problem: the mustard seed is nowhere near the smallest. After some poking around on google I came up with the seeds of epiphytic orchids as being the smallest. But whether or not they are the smallest, the mustard seed certainly is not.

Second, let's consider Jesus' knowledge of the future. In Mark 9:1 Jesus tells his disciples: "Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power." But, so the reasoning goes, Jesus was wrong. All the apostles died in the first century and still the kingdom hasn't come in power today. (Just read the headlines of the newspaper for evidence of that.)

Finally, Jesus' knowledge of the past. Jesus refers in Mark 2:26 to Abiathar being high priest when David ate the consecrated bread. But according to 1 Samuel 21:1-7 it was Ahimelech.

A brief response

The examples countenanced thus far, and others like them, suggest a range of possible responses.

For instance, did Jesus really believe that the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds? Maybe not. The concept of accommodation is helpful here. Jesus' concern was not to give a botany lesson but rather to instruct his listeners on the kingdom of God. And so he brought it down to their level with illustrations they could understand. "But isn't this lying?" Not really. Every seasoned pedagogue knows that teaching is an artful balance between the truth and untruth, and often students need to be told things that are, strictly speaking false, so that they can be brought to a deeper truth. If we introduced every nuance to the neophyte, he or she would be overwhelmed and would never progress in understanding.

As for the coming of the kingdom of God, we dealt with that one in the blog. There are reasons internal to the text (e.g. the transfiguration passage which follows immediately) to believe that this pericope is understood to refer to the glorification of Jesus in the transfiguration, an event which is proleptic of his future glorification as the coming Son of man in the Day of the Lord.

Finally, one could approach the Abiathar/Ahimelech issue in a variety of ways. One could count it a copyist error. In other words, Jesus never said Abiathar but some copyist at some point messed it up. Or, maybe the gospel actually got it wrong (in which case we would surrender one version of biblical inerrancy), by incorrectly recording Jesus' true statement. Or, finally, one could see Jesus' words as correctly recorded but not in error according to some other explanation internal to the text. (See for instance http://rob-lundberg.blogspot.com/2009/07/is-there-problem-with-ahimelech-or.html.)

In short, where scripture is concerned the issues are rather more complex than the over-eager critic might initially suppose.

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