When did Jesus know that he was God, when did the disciples know, and does it matter?

When did Jesus know that he was God?

I have often pondered the question of when Jesus knew he was God. I understand him to have grown up as a normal child, learning just as all children do, discovering his world and his own identity, through others’ teaching, his own discovery, and God’s revelation, as he matured. I certainly reject an ontological kenosis or self emptying (as spoken about by Paul in Phil 2:3-11), according to which Jesus gave up his divine attributes during the period of his humiliation. In that scenario, the mediatory role that the Son has in the economy of the divine working was picked up by the Father and the Son until the resurrected Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father and resumed his distinctive functions in the work of the triune God. I reject that view because I think that there are no nonessential divine attributes. If Jesus gave up any of them (including particularly his omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence), he would have ceased to be God and would not have been “fully God and fully man” as we confess.

But I do find helpful what has been dubbed “functional kenoticism.” This helps us to make sense of occasions on which Jesus testifies to being ignorant, and it forms the framework within which we can understand his growing in wisdom, as well as in stature (Lk 2:52). I think it likely that, in becoming human, Jesus voluntarily allowed his comprehensive divine knowledge to be put at the level of sub-consciousness, and to know only that which he learned by normal human means, including the Father’s revelation and the Spirit’s illumination. In such instances of divinely revealed knowledge, the Father could have given him access to his own subconscious knowledge, or he could have revealed it to him just as he does to us. For instance, Jesus described Peter’s coming to know that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” as having been revealed to him by Jesus’ Father (Mt 16:17).

Similarly, I believe (what early Lutherans called the extra Calvinisticum) that Jesus remained omnipresent and omnipotent, but I doubt very much that when Jesus was walking the streets of Nazareth he was aware of what he was doing in Bombay or Baghdad at that moment, or that he was aware of holding together the entire cosmos that had been created through him (Col 1:16-17), even though he continued to do this.

This framework gives solid ground to the confidence with which we approach God’s throne of grace, to find mercy and grace in time of need, because we know that Jesus really was tempted as we are, but that he resisted sin by the same resources that God makes available to us (Heb 4:14-16). It also makes it natural, however, that we should wonder when Jesus realized that he was the eternal Son of God.

Since first century Jews did not expect the Messiah to be God himself in the flesh, Jesus’ knowledge of his divine identity would not necessarily have come simultaneously with his knowledge that he was the Messiah, appointed by God to deliver Israel. By the Holy Spirit’s illumination, Jesus certainly came to understand the Old Testament predictions regarding the work of God’s Anointed One, the Suffering Servant, in ways that shaped his sense of mission very differently from others who had claimed to be Messiah, raised up by God to deliver his people from the oppressive Roman rule.  So when did Jesus become fully aware of his being uniquely the Son of God from all eternity? Some assume that he gave evidence of this in the Temple at age 12, when he spoke of being about his Father’s business (Lk 2:49), but that statement could have a range of interpretations in regard to Jesus’ relationship to Father God, as could the centurion’s statement at the cross (Mt 27:54). It seems very likely to me that Jesus knew clearly who he was by the time of his baptism by John (Lk 3:22). Shortly afterwards, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, and by then the devil was also aware of Jesus’ identity (Lk 4:3-13).

When did the disciples know that Jesus was God come in human nature?

As to when the disciples understood Jesus’ divine identity, the question is no less difficult to answer. That some believed Jesus to be the Messiah when he called them to follow him is clear, and Nathaniel declared him “Son of God,” but then king David had also been acknowledged as a “Son of God” (1 Chron 17:11-15; 22:7-11) and no one thought that he was God himself in the flesh. Paul tells us that it was the resurrection of Jesus that declared him to be the Son of God, and that event, followed by Jesus’ ascension to the Father, was critical in the disciples’ growing comprehension of who Jesus was.

Do our answers to these questions matter?

Larry HurtadoThat leads us to another question: Does it matter when Jesus understood himself to be God in the flesh, and when the disciples came to understand this too? Probably not greatly, but it is frequently assumed that it does. In this regard, Larry Hurtado recently expressed an important concern about the common “assumption that the theological/religious validity of claims about Jesus rest upon what Jesus  believed and taught about himself.” He reports that in his book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 5-9), he “noted the irony of how this assumption has been shared by critics and advocates of Christian faith, and also how it has worked mischief in the historical investigation of Christian origins.”

Operating on this assumption, apologists of traditional christological claims have striven to argue that Jesus really did teach them, e.g., that he is divine and worthy of worship.  Typically, this has meant trying to show, for example, that the distinctive discourse that we find in the Gospel of John really is the best index of Jesus’ own self-perception and teaching about himself (thereby distorting this remarkable text and making it serve a purpose for which it was never intended).

Also, and ironically, operating on the same theological assumption, critics of traditional Christian faith have often argued that Jesus didn’t actually make direct claims for divinity and make himself worthy of worship.  Instead, they have emphasized (with greater plausibility), it appears that these “high” claims about Jesus emerged only after Jesus’ execution (in what is sometimes called the “post-Easter” period).  It is this sort of argument that is the burden of Bart Ehrman’s most recent book: How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014).

Hurtado goes on to explain how this assumption became so common.

It seems to derive from a very clever and historically successful move made in the 18th century by people now referred to as “Deists”.  As Jonathan Z. Smith showed in his little tome, Drudgery Divine (1990), the Deists set out to drive a wedge between the “historical” Jesus and the NT (and traditional Christian faith).  Taking a cue from the Protestant argument that church teaching had to be based in the NT, Deists argued in turn that NT christological claims had to be based in Jesus’ own teaching.  They then further argued that a critical approach toward the “historical” Jesus did not provide a sufficient basis for traditional christological beliefs.

Now the interesting bit is that this (originally Deist) argument was wildly successful, at least in setting the terms of the ensuing theological and scholarly debate.  That is, even those (e.g., advocates of traditional Christian faith) who opposed the Deists’ conclusions accepted their terms for the debate that followed (right down to our day):  Jesus’ own teaching about himself was the criterion of legitimacy for any claims about him.

So, what you have is a fundamentally theological issue becoming the shared assumption for a great deal of subsequent historical investigation.  And the result, as I’ve said, was a great deal of mischief:  Christian apologists producing contorted historical arguments trying to pump up maximally what might be attributed to Jesus, and critics of traditional Christian faith (e.g., the Deists, the old religionsgeschichtliche Schule scholars and their intellectual descendants) contending that these claims were invalidated by the evident historical events/process through which they had emerged.

In regard to this common but mistaken assumption, Hurtado makes two observations:

First, the earliest extant Christian texts themselves make it perfectly clear that the “high” notions about Jesus sharing in divine glory, exalted to heavenly status, worthy of worship, etc., all erupted after Jesus’ ministry, not during it, and that the crucial impetus for these notions was what earliest believers saw as God’s actions, particularly their belief that God had raised Jesus from death to heavenly glory.  (See, e.g., Philippians 2:9-11; Acts 2:36).

To be sure, Jesus generated a devoted following during his ministry, and (as I have argued in Lord Jesus Christ, 53-64) also generated a strong polarization of opinion about himself, which led to him being crucified.  Indeed, as numerous scholars judge, Jesus (whether intentionally or not) likely generated the claim that he was (or was to be) Messiah, which seems to have been the cause of him being executed.  But Messiah isn’t necessarily a “divine” figure in any real sense of that term, and certainly not typically a figure who receives the sort of devotion that was given to the “risen/exalted” Jesus in earliest Christian circles.  (See my discussion of the question of how Jesus was reverenced during his ministry in my book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? esp. pp. 134-51).

To underscore the point,  the remarkable escalation in the status/significance of Jesus to the “right hand” of God, to sharing the divine name and glory, and to the central and programmatic place he held in earliest Christian devotional practice all rested on the fundamental conviction that God has exalted him and now required that Jesus’ exalted status be recognized, and that he should be reverenced accordingly.

And, secondly, Hurtado asks:

Why should this be taken as some kind of threat to the theological legitimacy of traditional Christian faith?  Why should the clever Deist tactic of the 18th century continue to be treated as a self-evident truth and the basis for apologists and critics of Christian faith in their continuing wrangles and debates?

What leads Hurtado to raise these questions is that:

The fundamental theological basis given in the NT for treating Jesus in the “high” terms advocated is a theo-centric one:  God’s actions form the basis of the responding christological claims and devotional practices.  Considering this might be a really helpful move for all sides in any theological debate.

And setting aside the assumption that the validity of Christian faith can be weighed on the basis of the historical process by which it emerged could also make for better (or at least less antagonistic) historical work on Christian origins too.

I have very high regard for Larry Hurtado’s expertise as an evangelical New Testament scholar, and particularly for his work in regard to the deity of Christ and the thought of the early church. Consequently, I found his analysis in this blog post very helpful. If he’s right, which I take him to be, then we can approach the questions I raised earlier (regarding the chronology of Jesus’ realization that he was eternally the Son of God, and about the development of the disciples’ understand of his identity) without fear that the conclusions we reach might endanger the validity of the church’s belief that Jesus was God the Son come in the flesh. This is helpful because it defuses a discussion which could otherwise be approached with anxiety and suspicion, none of which is necessitated. The truth of Jesus’ deity does not depend on the answers we reach in regard to the earlier questions.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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