Did Jesus Make Historical Errors?

A recent Facebook post asked the intriguing question of whether or not believers in Jesus (i.e. in Jesus’ full deity) would be comfortable if it were the case that Jesus referenced Old Testament events that themselves were not factually historically, but as if they were factually true. That is, could Jesus as God incarnate genuinely reference Old Testament narratives as historical events that contemporary commentators take to be allegorical, mythical, or just plain false? In short, did Jesus make historical errors?

This is a really good question, especially for all those who hold to a high Christology, whereby Jesus, possessing all of the properties of the Godhead, would be incapable of error. After all, could it really be the case that God might flunk a simple exam on Ancient Near Eastern history? Likely not, if He is indeed the greatest conceivable Being.

I see two possible solutions to this problem: one, that Jesus concealed knowledge from His audience for some greater good, or two, that Jesus, like his contemporaries, didn’t actually know the facts of the matter. Neither of these conclusions, however, should diminish our faith in the God-man, nor the reliability of the Scriptures.

Christology & Communication of Attributes

First, it is necessary to do some Christological work. For clearly what we are discussing here is the nature of the divine attributes, in particular the attribute of omniscience, and how those attributes are shared, or communicated, between Jesus’ divine nature and His human nature. Historically, scholastic theologians distinguished between the communication of divine attributes in the abstract (communicatio idiomatum in abstracto) and the communication of attributes in the concrete (communicatio idiomatum in concreto). The former meant that the divine attributes were shared with Jesus’ human nature at the level of essences, while the later held that the divine and human attributes were shared concretely in the particular person of Jesus of Nazareth (contra Nestorius, who thought that God could not suffer, or thirst, and most certainly not die).

If the sharing of divine attributes (let’s stick with omniscience as an example) were shared at the level of essences, that is between the divine essence and human essence, then, for example, it would be the case that baby Jesus, had he so desired, was entirely capable of formulating Einstein’s theory of relativity without any normal process of human learning, right there in the manager. Since God knows all truths about the universe (to include Einstein’s theory), then the Christ child not only knew this theory, but could articulate it as well since he would also possess divine omnipotence at the level of His human nature and, therefore, would not be limited by underdeveloped vocal cords, or cognition.

However, this seems highly unlikely, especially in light of verses like Luke 2:52, a verse almost all biblical scholars take at face value. But, if Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, then he likely also learned things, like any other 1st century Palestinian boy. That would mean that Jesus’ attributes, both divine and human, were shared in the concrete, in His very person, the individual being who just is both the second person of the Trinity and the man Jesus (the theanthropos). That means that the God-man can have divine attributes correctly applied to Him (see 1 Cor 2:8) and also human attributes correctly predicated of Him (Rom 1:3), even though He is only one man. But is also means that Jesus would have had to grow and develop as a human before certain capacities could be exercised.

However, if this communication of attributes in the concrete is assumed, it seems clear that there are times when Jesus’ divine attributes are non-operative (Matt 24:36-37). Now, if one believes that the communication of attributes does occur at the level of essences, or natures, then one might be able to say that in passages like these Jesus simply hides the fact that He knows such truths. He knows them, but conceals them from His followers, the same way He conceals the fact He can do S5 modal logic from Mary during their flight to Egypt.

But, if Jesus is not concealing His divine omniscience at times like this, then the only other option is that Jesus, being human, is actually unaware of certain truths; e.g. like the timing of the end times. We will look at this shortly. Another option would be to say that within the Trinity itself there are things the Father knows, which the Son does not. But, while this might be true in one sense (e.g. the Father knows the proposition “I am the Father” to be true, while the Son does not), in other areas of knowledge, like the timing of the end times, this is highly problematic.

One possibility that might answer the question of legitimate ignorance of historical facts by Jesus is sometimes referred to as kenotic Christology. Kenosis Christology suggests that Jesus empties Himself of some of His divine attributes (see Phil 2:5-11), but in doing so did not necessarily lose His divinity. Loss of divine attributes, or their fullness, does not mean lack of or deficiency in divine status. Here, Jesus relinquishes the “omni” of His divine attributes, but maintains the “supra” of those same attributes. So, while Jesus may be ignorant of the timing of the end times, He still can still exercise super-knowledge, or super-power, for example, in His knowledge of the thoughts of human person (Matt 12:25) and in His power to cast out demons, or walk on water.

So, how does this all play out with regard to the original question? How do these two, perhaps three, models of the communication of attributes apply to the idea that Jesus might have referenced OT narratives as genuinely historical events, when, in fact, they were either mythical constructs, or mistaken reports, or perhaps something in between, like mythicized history.

Let’s take the last two models first. On the kenotic model, Jesus simply does not know whether these events were factual, and that is because He has emptied himself of some of his divine attributes. He probably takes them as literal, because that is the way the contemporaries of his day took them. Thus, it would not be in any way wrong, again considering His setting aside of omni-science, for Him to assume what the scribes, pharisees, and laypeople of His time also assumed about these stories; they were, after all, Israel’s history. In this sense Jesus has accommodated His whole self to the human context, and, therefore, there is no inconsistency or problem with us understanding Jesus as still fully divine, yet without this kind of knowledge.

Alternatively, on the communication of attributes in the concrete model, we can only make basic remarks that accord with Orthodox, Chalcedonian Christology, yet which leave us a bit unsatisfied as to an actual explanation of how Jesus can be called both fully divine and fully human. At certain times Jesus displays only divine properties, and at other times, seemingly, only human properties. Thus, we say simply that when Jesus enacts a miracle, he acts miraculously according to his divine nature, and when he fails to know a bit about the future, his failure to know is according to his human nature. Beyond that, we cannot say much more. The “how” of this unity of contradictory attributes is simply not for us to understand. Again here there is no problem or inconsistency with saying that if Jesus did not know some truth about history, He did not know it according to His human nature. This should be unproblematic, unless we think that not knowing a fact about history is a sin; which I doubt anyone does.

Applying One Model to Understand Jesus’ OT References

On the first model, however, the communication of attributes in the abstract, we might say that Jesus knows the facticity of all historical events, to include those narrated in the OT (and knows them exhaustively), but chooses to conceal that knowledge from his original audience, and consequently from us. Why might He do this though? Why not tell them all of the facts of the story?

Well, on this view, that of Jesus as having attributes communicated at the level of natures, one solution to the problem of OT references presents itself.

With regard to OT narratives that Jesus seemingly references as historical, let’s say the story of Jonah, it is possible that on this model of Jesus’ attributes, a) Jesus was incapable of making factual mistakes due to the sharing of divine attributes in the abstract, and b) that not every story in the Old Testament, to include those Jesus referenced, was a one-to-one accurate account of a historical event that occurred in the same spacetime universe we inhabit right now. 

Thus, Jesus knows the facticity of any given historical event, yet also knows that some of these OT narratives that His audience takes as factual are indeed, to some degree, non-factual. But, Jesus conceals this knowledge from them, accommodating his communication to His audience for the sake of getting them to understand something more significant than just historical facts, something like a necessary theological truth; on this example of Jonah and the fish, it might be the analogy of “the sign of Jonah” with Jesus’ immanent resurrection from the grave. He conceals His omniscience from His listeners, resisting telling them every detail of the Jonah event, so that some greater good might obtain; some greater good for them.

Therefore, Jesus may have referenced stories in the OT that used hyperbole, metaphor, or other literary devices, subsequently refraining from correcting them for facticity, and that for the sake of making sure that the same theological content taught through those OT narratives, and that was understood as such by his contemporary audience, is the same content that He is commenting on, and adapting, for his hearers.

Moreover, Jesus might further refrain from giving this one-to-one, detailed account of a historical event because to do so could have some detrimental or opposite affect on human agents already depraved by sin. Or, if not a detrimental affect, an insufficient affect (i.e. something that does not effect in the agent that which they would need in order to come to know God). From a secular standpoint it is often thought that more propositional knowledge is always a good for us as human beings; however, if the chief end of man is to come into an eternal loving relationship with God, it is not obvious that merely more factual data will actually aid in that goal. In fact, it could hinder it.

Finally, this concealment of knowledge is already implied in the NT when Jesus tells parables so that some who hear them may, in fact, not understand their meaning. Thus, we should conclude that if God does hide certain facts from us, He does so for our benefit, and not to our detriment.

Of course, there is one other option that I am more than willing to entertain, namely, that these OT stories are presented as history, because they actually were historical. That said, Jesus refers to events in the OT as historical true simply because they were so.

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