840629969_122163c283_bMost Christians happily and confidently declare that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. Indeed, this is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith.

But… I wonder what many people mean when they say Jesus was “fully man”. I suspect what they mean is that Jesus had a body with two arms, two legs and a male appendage (ahem). For many, that’s probably where the similarity with your average human male ends.

But let’s take a moment to think about what it really means to be human.

Among other things, to be human means to be exposed to and influenced by the forces that shape human understanding. Specifically, to be human means that there is much that I do not know, and that there is much that I think I know that is actually the result of my unconscious immersion in and absorption of unquestioned cultural assumptions. Indeed, can one truly be said to be human and not be shaped and influenced by human culture?

So, how does this relate to Jesus?

Jesus clearly knew things that his compatriots did not. For instance, he knew that God blesses all people equally, irrespective of creed or colour; he knew that sin brings its own destructive punishment, whether the sinner happens to be Roman or Jew; and he knew that salvation lies not in ritual sacrifice or violent uprising but in self-sacrificial enemy-love.

However, I contend that, as a first century Jewish male, Jesus was also inevitably a product of his culture. Or, in other words, a man of his time.

For instance, as a first century Jew, I’m willing to bet that Jesus would have known beyond doubt that the sun and stars revolved around the earth. Which, in case you’ve somehow missed it, is demonstrably not true. Now, the idea that Jesus believed something that is demonstrably untrue may not seem at all surprising or scandalous to you, but for many Christians such a view would present a mighty challenge, for it would imply that there was something that Jesus Did Not Know. Or, to put it another way, there was something that Jesus assumed to be true, but about which he was, in fact, mistaken.

Gasp! Call the heresy police!

I don’t see this as the least bit problematic. It’s entirely consistent with the idea of kenosis – the idea that, in taking on flesh, the second person of the Trinity emptied himself of those things that made him uniquely God as opposed to divinely incarnated human.

So, what’s the big deal? Why does this matter?

Actually, my purpose for writing this post is not to argue for a certain understanding of Jesus’ humanity versus his divinity. In fact, my real purpose is to respond to a certain type of theological argument that is based entirely on things that Jesus appeared to have affirmed, at least tacitly.

Let me give you an example: I’ve had many discussions – some of them heated – about whether or not Adam and Eve were historical individuals. In such discussions, the trump card played by many believers is something like this: “Jesus clearly believed that Adam and Eve were historical individuals, so who are you to argue?!”

Now, some will say that just because Jesus referred to Adam as though he was a historical individual doesn’t mean Jesus necessarily believed that: perhaps he was just accommodating a belief that was prevalent at the time. Perhaps he was, as it were, simply meeting people where they were at.

Personally, I don’t buy that view, because I don’t see any need to. If Jesus believed that Adam was a historical individual, and if in fact Adam was not a historical individual but a cultural archetype, it does not somehow diminish Jesus’ status as the incarnate Son of God to admit that he believed Adam to be a historical individual. All it means is that Jesus was a product of his first century Jewish culture, a man of his time. Which is to say, he was fully human.

Other examples abound. Jesus apparently believed in a global flood in the days of Noah, and seemingly saw demons as the cause of all manner of afflictions that might today be characterised as forms of mental illness. Does this mean that Jesus was mistaken, or that we are mistaken if we don’t understand such things in the same terms Jesus appeared to? Not at all. Once again, all such things mean is that Jesus was unavoidably influenced and formed by the culture in which he lived and breathed.

Note that I haven’t made any claims as to whether Adam was a historical individual, whether there was a global flood, and whether demons are, in fact, to blame for all kinds of human behaviour. The only claim I’ve made is that whatever Jesus apparently believed about such things was likely not the result of a divine download of omniscient knowledge, but rather the result of his being a human living in a particular geographical location at a particular point in time.

So… let me (finally) get to the point. If you’re going to argue that Adam was a historical individual, that Noah’s Flood was a historical event, or that demons are widespread and active, please don’t try to do so on the basis that “That’s what Jesus believed!” Because my answer will be “So what?” There’s no reason to think Jesus believed such things because they are categorically, existentially true; he believed them because he was a man of his time.

[ Image: tonystl ]