One of the big questions many folks wrestled with at the seminary I attended was the question of Jesus’ self-understanding. If Jesus was fully-human and fully-God as we confess, then did Jesus know he was God? One of my professors, Dr. Chuck Gutenson, posed this question to the subject of his dissertation, Dr. Wolfhart Pannenberg, who quickly reminded him that our very definition of “know” is wrapped up in a certain Greek understandings of epistemic certainty that muddy the waters significantly. Of course, one can point to a bible verse here and there that “prove” Jesus knew he was God, most notably the “I Am” passages within John. However, the question seems to be deeper than mere proof-texting can handle.
Fortunately, we have wise and prayerful guides like Dr. N.T. Wright who have addressed this question. Here are some of Wright’s thoughts in an article on Jesus’ self-understanding
that pushes some boundaries but seems to still be faithful to the deep confessions of Christian believers.
In modern Jesus studies Wright believes,
We still live in a climate of thought in which two propositions are assumed as axiomatic: (a) no first-century Jew could think of incarnation, let alone believe it, let alone believe it of himself; (b) no sane people (and we hope Jesus was sane, though even his family said he was mad!) could think of themselves as the incarnate Sons of God.
Wright’s own argument is that Jesus’ self-understanding are only understood in temrs of the return from exile and the return of YHWH to Israel. These two events were wrapped up in a personal appearance of God rather than some idealized figure, and Jesus, according to Wright, understood himself to be fulfilling the very actions of YHWH himself when he entered Jerusalem and was eventually killed. In other words, Jesus’ self-understanding was intimately tied to his vocation as the one who would enact YHWH’s return and Israel’s restoration.
My case has been, and remains, that Jesus believed himself called to do and be things which, in the traditions to which he fell heir, only Israel’s God, YHWH, was to do and be. I think he held this belief both with passionate and firm conviction and with the knowledge that he could be making a terrible, lunatic mistake. I do not think this in any way downplays the signals of transcendence within the Gospel narratives. It is, I believe, consonant both with a full and high Christology and with the recognition that Jesus was a human figure who can be studied historically in the same way that any other human figure can be.
So, for Wright, Jesus’ understanding of himself was wrapped up in a complicated understanding of his vocation to act in ways that were only appropriate of God, but still had some room for doubt. If this is true, it should give us signficant hope for our own vocational struggles. What are some problems you see with this proposal?