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Just how was Jesus human?

20 December 2013

Lee Rayfield examines the nature of the incarnation, and suggests that we ask probing questions, and engage in some imaginative wondering


AT THIS time of year, the newspapers are full of multiple-choice quiz questions. I begin by offering one of my own: "Did Jesus know that leprosy could be caused by Mycobacterium leprae?" There are five possible answers: (a) Definitely; (b) Probably; (c) Probably not; (d) Definitely not; and last, (e) No idea. Rather than thinking too much, go with your gut instinct. Try not to read on until you have made your choice.

Over the years, I have learned to view this as a diagnostic question, bringing to the surface what we truly believe about the incarnation of the Triune God, and anchored,as it is, in personal discovery and exploration of my own blind spots and bias.

In asking this question of myself originally, I uncovered a yawning gap between what I professed in the credal confessions of the Church, and what I subconsciously lived out in my devotional life and practice. Acknowledging that divide became a pathway to deeper understanding and faithfulness - not so much to this cardinal doctrine of the Church as to the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

Having referred to Mycobacterium and diagnostics, I will already have flagged up what might be called a scientific mindset. Being wired in this way, I have discovered that God can use "thought experiments" to open my spiritual eyes. An opportunity for this came to me many years ago as I read those words from Galatians 4.4: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law."

The thought experiment I allowed myself to pose in prayer and imaginative contemplation was to ask what might have happened had "the fullness of time" been deferred until several centuries later. It led me to wonder (and that was the appropriate word - it was not about speculation) how God's purposes might have been accomplished had God chosen to become incarnate in our day and age.


IAM sure that most readers will already note the plethora of historical stumbling-blocks to this, but reverently and humbly I wondered what it might have been like for Jesus to have taken SATs, and how he might have fared at a Junior School sports day.

It was at this point that I became aware that no matter how many times I had affirmed my belief that Jesus was "truly human", I did not really believe it. To my dismay, I realised that my expectations of Jesus were seriously flawed. When I thought about what Jesus would score in SATs, my default was that he would score full marks. In the 60-metre dash, he would win.

Clearly, it is possible that Jesus might be a gifted runner, or be talented at exam questions. I recognised, however, that what was going on subconsciously did not line up with his being fully human. I had an image of Jesus in which he was excelling in everything. It was not so much about being human as superhuman.

When I compared this with my stated theology, there was evidently a disjunction between what my head said I ought to think, and what my "heart" - my emotional centre - was telling me.


FROM the earliest days of the Christian faith, the Church has wrestled intellectually, but also devotionally, with the incarnation and the nature of Jesus. The early Christians were asking how it was possible to do justice to the witness of history and of scripture that "God was man in Palestine". They were asking questions that were framed by differing world-views, too - the Hellenistic and the Hebrew. They were wondering how to hold together the witness that Jesus was fully divine and fully human.

Despite the declarations of Ecumenical Councils such as Nicaea and Chalcedon, which flowed from this struggle, the centuries have shown that our claim for Christ's identity as truly God and truly human will always be argued over, and challenged.

More significantly, as disciples, we find that the twin temptations of veering towards Jesus's divinity to the detriment of his humanity, or vice versa, are ever-present in the way we conceive our relation to him, and how we pray, even if not in our official doctrinal statements and catholic creeds. My own experience and the story that follows illustrate this.

At a meeting for Christians in the health-care professions, participants were read a gospel account of Jesus's healing, and then invited to imagine themselves in the scene. When questioned about whom they found themselves identifying with, it was revealed that few, if any, had imagined themselves being the Great Physician himself. They had seen themselves in the crowd, with the disciples, supporting the sick person, or needing healing themselves.

This, in part, reflects humility on the part of believers, and a proper sense that ultimately the gift of healing is from God. But my suspicion is that there was another aspect to this: most of us struggleto identify fully with Jesus in his humanity. Despite being healers themselves, the health-care professionals could not instinctively put themselves in Jesus's shoes.


AS ALREADY mentioned, the struggle to hold humanity and divinity adequately together in the person of Jesus goes back to the earliest centuries of the Church, and is reflected in the differing emphases of the Patristic schools of thought. In their concern to emphasise the unity of Christ and ensure that his full divinity was not compromised, the Alexandrians tended to lose sight of his historical life. John 1.14, and 1 Corinthians 2.8, with their references to the glory of Jesus, were favoured texts.

The problem was, then as now, that, unless we are attentive, Christ's divinity tends to eclipse his humanity in our devotional practice. In the fifth century, Eutyches providedthe ultimate articulation of this when he declared that Jesus's humanity had been swallowed upby his divinity "like a drop of wine in the ocean".

When the Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth century, one of the dominant images of Jesus was Christ Pantocrator (that is, creator and ruler of all). In addition to the political and sociological impact, of this there would have been psychologically significant ones that I have often wondered about.

Might they be linked to the riseof intercession directed towards the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints from around that period? Christ Pantocrator may have suited imperial ambitions more than a crucified and suffering Saviour, but the former was much more distant.

Mary and the saints would have offered a closer source for empathy and identification, but as they slowly became "divinised" - Mary becoming more perfect, and saints' performing frankly fantastic deeds - the gap once again would have widened. It seems that when God draws near in human beings, we emphasise the divine, and push him further away.

SO, WHAT of that opening question: did Jesus know that leprosy could be caused by Mycobacterium leprae? Notwithstanding the warning from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, not to try to psychologise Jesus, since we cannot know absolutely what he might or might not have thought, I would still answer (d) Definitely not.

If Jesus is to be truly human, like us, and one with us in every respect "yet without sin', he could not have known what microbial organisms were, let alone a particular species of bacteria that was not isolated until the late 19th century.

When I suggest this to brothers and sisters in Christ who believe that the answer must be (a), that Jesus definitely knew this, they usually support their view with reference to Jesus's divinity, and his ability to know what was beyond normal human capacity, by virtue of his relationship with the Father.

There are clearly New Testament passages that suggest this (one example being Jesus's knowledge of the woman at the well), and they need to be taken seriously rather than swiftly dismissed as "ahistorical". The question remains how a man in first-century Judaea could conceivably take in the constellation of ideas that surround our contemporary understanding of M. leprae.


THE same could be said of the nature of the universe or of DNA - to have had the faculties to have even comprehended this knowledge would

have made and marked Jesus of Nazareth as superhuman. That is why we have to assert that Jesus did not know that leprosy could be caused by Mycobacterium leprae.To do otherwise would undermine the incarnation, and in turn thecore foundations of the Christian faith.

But we find difficulty in attributing ignorance to Jesus - per-haps, subconsciously, we regardit as diminishing his status asdivine, when what we are in fact doing is diminishing his true humanity.

But what difference might a sharper theological and devotional awareness of our own defaults and assumptions about Jesus make? I would contend that most of us do not allow ourselves genuinely to explore what we really think or feel. In general, we are reluctant to ask probing questions or to engagein imaginative wondering. As a result, our discipleship and de-votion tends to be flattened and diminished.

I can never sing the line which runs "Faith believes nor questions how" in the hymn "Alleluia! Sing to Jesus". I always change "nor" to "yet". It is not because I am an iconoclast, or want to turn over orthodoxy. Rather, it is because I want to wallow in the depths of it, not splash around in the shallows.

There is a prayer for the Christmas season which reminds us how familiarity has dulled us to the stupendous reality of the incarnation. My prayer is that the Spiritof God might reawaken that devotional wondering which leads to amazement at - and worship of - the Word made Flesh this Christmas.


Dr Lee Rayfield is the Bishop of Swindon.

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