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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.