[More stuff from James McGrath’s What Jesus Learned from Women.]
To establish a convincing case that the historical Jesus learned from women, McGrath could have simply started from the inarguable fact that all humans learn — i.e., “Jesus was a man; All men learn; Therefore Jesus learned” — and built from there. However, McGrath knows that a good portion of his audience will be committed Christians, and they might have an issue with the concept of a member of the trinity needing to learn anything.
The fact that a significant number of people feel discomfort with the idea of Jesus learning really ought to surprise and shock us. It is an axiom of the historic Christian faith that Jesus was fully human—a complete human being, with a human soul (or what many today might prefer to call a human mind and personality). (McGrath 2021, p. 7)
Surprise, Shock, and Astonishment
Why should it “surprise and shock” us that people “feel discomfort” with the notion that the object of their worship, a pre-existent divine being, needed to learn anything? After all, besides the article of faith (i.e., Christ’s fully human nature asserted in the Nicene Creed) alluded to above, Christians also recite this line: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.”
So I’m not surprised at all. I can understand completely someone being troubled and confused by the idea that an omniscient being might need to learn something, but McGrath is quite sure of himself. The discomforted Christian reader is terribly mistaken.
Consequently, the dear doctor of religion believes he must proceed beyond simple logic and find a convincing biblical proof text. He thinks he has found it in the Gospel of Luke, in which the evangelist tells us Jesus “grew in wisdom.” Remember the story where Jesus stays behind in the Temple and his parents don’t realize they left him there (Hieron Alone)? Many of us learned this story in Sunday School. They told us Mary and Joseph found Jesus among them, teaching the teachers. His would-be teachers were gobsmacked.
McGrath says that’s all wrong.
The story that Luke tells . . . about Jesus in the temple as a young man, is sometimes depicted in movies with Jesus teaching his elders. However, what Luke actually says is that Jesus was listening to them and asking them questions (Luke 2:47). Jesus is not depicted as something other than human, nor even as a supernaturally knowledgeable wonder child who has no need to learn. He is depicted in this story, rather, as an ideal student. It is his listening and asking questions that lead to his growth in wisdom, to his learning. (McGrath 2021, p. 7, italics original, bold text mine)
We should afford the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University all due deference. So we will forgive him for citing the wrong verse. He meant, of course, to cite verse 46, not 47.
Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. (Luke 2:46, NASB)
McGrath would have us believe that the boy Jesus was not behaving in an extraordinary, let alone supernatural, manner. He was just an above-average pupil. And yet, the next verse might cause us to doubt McGrath’s analysis.
And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. (Luke 2:47, NASB)
Is Luke’s language here consistent with a group of contented Temple teachers patting a good student on the head? The Greek word that English translations render as amazed, astounded, or astonished is ἐξίσταντο (imperfect indicative middle, third-person plural form). Knowing its etymology might give us some clues to its history and usage. It comes from ek + histēmi — literally, “to put out of place.” In English, we might say they were “bowled over,” “beside oneself,” or “blown away.” In common ancient Greek and Koine usage, it has a range of meanings: astonished, bewitched, insane, out of one’s wits, etc.
Usage in Luke-Acts
You might well ask, “Sure, but is that how Luke uses it?” Good question. Let’s take a look.
- Jesus raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead. His parents are amazed (ἐξέστησαν). (Luke 8:56)
- Two disciples meet an incognito Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They tell him the story of the resurrection. The women who went to the tomb came back with a story that amazed (ἐξέστησαν) them. They met some angels who told them that Jesus was alive. (Luke 24:22)
- The miracle at Pentecost occurs, with everyone hearing “in his own tongue.” Those hearing it are amazed (ἐξίσταντο). “Aren’t these guys from Galilee?” (Acts 2:12)
- Many people were “bewitched” (ἐξιστάνων) by Simon the Sorcerer. (Acts 8:9) They paid attention to him because they were amazed (ἐξεστακέναι) by his magic. (Acts 8:11)
- But Philip came along and performed greater signs and miracles. Simon the Sorcerer was so amazed (ἐξίστατο) that he believed and was baptized. (Acts 8:13)
- Saul (Paul) has a miraculous conversion and starts proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues. The people are amazed (ἐξίσταντο). (Acts 9:21)
- While Peter is preaching the new doctrine about Gentile equality, the Holy Spirit falls upon the uncircumcised. The circumcised see it happen and are utterly amazed (ἐξέστησαν) to see these Gentiles speaking in tongues. (Acts 10:45)
- God miraculously breaks Peter out of prison. He (Peter) knocks on the gate of the house where John Mark’s mother lives. When the people in the house open the gate, they’re amazed (ἐξέστησαν) to see Peter standing there. (Acts 12:16)
In every case, something fantastic and/or supernatural has occurred that knocks people for a loop. Note that in the gospel itself, he uses it only three times: (1) the raising of Jairus’s daughter, (2) the reaction to the women bearing news of Jesus’ resurrection, and (3) the boy Jesus’ performance in the Temple. Now that we know how Luke uses it, let’s go back to the scene in the Temple.
Before we go further, I sense a “seems-to-think” pseudo-argument brewing. For the record, I do not think the historical Jesus, the story Jesus, the Christ of faith, or the Jesus McGrath follows should have or must have acted in any certain way. In fact, I conclude that the story is fiction, most probably invented by the evangelist himself in order to prove Jesus’ messiahship. We are not dealing with a historical event, so how historical people would likely behave or react in this situation is beside the point. Moreover, none of that matters when asking the questions, “What is the function of the story?” and “What ideas did Luke intend to convey in the story?”
Pedagogy in Palestine
McGrath insists that Luke’s description of the scene indicates that Jesus was just a good pupil. And from this determination, McGrath (once again, confusing the story Jesus with the historical Jesus) concludes Jesus must have had some early education. He writes:
The depiction of Jesus on the cusp of adolescence in the Gospel of Luke already suggests a certain level of prior education. Luke tells us that Jesus listened to teachers and asked them good questions. (McGrath 2021, p. 25)
Is this the message Luke is trying to convey? Remember, the evangelist says his parents found him in the Temple sitting in the middle of a group of teachers, both asking and answering questions. Their reaction is the central point of the pericope.
All who were listening were astonished at his insight and his answers. (Luke 2:47, my translation)
Jesus’ understanding and his answers astonish — a word Luke generally reserved for a reaction to a miracle. Further, we should not assume that Jesus was merely asking “good questions.” Recall that the Christ portrayed in all four canonical gospels frequently taught by means of pointed questions. Sometimes his audience knows the answer, and once he brings it to their attention, they are enlightened. At other times, the question reveals a paradox that he will solve with further teaching.
- And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (Luke 5:34, ESV)
- But the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish; but your inside is full of greed and wickedness. You foolish ones, did He who made the outside not make the inside also?” (Luke 11:39-40)
- For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:27)
- And which of you by worrying can add a day to his life’s span? Therefore if you cannot do even a very little thing, why do you worry about the other things? (Luke 12:25-26)
We’ve only scratched the surface, but we can clearly see Luke depicted Jesus as a wise teacher who used incisive questions to help his audience understand the truth. More broadly, good teachers — both ancient and modern — frequently use questions to prod their students toward deeper understanding. Teachers offer questions and answers, as the situation requires.
In any case, contrary to McGrath, the wording of verse 47 does not describe the teachers in the Temple giving the boy a gold star for listening well and for posing good questions. Quite the opposite: It says the teachers were listening to him, and that they were thunderstruck by Jesus’ understanding and answers.
Pupil, Equal, or Teacher of Teachers?
In his commentary on Luke, Joel Green insists that Luke presents Jesus and the teachers as being “on equal footing,” adding in a footnote:
Nothing in this text serves to portray Jesus as a pupil — contra most commentators (e.g., C. F. Evans, 225 ; Fitzmyer, 1 :442. See Sylva, “Cryptic Clause,” 36-37n. 1 5). (Green 1997, p. 155)
So Green is in the minority when he says Jesus was not a pupil. And I must be in an even smaller minority when I argue that Jesus is presented as something more than an equal. However, I was glad to see the reference to Sylva’s “Cryptic Clause,” a paper that presents several interesting and important questions having to do with Jesus, his teaching, and his relationship to the Temple. I’m saving these discussions for the next post, but let me whet your appetite with a question (that may eventually increase our understanding): “If the very first sentence Jesus utters in the Gospel of Luke appears at the end of this pericope, wouldn’t it almost certainly foreshadow what’s to come?”
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1997.
McGrath, James F. What Jesus Learned from Women, Eugene, Ore: Cascade Books, 2021.
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15 thoughts on “A Wunderkind in the Temple? (Part 1)”
Stepping back a tad further, one might ask why Jesus had to experience ca. 30 years living as a human being before the start of his mission. Yahweh had a track record of being able to create full adult human beings, so why make Jesus go through all of that diaper soiling and other humiliations children go through? What was there for him to learn that couldn’t have been transmitted otherwise.
In other words: why have Jesus put in the position to have to learn anything. He could have been formed, fully adult, walking toward the shore where he picked up his disciples, none of whom knew him ahead of time.
Apparently, all of this came about because some Yahoo wanted Jesus to have a virgin birth. A consequence of which was that he also had to have a perfectly meaningless childhood, one that delayed his very import mission for 30 years for no good reason.
That yahoo Yahweh is far too needy. I’d rather have a toilet god like the Baal of Pe’or who is content upon receiving fecal offerings from both men and women [considering he was to have keeled over in the shadow of Mount Peor maybe one of Mose’s last actions was to take a big dump there]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toilet_god & http://web.archive.org/web/20170121220635/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baal-Peor [some prude got this deleted recently]
“If Pe‘or is connected to the Hebrew stem p‘r ‘open’, used both of mouth and bowels, it might mean ‘opening’ and so Ba‘al Pe‘or could mean ‘Lord of the Opening’. This apparent meaning is probably the source of Talmudic traditions associating Ba‘al Pe‘or with exposure and excrement. The tractate Sanhedrin 64a attributes to Rab through Rabbi Judah the story of a sick Gentile woman who vowed to worship every idol in the world if she recovered. Upon recovery she set out to fulfill her vow, but drew back at Pe‘or as the rites disgusted her: eating beets, drinking strong drink, and then uncovering oneself.”
“A story follows about a Jew who showed his contempt for the god by wiping his behind on its nose after defecating in the temple and who was praised for his piety by the acolytes of the god who said: no man has ever before served this idol thus. Tractate ‘Avodah Zarah 3 states in the Gemara that the area before the idol Pe‘or was used as a latrine and that the worship of the idol consisted of defecating before it. Rashi comments on Numbers 25.3 that Pe‘or was so called because they would uncover before it the end of the rectum and bring forth excrement; this is its worship.”
I ignored most of McGrath’s posts about What Jesus Learned from Women because the whole idea struck me as ridiculous. I think I made the correct choice.
Of course, nothing in historical Jesus studies is too speculative. Conservative scholars may disagree with a liberal like McGrath’s take on such a subject, but they are never going to criticize him for thinking that the evidence is sufficient to ask and answer such questions.
You did make the correct choice. I would have ignored it too, but it turns out examining his bizarre logic and unfounded conclusions is useful for other reasons. McGrath represents the state of the art, Vinny. Watch and weep.
What do you make of a historian recommending that his work be used for sermon preparation?
I’d love to have a record of that to add to my references demonstrating the faith-thrust of biblical studies — along with prayers opening an “academic” conference. Link?
I think that’s what McGrath is saying in the first paragraph of this post: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2021/06/the-most-extraordinary-and-implausible-inventions-ever-woven-out-of-gospel-texts.html. Of course, sometimes McGrath doesn’t agree with my interpretations of his posts.
I’m suprised he doesn’t offer it as a discussion theme in the next international Ancient History/Classics Conference since he has made it clear he believes Biblical Scholars of the Historical Jesus/Christian origins are so far in the vanguard of methods that they have something to contribute to those more general historians. I’m also “surprised” to see him telling the less affluent to buy his book on Kindle. Elsewhere he talks about “sharing” a lot and has savaged mythicists for simply writing books to make money — I would have expected him to make his valuable contribution to historians and pastors alike freely available to all via an open-source PDF. Some researchers in the sciences have thought their work so important they have paid their publishers to make their books free.
Given McGrath’s frequently expressed interest in sharing, someone might like to alert him to the freely available online version of his book at Scribd — I’m sure he would be thrilled to notify his readers of this bonus: https://www.scribd.com/book/497138464/What-Jesus-Learned-from-Women
“I could see it being helpful, and can even imagine preachers reading the short fiction to their congregations in that context.”
Not a historian.
“If you’re a minister still trying to figure out what to preach this Sunday, I commend it to you.”
“Commend”…most people would use the word “recommend”. “Commend” definition “praise formally or officially”.
Blatant self promotion!
$29 for a paperback, $43 for hardcover. Outrageous prices.
Here’s my speculation on how James made this mistake: James’ belief about Jesus being a good student is essentially just a toned down hypothetical version of events stripped of the incredible elements to sound more historically plausible. This is basically what all nt scholars do with the life of Jesus, and that something is amiss with this reasoning is obvious. We have no basis for a belief that Jesus was a good pupil outside the text of Luke, but Luke’s text is obviously a legendary wunderkind story thereby undercutting the credibility of the pericope and leaving us with no evidential support for the belief Jesus was a good pupil.
The less the Bible has to say about something the easier it is for one to read into it whatever they need: — here’s another work showing how “human” the clearly non-human figure of Jesus was, Jesus the Man Who Loved Women. But I suspect American led conservative scholarship (albeit claiming to be liberal vis a vis the literalists) is in a class of its own.
Leaving aside McGrath’s argument, the temple scene in gLuke seems — in light of Mason’s and other arguments for Luke’s knowledge of Josephus — to have a plausible literary relationship to section 2 of Josephus’ Vita (c. 95 CE):
“Now, my father Matthias was not only eminent on account of is nobility, but had a higher commendation on account of his righteousness, and was in great reputation in Jerusalem, the greatest city we have. I was myself brought up with my brother, whose name was Matthias, for he was my own brother, by both father and mother; and I made mighty proficiency in the improvements of my learning, and appeared to have both a great memory and understanding. Moreover, when I was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for the love I had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law.” (trans. Whiston)
Maren Niehoff makes the connection in a recent article on temple and torah in Philo of Alexandria:
“The image of Jesus raising questions – the classical term of Greek scholarship ἐπερωτάω is used here – evokes an intrinsic association of the Temple with Torah study. Similarly, Josephus’s self-portrait suggests a strong connection between Temple and Torah in the first century CE. He nostalgically recalls: “while still a mere boy, approximately fourteen years old, I was applauded by everybody for my love of letters. The chief priests and the leading men of the city always came to me to learn some more precise information about our laws.” To be sure, the priests are said to come to Josephus – and not vice versa, Josephus to the Temple – but this scene undoubtedly connects Torah study with the priests and by implication with the Temple.” (175)
Niehoff, “Constructing Temple and Torah in Philo of Alexandria” in Witte et al., eds., Torah, Temple, Land. Mohr Siebeck: 2021.
Open access eBook at: https://www.mohrsiebeck.com/en/book/torah-temple-land-9783161598548?no_cache=1
Do other scholars make this connection?
Yes, the connection is found in some of the commentaries. For three of them in older works see https://biblehub.com/commentaries/luke/2-47.htm
And it comes up from time to time in different articles: e.g. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3154865 p. 620
and https://www.jstor.org/stable/40914830 — an endnote on page 81:
The implications …. ? Depends where you are coming from and where you are heading! 😉
Great stuff — thank you, Neil. It’s helpful to have some of the the wider context for the precociousness trope.