Did Jesus not realize that Noah was a mythical person?
That peculiar question arose last week in the comment thread on David B. Hart’s OTS article where I defended the historicity of Noah. Several readers expressed shock that any purportedly educated Christian could believe that the ark-builder had actually existed. They were truly incredulous that anyone could truly believe such Sunday School nonsense.
One reader that took issue with my “silly childish fundamentalist column” and expressed shock that a “fundamentalist” like me would be allowed to work at First Things. Another commenter joined in the mockery and was certain that the Church Fathers would have disagreed we me about the literal existence of the Antediluvian patriarch. (When I asked them to provide support for that contention, my critics fell silent.)
Foolishly, I thought I could settle the issue with an appeal to authority. I pointed out that Jesus himself had referred to Noah as an actual person who existed in history:
For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
They responded that as a Jew living in first century Palestine, Jesus was surely ignorant of history and wasn’t aware that Noah was simply a mythical figure.
I was stunned. While I chuckled at the personal insults, the implication of their claim is nothing to laugh about. If my interlocutors are correct, then we have reason not only to question the credibility of Jesus but also to believe that God is complicit in deception.
The origin of their faulty thinking appears to be their assumption that “kenotic theology” is not only true but that it is a doctrine that no serious Christian should question. Kenosis is the concept that when Jesus took on human nature he set aside some of his deity, divine nature, or divine attributes. The idea is that when Paul says in Philippians 2:7 that Jesus “emptied himself,” it means he “emptied himself of divine attributes.” This is a rather novel and relatively modern interpretation of the text. As Wayne Grudem notes, we have no reason to believe this is correct:
But does Phillipians 2:7 teach that Christ emptied himself of some of his divine attributes, and does the rest of the New Testament confirm this? The evidence of Scripture points to a negative answer to both questions. We must first realize that no recognized teacher in the first 1,800 years of church history, including those who were native speakers of Greek, thought that “emptied himself” in Philippians 2:7 meant that the Son of God gave up some of his divine attributes.
Indeed, the doctrine only came into vogue in the mid-to-late 1800s. As S.M. Smith (who endorses the doctrine) admits, “All forms of classical orthodoxy either explicitly reject or reject in principle kenotic theology.”
Nevertheless, while I believe that kenotic theology should be rejected because it has no basis in scripture, even those who embrace the doctrine should support my claim that Jesus is not ignorant about the historicity of Noah.
To my knowledge, there are no advocates of kenotic theology that believe that Jesus emptied himself of all divine attributes. Had he done so he would be merely “fully human” and not divine at all. The question then is what divine attributes he would have kept in order to fulfill his mission.
While it would be presumptuous to attempt a complete list, I believe there is one class of attributes that must be included: Jesus would have kept whatever aspects of his divinity are necessary to prevent him from intentionally deceiving his followers.
For instance, there are only a few possibilities for how we can interpret Jesus’ claims about Noah and the days of Noah:
1. He knew that Noah was a real person and was speaking the truth when he claimed the patriarch existed.
2. He knew that Noah was not a real person and intentionally lied when he claimed the patriarch existed.
3. He knew that Noah was not a real person and was merely making a metaphorical or literary reference (e.g., he was referring to Noah like we would refer to Achilles).
4. He did not know that Noah was a mythical figure and in making the claim he was unintentionally misleading his hearers.
All Christians will reject the second option. If we believe (a) lying is a sin and (b) Jesus never sinned, then it follows that he could not have been intentionally lying in this instance. We can also reject the third option since there is no indication that the hearers at Jesus’ time believed Noah was a mythical person.
That leaves the first and fourth options. My contention is that four should also be dismissed for reasons similar to the second. If God the Father is omniscient, then he knew about and approved of every word that would be uttered by the Son during his earthly ministry. If the Father knew that Noah was not a real human and allowed his son to imply that he was, then the Father is culpable in the deception since he not only allowed it to happen but foreordained the spread of this false information.
Even if we believe the Son was “emptied” of some divine knowledge, why would we assume it was necessary to empty himself of the one aspect of human knowledge (presumably at least some humans sometime in history could have know the truth about Noah’s existence) that would prevented him from making a claim that was false? What possible reason would we have for adopting this viewpoint? (One of my critics claimed that even had Jesus known that Noah wasn’t a real person, he would have have gone along with it to accommodate the beliefs of his hearers. This is too silly to even consider. Not only does it imply that Jesus was a deceiver, but it also goes against Jesus nature. How often in his teaching did he upend the beliefs and customs of the age?)
That leaves the “ignorance” position. Could it not be possible that Jesus ignorance was based on the knowledge of first-century Palestine? The first thing that is wrong with this view is that is assumes we have more knowledge about the existence of Noah than could be had during Jesus’ day. Such chronological snobbery is quite unwarranted.
However, if we assume the position is valid, it raises troubling questions: If God allowed Jesus to make false claims under the guise of “human ignorance,” what else did he say that is not true? Are we really to believe that this is the only time that Jesus was mistaken? If not, then what criteria do we use to tell when he was telling the truth based on knowledge that he possessed and when he was making claims based on his ignorance?
Adopting such a perspective seems to be even more presumptive than when the Jesus Seminar decided what Christ “really said” and what could be excluded as apocryphal.
I refuse to believe that the Father would allow the Son to deceive mankind about anything. Because of this belief, I trust that whenever Jesus made a claim about history that he is making an assertion that is trustworthy and factually accurate. I believe that Noah existed because Jesus tells me so. Unless I’m presented with evidence that is more convincing than the words of the Creator of the Universe, I’ll continue to trust that this belief is warranted.
Some Christians may claim they know more than Jesus about Antediluvian history. Others may even claim that the Father would allow his Son to deceive his followers. They certainly have the freedom to express those beliefs. But since I refuse to believe that God tells lies, I won’t be joining them in their self-deception.