by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Summer 1994

SOME time ago, at a recollection day for youngsters, I was asked how many languages Jesus spoke. “Aramaic was his own language,” I said, “and he probably managed a smattering of Greek, as most Jews did in his time. But he would definitely not have understood English.”

Julian, a fine Goan lad, was visibly upset by this. “Jesus was God,” he protested. “He was omniscient. He knew everything. He must have known English. In fact, it would probably have taken him no more than five minutes to fill in The Times crossword puzzle. It was all there in his mind!”

Julian is not the only one among us who has never realised what incarnation, God becomes human, really implies. Yes, we believe that Jesus was truly God and truly human. What we don’t realise is that becoming human really meant human. To deny the human end misses the point as badly as denying the divine reality.

Pressed by me, Julian reluctantly admitted that Jesus needed to use his feet to walk from one place to the next, like anyone else. In fact, that he was not the fastest runner of his time. That he could be tired and hungry, and would need a rest from time to time (John 4:6). It had never struck Julian that the same human limitations would affect Jesus’s mind – that Jesus, like his contemporaries, could not imagine what an electric train was like, or a motor car, or an aeroplane. That he needed to learn new things (Luke 2:52) and could be surprised (Matthew 8:10).

The shock we may feel at this realisation was also known to the first Christians. For them it was the Nazareth scandal. Nazareth was, after all, the most innocuous of hamlets, a tiny village with at most 20 houses, as archaeology has shown. Small wonder that Philip exclaimed: “What good can come from Nazareth?!” (John 1:46).

Moreover, Jesus himself was the carpenter, which properly translated meant the local handyman (Mark 6:3). He would mend ploughs, fix leaking roofs, fit new doorposts, build stone fences and work as a farm hand in harvest time. As a human being he was in all respects like everyone else – just as he wanted to be. He called himself the “Son of Man”, an Aramaic expression for “the ordinary person”.

Imagine yourself to be a learned scribe in Jesus’s days. You would, as likely as not, have looked down on him as a country lad with no education.

Yes, he had picked up the Hebrew alphabet, like most boys in religious families, so that he could take his turn in reading Scripture (Luke 4:16). But he had an uncouth Galilean accent (John 7:52) and his Galilean temper would flare up on occasion (Mark 3:5; Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:12-14).

He could even make a silly mistake like saying that Abiathar was high priest when David ate of the consecrated loaves (Mark 2:26), whereas we read in the first Book of Samuel that the high priest at the time was Abimelech (21:1- 6) and that Abiathar became high priest afterwards (22:20-23).

Since Jesus had no personal copy of the Bible to consult, he had to remember texts by heart, from what he had heard at Sabbath readings. Confusing the names of Abimelech and Abiathar is the kind of memory slip anyone of us could have made. And it did not invalidate the point that Jesus was making. It simply was a human thing to do.

Jesus was, of course, highly intelligent and did receive special revelations from the Father (Luke: 10:22). But as a human being he was not all-knowing. He was not, as the Docetic heretics maintained during the first centuries, a divine ghost using human nature as a mask. No, in order to become truly human, God the Son had to “empty himself’ (Philippians 2:7). He had to give up, as it were, his divine powers, such as omnipotence, omniscience, immortality.

Why would God do a thing like this? Here the answer is really overwhelming. As the Creed tells us, he did it “for us, human beings, and for our salvation”. Not for God’s own glory, nor because he needed to do so, but simply for us, because he loved us and he wanted to heal us from within, as a member of the human race, as one of us.

Of course Jesus is God, and when we pray to him now as the risen Jesus, we can speak to him in any language, including English. But does it not give us more confidence when we approach him, to know that he knows our human weakness from his own experience? Our searching, our confusion, our cry of anguish?

“For ours is not a high priest unable to sympathise with our weakness, but one who has been tested in every way as we are, only without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).