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A Catholic friend of mine asked me this question, and I mentioned this passage:

41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. 42 When Jesus was twelve years old, they attended the festival as usual. 43 After the celebration was over, they started home to Nazareth, but Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t miss him at first, 44 because they assumed he was among the other travelers. But when he didn’t show up that evening, they started looking for him among their relatives and friends.

45 When they couldn’t find him, they went back to Jerusalem to search for him there. 46 Three days later they finally discovered him in the Temple, sitting among the religious teachers, listening to them and asking questions. 47 All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

48 His parents didn’t know what to think. “Son,” his mother said to him, “why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere.”

49 “But why did you need to search?” he asked. “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they didn’t understand what he meant.

51 Then he returned to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. And his mother stored all these things in her heart.

52 Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people.

~Luke 2:41–52 (NLT)

So, Jesus certainly knew His identity by 12 years old. However, being God, He could've known this as a baby, and I've heard this opinion expressed by various people. However, I'm wondering: is there a Catholic tradition that answers the question in the title? Do Catholics say Jesus grew up knowing He was the Son of God, or do they say Mary told Him?

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    I'm unaware of any Catholic tradition that directly addresses this question; this falls into what Catholicism refers to as the period of Jesus' "hidden life". I'll take a look. – Matt Gutting Apr 30 '15 at 16:50
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Number 79 in the the YouCat asks if Jesus has a soul, a mind and a body just as we do. I don't think you're going to find a Catholic answer that speculates on what Mary may or may not have said to Him outside of scripture, although there are early extra-biblical accounts of Jesus' miracles during His hidden life. Some are spontaneous and some are at Mary's prompting, but you don't have to believe them and most Catholics don't even know of them, which is probably a good thing.

So, back to the YouCat, it says Jesus "had a soul and developed psychologically and spiritually." So, in part, what He knew seems to be constrained to His human faculties. But, the Doctrine of the Hypo-static union says that His soul is Human and Divine. So... "In this soul swelled the human identity and his special self-consciousness."

Furthermore, "Jesus new about his unity with his heavenly Father in the Holy Spirit, by whom he allowed himself to be guided in every situation of his life"

So, I think the answer is that Mary didn't need to tell Him, although there's no reason to suppose that she did and one reason to suppose that she didn't (Our Lady had a tendency to hold things and ponder them in her heart).

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TL;DR: Briefly, the answer is that Jesus knew he was the Son of God from all eternity, and his human intellect was aware of that fact from the moment of the Incarnation. Mary did not have to tell him; Jesus, rather, would have needed to tell her.

The Hypostatic Union and the Incarnation

The reason that Jesus would have had to know his identity stems fundamentally from something called the Hypostatic Union.

As readers may recall, the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Churches, as well as any church that accepts the Council of Chalcedon) teaches that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. He possesses two natures—human and divine—“without confusion, change, division or separation” (Council of Chalcedon, DS 302). However, He is a unique Person or Hypostasis: namely, the Divine Son. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church 467-469).

The important thing to understand about the Hypostatic Union is that no closer union between human and divine nature is possible: not even our definitive union with God that we will enjoy in Heaven, when we see Him “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).

The human and divine natures—although distinct—are so closely united that all of Jesus’ actions, even his human ones, are actions of God, and likewise, the actions requiring Divine power are rightly said to be produced by the man Jesus.

It is perfectly correct to say, for example, “Jesus created the universe” and “God died on the Cross.”

Affirming that Jesus is a human person, in addition to a Divine Person, would be tantamount to the heresy of Nestorianism. In reality, he is a Divine Person only (CCC 466).

Moreover, since Jesus is fully man (in addition to being fully God), his human nature must possess all of the characteristics of human nature: in particular, he must have a human intellect and a human will (CCC 470-474).

Note that once a human being comes into existence (i.e., at his conception), he already possesses a complete human intellect and will. He is unable to exercise that intellect and will until his brain and cognitive apparatus are ready for it, but he possesses them from the beginning.

It follows that Jesus possessed a human intellect from the moment of his Incarnation. (See Summa theologiae, I, q. 77, for an overview of how the intellect and will—the “powers” of the soul—relate to the human soul they belong to.)

Jesus’ three manners of obtaining human knowledge

As a consequence of the Hypostatic Union, and the fact that Jesus has possessed a human intellect from the moment of his conception, it seems an inevitable conclusion that Jesus in his human intellect must have enjoyed the Beatific Vision—that is, he must have seen God face-to-face—as soon as he became incarnate. This idea is accepted in Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis No. 75:

For hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when He began to enjoy the Beatific Vision, and in that vision all the members of His Mystical Body were continually and unceasingly present to Him, and He embraced them with His redeeming love.

Pope Pius, in turn, took that idea from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologiae, III, q. 9, a. 2, in which Aquinas argues that Christ did indeed have the knowledge proper to the Blessed in Heaven. Aquinas adds another argument (an argument of fittingness) for Christ to have the knowledge of the Blessed:

it was necessary that the beatific knowledge, which consists in the vision of God, should belong to Christ pre-eminently, since the cause ought always to be more efficacious than the effect (from the responsum).

In other words, because Jesus Christ in his human nature is the cause of our salvation, it is fitting that he should experience all of the effects of that salvation before we do (for the same reason that Christ rose and ascended in to Heaven before our own resurrection).

Hence, although it has never been formalized in a dogma, the idea that Jesus Christ possessed the Beatific Vision throughout his life has the status of a “probable opinion”: denying it comes perilously close to affirming a Nestorian separation of Jesus’ human nature from his Divine Nature.

In addition to his Beatific Vision, Jesus would have had all of the infused knowledge necessary for him to accomplish his mission. In III, q. 9, a. 3, Aquinas argues that because Jesus was perfect man (as taught by the Council of Chalcedon), his human intellect would have had knowledge of all the things actually created by him (whether in the past, in present, or in the future). This is, again, a consequence of being hypostatically united to the Divine Word: since Jesus simply is the Person of the Son, he must possess all the knowledge that the Son has (at least as much of it as a human intellect can hold).

As FMS points out in his post, this teaching has essentially been taken up by the Catechism in number 473:

But at the same time, this truly human knowledge of God's Son expressed the divine life of his person. “The human nature of God’s Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God” [quoting Maximus the Confessor, PG 90, 840A]. Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father.

Finally, Jesus would have been able to learn things in the way that all human beings learn: by experience, using his senses and cognitive apparatus (i.e., his brain). (That is the argument of III, q. 9, a. 4.) This was the only type of human knowledge that would have required Jesus to be developed in body. It was in this capacity that Jesus (like all of us) learned to talk, learned to recognize his mother and (foster) father, experienced the sunrise, went to school, and so on.

Regarding Jesus’ knowledge of his identity

It follows that, thanks to the infused knowledge that Jesus possessed, he already had full human knowledge of his identity (that is, of his divinity) from the moment of his conception. Obviously, he had no way of expressing that knowledge until his brain and speech were sufficiently developed, but he must have had that knowledge right from the beginning.

(Note that Jesus probably experienced “consciousness” in the same way we do: but as soon as his cognitive functions were in order, he would have been aware of his Hypostatic Union and hence of his identity.)

  • Thank you for your in depth yet easily grasped explanation. You have a wonderful gift. – user13992 May 17 '15 at 18:59
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This Opening draws from Knowledge of Jesus Christ | New Advent.

I believe this question is best answered by first stating what the Catholic Church teaches were the kinds of knowledge in Christ.

Since Christ is God-made-man, he possesses two natures, and therefore two intellects, the human and the Divine.

The kinds of knowledge in Christ's human intellect are:

  1. The beatific vision.
  2. Christ's infused knowledge.
  3. Christ's acquired knowledge.

Of these, the only one capable of increase was experimental knowledge acquired by the natural use of His faculties, through His senses and imagination, just as happens in the case of common human knowledge.

The question then becomes to which kind of knowledge did his knowing that he was the Son of God belong?

Answering

From the article linked in the opening and from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 473, the human soul of Christ must have seen God face to face from the very first moment of its creation and the human nature of God's Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God. Therefore Christ always knew he was the Son of God.

CCC 473 But at the same time, this truly human knowledge of God's Son expressed the divine life of his person. "The human nature of God's Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God." Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father. The Son in his human knowledge also showed the divine penetration he had into the secret thoughts of human hearts.

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If you're looking for a Catholic answer, your best bet is to look through Part 3 of St Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica. Questions 9-13 seem particularly relevant to your inquiry. You can find a digital copy of the Summa below, among various other places online:

http://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/TP.html

  • Could you summarize the points made there? We prefer to avoid link-dependent answers both to avoid link rot and to have the relevant information contained in the answer. – El'endia Starman Apr 30 '15 at 15:02
  • Since I can't see where he responds directly to original post, a summary of a few questions of Aquinas would take a good bit of time. But if it would be more appropriate, I can delete my answer and put this in a comment instead of an answer. The website hosting this hosts a lot of other works by Aquinas, so it won't go down anytime soon. Even if it does, the book itself (ST, Part 3, Questions 9-13) will be around somewhere online. – bittenfig Apr 30 '15 at 15:18
  • Not presuming to speak for El'endia Starman, but I would agree that the substance of the answer should be in your answer itself rather than relying on the link, and asking people to find an answer there. So yes, this would probably be better as a comment than as an answer. For some tips on writing good answers, please see: What makes a good supported answer? – Lee Woofenden Apr 30 '15 at 20:39
  • I'm actually not able to comment. The source itself is great. Given how thorough Aquinas is, it is definitely relevant to the question. Scouring through it and figuring out what Aquinas says in direct reply to this specific question is more of a research project than a helpful answer, however. On the physics or math stack exchange, people will respond to homework questions with helpful guidance instead of direct answers. That approach doesn't seem any less appropriate here. That's all I can do. – bittenfig Apr 30 '15 at 21:06

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