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When Did Jesus Know? The Translation of Aorist and Perfect Participles for Verbs of Perception In the Gospels

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11-3-01; Rev. 1-8-03

The Problem

On several occasions in the Gospels, we are told that Jesus knew something or heard something. Frequently, such an assertion is made by way of the aorist or perfect adverbial participle. However, many English translations give the distinct impression that Jesus’ knowledge, in such instances, is simply an application of his omniscience. For example, in Matt 12.25 the Greek text reads: εἰδὼς δὲ τὰς ἐνθυμήσεις αὐτῶν ειπεν αὐτοῖς. This expression is translated “And knowing their thoughts He said to them” (NASB), “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them” (NIV), “He knew what they were thinking and said to them” (NRSV), “Knowing what was in their minds, he said to them” (REB), “Jesus knew their thoughts and replied” (NLT), “Knowing their thoughts, he said to them” (RSV, ESV), “Jesus knew what they were thinking, and so he said to them” (TEV), “Knowing what was in their minds he said to them” (NJB). All of these translations, to one degree or another, seem to give the impression that Jesus already knew what these religious leaders were thinking, almost as if to say that he did not learn by observation. Such translations, therefore, make Jesus seem to be omniscient in this verse. One translation stands out as giving a different impression. The NET Bible here says, “Now when Jesus realized what they were thinking, he said to them.” This translation implies that Jesus learned, and that he learned by observation, perhaps intuition. Two questions are raised by the NET’s rendering here. First, is the NET more accurate than the other translations in this passage? And second, if so, what does this mean for Jesus’ omniscience?

The Grammatical Answer

It is best to answer the grammatical question first. However we construct our christology, it must be based on scripture. Our theology and our translations should be informed by a proper understanding of the Greek text. And the fact is that there are crystal clear passages which speak of Jesus’ ignorance on occasion. The locus classicus in this regard is Mark 13.32: “But as for that day or hour no one knows it—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son—except the Father” (NET). Other translations may vary the word order, and one or two prepositions, but all are essentially the same in content. And the essential point here is that “the Son” (namely, Jesus) did not know when the Tribulation would begin, nor when he would return (cf. vv 26-31). In other words, Jesus’ ignorance of at least something is found in everyone’s Bible.1 Thus, we cannot make categorical claims that Jesus’ omniscience was always operating on the human conscious level. Mark 13.32 won’t let us do that.

There is also the well-known text in Luke that speaks of the child Jesus growing in wisdom (Luke 2.52). It will not do to say that the child Jesus may have grown in knowledge and wisdom but the adult Jesus did not, for if he is omniscient he is omniscient as a child and as an adult. An omniscient being never grows in knowledge because he always knows all things.

There are, of course, other passages that imply Jesus’ limited knowledge. In John 5.6, for example, the narrator says, “When Jesus… knew that he [the lame man] had already been lying there a long time…” (τοῦτον ἰδὼν ᾿Ιησοῦς κατακείμενον καὶ γνοὺς ὅτι πολὺν ἤδη χρόνον ἔχει). Most translations render the participle γνούς temporally (“when he knew”). But even if that translation is not a given, the evangelist in the earlier verse tells us the exact amount of years (thirty-eight) that the man had been sick. But this information is not picked up in his description of Jesus’ understanding. Jesus only knew that he had been there “a long time.” Although this is an argument from silence, the silence in this instance is deafening. The narrator could have easily, and less cumbersomely, said something like “[When] Jesus knew this,” referring back to the amount of time the man had been sick.

Further, there are occasions in which Jesus is said to be “amazed” or “surprised.” Cf. Matt 8.10 (“when Jesus heard this, he was surprised”); Mark 6.6 (“he was amazed at their unbelief”); Luke 7.9 (“Jesus was surprised when he heard this”). The verb in each of these instances is θαυμάζω, a verb that is regularly used of others being surprised or amazed (cf. Matt 8.27; 9.33; 15.31; 21.20; 22.22; 27.14; Mark 5.20; 15.5, 44; Luke 1.21, 63; 2.18, 33; 4.22; 8.25; 9.43; 11.14, 38; 20.26; 24.12, 41; John 3.7; 4.27; 5.20, 28; 7.15, 21). In every instance, the connotation seems to be an emotional reaction that accompanies learning something new. But this means that if Jesus learned, then in some respect he was not omniscient.

I will address the issue of Jesus’ omniscience at the end of this paper. For now, we need to continue with the grammatical evidence. When it comes to aorist and perfect adverbial participles of perception, there are plenty of examples used in the Gospels (as well as the rest of the NT) of individuals besides Jesus. And in such cases, these participles regularly imply that the person in question grew in knowledge.2 If this is the case with others, why should we translate the same participles when Jesus is the subject differently? If we do so, it certainly seems as though theological bias has interfered with integrity in translation. Here are some examples:

Mark 5.33—“when the woman realized what had happened to her” (εἰδυῖα)

Mark 15.45—“when he learned from the centurion that it was so” (γνούς)

Luke 3.16—“When [John] knew the thoughts of their hearts” (ἐπιγνοὺς3)

Luke 8.53—“because they knew that she was dead”4 (εἰδότες)

Acts 23.6—“Since Paul knew that some of them were Sadducees…”5 (γνούς)

Phil 2.19—“when I learn about your circumstances” (γνούς)

Thus, various verbs are used to indicate that someone grew in knowledge: οιδα, γινώσκω, ἐπιγινώσκω.

In addition to these texts, there are several that speak of someone acting when they hear news of some sort (the aorist participle ἀκούσας is used). The news is obviously the catalyst for their actions, implying that they didn’t know until they heard. In such passages, Jesus is viewed just like all other individuals (several of the following texts have Jesus as the subject). Cf. Matt 2:3, 22; 4:12; 8:10; 9:12; 11:2; 14:13; 19:22; Mark 2:17; 6:16; 10:47; Luke 7:3, 9, 29; 8:50; 14:15; 18:22, 23, 36; 23:6; John 4:47; 21:7; Acts 7:12; 22:26; 23:16; Eph 1:15.

The following passages are but a sample of the kinds of texts that should show that Jesus, too, grew in knowledge: Matt 12.15, 25; 16.8; 22.18; 26.10; Mark 8.17; 12.15; Luke 9.47; John 6.15, 61; 19.28.

If we treat these adverbial participles when Jesus is the subject in a manner that is different from how we treat them when others are the subject, then our translations are suspect of theological bias. Integrity in translation demands that we not be inconsistent in this matter, even if such consistency makes us theologically uncomfortable. In this respect, the NET Bible stands apart from most other translations.

The Theological Answer

There are two elements in the theological answer. First, some of these passages seem to speak of Jesus’ knowledge as greater than that of his contemporaries. He sometimes knew people’s thoughts via means that mere mortals are not accustomed to (cf. Matt 12.25), or knew things that could not be learned by mere observation (John 13.1, 3). Several other passages are often adduced for this point, but many of them can be questioned. For example, in Mark 8.17 Jesus knew that his disciples were talking about not having any bread. But simple observation and a keen understanding of human nature could account for his knowledge in this instance. The same is even true in Mark 2.8 where the evangelist tells us that Jesus knew what the religious leaders were thinking when they muttered to themselves that only God could forgive sins and therefore Jesus was blaspheming when he uttered such a pronouncement. Frankly, it would not take a genius to figure out that the religious leaders thought such things when Jesus said such things; the frowns on their faces would be enough for a theologically-informed individual. Nevertheless, there are some passages that speak clearly and eloquently of Jesus’ supernatural knowledge. Two such examples are Matt 17.27 (in which Jesus knew that the first fish Peter would catch would have a stater in its mouth, enough to pay the temple tax for both Peter and Jesus) and John 1.48 (where Jesus declared to Nathaneal that he saw him when he was under the fig tree and that because of this he knew him to be a man without guile). Thus, in some instances we can clearly see evidence of Jesus’ supernatural knowledge, knowledge that cannot be explained by any natural means.

Does this mean that we have contradictory evidence in the Gospels? Is Jesus omniscient or not? Is he the theanthropic person—God in the flesh—or just a mere mortal? This tension leads us to our second element in the theological answer. The fact is that in the Gospels there is plenty of evidence of Jesus’ humanity—aspects of his life and nature that simply do not seem to fit with deity. Besides his ignorance of some things, and his stages of learning (sometimes accompanied by surprise), we read of his fatigue (John 4.6), hunger (Matt 4.2), etc. Furthermore, he felt pain and died. Can any of this be true of deity? Can God be ignorant, get tired, grow hungry, feel pain, die?

Theologians have wrestled with such statements about Jesus of Nazareth. I won’t belabor the point because, as important as it is for us to consider, this issue cannot simply be answered as an appendix to an essay on Greek grammar! Further, we can never—in this life or the next—exhaust the unfathomable riches of the one we call Lord and Savior. We will learn for all of eternity about the Son of God. But though we cannot fully comprehend him, we can grasp the basic truths about this man from Nazareth, even in this lifetime. The scriptures are adequate for that.

Briefly, here’s my take on things.6 We need to think of the divine attributes in two categories: moral attributes and amoral attributes. The moral attributes are those attributes that speak of God’s morality—justice, mercy, love, goodness, kindness, etc. The amoral attributes are those that speak of God’s sovereignty—omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, infinity, eternity, immutability, etc. What is interesting to observe in the Gospels is that a clear line of demarcation can be seen with reference to Jesus: he never fails to function on the level of the moral attributes, but frequently does not display the amoral attributes. In other words, the moral attributes seem to be “hard-wired” to his human consciousness, while the amoral attributes seem to be subject to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and come to the human conscious level at the Spirit’s choosing. At the same time, since he does occasionally demonstrate the amoral attributes, there is no denying his deity. Although Jesus Christ has both a human and divine nature, he is not two persons. He has one consciousness. It is not enough to say that his divine nature does not always operate at the level of his human consciousness. Why? Because it is only the amoral attributes that fit this description. It is partially because of this distinction that I hold to the impeccability of Christ—that is, that he was not able to sin (which is saying more than that he was able not to sin). Further, it is partially because of my christology that I view God’s attributes as amoral and moral instead of as communicable and incommunicable.7 In any event, if we recognize that Jesus functioned as a mere man in the amoral realm much if not most of the time, we can begin to understand why the scriptures can speak of him as able to relate to us. As man, he represents us to God; as God, he represents the Father to us. He is the perfect mediator, the perfect high priest, and the perfect sacrifice.

1Codex X omits the filial ignorance clause here (οὐδὲ υἱός), as do most MSS in the parallel passage in Matt 24.36. In the parallel I am inclined to agree that the shorter reading is the correct reading, largely because of Matthew’s christology. Although he omits the explicit statement of Jesus’ ignorance, such is implied in his addition of μόνος with reference to the Father. See NET Bible tc note on Matt 24.36 for a discussion. Recently, Powell has argued against the NET’s reading here and for the longer reading (cf. Charles Powell, “The Textual Problem of οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός in Matthew 24:36,” an essay posted on the Biblical Studies Foundation website []). Two major difficulties with the longer reading in Matt 24.36 are (1) although the Byzantine MSS omit the phrase here, thus making the shorter reading appear to be a scribally motivated reading, the fact that they en bloc retain it in Mark 13.32 is strong evidence that the shorter reading was not the product of Byzantine scribes; (2) since Matthew’s christology is regularly elevated above Mark’s (not in the sense that both evangelists are describing a different Jesus, but in the sense that Matthew gives answers where Mark raises questions; thus, Matthew is more pedagogical and Mark is more dialogical), the very addition of μόνος with reference to the Father in Matt 24.36 would mean that Matthew’s christology is actually lower than Mark’s in this one instance if the longer reading is retained. For these reasons I am inclined to disagree with Powell in his assessment of the textual problem of Matt 24.36.

2On occasion, especially with the perfect adverbial participle, the force is more causal than temporal. That is, the translation would be “because he knew” rather than “when he knew.” However, even in those instances, the individual who knew had learned at some point and thus was not omniscient. Cf. Mark 6.20 (Herod knew that John was a good man by experience, not by omniscience).

3The reading επιγνους τα διανοηματα αυτων ειπεν is found only in codex D; other witnesses here read απεκρινατο λεγων πασιν ο ιωαννης. The wording here comes quite close to some of the texts that are often used to argue for Jesus’ omniscience.

4In this instance, the people came to know that the little girl was dead by observation. See note 2.

5In this instance, Paul knew because of his past experience with the Sanhedrin.

6I have dealt with this issue more fully elsewhere.

7It is probably fair to say that most theologians today view God’s attributes as communicable and incommunicable. But much can be said for the moral/amoral categorization. Besides christology, this can be seen in the kinds of commands that God gives to mankind: we are commanded to be like God, yet the sin of the first man was that he sought to be like God. The key difference, I believe, is that we are to be like God in his moral attributes, but we are not urged to be like God in his amoral attributes. For what it is worth, this distinction is one that some Christian groups have not made; the result is a perversion of the Gospel and a confusion of our duty as Christians.

Related Topics: Gospels, Textual Criticism