Principle 10. Incarnation
Sacred Scripture is one example of the divine working salvation through human means and forms.
The meaning of ‘incarnation’
The consequence of incarnation is that Jesus was truly human. Being the human being he was, he was neither all-powerful, nor all-knowing.
Jesus needed to use his feet to walk from one place to the next, like anyone else. He was not the fastest runner of his time. He often was tired and hungry. He needed to eat and drink to recover his strength and needed a rest very so often (John 4,6). Jesus knew in his body all human limitations. He too had no more than two hands and two feet! He also could not be in more than one place at the same time. He could suffer all the ailments and diseases that affect us.
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 twenty houses as archeology has shown. Small wonder that Nathanael exclaimed, “What good can come from a place like 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’ 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).
Jesus’ being human like us really needs to be digested. Rightly he could say; “Happy the person who is not scandalised by me.”
‘Incarnation’ literally means ‘being fleshed’. It derives from the Latin word ‘caro’ that we still know from words like ‘carnal’ and ‘carnivore’.
John’s Gospel tells us: “the Word was made flesh” – John 1,14.
As Christians we believe that God somehow – in Jesus Christ – lived among us as a truly human person. Both divine and human. God wanted to be close to us.
Jesus’ human mind
Jesus’ human limitations also affected his mind. Like his contemporaries, Jesus could not imagine what an electric train was like, or a motor car, or a aeroplane. He could learn new things (Luke 2,52) and could be surprised (Matthew 8,10). He only spoke his own language Aramaic, with, perhaps, a smattering of some Greek and Roman phrases.
He could even make a silly mistake like saying that Abiathar was high priest when David ate of the consecrated loaves, whereas we read in the Book of Kings that the high priest at the time was Abimelech.
How could Jesus be mistaken about the name?
Very easily. Abiathar became high priest afterwards (1 Samuel 22,20-30). He remained the highpriest during most of David’s reign as king. Jesus would simply correlate David and Abiathar. It had slipped his mind that during the earlier incident it was Abimelech who functioned as priest, not Abiathar.
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 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 omniscient. 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 so, 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.
Incarnation implied that Jesus also became like us in thinking and speaking. His message to us was of necessity restricted to the limitations of human language — yes, even to the limitations of his own Aramaic language.
Jesus’ memory error when confusing Ahimelech with Abiathar also confirms what we have seen before when we studied the curse of the figtree.
Neither Jesus nor the evangelists bothered about literal accuracy. They were concerned with the substance of the message.
“For ours is not a highpriest unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in every way as we are, only without sin” – Hebrews 4,15.
Incarnation and the inspired Scriptures
The theological principle of the incarnation should also be recognized in Sacred Scripture. Here too, God works salvation through truly human means. The inspired books are truly human, as much as Jesus’ body and soul, Jesus’ priests and sacraments are truly human.
The better we learn to know the Sacred Books, the better we appreciate how human they are. But this not imply that God did not use them to conduct a conversation with us through them.
For two specific case studies see below:
The texts in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly were written by John Wijngaards in 2009. Part of the contents is based on his earlier publications, in particular:
Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.