I have a question that you probably don’t have an answer for, but I will give it a shot. History tells us that Jesus did not start preaching until he was in his early 30s. Do you know why he waited so long before he started his ministry? I know he was a carpenter in his 20s, working with St. Joseph, his foster father. Did Jesus not know he was God yet?
Well, you’re right. I do not have an answer for your first question. In fact, no one does. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was about 30 when he began preaching (see Luke 3:23). Where he was all that time is simply not known.
There are two theories, and you allude to the most ancient and widespread one when you say that Jesus spent those “hidden years” working with his foster father, St. Joseph, as a carpenter. That is certainly the most probable answer.
However, in recent years some scholars have suggested that he may also have spent time in the desert with his cousin John, the one we call the Baptist, with a group of ultra-observant Pharisees called the Essenes. They lived a strict monastic life in the desert near the Dead Sea. What we know of them corresponds quite well to what Jesus preached.
But, let me be clear: That is all speculation. We have no historical knowledge of the life of Jesus until his early 30s.
A word about that. In the Bible, 30 is considered the age when one is mature enough to take on leadership roles in the community. David was 30 when he began his reign. Ezekiel was called to be a prophet around the age of 30. John the Baptist was 30 when he came out of the desert. From that perspective, 30 means that Jesus was the right age to begin his ministry.
In the Bible, 30 is considered the age when one is mature enough to take on leadership roles in the community.
Your last question has challenged theologians since the fifth century when the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) declared that in Jesus there are two natures — divine and human — in one person. We still proclaim that when we recite the Nicene Creed at Mass: true God and true man. Of course, the divine nature of Jesus always knew he was God. God cannot ignore himself. But the question still remains, when did the human nature of Jesus know he was God?
Modern progress in human psychology may be helpful here, especially work done in child and adolescent psychology. To put it simply, we know in different ways according to our psychological and intellectual maturity. A child knows that they are loved when their mother cares for them with affection and devotion. The child cannot express this in words or logical form, but the body language is clear. Look and listen to a baby content in his mother’s arms, and it’s clear that the baby knows he is loved and secure.
Adolescents begin to be able to think logically around the age of 12 or 13. Teenagers have many other influences and problems that interfere with a clear and consistent expression of their ideas, but the process has begun. This progression toward full awareness of the self goes on for many years and is always in need of more clarity. We are always a “work in progress,” as they say.
The human side of Jesus, if we really believe he was “true man,” would have gone through these stages of self-awareness. The difference is that his progress would have been unhampered by sin. We believe he would have had full knowledge of his divinity by the time of his Baptism by John the Baptist, since his divine nature was revealed by the voice from heaven proclaiming him to be the Son of God (see Mark 1:11; Matthew 3:17; Luke 3:22).
I hope this helps, even if your questions cannot be answered in full. We should remember that theology is “faith seeking understanding.” We should not let the limits of what we know change our love, devotion, or gratitude to God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16) for our salvation.
We believe [Jesus] would have had full knowledge of his divinity by the time of his Baptism by John the Baptist.
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the May 2017 issue of Catholic Digest. It was the final column by Fr. Claude Grenache, AA, who died on June 18, 2017 (the feast of Corpus Christi). Fr. Claude wrote for Bayard, Inc. publications intermittently, including Living with Christ and Catholic Digest. Please pray for the respose of his soul and all who mourn his passing, especially his family and Assumptionist brothers. We miss him.