Christ in the House of His Parents (1850), by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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The Young Messiah is the latest “Bible movie” to appear. The problem is that it’s not (technically speaking) all that “biblical.” We know very little about Jesus’ childhood, and so the film draws from extrabiblical sources of mostly dubious historical value. For background’s sake, it’s drawn from Anne Rice‘s 2005 novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Rice has since left the Catholic Church and “organized religion” (I have written about the inadequacy of her reasoning in that respect).
As soon as I saw the first TV ad for this movie my immediate reaction was to be suspicious of it. I highly suspected that it would portray the young Jesus in a way that was contrary to the Catholic faith, in terms of Jesus’ own self-consciousness and omniscience. I haven’t seen it [as of 3-14-16, I have seen it; see Addendum at the end], but this is indeed the case, according to several sources. One of my roles as a professional Catholic apologist is, of course, to be a sort of watchdog, and I write occasionally about religious films, from that standpoint — not from the purely artistic perspective (though I like art — especially music — as much as the next person).
Thus, following that distinction, I’m not asserting (I want to make it clear) that there is no good in it whatsoever or that it can’t possibly be a good movie qua movie, or move people, or even bring some into the faith or a deeper faith walk (God may use whatever and whomever He likes for that purpose); but it is so suspect that I would strongly recommend avoidance of it, lest someone receive wrong theology from it (more on that below).
I was happy to learn that the director consulted Christian theologians and didn’t include some aspects of Rice’s novel that were thought to be too controversial. Indeed, The Young Messiah has been glowingly reviewed by Cardinal Seán O’Malley, Archbishop Thomas Wenski, and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.
These distinguished men of the Church (I once met Abp. Chaput and am a great admirer of his) seem to see nothing wrong with the movie at all, which (with all due profound respect to the office of bishop, and with trembling) is disturbing to me and a curiosity. Steven D. Greydanus, “everyone’s” favorite Catholic movie critic, wrote an almost ecstatic review. He links to a second piece he wrote specifically about Jesus’ self-awareness. I must, again, respectfully disagree with his summary of the issue of Jesus’ human knowledge (Steven’s not a bishop, but I like his work a lot!). He stated that “when and how Jesus came to the conscious human knowledge of his identity that he did not have at conception is not a matter of clear scriptural teaching or defined Catholic dogma.”
This is untrue. There are several aspects of development of the human knowledge of Jesus (an extraordinarily complicated aspect of Christology) that are legitimate and perfectly orthodox. But not knowing Who He was (or growing into that awareness) is not one of these. Dr. Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma is a solid source for the determination of what the Church teaches on a doctrinal and dogmatic level. It will soon be updated, by the way. My good friend, Dr. Robert Fastiggi, of Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, is involved in that. Dr. Ott provides the following dogmatic statements (his bolding):
Christ’s soul possessed the immediate vision of God from the first moment of its existence. (Sent. certa.)
. . . Christ’s soul possessed it in this world . . . from the Conception. . . . (p. 162)
Christ’s human knowledge was free from positive ignorance and from error.(Sent. certa.) Cf. D2184 et seq. (p. 165)
Dr. Ott explains “Sent. certa.” (pp. 9-10) as follows:
A Teaching pertaining to the Faith, i.e., theologically certain (sententia ad fidem pertinens, i.e., theologice certa) is a doctrine, on which the Teaching Authority of the Church has not yet finally pronounced, but whose truth is guaranteed by its intrinsic connection with the doctrine of revelation (theological conclusions).
One question that follows, regarding the present subject matter, is: if Christ possessed the Beatific Vision from conception, is it possible for anyone to say that this did not include His knowledge of His Divinity?
Dr. Bryan R. Cross is a professor of theology and also has a Master of Divinity degree from Covenant Theological seminary. He wrote on a Facebook thread (I have his permission to cite his words and name):
Let’s distinguish between the claim that with regard to “acquired knowledge” Christ was initially ignorant in His human intellect, and the claim that with regard to the Beatific Vision Christ was ignorant in His human intellect until some later point in life (say, the age of reason). The former is not a theological error; the sort of knowledge in which Jesus grew during His earthly life was acquired knowledge.
But the magisterial teaching that Christ had the Beatific Vision in His human intellect from conception (cf. Mystici Corporis, 75) requires at least the third grade of theological assent (requiring religious submission of mind and will). And knowledge (in His human intellect) of His divine identity is necessarily included in what He knew through the Beatific Vision, because through the Vision He knew all things that pertained to His earthly mission.
The doctrine of Jesus’ knowledge of His own Divinity from the time of His conception is not a dogma at the highest level (de fide), so the denial of it cannot be properly called a “heresy” [I mistakenly did that in the first version of this paper, for which I apologize], but it is a theologically certain truth of the Catholic faith. Hence, Dr. Cross observed:
It isn’t heresy, but, the nearly unanimous consensus of Catholic theologians from the beginning of the thirteenth century up until Pius XII held that Christ in His human soul and human intellect possessed the Beatific Vision from conception, and thus from conception knew in His human intellect that He was God. That’s not something we moderns should simply dismiss as though it carries no weight at all.
[Material] heresy is limited to the denial of that which requires the first grade of assent. There isn’t a technical name for the denial of that which requires the third grade of assent.
Brad Miner, in his review of The Young Messiah in The Catholic Thing (3-12-16) notes the serious theological errors in the film:
The Young Messiah Christology is appalling.
The movie fails to grasp the truth about Christ’s knowledge of Himself. It suggests that this confused, questioning prodigy had to be taught that He is God. But were that the case, as it clearly is in the film, the boy would not be God. . . .
It is heresy [Dave: too strong a word in terms of canon law: “false” or “erroneous”] to assert that His divinity was ever hidden from Jesus, that His awareness was developmental.
As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith put it in a 1966 document [Dave: 7-24-66] about “popular” errors following Vatican II:
A certain Christological humanism is twisted such that Christ is reduced to the condition of an ordinary man who, at a certain point, acquired a consciousness of his divinity as Son of God. . . .
As the closing music swells, Jesus addresses his Heavenly Father: “Someday you’ll tell me why I’m here.”
To be clear, Pius XII wrote in Mystici Corporis (1943) that there was never a question in our Lord’s mind about his identity, never a moment of doubt:
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.
Neil Madden’s review in Conservative Review (3-10-16) also takes note of these serious theological deficiencies:
“The Young Messiah” depicts Mary and Joseph as having more knowledge about Jesus’ true nature than He does. This is a problem. If Jesus always was God, begotten and not made, surely wouldn’t an omnipotent God know who he was as he was learning and growing in preparation for His mission here on Earth? . . .
Almost as troubling about the storyline are how many of its plot points seem to be adapted from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a heretical Gnostic text which portrays the child Jesus as an omnipotent menace, rather than the Lamb of God and perfect Savior of mankind. . . .
“The Young Messiah’s” rich cinematography and hopeful message undoubtedly have the power to uplift and inspire audiences, but the viewer must be willing to overlook the theological problems of the storyline itself in order to appreciate these qualities. Furthermore, if one wishes to use this film as an evangelization tool, he or she must be ready to clear up any confusion that will arise as a result of the story’s apocryphal speculation.
I wrote about these unfortunately widespread Christological errors in my paper, Jesus Had to Learn That He Was God?: drawn largely from my 2007 book, The One-Minute Apologist. Since I am a mere lay apologist, with no authority, and only the ability (hopefully) to persuade, I cited more authoritative sources (as is my constant custom, wherever possible). The late Fr. William G. Most was a superb Catholic theologian and thinker, of impeccable orthodoxy. I linked to his book, The Consciousness of Christ, which is available online. In chapter 4, he states:
The Epistle to the Hebrews (4:15) is often quoted as supporting a general charge of ignorance in Jesus, one which would, probably, include ignorance of His Messiahship and divinity: “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect (kath’ homoioteta) has been tempted (pepeirasmenon) as we are, yet without sinning.” So, the argument goes, since we are ignorant, He must have been ignorant. The basic flaw in this line of thought is that it ignores the literary genre of Hebrews, generally admitted to be homiletic. Within that genre, it is common to speak a bit loosely, and therefore it would be out of place to attempt precise deductions from mere implications. Further, who would know just where to draw the line, if we ignored the genre? Would that text quoted refer to merely external, physical sufferings? Did He have various kinds of bodily diseases like other humans? Mental illnesses? Did He even suffer from psychoses as many persons do? And so on. Common Catholic faith and piety have provided interpretative guidelines that critical exegesis ignores to its own detriment. We are attempting to remain within this tradition.
In his chapter 7, Fr. Most cites magisterial sources:
Only July 3, 1907, the Holy Office, in the Decree Lamentabili directed against the Modernists, a document approved by Pope St. Pius X, rejected the following propositions:
The natural sense of the Gospel texts cannot be reconciled with what our theologians teach about the consciousness and infallible knowledge of Jesus Christ.
. . .Christ did not always have a consciousness of His messianic dignity.
[R]eason concurs with what the documents of revelation and the Church have taught us, namely, that the human soul and mind of Jesus, from the first instant of its existence, enjoyed the Vision of God. In it Jesus could not help but see His own divinity, and have all knowledge available to Him, as it related to any matter to which He turned His attention. His consciousness was, therefore, fully in keeping with His two natures-human and divine-in one Divine Person.
The Human Consciousness of the Son of God Made Man*In Christ, as we know through Revelation and faith, there are two natures, one divine, the other human. That is, there are two principles of operation. Consequently, consciousness is immediately a quality of the nature, there are two consciousnesses in Christ: one divine, the other human.*However, all the actions of the human nature of Christ, all the actions posited by this human nature, are ultimately ascribed to the divine Person of the Logos acting through its human nature. (Let us not forget that the same Logos, Son of God, acts both as God, as possessing the divine nature, and as man, through his human nature.) So the acts of human consciousness of the Incarnate Son of God are always posited by his divine Person acting through his human nature. The divine Ego of the Son is always both the Subject and the ultimate object of these acts.*In other words, due to the unique Person of Christ which is divine, there is no human consciousness of Christ which would be the consciousness of a Person only human. When Jesus says I, his divine Person expresses in this human word and concept his human consciousness of a divine Self.*This means that the same and unique divine Ego knows himself divinely on one side, humanly on the other. It is not a human ego who would know itself humanly, as in our case. It is a divine Ego who knows Himself not only divinely, but also humanly.*How? On the ultimate basis of the New Testament, on the more proximate basis of traditional Catholic theology (recognizing since the thirteenth century, at least, the existence in Jesus, since his conception, of the act of Beatific Vision as affecting his human intelligence), several modern Catholic theologians have concluded that there is a connection between this act and His human consciousness of his divine Self. Without the permanent elevation of the human mind of Jesus to the act of Beatific vision, that is to say, to the face to face vision of His Eternal Father and of His own eternal and divine Ego, there is no possible explanation of His permanent consciousness of His divine identity.*. . . the general Biblical witness to the divinity of Jesus would oblige us to postulate for Him, ever since the creation and immediate assumption of His soul by the Logos, this beatific vision, this beatifying and immediate experience of His divine Person by his human intelligence–in other words, His human consciousness of His divine Ego.*. . . Nothing in the Gospel indicates in Jesus a becoming conscious of a previously unknown identity: neither the first human words recorded by Luke as pronounced by Jesus, in the Temple of Jerusalem, when He said to Mary: “I had to be in my Father’s house” (Lk 2:48-50, obviously meaning, not Joseph, but his Eternal Father), nor the first declaration of the eternal Father witnessing to His beloved Son during His baptism by John, in the Jordan. Jesus did not learn Who He was: He always knew it; as the Belgian Bishops wrote in 1967, “no one had to tell him who He was.”
In my opinion, with error so rampant today, people don’t need anything that will lead them further astray. If a person knew his or her theology well, then they could discern the error and “spit out the bones” so to speak. But the problem is that many people (including even many who are otherwise orthodox) do not understand or fully grasp Jesus’ omniscience and those sorts of complicated things; and it’s because these are very complicated aspects of theology, dealing with the Two Natures of Christ.
It was the same with The Last Temptation of Christ. It worked, strictly viewed as a movie / piece of drama (I saw it), yet it contained blasphemy and very serious theological falsehood (the notion that Jesus was subject to concupiscence and internal temptation).
Movies should ideally be orthodox and not lead astray folks who watch them, completely unsuspecting that the source material is from dubious historical sources. Many (I dare say, most) would simply casually assume that the information that the movie drew from was in the Bible, when in fact much of it is not.
Millions will assume that all of this is in the Bible, and that concerns me. I’ve always held the view that movies purporting to be historical have a responsibility to be as accurate as possible, within the parameters of use of the usual “historical fiction” elements. I have had that discussion with a filmmaker friend of mine (a perfectly orthodox Catholic), who disagrees. But I am looking at it from the point of view of an amateur historian and apologist, whereas he obviously views it from the artistic perspective. He’s thinking about art. I’m thinking about theology, doctrine, and possible effects and influences on people. As an apologist, I have to deal with the aftermath and effects and whatever bad theology is in films like this, and spend time explaining how and why whatever errors are there, are wrong.
Bottom line, then: should a film that is otherwise moving, pleasing drama, edifying, wholesome, liked by many good Catholics, be promoted even if it has serious Christological error, because the good outweighs the bad, and it is a supposed “net gain” for the cause of evangelism and making Catholic theology and the history of our Lord Jesus come alive? I say no. The errors are so serious that, to me, they are dealbreakers.
Steven Greydanus panned The Last Temptation of Christ as blasphemous, yet he loves this movie. But he is mistaken as to it not containing error. That movie contained the falsehood that Jesus was subject to concupiscense, and hence, possible successful temptation from the devil. This one contains the falsehood that Jesus didn’t know Who He was at the age of seven. That’s two serious Christological errors: both momentous and dangerous in their harmful influence. If one movie is panned and not recommended as a result, so should the other be.
I’d love to see these erroneous elements taken out of the movie (could there not be — as a “compromise” — two versions: a “Catholic” one, similar to the Catholic RSV, that changes just a few Bible passages?). Then we wouldn’t have to have this discussion at all. There would still be much speculation in the film about Jesus’ childhood, of course, but this could (if done properly) be acceptable within certain parameters (in the best sense of “historical fiction”), if it is minus the outright falsehood.
ADDENDUM: I saw the film on 3-14-16, and, as I fully expected, it didn’t cause me to change one word of my critique (all I’ve done is add this section), because of my reasoning and methodology, that I explained in the combox yesterday: “I highly doubt that it will change my opinion about what I wrote, because I wrote only about the one aspect, and I know from several sources (some of whom defend it) that it is in the movie.” So nothing has changed, except that people can’t try to discredit my critique because I hadn’t yet seen it. The central theme of the film is Jesus not knowing that He is God, or even the Messiah. It’s repeated over and over, till near the end, when the Blessed Virgin sits Jesus down by a tree and finally reveals to Him Who He is. This is, of course, a very serious and momentous theological falsehood. The only other error I detected was Mary praying “forgive us our sins”; thus possibly implying (but not necessarily) that her (wrongly imagined) sins were part of the petition.
As I wrote about already, mine was not a “movie review” per se; it was a critique of one theological error and falsehood that is the central point of the story (as my title above well indicates). Also, I noted that from many reports it was probably a beautiful movie qua movie. This remains true, now that I have seen it. It was touching, pious, moving, exquisitely filmed and scripted, not contradictory to the Bible excepting the issue herein discussed. The acting was terrific; especially that of the young boy. The only thing wrong with it is that it features a pernicious, dangerous error: that Jesus was completely ignorant about His being God till the age of seven, when His mother told Him.
This is how the devil works, after all. He’s not stupid. He knows that if he can put forth some false teaching in the midst of a film otherwise beautiful, orthodox, and seeming to be perfectly okay, made, no doubt, by well-meaning folks unaware of the false theology involved, or why it is wrong, that he will succeed in his devious plans. He’s far too clever to promulgate his errors in an ugly, revolting fashion, that would turn off most Christians. No! You don’t go to a Satanic Black Mass to learn the falsehoods that the devil is trying to push; rather, it’s inserted into something that has a lot of truth and beauty, so that it will be accepted alongside the good things.
NOTE: Be sure to read my very extensive follow-up post, Jesus ALWAYS Knew He Was God (Doctrinal History), which consists of extensive citation of a 1922 dissertation on the young Jesus’ consciousness. Fr. Patrick Joseph Temple, S.T.L. goes through the views of the Church fathers, the medievals, the early heretics, and then modernists after 1829, and does scriptural exposition of Luke 2:40-52, showing that Catholic tradition always taught that Jesus knew Who He was from conception, as a result of the Hypostatic Union and His possession of the Beatific Vision.