Today's average Christian if asked whether Jesus thought of himself as the Son of God and the messiah, would likely answer in the affirmative. Critical scholars in general would likely avoid the question, however, for obvious reasons—who can possibly know anyone's thoughts? Confessional scholars would likely side with the average Christian. Nevertheless, some critical scholars are not at all uncomfortable talking about what was going on in Jesus' mind. Marcus Borg, for example, affirms some things that "Jesus was aware of": "The power or authority which others sensed in him"; "the power of the Spirit flowing through him"; "his teaching also shows an awareness of a numinous authority not derived from tradition." And if you allow Borg to define carefully the terms he uses, he is willing to affirm: "in this Jewish sense, Jesus may have thought of himself as 'son of God.'" (Borg, Jesus A New Vision, 47-49).
At the turn of the previous century Albert Schweitzer (holding three doctorates: Music, Theology, Medicine) wrote a short work entitled The Psychiatric Study of Jesus. Exposition and Criticism (1913). The book was his medical dissertation. In it he countered the views of those in the medical profession who at that time were arguing that Jesus, "who considered himself the 'Son of Man' and the 'Messiah,' is to be adjudged in some fashion as psychopathic" (p. 27). And Schweitzer himself felt comfortable telling the reader what Jesus thought: Jesus "did not permit the conviction that he was destined to be the coming Messiah to play a part in his message" (p 51). And again: "That Jesus of Nazareth knew himself to be the Son of Man who was to be revealed is for us the great fact of His self-consciousness" (Quest of the Historical Jesus, 367).
Even the gospel writers knew what went on in the mind of Jesus—or claimed they did. Here are a few of their comments: "Jesus knowing their thoughts said..." (Matt: 9:4); "knowing their thoughts, he said..." (Matt 12:25); "he knew their thoughts and said..." (Luke 6:8); "But when Jesus perceived the thought of their hearts, he took..." (Luke 9:47).
Providing the reader with interior views of characters in a narrative is a function of the narrator (i.e., the voice telling the story). Such a narrative technique is a standard feature of narrative fiction and qualifies the narrator as omniscient, i.e., a narrator who knows everything (see Arp and Johnson, Perrine's Literature, 238-45). Matthew and Luke also engage in reading Jesus' mind; hence they are omniscient narrators, because they know everything—even what goes on in the minds of their characters. John, on the other hand, features an unreliable narrator, for the principle narrator's story is frequently corrected by a second more knowledgeable narrative voice at points in the narrative (see, Hedrick, "Unreliable Narration: John on the Story of Jesus and the Chronicler on the History of Israel," Perspectives on John [Edwin Mellen, 1993], 121-43).
An author's use of the literary technique of reading minds calls into question the realism of the narrative. The use of such a technique results in a less realistic narrative because it provides the reader with something s/he could not possibly know in real life. Hence the early Christian gospels are more akin to fiction than history. For historians to use this technique in historical narrative is irresponsible, because it misleads the reader in that historians present as a datum of history something that is obviously a fantasy of fiction.
The truth is that we never know what people are thinking even when they tell us what they claim to be thinking.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University