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Father Richard Kunst: Did Jesus have a ‘total recall’ memory?

There is a difference between being smart and knowing a lot, though people tend to confuse the two as being one and the same. I am pretty good at trivia games, and I have lots of data in my brain for the things that I am most interested in, but I would never describe myself as being smart. Though I am decades removed from school, if you were to see my report cards you would certainly agree. 

Father Richard Kunst

That being said, there is one subject that I would claim to be an expert in, and that would be papal related memorabilia, anything associated with the person of the pope, past and present. It’s an incredibly small and useless niche, but I am probably one of the foremost experts on the topic in the United States (if I may say so). I have advised radio shows, television shows, auction houses, and even museums on the subject. 

Yet sometimes I get stumped. Sometimes someone will send me a picture of something they want information on, and I don’t know the answer. When that happens I reach out to some colleague in the collecting world to look for help, and often they will say, “Aren’t you the one who is supposed to know? Why are you asking me?” It is humbling, but it has happened more than a few times. 

Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity; he is God the Son incarnate. Before he was incarnate, before he was born, as the second Person of the Trinity he was largely responsible for the writing of the Old Testament. It was God the Son who was inspiring the Old Testament authors to write the sacred texts in preparation of his coming to earth in human form, so no one knew the Old Testament writings better than Jesus of Nazareth! He was its author. And yet we see in at least one passage of the Gospels where Jesus gets some of his information wrong when quoting the Jewish scriptures. 

In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus and his disciples get accused of breaking the Sabbath by picking and eating heads of grain, there arises a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees concerning the true nature of the Sabbath. In rebutting the Pharisees’ accusation, Jesus brings their attention to a story about King David in the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel. “He said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry? How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat, and shared it with his companions?’” 

There are some important discrepancies from how Jesus tells the story and how it is recorded in 1 Samuel. In the telling of the incident in 1 Samuel, Abiathar is not the priest, his father Ahimelech is the priest in the story. Also, David does not go into the house of God as Jesus says; rather the priest Ahimelech brings the bread out to him. And finally, Jesus implies that companions are with David, but in the portrayal of the story in the Old Testament, David is alone. 

There have been all sorts of theories as to why there are such important differences between how the story is recoded and how Jesus retells it. Might I suggest as a theory that Jesus did not have perfect and total recall of the Old Testament? Even though he was God incarnate, who inspired the writing of the Old Testament, he may not have had the entire text perfectly memorized. Are we prepared to accept this as a possibility? I think we should be. 

Remember that Jesus took on our human nature in every way except for sin. If Jesus would have wanted to fly to the moon, could he have? Of course, because he is God, but he chose to take on the fullness of human nature, which meant he was limited in what he was able to do in that nature. 

There is something pretty cool about this, if I may say so. Think of how often we have fuzzy memories about things from our past, things we have learned, or even remembering our kid’s and grandkid’s names. It is a normal part of the human experience to have memories that are not always perfectly sharp. Should we be scandalized by the fact that Jesus may have experienced this same frailty? We shouldn’t be. 

Now, there could be some other valid explanation for the discrepancies between Jesus’ telling of the story and what actually appears in 1 Samuel, but from my viewpoint I like the explanation that Jesus had the same human experience as you and I in every single way except sin including a sometimes imperfect memory. 

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]