I found myself thinking about this question today. As a yes or no question, I could imagine people lining up on one side or another. Yes, of course he knew the Earth was round. He was God, afterall, and God knows everything. If he didn’t know the Earth was round, then he clearly wasn’t God.
Or, no, of course he didn’t know the Earth was round. He was human, after all, and not only a human, but a human living in the first century, and people in the first century didn’t know the Earth was round. In their cosmology, the earth was flat, a disc really, with a firmament of water above and infinite depths of water below. If you walked far enough, you could walk to the edge of the disc but no further. Beyond that it was just water forever.
As a Christian, I find what is called the “Chalcedonian view” of Jesus attractive, namely, that Jesus is best understood as both fully human and fully divine. That is a paradox, of course, a statement that doesn’t make logical sense but that enables meaning outside of mere logic. Some thinkers who prize precision would call it an absurd statement, but this paradox allows Christians to think about Jesus simultaneously in two ways. The tricky part is that we tend to want to emphasize one aspect of Jesus’ identity – either his divinity or his humanity – over the other, and when we do that we lose the paradox, lose the generativity of the idea itself.
When I consider the question, “Did Jesus know the Earth was round?” from the perspective of Jesus’ divinity, I have to say “Yes.” If Jesus was the unique embodiment of divine wisdom and love, then Jesus knew what God knew, including the size and shape of the planet he lived on.
But when I consider the same question from the perspective of Jesus humanity, I have to say, “No, I don’t think he knew the Earth was round.” What we know, as humans, comes either from experience, intuition, or instruction. As a first century Palestinian Jew, Jesus of Nazareth could not have had an experience of the Earth as round – he never travelled more than 100 miles from where he was born. He might have intuited that the Earth was round, but if he did, why didn’t he tell anyone? Seems like an interesting tidbit of information people might have wanted to know. And he couldn’t have been instructed because he was surrounded by other first century people who shared the same cosmology that he had.
I could answer something like, “Yes and no. As divine Jesus knew; as human he did not.” But what kind of answer would that be. It seems to simply be restating the paradox and avoids actually giving an answer.
If I were forced to answer the question, which I will now do to myself, I would have to say, “No, he did not know.” In this case, his humanity trumped his divinity. As a human, Jesus was bound to human limitations. Otherwise he would not have been fully human. As a human, he went through puberty, had to go to the bathroom, had sexual urges, got pimples and back aches, lost his temper, and faced temptation. For those who want to over-emphasize his divinity, these features of Jesus’ humanity, our humanity, are too much. Yes, Jesus faced temptations in the desert, but they weren’t really temptations, just pro forma tests he had to go through, pre-requisites, if you will, before graduating to full time teaching and healing and casting out demons.
The paradox of Christian faith is that in Jesus God really is fully present, but as a human with human limitations, including, as a first century person, not knowing the Earth was round, nor that there are 6-7 continents, nor four oceans, nor anything discovered over the past 2000 years. This doesn’t so much disprove his divinity as it does vouchsafe his humanity. Jesus wasn’t simply God walking around in the body of a human – that is a traditional heresy known as Docetism. Jesus was a human incarnating the God of Israel, YHWH, the God of all time and space, the God both known and rejected by humans today.
The humanity that Jesus embodied then is the same humanity we embody now. But we know now a lot more about the Earth, and the universe of which Earth is a part, than Jesus and his contemporaries did then. For Christians, our path is oriented around a person who was a unique incarnation of God and yet who told his followers, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). No wonder we know more and do more. It’s not the first century any more. Jesus isn’t there, and neither are we.