If Jesus Played Basketball
Would Jesus have been the all-time, all-history MVP if he played basketball?
Did he have to learn his craft of carpentry? Did he have to learn table manners?
There are all kinds of questions one can ask about the way Jesus’ divine and human natures related in his earthly life, and we can’t know the answers to all of them.
But looking at the principles involved can be instructive.
Let’s talk about that.
Carpentry and Table Manners
A reader writes:
We know that Jesus is completely divine and completely human, so did Joseph have to teach him how to cut stone? How to measure correctly?
Did the Blessed Mother ever say something like, “Chew with your mouth closed. Stay in your seat. Don’t interrupt when someone else is speaking”—like I have to do with my children?
What Jesus Knew and When He Knew It
Jesus had both a divine knowledge and a human knowledge.
His divine knowledge was unlimited, and therefore in his divine intellect, he knew everything. He was omniscient.
The question here pertains more directly to his human knowledge. Concerning that, the Catechism states:
[The] human soul that the Son of God assumed is endowed with a true human knowledge. As such, this knowledge could not in itself be unlimited: it was exercised in the historical conditions of his existence in space and time.
This is why the Son of God could, when he became man, “increase in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man,” and would even have to inquire for himself about what one in the human condition can learn only from experience.
This corresponded to the reality of his voluntary emptying of himself, taking “the form of a slave” (CCC 472).
The statement about Jesus “increasing in wisdom” is taken from Luke 2:52, which discusses Jesus’ growth as a young person. Commenting on this passage, Pope Benedict wrote:
It is also true that his wisdom grows. As a human being, he does not live in some abstract omniscience, but he is rooted in a concrete history, a place and a time, in the different phases of human life, and this is what gives concrete shape to his knowledge.
So it emerges clearly here that he thought and learned in human fashion.
It becomes quite apparent that he is true man and true God, as the Church’s faith expresses it. The interplay between the two is something that we cannot ultimately define (Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 3: The Infancy Narratives, “Epilogue”).
The Child Jesus
As Pope Benedict indicates, we can’t fully understand the interplay between Christ’s divine and human natures.
However, it would seem that, in terms of learning his craft as a carpenter in his human knowledge, Jesus would have been instructed by Joseph, like any boy being apprenticed in that trade.
What are considered appropriate table manners varies widely from one culture to another, so they are not built directly into human nature. Presumably Joseph and Mary would have taught him these things as well.
Having said that, Jesus would have been intelligent and obedient (cf. Luke 2:51), so it’s not like he would have been an unruly child.
Yet he could do things that were surprising, confusing, and even dismaying to his parents (cf. Luke 2:48), as illustrated by the incident in the Temple when he was twelve (Luke 2:41-50).
Jesus would have appeared to others as an unusual child—unusually intelligent, unusually holy, etc.—but not so otherworldly that people automatically recognized him as the Son of God.
After all, they didn’t automatically see him that way even when he was an adult (cf. 1 Cor. 2:8).
The reader continues:
The theology teacher at the school where I work referenced Aquinas saying that Jesus being human and divine, had to learn as a human—but once he learned he never erred.
The example he gave was this: If Lebron James went back in time and taught Jesus how to play basketball then Jesus would then be the greatest basketball player ever. He would never miss a shot, never lose a game, never miss a free throw, etc.
It seems to me that there are pitfalls on both sides of this question. If Jesus is fully human, then he would HAVE to miss a shot, misbehave, miss cut a piece of wood from time to time—like we all do. And if he’s fully divine, then of course he would never miss a shot, misbehave as a child, miss cut wood or stone, etc.
The Christian Faith holds that Jesus was like us in all things but sin (cf. Heb. 4:15). It does not teach that he wouldn’t need to practice in order to build skills, whether they are skills used in carpentry or sports.
Any athlete, or athletics teacher, can tell you that practice is necessary to build skills even once the concepts involved are understood intellectually.
It takes repetition to build the neural pathways needed for a move to become second nature—part of one’s “muscle memory.” And it certainly takes repetition to build one’s muscles up and to develop fine motor control and hand-eye coordination.
It’s not simply a question of understanding the concepts involved. You have to do the work to train your body.
The same thing goes for a skill like touch typing. You can explain the concept in minutes, but becoming a proficient, ten-finger typist—so that you can hit the correct key without having to stop and think about where it is—takes lots of practice.
Playing the piano—or any instrument—is the same.
Also, your body has to be old enough to have the kind of muscles and neurology needed to learn a skill. Before that point, practicing it won’t work.
That’s why there aren’t any toddlers who are professional weight lifters or professional ballerinas, even if they try to imitate the moves of adults engaging in these activities.
As the miracle-working Son of God, Jesus could have instantaneously given himself any skill, in any degree, and been the best in world history at anything.
However, in the Gospels Jesus performs miracles in service of his mission, not to show off or do things completely unrelated to his mission.
Except when his mission was involved, he chose to live like others in a non-glorified human condition.
This is what Scripture means when it says he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7).
As one born into a non-glorified human condition, Jesus did not start with all physical perfections. He grew and developed like we do.
He was not born with his adult height, an adult’s bodily agility, an adult’s fine motor skills, or an adult’s hand-eye coordination.
He was born as a baby, with a baby’s height, a baby’s agility, a baby’s motor skills, and a baby’s hand-eye coordination.
He also was not born with specialized skills in his human knowledge involving carpentry, basketball, playing the piano, or other activities.
Even once Jesus did start working on a skill, the Faith does not oblige us to hold that he would automatically have been the best in human history at that skill.
Skills come in degrees, and the degree to which you have a skill depends on your natural aptitude for it and how much effort you have put into practicing it.
Jesus may have had a great deal of natural aptitude, but that wouldn’t mean he had every conceivable advantage.
In basketball, height is an advantage, but the Church does not hold that Jesus was the tallest man in history.
Similarly, the ability to run fast—which is dependent on factors like body weight, leg muscle mass, and how many fast-twitch nerve fibers you have in your legs—is also an advantage in basketball. But the Church does not teach that Jesus had the biggest leg muscles or the most fast-twitch nerve fibers in human history.
Jesus also didn’t eat a special sports nutrition diet, lift weights, or take performance-enhancers.
And—even on our imaginary scenario where Lebron James teaches him basketball—he wouldn’t have spent hours a day practicing on the court. It would have interfered with his mission.
Consequently, as one living in a non-glorified human condition, Jesus would not automatically have been the greatest basketball player in world history from the moment he learned, in his human knowledge, how the game is played.
Of course, as the omnipotent Son of God, he could have become the all-time MVP using his miraculous powers, but that wasn’t his mission.
Finally, the reader writes:
In my mind I am struggling to envision a teenage Jesus who never ever makes a mistake. Nobody likes being around someone who is perfect—someone who never loses a game, never stubs his toe, never over sleeps, never hit his thumb with the hammer.
Jesus, we know, had to be charismatic. People followed Him; people liked him. I can’t seem to reconcile Jesus’ perfection and also being human like us.
I think I view this differently.
While people would notice if someone never loses a game, that would alternately be attractive or off-putting depending on whether you’re on the same team or the opposite one.
Also, whether a sports team wins generally doesn’t depend on the actions of just one person. That’s why they’re team sports. Even if Jesus were the greatest basketball player in history, his teammates (e.g., a ragtag bunch of Galilean fishermen) could lose the game.
In addition, few people would notice that another person doesn’t stub his toe or hit his thumb with a hammer.
And in the ancient world—before alarm clocks, watches, and tight schedules—oversleeping almost wasn’t even a thing.
A person who always got up when he intended wouldn’t be noticed, though people may have simply thought such a person was “an early riser” (cf. Mark 1:35).
What people don’t like are know-it-alls and show-offs: people who have high skill levels and are arrogant about it.
However, Jesus was meek and humble of heart (Matt. 11:29), and people do find it attractive when a person has high skill levels but is humble.
In fact, that’s very attractive, and Jesus’ humility no doubt played a significant role in his popularity.
Of course, even when a skilled person is humble, some will still be jealous. And some people were jealous of Jesus (Matt. 27:18, Mark 15:10).
But then he didn’t come to be Mr. Popular and win everybody over. He came to be “a sign of contradiction” who was set “for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).