In this passage, most English translations say "knowing their thoughts". In the footnote it says "perceiving" their thoughts. I feel like this is a pretty monumental difference as perceiving thoughts is something anyone can do but knowing thoughts, in the sense of reading someone's mind, is a purely divine ability.

Matthew 9:2-4 ESV And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?

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    I was surprised to find out that this difference is at least in part due to a text variant - ἰδών (perceiving) vs εἰδώς (knowing). Adding the appropriate tag. – Susan Dec 19 '14 at 16:36
  • I would have described the difference between Jesus perceiving/knowing someone's thoughts and my perceiving their thoughts is that Jesus has an absolute certainty of understanding whereas mine always has some amount of uncertainty. – mojo Dec 19 '14 at 19:07
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    I hope the answers cover what a horrible gloss "thought" is for any derivative of "thumos". – fumanchu Dec 19 '14 at 19:18
  • The text is probably saying that "Jesus could see through people," in the same way as you might say "i can see what you are thinking." – Bagpipes Dec 20 '14 at 11:28
  • Really, you've perceived thoughts? I've only ever deduced them or been told them by the thinker. – Luke Sawczak Nov 8 at 13:34
up vote 7 down vote accepted

The textual variants are ἰδὼν and εἰδώς. According to Tischendorf, ἰδών is the well attested variant.

Constantin Tischendorf, Critical Apparatus of Matthew 9:4

ἰδών is a participle declined in the aorist tense, active voice, nominative case, masculine gender, and singular number. It is derived from the aorist tense verb εἶδον.

εἰδώς is a participle declined in the perfect tense, active voice, nominative case, masculine gender, and singular number. It is derived from the perfect tense verb οἶδα.

The present tense of both verbs is εἴδω/ἴδω. But, aorist versus perfect tense hardly changes the essential meaning of a verb/participle. So, why the difference among English translations? As Thayer (p. 172) notes in his lexicon,

Thayer, Joseph Henry. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.

So, the aorist εἶδον and perfect οἶδα, tenses derived from the obsolete present εἴδω/ἴδω, possess distinct meanings: "to see" and "to know," respectively.

Matt. 12:25 happens to use the same expression, εἰδὼς...τὰς ἐνθυμήσεις. However, like Matt. 9:4, there is a textual variant.

Constantin Tischendorf, Critical Apparatus of Matthew 12:25

Here I believe the Codex Sinaitus favors εἰδώς (it has ϊδωϲ).

Codex Sinaiticus, Matt. 12:25

In any case, context seems to suggest εἰδώς since thoughts can't be perceived, but they can be known (well, read below).

There's a prophecy by the prophet Isaiah commonly accepted to be regarding the King Messiah.

In Isa. 11:1-3, it is written,

1 And a shoot shall come forth from the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall bear fruit from his roots. 2 And the spirit of Yahveh shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of Yahveh, 3 and his smelling is with the fear of Yahveh, and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, nor shall he decide after the hearing of his ears.

א וְיָצָא חֹטֶר מִגֵּזַע יִשָׁי וְנֵצֶר מִשָּׁרָשָׁיו יִפְרֶה ב וְנָחָה עָלָיו רוּחַ יהוה רוּחַ חָכְמָה וּבִינָה רוּחַ עֵצָה וּגְבוּרָה רוּחַ דַּעַת וְיִרְאַת יהוה ג וַהֲרִיחוֹ בְּיִרְאַת יהוה וְלֹא לְמַרְאֵה עֵינָיו יִשְׁפּוֹט וְלֹא לְמִשְׁמַע אָזְנָיו יוֹכִיחַ

Translators vary diversely in their translation of וַהֲרִיחוֹ בְּיִרְאַת יהוה, but I believe i have translated it appropriately. The King Messiah smells (yes, this is what the verb means) with the fear of Yahveh. The previous clause states that the "spirit...of the fear of Yahveh" rests upon him. In other words, it is the spirit resting upon the King Messiah that enables him to smell with the fear of Yahveh.

Notice how the King Messiah functions as a judge (see also v. 4), but he is not limited to merely judging by the sight of his eyes or hearing of his ears. In other words, he has the ability to judge, well, supernaturally. How does he do this? With the spirit of the fear of Yahveh resting upon him. And, what does "smell" have to do with this?

In the Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin, Folio 93b, it is written,

Raba said: He smells [a man] and judges, as it is written (Isa. 11:3-4), "and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, nor decide after the hearing of his ears, yet he shall judge the poor with righteousness, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth."

רבא אמר דמורח ודאין דכתיב (ישעיהו יא) ולא למראה עיניו ישפוט (ישעיהו יא) ושפט בצדק דלים והוכיח במישור לענוי ארץ

Bar Koziba reigned two and a half years, and then he said to the Rabbis, "I am the Messiah." They said to him, "With the Messiah, it is written that he smells and judges. Let us see whether he smells and judges." As soon as they saw that he did not smell and judge, they killed him."

בר כוזיבא מלך תרתין שנין ופלגא אמר להו לרבנן אנא משיח אמרו ליה במשיח כתיב דמורח ודאין נחזי אנן אי מורח ודאין כיון דחזיוהו דלא מורח ודאין קטלוהו

So, with the Lord Jesus Christ, he didn't need to be a witness to one's deeds, or to hear testimony from witnesses. He already knew a man's thoughts and could judge with absolute certainty.

  • I don't think this question could be answered any better-thank you for your response! – Tau Dec 24 '14 at 1:47
  • @Tau: That's very kind of you. Thank you for the compliment. – user862 Dec 24 '14 at 4:50
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    FYI, your answer inspired another question. You have my +1, and the new question wasn't intended to challenge this but rather to help me understand the various issues at play, which seemed like too much to sort out in comments. Of course, I'd welcome your input there if you have the time and inclination. – Susan Dec 27 '14 at 6:20

It apparently seems as though Christ could, indeed, "read people's minds," for this particular subject came up to me recently when I was studying through Matthew Chapter 9, particularly in reference to the Woman With The Issue of Blood, which begins in verse 20 of Chapter 9.

In verse 21, it reads:

"For she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole."

The key phrase there is "within herself," which of course implies and states clearly enough that she was essentially "thinking to herself." She didn't say it out-loud or merely speak it, or else it wouldn't say, 'within herself'.

Verse 22 is the implication that Christ 'read her mind', in essence:

"But Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour."

Christ heard what the woman said, and then He turned around and answered her according to what He heard her say "within herself."

To me, that seems as clear as day and night!

Most commentary on this passage (and Mt 12:25) stumbles on the rather misleading translation of "ἐνθυμήσεις" into English as "thoughts". In ancient Greek philosophy, "thumos" was quite distinct from a person's intellect (nous, noeo, noema) or reason (logizomai). Thumos, according to Liddell and Scott, is "soul, spirit, as the principle of life, feeling and thought, esp. of strong feeling and passion". Wikipedia has a fine summary which says, in part, "used to denote emotions, desire, or an internal urge." Translating any of these as "thought" muddies them at best; they should instead be carefully distinguished to help modern people begin to grasp their subtle differences.

Perhaps one of the best modern introductions to the concept of "thumos" is Got thumos? by Brett & Kate McKay, where thumos is shown to be the actor when one hears stirring music, or cries out in grief. It is also tied directly to ambition and competitive honor. For example,

Thumos is most closely associated, however, with anger. In Greek writings thumos “seethes,” “rages,” and “boils.” It is a special kind of anger – activated when a man’s honor is violated, when his reputation is on the line, when his family and property are threatened. It drives a man to stand up for himself, for his country, for his loved ones.

The scribes felt (not thought) in their chests that they needed to defend God's honor, or their own, from Jesus. They were visibly indignant. And how does someone else "see" someone's emotion? Bodily! Their stance, expression, shaking hands, etc. There is no need for supernatural perception in these verses.

Therefore, here's a better translation of Mt 9:3-4:

3 And look, some of the theologians said among themselves; this one slanders! 4 And Jesus, having seen their emotions, said; to what purpose do you all feel malignant things in your hearts?

and Mt 12:24-25:

24 But when the separatists heard they said; this one does not throw out the demons except in Beelzebul, ruler of the demons! 25 But having seen their emotion he said to them, "every kingdom divided against itself is deserted, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand."

Note here that Jesus does not need to read their minds; they have just spoken what they're thinking. Instead, he sees their passion.

Now, if you really want a rendition of the same scene with "thought" (dianoema), you can look at Luke 11:17:

but he, having seen their deduction, said to them...

or, for a place where "having seen" is used with "reason" (dialogismos), there is Luke 9:47:

but Jesus, having seen the deliberation of their heart...

However, both of these are prefixed with "dia" which indicates the process more than the result or a point event. Jesus "saw their wheels turning" on the outside like anyone else did; however, nobody else was the subject of their deliberations or had the authority over them as he did, so he spoke up.

Did Jesus read minds? Probably not. Did he use divine abilities to perceive? Probably not in these passages. Was he in a unique position to spark the emotions and engage with the thoughts of the people around him? Most definitely.

Your question immediately brought to my mind a verse in John's Gospel which precedes what is perhaps the most famous chapter in the Bible, save perhaps for Psalm 23. Here is the verse in context:

"Now while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs he was doing. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people. He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man. Now a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council, came to Jesus at night . . ." (2:25-3:2a NET).

The way John segues from the end of chapter 2 to the beginning of chapter 3 was deliberate on his part, I believe. John focuses first on the crowds of people at the feast of Passover in Jerusalem, implying they believed in Jesus' name simply because of the many miracles he performed. To them, Jesus was an entertaining--perhaps even spellbinding--novelty act. When Jesus began making some "difficult statements" about his flesh being true food and his blood being true drink, however, many of his fair weather friends withdrew from him (see John 6:52 ff., esp. v.66).

Even after explaining to his disciples, including those he knew who would not walk with anymore, that his words were not to be taken literally but spiritually, John inserts a parenthetical remark into his narrative which is remarkably similar to his statement in John 2:24-25,

"(Jesus knew from the beginning who wouldn't believe and the one who would betray him.), John 6:64b CEB).

Putting just the two passages together, we can see that Jesus could in fact read people's minds, and perhaps more importantly he could read their hearts!

A question which might naturally arise in some people (as it does in mine), "Well, doesn't it make sense that the God-Man, Jesus, could read people's minds? If he was indeed God in the flesh, then wouldn't his omniscience simply "kick in" whenever he needed it, much like Superman's super powers? Frankly, I do not have a simple answer to that question!

Yes, Jesus was God in human form (see Philippians 2:7-8). His self-emptying (< Gk. kenosis), however, involved his refusal to hold onto or grasp some of the attributes of God which were rightfully his from eternity past. Instead, he veiled them, as it were, so that his life as a flesh-and-blood-man would include such things as "increasing in wisdom." God, of course, cannot increase in wisdom. The God-Man, however, could--and did! (see Luke 2:40 and 52).

In conclusion, as to how far Jesus' natural learning process contributed to his knowing what was in man (see supra) is probably indeterminable. That he did is really incontestable. Where his human intuition and discernment left off and his divine intuition and discernment took up, however, is part and parcel of what theologians call the hypostatic union of God and man in the man Christ Jesus.

  • The "pure in heart" see both God and man. To have a 'single eye' means no deception clouds your own judgment, therefore, it is easier to see others. – Tau Dec 23 '14 at 6:11
  • @Tau: Interesting comment. Thank you. You've given me something to think about! Don – rhetorician Dec 23 '14 at 17:11
  • An alternate understanding of Philippians 2:6 is that he did not consider equality in form something to be held onto, but emptied himself by filling the new form of a man. We may be falsely understanding it as letting go of and emptying of equality of power. This is a very western thought, that equality involves power or quality. But I've always argued that the point is really that he was willing to give up his form, and emptied it into the form of man. Relevant point being: he was still all God with all that comes with it. Even if he did restrain his power, he had the Father in his ear – Joshua Dec 25 '14 at 4:25
  • @JoshuaBigbee: I'm a Westerner, and I don't equate equality with power (though they are related). Jesus had access to every attribute of God, but he chose to limit his access in some ways and at some times. At other times, his divine attributes burst through in glorious fashion in what were called signs and miracles. There is no doubt that divine power was involved in every sign and miracle to some extent, but then so were authority ("even the wind and waves obey him"), glory (the transfiguration), divine approval (at his baptism), angelic ministrations (wilderness temptation, Gethsemane).... – rhetorician Dec 25 '14 at 15:14

In fact, both are true: on the one hand He knows in His feature of "knower of hearts"/καρδιογνώστης (Acts 1:24), which is exclusively the divine feature, for even the highest of angels cannot know human heart, but only God; however, on the other hand, He knows that after Him authoritatively forgiving sins - which also is an exclusive feature and authority belonging to God only - such thoughts would most definitely arise in their minds, and most probably their bewildered faces also revealed that those thoughts indeed came to them. But Jesus can know human hearts also directly, for He can know who comes to Him with a good heart and who not, when outwardly it is impossible to guess, and thus He entrusts Himself only to those who come with good heart, but not to those who came with a crooked heart (cf. John 2:24-25).

To conclude: a) He can know human thoughts as God in His divine feature of καρδιογνώστης; and b) since He is also fully human, He can discern the thoughts of men in a given context as the most penetrative psychologist would do.

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