Most Christians think Jesus claimed to be God. Ask most of them who know their Bible, “Where does the Bible say Jesus claimed to be God?” and they’ll likely answer, “He said it in John 10.30: ‘I and the Father are one.’” The word in the Greek New Testament (NT) here translated “one” is hen, which is the numeral ”one” and can mean “unity.” But that is a far cry from saying straight out, “I am God,” or the like. One is struck with the thought, “Is that the best evidence Christians can muster to prove that Jesus claimed to be God? If so, maybe he never made such a claim.”
This is a very important issue for Christians. Most of them assert that a person must believe Jesus is God in order to be a genuine Christian and thus possess salvation and the assurance of eternal life. That’s what the institutional church has insisted since the early fourth century AD. But the context of John 10.30 reveals that Jesus was not claiming to be God.
Jesus was attending the Feast of Dedication at the temple in Jerusalem. We read, “The Jews therefore gathered around Him, and were saying to Him, ‘How long will You keep us in suspense? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.’” (John 10.24). Jesus responded by mentioning his marvelous works that he had been doing and how they testify to his intimate relationship with God (vv. 25-29).
So, when Jesus then said that he and the Father were “one,” many traditionalist scholars have taught that he meant numerically “one in essence.” On the contrary, the context shows that Jesus meant they were unified, being in complete harmony regarding his mission of doing good deeds and drawing disciples to himself.
This is confirmed in Jesus’ so-called “high priestly prayer” he made the night he was betrayed and arrested. It, too, is recorded only in the Gospel of John. In anticipation of his crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus prayed to the Father concerning his eleven apostles, “Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are” (John 17.11). And he soon added, “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity” (vv. 22-23). Each time the word “one” appears here, it translates the word hen in the Greek text, the same word Jesus used in John 10.30. So, here, Jesus was asking the Father for the same oneness for himself and his apostles that he said, in John 10.30, he and the Father had. To say that “one,” there, means Jesus is God requires that it means the same in John 17.22-23, which is ludicrous.
Yet Jesus’ antagonistic listeners thought like many Christians later have, that he claimed to be God when he said he and the Father were “one.” When Jesus asked them why they were picking up stones to stone him to death (John 10.31), they replied, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (v. 33). In the Greek text, theos (God), here, is anarthrous, that is, without the definite article, so it can be translated “a god.” So, they thought Jesus was claiming to be God, or a god, by declaring that he was “one” with God.
The Roman Catholic Church’s prestigious Pontifical Biblical Commission rejects this common interpretation of John 10.30. In its very important and excellent document on Christology entitled Bible et christologie (1983), this elite group of twenty Catholic scholars allege that those who espouse classical (Nicene-Chalcedonian) Christology tend to be obstinate, “not being open” to critical investigation, resulting in “their appeal to Scripture only defensively.” These scholars chose venerable American Catholic scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer to produce a commentary on this document. In it he explains, “the Commission is pointing its critical finger at Catholic fundamentalism, often associated with this approach to Christology. An example of this sort of use of the NT would be the appeal to John 10:30, ‘I and the Father are one,’ to establish the divinity of Christ.” Fitzmyer means that he and the commission members do not believe Jesus therein claimed to be God.
Jesus then asked his interrogators, “do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10.36). John A.T. Robinson insists that Jesus here made the following important points: (1) he implicitly denies the Jews’ allegation that he said he was God, (2) he distinguishes himself from God, and (3) he affirms his true identity as Son of God.
Now, Jesus never went about declaring publicly that he was the Son of God. But he often implied it by calling God his “Father” and sometimes himself “the Son.” Until then, Jews had recognized their God Yahweh corporately as the father of the Jewish nation; yet individual Jews rarely or never had identified God personally as their father, as Jesus regularly did.
Most Christians have failed to understand that Jesus then clarified what he meant by him and the Father being “one” when he soon declared in this dialogue, “the Father is in Me, and I in the Father” (John 10.38). Months later, Jesus affirmed this again by telling his apostles, “Believe Me that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me” (14.11).
Contemporary NT scholars call this concept “the Mutual Indwelling.” When Jesus first said it, in John 10.38, he clearly meant it as a disavowal that he claimed in v. 30 to be God. Rather, Jesus here affirmed God-in-Christology as contrasted with the traditional, incarnational, Christ-is-God Christology which Catholic church fathers later developed. The Apostle Paul wrote about half of this concept, saying “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5.19).
Jesus’ opponents seem to have accepted this clarification about being one with the Father, in which he denied claiming to be God, because during the interrogation of him by the Jewish Sanhedrin (Council), no one accused him of ever claiming to be God. So, the Sanhedrin rightly understood that Jesus never claimed to be God, but most Christians have been misled about this by their teachers who say Jesus did claim to be God.
In sum, when Jesus said, “I and the Father are one,” he did not mean he and the Father were one in essence, making himself God, but one relationally, resulting in a functional unity. If this brief saying of Jesus in John 10.30 is the best that traditionalists can muster to support their assertion that Jesus claimed to God, we can be pretty sure he never made such a claim.
(Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible. In my extensive book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ [600 pp., 2008], I devote ten pages to explaining what Jesus meant in John 10.30 when he said, “I and the Father are one.” In doing so, I cite forty-four Bible scholars and four church fathers. For 22 years, I believed that in John 10.30 Jesus claimed to be God because that was what I was taught by my church and others.)