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 God’s salvation and the assurance of resurrection to immortality and thus eternal life. That is what the institutional church has insisted way back since the early fourth century AD. But the context of John 10.30 reveals that Jesus was not claiming to be God at all. As they say, “A text taken out of its context becomes a pretext.”
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 said he and the Father were “one,” many Christians have thought he meant numerically “one in essence” as church father Athanasius claimed. On the contrary, the context shows that Jesus meant they were unified, thus 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” that he spoke the night he was betrayed and arrested. It, too, is recorded only in the Gospel of John. Jesus–in anticipation of his crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension–asked 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).
Jesus’ word “one” in John 17.11 translates the word hen in the Greek text, the same word he used in John 10.30. So, Jesus was asking the Father for the same oneness for himself and his apostles that he spoke about in John 10.30. If hen therein means that Jesus is God, then to be consistent hen in 17.11 must mean Jesus’ disciples are gods, which is ludicrous. No, in 17.11, Jesus was asking the Father to make the disciples unified in purpose just as he and the Father was unified in purpose.
Jesus expressly stated this when 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” (John 17.22-23). Here, Jesus explains that what he means by hen is “unity.”
Yet Jesus’ antagonistic listeners thought like many Christians later did, that he claimed to be God when he said, “I and the Father are one.” Due this statement, these Jews picked up stones with which to stone him to death (John 10.31). Jesus then asked them for which of his works they wanted to stone him (v. 32). 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, here, theos (God) is anarthrous, meaning it does not have the definite article. Thus, it can be translated “a god.” So, these Jews thought Jesus was claiming to be God, or a god, by declaring he was “one” with God.
The Roman Catholic Church’s prestigious Pontifical Biblical Commission has rejected this common interpretation of John 10.30. In its 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.
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 identified God personally as their father, as Jesus regularly did.
Most Christians have failed to understand that Jesus soon clarified in this dialogue what he meant by him and the Father being “one” when he said, “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 the second 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 as a denial of claiming to be God. For, during the interrogation of Jesus by the Jewish Sanhedrin (Council), no one accused Jesus of ever claiming to be God. So, the Sanhedrin rightly understood that Jesus never claimed to be God. Yet many Christians have been misled about this by their teachers who say Jesus did claim here 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 be 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, as a Trinitarian Christian I believed in John 10.30 Jesus claimed to be God because that was what I was taught by my church pastor and others.)
(To see a titled list of over fifty, two-three page posts (easily accessible) about the Bible not saying Jesus is God, click here.)