Ever since the 4th century, the institutional church has always officially proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth was and is fully God, and it has usually added that anyone who denies this is not a genuine Christ. Yet in Jesus’ gospel sayings in the New Testament (NT), he never claims to be God. The few NT texts the institutional church has cited in asserting that Jesus is God are mistranslated or misinterpreted, partly because most of them have grammatical difficulties. Let’s briefly examine these texts in their order of importance.
First, Thomas’ confession “my God” in John 20.28 does not identify Jesus as God. Rather, it alludes to what Jesus said twice to this apostle only days earlier, that “the Father is in me” (John 14.10-11; cf. 10.38). Thomas merely acknowledged that Jesus’ resurrection proved that God was in him. Some NT texts that have been wrongly interpreted as Jesus being God only mean that God was in Jesus, as Paul said “God was in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5.19).
Second, John 1.1c has been traditionally translated, “and the word was God.” But this contradicts the previous clause—“and the word was with God”—since it distinguishes the two. Since v. 14 says “the word became flesh,” referring to Jesus, it has commonly been thought that comparing this clause with the traditional translation of 1.1c identifies Jesus as God. But in an important journal article in 1973, J.B. Harner convincingly showed that in John 1.1c the anarthrous theos—“God” in the Greek text without the article (and it has the article in 1.1b)—prohibits the traditional translation of this clause. The NEB correctly translates 1.1c, “and what God was, the word was,” which does not identify Jesus as God. (All Bible quotations herein are from the NASB unless otherwise noted.)
Third, John 1.18 begins by saying, “No man has seen God at any time.” Most of the early Greek manuscripts then add that Jesus is “the only begotten God.” But similar to John 1.1b-c, this contradicts the previous clause, since many people literally saw Jesus. Rather, the reasonable solution is that other Greek manuscripts have the correct reading of this second clause in 1.18, which is “the only Son” as in the RSV and JB (cf. NEB).
Fourth, when Jesus said, “I and the Father are one,” he did not mean one in essence, as many Trinitarians have claimed, or that he is the Father, as Oneness Pentecostals assert. Instead, Jesus meant the unity he had with the Father in accomplishing his mission, which the previous context indicates. And this understanding is required since the Johannine Jesus later used this same word “one” (Greek hen) when he asked the Father concerning his disciples “that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17.11, cf. vv. 21-22).
Fifth, English versions are about evenly divided on how to translate some grammatically difficult texts as to whether they call Jesus “God” or merely mention Jesus and God (the Father) together, such as Romans 9.5, 2 Thessalonians 1.12, Titus 2.13, and 2 Peter 1.1.
Sixth, Hebrews 1.8 says, “But of the Son He [God] says, ‘Your throne, O God,” quoting this second clause from Psalm 45.6. This author likely did not intend to call Jesus “God,” just as the psalmist didn’t intend to call Israel’s king or the messiah “God.”
Seventh, some NT scholars think that the clause in 1 John 5.20—“He is the true God”—refers to its previous antecedent—“his Son Jesus Christ”—thus calling Jesus Christ “God.” This is true of English; but ancient Greek had no such grammatical rule. Rather, “him who is true,” which appears earlier in the verse and refers to God (the Father), more likely identifies the subject of “He is the true God,” so that it does not call Jesus “God.”
These few grammatically difficult NT texts should be examined in light of those which (1) clearly establish that only the Father is God, (2) Jesus is not God, and (3) distinguish the two. Foremost are 1 Corinthians 8.6 (“there is one God, the Father”), Ephesians 4.6 (“one God and Father of all”), and Jesus’ prayer in John 17.1-3 (“Father,… that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent,” cf. 5.44).
Moreover, Jesus affirmed the Jewish creed, that God is numerically one (Deuteronomy 6.4), when he answered the scribe’s question by quoting it—“the Lord is one.” The scribe replied, “you have truly said that he is one, and besides him there is no other.” Mark says the scribe “answered wisely” and that Jesus accepted it (Mark 12.29, 32, 34).
Church fathers were influenced by Greek philosophy in wrongly interpreting Jesus’ status as “the Son of God” ontologically to mean that he was God. This phrase in the Bible only means one highly favored by God. At Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration, the voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son,” explaining “with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus constantly called the one God his “Father,” and sometimes he called him “my God” (Matthew 27.46/Mark 15.34; John 20.17; Revelation 3.2, 12; cf. Psalm 22.1; Isaiah 49.4-5; Micah 5.4). If Jesus said he had a God, whom he distinguished as someone other than himself, calling him “the/my Father,” then Jesus logically could not have also been God or else that would make two Gods. The Bible repeatedly declares that there is numerically only one Most High God.
Paul repeatedly wrote “the God and Father of the/our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15.6; 2 Corinthians 1.3; 11.31; cf. Ephesians 1.3, 17. And the salutations in six of his NT letters read, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” And Paul calls the Father “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God” and “who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 1.17; 6.16). Clearly for Paul, only the Father is God.
Finally, the NT often proclaims that the risen Jesus ascended to heaven and sat down at the right hand of God the Father’s throne. If Jesus indeed sits there alongside the Father, and Jesus is God, no matter of mental gymnastics can escape that that is two Gods. But God forbid that we should declare Jesus “God” at the Father’s expense, so that he is not the only God. Rather, the Father is the only true and living God, and Jesus is the Son of God and Lord.
(Read about this in my 600-page book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ, in which I cite over 400 Bible scholars.)
(In Archive Index see 10/4/15 for “List of All Posts About Jesus Not Being God.”)