Did the Jews Accuse Jesus of Claiming to Be “God” or “a God”?

The Gospel of John relates one incident in which the Jews accused Jesus of “making himself equal to God” and another incident in which they said to him, “you, though only a human being, are making yourself God” (Jn 5.18; 10.33). (All scripture quotations are from the NRSV.) Since Christians have been taught that Jesus is God, they have been taught that these Jews were correct in making these accusations. But in each instance, Jesus’ immediate response represents a denial of those allegations (Jn 5.19-46; 10.34-38). In the second incident, did they charge Jesus with making himself “God,” as has been traditionally translated, or “a god”? In the Greek text of Jn 10.33, the word for “God,” theos, does not have the article, thus making it “a god.” But English Bibles don’t translate it that way. Versions with “God’s Son” include the NIV, NRSV, NEB, and versions with “the Son of God” include KJV, NASB, ESV.

The first incident, in Jn 5.1-9, was precipitated by Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath.  Then we read, “the Jews started persecuting Jesus because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working’” (vv. 16-17). Thus, Jesus here calls God his Father, as he so often did, and he implicitly identifies his work as the Father’s work. Then we read, “For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God” (v. 18).

The author of this gospel does not mean that this was his own assessment, as most Christians have thought; rather, he means it was an incorrect assessment of the unbelieving Jews. This is proved by the two reasons given for their making such an accusation: Jesus healing on the sabbath and him calling God his Father. First, Jews had wrongly interpreted their Torah in saying that healing ought not be done on the sabbath, whereas Jesus implies in this exchange that God heals on the sabbath and that he does so through Jesus! Second, Jesus certainly didn’t make himself equal with God by calling God his Father, since he taught his disciples to do that too. So, Christians have been calling God their Father ever since, and they don’t think by doing so that they are making themselves equal with God.

Furthermore, claiming equality with God is not the same as claiming to be God. In claiming to be equal to someone, you necessarily distinguish yourself from that person. Jesus constantly distinguished himself from the “one” God of Judaism, whom he called “Father.”

In the second incident, in which the Jews accused Jesus of “making yourself God” (Jn 10.33), the Greek text has theos without the article. Ordinarily, this would be translated “a god” rather than “God.” But because most translators believe Jesus is God, they have translated it “God” rather than “a god.”

What precipitated this accusation by the Jews, in Jn 10.33? They asked Jesus to tell them plainly if he was the Messiah (Jn 10.24). He replied that he had already done so. He added that his miracles, which he had done in his Father’s name, testify to who he is (v. 25). He further added that his Father had given him his disciples, to whom he gives eternal life, and no one can snatch them out of both his hand and the Father’s hand (vv. 28-29). He concluded, “The Father and I are one” (v. 30). Some church fathers asserted that Jesus’ word “one” (Greek hen) was a claim to be of the same essence as that of the Father. On the contrary, Jesus meant he and the Father were unified in their relationship and work.

The Jews had heard the Johannine Jesus repeatedly calling God “the/my Father.” And he even discussed this with them in John 8.38-47. So, they should not be confused in thinking that Jesus believes he is God, whom he calls “the/my Father,” since he repeatedly distinguishes himself from God. So, it is more likely that the Jews accused Jesus of making himself out to be “a god” rather than “God.”

This translation, “a god,” fits much better with the scripture Jesus cited in his response. For we read, “Jesus answered, ‘Is it not written in your law, “I said, you are gods”?’” (Jn 10.34). Jesus herein quotes from Ps 82.6 in which the psalmist calls the rulers or judges of Israel “gods” (Heb. elohim). The psalmist surely doesn’t intend to identify these men precisely as gods, but that they are like gods since they represent Yahweh, their God, in judging his people Israel. Jesus then explains, “If those to whom the word of God came were called gods—and the scripture cannot be annulled—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?” (vv. 35-36). Jesus implies that it would be even more appropriate to call him “a god” in the sense the psalmist does of those rulers since he, Jesus, being sanctified and sent, has even more right to this title than they did. But Jesus then adds that he identifies himself as “God’s Son” rather than “a god.” Since he replied by quoting scripture about Israel’s rulers being called “gods,” it seems more likely that these Jews had accused Jesus of making himself out to be “a god” rather than Israel’s “God.”

Jesus is called “(the) Son (of God)” 27x in the Gospel of John, usually by Jesus himself. Every time, except twice, the word for “Son” in the Greek text, huios, has the article. The two that don’t are Jn 10.36 and 19.7, which latter is spoken by Jesus enemies. At first glance this seems odd that on this one occasion, reported in Jn 10.22-42, Jesus would call himself “son” without the article (anarthrous). However, by quoting Ps 82.6 in his reply, Jesus omitted the next portion which states, “and all of you sons of the Most High,” in which the article is also absent. Therein, the psalmist identifies Israel’s judges as both “gods” and “sons” of God.” So, when Jesus next says that he claims to be “God’s Son,” the article is absent in the Greek text, thus “a son of God.” Jesus is comparing himself to those judges. We might also ask when it was that he previously identified himself as God’s Son. Jesus repeatedly did so implicitly by calling God “my Father.” But the classic text in which he expressly did so is Mt 11.27/Lk 10.22. Therein, he identifies himself as “the Son,” thus huios in the Greek text with the article. It is not that Jesus wishes to refrain from identifying himself as “the Son of God,” but that in Jn 10.36 he compares himself to the judges mentioned in Ps 82 and thereby accommodates himself to that text by saying “a son of God.”

Furthermore, Matthew reports concerning the crucified Jesus, “the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself…. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son”’” (Mt 27.41-43). Against, huios in the Greek text is without the article. Those enemies likely would not have mocked him by saying that he trusts in God if those Jews mentioned in Jn 10.33 had believed he made himself out to be God.

To sum, Jesus’ interlocutors in Jn 10.33 more likely accused him of making himself out to be a god rather than the God of Israel. And Jesus likely responded by calling himself “a son of God” in parallel to Ps 82 from which he quoted. Nevertheless, Jesus is “the Son of God” par excellence, and a huge majority of the huios texts applied to Jesus in the Greek New Testament so identify him.

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