Is Jesus Never Called "The God" In The New Testament? (Part 1 of 7)

I have been working up a new series for a while, where I will be following sets of canonical texts through their claims about God Most High and His relation to Jesus Christ (the Son) and/or the Holy Spirit. It's a followup to the huge (800+ pages!) metaphysical argument I spent a few years posting here on the Cadre a while back. (Anyone who wants to discover what it feels like for their eyes to start bleeding, is welcome to start on that here. {g})

The new series will most likely be just as long, or maybe longer. (Sorry--lots of data to cover.) But although I'm not quite ready, I'm getting itchy to start, so I thought I would compile together a few things as a teaser article.

(Although with me being 'me', the "teaser" article is seven lengthy parts, of course... {wry g})

When discussing the New Testament texts with some (although not all) types of 'unitarian' Christian, as well as with some (although not all) types of non-Christian, the claim will occasionally be made that while Jesus may be called "a" god every once in a while in the NT, He is never called "the" God.

In short, should I really be using divine Caps for nouns and pronouns relating to Jesus (as I just did in that previous sentence)? Did the NT authors regard Jesus as being a lesser lord-or-god, or somehow as "the" God Most High? Do they report Jesus making such claims?--or if some perhaps do, are there others who do not?

This (please believe me when I say) is a massively huge topic, because there is much more to questions of divine identity in the NT than whether some entity is ever called "the God". The Father, for example, never outright says "I am the God" when NT authors occasionally present Him as speaking!--and rarely, as "the Father" (in a way explicitly distinguished as such), does He call Himself "the God". (I can think of only one example offhand--where the Father, explicitly identified as such, also directly calls the Son "the God"! More on that in a later entry.) But of course authors and other people by report often call the Father "ho theos" or a grammatic variant thereof.

More to the point, there are other ways, standard protocols, for discerning when an author is being a zealous monotheist, and when a zealous monotheist, especially within the Jewish religion, is speaking of God Most High and not of some lesser lord or god. And even most non-Trinitarian Christians, and even most non-Christians, agree that by using such methods NT authors are trying (even if incorrectly in various ways) to talk about God Most High when they reference God apart from the question of Jesus Christ.

Now of course, just because a collection of texts refers to an entity as God (whether that entity is Jesus Christ or anyone or anything else), does not necessarily in itself mean that anyone reading those texts should agree that such an entity exists and really is God Most High, or that the authors are talking truly about God Most High if He/She/It exists. But when assessing the claims of a text, or set of texts, for what we ought or ought not to believe about them, it naturally helps to get an accurate idea of what the authors of those texts are claiming!

More on this later, when I introduce the new series (God willing and the creek don't rise). Until then, let us consider the particular question of whether Jesus is ever called "the God" in any New Testament texts.

The most well-known clincher that I would lead out with is John 20:28, where the apostle Thomas exclaims in reply to the risen Jesus' invitation to put his hand in the holes in His hands and side, "The lord of me and the god of me!" I will still argue this by itself defeats the challenge, but it's usually well-known by people claiming none of the NT texts call Jesus "the God", and I would rather cover other examples first so I can introduce some important topics along the way.

When people claim that Jesus isn't ever called (nor calls Himself) "the" God, why do they put it that way?

Because in Greek, direct articles (like the English "the") are important in emphasizing special identity. While English translations naturally omit this factor, in the Greek texts proper names often feature a direct article in front of them. Jesus for example is often called "the" Jesus. Randomly picking up and thumbing through a Greek NT, the first proper name I happened upon was Zaccheus, the short tax-collector whose story is told in the Gospel According to Luke. At GosLuke 19:8, the text would literally read in English, "Now standing, the Zaccehus said toward the Lord..."

Not surprisingly, when Jewish and Christian writers wanted to help readers understand they were talking about God Most High, they would often treat "theos" as a proper name and use the direct article, "ho theos". Which can also be understood as it might be in English, the one and only God, the only one Who is God even to the gods, God Most High.

The counter-orthodox claim being considered, then, amounts to this: that Jesus is never called "God" in such a way that serious Jewish monotheists of the time would ever use for clearly identifying the one and only God Most High--specifically, by using a "the" (as we would say in English) with "God" while writing about Jesus in Greek. That would be calling Jesus "the God".

Now the data starts to complexify, though.

First, NT authors may usually use "the" to introduce proper names, but they don't always do so. Jesus isn't always called "the Jesus", for example, but we're still expected to recognize which Jesus is being talked about from the context. This immediately leaves open some agnosticism about whether the authors might be using "God" in reference to Jesus and meaning "the" God even without a "the".

Opponents may reply that surely, though, the authors always refer to God Most High as "the" God. Well, that leads to...

Second: authors, including when reporting the words of Jesus, don't always use "the" even when referring unambiguously to God the Father!

A text frequently cited by unitarian Christians themselves against trinitarianism exemplifies this, GosJohn 20:17. Jesus is reported saying to Mary Magdalene after His resurrection, "I am ascending to(ward) the father of me and father of you and god of me and god of you." No one disputes that He is talking about God the Father--even the bare handful of Christians who try to claim that "the Father" is not really God Most High after all! But while the author uses "the" in regard to the Father, translating the words of Jesus by report, the author does not quote Jesus here using "the" in regard to the term "god".

Opponents may reply that the rules of Greek grammar indicate well enough that "the" would be implied as following from the previous "the", which is one indication that Jesus (and/or the author reporting this incident) isn't talking about four different persons but only one Who can be described those four ways.

Maybe so--but that starts to open up more possibilities for the same thing to be happening in regard to Jesus, so long as He is called "the"-something-else first in a similar construction.

Third: while Greek has a direct article, like the English "the", at the time of the NT composition it did not have an indirect article (such as when I just now typed "an" indirect article. Indirect articles in English are "a" if the subsequent word starts with a consonant, or "an" if it starts with a vowel.) But authors could still write of nouns intending them to mean what we would translate as "the" without them having used a Greek equivalent of "the" (such as {ho} or {ton} or {tou}). Lack of a direct article in Greek might or might not mean we should translate in English with an indirect article instead. Context helps determine this, although sometimes we also just have to guess. But that further muffs much weight to a claim that Jesus is never called "the" God in the NT: context may indicate a "the" even if no "the" is written.

Fourth (or third-and-a-half): there are times in Greek grammar when an author would intentionally omit a direct article that would otherwise normally be supplied, because for the grammatic construction he was attempting the article was supposed to be omitted--yet still understood to be silently there.

John 1:1, one of the famous texts on this topic, could be an example of this. Literally the end of the sentence would read in English "and god was the word." Previously in this same verse, "god" is referred to with a direct article, "the god", while "word" always has a direct article here and elsewhere nearby. Trinitarians (and some other types of Christians, including modalists and even some unitarians in a way) argue that here "the word" is being identified as "the God" (while still being distinguished from "God" in some way--a point modalists would ignore or downplay).

But an argument typical for some unitarians is that there is no direct article here, and so the Word (which they may or may not agree is a reference to Jesus Christ personally) is a most only a god, not the God. Even if they acknowledge that the lack of a direct article doesn't mean no direct article should be supplied, they would still say that, at worst (for their case), the agnosticism cuts both ways: it might mean "a god" just as easily.

Detailed trinitarians don't hinge an interpretation of "(the) God" here (or elsewhere) purely on whether the word has a direct article or not, but also on other contexts of the scriptural testimony in question. After all, it might be possible (although no examples come to mind) that something not intended to be authoritatively identified as "the God" could be called that in Greek!--perhaps.

But aside from other contexts, there is another factor definitely in grammatic play here.

Somewhere in this clause must be a subject of the verb and an object of the verb.

This can be a bit confusing, but I'll give some examples.

I am he -- subject, verb, object.

I love him -- subject, verb, object.

Usually if the noun as the object has a form other than the same form it would use as the subject, it takes the other form. "Him" loves "I" would be improper grammar, because the object form is being used for the subject and vice versa. "Me" loves "he"?--also improper. It should be, as above, "I love him", or "He loves me".

But when the verb is a verb of being, like "be", or "am", or "is", the noun for the object should be in the form it would be for the subject, because some kind of identity is being expressed about the two nouns. "I am him" is grammatically wrong. "I am he" is correct.

Biblical Greek (and maybe some other types of Greek, but the NT canon was written in a more informal cosmopolitan street Greek of the period) has the same rule. The object of a verb, if the verb is one of being, should be in the nominative form (like "he" or "I", not some other form (typically the accusative), like "him" or "me").

Now things get a little more confusing! Greek, like many other languages, has far more suffixes for its word forms than English does (and we have quite a few!) Sometimes this is more helpful, sometimes not. {ho logos} {e_n} {ton theon} would be "the word was the god", but with "the god" in the accusative form (for both words, "the" and "god"), not the nominative.

(Note: I am including an underscore after long etas and long omegas, here and afterward, as Blogger doesn't have an underlining function. If an 'e' or an 'o' doesn't have one, that means it's a short epsilon or short omicron.)

It ought to be the nominative form, thus: {ho logos} the word {e_n} was {ho theos} the God. ({ton} and {ho} both translate directly in English to the direct article "the", but the first form is accusative and the second form is nominative.)

Still with me? Okay, if the author for some reason didn't want to say "the god", he could still write {ho logos e_n theos}. He might still mean "the god", or he might only mean "a god".

What if he wanted to emphasize he meant the God? The first way he would do that would be to include the direct article, of course, and write {ho theos}. For poetic or other artistic reasons he might prefer to use some other way, but that would be the normal first way.

What does it read in Greek there? Well, it doesn't read {ho logos e_n ho theos}, but it doesn't read {ho logos e_n theos} either. It reads {theos e_n ho logos}.

More complexity! Argh!!!

So, does this mean {theos} is the subject and {ho logos} is the object?--"a god was the Word"?

It might mean that (although for the grammatic reasons I will give below I strongly doubt it). But it might also mean something else.

Word order isn't quite as important in Biblical Greek (or in some other languages) as it is in English. There are normal expected word orders, but when authors want to emphasize a term, they'll front it ahead of its usual order. Readers are supposed to know where a noun 'really' goes by what kind of suffix it uses, and especially by the form of its direct article (which has fewer overlaps in common form than suffixes for nouns).

For verbs of being, though, the form would be nominative whether the word was a subject or an object. And if the object was supposed to have a direct article, there would be literally no way to tell for sure which word was supposed to be the subject and which the object.

Consequently, there was a rule: wherever the object of a verb of being was placed by the author, before or after the verb, or even before the subject, it would not have a direct article even if the author intended its meaning such that we in English would translate it "the".

[NOTE: ON THIS POINT MY ANALYSIS IS WRONG! Please see this comment below for my correction. For self-critical purposes I am leaving my original fault in the text, since ultimately it makes no difference to the conclusion of my analysis. I will try to catch brief references to it in subsequent entries and fix those, however.]

But then, what if an author wanted to stress that he meant "the", in order to avoid misunderstanding that the object was only "an" object?

Then the author would be very well advised to front the object in his sentence, which was a common way of emphasizing the importance of a word to the idea of the author. But then to make sure people didn't mistake this word for the subject, the author would be well advised to put the subject after the verb with a direct article (especially if he thought it ought to have a "the" anyway).

And that brings us to the form of the statement at the end of John 1:1.

Put shortly, while the clause might mean "a god was the Word", it fits the situation of the author wanting to say that the Word was "the God"; but having to drop the direct article for the object of the verb; while still wanting readers to know he didn't mean (as we would say) "a god". In fact, he would be inept to write {theos e_n ho logos} if he didn't mean {ho logos} was {ho theos}!

Is there a way to tell the difference? Aside from considering other contextual clues (which I will discuss in the main series), we may consider the author's hypothetical options.

The author has just finished saying that "the Word was with the God", clearly using direct articles. Rhetorical parallel construction would suggest the next phrase would be "the Word was the God", unless of course the author wanted to emphasize that the Word was only a lesser god not the God. But if he wanted to emphasize the dis-identification, he chose a strange way of doing so. He does not say, as he does shortly afterward when emphasizing a dis-identification, that X is not the Y. Nor does he use a contrasting conjunction "but": "the Word was with the God but the Word was a god" or "...but a god was the Word". He doesn't use the specific contrasting conjunction {alla}, but the general purpose conjunction {kai}. While {kai} can mean "but", that doesn't happen as often as with the weaker general purpose conjunction {de}. It is much more usual for authors to use {alla} instead of {kai} to mean "but"; and per the hypothesis our author, a devout monotheist, wants to emphasize that he doesn't mean the Word is the God but only a lesser god. It isn't impossible that he would use {kai} for "but" here, but it would be inept to his hypothesized purpose.

On the other hand, hypothesizing that the author wanted to stress an identification that he knew his audience was going to have natural trouble believing, namely that the Word despite being distinguished from the God in some ways nevertheless also was the God, fronting "the God" would be a very good way to do that--but he would have to omit the article.

(On yet another hand, had the author wanted to stress that there was no personal difference between "the Word" and "the God" somehow, such as for modalistic theology, he would not have included personal distinctions nearby or elsewhere in GosJohn, of which there are many.)

Taken altogether, the grammar together with nearby contextual logic points toward "the Word" (which the author identifies as Jesus soon afterward) being called "the God" here, even though the direct article is not printed.

This is quite a subtle and obscure example, unfortunately, so I certainly don't blame opponents for not picking up on it. (I didn't either until a few years ago!) There are other examples much less obscure, such as the one I started this article with--and which I will return to last!--but... say, how many examples of Jesus being called "the God" are there anyway?

[Next time: more examples from the Johannine texts, including the Thomas declaration.]


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.
JohnOneOne said…
On the issue of how the Jews viewed their form of monotheism and, thus, their use of "elohim/theos" for others, the following three quotes might be of interest:

"The Hebrew for ‘gods’ (‘elohîm) could refer to various exalted beings besides Yahweh [or, Jehovah], without implying any challenge to monotheism,…"

Taken from: Blomberg, Craig L. (b.?-d.?). "The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues & Commentary." (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, c2002), "The feast of Dedication" ([John] 10:22-42), p. 163. BS2615.6.H55 B56 2002 / 2001051563.

"If Moses could be [called in Hebrew 'elohim,' often translated as 'a god,' at Exodus 4:16 and 7:1], then, for the gospel writers, so could Jesus [in Greek as 'theos' = elohim], who was regarded by the New Testament [writers] as the very least a new Moses."

Taken from: Fletcher-Louis, Crispin (b.?-d.?). "4Q374: A Discourse on the Sinai Tradition: The Deification of Moses and Early Christology." Article appearing within: "Dead Sea Discoveries, A Journal of Current Research on the Scrolls and Related Literature." (Leiden, Netherlands; New York, New York: E. J. Brill, vol. 1, no. 1; April 1994–), vol. 3, no. 3 (1996), p. 252. BM487.A6 E6 / 96647062.

Regarding the translating of John 1:1, it may interest you to know that there is soon to be published an 20+ year study (as of 11/2011), an historical analysis, an exhaustive annotated bibliography, with its main focus on the wording and meaning of that verse entitled, "What About John 1:1?"

To learn more of its design and expected release date, you are invited to visit:

When finally published, you will discover over 430 scholarly reference works which have opted to say something other than, "and the Word was God," and that, among these, are included over 120 which had chosen to use "a god" within the third clause of their renderings.

As you might expect, we are very excited at the opportunity to share our findings with others.

Agape, JohnOneOne.
JohnOneOne said…
Sorry, I left out the third quote:

"…the Logos was God…. It [the Greek word Logos, more commonly translated "Word"], signifies, among the Jews and other ancient people, when applied to God, every thing by which God reveals Himself to men, and makes known to them His will. In this passage [John 1:1] the principal proof [for "the Word" being identified as God] does not lie in the word [Greek, 'logos'], nor even in the word [Greek, 'theos'], which in a larger sense is often applied to kings and earthly rulers,…"

Taken from: Knapp, Georg[e] Christian (b.1753-d.1853), D.D., Professor of Theology in the University of Halle. "Lectures on Christian Theology." Translated by Woods, Leonard (b.?-d.?), Jun.D.D., President of Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine. Second American Edition, Reprinted from the last London Edition. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Thomas Wardle, 1845), pp. 136, 137. BT75 .K64 1845 / 35-22780.

Agape, JohnOneOne.
Jason Pratt said…

In regard to "elohim":

1.) I am quite a fan of Blomberg, and am familiar with his book. Not only do I recommend it, I also recommend a work cited (if I recall correctly) favorably in his GosJohn historical commentary, The God of the Gospel of John by Marianne Meye Thompson. Both works are careful and cautious about pushing conclusions too far (although both works come out in favor of claims adding up to trinitarian theism being made in GosJohn).

While Craig's book is not a theological commentary per se, he notes right before the place you quoted that the GosJohn prologue is using language evocative of the ancient Aramaic Targums, especially of Genesis (and particularly of Gen 1:1), where "the Memra of God" or "Word of God" was often used in euphamistic substitution for names or titles of God Most High.

(Since you forgot a third quote, you can use that one if you like. {g})

2.) While the plural "elohim" is occasionally used in the Hebrew scriptures for entities other than God, it is extremely rare for this to be done for singular entities other than God. The exceptions tend to be picked up in the NT and applied to Christ. In your quote from Craig's book, for example, he is discussing the incident where Jesus quotes "I have said that you are gods" from the Psalms; but the speaker is the single "Elohim" taking His stand among plural rebels in His temple. The term "elohim" is, as usual, reserved in this example either for God Most High or for plural lesser beings, not for a lesser single person.

3.) Relatedly, when plural entities of elohims are translated into Greek, they're translated as plurals. When the plural title for God is translated into Greek, it's translated singular. (John 10 being an example once again.)

4.) Moses, twice in Exodus (as you cited), is the exception that proves the rule:

4.1.) Moses wasn't going by himself, he was going with Aaron as a plural group of persons acting as one person.

4.2.) Moses (nor even Moses-and-Aaron) isn't called "elohim" again, so it was hardly a common practice even in relation to Moses. It seems to have been a one-time special-purpose incident.

4.3.) Despite what the real (??) "Elohim/YHWH" says, neither Pharaoh nor anyone else afterward calls Moses (or Moses-and-Aarom) "elohim". Much less do they treat him as though he actually is "elohim". Much much less are claims proper to the real YHWH made about Moses personally. (Relatedly, Moses typically distinguishes messages from YHWH, instead of just starting up speaking as YHWH.)

This is all quite typical and understandable, despite the notable oddity of Elohim sending Moses as "elohim" to Pharaoh; and it is also quite different in scope and quality from how the NT accounts treat (and report) Jesus. No Christian ever dares say that Moses was creating all reality with God in the beginning, much less that truth and reality came through Moses (something the GosJohn prologue sharply and explicitly distinguishes Jesus from Moses on, not incidentally). Much much less that Moses is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

The distinction can be illustrated again by the fact that, despite what you quoted from CF-L, the authorities behind the New Testament weren't persecuted and rejected for thinking and teaching that Jesus was a new Moses, or even a new super-Moses. The NT authors do not consider Jesus to be compared to Moses "at the very least" of anything, but as vastly and qualitatively surpassing Moses.

Jason Pratt said…
Incidentally, I nowhere claim that the principle proof of the "Logos" being identified theologically as "God" in John 1:1 lies in the term {theos} being used (much less in the term {logos} being used).

So far as that goes, I agree with your third quote.

In fact, I thought I bent over backwards quite far in qualifying that even if the grammatic and contextual factors indicate a {ho} is formally but silently intended there (or even explicitly indicated elsewhere), this is not sufficient by itself to indicate topical identification of Jesus with God Most High. (I'll be doing so again in Part 7 when I summarize the results of this mini-series.)

My goal for this mini-series is technically limited to what I said it was limited to: examining whether the contention is true, that Jesus is never called the God in the NT.

I should be able to arrive at the same exegetical conclusions if I was any other kind of Christian than trinitarian, or any other kind of theist than Christian, or an outright atheist for that matter. That's the critical standard I hold myself to, and by which I work insofar as possible.

Jason Pratt said…
While I was double-checking something in Keener's in-depth historical commentary (The Gospel of John: A Commentary), I decided to recheck his notes on GosJohn -- and discovered I had misreported a fact the other way around. While the correction makes no ultimate difference to my analysis, I believe I should report it while not disguising I made the mistake in the original text. (Consequently I will leave it in the body but insert a note warning about the mistake and pointing to this comment for the correction, both for self-critical purposes.)

Keener cites a study ran by Metzger (and reported in a few other commentaries), of about 250 predicative nominatives (i.e. nouns in nominative forms used as objects for verbs of being) in the NT. Out of these, no less than 90% of those placed after the verb did in fact include the direct article. I reported that rule wrongly.

However, a statistically comparable number (87%) omitted the direct article of such an object when fronted ahead of the verb; which evidences the more important rule on which my argument depends.

Keener's full discussion of the grammatic argument here is careful, nuanced and of much interest, and I may quote it in length tomorrow for a subsequent comment. But two footnotes for now:

(qualifying how far the argument from a pre-verb nominative predicate can be pushed) "It should be noted, of course, that a writer who wished to emphasize that a predicate noun was definite was free to insert the article (per Harner's "Nouns"); and the pattern does not always obtain even in the context (e.g. John 1:8-9)."

(citing F.F. Bruce on the other hand about attempts to translate the anarthrous {theos} as "a god" at John 1:1) "Those who translate 'a god' here 'prove nothing thereby save their ignorance of Greek grammar.'"


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