Is Jesus Never Called "The God" In The New Testament? (Part 2 of 7)

In Part 1, I went over in detail the example of "the Word was (very emphatically) the God" from John 1:1, arguing that the grammar actually points toward Jesus (as "the Word") being called "the" God there, with a direct article intended by the writer, even though due to another grammatic rule the author had to omit the article--ironically, for the purpose of even more strongly emphasizing that the Word was the God!

Is Jesus called {ho theos}, "the" God, any other times in the NT? Maybe a bit more grammatically obviously?--other than with Thomas' confession late in GosJohn? (Which I am saving for last in this entry.)

Yes, there are some times (other than Thomas' confession) when this happens grammatically obviously. But there are times when it isn't so obvious either; and on the broccoli principle I'll discuss those first.

A few texts with ancient attestation (although mostly variants of ancient Patristic commentaries) including a papyrus, call Christ {ho theos} at John 1:18, or more specifically {ho monogene_s theos} (the only begotten God). A much larger and also very respectable and ancient set of witnesses (including two papyri) call Christ "only-begotten god" without any direct article. By far the most numerous and widest attestation across types of witness, including some very respectable ancient texts, call Christ "the only begotten son" instead.

It is admittedly unlikely that a direct article for "god" would have been dropped over time, but on the other hand it is unlikely that "god" would have been changed to "son" as time went on (and the Christology debates became formal and intense). So until relatively recently the text-criticism argument landed pretty squarely on "the only-begotten son", which matches usage elsewhere in GosJohn.

But then (as mentioned earlier) two more early papyri showed up reading "only-begotten god" (without the direct article); which lends more significantly more weight to what is the most difficult reading between the two options--it now becomes more likely that early scribes "fixed" the reading to fit an established usage elsewhere in GosJohn!

Yet the form still remains very strange; if {ho} is not original but the "only-begotten god" text is, why would scribes "fix" it to "the only-begotten son"? But if "the only-begotten son" was the original texts, and reverent scribes wanted to affirm the deity of the son, why erase the "the" when changing "son" to "god"?

(It might be thought that this would help avoid confusion with the Father, but as we shall see the Father is called "god" nearby without the direct article, too!!)

Editors of the UBS/Nestle-Aland critical edition were still notoriously divided about the original reading on grounds of various plausibility (none of which involve preference for their own ideologies, by the way.)

Is there a way out of the deadlock?

The form of the sentence there indicates a triple (or even possibly quadruple!) subject. "Only-begotten", although an adjective, has some weighty 20th century scholarly argument behind it (including Raymond Brown from his commentary on GosJohn) indicating it might be being used here as a noun, specifically as a name-title. Metzger in his notes for the 4th edition of the UBS critical Greek text, reports the editors agreeing that the usage as a noun is attractive for "internal considerations".

He doesn't explain what those considerations are. But John 1:14 just previously, definitely reads "the only-begotten", without "son" or "god", in regard to the Son. (There is a minority textual tradition which only reads "the only-begotten" without either "god" or "son" at John 1:18, too, but its textual attestation is too poor to consider it original.) "The only-begotten" is also definitely a separate title for "the Son" at possibly the most famous verse in the whole New Testament, John 3:16. (English translations routinely smooth this over to the familiar "His only begotten son".)

But aside from that possibility, certainly the noun "god"-or-"the son", as well as {ekeinos} "that one", "reveals" "Him". There is also an intervening clause of {ho o_n eis ton kolpon tou patros} which describes "(the) only-begotten god/son" (or "only-begotten" and "god") as "the one who is in the heart of the father"; which certainly clarifies that "theos" in this sentence does not mean the Father, but otherwise does not help settle the reading.

So there are three (or possibly four) grammatic subjects: "only-begotten" (maybe, as an adjective being used as a name-title, which definitely happens with a direct article twice elsewhere in GosJohn, including just recently at 1:14), "god" or "the son" (depending on which textual variation is original), "the one who is in the heart of the father", and "this/that one" for the singular verb "reveals". By context these subjects would refer to the same entity, as titles or descriptions of the entity; but this does not yet solve whether the Son is being called {ho theos} here.

(The {ho} in the intervening clause is only a common pronoun shortcut for saying "the one" and/or "who", and would be used regardless of whether {theos} earlier had an original explicit or more likely silently implied direct article.)

Something overlooked (or at least not mentioned) by the UBS editing team, however, is the evidence of the preceding sentence or main clause.

The "Him" being revealed by "only-begotten" / "god"-or-"son" / "who is in the heart of the father" / "that one", is {theon oudeis heo_raken po_pote}, "god no-one has-seen anytime", the God Whom no one has seen at any time.

By context, and especially cultural context, this invisible God, Who cannot be seen by contrast to the Son, must be the Father (as people on all side of the disputational aisle typically agree). But notably, the Father is not called "the" God here in Greek!--nor can this be explained by fronting a nominative object, as there is no 'verb of being' relative to this noun, and it is properly in an accusative (not nominative) form. It is being fronted in the sentence for emphasis, but without the "the". (This is another example of something mentioned in Part 1: "the God" Whom almost all parties agrees is God Most High, even unitarian Christians, is occasionally not given direct articles either when He is being called "God".)

This leaves us with a stylistic (although not quite a grammatic) parallel. We are expected to understand {theon} to mean "the" God, even though it lacks the direct article {ton} (as practically everyone in the dispute agrees); and then we are told that "god", no direct article, in the heart of the Father reveals and explains Him.

This lends compositional weight toward considering the direct article as being silently intended in the culmination of a highly poetic and stylized prologue, just as it was silently intended for the immediately preceding usage of {theon}. The fact that "only-begotten" had itself also been recently used (at verse 14) with a direct article by itself, lends more weight by comparison: its lack at verse 18 is certainly not evidence that the idea of meaning {ho monoge_nes}, the only-begotten, is foreign to the Evangelist. Moreover, if the author did mean "the only-begotten", although he didn't write "the", that would mean "god" stands by itself between two other name/title descriptions which both feature "the" (one silently, and the other explicitly as a shorthand pronoun for "the one who").

In other words, the sequence of name/title/descriptions for Christ would look like this:

(silent "the") only-begotten
(?) god
(explicit "the" as a pronoun "who") is in the heart of the father
(explicit pronoun as a description by itself) this/that-one

"God" would be out of place in this list without an intended {ho}.

It may be replied that "the only-begotten son", which does admittedly have the best quality of external attestation (even if not decisively early), easily solves all these problems. That's true--but the ease with which it solves all problems leaves us no good explanation for why there are difficult attestation problems in the transmission of this text! The other best attested variant ("only-begotten god", no explicit "the"), which happens to now have the strongest of earliest weights among the variants, doesn't cleanly improve on "the only-begotten son", whether theologically or grammatically.

The theory that a silent {ho} was intended at John 1:18, and was known to be intended, explains the actual shape of the external data better--including why the variant with an explicit "the only-begotten god" was so popular among early commentor texts (and also has a few early respectable occurrences in some texts of GosJohn itself, including a papyrus!) Commentators (and a few early scribes) were bringing out the silent {ho}.

Still, that's a pretty obscure and difficult example--even moreso than for John 1:1, because of the dicey textual transmission!--although being a completist (and because the text is often brought up in trinitarian vs. unitarian disputes for evidence either way) I thought I ought to discuss it. (The text for John 1:1 is quite stable in transmission, by the way.)

Another not terribly obvious example (until the grammatical math is done) can be found at a more stable text, 1 John 5:20. The first portion of this text is very unstable about whether the Father is being called "the true one" or "the true god" in a couple of different grammatic ways, but the final clause is quite stable: {houtos estin ho ale_thinos theos kai zo_e_ aio_nios} "this one is the true god and the eternal life".

The pronoun “this one” {houtos} normally refers back to the nearest noun (including name/titles). But the immediately preceding noun set is “Jesus Christ”. Thus, "we are in Him Who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ: {houtos} (this one) is the true God and eternal life."

Could {houtos} be referring instead to the Father, Who is described as the True One twice recently in the same verse? (The reading of "god" there has to be rejected due to the numerous places it shows up in and around the phrase: the only reasonable explanation is that scribes were adding it in various places.) While it isn’t impossible, it would run against the tradition of Johannine texts, of calling Jesus “the Life” and “Eternal Life”, including at the beginning of this epistle (1 John 1:2 -- and the grammar of 5:20 certainly indicates that “the true God and eternal life” are referring to the same entity); this would be the only time in a Johannine text that the Father is called ‘zoe eonian’. Moreover, John has also recently said that to have Jesus in one’s heart is to have eternal life. (1 John 5:11-12)

While it’s possible for {houtos} to refer back to a subject or object beyond the nearest noun, this happens only rarely and shouldn’t be considered the first option. The Father is admittedly called “the true God” in John 17:3 (by Jesus no less), but this is no more a contradiction than for both of them to be called the true One (the Father in this verse 5:20, the Son in Rev 3:7. Indeed in John 14:6 Jesus declares himself to be the Truth!) Moreover, the grammar of the previous sentence tends to indicate an introduction of the concept: “we are in Him Who is true: in His Son Jesus Christ.” The prepositional phraseology is parallel: who are we in? He who is true, namely Jesus Christ, Son of the One Who is true. This Son of God has come (as in the first sentence of the verse) to give us understanding so that we may know Him Who also is true (by local and larger contexts, the Father).

The stability of the final clause has some bearing on grading the original version of the first description of the Father earlier in the same verse: He is at least once (and very stably in textual transmission) described as “the One Who is true”, but before then is also described either as “the One Who is true” or as “the true God”.

An impressive number of texts have “the true God”, but an even stronger majority (although split as to grammatic form) have “the true one”: the Son of God has come that we might know “Him Who is true” (or “the true God”). Considering that the context is definitely talking about the Father, it is hard to imagine later copyists changing “the true God” to “the true One”, though; whereas if the Son by grammar was understood as being called the true God, it would be tempting to add something clarifying that the Father (as Jesus occasionally says in GosJohn) is the true God--at least as much so as the Son! Moreover, as noted above, the word "god" in describing the father there shows up before or after the word "true" in various texts. Whereas, the variant grammatic forms for "the true one" indicate that scribes thought it might be better to emphatically call the Father "the truth" (in a gender neutral fashion) rather than only "the true one" twice.

In any case, the emphatic "this one", {houtos}, expects an immediate topical reference, and the most immediate and natural reference is "Jesus Christ", Son of the True One (and maybe of the true God, certainly "Son of God" as Jesus is called at the beginning of the verse). It may not be theologically convenient to any apologists wanting to deny that Jesus is ever called {ho theos} (and in this case "the true theos"!) But it's there, and its grammar explains the textual variations earlier in the verse, as scribes tried to bring up the Father's description to par, especially by the addition of {theos} to one (but not both!) of the recent incidents of the author calling the Father "the true one".

Aren't there any examples more obvious than these, though?! Well, if the examples were all especially obvious, it wouldn't be so common among some (not all) unitarian Christians to claim that Jesus is never called the God, would it?

Of course, even when there are obvious examples, objections can still be tried. Some unitarians would say that the term "only-begotten" qualifies that this cannot be "the" God, and would still say this even if they acknowledged that the direct article was either original or tactily intended by grammatic context. It should be noted that this objection, even if it held water, would fail in any example where "theos" has no other description (completely aside from whether "only-begotten" is supposed to be a subject parallel to {theos} there)--it cannot be used against John 1:1, for example.

Such a tactic would also fail in any example where {ho theos} has maximally important descriptions, like "the true God". But since God the Father is Himself called "the God" with connected grammatic descriptions (such as, for example, "the true God"!), the inclusion of adjectives per se cannot be a very weighty objection in itself against the full deity of someone being called {ho theos} (or cognates thereof, like {ton theon}).

That doesn't mean Jesus is commonly called "the God"--again, if such incidents were common they would be obvious, and trying to claim otherwise would not be so impressive to people having trouble in other regards with orthodox trinitarian theism!

What often (not always!) happens instead is that Jesus is called "the God" in a fashion that has some grammatic ambiguity or difficulties, or by extended context instead of just directly. Here is an example of such an extended context--and with much relevance for unitarian disputes in a fashion beyond whether Jesus is called {ho theos}!

In the Revelation to John, the author himself becomes (quite naturally) confused about the identity of various persons and things he is seeing and talking to--a confusion the reader should be able to sympathize with! Late in the Revelation (19:9), an angel has shown up from somewhere, and says to John "Write, 'Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb'" and then says to John "These are the true sayings of the God." John, mistaking the angel for God, falls at his feet to worship him, but the angel quickly stops him, saying, "Look, no! I am a fellow slave of yours, and of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus! Worship the God!--for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy."

This clarifies that the angel isn't God, of course. It also clarifies that the angel isn't Jesus. It also clarifies that even if an angel is sent to speak directly for God, we aren't supposed to worship such an angel because the angel is not God!

Later something similar happens again, but with a far more provocative detail. An angel helping show things to John (possibly the same one as before, but anyway called "one of the seven messengers who have the seven bowls brimming with the last seven calamaties", Rev 21:9), says again to John, "These sayings are faithful and true. Now, the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, commissions the messenger of Him to show to the slaves of Him what must swiftly happen."

So grammatically, {ho theos} of the spirits has sent this angel.

The angel then continues, "Now look! I am coming swiftly! Happy is the one who is keeping the sayings of the prophecy of this scroll!" (v.7)

John, hearing and seeing these things, gets confused again--most likely because the angel has started speaking as though he was {ho theos}! So John thinks the angel is {ho theos} (sent by {ho theos}, notably!) and falls to religiously worship the angel.

Once again the angel stops him (22:9): the angel is a fellow slave along with John and the other prophets. "Worship the God!" {ho theos} of the spirits, Who has sent this messenger (which is the prerogative of {ho theos} alone anyway), is the only entity Who should be religiously worshiped--even if the angel starts speaking directly for God in delivering his message.

Which the angel proceeds to do, picking up again (after a bit of a digression) with a standard declaration of YHWH {ho theos} Most High, "Look! I am coming swiftly and My wage is with Me, to pay each one as his work is!" Something only YHWH would do in the Jewish Scriptures, by the way. "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Origin and the Consummation!" Also claims proper only to the one self-existent God Most High.

This goes on with some more detail for a verse or two, and then the messenger, sent by "the God" of the spirits, Who should alone be worshiped, and speaking for "the God" as if "the God" is there, says (22:16): "I, Jesus, send my angel to testify these things to you in the congregations!"

So: Jesus has sent this angel, who is not Jesus, to testify with the words of Jesus about these things. But earlier John specifically and clearly said that {ho theos} sent this angel!

Admittedly, Jesus speaking by means of the angel goes on to testify that {ho theos} shall add the tribulations of the scroll to anyone who adds to the prophecy of the scroll, and that {ho theos} shall be eliminating the name from the book of life anyone who eliminates anything from the scroll. But still, that hardly means the detail should be eliminated from the scroll that Jesus has been called {ho theos} here, Who sends the angels and Who alone is worthy to be worshiped, not any not-God angel even if the angel is currently speaking directly for {ho theos}!

Again, this isn't simply obvious. But it is there in the text. Nor can it be waved away by a supposed appeal to qualifying grammatic adjectives of {ho theos}: there aren't any.

Well okay, this sort of thing might be expected of the author of GosJohn and/or RevJohn (who certainly seems of John's "school" even if perhaps not the same person.) Indeed so!--although some branches of unitarian Christianity (not all of them) still claim that even the Johannine materials never call Jesus {ho theos}. That includes (what I would call) the most obvious example in the Johannine texts, Thomas' confession at GosJohn 20:28.

Overwhelmed by seeing the risen Jesus with proofs of the sort that Thomas had refused to believe without, Thomas answers Jesus with the exclamation, "The lord of me and the god of me!" In Greek this is {ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou}.

It literally couldn't be more straightforward. There are no adjectives to quibble about, as if adjectives (like "true"!?!) would necessarily qualify that someone is not really being called {ho theos}. The term is not even in a different grammatic form, like {ton theon} or {tou theou}, which would still mean the same thing as {ho theos} for any rational evaluation. (For example "about the God" or "of the God" respectively.)

The only way to even imagine that this is not being said of Jesus, is to write it off as an exclamation to the invisible God (Who naturally could be construed as omnipresently there, even if not mentioned recently.) That, however, is to read an ideology into the text.

That isn't strictly impossible--the phrase is quite identical to similar phrases which definitely apply to YHWH Most High, such as at Psalm 35:24 (to give an OT example, although the order of the terms is reversed), or at Rev 4:11 (to give a NT example that even unitarians will agree applies only to God Most High--because Jesus is not immediately being mentioned!) Such standard phraseologies addressed explicitly to YHWH Most High also indicate, in the absence of any direct evidence otherwise (and there is no such evidence), that Thomas is not dividing between persons here, exclaiming to Jesus so as to mean "the lord of me (but not the YHWH ADNY of me)" and in exactly the same breath exclaiming to the Father "the God of me (by which I mean YHWH ADNY Whom I would otherwise call 'lord' to avoid accidentally saying Your name)".

But it is impossible to prove from the textual details that Thomas is exclaiming to God Most High and not to Jesus. At most, such a claim can only be an ad hoc defense for maintaining that Jesus is never called {ho theos} anywhere in the NT; and as a defense it runs up hard against the problem that the text explicitly says Thomas is "answering Jesus and saying" this--a phrase which everywhere else in the Gospels (and Acts) is a standard way of saying the speaker is addressing someone with what he is saying.

The direct grammatic argument is that Thomas, be he right or wrong (or historically or fictionally, if a sceptic prefers), is addressing Jesus personally as {ho theos}. And not only as "the God" but as "the God of me". Any other theory, for better or for worse, has to be read in over against the grammatic evidence.

This is enough to answer the charge that Jesus is never called "the" God in the NT. John 1:18 may be theoretical (although as a theory it best explains the resulting textual spread); but the grammar at John 1:1 is clear (if obscure to English grammar), and the example from 1 John is grammatically solid as well as able to explain textual variances earlier in the same verse, and the example from RevJohn is both grammatically and conceptually solid (although the thematic logic has to be followed out to see the result), and Thomas' confession is rock solid in the directness of its grammar. The only way to defend against most of these examples is to read a theological position into the text, over against the grammar (and against the thematic logic as well in RevJohn's example), in order to explain that Jesus isn't really being called {ho theos}.

Such a theological overwrite might or might not be the right thing to do; but it has to be done because the texts would otherwise indicate Jesus is being called {ho theos}!--and in each case, in a fashion that at least parallels how the Father is being described (even John 1:18, where the Father doesn't explicitly have a {ho} in front of {theos} either). Sometimes in a fashion that indicates the highest religious identity unique to God Most High: being called "the true God"; sending angels to speak for Himself, which angels are not supposed to be worshiped even though they are speaking directly for Himself in making claims proper to YHWH Most High in the Old Testament; being called by a religious phrase elsewhere appropriate only to YHWH Most High; sharing in the foundationally creative act that is supposed to be unique to God Most High.

But all the examples so far come from GosJohn or Johannine texts. That ought to be enough for unitarians to have to include in their exegetical account of things, if they can--at least, it ought to be enough for unitarians who use this argument against trinitarians (and modalists, and some other unitarians for that matter) to stop trying such a claim as an argument against textual testimony of the full divinity of Jesus.

But many non-Christians wouldn't find this at all surprising; and would simply slot GosJohn into a late development of Christology, meaning by this that the author (and/or his congregation and/or school or whatever) invented such claims about Jesus.

After all, Jesus is never called {ho theos} anywhere else in the New Testament... right?

[Next up: wrong.]


Jason Pratt said…
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