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

Ho, weary readers! The end of this series is here!

This will be a handy summary page for my results. But I'll link to prior articles when speaking of each example, so that the argument can be seen in detail.

When meandering around religious (or anti-religious) internet sites, or thumbing through religious (or anti-religious) books, you will sometimes hear the claim made that Jesus is only called "a" god, never "the" God, in the canonical New Testament texts.

Sometimes this claim is made by trinitarian Christians (or more rarely modalist Christians) who really don't think Jesus is ever called "the" God in the New Testament, and are trying to be honestly fair about it. Usually though it's made by religious people, whether Christian or not, or by non/anti-religious people, who are trying to object to trinitarian Christianity (and/or maybe modalist Christianity). These people don't believe Jesus Christ was and is the one and only God Most High, and in various ways (and to various degrees) they think a lack of Jesus being called "the God" in the New Testament would count against this being true. They may have even once believed in the full highest deity of Christ and come to disbelieve it, partly from being told or otherwise convinced that Christ is never called "the God" in the New Testament.

As I noted in part 1 of this mini-series, not all non-trinitarians go this route. Some modalist Christians (who affirm the ultimate monotheistic deity of Christ but do not believe there are personal distinctions between Christ the Son and God the Father, any more than there are multiple persons for God the Husband, King and Judge) recognize that the NT texts occasionally call Jesus "the God". Some non-Christians recognize this, and count it as evidence of blasphemy by the NT texts! Some non-Christians recognize this, but think the texts say so as a development of doctrine from a non-ultimate-deity Christ to a full deity Christ. Some unitarian Christians recognize this, but think the texts are really talking about God the Father within Jesus when doing so, not about Jesus personally. At least a few unitarian Christians recognize this, and recognize the texts are really talking about Jesus, but think this means Jesus is something of exactly the same sort as God the Father while being an entirely distinct entity and yet not a second God Most High.

Bi-theists may recognize this and say this means there are two distinct ultimate Gods Most High, Father and Son (and maybe Spirit, for tri-theism). Polytheists may recognize this and say this means that God the Father isn't the one single final ground of all reality any more than the Son is (but rather both exist within an overarching reality which produced them). And I wouldn't be surprised if there were unitarians who recognize this but who think that this only means it's okay to call Jesus personally "the god" without really meaning "the God": context has to determine when a NT author is talking about the real God Most High whenever they mention "the god".

So even if Jesus is called "the god" or {ho theos} in New Testament texts, that doesn't by itself settle the question of what the various New Testament authors are saying about the honor, attributes, names, deeds and throne of Jesus, in relation to "the God" Who is the Father. Much less does it settle whether all or any claims in the NT about Jesus (or even about "God", if there's a distinction) are true!

Be that as it may: the grammatic facts about the New Testament texts on this topic, so far as I have been able to find (and within the range of textual reconstruction where appropriate), are that Jesus is called "the god", {ho theos} (or grammatic variants thereof like {tou theou} and {ton theon}), several pretty straightforward times, and several more less obvious or only probable times, in the New Testament.

In roughly ascending order from merely probable and more complex examples, to more straightforward and grammatically obvious examples (with links to the parts of my mini-series where I argued the examples in detail):

• Hebrews 3:4 -- an author who in many other places tends to call Jesus "lord" in ways which directly identify Jesus with YHWH of the Jewish scriptures, might (or might not) by grammatic context be calling Jesus {ho theos} Who made Moses.

• John 1:18 -- some subtle grammatic and contextual issues weigh in favor of a divided textual transmission, that Jesus is here called {ho theos} (and "the only-begotten", among other things).

• 1 John 5:20 -- some difficult grammatic and contextual issues weigh in favor of Jesus being called {ho ale_thinos theos}, "the true God".

• Acts 20:28 -- weighing various textual transmission options indicates most probably that the author reports Paul of Tarsus calling Jesus {ho theos} in a grammatically unambiguous fashion.

• 1 Peter 4:11 -- an author who in many other places tends to call Jesus "lord" in ways which directly identify Jesus with YHWH of the Jewish scriptures, here creates a topical ambiguity with the grammar, where Jesus Christ may also be the Who, and so {ho theos}, to Whom belongs all power and glory.

• Rom 9:5 -- Paul of Tarsus, in a grammatically rich fashion, and by context with his clearly stated concerns about doxology earlier in the same letter, as well as by context with a clear identification of Christ as YHWH/lord by OT citation soon afterward, calls Jesus {ho theos}.

• Revelations 22:16 -- grammatic and narrative contexts directly indicate that an angel, explicitly sent by {ho theos} (and who shouldn't be worshiped as God, but who instead emphasizes that only "the God" {ho theos} alone should be worshiped) was sent by and is speaking directly for Jesus Christ. By thematic logic, RevJohn is explicitly calling Jesus {ho theos} here, even though the extended presentation of the scene means the term "Jesus" isn't near the usages of "the God".

• John 1:1 -- the Word (elsewhere soon afterward identified as Jesus Christ) is called {theos} in a way that, because of the way it is grammatically positioned, implies a direct article {ho} should also be understood there. Recognizing this depends on knowing an obscure Greek grammar rule, but is otherwise pretty straightforward. An option of intending no direct article, while not entirely grammatically impossible, is excluded by contextual comparison with nearby clear intentions of the author.

• Titus 2:13 -- the author, who is directly claiming to be the apostle Paul, calls Jesus {tou megalou theou} "the great God", in a fashion that is pretty unambiguous grammatically.

• John 20:28 -- Thomas calls Jesus {ho theos} as well as {ho kurios}. No one else is present or being spoken about that could be {ho theos}; Thomas is explicitly presented as answering Jesus by saying this to Him; and the phraseology (with irrelevantly minor variations) is elsewhere (both OT and NT) applied directly and without dispute to God Most High without two persons being contextually implied. Jesus (and the author of GosJohn) accept this as proper.

• 2 Peter 1:1 -- the author calls Jesus {ho theos} in a clearly unambigious way (in the Greek) which is reinforced by similar grammatic constructions from the same author elsewhere.

• 2 Thess 1:12 -- Paul of Tarsus (unless this is pseudonymous) straight out calls Jesus {ho theos} in a grammatically unambiguous way.

• Hebrews 1:8 -- the author represents the Father, whom he calls in verse 1 {ho theos}, as also calling the Son {ho theos}. The grammar is direct and absolutely unambiguous. (The same author soon afterward also represents the Father calling the Son "Lord" in a way that directly identifies the Son with YHWH Most High by OT citation.)

That's thirteen times in the New Testament, ranging from reasonably probable to definite certainty.

(Note: originally the tally was 14, but I have acknowledged a solid refutation on Heb 8, upon which ground I have removed it from the list. See that entry for details.)

Or twelve times if Hebrews 3 is thrown out as being the most theoretical.

Or ten times if the two multiple text transmission examples are thrown out.

Seven times where the grammar directly indicates {ho theos} per se.

Five where the grammar directly and immediately indicates {ho theos}.

Four if for some bizarre reason "the great God" is rejected (because an adjective is used instead of {ho theos} alone) as possibly meaning less than "the" God.

Three of those are from non-Johannine texts.

Two of those are from Pauline-group texts that more scholars would be willing to consider pre-70 compositions than they would the third (2 Thess and Hebrews, versus 2 Peter).

One of those is from an explicitly Pauline text (2 Thess) that sometimes makes lists of authentic Pauline epistles, even among liberal and sceptical NT scholars, alongside texts like Romans and 1 Corinthians. (Whereas one of the more admittedly complex grammatic and contextual examples comes from Romans itself!)

That's a fine spread, several of which are grammatically ironclad locks, across numerous groups of New Testament texts: Johannine, unsurprisingly, but also Petrine and Pauline (including Acts).

"But not in the Synoptics!"

No, I can't say I've run across any there. Yet. With a spread this wide, I can't say I would be surprised if I turned up one or two (and the Acts example might count as Synoptic by extension in several ways). But neither am I going to be upset if I never find any there, nor in any of the other (generally) undisputed Pauline texts, nor in any of the other Pastorals.

I wouldn't even be upset if I had found none at all. Why? Because I know perfectly well there are tons of other data aside from whether Jesus is ever called "the God", and I find they systematically add up to binitarian (or with the Holy Spirit trinitarian) theism. They would still add up to that (I find), even if Jesus was never called "the God" in the New Testament.

In fact, given a choice, and considering how important the distinction of the Persons is in an exegetical case, I would rather there be no such examples at all than many!

But a nice broadly sourced handful of rare and (to some extent) difficult examples?

All things considered, that is best of all.

JRP, Thanksgiving weekend 2011


Jason Pratt said…
Personally thankful that I'm almost over my stomach flu!--and that I didn't catch it Thanksgiving weekend (when I was writing this series). {g}

Anonymous said…
Hi, Jason !

I enjoyed your other series and am trying to keep up as I make my way through this one. :-)

Re: the Synoptics: (ignoring for the present all the places in the parables where Jesus puts himself in God's place [see Philip Payne's article in Trinity Journal on the subject], since they don't use the word theos as such) would Mt. 1.23 qualify in your estimation since it *does* use "ho theos" ?

Jason Pratt said…

Ohhh, I'll be talking about the Synoptics in the coming series (assuming I survive long enough to post it {wry g}). And yes, the parables are (at least sometimes) a point of theological identification contact there.

In the case of Matt 1:23, however, I'm inclined to pass it. I'm sure from other contexts that the Disciple does intend for us to eventually understand Jesus to be {ho theos}, and that this is why he's so impressed with the Isaianic prophecy here.

However, strictly speaking he's translating a name (or nickname) which by Jewish naming convention certainly would not normally involve identifying a statement of that sort as calling the persons whose name was that statement "the God". The original son of Isaiah would have had his name translated the same in Greek, and no one would have imagined doing so meant Isaiah's son was being called {ho theos} thereby; no more than if the Evangelist had translated Nathaniel's name into Greek as {doma tou theou}, "gift-ing of the God".

A name expressing the hope or even the fact that the-God is with us, is not necessarily the same as calling the person given that name the-God. But naturally that makes it a fine name or nickname for the-God-with-us, too. I'm just not sure I could argue that this was a a sufficiently direct implication of the Disciple (as I like to call GosMatt's author).

Still, good example! I haven't gone through every single usage of {theos} (and cognates) in my concordance yet, and that's one more worth considering anyway.

Anonymous said…
Jason, you mentioned in previous posts that the current trend is moving toward dating Luke-Acts and John earlier than before. Is this really the case? I was under the impression that these early dates were mostly just among one subset of evangelical scholars and a few other outliers like John AT Robinson - but I don't follow biblical studies that closer.
Jason Pratt said…

I think I also mentioned that the majority of scholars still go with the 80-85ish and 90s dating for Luke/Acts and John respectively.

As Keener noted back in 2003, Church tradition itself is the major deciding factor in the dating for GosJohn, and shouldn't be daffed aside regardless of one's views on things like ecclesiology. (On the other hand he cautioned against the prevalence of trying to make GosJohn "fit" simplistically into schemes of theological development, which is by far the second most popular rationale for dating it so late.)

I'll be curious to see what he reports as the current state of the dating question for Luke/Acts when his monstrously huge commentary on Acts impacts the earth in its first city-sized chunk next summer or thereabouts. {wry g} Hemer, and Robinson before him, have been extremely influential in revealing the shaky foundations of the 80s dating as largely amounting to "Well, duh, after GosMark and probably GosMatt, of course, and Church tradition puts GosJohn in the 90s, and it's clearly the most theologically developed, so if GosMark is the 70s and John is the 90s then we need to split the 80s with Luke and Matthew somehow. And Luke clearly took longer to write his two-scroll epic, q.e.d."--and not so much on their own internal factors.

80/85 (i.e. late composition compared to the Fall of Jerusalem) is still, as I think I indicated, the majority position so far as I know. But I expect to see it crumbling faster than that of GosJohn which has a major advantage of surviving 2nd century church tradition opining on its date.

(Although there is also a surviving tradition that GosJohn was in fact the first of the texts composed, at least in a preliminary notesheet fashion!--the author having been chosen to write down recollections from the disciples soon after the resurrection events.)

I think it's worth keeping in mind that just as most NT scholars go with a 90s composition, most also reject apostolic authorship, even though the Church tradition which helps strongly anchor one is similarly strong about the other (although not totally uniform either way).

That's fine for much more anti-historical theories of theological invention of course; but the more that high Christology is re-discovered permeating 'early' texts after the hangovers of the 19th century initial source theory debauching (largely predicated itself on theories of social evolution), the less room exponentially there is in the canon for something like "development to GosJohn" or " RevJohn".

I get a strong impression that this is why hypersceptical composition theorists have managed to claw themselves back from the grave in the past decade or so: scholars successfully demonstrate equivalently high Christology across the canon; high Christology must have 'evolved' slowly over time and so must be late; GosJohn in the 90s is the exemplar of that standard; ergo all the texts must have been written post 90! Leading to results like the largely non-historical apocalyptic text RevJohn having been written first but still "normally" late, and then increasingly historical texts afterward.

But then the historians start demonstrating those texts with high Christology have very respectable historical bona fides (unlike other Christian texts definitely produced in the 2nd c.), and that weighs composition back earlier again. But the development stratification scheme, insofar as that depended strongly on theories of expected theological evolution, has been eroded and fractured.

The current state of things lends itself to a much more chaotic muddle of relatively early dating; but it's much easier to still go with the majority consensus that developed over the 20th century because it's moderate enough to be useful to everyone regardless of their proclivities otherwise, and it still lends an air of being a solidly established base to work from.


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