I recently read an argument from a staunch defender of the trinity (since I don’t know who the writer of this blogpost is from now on I’ll just call him The Defender of the Trinity) claiming that the passage in John 10:33-29 actually strengthens the case for the full deity of Jesus (i.e. Jesus is Yahweh). I found that to be a bold statement given that on face value the passage seems to be arguing the exact opposite. I’ll quote the passage in question from the NRSV:
33 The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” 34 Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? 35 If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled— 36 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’? 37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” 39 Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.
The first thing we need to do is see the context of the quotation of the Hebrew Bible made in verse 34, it’s understood to be from Psalms 82 which I will also quote:
1 God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: 2 “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah 3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. 4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6 I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; 7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”
8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!
As The Defender of the Trinity mentions in his blog there are various theories as to who these “gods, children of the Most high” are. You have those such as James White who claims they are human judges, you have those like Michael Heiser claiming they are lesser gods, or perhaps Angels. To be honest who or what they refer to is not really that important, I think Jesus’ argument works either way. The argument is quite straight forward; in the scriptures, which cannot be annulled, individuals other than the Most High are called “gods” thus how could it be that Jesus blasphemes when he says that he is God’s Son? Rather than talking about what he calls himself, why not look at the actual works he does.
This argument I find to be actually one of the best arguments against the trinity, Jesus essentially denies that he is God.
To begin with is it clear that the Jewish Enemies are even claiming that Jesus is calling himself Yahweh? I would argue that it’s not so clear. Let’s look at the usage of God (θεος) in the passage. It starts with the accusation that Jesus, though he’s just a man, is making himself God in the Greek it says:
καὶ ὅτι σὺ ἄνθρωπος ὢν ποιεῖς σεαυτὸν θεόν
Now lacking the article here gives us the possibility that the θεόν being talked about is not Yahweh, is not ὁ θεος, but rather a god other than Yahweh. The next verse that uses θεος is Jesus response where he quotes Psalm 82:
ἐγὼ εἶπα· θεοί ἐστε;
Now this instance of θεοί clearly is speaking of non-Yahweh gods, this much is clear. The last instance of θεος is where Jesus says that he is Gods son in the last part of verse 36:
υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ εἰμι;
Here we have clearly a reference to Yahweh, Jesus is the son of the God (τοῦ θεοῦ). Now the question is what the reference in verse 33 actually means? Concerning the lack of the article, of course it is not the case that in every instance where there is a lack of the article that Yahweh is not being referenced, but it leaves the possibility open, we have to see based on the context. Interestingly in the LXX Psalms 82 uses the article every time Yahweh is being referenced, whereas when “gods” are being referenced the article is lacking. In Verse one of Psalm 82 in the LXX says:
Ὁ θεὸς ἔστη ἐν συναγωγῇ θεῶν, ἐν μέσῳ δὲ θεοὺς διακρίνει
And verse 6 and 8:
6 ἐγὼ εἶπα Θεοί ἐστε καὶ υἱοὶ ὑψίστου πάντες·
8 ἀνάστα, ὁ θεός, κρῖνον τὴν γῆν, ὅτι σὺ κατακληρονομήσεις ἐν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν.
So it would seem pretty reasonable to assume that when a distinction is being made between the Most High God and any other God that the article would be used to distinguish the Most High God.
But for the sake of argument let’s assume that Jesus understood the Jewish enemies to be accusing him of making himself Yahweh, then what sense would quoting Psalm 82 make? The quote point of the response was that those to whom the word of God came were called gods, if they were calling Jesus Yahweh then whether or not people were called gods would be absolutely irrelevant. So I think a good case can be made that the accusation was not that Jesus was calling himself Yahweh, but rather that he was setting himself up as a god.
Back to the argument from The Defender of the Trinity, he quotes from a book by Daniel Waterland which summarizes his argument, the quote sense:
Our Blessed Lord had insinuated that He was really and truly God; but had not asserted it in plain and express Terms: Upon this bare innuendo, the Jews charge Him with direct Blasphemy: He to evade their Malice and to keep to the Truth, neither affirms, nor denies that He meant it in the Sense which they apprehended. However, his Discourse being in general Terms, and not explicit enough to found a charge of Blasphemy upon, He appeals to their Law, in order to show, that it is not always Blasphemy, to make one’s Self God, or to apply the Title of God, even to mortal Men, and Men inferior to Himself, considered only as Man. This was answer sufficient to Them; who could not from his own Expressions clearly convict Him of meaning more, than that He was God in the improper Sense of the Word, as it had been used, Psalm. 82.6. Nevertheless, He leaves the point of his Divinity undecided; or rather, still goes on to insinuate, in Words which they could not directly lay hold on, the very Thing which they charged Him with. This enraged them so much the more: and therefore they again sought to take Him, v. 39. But He escaped out of their Hand.
So the argument is more or less that Jesus was trying to get out of a stoning by evading the question, basically answering a question that hadn’t actually been asked. If we assume that it is true that Jesus is Yahweh, then what kind of a response would it be that Jesus gave? He could have quoted any number of Scriptures that would have hinted towards him being Yahweh somehow, or at least leave the question open. Rather what he does is quote Psalms 82, where Yahweh is speaking to lesser divinities, angels or human judges, and then he goes on to say that the Father, that is Yahweh (we have no reason to assume the Father would mean, or be understood to mean anything else), sanctified Jesus and sent him into the world and thus he is God’s Son. That argumentation closes the door on Jesus being Yahweh. Let’s take an analogy. Let’s say that there is a King of a kingdom, and one of his Princes is sent out to lead an army, and in the war camp the Prince is accused of attempting to make himself King and thus treason, and let’s say the Prince responds this way.
“People in the Kingdom of my father call themselves kings of some sort, and that’s fine, so how could you accuse me, who was sent by my Father, the King, to do Battle for the Kingdom, of committing Treason just because I call myself the Kings Son?”
Case closed, he is denying the treason, not on the basis that he truly is the King, but rather that it is no more treasonous to say I am the Kings Son than it is when other people in the kingdom call themselves king, in a different way that the real King. This is Jesus’ defence, if Jesus really is Yahweh, his response is not merely evasive, it’s deceptive, since the reason that he is claiming he isn’t blaspheming is not because he truly is Yahweh, but rather because he is Gods son, and that is no more blasphemous to say than it is for others to call themselves (and rightly so) gods.
Now keep in mind they try and arrest him anyway, why is that? Is it because he “got them?” It doesn’t seem so. Rather it seems that his claim to be sent by God and that God works through him was offensive to them.
In Part 2 I argue that the Whole context of John argues against a trinitarian Reading of John 10:33-39.