The Beatitudes: A Hebraic Perspective

Too often in studies on the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, many present Jesus as the founder of the new Christian religion, teaching his followers, the first converts to this new religion, the tenets of this new religion. But this is a rather anachronistic approach to the material. It is understandable that pastors and Bible teachers would want to read back into Jesus’ teachings the many ideas and traditions that have grown up over the centuries around the Christ event. The problem with this approach is that it ignores the cultural context of Jesus’ ministry and his words. What happens is that we end up putting meanings upon Jesus’ words that he never intended and that the original hearers would never have understood to be his meaning. These wrong ideas about the meaning of Jesus’ words become entrenched and continue to get passed down from generation to generation. For example, Jesus said much about the kingdom of God, and many Christians think they know what that means. What they don’t realize is that what they think it means is probably something that has come down as tradition from church fathers who lived hundreds of years after Jesus and who were ignorant of the cultural context. These misunderstandings of the meaning of Jesus’ words become the norm and give us a false sense that we have a good handle on Jesus’ teachings. But in order to get back to the original meaning of what he taught we must endeavor to understand his teachings from within the cultural context they were given. We must ask ourselves, when studying Jesus’ teachings, “What would the first century Israelites who heard him speak have understood him to be saying.”

Cultural Context

A key to understanding the context of Jesus’ teaching is found in Matt. 15:24: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus said this in response to a Gentile woman’s request for him to heal her daughter. Now, of course, this does not mean that God doesn’t care about Gentiles, for Jesus did grant the women’s request, but that the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry was the Israelites, the most of whom had gone astray. In this regard Jesus was viewed by many as a prophet, in line with the Hebrew prophets of old {Matt. 13:57; 21:11, 46: Mk. 6:15; Lk. 4:24; 7:16; 13:33; 24:19; Jn. 4:19; 7:52; 9:17; Acts 3:22}. As a prophet, Jesus’ commission was to call the wayward ones in Israel to return to God {Lk. 5:32}.

But this was not the only role that Jesus performed in his ministry. Once a sinner within Israel repented and wanted to learn more of God’s ways, Jesus then took on the role of a rabbi, i.e. a teacher. At this point in history the designation ‘rabbi’ was an informal title denoting one who was a teacher of the things of God and who gathered to himself disciples. Pharisees and teachers of the law were sometimes called rabbi {Matt. 23:7}, as was John the baptizer {Jn. 3:26}. That Jesus was considered a rabbi by those who followed him is uncontroverted, for the gospel accounts give ample evidence of this {Matt. 26:25, 49; Mk. 9:4; 10:51; 11:21; 14:45; Jn. 1:38, 49; 3:2; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:81}.2

In light of Jesus’ role as a Hebrew prophet and rabbi, it is incumbent on us to understand his teachings from the perspective of a Hebrew teacher instructing his fellow Jews in the things of God. As such Jesus’ main source of knowledge of God is the Hebrew scriptures, the Tanakh. We must divest ourselves of the notion that Jesus is the first Christian teacher of the new religion of Christianity, instructing newly converted Christians in this new faith. In fact, the religion of Christianity did not exist at the time Jesus was carrying out his ministry in the towns and villages of Galilee.

Another aspect of cultural context to consider is the mindset of the Israelites at this time in history. After the fall of the Davidic dynasty (and hence the Israelite kingdom) under Babylonian domination, God began to speak, through the prophets, of the coming of a king in David’s line under whom the kingdom would be restored. A remnant of Israel later returned to the land, but still under Gentile domination. This engendered a strong hope and longing for the restoration of their kingdom under this coming King, who had come to be designated as the Messiah. But as time went on and centuries passed without that hope being realized, expectation of the coming Messiah waned. By the time of the 1st century most Jews living in the land had abandoned this hope. This is evident by the way NT authors mention certain people who still had the hope alive in them; they stand out as special or unusual in this regard {Lk. 2:25-26; 38; 23:50-51}. John the baptizer was sent ahead of Jesus to call Israel to repentance, and to renew the expectation of the coming of Messiah, saying, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” All of this is the cultural milieu into which Jesus came and began his public ministry.

The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:1-12

We will now seek to read this portion of Jesus’ teaching in light of the context of Jesus as a Hebrew rabbi and prophet, instructing his fellow Jews in the things of God, in particular, regarding the promised and longed for restoration of the kingdom.

What exactly are the beatitudes? What purpose do they serve? Remembering what was said above, we should first of all understand them as having specific and special relevance to the Jewish people. Jesus the rabbi is instructing his Jewish disciples about the kingdom of God. They are, therefore, not general principles for humanity or a recipe for how to live a ‘blessed’ life in this world. Neither are they the ‘new law’ of the Christian faith, since at this time no one had ever heard of Christianity, simply because it didn’t exist yet. I have come to see the beatitudes in a different way than I had for most of my Christian life. John had come and proclaimed that the kingdom was near, followed by Jesus who preached the same message.3 Many had and were turning back to God and many were drawn to Jesus, not simply because of the miracles he performed, but also because he was obviously from God and should therefore be listened to when he spoke about the things of God. Now Jesus is teaching them something about the kingdom that was near at hand.

Here is a brief overview of the beatitudes as a self contained unit. It appears that vv.3-10 comprise a literary devise known as an inclusio. Inclusio refers to a section of literature where similar language is used at the beginning and the end of the section, framing, as it were, the material between. In this self-contained unit, the first and the last beatitude both contain the phrase “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Another way to translate this phrase is “for of such belongs the kingdom” i.e. this is the kind of person who inherits the coming kingdom. Within the context, as noted, the meaning is “these are the ones from Abraham’s seed who will inherit the coming kingdom.” It was clear from the preaching of John and Jesus that not every individual descendant of Abraham would inherit the promises, but only those whose hearts were turned to and faithful to God. The beatitudes are a description of those who were such. So the first and last beatitude state the blessedness of such in general terms, i.e. the kingdom belongs to them, while the beatitudes which are sandwiched between them state the blessedness of the inheritors in more specific ways.

The word “blessed” begins each beatitude. The Greek word is makarios (Str. G3107) which corresponds to the Hebrew word esher (Str. H835). The words speak of happiness, but not simply as an emotion. It rather speaks of a lasting state of happiness, of the enviable state of the the one whom God favors. This favor is realized through specific blessings which God will bestow. In the beatitudes, the blessing in mind is a place or share in the coming kingdom age, and those who stand in position to inherit are indeed blessed. The pattern of the beatitudes is, first, the statement of a characteristic which is distinctive of an inheritor, now, in this age, followed by the promise of blessedness to be experienced in the kingdom age.

v. 3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, of such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

This being the first beatitude, it is reasonable to assume this is the chief characteristic of one who inherits the kingdom, so we want to know with certainty what Jesus meant by poor in spirit. The clue is in the phrase ‘in spirit’; so what exactly does that mean? ‘Spirit’ here refers not to some constituent part of man’s being but rather to a disposition of the heart or mind. It may be that when Jesus spoke these words he simply said, “Blessed are the poor” {see Lk. 6:20}, but Matthew gives the intended meaning of the words as “poor in spirit.” It is hard to reconcile, with all we know from scripture, that Jesus would be declaring a future blessedness upon those who are materially poor simply because they are so. Therefore, “poor in spirit” denotes a certain disposition of the heart. Since it is more probable than not that Jesus originally spoke these words in Hebrew, the corresponding Hebrew word for ‘poor’ would have been ani (Str. H6041), which can connote 1.) the materially poor i.e. those destitute of daily needs – Ex. 22:25; Deut. 15:11. 2.) the afflicted i.e. those burdened with troubles or with persecution from the powerful – Ps. 25:16-19; Ps. 70. 3.) the humble and lowly of heart i.e. those not too proud to acknowledge their dependence upon God – Ps. 18:27; Prov. 3:34; 16:19; Zech.9:9. We can rule out the first meaning because of what I said above and because we are looking for a disposition. I don’t think the second meaning applies to our verse since a later beatitude deals with those who are persecuted i.e. afflicted, and because, again, we are looking for a disposition of the heart. So then the third meaning is surely what Jesus intended his disciples to understand.

Poor in spirit then denotes the disposition of humility, the attitude of the heart that acknowledges it’s dependence upon God for everything, especially his mercy and goodness. The ones who are poor in spirit feel themselves utterly destitute without God and are not too proud to call upon God for help and salvation. Such as these know that if they are ever to obtain a place in the age to come it will only be by God’s mercy. It encompasses trust in God as well as obedience to his will, as Ps. 40 shows {see also Zeph. 3:12-13}. This sense of ani is used in parallel with the righteous as in Ps 37: 12-17 and Ps. 34: 6, 15-19. It is used also in contradistinction to the proud and arrogant, as in Ps. 18:27; Prov. 3:34; 16:19. Prov. 16:19 is significant in that it contains the synonymous phrase shaphal ruah i.e. a humble spirit (disposition), in parallel with ani {see also Is. 57:15}. Thus we can see why Jesus puts this first in the beatitudes, for without this disposition none of the other characteristics are even likely to develop.

v. 4 – “Blessed are the mourning ones for they will be comforted.”

This beatitude helps to demonstrate how the cultural context is important to rightly understanding Jesus’ meaning. Is Jesus referring to those who mourn for any reason, say perhaps over lost loved ones or over some great time of distress and pain? I don’t think so. Most commentators refer it to the sorrow one feels over his own sins, but this also, I believe, misses the real meaning of this beatitude within the 1st century Jewish context. It is not likely that that is what anyone hearing Jesus first speak these words would have thought. Rather the beatitude declares the blessedness of those among the Israelites who mourn over the sins of the nation and the consequent state of affairs to which that sin has brought it.

In the first century the Israelites were a people scattered among the nations, despised by the peoples they lived among. The descendants of those who had returned to the land under Persian rule were now languishing under the severe conditions of Roman rule. There was no descendant of David ruling over God’s people from Jerusalem, the city of God, which was in bondage to Rome along with her people. All of this was the direct result of the nation’s turning from God and breaking his covenant. The godly ones among the Israelites felt a deep sense of mourning over this state of affairs and, in fact, this mourning over Israel’s degraded condition was a hallmark of this godly remnant. Yahweh had planned a glorious destiny for the nation he had chosen and for the capital city, Jerusalem, the only place on earth where he placed his name forever. Yet at the time Jesus delivered this teaching, Israel was so far from her ideal destiny and as a result Yahweh’s name was not being glorified through his covenant people. This was a lamentable state of affairs for those who loved God and desired his glory. But as for the ungodly among them, they mourned solely because of there own personal misfortunes.

While this mourning may have specific relevance to Jewish believers, engrafted Gentile believers can and should participate in this mourning over Israel’s and Jerusalem’s present state and should long for the day when her destined glory will at last be realized, to the glory of Yahweh, under Messiah’s reign.

The prophet Isaiah, in ch. 66, a passage which Jesus may likely have had in mind at the time he gave this teaching, speaks of this mourning among those who “tremble at His word” and of the comfort that will be theirs in the kingdom age:

“Hear the word of Yahweh, you who tremble at his word . . . Rejoice with Jerusalem and exult in her, all who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all those mourning over her. For you will nurse and be satisfied at her comforting breasts; you will drink deeply and delight in her overflowing abundance . . . As a mother comforts her child so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted in Jerusalem.”

Is. 66:5a, 10-11, 13

The blessedness of those that mourn will be experienced in the comfort and overwhelming joy that will be theirs in the time of the restored kingdom. God spoke again, through Isaiah, concerning this comfort, “I have seen his (Israel) ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him, creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel” {Is. 57:18-19}.

v.5 – “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

This statement by Jesus is drawn from Ps. 37:11 – “But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.” The word ‘meek’ is one of those nebulous words that are difficult to define in short. It seems to be related to the idea of humility, but as the first beatitude already spoke about humility, I think we should define meekness differently. The Greek word is praus (Str. G4239); the Hebrew equivalent (used in Ps.37:11) is anav (Str. H6035), which is related to ani, which we studied earlier. Anav seems to have a similar semantic range as ani, and is translated as poor, afflicted, meek. The two words often refer to the same group of people, i.e. the righteous. Both words appear once each in Ps. 37, where they are set in opposition to the wicked, and we can glean some understanding of their meaning there. Anav seems to speak of the patient endurance of the evils and injustices of men, waiting for God to take vengeance in his own time. The following verses, in Ps. 37, leading up to v. 11, reflect this meaning:

v. 1 – “Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do evil.”
v. 7 – “Be still before Yahweh and wait for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.”
vv. 8 -9 – “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who wait on Yahweh will inherit the land.”
vv. 10-11 – “For yet a little while and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.”

Other verses in the psalm speak of the day when the wicked will be no more: vv. 12-13, 17, 20, 22, 28b, 34c, 35-36, 38. This calls for meekness in the righteous and faithful ones.

The blessedness of the meek is that they will inherit the land, i.e. they will enjoy the fulness of God’s blessing in the very land promised to Abraham and his descendants in the age to come, and they will see the wicked cut off from this inheritance. Note how many times this is mentioned in Ps. 37 – vv. 9, 11, 18, 27, 29, 34.

v. 6 – “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

This seems like a rather straightforward statement. The metaphor of “hunger[ing] and thirst[ing] for” something is a graphic way of expressing intense longing and desire, in this case, for righteousness. But righteousness is another one of those vague concepts whose precise meaning often eludes us. The most common interpretation of this beatitude, given by evangelical commentators, is that the righteousness spoken of here is either personal righteousness or the righteousness which is given as a gift or credited to individual believers in Jesus {see Rom. 4}. But again, we want to understand what the original hearers of this teaching would most likely have understood Jesus to mean. We cannot neglect the overarching focus of the beatitudes on the kingdom age and the blessedness to be experienced in that day.

Two reasons cause me to reject the idea that this is referring to either personal righteousness or the credited righteousness which believers receive. First, the definite article appears before the word righteousness in the Greek text, so the sense is “the righteousness.” This seems to point to some specific righteousness. Second, the being filled with this righteousness is the blessed state of those who inherit the kingdom, i.e. it is in the kingdom age that this being filled with the righteousness that is longed for now, in this age, is experienced. Since the righteousness which is credited to believers in Messiah is experienced now in this age, then this must be referring to some other righteousness, that specific righteousness longed for by the faithful ones among Israel. This righteousness speaks of when those in power do what is right and just for all of the people over whom they rule, creating a society where peace and security are the norm.

Isaiah spoke of the future coming Messiah and his kingdom in this way:

“He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and even to forever.”

“But with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will decide for the meek (Heb. anav) of the earth.”

“In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it, one from the house of David, one who in judging seeks justice and is skilled in righteousness.”

“See, a king will reign in righteousness . . .”

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations . . . In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice in the land. The coasts shall hope for his law.”

“Listen to me my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.”

Is. 9:7 – 11:4 – 16:5 – 32:1 – 42:1-4

The hallmark of the coming kingdom of Messiah will be widespread or universal righteousness and justice in the land. Israel, over it’s long history had been ruled by many kings who were wicked, and consequently unrighteousness and injustice in the land were often the rule rather than the exception. It was typically the righteous ones in the land who suffered injustices at the hands of the unrighteous who were in power. This situation and the promise of a future righteous king who would bring about a state of righteousness and justice in the land, fostered in the faithful ones in Israel a longing for that day. Here Jesus promises such that they will be satisfied in the coming age.

Now, of course, this has application for Gentile believers, for most governments in the world have been and are now ruled by the unrighteous, and in most nations, if not in all, injustice and unrighteousness in the government are the norm. Therefore, all true believers long for the time when this state of affairs is reversed, when the righteous rule with justice and the wicked are no more.

v. 7 – “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”

The old saying “something was lost in translation” comes to mind when I think of this verse. The English seems simple enough, those who show mercy to others will be shown mercy. The Greek is straightforward enough also: makarioi (Blessed) hoi (the) eleēmones (merciful) hoti (because) autoi (they) eleēthēsontai (shall be shown mercy). The problem is, that in all likelihood, Jesus spoke these words in Hebrew; they were then translated into Greek by Matthew. But what would have been the most likely Hebrew word for mercy used by Jesus when speaking this beatitude? The word in the Hebrew Bible that is translated mostly by eleos (Str. G1656) in the LXX is hesed. But hesed (Str. H2617) is one of those words that gives translators fits. There is no adequate way to express it’s full meaning in just one word. But as many Hebrew scholars have pointed out eleos does not accurately or adequately translate hesed, and has narrowed the meaning of hesed. The meaning of hesed is best seen in it’s usage in the Hebrew Bible, but I cannot in this article take an in-depth look at this word, so we must settle for a brief survey.4

One of the best passages to show the meaning of hesed is Psalm 89. The word appears 7 times in this psalm and in 5 of those it appears in conjunction with the Hebrew word emunah (Str. H530) and once with emeth (Str. H571) both of which mean faithfulness. What is significant about it’s use in Ps. 89 is it’s close association with God’s covenant with David. Vv. 1-2 speak of God’s hesed and emunah and then connect them to his covenant with David in v. 3. Then in the context of this covenant God expresses that his hesed, as well as his emunah, will never be taken from David and his descendants {see vv. 24, 28, 33, 49}. This shows us that the concept of hesed, when used of God’s action towards men is linked to the ideas of covenant and God’s loyalty to act in accordance with his covenant. This idea also comes across in the NT in Lk. 1:68-75 where Zechariah prophesies proleptically about the coming Messiah. In v. 72 it says that God raised up this “horn of salvation” ( a reference to king Messiah) “to perform eleos (read hesed) to our fathers and to remember the covenant he swore to Abraham.” This shows that eleos is not carrying it’s usual Greek meaning of pity upon those in need, but is being used in the sense of hesed, for it implies God’s obligation to the covenant made with the fathers, to do good to their descendants.

The word is also used of man’s action to other men, and most often in the context of some kind of relationship between two parties that obligate them. In 1 Sam. 20:8 David implores Jonathan to show hesed to him because of the covenant he had made with him {see 18:3-4}. This covenant obligated Jonathan to do good to David. Jonathan then implores David, in 20:14-15, to spare his life and those of his family, when David would become king. David is obligated by the covenant to do good to Jonathan and his family. Later when David is king he inquires to find out if there are any remaining family members from Saul’s house so that he can show hesed to them for Jonathan’s sake.

Another example is found in Gen. 20:13 when Abraham asked Sarah his wife, that wherever they went to say he was her brother. Sarah was obligated to Abraham, as her husband, to show this kindness to him. Similarly, in the book of Ruth, Naomi blesses Boaz because he has not forsaken his obligation to assist his relatives in their need (hesed) {v. 20}.

If indeed, hesed is the word Jesus originally spoke then we can take him as saying, “Blessed are those who perform hesed, for they will be shown hesed.” This is a characteristic of those who will inherit the kingdom, they are loyal in performing good to whom it is due {see Prov. 3:27}. The blessedness of such is that they themselves will be the recipients of God’s hesed in the age to come.

v. 8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Jesus may have had in mind Ps 73:1, which reads:

“Surely God is good to Israel, to the ones pure in heart.”

Pure in heart denotes sincerity and singleness in one’s devotion to God. It is not to all Israelites, to those who are merely physically descended from Jacob, but to those Israelites whose worship of God is from a pure heart, that God is good. Many Israelites, throughout their long history, did worship Yahweh, but not alone. Often they would worship other gods beside Yahweh. They would attend the temple during feast days and then also attend pagan shrines; they would take their oaths in Yahweh’s name and in the name of other gods. There was a mixture in their worship. The faithful remnant within Israel are those who worship God alone, who do not lift up their souls to idols or swear by what is false {see Ps. 24:4}. In Jesus’ day it was not so much that Israelites were worshipping other gods, but rather that their traditions had become the main thing, their religion was a matter of dead works {see Matt. 15:3-9; 23:1-32].

The blessedness of the pure in heart is that in the kingdom age they shall see God. Whether this should be understood literally or figuratively is not clear. Whatever way it is it will be a blessed experience.

v. 9 – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

This is not referring to people in the world who try to bring about peace agreements between warring nations. Such people may receive the Nobel Peace Prize but they are not necessarily qualified to be called the sons of God. This, again, is a characteristic of the ones who will inherit the kingdom. There is no corresponding Hebrew word for eirenopoios (Str.G1518) found in the Hebrew Bible and it only occurs here in the NT. It is a compound word formed from eirene = peace and poieo = to do, make, accomplish, perform etc. It could be that when Jesus spoke these words he actually used two Hebrew words shalom= peace and asah = the same semantic range as poieo, to mean those who bring about shalom. Perhaps the closest thing in the Hebrew Bible to this is in a psalm which we have already seen to have been in Jesus’ mind i.e. Ps. 37. In v. 37 it says:

“Consider the blameless, observe the upright; there is a future for the man of peace.”

This speaks of those who seek not only their own shalom but the shalom of others. The word shalom conveys more than simply what our English word peace does. Shalom refers to well-being in general not simply to the absence of conflict. Those who are of the ones who will inherit the kingdom are actively working toward the well-being of others, which does include peace of mind, peace with others and peace with God.

The blessedness of such is that they will be called God’s children. While it is true that they are now God’s children, in the age to come these will experience the fullness of what it means to be called such.

v. 10 – “Blessed are those who have been persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In this present age those who stand to inherit a place in the age to come i.e. the righteous, are often and usually the targets of those who will not inherit the kingdom i.e. the unrighteous. This was true in Israel – the righteous within her were always persecuted by the unrighteous within her. Once again Ps. 37 comes to mind – see vv. 12, 14, 32. There is a cost, now in this age, for those living a life of faithfulness to God, but in the age to come “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Verses 11-12 are an expansion upon the previous and final beatitude, so let’s take a look at them.

v. 11 – “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
v.12 – Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Here Jesus expands the concept of persecution on account of righteousness to include persecution of his peculiar followers because of their association with him. In fact, allegiance to Jesus as the Messiah would become the dividing factor between the righteous and the unrighteous. God was now calling his chosen people to receive this man as the chosen one and all Israel would be divided over him {see Matt. 10:21-25, 32-36}. Those among the Israelites who would acknowledge Jesus as the promised son of David, the Messiah, would be hated and persecuted by those who reject Jesus. And what is more, the followers of Jesus would be hated and persecuted by all nations {Matt. 24:9}. But Jesus tells his followers to see this as a reason to “rejoice and be glad” because they have a great reward stored up for them with God in heaven, which God will bestow upon them in the coming kingdom age.

Endnotes

  1. Luke never uses the word rabbi in his gospel, maybe because his gospel was specifically meant for gentile congregations. Instead he uses the Greek word didaskalos (Str. G1320), meaning teacher, which is what a rabbi was.
  2. Of course, Jesus turns out to be more than just a prophet or rabbi. He is acknowledged by some of his closest followers as the Messiah, the son of God, the chosen one from the line of David, prior to his death and resurrection. After his resurrection he is openly proclaimed as the promised Messiah by his disciples.
  3. For a biblical and Hebraic understanding of the kingdom of God see this article.
  4. Here is a PDF of Nelson Glueck’s Hesed In The Bible


Why I Believe Jesus Of Nazareth Is A Simple Human Person

Before I present why I believe Jesus of Nazareth is a simple human person, I must define what I mean by simple, since the word has many applications. I will use the Collins online dictionary definitions for simple that pertain to what I mean in applying this word to Jesus. Here are the applicable definitions:

1.having or consisting of only one part, feature, substance, etc.; not compounded or complex; single
2.without additions or qualifications; mere; bare
3.pure; unadulterated

What I am trying to convey by the term ‘simple’ is that Jesus of Nazareth is a mere human person, an unadulterated human being, having only one nature i.e. a human nature. This is, of course, in contradiction to the orthodox Christian tradition which says that Jesus is a divine person, possessing the nature of deity, who has joined himself to a human nature and therefore is a divine person with two natures, a divine and a human one.

Jesus – Human Person or Human Nature?

A little known fact is that in orthodox, creedal Christianity Jesus is not regarded as a human person. Now this may sound shocking to some, and you may think I am just making it up. So here are some quotes from orthodox sources.

The dogma asserts that there is in Christ a person, who is the Divine Person of the Logos, and two natures, which belong to the one Divine Person. The human nature is assumed into the unity and dominion of the Divine Person, so that the Divine Person operates in the human nature and through the human nature, as it’s organ.

Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 144

For, Jesus is not a human person; he is a divine Person who has taken himself a human nature.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 2, p.217

If we were to say Jesus is a human being, that is a human person, we would be saying that his identity or who he is as a Person, was created. That would be wrong. His human nature was created, but not his Person or Being.

Is Jesus a Human Being?, Defending The Bride website

And according to the revelation we have been given in Scripture and Tradition, Jesus is an example of a divine person who possesses a fully human nature but is not a human person . . . we can readily see just how Jesus Christ could reasonably have two natures, one human and one divine . . . subsisting in one . . . person . . . who is God.

Tim Staples, Catholic Answers website, Is Jesus a Human Person?

Even protestant Christian leaders agree with this ‘orthodox’ understanding of Jesus of Nazareth1:

Christ is the second person of the Trinity, who pre-existed his incarnation. He is God, pure and simple. He is a divine person, not a divine-human person. For that reason medieval theologians were always careful never to refer to Jesus as a human person. He is a divine person who has assumed a human nature in addition to the divine nature that he already had. In virtue of having a complete human nature as well as a divine nature Christ is both God and man, human and divine. But he is not a human person. He is a divine person who possesses a human nature as well as a divine nature.

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith website, Was Christ a Divine-Human Person?

The humanity taken up into the person of the Logos is, then, not a personal man but human nature without personal subsistence.

Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 416

Reason 1 – A Jesus Who Is Not A Human Person Is Implausible

The premise that Jesus is not a human person is based upon 5th century definitions of person, substance and nature drawn from Greek philosophy, and based upon circular reasoning. Way before the philosophically constructed definitions were worked out in the 5th century, it had already become the ‘orthodox’ position within Christianity to confess Jesus as a divine being or person. The Nicene creed of 325 stated that Jesus was “true God of true God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” This itself was a further explication of the Logos theories of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, which asserted that the Logos or Reason of God was emanated out from God to become a rational being, distinct from God in number but one with him in purpose and will. This was the central idea within such Greek philosophies as Platonism and Stoicism. These philosophies taught that there is one Supreme Being who, being too transcendent and immutable to have created the cosmos himself, emanated out of himself a being, a second god, or a mediating principle, who or which would do the hands on business of creation on behalf of the Supreme One. That early Gentile Christian apologists, formerly educated in these prevailing philosophies, posited this Logos to be synonymous with Jesus, the son of God, is clear. This itself was a deviation from the simple message of the first generation of Jewish believers that Jesus of Nazareth was the long awaited Messiah, the son of David, foretold in the Hebrew scriptures, whom God raised up and through whom he would redeem His covenant people.

So then, by the 5th century, the idea that Jesus was a divine being had become firmly entrenched within the minds of most of Christendom. Yet this belief created problems which had to be worked out through philosophical wrangling among the educated elite within it’s ranks. How can the concept of a second god, distinct in number from the Supreme One, avoid the charge of polytheism, since it was clear that scripture taught that there is but one God? Once this was overcome by the development of the Trinity concept, another problem presented itself. How could the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, become fully human without ceasing to be the divine personage he is? Since it was clear from scripture that Jesus was of the human family, it had to be explained how this could be so without detracting from his deity in any way. How could Jesus become fully human while still maintaining his deity?2 This was eventually achieved by advancing nebulous definitions of substance, nature and person, and of what it means to be human. Let me illustrate this from the article on the Catholic Answers website cited above. In answer to the question of whether we can say that Christ is a human person, Tim Staples answers with an emphatic NO! He explains:

To understand why, we must define three essential terms without which any explication would be futile: person, substance and nature.

He then defines person, according to the 6th century philosopher Boethius’ definition, as “an individual substance of a rational nature,” that is to say an individual subject possessing a rational nature. He then defines substance as “that which constitutes an individual thing and does not inhere in anything else. It is not a property of a thing, but the thing itself.” He then gives examples of substances, such as “a ‘tree’, ‘horse’, ‘man’, ect. “ He explains that person and substance are closely related but different because “although all persons are substances not all substances are persons.” For instance a horse is a substance but not a person because it does not possess a rational nature. He then proceeds to define the third term, nature, as “the what of a thing – in contrast . . . to the individual subject being considered.” He then states that “nature and substance are almost synonymous, but not quite” because substance, “though similar to nature in referring to what constitutes a thing, also refers to the subject as well.” Is anyone else confused yet?

So, all of these terms, substance, nature and person, are all closely related but have fine distinctions between them, which must be understood correctly in order to rightly understand how Jesus can be fully human without being an actual human person. On top of this, he defines the substance of man as “the body/soul composite. Without either a body or soul you don’t have the ‘substance’ of a man, you don’t have a man in the fullest sense.” So then the logic of Christ being fully human but not a human person is dependent upon the hypothesis of the dichotomist view of man, which is dubious at best. Now here is the clincher. Staples asserts with all confidence, “consider that all living human beings are persons, but person is not a part of the definition of what it means to be fully human.” But why should anyone accept that definition? So by arbitrarily defining man as a body/soul composite alone, individual personhood can just be eliminated from the definition of what a human being is. This enabled the philosophizing church fathers to say that Christ is fully human while maintaining that he doesn’t need to be a human person to be so. In case you think I have misunderstood Staples, I quote him further, “There is nothing in the definition of a human (being a body/soul composite) that requires it to be a person. Thus, even though this only actually happens in the case of Christ, there is nothing unreasonable about positing the possibility.”

Is the circular reasoning not clear enough. Church fathers, having come to believe that Jesus was a divine person, had to devise a way for him to have become fully human without including a human person in the mix, for this would mean that either the divine person would have had to cease to be (at least while he was a man) or there would be two persons in Jesus of Nazareth, a human person and a divine person. By defining the key terms to there own advantage they were able to work out the formula for a fully human divine person. Note what Staples said regarding being fully human but not a human person – “this only actually happens in the case of Christ.” But how can they say this? Because they believe Christ to be a divine person – therefore it has to be true that a divine person can be fully human without being a human person, although all other individual human substances are human persons.

My friends, this is simply not a plausible hypothesis. It depends on dubious definitions of the abstract ideas of substance, person and nature, as well as the dubious definition of human being as a body/soul composite. Orthodoxy also declares that Christ has a human mind and will as part of his human nature. So Christ has a human body, soul, mind and will, but can still be said to not be a human person? Then this must be true of all human beings; it must not be our body, soul, mind and will which makes us human persons. So then what is it exactly that makes us human persons? As Boethius defined person as “an individual substance of a rational nature” then accordingly, any individual human substance able to think, reason and will is a human person. But isn’t it rather obvious that any living, individual entity with a human body is a human person, for even if such an entity lost the ability to think or reason or will, due to brain damage, it would not cease to be a human person. Now if one does not hold to the presupposition that Jesus is a divine person then he understands Jesus in the same way he understands all human beings, i.e. as a human person. But how can we be sure Jesus is a human person and not a divine person? This brings me to the second reason why I believe Jesus is a simple human person.

Reason 2 – Scripture Presents Jesus As A Human Person

Before I show how scripture presents Jesus as a simple human person, it is necessary first to show why I believe scripture excludes Jesus from the category of God. It will be easier to accept the simple humanity of Jesus once it becomes manifest that he cannot be regarded as God. To do this I will appeal to three passages in the New Testament. Now I have always held, along with many Bible expositors and commentators, to the general maxim “Ambiguous passages should be interpreted in the light of clear passages.” The three passages I offer here clearly tell us who is our God, and by extension, who is not our God.

1 Cor. 8:5-6 – 5.”For even if there are so-called ‘gods’, whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods . . . 6. yet for us there is one God, the Father . . . and one Lord, Jesus Messiah . . .”

Eph. 4:4-6 – 4. “There is one body and one spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5. one Lord (i.e. Jesus), one faith, one baptism; 6. one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all.”

John 20:17 – ” . . . Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

Now I am aware of the ways in which apologists finagle these passages in an attempt to mitigate the very clear and explicit claim made in them, but the claim is simply too unmistakable to be so easily dismissed. In the first passage Paul unequivocally declares that the one God of believers is the Father. In the category of the one God, Paul places the Father alone. He does not say that the one God of believers is the Triune God, i.e. the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even though this is what most Christians have been saying for 1600 yrs., neither does he say that the Son is the one God of believers. The force of this affirmation that the one God is the Father is seen in the pitiful attempts made to abrogate it.3 In the same sentence Paul goes on to tell us what category Jesus belongs to – that of Lord. That Paul means that Jesus is the one human Lord, the one who is above all, is evident by two facts. First, Lord here cannot be synonymous with God because Paul here clearly differentiates between the one God and the one Lord, neither can Lord mean Yahweh, as some apologists claim, for then Paul’s statement would amount to this absurdity: “For us there is one God, the Father . . . and one Yahweh, Jesus Christ.”

In the second passage, Paul states practically the same thing, differentiating between the one God, declared to be the Father, and the one (human) Lord, Jesus. Again, when Paul speaks of the one God he does not refer to a Triune Being but to the Father. If the Trinity were in fact true, then every mention of the one God in scripture should be a reference to the Trinity, for the one God could never be just the Father, or just the Son, or just the Holy Spirit, for all three together would comprise the one God.

The third passage, while not using the word ‘one’ to describe the Father as the God, shows clearly who the God of the believers is. Let us note that Jesus, in this statement, completely identifies with the disciples, putting himself on the same level with them before God, calling them his brothers, and equating his Father with their Father and his God with their God. That the God of both Jesus and the disciples is the Father could not be more clear.

That this understanding of the one God as the Father was the view of the earliest believers is confirmed by what had become known as the Apostles Creed, which states emphatically:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord.

Please observe how this coincides with Paul’s unambiguous affirmations.

Now, if we follow the principle of interpreting less clear or ambiguous (I use this word in the sense of open to more than one interpretation) passages in light of the clear passages then we must let these clear passages guide us to a correct understanding of those passages which seem, on the surface, to be saying that Jesus is God (e.g. Jn. 1:1; Rom. 9:5; Heb. 1:8; Titus 2:13; etc.). For every passage put forward by apologists for the deity of Jesus as proof of that belief, is open to plausible alternative interpretations.

Now, having settled that Scripture clearly presents the Father alone as the one God, there are only a few options as to what kind of being Jesus could be. He is either another god, emanated out from the one God, who then took on a human nature; a spirit being, such as an angel, created by the one God before the foundation of the world, who then took on a human nature; or a pure and simple human person, who was foreknown and chosen by the one God. We will now turn to the testimony of Scripture regarding Jesus’ humanity.

The Full Humanity Of Jesus

Heb. 2:11, 14, 17 – “Both the one who makes holy and those who are made holy are all of one ( origin or family). Therefore he is not ashamed to call them brothers . . . Since the children are sharers together of flesh and blood, he (i.e. the founder or pioneer of their salvation – see v. 10) likewise participated in the same humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death . . . For this reason it was necessary that he (i.e. the founder or pioneer of their salvation) be like his brothers in every respect, in order that he might be a merciful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

This passage is very important for understanding that the one through whom God would effect the salvation of man had to be a man himself, in every respect. Now if all human beings are human persons, and this is granted by all, then the one who would make atonement for all other human persons must himself be a human person. And this is precisely what the author of Hebrews is saying. Now the trinitarian will loudly object and avouch his belief that the divine person, the Son of God, became fully human, so what is the problem? The problem is that the affirmation that a divine person with a human nature is a fully human being is simply an empty assertion, and there is no good reason why anyone should think it is even rational. The whole point of the author of Hebrews in this passage is that the savoir of humanity could not be of the angel family (all of chs. 1:4-2:18 are meant to show this), which apparently some of the believers in this particular congregation had come to believe, but must be of the same family as those he redeems. But can a divine person clothed in a human nature really be considered to be of the same family or origin as all other human beings? I don’t see how that is possible. This passage is not telling us about the supposed incarnation of a divine person, but of the necessity that the one who would provide purification for sins (v. 1:3) and make atonement for sins (v.2:17) by his death (v. 2:14) be a member of the human family in every respect. This eliminates the possibility that Jesus was some other kind of being, who simply took to himself an impersonal human nature, whether an angel or a second divine person within God. Jesus was fully human because he, like us was a human person, i.e. a human being with a body, rational mind and human will.

The apostle Paul also believed that our salvation had to be effected by means of a human person and that Jesus’ salvific work is based squarely on this fact:

Rom. 5: 15 – 19 – 15.“For if many died by the trespass of the one man (i.e. Adam), how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus the Messiah, overflow to the many . . . 17. For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus the Messiah . . . 19. For just as through the disobedience of the the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

1 Cor. 15:21-22 – “For since death came through a man, the resurrection from the dead also comes through a man. For as all in Adam die, so also all in Christ will be made alive.”

1 Tim. 2:5 – “For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, a human being, Messiah Jesus.”

Now these statements seem clear enough, but the philosophical wordplay of orthodoxy obscures the plain meaning of the text. Let’s plug in the cleverly devised orthodox definition of Christ’s humanity into the appropriate places in these passages to see if it makes much sense:

Rom. 5: 15 – 19 – 15.“For if many died by the trespass of the one human person (i.e. Adam), how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one divine person with a human nature, Jesus the Messiah, overflow to the many . . . 17. For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through that one human person, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one divine person with a human nature, Jesus the Messiah . . . 19. For just as through the disobedience of the the one human person the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one divine person with a human nature the many will be made righteous.”

1 Cor. 15:21-22 – “For since death came through a human person, the resurrection from the dead also comes through a divine person with a human nature. For as all in Adam die, so also all in Christ will be made alive.”

1 Tim. 2:5 – “For there is one God and one mediator between God and all human persons, a divine person with a human nature, Messiah Jesus.”

Now, friends, I ask you to be honest with yourself – do you really think this is what Paul meant when he wrote these words? Is it not clear from the first two passages that Paul assumes Jesus to be ontologically the same as Adam? Note the word also in both passages, which clearly has the force of likewise, and see how the orthodox interpretation breaks the correlation between Adam and Jesus. And is it not clear from the third text that Paul places Jesus in the category of humanity and not in the category of God. If Paul believed Jesus to be a God-man he could have said so and that would have been the opportune place to do so.

We will now look at further biblical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a human person just like us.

Jesus Was Able To Be Tempted To Sin

Heb. 4:15 – “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way like us, yet without sin.”

Lk. 4:1 – “Jesus . . . was led by the spirit into the desert, where he was tempted by the devil . . .”

The fact that Jesus was able to be tempted shows him to be a human person, not a divine person with a human nature. According to orthodox Christology, the real self who is Jesus is a divine person and would therefore be, not only incapable of sinning, but, as a consequence, incapable of being tempted to sin. Scripture says that “God is incapable of being tempted by evil” {James 1:13}. There is nothing in the being of God that can in any way be influenced to sin and therefore it would be impossible for him to experience the desire to do evil. If Jesus were a divine person then this would be true of him. It is not reasonable to suppose that the impersonal human nature of Jesus was tempted to sin while the divine self who controlled the human nature was unaffected by the temptation. If the divine personal self of the man Jesus is incapable of experiencing the force or the pull of temptation, then in what sense can he be credited with having overcome and having remained without sin. Most Catholic and Protestant theologians would affirm that Jesus was incapable of sin, being a divine person, but to be incapable of sin would make one incapable of temptation. For example, if one would were incapable of lying how could the temptation to lie truly affect him? He would be impervious to the temptation. But is this the picture of Jesus that we get from scripture?

If Jesus were a divine person he would be incapable of sin and this would make a mockery of the testimony of Scripture regarding his temptations. That Jesus “was tempted in every way like us” would then be meaningless. Our Lord Jesus had to be capable of sin in order to experience real temptation and hence cannot be a divine person, but must be a human person like us. The fact that he was able to sin, but, having been tempted, remained obedient (i.e. was without sin), only magnifies his worthiness before God {see Heb. 5:7-9; Phil. 2:8-10; Rom. 5:19; Rev. 3:21; 5:5}.

Jesus Was A Direct Descendant Of David

Matt. 1:1 – “A record of the origin of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David . . .”

Acts 13:23 – “From the seed of this man (David) God has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus, according to a promise.”

2 Tim. 2:8 – “Remember Jesus the Messiah, raised from the dead, descended from David.”

Now this should not be controversial, for everyone acknowledges that Jesus was a Jew from the line of king David. But when we stop and think about how this could be true from the orthodox position, something just doesn’t add up. It is difficult to see how an eternally divine person could be considered, in any real sense, the descendant of any human person. In this case, what we would have to say is that the impersonal human nature attached to the divine person was the descendant of David, but not the person who operated within that human nature. This kind of contrived meaning forced upon the clear statements of scripture engenders incredulity. No one reading these passages, apart from the presupposition that Jesus is an eternally divine person, would perceive any other meaning in them than the obvious meaning – that the man Jesus was a direct descendant of king David.

Just a word about one passage that is typically put forward to show that Jesus’ descent from David is simply referring to his impersonal human nature – Rom. 1:3, which reads in the 1985 NIV: “Regarding his son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David . . .” But this a misleading translation which is colored by a bias in favor of orthodox Christology. The phrase “as to his human nature” translates the Greek phrase kata sarka, which means according to the flesh. This phrase has a few idiomatic uses in the NT, one which conveys the idea as to natural descent or ancestry. This meaning can be seen in these passages – Rom. 4:1; 9:3, 5; 1 Cor. 10:18; Gal. 4:23, 29. The passage, correctly translated simply says:

“Concerning his son, the one coming to be out of the seed of David as to natural ancestry . . .”

Note that the text is explicit, once translated correctly, that God’s son is the one who came to be (Gr. aorist participle form of ginomai, Str. G1096) from the seed of David.4 Yet orthodoxy teaches that the Son is eternally begotten from God and simply acquired a human nature in the incarnation, so how could Paul say the son came to be out of the seed of David? The only logical sense in which Jesus of Nazareth can be considered a true lineal descendant of king David is if he is a true human person. To speak of an eternally existing divine person as the descendant of any human being is to be disingenuous.

The 2011 edition of the NIV changed the translation of the phrase kata sarka to “as to his earthly life”, which again shows the bias of the translators, wanting to give the implication that Jesus had some other life prior to his “earthly life”. In all the other passages noted above, they translate the phrase as “according to the flesh”, as do most English versions.

Other Things To Consider

When orthodox Christians speak about Jesus during his life on earth they will often make a distinction between his divine nature and his human nature. But many do so in a way that sounds a lot like there were two selves in Jesus (a belief historically known as Nestorianism). For example, when Jesus said he did not know the day or hour of his coming, this is explained as he did not know it in his human nature, but, of course, he knew it in his divine nature. But natures do not know or not know things, persons do. If there is but one person in the man Jesus and that a divine person, then how can the man Jesus not know something, if omniscience is an essential attribute of divine persons? If the Divine person, God the Son, is the self of the man Jesus, that controls the human nature to which he is joined, then how can he not know something in his human nature? These kind of things are not thought about much by the average Christian who just assumes that Jesus is fully God and fully man. But just a little thinking on these matters reveals that things are not as clear cut as the keepers of orthodoxy pretend.

Another thing that shows the irrationality of the orthodox position is the apparent impossibility of one person possessing two distinct and completely contradictory natures at the same time, so that at the same time, this one person is bound to an eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, immortal nature and a created, finite, mortal nature limited in knowledge and abilities. How can someone possess immortality and mortality at the same time? How can the same person, at the same time, possess unlimited power and limited power? This makes the concept of one person possessing two natures highly unlikely.

Add to this the fact that scripture no where states this doctrine in any clear-cut manner. If the doctrine is derived from scripture at all, it is only done so by inference. But why should a doctrine that would be so important and necessary to understand be so inexplicit in scripture. Like the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of two natures in one divine Christ can only be deduced from scripture by reading between the lines. There are zero explicit statements for either doctrine. Listen to what the Evangelical theologian Millard Erickson said regarding the Trinity, but which also applies to this doctrine:

It is claimed that the doctrine of the Trinity is a very important, crucial, and even basic doctrine. If that is indeed the case, should it not be somewhere more clearly, directly, and explicitly stated in the Bible? If this is the doctrine that especially constitutes Christianity’s uniqueness, as over against Unitarian  monotheism on the one hand, and polytheism on the other hand, how can it be only implied in the biblical revelation? In response to the complaint that a number of portions of the Bible are ambiguous or unclear, we often hear a statement something like, ‘It is the peripheral matters that are hazy or in which there seems to be conflicting biblical materials. The core beliefs are clearly and unequivocally revealed.’ This argument would appear to fail us with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, however. For here is a seemingly crucial matter where the Scriptures do not speak loudly and clearly. Little direct response can be made to this charge. It is unlikely that any text of Scripture can be shown to teach the doctrine of the Trinity in a clear, direct, and unmistakable fashion.

God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity, pp. 108-109

One final thing to consider, and this is probably the most damaging consequence of the orthodox position, although it has probably never even been pondered by most who hold this position. If the orthodox position is true then the death of Jesus amounts to a personless death, i.e. it is a death in which no personal being actually dies. If, as orthodoxy demands, Jesus is a divine person and not a human person, then how could his death be the death of a personal being? It can’t. If Jesus is not a human person then no human person was involved in his death. If Jesus is a divine person, and a necessary attribute of divinity is immortality, then the divine person who is Jesus could not have died and hence did not die. Most orthodox Christians when they think of Jesus’ death will reason that Jesus died in his human nature, understanding that divine beings can not die. But what does it mean to ‘die in a nature’ if there is no human person there to die. Can a human nature die, without there being the death of any person, and can such a death be sufficient to save humanity. Jesus’ death then amounts to nothing more than the death of a personless human nature.

Christians will often assert that the Savior had to be God or else his death could not be effective. But why should this be the case? If the divine person did not die, because he is essentially immortal, then how does his being God make the death of his impersonal human nature efficacious? Christian philosophers who have thought about this issue have usually postulated some theory of how the divine person was somehow able to experience what death was like, to taste death without really dying, by virtue of being attached to the impersonal human nature which did die. But this is all foolish speculation, devised merely to save a doctrine from it’s inevitable but undesirable consequence.

When scripture speaks of the death of Jesus it speaks in a straightforward manner, without any kind of philosophically contrived explanations. The death of Jesus is presented in scripture as him giving himself for us {Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Eph. 5:2, 25; 1 Tim. 2:6; Titus 2:14}. But in orthodoxy, can it really be said that Jesus gave himself for us, when in fact he would have merely given up his human nature to death. The scriptures are clear – Christ, the person, died for us. But this is impossible within orthodoxy for divine persons can’t die. Therefore, if Jesus, the person, died for us then he had to be a human person, for only human persons can die.

Conclusion

The orthodox dogma that asserts that Christ is a divine person who took on himself a human nature in addition to his divine nature, was manufactured solely to give a rationale for how Jesus, as an eternally divine person, can be considered fully human while being fully God. The philosophically astute church fathers were able to define the terms in such a way so as to appear to provide rational support for what seemed an absurdity. Yet scripture is silent regarding this doctrine, which must be inferred from the scriptural evidence, while being explicit regarding the simple humanity of Jesus.

ENDNOTES

  1. Many Evangelical teachers and apologists do not even seem aware of the orthodox denial of the human person in Jesus. Most simply refer to the dogma that Jesus is “fully God and fully man” without ever considering how a human nature without a human person can be counted as fully human. GotQuestions.org is probably typical of the Evangelical confusion about this matter when in answer to the question “What is enhypostasis and anhypostasis?” two contradictory statements are given. First the writer says, “Jesus did not pretend to be human—He possessed real human nature. The word enhypostasis is used to denote this fact. En– means the same as the English word in—Jesus was really “in” human nature and was a real human person.” But then he goes on to say, “Jesus added to His divine nature and person, and what was added was a real human nature, not a human person.”

    2. There were competing views of the incarnation in the 5th century over which the ‘orthodox’ view won out, marking all others as heresy. These other views were: Nestorianism – the incarnate Christ consisted of two distinct persons, one human and one divine, each with it’s own nature.
    Apollonarianism – in the incarnate Christ the Logos took the place of a rational human soul so that Jesus’ humanity consisted solely of his human body.
    Monophysitism – Jesus Christ is one divine person with only a divine nature.
    Docetism – Jesus Christ was a divine being with no human nature at all, who only appeared to be a real man.
    The reason all of these concepts are wrong, including the orthodox understanding (Chalcedonianism), is that they all begin with a faulty premise i.e. that Jesus was a divine spirit person who descended from heaven.

    3. One such pitiful attempt is the idea that in 1 Cor. 8:6 Paul is splitting the Shema (from Deut. 6:4) between the Father and Jesus and thus including Jesus in the one God. For a refutation of this idea see this article here.

    4.What Paul is saying in Rom. 1:3-4 is not that Jesus has two natures, a human and a divine. Rather he is saying two things about the man Jesus, God’s son. First he notes that he is a lineal descendant of David, a recognized qualification for the promised Messiah, because the coming Messiah would be ruler over God’s kingdom and this privilege was given only to David and his descendants {see 2 Chron. 13:5,8; Ps. 89:20-37}. The second thing he points out is that this specific descendant of David was “marked out” or “determined” (Gr. horizo, Str. G3724) as the chosen one, out of all of the other descendants of David that were then living. While only descendants of David could rule God’s kingdom, not every or any descendant could, but only the one chosen or “marked out” by God {see 1 Chron. 28:4-7}; this chosen one became the “son of God”. Jesus was so “marked out” as the chosen one in virtue of “a spirit of sanctification” i.e. being set-apart from all other descendants of David, by his resurrection from the dead.




Why John 6:25-71 Does Not Prove The Deity Of Messiah

John chapter 6 is one of the main passages utilized by Christian apologists to support the belief of the deity of Jesus. A number of statements made by Jesus in this chapter do seem to give credence to this idea. It boils down to this – Jesus claimed to have come down from heaven. No where is it recorded in this chapter that Jesus claimed to be God, but just that he came down from heaven. From this the apologists make a number of assumptions which are based on the presupposition that Jesus is God.

Assumptions of the Apologists

The first assumption is that Jesus was speaking literally instead of figuratively. The second assumption is that by saying that he literally came down from heaven, Jesus was making a claim to deity. The third assumption is that the people hearing Jesus speak also thought Jesus was speaking literally rather than figuratively. The final assumption is that the twelve apostles understood Jesus’ claim to be God and believed him. Let’s go through these four assumptions to see if they are in fact substantiated by the text.

Assumption 1

Upon close examination of the text it appears that the only good reason for taking Jesus’ words literally is that such a reading supports the ‘orthodox’ presupposition that Jesus existed in heaven as God before being incarnated on earth as man. But if one did not hold this presupposition what reasons would one have for taking Jesus’ words in a literal rather than a figurative sense? The first clue that Jesus’ words about coming down from heaven should not to be taken literally is that they are in response to the disciples’ mention of God’s provision of manna for their forefathers {6:31}. In Exodus 16:4 we read:

“Then YHWH said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you.’ “

Did YHWH mean that the manna he would provide for the people literally came from heaven i.e. the dwelling place of God? Was the manna literally in heaven and then brought down to earth? Well, some may say yes, but I say no. First off, YHWH said he would rain down the bread, yet no where in the subsequent narrative is it said that the people saw bread falling out of the sky. Instead, in vv. 13-14, we are told that:

“. . . and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor.”

This is presumably the way the manna arrived every morning for the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert. Never once, in the rest of the Pentateuch, is it said that manna actually fell down out of the sky, yet God said he would rain down bread from heaven. What we should infer from this is that YHWH’s words are not to be understood literally but figuratively. A similar type of expression used by God is found in Malachi:

“Test me in this (i.e. in paying tithes),” says YHWH of hosts, : and see if I will not throw open the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing to the degree that you will not have enough room for it.

Mal. 3:10

The promised blessing was that of a bountiful crop, i.e. God would see to it that their crops did not fail but produced a great harvest. The language of the “windows of heaven” being opened and a blessing being poured out is clearly figurative language. In the same way, the language of “rain[ing] down bread from heaven” is meant to figuratively denote God’s provision. But what of other passages which speak of this bread from heaven? In Nehemiah 9:15, Nehemiah, in recalling the account while in prayer, simply repeats the figurative language used by YHWH – bread from heaven = God’s provision of food. The same can be said of Ps. 105:40. But what about Ps. 78:24-25; surely this can’t be taken figuratively.

“. . . [He] opened the doors of heaven; he rained down manna for the people to eat, he gave them the grain of heaven. Men ate the food of angels . . .”

Ps. 78:23b-25a

First, the phrase “opened the doors of heaven” is almost exactly like the Malachi passage, which we saw must be regarded as figurative language. The phrase “rained down manna” is taken from YHWH’s own words in Ex. 16:4, and should be understood figuratively, for the reasons noted above. The remainder of the passage, I suggest, is simply hyperbolic language, which is often found in such poetic passages. Because manna was unknown to the Israelites {see Deut 8:3} the psalmist poetically speaks of it as the “grain of heaven” and the “food of angels.” Even today we may speak of someone whom God has used to bring blessing into our lives as “an angel from heaven,” not at all intending that anyone should understand us literally.

The point is that the mention of the “bread from heaven” in Jn. 6:31 is the impetus for Jesus’ declaration that he is the “bread of God . . . who comes down from heaven.” It is reasonable, therefore, to take the words of Jesus figuratively, just like the words regarding the manna being “from heaven” should be taken figuratively.

The next clue that Jesus is not speaking literally is the fact that he refers to himself as ‘bread’ which is clearly a metaphor. He also speaks of feeding on himself as the ‘bread of life’, which again, is clearly figurative language. What the apologists want us to believe is that Jesus is speaking figuratively when he says he is bread and that we need to feed on him, but that he is speaking literally when he says he came down from heaven. Most of these apologists are Protestant Christians, who would likely see Roman Catholicism’s literal understanding of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood, as ridiculous, yet they will insist that we should take Jesus’ words about coming down from heaven literally.

The next clue is found in v. 51:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world.”

Jn. 6:51

Now do any of these apologists, or does any orthodox Christian for that matter, believe that Jesus’ flesh was literally in heaven and then came down from heaven to be born from Mary. Absolutely not! The orthodox teaching is that Jesus received his human nature, i.e. his flesh, from Mary. This can only be understood as figurative language.

So if Jesus being the bread that came down from heaven is not to be taken literally, what exactly does it mean? It is simply saying that the man Jesus is God’s provision for all men, by which they can obtain immortality.

Another possible way to understand this figurative language is from the perspective of non-literal pre-existence. Ancient Jewish sages regarded things which were in the purpose and plan of God, and which were to be realized at some point in history, to have a sort of pre-existence in heaven with God. This pre-existence was not literal but ideal, in the mind of God. Norwegian theologian and professor Sigmund Mowinckel, in his work titled, He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism, wrote this concerning pre-existence in Jewish thought:

That any expression or vehicle of God’s will for the world, His saving counsel and purpose, was present in His mind, or His “Word”, from the beginning, is a natural way of saying that it is not fortuitous, but the due unfolding and expression of God’s own being. This attribution of preexistence indicates religious importance of the highest order. Rabbinic theology speaks of the Law, of God’s throne of glory, of Israel . . . as things which were already present with [God] before the creation of the world. The same is also true of the Messiah. It is said that his name was present with God in heaven beforehand, that it was created before the world, and that it is eternal. But the reference here is not to genuine pre-existence in the strict and literal sense . . . It is an ideal pre-existence that is meant . . . of the Messiah. It is his ‘name’, not Messiah himself, that is said to have been present with God before creation. In Pesikta Rabbati 152b it is said that “from the beginning of the creation of the world the King Messiah was born, for he came up in the thought of God before the world was created.” This means that from all eternity it was the will of God that the Messiah should come into existence, and should do his work in the world to fulfill God’s eternal saving purpose.     p.334

E. G. Selwyn in his commentary on 1 Peter wrote: “When the Jew wished to designate something as predestined, he spoke of it as already ‘existing’ in heaven.”

Emil Schurer in The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Vol.2 p.522 wrote: “In Jewish thinking, everything truly valuable preexisted in heaven.”

Catholic theologian Karl-Josef Kuschel, on p. 218 of Born Before All Time?, wrote: ” … in the synagogue a particular kind of pre-existence was always associated with the Messiah, but it did not set him apart from other men. This is pre-existence in God’s thought, the ideal pre-existence of the Messiah.”

Reverend Maurice Wiles, Professor of Divinity at Oxford, wrote in The Remaking of Christian Doctrine:

Within the Christian tradition, the New Testament has long been read through the prism of the later conciliar creeds … Speaking of Jesus as the Son of God had a very different connotation in the first century from that which it has had ever since the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Talk of his pre-existence ought probably in most, perhaps in all cases, to be understood on the analogy of the pre-existence of the Torah, to indicate the eternal divine purpose being achieved through him, rather than pre-existence of a fully personal kind.

Now when the thing which God predestined, and promised through his prophets, finally became a reality in the real world, it could be said, figuratively, that that thing has come down from heaven. This would certainly apply in the case of the Messiah, who was “foreknown before the creation of the world, but made manifest in these last times” {1 Pet. 1:20}.

Assumption 2

Most orthodox Christians who understand Jesus’ language about coming down from heaven to be literal, then conclude that this is proof of his full divinity. But the conclusion does not necessarily follow the premise. If it could be proven beyond any doubt that Jesus meant his words literally this still would not get us to the full divinity of Jesus. At best it could prove that Jesus pre-existed in heaven in some form before coming down to earth. Jesus’ statement, “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but to do the will of him who sent me,” could be said by any celestial messenger, a.k.a. angel, and therefore does not provide proof of his deity. Ancient Arians, gnostics, JWs, Mormons and others believe that Jesus pre-existed in heaven in some form before coming to earth but that he was not God in the fullest sense. This assumption is clearly false.

Assumption 3

This assumption involves understanding the response of those who heard Jesus speak to indicate that they took his words literally. The hearers of Jesus’ teaching in John 6 consists of three categories: the twelve apostles {v. 67}, a group of the disciples from the larger group of followers of Jesus {vv. 24-25, 60-66}, and ‘the Jews’ {vv. 41-42, 52}, which were a group of Pharisees, priests and/or teachers of the law sent by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to observe and question Jesus. The only direct response we are given to Jesus’ statement about coming down from heaven is in vv. 41-42, and this by the Jews, not those of the other two groups:

“At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he then say, ‘I came down from heaven.’ “

Now does this necessarily mean that they understood Jesus to be speaking literally? These Jews, who were certainly hostile toward Jesus, would often, I believe, purposely distort Jesus’ words in an attempt to make him look foolish. They would take Jesus’ statements which were clearly meant figuratively, and pretend like he had meant them literally, thus hoping to make him appear ridiculous to the people. Other examples of this behavior of the Jews can be discerned in 2:20; 8:57; 10:33. It is reasonable to suppose that they understood Jesus to be speaking figuratively but feigned understanding him to be speaking literally. These Jews were not uneducated fools, they knew figurative language when they heard it. Rabbis often taught their disciples using parables, metaphors and figures of speech.

But even if we were forced to read the text as saying that the Jews understood Jesus literally, this still would not mean that he was speaking literally, only that they understood him to be so.

Later, in v. 52, the Jews again likely understand that Jesus is using figures of speech, but want to minimize what he is saying about eating his flesh. They do this by making out that he means it literally. I think it is likely that they understood Jesus to be claiming to be the Messiah, but not understanding all that this Messiah would accomplish in God’s plan, they probably didn’t grasp how eternal life would be dependent upon this man.

In v. 60 some disciples of Jesus say, “This is a difficult word, who can accept it.” I will deal with this later in the article, as I do not see this as a comment on Jesus’ statement about coming down from heaven, but rather about something else Jesus said.

Assumption 4

The final assumption made by the apologists is that the twelve apostles understood Jesus literally about coming down from heaven and so believed that he was God incarnate. The only thing in the text that reports the apostles response is in vv. 67-69, where Jesus asks them:

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life. We believe and know that you are the holy one of God..”

We note that nothing is said specifically about Jesus having come down from heaven here, nor is anything said which demands we should think the apostles believed Jesus to be deity. The fact that they called him ‘Lord’ simply reflects that he was their rabbi and teacher {see 1:38, 49; 4:31; 9:2; 11:8, 28; 13:13-14}. (For further analysis on why Jesus was addressed as ‘lord’ by his disciples see this article here.) That they believed he had the words that lead one to everlasting life is simply to say that they believed God had sent him to speak the message which God gave him to speak, and this is what Jesus always confessed to do {see 5:24; 7:16-18; 12:49-50; 14:10, 24}. What about the fact that they believed him to be ‘the holy one of God‘? It should be observed that they did not say, “We believe that you are God, the holy one” or “you are God come in the flesh” or any such thing. They confessed him to be the holy one of God, which certainly implies they did not regard him as God himself. To be the ‘holy one of God‘ simply denotes that one is set apart by God for a special commission, as can be seen in Ps. 106:16 where the text calls Aaron “the holy one of Yahweh.” It is certainly fitting that the ideal son of David, Yahweh’s anointed one, should be so designated.

So we can conclude that the assumption that the apostles understood and believed Jesus to be saying that he was God come in the flesh is without merit.

Further Evidence That Jesus Came From Heaven?

The apologists believe that they find further support for taking Jesus’ statement, that he came down from heaven, literally, in vv. 60-62:

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a difficult word, who can accept it? Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? What if you see the son of man ascend to where he was before! “

John 6:60-62

The assumptions of the apologists are these – 1.) that what Jesus said in this message was too hard for the disciples to understand 2.) that Jesus refers to his later ascension into heaven 3.) that heaven is where he was before i.e. that Jesus was originally in heaven and then came down to earth. But why do they assume these things from this text? I assert that it is because they presuppose the pre-existence of Jesus based on tradition. But if one approaches this text without that presupposition is he then not able to make any sense out of the words? There is a tendency in all Bible expositors to see ones theological predilections in the text of scripture and to not think beyond that. Not holding to the traditional idea of Jesus being God incarnate enables me to think deeper about the text to discover what Jesus’ words might mean within the original context, and having done so, here is what I see.

When these disciples complained that Jesus’ words were too hard or too difficult they were not saying that they did not understand what he was saying. His words were difficult for them to receive or accept precisely because they understood his meaning. Now what part of Jesus’ message are they specifically referring to? I don’t think they had in mind the statement that he is the bread that came down from heaven. They would have understood this figurative language to denote that he was claiming to be the promised Messiah. I also do not think that they were referring to Jesus’ statement about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, for they surely would have taken these words figuratively. What was difficult for them to accept was that he said he would give his flesh for the life of the world, which they rightly understood to mean that he would have to die. Remember, these are not the antagonistic Jews who would have been glad for him to die, but disciples who had come to think that Jesus might possibly be the long awaited son of David, who would free them from gentile rule and restore the kingdom to Israel. Just the day before they were so impressed by the miraculous sign that Jesus did that they intended to declare Jesus as the king, the rightful heir to David’s throne {see vv. 14-15, 22-25}. When we understand that the Jews of that day were awaiting a son of David whom God would raise up to take the throne of Israel and not a divine being who would die for their sins, then we can see the difficulty these disciples would have when the one they supposed could be this promised one is speaking about dying. We see this same incredulity among the crowds later when Jesus said that he would be lifted up. Knowing that he meant he would be crucified:

The crowd spoke up, “We have heard from the Law that the Messiah will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The son of man must be lifted up’ ?”

12:34

When Jesus first told the twelve that he must die, Peter actually rebuked him saying, “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you!” {see Matt. 16:21-22}. For a Jew in the first century a crucified and dead Messiah did not fit their expectations {see Lk. 24:19-21}, which were based on what the prophets had foretold. That Jesus said he would die was a real stumblingblock for these disciples. Jesus asked them, “Does this cause you to stumble?” He was asking them if the fact that he would die is a cause for them to doubt that he is the Messiah, and in fact it was, for “from [that] time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” {v. 66}. The apostle Paul also noted that Jesus’ death on the cross was a cause of stumbling for the Jews {see 1 Cor. 1:23}. This is why the main aspect of the apostolic preaching was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

What Jesus said next to these doubting disciples must be taken in the context of the stumbling of these disciples at Jesus’ declaration that he would die. So Jesus said to them, “What if you should see the son of man ascend to where he was at first.” I used to think he was saying something like, “Hey if that causes you to stumble wait till you see me ascend into heaven,” but now I read it as, “Hey I understand that you are stumbling at the fact that I said I will die, but if you should see me rise up to where I was before would that make a difference .” I see it as a declaration of his resurrection not his ascension into heaven. This means “where he was before” is not heaven but among the living. The word translated ‘ascend’ is anabaino (Str. G305) which has a number of uses, both literal and figurative. It is used of Jesus ‘going up’ to Jerusalem in Matt. 20:17; of Jesus, at his baptism, ‘coming up’ out of the water in Matt. 3:16; of smoke ‘rising up’ in Rev. 8:4; of plants ‘springing up’ from the ground in Matt. 13:7; of thoughts ‘arising’ in the mind in Luke 24:38; and yes, it is used of Jesus’ ‘ascension’ into heaven in John 20:17. So while the word is used in John’s gospel of ascension into heaven, of it’s 16 occurrences 11 refer to some other meaning. Now one relevant fact to note is that the Hebrew equivalent of anabaino, which is alah (Str. H5927), is used three times of resurrection from the dead, in Ezek. 37:12-13 and Job 7:9. This may have been the exact word Jesus actually spoke, which was then translated by John into Greek with anabaino. So because the word is used of both ascension into heaven and coming up out of the grave, the way one interprets Jn. 6:62 will probably depend upon one’s presuppositions.

The next thing to consider is how this interpretation of v. 62 flows into vv. 63-64. Verse 63 is very ambiguous and so not readily interpreted, as a perusal of popular commentaries shows. The best way for me to present my interpretation is to offer a sort of expanded translation of the passage; so here it is.

60. Therefore, many of his disciple having heard (what Jesus had said about dying) said, “This is a difficult word, who (of us) is able to accept it?” 61. But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Does this (fact that I must die) present an obstacle to you (believing that I am the Messiah)? 62. What if you should (be privileged to) see the son of man (having died) come up (again among the living) where he was at first. 63.The spirit is that which gives life (to the dead); the flesh (i.e. your descent from Abraham in and of itself) benefits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you (if believed and appropriated) is what will result in (your possession of the) spirit and then life (in immortality). 64.Yet there are some of you who do not believe (that I am the Messiah).”

So from this perspective, Jesus, in vv. 61-64, is seeking to dissuade these doubting disciples from their unbelief. If they turn from him they have no hope of receiving the spirit {see Jn. 7:38-39} and the resulting immortality {see Rom. 8:11}. This is confirmed by what happened next, after many of the disciples walk away:

Jesus asked the twelve, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words that lead to eternal life. We believe and know that you are the holy one of God.”

Jn. 6:67-69

Peter, speaking for the twelve, shows that they understood that Jesus was the promised one, the Messiah, and even if they could not fully understand what this talk of him dying entailed or how it fit into God’s plan, they knew that his word, which was really God’s word, must be believed.

An Alternative

An alternative interpretation of v. 63 is that Jesus speaks of his transformation into immortality, through death, as a necessary prerequisite to reigning in glory. “The flesh [which] profits nothing” would be speaking of his becoming king without first dying and then being raised in immortality. This would be of no profit for he would eventually die and so leave the kingdom once again open to attack by hostile Gentile powers. It is therefore indispensable that he first die and be raised to newness of life, that his reign may be without end. Thus “spirit and life” refer to the new existence of Jesus post resurrection {see Rom. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:45-49; 2 Cor. 5:16-17}.

Who Are The Seven Angels Of The Seven Churches In Revelation?

This will be a short article in response to the recent Naked Bible podcast, # 360, in which Dr. Michael Heiser was commenting on Rev. 2:1-7. Once again, Heiser has not failed to confirm what I have been saying about him in some of my blog articles, namely that his exegesis of scripture is driven by his theological predilection for the divine council paradigm, which he has made the core of his teaching. Heiser’s method of exegesis appears to be that when he encounters something mysterious or ambiguous in the text, and the language can accommodate it, then he just plugs the divine council motif into the passage and viola! he has the correct interpretation. I find this extremely irritating and quite pedestrian.

In his current podcast series on the Revelation, Heiser has demonstrated this tendency a number of times already and he’s only on chapter 2. As the title of this article suggests, he has done so with regard to the identification of the seven angels of the seven churches found in chs. 1-3. In the podcast noted above, he identifies the angels as members of the divine council who have each been given oversight of a particular congregation. How he arrives at this conclusion is typical of his method. He tries to interpret the imagery of the seven golden lampstands in 1:20 in conjunction with Zech. 4:2 and 10b, as if they refer to the same thing. Yet Jesus, in the vision, reveals the meaning for us, so it’s not really necessary for us to guess what the image might mean. Heiser thinks the vision from Zech. 4 informs us to the meaning of Rev.1:20. But the imagery is not the same. In Zech. 4:2 there is a single gold lampstand with seven channels, each with a lamp on top of it, i.e. a seven branched menorah. Zech. 4:10b then tells us that these seven lamps on the branches of the single menorah represent “the eyes of Yahweh, which range throughout the earth.” In Rev. 1:20 the image is of seven gold lampstands, which is interpreted for us in the same verse as representing the seven churches of Asia, previously mentioned in 1:4, 11. Why does Heiser go to Zech. 4 to interpret an image in Revelation when the meaning of that image is already given? So, can you guess what Heiser thinks the “eyes of Yahweh” are in the Zech. vision? Right, divine council members. He then carries that over into Rev. 1:20 and makes the seven stars and seven lampstands, which he just seems to merge together, as being supernatural beings. We are told in the text that the seven stars represent the seven angels of the seven churches, and Heiser thinks these are supernatural members of the divine council. He finds further confirmation of this in 2:1 where the angel of the church of Ephesus is addressed and the imagery of the seven stars and seven lampstands is reiterated. He thinks this proves this angel must be a supernatural being because these things wouldn’t have any connection to a human. But since the seven stars and seven lampstands are, in his mind, related to the divine council, they would only have relevance to a supernatural member of the council. All of this is quite disappointing and unsatisfactory from an exegetical standpoint.

Heiser also confuses the seven stars, a.k.a. the seven angels, with the seven spirits mentioned in 1:4, 3:1 and 4:5. I think he believes this gives more credibility to these angels being non-human entities. But there really is no good reason to equate these two things. The closest connection between these two is found at 3:1, but all this is saying is that Messiah possesses both the seven spirits and the seven angels, i.e. both groups are his servants. He also seems to merge the seven gold lampstands with the seven spirits because in 4:5 these seven spirits are represented as seven lamps. But this is incoherent. The image of the seven lamps in 4:5 is interpreted for us as “the seven spirits of God”, probably the same as in 1:4 and 5:6. And the image of the seven gold lampstands in 1:12 is interpreted for us at 1:20 as “the seven churches” of Asia. The word for lampstands in 1:12 & 20 is a different word that the ‘lamps’ of 4:5. The gold lampstands are most likely menorahs while the lamps of 4:5 are more like torches.

I want to offer a simpler but more nuanced interpretation of the seven angels of the churches. Think with me for a moment. John is exiled on the isle of Patmos, far from the seven churches of Asia. He is not free to travel to the mainland for he is in effect under arrest. God gives him a vision and tells him to write it down and send it to the seven churches of Asia. How is he going to get this vision, along with the seven specific letters for each congregation, to them. It seems to me that God had already somehow made it known to these seven churches (perhaps by a dream or prophetic word) that they were to send a representative to Patmos in order to receive a copy of the revelation given to John. Therefore the seven angeloi would be the seven representatives of the seven churches sent to receive the revelation. If we were to translate the phrase in 2:1 as “To the messenger from the church of Ephesus write . . .” it becomes clearer as to what the text is saying.

It is interesting to note that in the message given to each church all of the pronouns are singular. Heiser points this out and says it’s because a group can be designated as a single entity, which is true. But a better way to understand it is that a rhetorical device is being employed here, i.e. the acclamations and rebukes written to each congregation is addressed to that congregations representative. The singular pronouns would produce a more profound effect upon each individual member of the congregation when the letter is read publically.

Now Heiser might object to taking the seven angels as human messengers, for, as he points out in the podcast, all other occurrences of aggelos in the Revelation are clearly referring to supernatural beings. I am not sure if that is true, but if it was it would be irrelevant. Since the word aggelos can and does refer to human messengers, each occurrence must be taken in it’s own context. It is possible, that of the 77 occurrences of the word in Revelation, all but the 8 which occur in relationship to the seven churches, refer to supernatural beings, while the other eight refer to human beings. I mean if John wanted to mention human messengers how else would he do it – aggelos is the proper word. This is the problem with our English versions transliterating aggelos as angel instead of translating it as ‘messenger’.

Please feel free to interact with me in the comment section if you disagree or take issue with the exegesis I have offered in this article.

Psalm 82 – Of Gods or Human Kings?

This is not an exegetical commentary on Psalm 82, but rather the purpose of this article is to advocate for a different perspective regarding the identity of the ‘gods’ who are mentioned in v. 1 and addressed in v. 6 of Ps. 82. My premise is that these ‘gods’ are actually the kings of the earth, and I will show why I believe this to be a more satisfying view than the view that the ‘gods’ = literal divine beings or the ‘gods’ = some other human figures, such as Israelite judges or all Israelites. This is a modification of my previous view found in this article: An Analysis Of How Dr. Michael Heiser Interprets Scripture In Relation To His Divine Council Concept. There, I limited my understanding of ‘gods’ to the kings of Israel only, but now I see these ‘gods’ as all the kings of the earth, including the Israelite kings.

For many centuries it was virtually unanimous among biblical expositors that the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 was a reference to the human judges of Israel. This was also a well known Jewish interpretation found in the Midrash on Psalms and Targum Jonathan. Another rabbinic interpretation sees ‘gods’ as referring to the nation of Israel at Sinai. There they received the Torah and became obedient to it thus making them immortal i.e. ‘gods’. But having later became disobedient, God declared that they would “die like Adam.” While the first of these views has some validity, the second one is rather nonsensical. Then there is, of course, the view popularized by Dr. Michael Heiser, that the ‘gods’ are literal divine beings, members of a supposed council of gods over which Yahweh stands as the Supreme God. In this article I will also engage with Heiser’s views concerning this psalm as found in this 2010 paper: http://www.thedivinecouncil.com/ETS2010Psalm82.pdf

Overview

My general take on this psalm is that the inspired psalmist is portraying God’s relationship to the kings of the earth by analogy to the divine council of the pagan religions, i.e. Yahweh is the Supreme God who stands in the council of the lesser gods (the kings of the earth) who are set in place to administer his righteousness and justice in the earth. The psalm depicts God calling these ‘gods’ to account for their failure to maintain the proper order in human societies{vv.1-2}. The psalmist lays out their divine commission which they have failed to carry out {vv. 3-4}. These kings, a.k.a. gods, are depicted as having no knowledge or understanding, probably of Yahweh and his righteousness and the fact that he has set them in power to rule on his behalf. Therefore the foundations of human society, righteousness and justice, are overthrown {v. 5}. Though Yahweh has given them a divine status {v. 6}, yet they will die just like men and like the lesser rulers who rule under them {v. 7}. The psalmist then calls upon God to rule the earth himself.

Kings As Gods

It is no secret that in the ancient Near East kings were regarded as divine figures. This was not necessarily because they were considered as actual gods, i.e. by nature, but because they were viewed as chosen by and ruling on behalf of an actual god. In this respect they were designated as ‘son’ of the god on who’s behalf they ruled. It was a matter of divine status not of divine ontology. In the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible we read:

A parent-child relationship between the gods and the king was common imagery in the ancient world. such imagery supported the authority of the king and portrayed his role as mediator between the divine realm and the world in which he was to maintain order . . . In Egypt and for a few kings in early Mesopotamia, this relationship was portrayed in terms of a semi-divine king. The Egyptian king manifested divinity in his human form in the embodiment of a deified office . . . (For) the king in Mesopotamia . . . the metaphor of relationship was understood in terms of election and decree to kingship . . . But Assyrian kings were never described with divine titles or worshipped as in Egypt. Kings in David’s genealogical line also held their kingship by divine adoption . . . The adoption metaphor in Israel . . . used terminology similar to that found in other ancient Near East treaties . . . The great king was designated as “father” and the vassal king was his “son.” In this way of thinking, the Davidic king was the “son” of the great King, Yahweh, who was the “father.”

Comment on Psalm 2:6 by John Walton

The fact that kings were regarded as ‘sons’ of the gods on whose behalf they ruled, is what gave them their divine status. We see this concept expressed in v. 6 of Ps. 82: “I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’ “ Therefore, in this passage ‘gods’ = ‘sons of God’. If this is true then the converse is also true i.e. ‘sons of God’ = ‘gods’, but again, as a matter of status not nature.

Seeing then that kings were generally understood to hold a divine status, and that the Davidic king was at least once addressed by the title elohim {see Ps. 45:6}, it may be that other references to ‘gods’ in the psalms are actually references to earthly kings rather than to the deities of the nations. An example may be Ps. 58:1-2:

“Do you indeed speak righteousness, O gods? Do you judge uprightly, O sons of men? No, in heart you work unrighteousness; on earth you weigh out the violence of your hands.” NASV

Verse 1 of this passage is obscure because the word here translated ‘gods’ is translated in other versions as ‘silence’ (ASV, ISR, ISV, ERV) or ‘silent ones’ (NKJV, YLT, WEB). This is because there are two words in the Hebrew which have the same consonants but different vowel pointings in the Masoretic text- elem and elim. Elem is an masculine adjective which acts as a noun and comes from the verb alam meaning to be mute, hence ‘silent one’. Elim is the plural form of el which is translated as God or god. The idea of ‘silent ones’ or ‘silence’ does not seem to fit the context of the verse, for then you would have ‘silent ones’ speaking or speaking ‘in silence’, which makes little sense. There have been various attempts to explain the verse from this perspective but they always seem strained. Another problem with elem is that it is a masculine singular construct, whereas the verbs for speaking and judging are plural. Also if the plural ‘sons of men’ is meant to parallel the singular elem, then again we have a problem. Therefore, it seems best to repoint the vowels differently than the Masoretic text, and in fact many scholars favor doing so, and read elim instead of elem. This gives us a plural noun agreeing with the plural verbs and the plural parallel ‘sons of men’. This change of the vowel points is reflected in the following versions: AMP, CEB, EHV, ESV, ESVUK, NASB, NASB1995, NRSV, OJB, RSV.

Other versions accept the reading elim over elem but translate it as ‘mighty ones’ or ‘rulers’, because el is sometimes used of great rulers in the Hebrew Bible {see Ezek. 31:11 where it refers to Nebuchanezzar}. El appears in plural construct in Ezek. 32:21, where the context reveals that it refers to kings and princes of the nations. As noted above, this application of the title el to these rulers is probably in reference to their divine status.

Now Heiser might object that if elim is the correct reading then the passage may refer to the members of the divine council, which in his understanding are actual ontologically divine beings. But this seems ruled out by the parallelism in Ps. 58:1 between these elim and the ‘sons of men’. Now some versions translate the passage as if the ‘sons of men’ are the recipients of the judging of the elim rather than as a parallel designation of the elim:

  • CSB – “Do you judge people fairly?”
  • CEB – “do you really judge humans fairly?”
  • ERV – “You are not judging people fairly.”
  • ESV – “Do you judge the children of man uprightly?”
  • ISV – “How can you judge people fairly?”
  • NIV – “Do you judge people with equity?”

These translations leave open the possibility that the elim are heavenly beings rather than earthly kings. But if the two clauses of verse 1 are meant to be parallel, and I think this is the case, then ‘sons of men’ should be taken as vocative just as elim is in all of the above versions. Hence, the NASV, quoted earlier, would give the best rendering of the verse, making the elim equivalent to the ‘sons of men’, thus ruling out elim as a reference to heavenly beings. Furthermore, if the ‘sons of men’ were the recipients of the judging or the sphere in which the elim judged, we would expect a preposition such as be or le to be prefixed to the word ‘sons’ such as at Num. 8:17 and Ps. 12:8. Thus, Ps. 58:1-2 is good evidence of earthly kings being referred to as ‘gods’.

Another possible reference to earthly kings as ‘gods’ is Ps. 89:27, where speaking of David and his descendants after him who attain to the throne, God says:

“I will appoint him my firstborn, the most high of the kings of the earth.”

Here the Davidic king is regarded as Yahweh’s firstborn son. But this implies other sons besides the Davidic king i.e. the kings of the earth. The kings of the earth are also designated, then, as ‘sons of God’, though the Davidic king holds the highest rank among them, and as we saw earlier sons of God = gods i.e. divine status.

Still yet another possible instance of earthly kings being called ‘gods’ is Ex. 15:11:

“Who among the gods (elim) is like you O Yahweh? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?”

Why should we take this as a reference to earthly kings rather than of the deities of the nations? The context of the passage is a song of praise which Moses and the Israelites sang to God after the Egyptian army was destroyed. The song depicts Yahweh as a great warrior king who has just defeated his enemies in battle. While this could be taken in the sense that Yahweh defeated the gods of Egypt, it was in fact Pharaoh and his army which Yahweh defeated. This defeat is described in great poetic strains and the focus is always on Pharaoh and his army and never on the gods of Egypt {see vv. 1-12}. In vv. 14-15 the song speaks of the nations of Canaan hearing of this great defeat of the mighty Egypt and trembling in fear. Verse 15 specifically speaks of the kings of the Canaanite nations fearing their own demise at the hand of the great warrior king Yahweh, and uses parallel terms to do so. The first term is alluwph which is translated as chief; the second is el which, as we’ve already seen means god; and the third is yashab, a participle meaning the inhabiting ones, but in this case probably means the sitting ones i.e. the ones sitting on the throne {for this use see Is. 10:13; Amos 1:5; Ps. 2:4; 9:7; 22:4; 29:10; 1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; Ps. 99:1}. Once again, no mention is made of the deities of the Canaanite nations only of their earthly rulers. For these reasons the ‘gods’ of v. 11 should be taken as human rulers, in the sense that Yahweh, the king of Israel, is greater than the kings of all the nations and none among them can compare with him.

Other passages show how, often, kings took their divine status beyond what was proper and, becoming puffed up, began to regard themselves as being more than simply a representative of their god. Two passages which vividly depict this with mocking tones is Ezek. 28:1-19 and Is. 14:12-15. In these passages God taunts the proud and arrogant kings and tells of their demise {Ezek. 28:19 and Is. 14:9-11}. This is very reminiscent of Ps. 82: 6-7.

Kings Are Responsible To God

In Scripture the kings of the earth are depicted as being set in place by God and ruling on behalf of God. The clearest statement of this is in the NT:

Everyone must submit to the supreme authorities, for there is no authority except under God. Those which exist are under God, having been established . . . For he (i.e. the one in authority) is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do evil be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, the one carrying out justice unto punishment to the one doing evil.

Romans 13:1-4

That this refers to kings in particular can be seen by the fact that 1 Peter 2:13 used the same word Paul used, huperecho, translated in the quote above as ‘supreme’, and applies it specifically to kings. Paul believed kings were set in place by God and were therefore under God i.e. responsible to him for how they carried out their office. There can be no doubt that Paul derived this view from the Hebrew scriptures. Some passages which come to mind are:

  • Dan. 2:20-21“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever . . . he deposes kings and raises up kings . . .”
  • Dan. 2:37-38“You, O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory. In your hand he has placed mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Wherever they live he has made you ruler over them all . . .”
  • Dan. 4:17“. . . the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to whoever he pleases and sets over them the lowliest of men.”
  • Jer. 27:5-7 “With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and it’s people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar . . . all nations will serve him . . .”

Here is another pertinent passage which deserves some attention:

The nobles of the nations have gathered together the people of the God of Abraham, for the shields (i.e. kings) of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.

Psalm 47:9

The term ‘shields’ is a metaphor for kings. This can be seen in the synonymous parallelism of Ps. 89:18, where the Davidic king is viewed as belonging to Yahweh. Whether Psalm 47 depicts some period of time in the past or envisions a future time, it portrays the kings of the earth as also belonging to God. In the Hebrew text the lamed is prefixed to elohim (God) signifying to or for God, thereby denoting that the kings of the earth render service to or on behalf of God as vassals kings. This is confirmed by v. 2 which speaks of Yahweh as the “Most High, the great king over all the earth,” and by v. 8, which declares, “God reigns over the nations.” This need not imply that the kings of the earth know or acknowledge that they serve at the behest of God, but only that from God’s perspective they rule at his pleasure.

Now let’s see what the main duties of a king was from God’s perspective:

  • 2 Chron. 9:8“Praise be to Yahweh your God who . . . placed you on his throne as king to rule for Yahweh your God . . . he has made you king . . .to maintain justice and righteousness.”
  • Psalm 72:2-4, 12-14He (the king) will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice . . . he will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor . . . For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence . . .”
  • Jer. 21:11 – “Moreover, say to the royal house of Judah, ‘Hear the word of Yahweh; O house of David, this is what Yahweh says, “Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed.”
  • Jer. 22:1-3“This is what Yahweh says, ‘Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there: “Hear the word of Yahweh, O king of Judah, you who sit on David’s throne . . . Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.”
  • Prov. 31:4-9“It is not for kings, O Lemuel, not for kings to drink wine . . . lest they drink and forget what the law decrees, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights . . . Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge righteously; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

I think it is safe to say that God established kingship in the ancient world as a means of bringing some level of order and peace to human societies. Without such a form of centralized rule societies in the ancient world would have quickly collapsed into anarchy and chaos. In order to accomplish this it was indispensable for kings to maintain justice and equity toward all the people under their rule. Although the passages above were primarily written with regard to the Davidic king, I believe we would be justified in extrapolating that God required of all kings the same concern for maintaining justice and equity on the throne.

This leads us to the charge made against the ‘gods’ of Psalm 82. In v. 2 we read:

How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked.

Ps. 82:2

And then comes the call for them to fulfill their divine duty in accordance with God’s purpose in establishing kingship:

Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain justice for the afflicted and needy. Rescue the weak and oppressed; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Ps. 82:3-4

The question must be asked – if the ‘gods’ of v. 1 are ontologically divine beings ruling over earthly kingdoms from a heavenly sphere, in what way did they “defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?” It must be stated categorically that the duties enjoined in vv. 3-4 are the duties of earthly kings not of heavenly beings. There is no passage in scripture that I am aware of that makes the justice and protection of the weak and afflicted envisioned in this passage, the commission of heavenly beings. Yet, we are explicitly told that these are the duties of human kings.

The ‘gods’ are further rebuked in v. 5:

They know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

Ps. 82:5

Once again, does this fit better with members of a heavenly divine council or with earthly kings who are ignorant of the true God and the fact that they rule at his pleasure and are therefore responsible to him. Could it really be said of the ontologically divine members of Yahweh’s council, who would know Yahweh personally and would know their responsibility before him, that they know and understand nothing?

Answering Heiser’s Objections

In his 2010 paper Heiser makes the claim that arguing that these [gods] are human beings is inescapably incoherent. In the paper he claims that he has demonstrated that there is no coherent argument in favor of the human identification. But Heiser has failed to do this because he simply argues against only one particular version of the human identification view, i.e. that of the human judges of Israel. My view actually eliminates immediately one of Heiser’s objections to the judges of Israel view. On page 8 of the paper Heiser says:

First, it is worth noting that these judges (of Ex. 22:7-9). . . are rendering decisions for the nation of Israel – not the nations of the world as is the case in Psalm 82 . . .

Heiser’s 2010 paper p. 8

You can see that my view that the ‘gods’ are metaphorical of the kings of the earth removes this objection completely. I agree with Heiser that v. 8 of Ps. 82 requires a focus on the nations and not just Israel. This is partially why I revised my former view which saw the ‘gods’ as only the kings of Judah and Israel.

Another objection of Heiser’s is found in v. 7 where it is said of the gods, “you will die like men.” He thinks this rules out that the ‘gods’ are men because why would men be told that they “will die like men?” He believes God is announcing his judgment against these corrupt members of the divine council, which judgment being that “they will lose their immortality.” But there are a couple of problems with this objection. First, it is a bit myopic and prosaic. Heiser reads the psalm as if it were literal prose instead of the highly poetic work that it clearly is. A better way to understand the verse is that they “will die like men” is said in contrast to Yahweh’s designation of them as ‘gods’; though they hold a divine status they will die like the men they are. Second, what exactly would it mean for pure spirit beings to die. In Heiser’s world when men die they only die physically, but their spirits live on in a disembodied state – this is what it means for men to die in Heiser’s view. Since he takes the passage literally then these spirit beings will “die like men.” Yet he seems to be saying that these beings will cease to exist i.e. being pure spirit beings who live forever, they will lose their immortality and so die. But how is this dying like men, who do not cease to exist when they die, from Heiser’s perspective. To die like men these divine beings would have to merely shed off some form in which they now exist to exist forever in some other form not suitable to their own domain. I would like to hear a clear explanation of the death of these divine beings by Heiser.

I will now address the six items that Heiser lists at the end of his paper which he thinks proves conclusively that the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 cannot refer to humans. Please refer to the paper for each item as I will not repeat them here.

1.) This point hearkens back to pp.2-3 in the paper, where Heiser lists six figures in the Hebrew Bible who are called elohim – Yahweh, both the loyal and disloyal members of Yahweh’s divine council, the gods of the nations, demons, the disembodied human dead, and angels. First off, I’m confused, because he lists the members of the divine council and the gods of the nations as distinct things. But I thought that in his view the gods of the nations are the disloyal members of the council. Anyway, He then says that what all these have in common is that “they are by nature not part of the world of humankind.” Heiser gives the impression that the term elohim is never applicable to humans, but this is false. I have heard Heiser himself acknowledge that Ps. 45:6 refers to the Davidic king by the term elohim, but he fails to mention this in this paper. Also in Exodus 7:1 Yahweh says to Moses, “I have appointed you elohim to Pharaoh.” Of course, both of these instances reflect a representational application of the term i.e. it is a matter of status and function, not of nature. Heiser never seems to address this use of elohim for humans though I can’t imagine he is unaware of this concept. So we see that the term elohim can be applied to humans in a certain sense.
2.) This point I do not believe Heiser has proved conclusively despite his confident assertions. All he has proven is that the language of Deut. 32 and Ps. 82 could accommodate the idea of a divine council, and from this he extrapolates that the language requires such an interpretation. But these passages can easily be interpreted within a biblical framework without recourse to the concept of a divine council of gods ruling over the nations. Heiser simply wants the scripture to conform to the pagan religious texts of the ANE. He states that “no text in the Old Testament assigns to human Israelite judges [authority over the disinherited nations].” Well I agree, but there are plenty of texts that state emphatically that God has given authority over the disinherited nations to human beings, namely kings: 1 Kings 4:21; Ps. 115:16; 148:11; Is. 14:9; Ezek. 31:11; Dan. 2:36-38; 4:17; 5:19.
3.) I am not sure what Heiser thinks ‘demons’ are, though I think in his book titled Demons (which I have not read) he equates them with the disembodied spirits of the Nephilim. But Deut. 32:17, which he quotes on p. 6 of the paper, seems to equate demons with the gods worshiped by the nations, which Heiser believes are members of the council. This seems to be an inconsistency in his position (perhaps his book clears it up). Nevertheless, this point is totally irrelevant to whether the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 are human or divine. His point seems to be that if demons = the gods worshiped by the nations, then these gods have to be actual beings and not just imaginary gods. But this is not a necessary conclusion. If demons are actual spirit entities which crave and thrive on the worship people give to false gods in the form of idols, this would not necessarily mean that the demons are literally gods, but just impersonators of gods. This seems to be confirmed by 1 Tim 4:1 which equates demons with deceitful spirits. The adjective deceitful (Gr. planos) denotes misleading, deceiving, and when used substantively it denotes an imposter or deceiver.
4.) This point is really the whole crux of the matter for Heiser. Everything must be made to conform to the pagan religious texts of the ANE. This is what drives much of Heiser’s exegesis. But what if these texts were inspired by those very same deceiving spirits mentioned above, in an attempt to confuse the truth of God with the errors of the pagan nations? Wouldn’t Heiser be playing right into their hands?
5.) Here, once again, Heiser’s exegesis lacks nuance and so falls flat. In the paper, he looks at the passages where elohim is typically thought to be referring to judges – Ex. 22:7-9 and 21:2-6. In both of these passages individuals are required to come before or be brought before God (i.e. elohim) and this has been taken to refer to the judges. Now I agree with Heiser that elohim in these verses does not refer specifically to the judges themselves. But Heiser fails to recognize the role of the judges in these situations. When someone was to come before God where would they go? Or when someone was to be brought before God, to where would they actually bring them? The answer is to the judges, who were acting as representatives of the people before God. This is similar to when an individual Israelite would bring an offering to Yahweh he would literally bring it to the priest. The priest was not Yahweh but represented the person before Yahweh. In the same way, to follow the instructions given in these two passages one was probably required to go to the judges in order to bring their case before God.
6.) This point is only relevant if one thinks Jesus is deity and that he quoted Ps. 82:6 in order to prove his deity, both of which I deny. The passage in John 10 makes perfectly good sense if one does not think a.) that Jesus is deity b.) that the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 are actual gods c.) that Jesus is trying to prove his deity by quoting Ps. 82 in John 10. Or said another way, it makes good sense if one sees a.) Jesus as the chosen son of David destined to take the throne b.) the gods of Ps. 82 as kings and c.) Jesus’ point in John 10 is that, based on a.) he had a right to the title ‘son of God’.

Final Thoughts

So why does this even matter? So what if the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 are real gods or just a metaphor for human kings? Well, in the larger scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter much. But I do see a lot of confusion about this passage and about Jesus’ use of the psalm in his conflict with the Jews in John 10. Heiser’s take on John 10 borders on ridiculous and is a prime example of eisegesis, i.e. reading one’s presuppositions into the text. He thinks the only way to adequately understand John 10 is through the paradigm of the divine council. He thinks that John is presenting Jesus’ deity in 10:22-42. He thinks that Jesus quotes Ps.82:6 in order to “establish his claim to be God.” None of these ideas are explicit in the text; Heiser is simply reading the text in accordance with his theological predilections. I will not take the time here to refute his claims on John 10, as I have done so in the article linked at the beginning of this one, and also in this article. So it matters because, when a certain misinterpretation of Ps. 82 is then used to support a certain misinterpretation of Jesus in the gospels, it becomes necessary to address the errors that led to the misinterpretation of Ps. 82.



Observations on the Use Of Kurios in the NT in Relationship to God and Jesus and With Respect to the Definite Article

It is well known by serious Bible students that in the New Testament the Greek word kurios is used to denote the Tetragrammaton i.e. the name of God, YHWH, whenever OT passages that contain the Name are quoted. This coincides with the Septuagint (LXX) practice (from the 2nd century CE on) of using kurios (typically without the definte article) in place of the Tetragram. The earliest copies of the Greek OT did contain the Tetragram in various forms, such as old Hebrew, Paleo-Hebrew, or various Greek transliterations, such as IAW (so LXX manuscripts before the second century do not have kurios in place of YHWH). Later manuscripts abandoned this use and substituted kurios in place of the Tetragram. This stemmed from the Jewish practice of not saying the divine name when reading scripture, but substituting adonai instead. Adonai is the intensive plural of adoni which means my lord. Therefore, kurios is not a translation of the Tetragram, but rather a translation of adonai, in both the LXX and the NT. Kurios has no semantic relationship to YHWH, but does share the same semantic range with adon and adonai.

So when kurios is used in the NT it cannot be simply assumed that it is denoting the divine name, for the word is also used quite often in accordance with it’s own semantic range. The uses of kurios in the NT are as follows:

  1. As a substitute for the name of God, YHWH, based on the practice of pronouncing adonai instead of speaking the Tetragram
  2. As the translation of adonai when referring to God as Lord or Master
  3. As the translation of adon when referring to men

The problem that we encounter when reading our English versions is that both 1. and 2. are translated as “the Lord“, and 3. is translated as “the Lord” when referring to Jesus and as lord” when referring to men other than Jesus. So you can see that when you encounter “the Lord” in your English bibles it can be ambiguous as to who is being referred to or in what sense, if the context does not clearly establish it’s usage. What I will present in this article are my observations on how the phrase “the Lord” can be understood in relation to the presence or absence of the definite article.

At first glance it may appear that the presence or absence of the article before kurios in the NT is random. The article is both present and absent in uses of kurios that refer to God as well as in uses that refer to Jesus. While it is an attractive idea to suggest that the originals and the earliest copies of NT documents contained some form of the Tetragrammaton, the fact is we have no extant NT manuscripts which evidence this. All extant copies of NT manuscripts use kurios in place of YHWH when quoting OT passages which contain the Name. This being so, it is reasonable to think that Jewish scribes had some means of distinguishing between the use of kurios as a substitute for YHWH and it’s more common use as a title for either God or men. I believe that a pattern emerges, when one looks at all of the uses of kurios in the NT, that helps the reader to discern how the use of kurios is to be understood.

Observation 1 In cases where we know for certain that kurios is being used as a substitute for YHWH, such as in OT quotations in which the Tetragram appears in the Hebrew text, it is typically anarthrous (i.e. without the definite article).

It is also true that the LXX typically uses an anarthrous kurios for YHWH, but there are some exceptions, which should be expected. At least some exceptions could be due to inadvertent inclusions of the article by copyists. In the NT we have the same phenomenon of exceptions, but in every case they follow the LXX.

The verses which demonstrate Obs. 1 are: Matt. 3:3; 4:7, 10; 21:42; 22:37, 44; 27:10; Mark 1:3; 11:9; 12:11, 29, 30, 36; Luke 3:4; 4:8, 12, 18, 19; 10:27; 20:42; John 1:23; 12:13, 38; Acts 2:20, 21; 3:22; 7:37, 49; 15:17; Rom. 4:8; 9:28, 29; 10:13, 16; 11:34; 12:19; 14:11; 1 Cor. 1:31; 2:16; 3:20; 14:21; Heb. 7:21; 8:8-11; 10:16, 30; 12:5-6; 13:6; 1 Pet. 1:25; 3:12 (2x).

There are a few exceptions, where the Hebrew text being quoted has YHWH and the NT has kurios with the definite article. In each of these cases the LXX also has the article, so that it would seem that the NT author simply followed the LXX, perhaps being unaware of the Hebrew text. Here are the exceptions: Acts 2:25, 34; 4:26; Rom. 15:11; 1 Cor. 10:26; Heb. 8:11; 1 Pet. 2:3.

Observation 2 When “the Lord” stands alone in our English bibles, without any other name or title attached, and the context clearly establishes that Jesus is the referent, then kurios is typically arthrous (i.e. with the definite article), except in cases where Jesus is being addressed.

The verses that demonstrate Obs. 2 are: Matt. 21:3 (?); 28:6; Mark 11:3 (?); 16:19; Luke 7:13, 31; 10:1, 39, 41; 11:39; 12:42; 13:15; 17:5; 18:6: 19:8, 31 (?), 34 (?); 22:31, 61; 24:34; John 6:23; 11:2; 20:2, 18, 20, 25; 21:7, 12; Acts 9:27, 35, 42; 11:16 (?), 21 (2nd x), 23, 24; 13:12; 18:8; 23:11; Rom. 12:11; 14:8; 1 Cor. 2:8; 4:5; 6:13-14, 17; 9:5; 11:26, 27, 29; 15:47; 2 Cor. 5:6, 8; 8:5, 19; Gal. 1:19; Eph. 5:22; 6:7; Phil. 4:5; 1 Thess. 1:6; 4:15-17; 2 Thess. 1:9; 2 Tim. 1:8, 18(1st x); 4:8; Heb. 2:3; James 5:7-8, 14.

The exceptions to this observation are primarily with the phrase “in the Lord” (Gr. en kurios). All instances of this phrase are anarthrous and in the dative case. The lack of the article cannot be determinate for kurios not referring to Jesus or for being a substitute for YHWH because the article is implicit in this construction.

Observation 3 There are many instances when “the Lord” stands alone in the text and kurios is anarthrous and the context clearly establishes God as the referent. I propose that these anarthrous uses of kurios for God should be understood as substitutions for YHWH.

Here are examples: All passages with the phrase “angel of the Lord“, such as Matt. 1:20, 24; 2:13, 19; 28:2; Lk. 1:11; 2:9; Acts 5:19; 8:26; 12:7, 23. Passages where something from the OT is being referenced, such as Matt. 1:22; 2:15; 21:9; 23:39; Lk. 1:16, 17, 76; 2:23, 24, 39; 20:37; Acts 7:31; Eph. 6:8; 1 Thess. 5:2; James 4:10; 5:4, 10, 11; 2 Pet. 2:9, 11; 3:8, 9, 10; Jude 1:5, 9, 14; Rev. 1:8; 4:8; 22:5. Passages where God is seen as presently at work, such as Mark 13:20; Lk. 1:25, 32, 38, 45, 58, 66, 68; 2:9 (2nd x), 26; 5:17; 19:38; Acts 1:24; 2:39; 4:29; 5:9; 8:39; 11:21; Rom. 14:6 (3x); 1 Cor. 4 4; 7:22 (2x), 25 (2x), 39; 14:37; 16:10; 2 Cor. 2:12; here’s a significant one: 3:16, 17 (2nd x), 18 (2x); 8:21; 11:17; 12:1; Eph. 6:4, 8; Phil. 3:1; 4:4, 10; Col. 3:20; 1 Thess. 4:6, 15, 17 (2nd x); 5:27; 2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 1:18; 2:19 (2x), 24; Rev. 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 18:8; 19:6.

Some of these may be disputed, of course, as inadvertent omissions of the article by a copyist, but there is no way to be certain.

Observation 4There are many instances where “the Lord” stands alone in the English text and is arthrous in the Greek text, and God is the referent. I propose that these should be understood as corresponding to the Hebrew title adon or adonai which is applied to God in the Hebrew Bible.

The passages are: Matt. 5:33; 9:38; Mark 5:19; 16:20; Lk. 1:6, 9, 15, 28, 46; 2:15, 22, 23 (2nd x); 10:2; Acts3:19; 7:33; 8:22, 24; 9:31; 10:33; 12:11, 17; 13:2, 10, 47; 14:3; 15:40; 16:14, 15; 18:25; 20:19; 21:14; Rom. 14:4; 1 Cor. 4:19; 7:17; 10:9, 22, 26; 11:32; 16:7; 2 Cor. 3:17 (1st x); 5:11; 10:18; 12:8; 13:10; Eph. 5:10, 17, 19; Col. 1:10; 3:22, 23; 2 Thess. 3:3, 5, 16 (2x); 2 Tim. 1:16, 18 (1st x); 2:7; 3:11; 4:14, 17,18; Heb. 8:2; 12:14; James 1:7; 3:9; 4:15; 5:11 (2nd x), 15; 1 Pet. 2:13; 2 Pet. 3:15; Rev. 4:11; 11:15; 21:22; 22:6.

A couple of these may be disputed as references to Jesus but most are clearly references to God. Included in this group are most if not all verses containing the phrase “the word of the Lord.” The nine occurrences of the phrase in Acts fit this observation and should be read as “the word of the adonai“. The phrase is used interchangeably with the similar phrase “the word of God.” In 1 Thess. 4:15 kurios is anarthrous and would therefore fall under Observation 3.

Observation 5Of 126 occurrences of “the Lord” in conjunction with “Jesus”, “Christ” or “Jesus Christ”, 100 are arthrous and are found in all cases, but predominantly the genitive case (71).

The verses which fall under this category are: Lk. 24:3; Acts 1:21; 4:33; 8:16; 9:17; 11:17; 11:20; 15:11; 15:26; 16:31; 19:5; 19:13; 19:17; 20:21; 20:24; 20:35; 21:13; 28:31; Rom. 1:4; 4:24; 5:1; 5:11; 5:21; 6:23; 7:25; 8:39; 13:14; 15:6; 15:30; 16:20; 1 Cor. 1:2; 1:7; 1:8; 1:9; 1:10; 5:4; 6:11; 9:1; 11:23; 15:31; 15:57; 16:23; 2 Cor. 1:3; 1:14; 4:14; 8:9; 11:31; 13:14; Gal. 6:14; 6:18; Eph. 1:3; 1:15; 1:17; 3:11; 5:20; 6:24; Phil. 3:8; 4:23; Col. 1:3; 2:6; 3:24; 1 Thess. 1:3; 2:5; 2:19; 3:11; 3:13; 4:2; 5:9; 5:23; 5:28; 2 Thess. 1:7; 1:8; 1:12; 2:8; 2:14; 2:16; 3:6; 3:18; 1 Tim. 1:2; 1:12; 6:3; 6:14; 2 tim. 1:2; Philemon 1:5; 1;25; Heb. 13:20; James 2:1; 1 Pet. 1:3; 2 Pet. 1:2; 1:8; 1:11; 1:14; 1:16; 2:20; 3:18; Jude 1:4; 1:17; 1:21; 1:25; Rev. 22:21.

Observation 6There are 26 anarthrous occurrences of kurios, when used in conjunction with “Jesus”, “Christ” or “Jesus Christ”. These fall into three categories:

1.) In the introductory and closing benedictions of the epistles, mainly of Paul, where the full title “the Lord Jesus Christ” (or some variation) occurs in juxtaposition to “God, our [the] Father”. Not only is ‘kurios’ always anarthrous in these instances but so is ‘pater‘ (i.e. Father). Here are the verses: Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; 6:23; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1 (2x); 2 Thess. 1:2; Philemon 1:3; James 1:1. In these verses the article is implicit, which is why every English version includes the article in their translation.
2.) In passages which are setting forth a confession made by believers: Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor: 12:3; 2 Cor. 4:5; Phil. 2:11.
3.) In the prepositional phrase “in the Lord Jesus [Christ]” : Rom. 14:14; Phil. 2:19; 1 Thes. 4:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; 3:12 (see the exception to Observation 2 above).

There are four anomalies to this observation: Lk. 2:11; Phil. 3:20; Col. 3:17; 1 Pet. 3:15. Lk. 2:11 is a case of a nominative in simple apposition and the article is implied, hence all English versions have “Christ the Lord.” Phil. 3:20 may be a case of an inadvertent omission of the article by a copyist. All English versions supply the article. Col. 3:17 is likely also a copyist’s accidental omission; again all English versions have the article. In 1 Pet. 3:15 ‘Lord‘ and ‘the Christ‘ should probably be taken as appositional, and hence should read, “But sanctify the Lord, the Christ . . .” This would be in distinction to ‘the Lord, the God.’

Specific Passages

Let’s look at some specific passages to see how these observations can aid us when reading scripture. Let’s look at Rom. 14:5-9. The word kurios appears 7 times (8 times with the variant reading): 3 times (4 times with the variant) in v. 6 without the article, 3 times in v. 8 with the article, and in v. 9 in the verb form kurieuo, meaning ‘to exercise lordship over’. There are a number of ways we could read this passage. We must first ask some questions. Why are three (or 4) of the uses of kurios anarthrous and three arthrous? They are all in the dative case except the third one in v. 8 which is genitive, so what makes the difference? Is there a single referent in view or not?

I included the three anarthrous cases under observation 3 but I did not include the three arthrous case in v. 8 under any of the observations because of the ambiguity involved. Are these three cases referring to the Lord God or the Lord Jesus? So let’s see the different ways to read the text.

5. One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be convinced in his own mind. 6. He who regards one day as special, does so to Yahweh. He who eats meat, eats to Yahweh, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to Yahweh and gives thanks to God. 7. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. 8. If we live, we live for the Lord God; and if we die , we die for the Lord God. So, whether we live or die we belong to the Lord God. 9. Indeed, the reason Messiah both died and came to life was so that he should be lord of both the dead and the living.

Rom. 14:5-9


This reading finds support from vv. 3-4 where Paul states that the man who eats is accepted by God i.e. as his servant. He then warns against judging another’s servant. The ‘another’ refers back to God, who is then called the servant’s “own lord”, to whom he either stands or falls. Paul then says that the Lord (i.e. God) is able to make him stand. Furthermore, in verses 10-12, the focus is on giving an account to God.

Another way we could read this passage is like this:

5. One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be convinced in his own mind. 6. He who regards one day as special, does so to Yahweh. He who eats meat, eats to Yahweh, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to Yahweh and gives thanks to God. 7. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. 8. If we live, we live for the Lord (Jesus); and if we die, we die for the Lord (Jesus). So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord (Jesus). 9. Indeed, the reason Messiah died and came to life was so that he should be lord of both the dead and the living.

Rom. 14:5-9


This reading has in it’s favor Paul’s statement in v. 9 regarding the Messiah being lord of the living and the dead, and provides a smoother transition from v. 8 to v.9, although it makes the transition from vv.6-7 to v. 8 less smooth. Only the context can aid us in determining who is the referent in v.8.

The context is that of servanthood. As believers we do not live to ourselves i.e. when we make decisions about how to behave or about what course of action to take in a given circumstance, it is not only our own will, desires and feelings that we must take into consideration, but the will and desire of another, the one whose servant we are. But who do we serve – God or Jesus? The Trinitarian and Oneness Christian will say that there is no difference, because in their systems Jesus and God are either the same being or the same person respectively. The biblical unitarian will say both, for to serve the Messiah is to serve the one who appointed him. In fact, biblically speaking, one cannot properly serve God while refusing to serve his appointed agent, Yahweh’s anointed one. The faithful servant of God will serve his Messiah. In the NT believers are designated as servants of both God and Christ {of God see Rom. 1:9; 6:22; 2 Cor. 6:4; Phil. 3:3; 1 Thess. 1:9; 2 Tim. 1:3; Titus 1:1; Heb. 9:14; James 1:1; 1 Pet.2:16; Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 7:3, 15; 19:5; 22:3,6; of Christ see Rom. 1:1; 14:18; 1 Cor. 4:1; Eph. 6:6; Phil. 1:1; Col. 4:12; Jude 1:1}. So the passage makes sense from either of the proposed readings offered above.

Now let’s look at 1 Cor. 4:4-5 to see another example of how kurios can be used with two different referents in the same passage. The first kurios is anarthrous and the second has the article.

4. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is Yahweh who judges me. 5. Therefore, judge nothing before the appointed time, but wait till the Lord (Jesus) comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.

1 Cor. 4:4-5


Here we see ‘the Lord‘ appears twice in two verses, but with a distinction – the absence and presence of the article. How could this not have been on purpose, in order to make a distinction between the two ‘Lords’? The theology of this reading is confirmed in Rom. 2:29: “This will take place in the day when God will judge men’s secrets by Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” and in Acts 17:31: “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has provided assurance of this to all men by raising him from the dead.

Now I want to look at an important passage where kurios is used five times, but in two different ways, in my opinion, 4x in accordance with Observation 3 and once in accordance with Observation 4. The passage is 2 Cor. 3:16-18. The first, third, fourth and fifth kurios accord with Obs. 3 and, I propose, the second kurios accords with Obs. 4. Here is how I would read the passage:

16. But whenever anyone turns to YHWH, the veil is taken away. 17. Now the Lord (God) is the spirit, and where the spirit of YHWH is there is freedom. 18. And we all, having been unveiled in face, and beholding as in a mirror the glory of YHWH (i.e. in the face of Messiah; see 4:6), are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as from YHWH (comes the) spirit.

2 Cor. 3:16-18


Now I know that most exegetes see all the occurrences of kurios in this passage as referring to Jesus, but I think the above reading can be justified. First it answers why four of the five uses of kurios are anarthrous. Although, from my perspective, God is the referent for all of them, he is being referred to in two different ways – once as Adonai (i.e. Lord) and four times as YHWH.

Next, the concept of ‘turning’ is typically used of an action done toward God { see Acts 3:19; 14:15; 15:19; 20:21; 26:20; 1 Thess. 1:9}. The phrase “turn[ed] to the Lord” occurs 3 times – in our text and in Acts 9:35 and 11:21. These verses can be taken either way, as referring to God or to Jesus. Because typically ‘turning’ is toward God, then that makes me favor God as the referent in these three verses.

Next, the phrase ”spirit of the Lord” is quite common in the Hebrew Bible, where it renders the Hebrew phrase ‘ ruach YHWH.’ In the NT the phrase occurs three other times besides in our text, Lk. 4:18; Acts 5:9; 8:39. In each case kurios is anarthrous and is clearly referring to God. The phrase appears to be synonymous with the more common phrase “the spirit of God.”

Next, the phrase “the glory of the Lord” is, again, quite common in the Hebrew Bible, where it translates ‘kabowd YHWH.’ In the NT the phase appears once more, at Luke 2:9, where again it is without the article. The most natural way to take the phrase in our text is as a referent to YHWH. Finally, the last kurios, being anarthrous, should be taken as the previous three anarthrous uses.

But why take the one arthrous use of kurios as a reference to God as Lord (Adonai) rather than as a reference to Jesus as Lord? I admit that this arthrous use of kurios is ambiguous and could refer to either God or Jesus. The statement itself ( i.e. “the Lord is the spirit”) does not help us because it is unusual and not found anywhere else in either the OT or NT, so we have nothing to compare it to. It is a one-off statement that is strange to our ears. There are no textual variants for this verse so the text stands as it is.

Even if we could determine who the referent is, what does the verse mean? While the statement, taken in the most literal sense, would seem to be equating either YHWH or Jesus with the Spirit, I think that it is possible to take the statement in a figurative sense. Not every such statement, like a is b, would necessarily mean a = b, for there is an idiomatic use of such statements. For example, the phrases ‘money is power’ and ‘knowledge is power’ are understood to mean not that money and knowledge are identical to power but that they are a source of power in some sense, they result in power of some kind. If I say “water is life” I do not mean that water and life are the same thing but that water is necessary for life to be maintained. Let’s look at some biblical examples of this idiom.

1 John 4:8 – “God is love” – This does not mean that God and love are the same thing, but rather that God is the ultimate source of love, as verse 7 states.

John 6:63 – Jesus said, “the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” – This means that the words he spoke, if believed, are the means by which one receives the spirit and everlasting life.

John 12:50 – “I know that [the Father’s] command is eternal life” – This means that the Father’s command will result in or produce eternal life in those who believe.

1 John 5:6 – “the spirit is the truth” – This does not mean that the spirit and the truth are the same thing, but that truth comes from the spirit.

Rom. 1:16 – “the gospel . . . is the power of God” – This means that the gospel is the means of obtaining the power of God for salvation for those who believe it, or that the power of God that brings salvation comes from the gospel.

Rom. 8:6 – “the mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the spirit is life” – These statements mean that these mindsets result in either death or life.

So then we can understand the statement “the Lord is the spirit” idiomatically as “the Lord is the source of the spirit.” Understood this way, the verse could be referring to God as the ultimate source of the spirit {see Acts 5:32; 11:15-17; 15:8; 2 Cor. 5:5; Gal. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:8; Titus 3:5-6; 1 John 3:24} or to Jesus as the secondary source or the channel through which the spirit is given {see John 15:26; 16;7; Acts 2:33; Titus 3:15-17}. So while I prefer to read it as referring to God, I will not argue with those who say it refers to Jesus, in the sense that I have proposed.

Let’s look at one more passage where kurios is probably being used in three senses. The passage is 2 Tim. 1:16-18 and the first possible reading is:

16. May the Lord (God) bestow mercy to the household of Onesiphorus . . . 18. May the Lord (Jesus) grant that he may obtain mercy from Yahweh on that day. . .

2 Tim. 1:16-18


The first two occurrences are arthrous and the last one is anarthrous. Another possible way to read this passage is:

16. May the Lord (Jesus) bestow mercy to the household of Onesiphorus . . . 18. May the Lord (Jesus) grant that he may obtain mercy from Yahweh on that day . . .

2 Tim 1:16-18


While this reading is certainly possible I prefer the first one for the following reason. The predominate idea in the NT is that mercy, in connection with salvation, comes from God {see Lk. 1:50, 58, 72, 78; Rom. 9:16, 18, 23; 11:31: 12:1; 15:9; 2 Cor. 1:3; 4:1; Eph. 2:4; Phil. 2:27; Titus 3:5; Heb. 4:16; James 5:11; 1 Pet. 1:3}. Mercy may be said to come from Jesus, but this would be only in a secondary sense {see 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; 2 John 1:3; Jude 1:21}. V. 18 would be teaching that the mercy of God is finally obtained through Jesus’ mediatorship. In light of v. 18 the first reading seems preferable. If the Lord Jesus can simply bestow mercy upon Onesiphorus {v.16}, then what would be meant by v. 18, unless the mercy that Jesus would bestow is that of interceding for him that he might obtain ultimate mercy from Yahweh. Likewise, the Lord God bestowing mercy upon Onesiphorus in v. 16 would be parallel to Onesiphorus obtaining mercy from Yahweh in v. 18.

What these examples show is that it is not always clear who is being referred to when “the Lord” appears in the text of our English bibles. In many cases the context clearly shows whether God or Jesus is the referent, but there are a number of cases where the referent is ambiguous. In these cases only sound contextual exegesis can help us determine the referent. In some cases we simply have to take our best guess.

A Caveat

I myself am not, by any stretch, an expert in biblical Greek. The observations I presented here are the simple facts of the matter based on the biblical data. However, any propositions I have offered based on these observations are my own opinions, the opinions of one who is not an expert. If any one reading this article, who has some level of expertise in biblical Greek, can show me some aspect of Greek grammar or syntax that would invalidate my propositions, please do so; I am eager to learn and make any necessary corrections.

Why Matt. 23:37 Is Not A Proof Text For The Deity Of Jesus / A Rebuttal of Jonathan Rowlands’ 2019 Article “Jesus and the Wings of YHWH”

I recently listened to an episode of the Theopologetics podcast hosted by Chris Date about the deity of Jesus. Date, a committed trinitarian, just recently published a debate book with Dale Tuggy, a biblical unitarian (BU) and host of the Trinities podcast. The book grew out of a live debate between the two in May 2019 on the proposition ‘Jesus is Human and Not Divine.’ In this podcast episode, as well as in the live debate (the audio of which I have listened to) and the book (which I have not yet read), Date offered what he considers to be an unassailable proof-text for the deity of Jesus – Matt. 23:37.

In the podcast Date gave a tacit acknowledgment that BUs have plausible sounding explanations for many trinitarian and deity of Jesus proof-texts which are routinely used by trinitarian apologists (TA) in debates with BUs. Date lamented the debate tactic used by many TAs of throwing out a plethora of verses in support of these doctrines in a machine gun like fashion. He said that this enables the BU, who could not possibly give an answer to every text cited, to focus on the easier texts, the “low hanging fruit,” and to give plausible interpretations of those texts, thus giving the appearance that they could possibly have answers for all of the other texts cited. Date’s solution to this is to focus only on a few texts, those which he considers the “most powerful biblical texts in support of the deity of Christ,” among which is Matt 23:37.

In the podcast Date quoted from Jonathan Rowlands’ article (which seems to be the source of Date’s confidence), which I summarily downloaded and read and to which I now offer this rebuttal.

At the bottom of this article I have included the relevant links.

Matthew 23:37“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

Rowlands’ Premise

Rowlands premise is stated in his abstract:

” . . . the picture of Jesus as a mother hen builds on an established metaphor that uses the imagery of a protective bird to refer to YHWH’s divine protection over Israel. The author therefore asserts this pericope most likely portrays Jesus as the person of YHWH.”

This is indeed a bold assertion and his method of establishing it’s validity is to:

“assess bird imagery in the ANE ( i.e. the ancient Near East) and HB (i.e. the Hebrew Bible) and then analyse the lament (i.e. Matt. 23:37-39) considering this material.”

He also claims that:

“The HB – following the ANE material – uses this imagery exclusively with reference to YHWH. I contend Matthew and Luke infer the same referent and suggest this reading is preferable over alternative readings.”

Evidence from ANE

First, in section 1, Rowlands admits that bird imagery is used of kings with respect to “acts of war, or even siege warfare,” but is quick to add that “when protective bird imagery is used, it always concerns a deity.” I don’t believe he actually establishes this as a fact in the article, but I will get to that later. In section 1.1 he offers evidence of ‘winged sun disk’ images and speaks of sun worship. He gives a quote from a book by two German scholars in German, so I have no idea what it says. He then makes this statement:

“As solar worship became common, YHWH too was imagined in solar terms.”

What exactly it means that YHWH “was imagined in solar terms” is not clear. He offers Ps. 84:11 as a proof-text:

“For Yahweh God is a sun and shield . . .”

I would hardly say that this passage “imagine[s] [YHWH} in solar terms.” Is YHWH also being imagined in terms of defensive battle equipment? These are simply metaphors or analogies, i.e. God, in some way, is like a sun and a shield. The ‘shield‘ metaphor obviously denotes protection, while the ‘sun‘ metaphor is less obvious. Perhaps it denotes dependability, as the sun can be depended on to rise every morning {see Hosea 6:3}. As far as I can tell, this is the only verse in Scripture that directly speaks of God metaphorically as a sun. Both terms (sun and shield) are metaphorical synonyms for a ‘king‘ and so are meant to portray God as a King, and indeed v. 3 explicitly refers to God as King. The Davidic king was also analogized as the ‘shield’ of the people he ruled, as v. 9 of this psalm states, as well as Ps. 89:18. It is also evident that sun imagery was also used of kings, as in 2 Sam. 23:3-4; Ps. 72:5, 17; Song of Solomon 6:10 and Mal. 4:2. Mal. 4:2 may be a reference to the coming Messianic king, who will arise immediately after or in conjunction with the time of God’s judgment. This seems to be confirmed by an allusion to Mal. 4:2 in Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1:67-79 {see v. 78}. If so, then the king is directly analogized as “a sun of righteousness,” which is said to have “healing in it’s wings.” This would coincide with the winged sun disk symbol which was ubiquitous throughout the Middle East, before and after the Babylonian captivity. I find it strange that Rowlands, in a section titled ‘Winged-Sun Disks’, fails to mention Mal. 4:2 with it’s clear parallel. If my contention is correct, that Mal. 4:2 refers to the coming Messiah king, then Rowlands’ assertion that this kind of imagery only applied to deities is false.

It is also probable that kings in the Levant used the winged sun disk as a symbol of their kingship rather than as a symbol of some deity. John Walton, in his comment on Ps. 84:11, stated regarding the sun metaphor:

. . . Assyrian kings use the metaphor of their protection spreading over the land like the rays of the sun.

Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible p.998

In 2015 a bulla of King Hezekiah’s seal was discovered. On the bulla was the inscription “Belonging to Hezekiah, of Ahaz, King of Judah.” Along with this inscription was an image of a winged sun disk. Now, if Rowlands is correct that such images were used only of deities, then King Hezekiah would have been an idolater, but this would be inconsistent with the portrait of him given in scripture, that of a faithful worshipper of YHWH. Chris Date thinks that the winged sun disk image on the Hezekiah bulla represents YHWH, but Israelites were forbidden to make any image of YHWH. If the portrait of Hezekiah in the HB is to be taken seriously then we must reject this interpretation of the bulla image. It is better to take it as symbolizing Hezekiah’s royal power and protection. It may be true that centuries prior to Hezekiah’s time, in Egypt, deities were represented by winged sun disks and as bird gods, but over time the winged sun disk symbol seems to have evolved into a symbol of royal power and protection, without being equated with deity, throughout the Levant and Mesopotamia.

The material Rowlands presents in sections 1.2 and 1.3 on Egyptian Bird Imagery and other ANE material, I find to be irrelevant to the proper interpretation of Matt 23:37, for the reasons already stated above. Rowlands would have us believe that anyone in the first century reading Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem would have thought of bird gods of Egypt and other ANE cultures. But does this seem reasonable? I think not.

Bird Imagery In the HB

What Rowlands presents in 2.1 is much more relevant to Matt. 23:37, but not necessarily in the way that he thinks. There are a number of passages in the HB where bird metaphors are used of YHWH: Ex. 19:4; Deut. 32:11-12; Ruth 2:12; Is. 31:5; Ps. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4. All of these denote YHWH’s care and protection of his people. The question is, are such metaphors used solely of YHWH in the HB? Well, even if that turned out to be true, would that really necessitate that we understand Jesus’ use of a similar metaphor as being a claim, on his part, to be YHWH. But, in fact, it is not true that this metaphor is never used except of YHWH, despite Chris Date’s vehement attestations in the aforementioned Theopologetics podcast episode. In the list of passages above we see Ruth 2:12, which says:

“May you be richly rewarded by YHWH, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

But what was not mentioned in Rowlands’ article is Ruth 3:9, where Ruth comes to the sleeping Boaz and lies down at his feet. When Boaz awakes during the night he discovers someone laying at his feet and he asks, “Who are you?” Here is how Ruth answered:

“I am your servant Ruth. Spread out your wing over me, since you are my kinsman-redeemer.”

Here Ruth uses the same metaphor regarding Boaz, that Boaz had earlier used of YHWH, entreating him to take her into his care and protection. This is significant but was left out of Rowlands analysis. Here is a clear passage attributing to a man the same metaphor of bird-like protection that is used of YHWH. This may not be the only passage where such imagery is used of a man, as we will see shortly.

I find a number of problems with Rowlands’ assessment of Is. 31:1-5, some of it based on a work by a Y. Shemesh, but since I do not find any relevance in it to a proper understanding of Matt. 23:37, I will not comment on it.

I should note that I find a tendency in Rowlands to exaggerate or overstate the evidence from both the biblical text and from ANE culture. For example, in section 2.1, in commenting on Is. 31:1-5 he says, “In v. 5, the prophet imagines YHWH as a bird.” This is a strange way of expressing the meaning of the Hebrew text, which says:

“Like birds hovering, so will YHWH of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending and rescuing it, passing over and delivering it.”

This is a simile – God’s action towards Jerusalem is compared to birds hovering over their nests to defend their young.

In the last sentence of 2.1 he says that in the ANE culture (as well as in the HB) birds symbolize weakness. He bases this on a Hittite proverb, which he quotes in 1.3, and thinks that this conception of birds symbolizing weakness influenced Is. 31:1-5. Really! But hasn’t he already told us of the pagan deities who were depicted as great falcons or eagles. Were these depictions meant to convey the idea of weakness in these gods? Wouldn’t it have been more accurate to say that some aspects of birds could metaphorically denote weakness, while other aspects could denote strength?

One further example of how he overstates the case is in section 2.2, where in commenting on the story of Ruth he approvingly quotes from R. L. Hubbard Jr.’s commentary on Ruth immediately after quoting Ruth 2:12. Hubbard stated, ” . . . though the oath formula normally has Elohim, Ruth invoked the personal, covenantal name of Yahweh – the only time in the book in which she does so . . .” But in fact, Ruth does not invoke the name YHWH in 2:12, Boaz does. The only time in the book that Ruth herself invokes the name is in 1:17. This may be what Hubbard was referring too, but Rowlands makes it seem like he was referring to 2:12. This kind of inaccuracy pervades the article.

Sections 2.2, 3, 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3 are also extraneous. While the information is interesting it has no value in determining the meaning of Matt. 23:37.

He begins section 4.1 asking, “Why does Jesus describe himself as a mother hen? The esoteric nature of the imagery ensures it stands out, but how has it been understood?” But what is so esoteric about Jesus’ use of a well known metaphor? It seems like he is trying to elicit a sense of mystique about Jesus’ saying, but it seems rather straightforward to me. As God’s chosen one from the line of David, destined to reign over the house of Jacob forever {see Lk. 1:32-33}, it is reasonable to suppose that Jesus had often longed to fulfill his kingly role of caring for and protecting the inhabitants of the very city from which he is destined to carry out his reign. This would be part of his function as YHWH’s anointed one, the Messiah (more on this shortly). Why does it have to mean anything more than this? In fact, it doesn’t.

He goes on to talk about two camps into which commentators fall regarding this passage: 1. as denoting a generic offer of protection and 2. as an allusion to Wisdom. I concur with Rowlands’ assessment that the Wisdom angle is a dead end – sometimes I just don’t understand why scholars feel the need to find parallels between the NT writings and Jewish Wisdom literature that simply don’t exist. As for the other camp, I am not really sure what he means by “a generic offer of protection.” It seems that the only reason he calls it that is because these commentators don’t see Jesus’ saying this as him making a claim to be YHWH himself.

Section 4.1.2, about Wisdom, is simply irrelevant.

In section 4.1.3 he cites a few figures from church history who have seen in this passage a connotation of Jesus’ deity. But so what! What about all the early church fathers who mentioned this verse without connecting the bird imagery used by Jesus to a self claim to deity? And of the ones he cites it must be determined if they saw a connotation of Jesus’ deity in the passage because of the bird imagery or for some other reason.

Next he moves on to citing modern commentators. He laments how many, seeing the bird imagery as originating in the HB, fail to carry it to his own conclusion.

In section 4.2 he lays out his conclusion in clear terms:

“I contend this pericope portrays Jesus as equating himself with YHWH. By this I mean Jesus is said to be the person of YHWH in some sense. To be more specific . . . Jesus claims to be YHWH, not merely to be acting on the part of YHWH or to be an emissary of YHWH. This claim is ontological rather than economic; it primarily concerns who Jesus is, not what he does.” (Emphasis in original)

But how does he know this is an ontological claim rather than an economic one? In fact, he doesn’t, he is merely asserting it. Why? Because that is the presupposition he started out with. There is no reason, based on anything he has presented in the article, to dismiss out of hand the interpretation that Jesus is speaking precisely as the premier representative of YHWH, i.e. YHWH’s anointed one. This shows that Rowlands approached the subject with the conclusion already in mind. Why else would he summarily dismiss the only truly viable alternative interpretation of Jesus’ words- he doesn’t even give it a proper hearing – while devoting much more time to less viable interpretations? This seems to be a case in point of what Dale Tuggy so wisely put his finger on in a recent Trinities podcast episode. He stated:

“One way you get a PhD in NT studies now is you study with one of the scholars who has famously committed to some version of ‘early high Christology’ and you come up with a new and creative way to try and find divine christology or even trinitarian theology in scripture and BOOM! that’s your thesis. Any kind of creativity in this area is applauded, at least in the evangelical wing of scholarship.”

Trinities podcast episode 306

While Rowlands’ article may not be his PhD thesis, one can certainly see the academic mindset that Tuggy noted at work in it.

Rowlands goes on to say, “I asserted that protective bird imagery was a common HB motif exclusively referring to YHWH’s protection of Israel developed under the influence of ANE iconography.” But as we saw earlier, this is not the case. I noted the passage in Ruth 3:9 and suggested that there might be another passage where this language is used of someone other than YHWH, and that is where we now turn. Lamentations 4:20 gives us further insight into the role of YHWH’s anointed king:

“YHWH’s anointed one, the breath of our nostrils, was caught in their traps; him of whom we said, ‘Under his shadow we shall live among the nations.’ “

Here the prophet poet, speaking as the nation of Israel, laments the loss of the care and protection that should have been theirs through YHWH’s anointed king. While the imagery of wings is not explicit in this passage, it is implicit. In the passages in the psalms, in which this metaphor is mostly found, it is explicitly the shadow of YHWH’s wings which is the place of safety and blessing. Here the anointed king also casts a shadow under which the people may find protection and refuge from the surrounding enemy nations. How the king casts this shadow is ambiguous in this passage and such ambiguity leaves open the possibility that some future anointed one of YHWH could and would apply the metaphor used of YHWH to himself.

More than this, YHWH’s anointed one shares certain epithets with YHWH that reveal how he functions as YHWH’s vicegerent in relation to the covenant people. Let’s see how scripture portrays the anointed one as sharing certain functions with YHWH:

1. King – YHWH: Ps. 149:2; Is. 41:21; 43:15; 44:6
YHWH’s anointed: Ps. 2:2, 6; 18:50; 20:6, 9
2. Shepherd – YHWH: Ps. 28:9; 80:1; Jer. 31:10
YHWH’s anointed: Ps. 78:71-72; Ezel. 34:23-24: Micah 5:4
3. Shield – YHWH: Ps. 18:30; 33:20; 59:11; 115:9, 11
YHWH’s anointed: Ps. 84:9; 89:18

Besides these shared functions between YHWH and his anointed one, the HB also presents the throne and kingdom of Israel as belonging to both:

“I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” 1 Chron. 17:14

“. . . YHWH . . . has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of YHWH over Israel . . . I will establish his kingdom forever.” 1 Chron. 28:5″

“So Solomon sat on the throne of YHWH as king . . . He prospered and all Israel obeyed him.” 1 Chron. 29:23

“Praise be to YHWH your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on his throne as king to rule for YHWH your God.” 2Chron. 9:8

“Don’t you know that YHWH, the God of Israel, has given the kingdom of Israel to David and his descendants forever . . . Now you intend to resist the kingdom of YHWH, which is in the hand of the descendants of David.” 2 Chron. 13:5, 7

The relationship between YHWH and his anointed one should be viewed in this way: YHWH enacts his covenant functions on behalf of his people by means of his anointed one. YHWH acts as king, protector, shield and shepherd through his anointed one. YHWH defeats the enemies of his people through the anointed king, who fights YHWH’s battles. The king performs these functions by YHWH’s power and strength which is vouchsafed to the king upon his anointing {see 1 Sam. 16:13; Ps. 18:29, 34-45, 50; 45:2-7; Ps 110; Is. 11:1-3; Micah 5:4}.

Now, in light of all of this, should Rowlands premise that Jesus is being portrayed as YHWH himself in Matt. 23:37, really be considered the “most plausible reading of this passage [with] the greatest explanatory power concerning the inclusion of this [bird] imagery?”

To answer ‘yes’ to this question one has to imagine that the early readers of this passage could not have conceived of any other sense in which to understand the metaphor of protection and care than that this man Jesus is being portrayed as YHWH himself. Chris Date, in his podcast episode, said that to imagine that the hearers of Jesus’ words would not have immediately made the connection to the HB imagery and conclude that Jesus was claiming to be YHWH is “the height of absurdity.” But I think that any fair-minded person would have to agree that this is simply bluster. It is not at all unreasonable to think that the early readers of this pericope could have imagined that someone claiming to be the anointed one of YHWH from the line of David could adapt the well known metaphor used of YHWH in the HB to himself, especially in light of Lam. 4:20.

I think it is clear that Rowlands has overstated his case and that his (as well as Date’s) confidence in his conclusion is unwarranted.

Additional Considerations

Another aspect of the passage in Matt. 23:37 that is typically used by apologists to establish Jesus’ deity is the fact that he said “. . .how often I longed to gather your children together . . . but you were not willing.” This is read as if Jesus was saying, “How often throughout the centuries I longed . . .” This is then made to mean that Jesus, as YHWH himself, had often longed to gather them prior to his incarnation. But a misreading of a text cannot produce a proof-text, regardless of how many luminaries are involved in the misreading. As I noted earlier, this can be understood simply as Jesus desiring and longing throughout his ministry to fulfill his destined role as Israel’s king. As a faithful Jewish male Jesus would have regularly made pilgrimage to Jerusalem at least three times a year for the three pilgrim feasts – Passover, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Tabernacles. All males were required by law to attend these feasts in Jerusalem. John’s gospel also records that Jesus attended a non-mandatory feast in Jerusalem, the Feast of Dedication, known as Hanukkah. It is possible that Jesus attended other non-required feasts, making it is possible that within the three to four years of his public ministry he could have gone to Jerusalem between 10-15 or more times. In each of these visit he would have felt a deep longing to fulfill his destiny as Jerusalem’s king, but this would be dependent upon the Jewish leadership publicly recognizing him as their king and placing themselves under his authority, something they were quite unwilling to do.

Also Jesus seems to be putting himself in the category of “those having been sent to her,” who, like those before him, is being rejected by the leadership, rather than in the category of the one who sent the prophets.

One More Alternative

Now, if someone just cannot see the validity of the interpretation that I have presented above, i.e. that in Matt. 23:37 Jesus is speaking as YHWH’s anointed one who shares certain functions of YHWH in relation to YHWH’s covenant people, and insists that the bird imagery can only be understood as something that only YHWH himself could say, then I offer this alternative interpretation. Jesus is speaking, in his role as a prophet, as YHWH in the first person, like many prophets before him had done. In fact, the whole pericope from v. 13 – v.39 could fall into this category. But someone will object that Jesus does not use the typical prophetic announcement “Thus says YHWH,” prior to speaking on YHWH’s behalf. But there are numerous places in the prophets where this phenomenon can be seen. If someone is known to be a prophet of YHWH it is not necessary for him on every occasion to use the prophetic formula, though they often do, before speaking as YHWH in the first person. Here are some passages which demonstrate this: Deut. 11:14-15; 29:6; Is. 3:1-4; 34:1-8; 53:1-12; Hosea 14:1-8; Micah 1:6-7; Habakkuk 1:5-6; Zech. 14:1-3. This may be the way the author of 5 Ezra, which Rowlands quotes from in 4.2, understood this text, since he puts the words spoken by Jesus in the mouth of YHWH himself.

Links

1.Rowlands’ Article: https://www.academia.edu/38624745/Jesus_and_the_Wings_of_YHWH_Bird_Imagery_in_the_Lament_over_Jerusalem_Matt_23_37_39_Luke_13_34_35_ (Right click and choose “open in new tab’)


2.Tuggy – Date Debate : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c35_uFjEbx8&t=1314s

3.Theopologetics Episode: https://www.theopologetics.com/2020/09/01/theopologetics-live-002-the-deity-of-jesus-christ/



Refutation of the Master’s University Bible Faculty Document on the Trinity and Divinity of Messiah – Part 8: Dealing With Objections

Here is the document. Please go to page 17.

5. Dealing with supposed objections

Regarding the first bullet point, the objection is not that “the language of ‘sent’ makes Jesus not to be God,” but rather that the language of ‘sent’ does not require that Jesus be God, as is proved by the fact that this language is used of both human and heavenly agents (a.k.a. angels) throughout Scripture {see Ex. 3:15; 4:28; Num. 16:28; Judg. 6:8; 1 Sam. 12:11; 2 Sam. 12:1; 1 Chron. 21:15; 2 Chron. 32:21; Isa. 6:8; Jer. 25:24; 26:12; Haggai 1:12; Zech. 4:9; Luke 1:26; Acts 12:11}. As I pointed out in Part 7 of this series, the language of sending and being sent need not imply anything more than that one has been commissioned as the agent of another in order to perform some given task on that one’s behalf. For the authors of this paper to insist that this sending language proves that Jesus pre-existed his birth from Mary, and that as deity, is in reality, proof that they have brought that presupposition to the text of Scripture.

They then proceed to present ‘evidence’ that they feel mitigates this objection. The first piece of Scriptural evidence that is marshaled against the objection is Numbers 20:16. Their claim is that this passage speaks of YHWH sending YHWH. This hearkens back to pp.1-2 of the document, where they present a rather weak case for YHWH sending YHWH, which I refute here. What I did not do there I will do here now – I will prove that Num. 20:16 is referring to Moses and not to either an angel or to a supposed second YHWH. Let’s look at the verse:

“Moses sent messengers (Heb. malakim) from Kadesh to the king of Edom saying: ‘This is what your brother Israel says: . . . Our forefathers went down to Egypt, and we lived there many years. The Egyptians mistreated us and our fathers, but when we cried to YHWH, he heard our cry and sent an agent (Heb. malak) and brought us out of Egypt.’ “

vv. 14-16

Now lets go back to Exodus 3 where Moses first received his call to go to Egypt:

“YHWH said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians . . . And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me . . . So now go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’ ”

vv. 7-10

Notice how the wording of these two passages coincide: The Israelites cry out to God because of their mistreatment by the Egyptians; YHWH hears their cries; YHWH sends an agent to bring them out of Egypt. Now it is explicit in the Exodus passage that Moses is the one YHWH is sending to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. So why should we assume in Num. 20:16, which is not explicit, that someone else besides Moses was sent to bring the Israelites out of Egypt? To drive this point even further let’s look at another passage:

“After Jacob entered Egypt, they cried to YHWH for help, and YHWH sent Moses and Aaron, who brought your forefathers out of Egypt.

1 Sam. 12:8

Why doesn’t Samuel tell about the ‘angel’ (the presumed second YHWH) whom YHWH is supposed to have sent to bring the Israelites out of Egypt? I think that any fair-minded person can see that the better exegesis of Num. 20:16 is that the malak whom YHWH sent was Moses rather than a second YHWH figure. I mean the text itself simply calls this one a malak, a Hebrew term used of prophets {2 Chron. 36:15-16; Is. 44:26; Hag. 1:13; Zech. 3:1}, which Moses certainly was. To read more than this into this passage is simply eisegesis.

The next line of ‘evidence’ brought forward are passages in the Hebrew Bible which speak of God sending his ‘word’. The authors admit that this is “personification language” but they seem ignorant of what ‘personification’ means. Personification is the attribution of personhood to an abstract quality. So I agree that this kind of language is probably the background of John 1, i.e. the word is not literally a person but is being personified. But the authors seem to think it implies more than this. Once again, their presuppositions keep getting in the way of proper exegesis. In these OT passages God’s word i.e. his command, his promise, his expressed intention, is personified as an agent who goes forth to accomplish what God commanded or promised or intended {Is. 55:11}. But how all of this is supposed to answer the objection, that the sending language used of Jesus does not require him to be God, I don’t know.

They go on to cite several NT passages about Jesus being sent by the Father. This they say, “shows that Jesus is the emissary of God Himself.” But who is denying that. Of course Jesus is the emissary i.e. agent of God himself, but so was Moses, Joshua, Samuel and every other prophet. To be God’s emissary or representative does not require divinity, neither does it require the one sent to be the equal of the sender. In fact, in the ancient Semitic culture, it was more likely that an agent was of a lesser status than the one who sent him. But this did not impede his ability to carry out his assigned task, for as an agent he represented the one who sent him, with all of the authority and resources of his master at his disposal. Therefore, it was understood that, no matter how lowly an agent was, his reception or rejection by those to whom he was sent, was in fact the reception or rejection of the one who sent him. A persons duly appointed agent was to be regarded as the person himself. But again, this did not require equality between the sender and the sent. Jesus used the same language of his disciples that the authors are asserting proves Jesus to be equal to God:

“He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me . . .”

Luke 10:16

Somehow I don’t think the authors of this paper would say that Jesus’ disciples were on an equal footing with himself. They are misapplying a principle, claiming that it means something different when Jesus is concerned, not wanting to interpret the same language equally where the disciples are concerned. The principle is clear: how a person’s agent is regarded is how the person himself is regarded, by those to whom the agent is sent. To read more than this into this language is to be dishonest with the text.

Finally, the last line of evidence they present is that John the Baptist is said only to be sent by ‘God‘, whereas Jesus is said to be sent by the ‘Father.’ From this they deduce that Jesus must be divine because it denotes a relationship between Jesus and God that John did not have. There conclusion: “John is human; Jesus is divine. It is as simple as that.” Such a conclusion can only be reached by starting out with that presupposition. The actual biblical data does not lead to that conclusion. Of course John does not have the same relation to God that Jesus has, for he is not the promised Messiah from the line of David who is chosen to rule God’s kingdom forever. John is not Yahweh’ s anointed one, but Jesus is. YHWH’s anointed, the one he chose to rule on his behalf, has always enjoyed a special son to father relationship with God {see 1 Chron. 17:13; 22:9-10; 28:5-6; Ps. 2:6-7; 89:26-27; Jn. 1:49}. It is as simple as that.

The next bullet point deals with John 10:29-38. I give an exegesis of this passage and answer the argument of the document here.

The next bullet point deals with Jesus being ‘the image of God.’ Once again the document overstates the objection. It is not that being God’s image means that Jesus is a human, but that being God’s image does not necessitate him being more than human. They seek to refute this objection by focusing on the preposition in Gen. 1:27, where man is said to be created ‘in’ the image of God; whereas of Jesus it is said that he is the image of God. In the mind of the authors this makes all the difference, but does it really? First off, I fail to see how Jesus being the image of God means he is God. For one to be the image of another, immediately suggests that that one is not the one who’s image he is. The image must be distinct from the one whose image he is. If Paul wanted his readers to think Jesus just was God himself in Col. 1:15, then he could have written, “He is God.” But instead he wrote, “He is the image of the invisible God.” The two statements are not identical. Now, about the author’s contention that Jesus being the image of God” while man in general is simply made in the image of God,” means that there is an ontological difference between Jesus and humanity, this is simply a case of reading one’s theological presupposition into the text. The text does not explicitly say this are even necessarily imply it. And it is evident that Paul himself would not agree with this interpretation of his words, for he says in another place:

“A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God.”

1 Cor. 11:7

This provides us with a good illustration of how trinitarians tend to read scripture. Many, perhaps not being aware of this passage in 1 Cor. 11, simply assume that the statement in Col. 1:15 must be referring to the deity of Jesus (since that is their presupposition) and so interpret the verse in that way. But if they came across this verse in 1 Cor. 11:7 one day, would they even think to interpret it as they do the Colossian verse? Would they think that 1 Cor.11:7 was attributing divinity to men? Of course not! But not only do the two verses say the same thing, one about Jesus, and one about man in general, but the 1 Cor. 11:7 passage is even fuller, calling man not only the image of God but also the glory of God.

They then try to equate the image of God in Col 1:15 (I don’t know what verse in Phil. 2 they are referring to) to the image of God in which man was created in Gen 1:27, as if to say that man was created in the image of God which is Jesus. They offer Rom 8:29 as a supposed proof of this. Wow! What a convoluted argument! No NT author ever makes such a connection as this; the two things are simply not the same. That man was created ‘in the image of God‘ means that man resembles God in some way, perhaps in his ability to rule over the rest of creation {see Gen 1:28}. That Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God‘ means that he resembles God in some way, again, probably in that he rules over all creation, even over every other man {see Col 1:15b-18}. In Jesus’ case it is more specific. Paul had just stated how believers in Messiah have been “translated into the kingdom of the son of his love. This is a clear allusion to the Davidic king from 1 Chron 17:13 : “I will be to him a father, and he will be to me a son. My love I will never take away from him . . .” Jesus is the final, great son of David who will rule over God’s kingdom forever. In keeping with his predecessors, he is the visible representation of the invisible God who is the ultimate King {see 1 Chron. 28:5-7; Pss. 2, 45 and 72; Luke 1:32-33}. The truth of the matter is that being the image of God, for both Jesus and man in general, is not a matter of ontology but of function. Rom. 8:29 refers to the destiny of believers, i.e. conformity to the image of the Son. Here the word ‘image’ means ‘likeness’ rather than representation (the Gr. eikon can mean either), and refers to the eschatological promise that believers will be made like the son i.e. immortal {see 1 Cor. 15: 42-55; Phil. 3:21}.

The attempt to connect Ezek. 1:28 with Jesus being the image of God is laughable and reveals how trinitarians must resort to such wild stretches to support their theology. The mere coincidence of the English word ‘image’ appearing in both passages does not require that the one refers to the other. Ezekiel is having a vision, in which he sees a figure like that of a man. After a brief description of this human figure we are told:

“This was the appearance of the likeness (i.e. representation) of the glory of Yahweh.”

Ezek. 1:28

In other words, in the vision, Yahweh’s glory was represented by the figure of a man. Ezekiel was not really seeing Yahweh, he was having a vision. This passage has no connection whatsoever to Col. 1:15.

The next bullet point is a rather hard argument to follow. I am not familiar with the objection they are attempting to answer. It seems that what they are saying is that because God dwelt among his people in the tabernacle and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, this proves Jesus is God. Of course their whole argument here rest on the correctness of the traditional interpretation of John 1. For an alternative interpretation of that chapter see this article here. They seem to be making much of the Greek word skenoo which means to dwell in a tent. Since dwelling in a tent can suggest a temporary residing, perhaps what is being expressed in John 1:14 is the temporary nature of Jesus’ living among the Israelites, “for he was cut off from the land of the living.” Even after his resurrection he did not remain among them long, but was taken away. Whatever the case, it is obvious that the document authors are making more of this language than is warranted.

The next bullet point deals with the observation that in the NT Jesus is spoken of as having a God, just like all men. The document authors attempt to escape from the clear implications of this by first giving what they call “a more precise reading” of Eph. 1:3. But the reading they offer is unsubstantiated. They appeal to the Granville Sharp rule, but I can’t see how that applies to this verse. The fact is that every reputable English version translates this verse the same way:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But even if they could validate their “more precise reading of this text” they would still have to deal with Jn. 20:17; Rom.15:6; 2 Cor. 1:3; 11:31; Eph. 1:17; 1 Peter 1:3; Rev. 1:6; 3:2, 12. Are they going to claim that there is a more precise reading of all of these texts also? Every honest interpreter of scripture must let scripture speak for itself – there is one whom our Lord Jesus himself calls his God and whom the apostles call the God of Jesus, i.e. the Father.

What they say in the remainder of their answer literally sounds like they are just making it up as they go. The first statement, “Jesus has a ‘God’ in the sense that he has a Father in His relationship within the Godhead,” is plain nonsense. Why would the Father, within the trinitarian relationship, also be the God of the Son? Is he also the God of the Holy Spirit? The doctrine of the Trinity states that the three members of the Trinity are equal in every respect; none is greater or lesser than the others. So if the Son has a God, then so must the Father. But who is the God of the Father? Of course the question is as absurd as this argument.

Next they cite Jn. 20:17 and make the remarkable statement that, “Note that Jesus does not say OUR Father and OUR God.” But what does “my God and your God” mean if not “our God?” All of their subsequent statements are just pure conjecture and are born out of their presuppositional theology. “[Jesus} relates to God as Father differently than we do.” Where does scripture say this? In fact scripture says that we cry out ‘Abba Father‘ just as Jesus did {Mark 14:36}. “Jesus’ sonship and relationship with God is categorically different than us having a God.” Again, where is this stated in scripture? In fact, scripture speaks to the contrary:

“Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers”

Heb. 2:11

“Jesus ‘has a God’ relative to being within the Godhead versus us having a God being outside of the Godhead.” This is just plugging your doctrine into scripture wherever you think it might fit. This is not exegesis!

The next bullet point concerns 1 Tim 2:5. What we have here is a clear case of obfuscation. What the authors of this paper do here in order to lessen the force of the plain reading of the text is quite disturbing. While they are correct in pointing out that trinitarians do not deny the humanity of Christ, in reality, for most, it amounts to mere lip service. Have you ever noticed that when a trinitarian speaks about the humanity of Christ they are quick to add the clarification that he is also God. They do this with terms such as ‘God incarnate’, ‘the God-man’, ‘God in the flesh’ etc. It is a very rare thing to hear a trinitarian speak of Christ’s humanity and then just leave it at that. This shows that their profession of his humanity is only theoretical, needed to hold some other of their doctrines together coherently, but in practical effect has little bearing. But in scripture we see something completely different. Whenever, say Paul, speaks of Christ’s humanity he never once feels the need to qualify it with affirmations of his deity {see Rom. 5:17-19; 1 Cor. 15: 21-28; 1 Tim 2:5; see also Acts 17:31}. And this is especially true in 1 Tim 2:5, for if there ever was a place where we might expect Paul to make some kind of qualification on Christ’s humanity it would be this verse. But Paul is silent as to Christ being something more than merely human in this passage, and that is why it is necessary for the authors of this document to go to such a desperate length to turn this verse on it’s head.

Their claim that “the language of ‘mediator’ presumes an equality with God and man” is simply an unfounded assertion (I assume they mean an ontological equality). Where did they get this arbitrary definition of a mediator from? Scripture does not bear it out. Moses was the mediator between God and the people of Israel in the giving of God’s law {Gal. 3:19-20}. Aaron certainly acted as mediator between God and the people, as high priest {Lev. 16:17; Num. 16:46-48}. The idea that for one to be a mediator between God and men he must be ontologically equal to both is plainly false. Even the passage they cite as support for this idea fails to substantiate it. All Job 9:33 requires is that someone must be able to have direct access to both parties. They have overstated their case and the meaning of Job 9:33.

Next they move to Daniel 7 and they make a manifestly false statement regarding the ‘one like a son of man‘ {see vv.13-14}, saying, “. . . he claims the throne of the Ancient of Days. He is equal to the Ancient of Days (God himself).” I wonder what version they are reading, for the passage says nothing of the sort. Nowhere in the passage does it state that the ‘son of man’ claims the throne of the Ancient of Days or that he is equal to Him. Even if it did state that he claims God’s throne this still would not necessitate an ontological equality, for the Davidic king indeed shared God’s throne {see 1 Cron. 29:23; 2 Chron. 9:8; Ps. 45:6}. The ‘son of man‘ is clearly not on par ontologically with the one sitting on the throne for he must receive his dominion from God, who sits on the throne. Does one who is ontologically and eternally God need to receive his dominion and authority from someone else. If they are equal then from whom does the Ancient of Days receive his dominion? The authors are simply reading into the text their own predilections, which the text itself does not bear out.

Their next move is to the grammar of 1 Tim. 2:5. Wow! Where does one start to unravel the tangled mess they make of this passage. First they claim that the absence of ‘and‘ (Gr. kai) before the second occurrence of the word ‘one‘ indicates that the same person is being spoken of. What is amazing is that the kai immediately follows the second ‘one‘. This word order suggests emphasis not equality of subject. A literal rendering of the Greek would look like this:

“For one God, one also mediator of God and men, a man Christ Jesus.”

In order for the verse to say what they are claiming it is saying it would require the definite article before the second ‘one‘ and the word ‘man.’ It would then read:

“For one God, the one also mediator of God and men , the man Christ Jesus.”

This would tie the ‘one mediator’ to the ‘one God’ and then to the ‘man Christ Jesus,’ equating them. But there are no definite articles, so the ‘one God’ and the ‘one mediator’ are distinct from each other, regardless of the fact that the kai comes after the second ‘one‘ rather than before it. As I said before, that the word ‘one‘ comes before the kai simply suggests emphasis, i.e. there is only absolutely one mediator between God and men, not two or three, just one. I don’t know who the Marshall is that they mention, but his translation of the verse is simply untenable, for it would require the definite articles as I’ve already noted. Marshall does add the article, which does not appear in the Greek text, before the words ‘mediator’ and ‘man‘. He also adds the words “who is” which are also not in the Greek. This is a real mess and is hard to believe that men would go to this extreme to mitigate the force of a passage that clearly puts Jesus in the human category.

They next try to make the verse out to be a chiasm i.e. something like an A-B-B-A structure, in which God, at the beginning of the verse, and Jesus Christ, at the end of the verse, are synonymous. But I fail to see what the B-B would pertain to in the verse. If the whole verse is about one person, i.e. Jesus, as they have already maintained, then where is the chiastic structure? This is grasping at straws. Their statement that “this is an explicit declaration that Jesus is both God and man” is indeed laughable; do they even know what the word ‘explicit’ means? The simple and plain meaning of the text is that there are two individuals in view, the one God, who is not a man, and the one mediator who is a man, Jesus Christ.

Finally, they try to connect this strange interpretation to 1 Cor. 8:6, but it fails because 1 Cor. 8:6 is even more explicit (this is how the word should be used) as to who the ‘one God‘ actually is -it is the Father. How can it be spelled out any clearer than this:

“For us there is one God, the Father . . .”

Paul does not say that the one God of Christians is the Trinity, or the Father and the Son, or even Jesus himself, but unmistakably the Father. The authors’ statement that “Paul . . . identifies Jesus as the one God . . .” is a blatant twisting of what the text actually says. This is eisegesis at it’s worst. If you want to read a more thorough treatment of 1 Cor. 8:6 read this article here.

This brings this series to a close. Throughout this series I have often been reminded of the proverb:

“The first to present his case seems right, until another comes forward and questions him.” Prov. 18:17

John 10:30-38 – Did Jesus Really Claim To Be God?

Introduction

It is often asserted by Christian pastors, teachers, apologists and scholars that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, made an overt claim to deity. It is not unusual at all to hear someone declare with confidence, “Jesus claimed to be God.” But just what exactly is being purported by this assertion? Are these Christian professionals positing that Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be a divine being of some sort, or perhaps even Yahweh himself, the God of Israel? While there may be differences among these as to what each means by the assertion, it is clear that for many the contention is that Jesus made a claim to being the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Now in the history of Christian theology this has worked itself out in two completely separate and distinct paths – modalism and trinitarianism. Modalism says that God is a single person who has revealed himself in three manifestations or modes of being, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Trinitarianism says that God is a single being who consists of three distinct persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. These three persons exist simultaneously and are distinct from each other, yet together they comprise the one being of God. Of course, this language of ‘three persons in one being’ is simply a philosophical construct without any real meaning, for is there really any discernible difference between a being and a person? In other words, only in trinitarian Christian theology is such a distinction made between being and person, but not in the real world.

What I will present in this article is a refutation of the assertion that the man Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be God, regardless of whether the assertion is made by a modalist or a trinitarian Christian. My contention is that Jesus never made any such claim. Admittedly, there are things that Jesus is recorded as saying which may give the impression that he was claiming to be something more than a mere man, which “the unlearned and unstable [have] distort[ed]” to such a degree that the man Jesus of Nazareth has been made out to be a person who actually thought of himself as God.

The Record of the Supposed Claim

So where exactly in the gospels is this supposed overt claim to deity, by Jesus, recorded? Well we can eliminate the three synoptic gospels for it is not maintained by anyone that any such overt claim to deity is found on the lips of Jesus in these works. While many may claim that some of Jesus’ sayings and deeds certainly imply that he thought of himself as divine, it is certain that there are no explicit statements of Jesus to this effect in the synoptics. This leaves us with the Gospel of John, and indeed this is the gospel from which, almost exclusively, passages are brought forth in support of the idea that Jesus is God. But we are looking for more than that, since the assertion is that Jesus claimed outright to be God in the flesh. There are at least two candidates for an outright claim to deity on the lips of Jesus in John’s gospel – 8:58 and 10:30. It is my contention that both of these passages have been grossly misunderstood by both modalists and trinitarians. For a thorough explanation of John 8:58 see this article here. Since I have already offered an alternative interpretation of that passage in that article, this article will focus on John 10:30

Historical and Cultural Background

Before I delve into an exegesis of this passage it is necessary to first establish just what it is that a first century Jew would have understood by the phrase ‘son of God‘, for this is indeed the overt claim of Jesus in this passage as well as in others {see v. 36}. When Jesus’ audience heard him refer to himself as the son of God, what did they think he meant by that title? Did they think it was a claim to deity? Did they think he was claiming to be the God of Israel? Is there any clue in the historical and cultural background of the Jewish people and in their scriptures that would enlighten us as to what Jesus could have meant and to what his hearers would have understood by this claim? Now in order to profit fully from this investigation it is necessary that you lay aside all your preconceptions of what ‘son of God‘ means. This is needed because the concept of ‘son of God’ developed, after the time of the apostles, over a period of time, to settle finally on a metaphysical definition which became the default tradition of Christianity ever since. This metaphysical definition says that the ‘son of God’ is a second person in the being of God who is eternally generated from the substance of another person in the being of God, namely the Father. Now when someone converts to Christianity they are instructed in this default definition and most will never question it or do any investigation into the historical and cultural background to confirm the validity of the tradition. So if this is the first time you have ever allowed yourself to really examine this issue I would encourage you to please allow the facts to speak for themselves, apart from the tradition.

When we look into the Hebrew Scriptures, typically called the Old Testament, we discover that there is one specific figure who was designated as God’s son which coincides perfectly with what the NT says about Jesus – the Davidic king. Let’s look first at God’s covenant with David. After David ascended to the throne of Israel shortly after Saul’s death, God sent the prophet Nathan to him with this promise:

“Yahweh declares to you that Yahweh himself will establish a house (i.e. dynasty) for you: When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him for a father, and he will be to me for a son. When he does wrong I will punish him with the rod of men. But my love will never be taken from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house (i.e. dynasty) and kingdom will endure before me; your throne will be established forever.”

2 Sam. 7:11-16

This covenant with David is confirmed in a number of other places in Scripture: 2 Chron. 13:4-8; Ps. 18:50; 89:3-4, 19-37; 132:10-12, 17-18; Is. 55:3; Jer. 33:17, 21, 25-26.

Now note, in the passage cited above, how God portrays the relationship between himself and the Davidic king: “I will be to him for a father and he will be to me for a son.” Thus the relationship between God and his chosen king from the line of David is analogous to that of a father and his son. This relationship began with David himself, for we read in Ps. 89:26-27, regarding David: “He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father . . .’ I will also appoint him my firstborn . . .” Hence what began with David extended to any of his line who ascended to the throne. Observe what David said of Solomon:

“Of all my sons – and Yahweh has given me many – he has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of Israel. He said to me, ‘Solomon your son is the one who will build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him to be my son and I will be his father. I will establish his kingdom forever . . .'”

1 Chron. 28:13 (see also 22:10)

This father/son relationship between Yahweh and his king was characteristic of ancient Near East practice. The relationship between a great king and one of his vassal kings was often expressed by this same language. Yahweh was in fact Israel’s true King, but when the people demanded a human king like the other nations, He gave them Saul to be His vassal king, as it were, ruling on Yahweh’s behalf {see 1 Sam. 8:4-9, 19-22; 12:1-2, 12-13}. After Saul was later rejected, Yahweh raised up David to the throne and promised him and his descendants the kingdom forever.

Also, kings in the ancient Near East were often thought of as ruling on behalf of some particular god and were designated as the ‘son’ of that god. Therefore, the Hebrew mind would have been accustomed to this kind of language and would have understood it’s significance. It must be stated categorically that there is absolutely no hint in this father/son relationship between God and his king, of an ontological and/or metaphysical signification. No Jew would have understood this special relationship in that sense.

Next we will look at Psalm 2, regarded by many scholars as a coronation psalm, which would have been sung at the coronation of a new Davidic king. If David is the author of the psalm then Solomon would have been the first to use it at his coronation. We will only look at the relevant portions of the psalm:

v.2 – “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against Yahweh and his anointed one.”

Here we see that Yahweh closely associates himself with a specific individual called “his anointed one.” This designation comes from the Hebrew word mashiach, which is transliterated into English as messiah. This word is translated in the LXX by the Greek word christos, which is transliterated into English as christ. Both words, messiah and christ, mean ‘an anointed one‘ and refer specifically to the king whom God has chosen to rule over his people {see 1 Sam. 12:1-5; 16:1, 6, 10-13; 24:6, 10; 2 Sam. 23:1; 2 Chron. 6:42; Ps. 18:15; 84:9; 89:51; Lam. 4:20}. This is confirmed in v. 6 of the psalm, where Yahweh is presented as speaking:

v. 6 – “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

The king is referred to by Yahweh as “my king” because he rules on Yahweh’s behalf and over Yahweh’s people. Zion is the name of the hill upon which Jerusalem was built and is used practically as a synonym for Jerusalem.

In v. 7 the newly installed king speaks, recounting Yahweh’s promise to David:

v. 7 – “I will recount the decree of Yahweh: He said to me, ‘You are to me my son; this day I have become your father. Ask of me and I will give the nations for your inheritance.'”

On that day, the nascent king became, as it were, God’s son, in accordance with God’s promise to David in 2 Sam. 7:11:14.

What we learn from this historical, cultural and biblical data is this:

Son of God = Messiah (Christ) = King of Israel

NT Testimony

We will now examine the gospel accounts for evidence that this understanding of ‘son of God‘ remained the dominant view even down to Jesus’ day. We will also look at how the gospels portray Jesus as the rightful heir to the throne of David.

The synoptics

The evidence from the synoptic gospels seems strong. Matthew starts his gospel with this statement:

“A book of the lineage of Jesus Christ son of David.”

Matt. 1:1

To a Jewish reader this would denote that this Jesus is the chosen one from the line of David who would ascend to the throne. In chapter 2, after the birth of Jesus, Matthew records a story of how Magi from the east had come to Jerusalem, under the guidance of a star, to find “him who has been born king of the Jews. When these magi went to king Herod for information on where they could find this king, Herod called together the priests and teachers of the law and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. Hence, Herod understood the coming Messiah to be the king.

Luke records the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary to announce to her that she would conceive and give birth to a son, of whom Gabriel says:

“He will be great and will be called the son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Luke 1:31-33

This passage shows unmistakably that Jesus was considered to be the chosen one from the line of David who would ascend to the throne of Israel to rule as king, and that in this regard he is designated as God’s son.

The synoptics present various people as addressing Jesus as the ‘son of David‘ {Matt. 9:27; 15:22; 20:30-31; Mk. 10:47-48; Lk. 18:38-39}. Matthew records how the people of Galilee were amazed at Jesus and wondered “Could this be the son of David” {12:23}. All three synoptics record the famous question of Jesus to his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” They all record Peter’s answer confessing Jesus to be “the Messiah”, but Matthew’s account is fuller and more significant: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Note the equation of messiah and son of God, and also note that Peter, at least, has not gotten the impression that Jesus is his God.

All three of the synoptics record Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a week prior to his death. Only Matthew’s account connects this to a fulfillment of Zech. 9:9 which reads, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! See your king comes to you righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey . . . “ In this scene a large crowd of Jesus’ followers accompanied him as he entered Jerusalem. The synoptics record what the crowd was shouting, and though there are variations between them, they all amount to the same thing. They were extolling Jesus as the ‘son of David‘ and as ‘he who comes in the name of Yahweh,’ both signifying the Messiah. Luke, who is probably giving an interpretive rendering, has the crowd shouting, Blessed is the king who comes in the name of Yahweh!” {see Matt. 21:8-11; Mk. 11:8-10; Lk. 19:37-38}.

We move next to the trials and crucifixion of Jesus. At his trial before the Sanhedrin, Mark tells us how the leaders were looking for evidence against Jesus so they could put him to death, but they could find none {14:55}. But how can this be if it is true that Jesus was openly declaring himself to be God and this was a crime worthy of death. Matthew tells us of false witnesses who came forward but says nothing of the accusation that he had claimed to be God {26:59-63}. The high priest then demands that Jesus tell them plainly if he is the Messiah {Matt. 26:63; Mk. 14:61; Lk. 22:67}. Note that he does not ask Jesus if he thinks himself to be God, but if he believes himself to be the Messiah. Please also take note of the high priest’s words here (they vary slightly between the synoptics): “Are you the messiah, the son of God?” It is evident that in his mind ‘messiah‘ and ‘son of God‘ were equivalent titles, both signifying ‘the king of Israel.’ But how can we be sure that this is what the Jewish leadership understood Jesus to be claiming? Because when they bring him to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, the first thing Pilate asks Jesus is, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Where did Pilate get the idea that Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews? Luke gives us the answer:

“Then the whole assembly arose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation . . . he claims to be messiah, a king.’ “

Lk. 23:1-2

After Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified he had a placard attached to the cross above Jesus’ head which read: This is Jesus, the king of the Jews. It is instructive to see what some were saying about Jesus as he hung on the cross. They were mocking him for claiming to be the messiah, the son of God and the king of Israel {see Matt. 27:39-43; Mk. 15:31-32; Lk. 23:35-39}. Again we see that these three designations are interchangeable and again we see that no one is recorded as mocking Jesus for claiming to be God. Why not, if this is what he is supposed to have claimed?

So the testimony of the synoptic gospels is clear: Jesus claimed to be the son of God, and this was understood by the Jews to be a claim to be the messiah, the son of David who would reign on David’s throne as king over Israel. The synoptics are silent as to any overt claim by Jesus to be God himself.

John’s gospel

But what of John’s gospel, from which the assertion of Jesus’ claim to deity is mostly deduced? Is there any evidence from this gospel that son of God = Messiah = the king of Israel? Let’s go through it and see. In chapter 1: 35 -51 we see that some of Jesus’ first disciples have come to the conclusion that he is the Messiah {v.41, 45}. When Nathaniel is told about this he comes to see for himself and upon encountering Jesus declares, “Rabbi, you are the son of God; you are the king of Israel” {v.49}. In this pericope all three designations are applied to Jesus and are equated.

As the synoptics depicted the people of Galilee as wondering whether Jesus could be the messiah, so also John’s gospel depicts the people of Jerusalem as wondering the same thing {see 7:25-27, 31, 40-43} and also people in Samaria {4:29}. Next we come to another disciple’s confession of who Jesus is, similar to that of Peter’s in the synoptics. Martha confessed confidently to Jesus, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the son of God, who was to come into the world.” We observe the same thing here as we did with Peter’s confession – the equation of Messiah with son of God and the fact that Martha did not seem to think that Jesus was the God of Israel.

John also documents Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey and records the crowd as shouting the same things as in the synoptics, with one addition: “Blessed is the king of Israel.” John then follows Matthew’s lead in referring to this event as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Zech. 9:9 {12:12-15}. It must be remembered that this crowd was favorable to Jesus, being made up of the much larger group of disciples besides the Twelve. What they were shouting reveals what they believed about who Jesus was, and they were not shouting praises to him as their God but as their king. John does not record Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin but he does record his trial before Pilate, which is where we turn next.

Again, we find that Pilate’s first question to Jesus is “Are you the king of the Jews?” {18:33}. Again, this shows that this is what the Jewish leaders were accusing him of. This is made more explicit in chapter 19. In vv. 1-3 the soldiers are mocking Jesus, as if he were the king of the Jews. When Pilate wants to release Jesus the Jewish leaders insist that he must die because “he claimed to be the son of God” {v. 7}. Pilate was still determined to free Jesus until the Jewish leaders shouted, “Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” {v. 12}. Again, this shows the equation of son of God with being king.

Now let’s go back to chapter 18. In v. 37 Pilate puts the question pointedly to Jesus, “You are a king, then!” To this Jesus answered:

“You are right in saying I am a king. In fact for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

John 18:37

Jesus is saying that it is his destiny to be king and he testified to the truth of this destiny. This brings me to a little noticed or mentioned passage in 1 Timothy 6 where Paul exhorts Timothy to:

“Lay hold of the everlasting life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Messiah Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession . . .”

1 Tim. 6:12-13

Timothy is urged to recall the time when he made the ‘good confession’ before many witnesses. Presumably this was a common practice in the first century, which took place probably at one’s baptism. It seems that the person wanting to join the assembly of believers needed to openly confess something. Paul does not here explicitly state what the ‘good confession’ consisted of, but he does give us a clue. He tells us that Jesus himself made this good confession while testifying before Pilate. As we have already seen, the only thing Jesus ever said before Pilate was to acknowledge that he is the king of Israel and that he was born for that very purpose. Now we know that early believers were made to confess Jesus as the Messiah {1 John 2:22; 5:1} and as son of God {1 Jn. 4:15}, but according to Paul the ‘good confession’ which all must make who want to lay hold of the everlasting life offered to them, is that Jesus is the king of Israel i.e. the rightful heir to the throne of David. But is this a different confession than that which says Jesus is the Messiah or the son of God? Absolutely not! It is the same thing. To acknowledge Jesus as the son of God is to acknowledge him as the Anointed one, the king of Israel.

Finally, let’s look at John’s own statement as to why he wrote his gospel: “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and by believing you may have life in his name.” If it was John’s purpose, throughout the body of his gospel, to get his readers to think of Jesus as the God of Israel himself, come in the flesh, then this statement at the end of his gospel is rather anticlimactic. Once again, we see the equation of Messiah and son of God, which points to the fact that Jesus is the one from the line of David chosen to rule over God’s kingdom forever.

So we have seen, in this brief survey of the gospels, that the concept of son of God which we discovered in the Hebrew Bible (i.e. Yahweh’s anointed one, the king) has carried forward into the thinking of the authors of these works with regard to Jesus of Nazareth. These authors present us with three indisputable facts: 1.) The followers of Jesus, both those of his more intimate disciples and those of the larger group of followers, understood Jesus to be the ‘son of God‘ in the sense of the Messiah, the chosen son of David, the rightful heir to the throne of Israel 2.) The antagonists of Jesus also understood his claim to be the ‘son of God‘ in this same way 3.) Jesus himself understood his identity in this same way.

The application of the title son of God to Jesus in the gospels has no connotation of the later Greek philosophical, metaphysical conception of an eternally begotten son who shares the divine substance of the Father. With this firmly established in our thinking let us now turn to John 10:30-38.

John 10:30-38 – Exegesis

Before we look at this passage verse by verse, let’s look briefly at the larger context of the whole chapter. The chapter begins with a parable about false shepherds as opposed to the true shepherd of a flock {vv.1-6}. What must be understood is that this shepherd motif is used in the Hebrew Bible with reference to the king {see 2Sam. 5:2; 7:7; Ps. 78:71-72; Micah 5:2-4}. The king was God’s appointed shepherd over His flock i.e. His kingdom. The ‘gate’ in v. 2 represents the Davidic covenant, in which only descendants of David have the right to shepherd God’s people. Those who become shepherds by some other means are not legitimate rulers and do not truly care for the sheep. In the absence of a Davidic king, the Sanhedrin, led by the high priest, took advantage to lord it over the people. The ‘gatekeeper’ stands for the prophet, who confirms to the people God’s choice from among Davids descendants. This was John the baptizer’s role. Jesus then figuratively portrays himself as the gate to the ‘sheep pen’, which signifies the coming messianic kingdom {vv. 7-10}, making allegiance to him a prerequisite for entrance into the kingdom age. He then identifies himself as the good shepherd {vv. 11-18} meaning the true and rightful ruler of Israel. Later in vv. 25-30, Jesus again picks up the theme of being the shepherd. It is almost certain that Jesus’ statement in v. 16 “and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” is a reference to Ezek. 34:23-24:

“I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I Yahweh will be their God, and my servant David will be ruler among them.”

Ezek. 34:23-24

Also relevant to Jesus’ statement is the reoccurrence of this same prophecy later in Ezekiel:

“I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms . . . They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them and they will all have one shepherd. . .”

Ezek. 37:22-24

Jesus is identifying himself as the fulfillment of this prophecy, as the ‘David‘ who will be the one king over all of God’s people. This is the context from which we come upon our present passage of discussion.

v. 30“I and my Father are one.”

Here is the statement most often put forth by proponents of the deity of Jesus as proof of an overt claim to deity by Jesus. To them this is a clear cut case, Jesus is claiming, in these words, to be of one essence (or substance or nature) with the Father, and hence to be God himself. Now the only thing that this interpretation of the text has in it’s favor is that it seems, based on v. 33, that this is what the people hearing him thought he was saying. But as we will see this is merely a superficial reading of the text. What is against this interpretation is all of the historical, cultural and biblical data I just presented. Also against this interpretation is the fact that the verse does not say explicitly what it is claimed to be saying. To take the word ‘one‘ to be a reference to essence or substance or nature is quite an imaginative move. This interpretation comes from church fathers of the 4th century, a time when Geek metaphysics held sway over the thinking of many church leaders, a time when talk of essences and substances was all the rage. Trinitarians today simply assume it means that the Father and the son are ‘one being‘ but this is certainly in no way explicit in the text.

The word for ‘one’ is a neuter adjective in the Greek so trinitarians are correct that it cannot mean that the Father and the son are ‘one person‘ as modalists believe. That would have required the masculine form of the word. But again, to insist that it must refer to one in substance or essence is pure speculation. The context alone must determine in what sense the Father and son are one, and the context is quite clear. Just prior to this statement Jesus spoke of his concern for the sheep and how no one can snatch them from his hand. The reason no one can snatch them from his hand is because the Father gave them into his care and the Father is greater than all and no one can snatch them from the Father’s hand. The point is that the son accomplishes his task not by his own power but by the Father’s power. This is the language of agency. An appointed agent (i.e. the Davidic king) acts and speaks and accomplishes his task by the authority and resources of the one who commissioned him. In this sense they are ‘one‘. The agent does not act of his own accord or in his own interest but only in that of the one who commissioned him. In this sense the agent is one with him who sent him – one in purpose, in will, and in word. Here the son, the Father’s agent, has the same purpose and will in keeping the sheep. This hearkens back to the prophets who rebuked kings and leaders for not shepherding God’s flock in the same way He himself would, in righteousness and justice and mercy. That the neuter form of this adjective can denote a unity of purpose and will is seen in it’s use in 1 Cor. 3:8 where Paul says that “he who plants and he who waters are one.” He said this in regard to himself and Apollos regarding their respective ministries to the Corinthians. No one assumes by this statement that Paul intended us to understand him to mean that he and Apollos are one in essence or nature. No, he clearly intended it to mean that they are one in the purpose of working for the growth of the believers.

vv. 31-33 – Now the proponents of the view that Jesus’ statement was in fact a claim to deity, believe they have the validation of that view in the fact that the Jews attempt to stone Jesus and when questioned why, by Jesus, they say it is because he claimed to be God. A literal rendering of the Greek of v. 33 reads:

“The Jews answered him, ‘We do not stone you regarding a good work but regarding blasphemy, and because you, being a man, are making yourself God.'”

Now is it really reasonable to think that they understood Jesus’ statement at v. 30 to be a claim to be Yahweh himself? If Jesus’ words “I and my Father are one” implied that he himself was Yahweh then who did they think Jesus meant by ‘my Father‘ ? We must remember that these Jews would have had no concept of the tri-personal God of later catholic creeds. Surely they would have understood by ‘my Father’ that Jesus was referring to Yahweh their God {see 8:41}. Therefore, if they really thought he was claiming to be Yahweh then they must have thought his statement was a claim to be the Father. But this is highly unlikely, as the exegesis of v. 30 given above shows, and not something a trinitarian would want to say. So perhaps they took his words to mean that he was a divine being distinct from the Father. The fact that in the Greek there is no definite article before the word ‘God’ makes possible the translation “Because you . . . are making yourself a god,” which would support this view. But this also seems unlikely for the same reason – Jesus’ statement is manifestly not saying this.

What I think is going on here is much the same as what we see earlier in John’s gospel, where John, I believe, informs his readers of the mindset of those who wanted to kill Jesus:

“For this reason the Jews sought all the more to kill him, for not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal to God.”

John 5:18

The idea is not that they accused him of saying “I am God” but rather that he was putting himself on the same level as God functionally, i.e. he was acting like God or claiming the functions of God as his own. This certainly makes much more sense than the other options. In both instances, Jesus claims to be functioning in the same way the Father does {see 5:17 & 10:25-29}. This is what they must have meant by saying, “you are making yourself God.” But would they have wanted to stone him for this? It is not that the Jews would have had a problem with someone performing certain functions of God, as long as that person was appointed and empowered by God to do so. Surely they would have understood Moses to have performed certain functions of God {Ex. 4:16; 7:1}, as well as other figures in their history, such as Elijah and Elisha, and especially the Davidic king, who sat on God’s throne ruling over God’s kingdom {see 1 Chron. 29:23; 2 Chron. 9:8; Ps. 45:5-7; 80:17; Zech. 12:8; 13:7}. The problem was that these Jewish leaders did not consider Jesus to be of God but rather a law breaker {see 5:18; 9:16, 24, 28-29} and therefore to speak as he did would be considered blasphemous and worthy of death {see Deut. 18:20}.

vv. 34-36 – In order to show these Jews that their accusation of blasphemy against him was unfounded, Jesus quoted from Psalm 82:6, “I said you are gods.” In order to follow Jesus’ logic here, it is necessary to look briefly at the psalm.

Psalm 82

There is much debate as to who is being addressed in this psalm – are the ‘gods’ referring to divine beings, members of the divine council, an interpretation popularized by Michael Heiser, or do they refer to human rulers of some kind? I take the stance that it refers to human rulers, specifically the kings of the Gentile nations. It is essential that we first understand that God has ordained the positions of rulership over the nations and sets in those positions whoever he pleases {see Ps. 47:9; Dan. 2:21; 4:17; Jn 19:11; Rom. 13:1}. In v. 1 the kings of the nations, I believe, are being analogized to the concept of the divine councils of the pagan religions. These councils consisted of lesser ‘gods’ who ruled on behalf of the Great god to whom they were subject. The psalmist is playing off of that idea with regard to the kings of the nations who ideally rule on God’s behalf. Therefore, the assembly of gods in v. 1 is figurative, not literal, which is Heiser’s mistake. These human kings are responsible to God, who gave them their power, to rule justly and mercifully {vv.3-4}. But these rulers walk about in darkness, without knowledge or understanding of the true God and his righteousness {v.3}. Therefore God judges them, bringing down one and raising up another {v. 6-7}. The psalmist then beseeches God to rule the earth himself {v. 8}, which he will do eventually, through his anointed servant {see Acts 17:31}.

Now back to John 10. Jesus’ point in quoting this passage is that if God can refer to these kings of the nations, who do not know God, as ‘gods,’ because they rule at his pleasure and will, then how much more the very one whom the Father has set-apart for himself, the chosen one from David’s line, who will rule over His own peculiar nation. How can they accuse the rightful heir to David’s throne of blasphemy for saying “I am the son of God?” After all the Davidic king is the most high of the kings of the earth, God’s firstborn {see Ps. 89:27}.

Now someone will no doubt say that what is being referred to must be more than just a human king because Jesus says that he was “sent into the world.” This surely implies that he existed outside of this world and was sent into this world from another place, right? If one wants to take it that literal, it still doesn’t get you to Jesus being an eternally begotten son of God, existing as God with the Father in heaven prior to his incarnation. The most it can imply is that he pre-existed as something else before becoming incarnated. I mean any Jehovah’s Witness can and would agree with that. But if one insists that it be taken literal then they have another problem – the same expression is used of the apostles in 17:18, where Jesus said:

“They (i.e. the apostles) are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I likewise have sent them into the world.”

John 17:16-18

If the expression is to be taken literally in 10:36 with regard to Jesus, then it must be taken literally in 17:18 with regard to the apostles. This would require us to believe that the apostles pre-existed their birth and then were sent into this world from heaven. But, in fact, the expression is not literal but idiomatic. The expression means something like this – having been commissioned to speak on God’s behalf, to go from a quiet and obscure life to openly and publicly preaching and teaching. This meaning is confirmed also by a similar expression in 1 John 4:1, where it is said that “many false prophets have gone out into the world,” that is to say that many people who were unknown before are now known for publicly proclaiming false ideas about who Jesus is. Here the expression is changed from “sent” into the world to “have gone out” into the world, because these people were not commissioned by God to go and preach but were self appointed.

John 17: 18 must be referring to when Jesus had sent the twelve, from their obscure life as Galilean fishermen, out into the towns and villages of Galilee to preach that the “kingdom of God is near” and to heal the sick {see Matt. 10:1,5-8}. In the same way, Jesus was “sent into the world” when he left his obscure and quiet life as a carpenter in Nazareth, to be an itinerant prophet and rabbi. His role as king was not to be fulfilled at that time, though that is his ultimate destiny.

vv.37-38 – The works that Jesus was doing was the demonstrable proof that he was of God and therefore his words should be trusted as one who was a duly commissioned agent of God {2 Chron. 20:20}. The miracles validated his status as an agent and spokesperson for God and therefore his claim to be the rightful heir to the throne of David, a.k.a. the son of God, should have been believed. The statement that “the Father is in me and I in the Father” should not to be taken as a metaphysical assertion of some kind of mystical union. Rather it is simply an expression meant to convey the fact that Jesus is the Father’s agent. It would be true of any agent that the one who sent him is “in him” and that the agent is “in” the one who sent him. This is a figurative way of denoting the relationship between an agent and the one he represents.

Conclusion

So we have seen that the real overt claim of Jesus was that he was the son of God. We have also seen that this title was understood by Jesus himself, his followers and his enemies to be equivalent to both Messiah and king of Israel, and that this was an understanding derived from their own history and scriptures. It is therefore incumbent upon every sincere and honest interpreter of scripture to acknowledge these facts as true and to endeavor to find alternative interpretations to those passages which seem, on the surface, to promote the idea that Jesus himself claimed to be God or those in which the scripture authors appear to be claiming deity for Jesus (e.g. John 1:1, 18; 8:24; 21:28). In fact, many have already given alternative interpretations to these passages which keep them consistent with the rest of scripture.

Messiah – A Life-Giving Spirit?

1 Cor. 15:45 –  “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.”

1 Corinthians 15:45 has, no doubt, been a cause of consternation for many Christian readers of the Bible. What did the apostle Paul mean when he said that Jesus became a life-giving spirit?” There has been much debate over this verse, with everyone trying to interpret it according to their own Christological presupposition. Some trinitarians try to make hay out of this passage, seeing in it, remarkably, a reference to the deity of Jesus. Some biblical Unitarians see it as referring to the risen and ascended man Jesus who has now become the Holy Spirit in some sense. JWs take it as support for their belief that Jesus did not rise from the dead bodily i.e. as a real flesh and bone man. My purpose in this article is to argue only against the notion that this passage teaches us that Christ is in some way being equated with the Holy Spirit, although my proposal does negate the JW belief in a ‘spiritual‘ rather than a ‘physical‘ resurrection of Jesus. Many trinitarian scholars argue for this view in a way that they feel does not confuse the persons of the Trinity. Some Biblical Unitarians also argue for the view that the risen and exalted Jesus is being equated with the Spirit, which now communicates to believers the presence of the ascended Jesus. Both of these interpretations see Jesus’ being “a life-giving spirit” as a present function, i.e. he is presently communicating life to believers. But as I will show, I believe this is a misunderstanding based on a simple mistake, that of taking Paul’s words too literally.

The Meaning Of Pneuma

The strength of the argument I will present here depends on the correct understanding of the Greek word pneuma used by Paul in the verse. The most basic and literal meaning of pneuma, as defined by all Greek lexicons, is a movement or current or blast of air. Based on this the two most common uses of this word in koine Greek are for a wind and  breath. The idea of ‘spirit‘ is more of a figurative use of pneuma, and expresses the concept of something that is immaterial, but which produces an effect that can be sensed or experienced corporeally. Pneuma corresponds to and is the word used to translate the Hebrew word ruach. In the Hebrew Bible ruach is used for breath some 33x, for wind some 117x, and for spirit (of God, of man, or as an incorporeal being) some 106x. In the NT pneuma is mostly used in the sense of ‘spirit‘. Among popular English bibles pneuma is translated as ‘breath‘ only as much as three times, in 2 Thess. 2:8; Rev. 11:11; 13:15. But these are the most obvious places, where ‘breath‘ would make more sense. I believe there are other places where English bibles have ‘spirit‘, that ‘breath‘ would be a valid and even preferable translation of pneuma, such as Matt. 27:50; Lk. 23:46; Jn. 19:30; Acts 7:59; James 2:26 and 1 Cor. 15:45. Most of these are translated as ‘spirit‘ due to popular but unbiblical concepts of the nature of man. But the idea that when one dies he gives back to God the breath that God first gave to man at his creation {see Gen. 2:7} is a thoroughly biblical one {see Job 12:10; 27:3; 33:4; 34:14; Ps. 104:29; 146:4; Eccl. 3:18-21; 12:7}.

So I have let the cat out of the bag. Yes I think that pneuma in 1 Cor. 15:45 should be translated as ‘breath‘ and not ‘spirit‘. But what could it possibly mean to refer to Jesus as a “life-giving breath?”

Contextual Considerations

The context of the whole chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians is about the resurrection of the dead. Paul is writing to a predominantly Gentile congregation, and within that Greek culture the idea of a bodily resurrection was considered to be a most ridiculous notion. Paul is reassuring the believers in Messiah that there will certainly be a bodily resurrection from the dead and that we can be confident of this because of the fact that Jesus was resurrected bodily from the dead. If a bodily resurrection were impossible, as the Greek philosophers maintained, then not even Jesus was resurrected, and so all who have died believing in Jesus have no hope of a future life {vv. 12-22} (this passage also contradicts the popular Christian belief that when one dies he is actually not dead but alive with Christ in heaven). If the dead are not raised then this life only has any real value, so why not live it up now {vv. 29-32}. Paul then speaks of the difference between the present body and the resurrection body {vv. 35-44}. Now the main parts of this passage that throw light upon Paul’s meaning in v. 45 are vv. 21-22 and 42-55, so lets focus there.

It seems to me that in v. 45 Paul is hearkening back to what he said in vv. 21-22. Perhaps he intended at that point to move right into what he said in v. 45 and on, but was sidetracked by a rabbit that needed to be chased. Both sections contain a contrast between Adam and Jesus, with Jesus even being called “the last Adam.” Paul viewed both Adam and Jesus as progenitors of humanity; Adam as the progenitor of a humanity which is subject to death and Jesus as the progenitor of a new humanity set free from death:

1 Cor. 15:21-22 –  For since death came through a man, the resurrection from the dead comes also through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Messiah all will be given life.”

In vv. 44 and 46 Paul speaks of “a spiritual (Gr. pneumatikos) bodyin contrast to “a natural (Gr. psuchikos) body.” What does Paul mean by ‘spiritual‘ ; does he mean non- physical? No. The context tells us exactly what Paul means by both ‘spiritual‘ and ‘natural‘. 

vv. 42-44 –  “. . . The body is sown with corruption, it is raised with incorruption; it is sown with dishonor, it is raised with honor; it is sown with weakness, it is raised with power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”

So by ‘natural body‘ he means a body of corruption, dishonor and weakness, i.e. a body subject to death. And by ‘spiritual body‘ he means a body of incorruption, honor and power, i.e a body freed from it’s bondage to death. I don’t think we can make these concepts mean anything more than what the context tells us. Therefore, ‘natural‘ does not mean ‘material‘ and ‘spiritual‘ does not mean ‘non-material.’ These are both states of the material, physical body; one of mortality, one of immortality {see vv.53-55}.

Now here is where I think the mistake is made by most expositors – to take Paul’s use of pneuma (i.e. spirit) in v. 45 as having a connection to the word pneumaikos (i.e. spiritual) in vv. 44 and 46. But there is no reason why Paul cannot be using these words in completely different senses. We know that he uses the word pneumatikos in different senses {see Rom. 7:14; 15:27; 1Cor. 2:13-15; 9:11; 10:3-4; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 5:19}, as well as the word pneuma {see Rom. 1:9; 8:14-15; 11:8; 12:11; 1 Cor. 2:12; 4:21; 6:17; 2 Cor. 12:18; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 4:23}. It should not be thought improbable that he would use pneuma and pneumatikos in the same context but with differing senses. These two words occur in the same context but with different senses in 1 Cor. 2:12-13 and Gal. 6:1. That these two words appearing together in 1 Cor. 15:44-46 would seem to have a connection to one another may only be superficial. It is possible that they have no connection in this context. ‘Spirit‘ could be meant in the sense of ‘breath‘ while ‘spiritual‘ could be meant to signify ‘incorruptible and immortal.’

The Genesis Allusion

So why do I favor the translation of pneuma in this passage as ‘breath‘ rather than ‘spirit‘ ? I see a clear allusion to Genesis 2:7, which Paul partially quotes in our study passage. He says of Adam, he “became a living being.” Paul begins this verse by saying, “And so it written,” but the only part of what he says that is actually written is “the . . . man . . . became a living being.” The second part, “the last Adam, [became] a life-giving breath,” is not something that was written but is Paul’s midrash, contrasting the first man Adam with the second man Jesus. Now when Paul quoted the last clause of Gen. 2:7, it no doubt immediately brought to his mind the preceding clause “(the Lord God) breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” When we look at Gen. 2:7 we see that God “formed the man from the dust of the ground,” but at that point the man was not alive. Only after God breathed the breath of life into his nostrils did the man become a living being. Therefore the breath of life from God was the means by which God brought the lifeless form of the man to life. This is analogous to the resurrection of the dead, when the lifeless form of the bodies of deceased believers will be made alive again by the agency of the second man, Jesus. In this sense then, Paul metaphorically calls Jesus “a life-giving breath” i.e. the means by which the dead will become living beings once again. In everything that Paul  says after v. 45 the fall of Adam is implicit, hearkening back to vv. 21-22:

For since death came through a man, the resurrection from the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all will be made alive.

It is hard for me to see that, upon quoting Gen 2:7, Paul did not intend to denote Jesus as the “life-giving breath” by which God will restore life to the dead, just like it was the breath of life that originally caused the lifeless form of the man to come alive.  And the point seems obvious, to be ‘a life-giving breath‘ (and we are talking about everlasting life, i.e. immortality) one must himself possess this everlasting life (this, I believe, is the import of John 5:19-30).

Now someone might object that the Hebrew word for “breath” in Gen. 2:7, in the phrase “breath of life” is not ruach, the equivalent of pneuma, but rather neshamah, whose Greek equivalent is pnoe. But this does not weaken my proposal in any way, since ruach and neshamah are practically synonyms¹, and even though the first occurrence of the phrase “breath of life” in the Hebrew Bible is neshamah chay, subsequent occurrences use ruach chay, clearly as an equivalent {see Gen. 6:17; 7:15, 22}.

It must also be noted that the definite article is lacking in v. 45 in the case of both Adam and of Jesus. This weakens the prospect that Jesus is being equated with the Holy Spirit, for in that case we might have expected Paul to say that Jesus became ‘the life-giving Spirit‘ rather than what he actually said, ‘a life-giving breath.‘ One Reformed professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, in a lecture he gave on 1 Cor. 15:45 in 2015, continuously referred to Jesus as “the life-giving Spirit.” But this is clearly wrong, as the absence of the article proves.

A Confirmatory Passage

Is this idea of a human person metaphorically denoted as the ‘breath of life‘, in relation to other human persons, without any precedent in Hebrew thought? There is one obscure reference in Lamentations 4:20, which is literally translated:

The breath (Heb. ruach) of our nostrils, the anointed one (Heb. messiah) of Yahweh . . .” 

Here the Israelite king, Yahweh’s anointed one, is spoken of by the poet prophet as the ‘breath‘ of the nostrils of the people of Israel. In this metaphorical use the king is presented as that which gives life to the nation itself. This was a common analogy used of rulers in the ANE culture to denote a nation’s dependence upon it’s king, for indeed a nation’s life and health was in the king’s hand. While the metaphor in this passage is not a precise match to that of 1 Cor. 15:45 – the one signifying a nation’s reliance upon it’s king and the other the means by which God will raise the dead – it is still significant that the messiah figure of the OT (i.e. the Davidic king) and the promised, final Messiah, who is identified in the NT as Jesus of Nazareth, are both analogized as a ‘life-giving breath.’ It attests that such a high and exalted stature was attributed to human agents who were chosen by God to represent him in some fashion, and thus shows that the exalted language used of Jesus need not imply an ontological distinction between him and his predecessors.


Endnotes

  1. The following verses show ruach and neshamah to be virtually synonyms: Gen. 1:30; 2:7; 6:17; 7:15, 22; 2 Sam. 22:16; Job 27:3; 32:8; 33:4; 34:14; Ps. 18:15; 104:29; 135:17; Is. 42:5; 57:16