On a previous post dealing with the deity of Christ and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the point was made that besides the one true God, nowhere does the Bible present any other being as a god in a good sense, one that is truly a god, demi-god, or presents created beings as gods that are above their regular creaturely status. Isaiah 43:10 has God telling us that “before Me there was no god formed, nor will there be one after.” This leaves no room for a created being to be anything other than what they were created for, i.e., not a true god.
Someone brought up John 10:36, which quotes Psalm 82:6, where God says “I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” A commentor then cited the following quote, presumably in support of the ‘god with a little g’ idea:
“The Hebrew for ‘gods’ (‘elohîm) could refer to various exalted beings besides Yahweh [or, Jehovah], without implying any challenge to monotheism,…”
Presumably, then, this would support the idea of the Hebrew elohim as being applied to exalted beings as gods, while still only having one God. How there could be multiple gods and one God at the same time is confusing, but somehow this seems to be the point the Jehovah’s Witnesses are trying to make. I will make the case the quote does not support their view.
The quote comes from the book The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary by Craig Blomberg, who is apparently not a member of the Watchtower. If we look at the full quote, we learn more complete information. Blomberg is explaining John 10, and says this:
As the authorities pick up rocks for stoning, Jesus sarcastically asks them for which of his many good works they would execute him (vv.31-32). When they explain that it is rather that he has blasphemed (v.33), he replies by citing Psalm 82:6 and employing a ‘from the lesser to the greater’ kind of logic, standard among Jewish debaters (see esp. Neyrey 1989). If mere mortals (or possibly angels) in Old Testament times could be called ‘gods’, how can it be blasphemy for him to claim that he is ‘God’s Son’ (vv.35-36)? The Hebrew for ‘gods’ (elohim) could refer to various exalted beings besides Yahweh, without implying any challenge to monotheim, so if Jesus acknowledges that the Father has appointed him to be the divine Messiah, it is no crime to confess it (cf. Talbert 1992: 170). In verses 35-36 Jesus adopts thoroughly Jewish convictions about Scripture’s unity and inviolability and refers to himself as one whom the Father ‘sanctified’ or ‘dedicated’ (Gk. hegaisen; NIV ‘set apart’). (Blomberg, 163)
So Blomberg’s context is one of explaining Psalm 82:6 and John 10:36-37 as a “lesser to the greater” type of argument, mentions that this is common to Jewish debaters, and refers us to Neyrey, another author. He then has the quote about elohim, and again refers us to another author, Talbert, for more explanation. To understand the quote about gods, we must take Blomberg’s context, plus the statements from the other authors. As I just mentioned, Blomberg was saying Jesus’ quotes about “gods” were a lesser to the greater argument, common to a Jewish context.
The citation for “Neyrey 1989” is I Said: You Are Gods: Psalm 82:6 and John 10, Jerome Neyrey, Journal of Biblical Literature, 108/4, 1989, 647-663. In this article, we learn several things. First, Neyrey is exploring several possible Jewish explanations for “gods” in Psalm 82:6, and concludes the following:
The emphasis in John 10:35 is not on Jesus, the preexistent Word, but on “those to whom the word of God came,” who are called “gods.” Who were these people? Although it is not the only stream of interpretation of Ps. 82:6-7 in Jewish literature, there is a clear sense that Ps 82:6-7 was understood in terms of Israel at the Sinai theophany. (p.655)
Neyrey goes on to include a lengthy explanation that connects ‘gods,” those to whom “the word of God came,” and life and death. “The occasion is Sinai, Israel is once again called god because deathless [sic] But now we find the explicit note that being called god and being deathless are linked to the reception of Torah.” (p.656)
In other words, Israel should have died at Sinai because of their sin, but ‘the word of God came’ to them, and they did not die. Since Israel had the word of God, the Torah, which holds the power of life and death, then God spoke of them as “gods.” Psalm 82 explains that even though they had this power over death, they would “die like men.”
Several points can then be concluded about Neyrey’s article. First, the overall point is that the ‘gods’ in Psalm 82:6 are, in actuality, fallible mortal men. Though Israel thought they had power of life over death, they had actually failed and would die like men. Second, whatever is meant by gods, it is an unbelievable stretch to conclude that the entire nation of Israel would really be exalted beings of a good sense of the word, of some nature that is above human, some sort of demi-god. Third, Neyrey accurately points out that both Psalm 82:6 and John 10 are in a thoroughly Jewish context, and one must understand how a Jewish mind of the first century would have understood Jesus’ conversation. Whether or not we agree with Neyrey’s conclusions, this was Blomberg’s context, and we can be safe in knowing that the mindset would definitely not have been one that held humans up to be gods in a sense that would challenge the first commandment, to have no other Gods.
The citation for “Talbert 1992” is Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johanine Epistles, by Charles Talbert. The section to which Blomberg refers is actually rather short, only being one paragraph. Talbert hinges his explanation on the accusation that the Jewish leaders made against Jesus, that he had “made himself” equal to God (John 10:33). The explanation deals with the ‘lesser to the greater’ idea that Blomberg mentioned, and says that Jesus did not ‘make himself’ anything, but that Jesus had the authority to do what he did because “the word of God came” to him. Talbert contrasts the sinful, fallable men of Psalm 82, who were appointed by God and to whom the word of God came, with Jesus, who was the Word of God incarnate, and had not ‘made himself’ anything.
So back to Blomberg’s quote. In context, the ‘exalted beings’ he mentions were not exalted in the sense of being anything more than what they were created for — they certainly were not held up in esteem to be an example to follow. They were only exalted because the Father had chosen them to be the ‘ones to whom the word of God came” and thus held the words with the power of life over death. They failed, so they would ‘die like men” which is exactly what they were. The Jewish leaders in John 10 understood exactly what Jesus meant, in that Jesus was claiming to be the one to whom the word of God had come, and was asking the leaders “which of my deeds do you stone me?” (v. 32), in reference to the sinful deeds of Israel, whom God said would die (Ps. 82:6).
So it appears that the original quote, apparently by either a Jehovah’s Witness or a Watchtower sympathizer, once again made a similar mistake as so often occurs in Watchtower publications. The quote was incomplete, not in context, did not follow the original references, and ended up implying something the author did not state. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have used this pattern more than once.
As an aside, all three of the authors, Blomberg, Neyrey, and Talbert, hold that John clearly teaches Jesus as equal to God almighty. They all hold John 1:1 and other clear passages in John to say the same thing that all orthodox Christians have said for 2000 years, and what all Greek scholars continue to say, that the gospel of John holds Jesus to be equal with God.