John 10:34 and Jewish Monotheism

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Jesus makes an interesting appeal to Psalm 82 in John 10:34. Most Evangelical commentators appear to agree that Jesus is appealing to the lexical ambiguity of the word “god” to justify his claim to be God, “If there are others whom God … can address as ‘god’ and ‘sons of the Most High’…, on what biblical basis should anyone object when Jesus says, I am God’s Son.”1 However, notice that Jesus’ quotation doesn’t include “sons of the Most High,” which would be the obvious thing to do if that was his intention. In the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Robert Mounce makes the same conclusion, “certain people were called ‘gods.’ How then can they say that the one who was sent into the world by God is guilty of blasphemy when he calls himself God’s Son.’”2 However, I want to suggest that Jesus is making a more pointed, and interesting, claim here.

After Jesus has said he and the Father are one, the Jewish leaders are prepared to stone him; the charge is this, “you, a man, make yourself out to be God.” Jesus then responds,

Is it not written in your law, “I said, ‘you are Gods.’” If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—then why are you saying about he whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, “You blaspheme!” because I said, “I am the son of God.”

The structure of Jesus response is clear: it is a lesser to the greater argument, “if this is the case about someone like this, how much more must it be possible for someone like this.” However, this seems to be a poorly chosen passage if Jeus is trying to justify his claim to be God, for the Psalm refers to mere men who are godlike (Psalm 82:6-7). However, Jesus is not trying to justify his claim to be God, for the charge made against him is that a mere man made himself out to be God. That is, their problem was not his claim to be God but the implied claim that a human could be God or that God could be a human. If we properly understand what the Jewish leader’s charge as blasphemy, then Jesus’ response makes more sense.

Jesus is saying, “consider this instance where God himself finds it fitting to call mere men ‘gods’—so ‘god’ language is not inappropriate for humans!” Yet, these were mere men, but I, Jesus continues, am consecrated for a task and sent into the world by God the Father. If “god” language is appropriate for those men, how much more is it appropriate for me?

The implication of this is a criticism of the assumptions we bring to the text. We assume that the problem these Jewish leaders had was with the multiplication of gods, that Jesus would make himself God alongside the Father. However, this was not their problem: Jesus’ claims are not a threat to their monotheism but to their view of God’s transcendence.

Think about it: if God the Father is clearly God, and Jesus is making himself out to be God, then he is positing a multiplicity of Gods or a plurality in God. Would this not be the first objection a supposedly unitarian monotheistic Jew would raise? Nevertheless, they are silent on this issue; the problem is not the plurality of Deity but the violation of God’s transcendence. Against this charge, Jesus’ answer is clear: you don’t know the Scriptures, for if God sees fit to call mere humans “god,” how much more is this term appropriate for one whose origins are from heaven (John 6:32-33, 38, 42-51), who is Yahweh himself (John 8:58-59), who is one with the Father (John 5:10-18; 10:30), and who is the pre-existent Word (John 1:1-4)? John’s Gospel begins with the scandal of the incarnation (John 1:14-18), and the primary charge raised by the Jewish leaders is at this point, not that God is more than one but that Jesus being God violated their concept of God’s transcendence. Their view of God’s transcendence was wrong, but perhaps their Monotheism was less unitarian than we imagine it was.  ((See my book The Trinity and the Bible.))

  1. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester; Grand Rapids: IVP; Eerdmans, 1991), s.v. “John 10:34.” []
  2. Robert H. Mounce, “John,” in Luke-Acts, ed. Tremper Longman and David E Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), s.v. John 10:34. []

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