One of the distinctives of the christian religion is the belief that Jesus was divine, the son of God, the second person of the Trinity. There’s a big difference between him and us, and we can never become divine like him.
So what’s Jesus doing apparently saying ordinary people are gods?
An argumentative encounter
In John 10, Jesus is having one of those strong arguments with the religious teachers. He has been teaching about doing what his father has given him to do, claiming a closer relationship than the Pharisees were comfortable with. They object to his claim to be divine, and he responds (v 34-36):
“Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came — and Scripture cannot be set aside — what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?”
What??? Is this really true?
To defend his claim to be divine, Jesus says other people are divine too?
Better look at the context
Jesus is quoting from Psalm 82, which pictures God presiding over an assembly and passing judgment those who favour the rich unfairly against the poor and oppressed. It isn’t clear to me whether the “gods” are pagan gods or human rulers. I think the latter is more likely, but it doesn’t make any difference for this discussion.
After denouncing their behaviour and lack of understanding, the Psalmist says:
“I said, ‘You are “gods”;
you are all sons of the Most High.’
But you will die like mere mortals;
you will fall like every other ruler.”
It seems pretty clear that the writer is being ironical. Kings and rulers, in Israel and elsewhere, were often called “sons of God”, reflecting not divinity but their high human status, and many actually went further and claimed divinity. But, the Psalmist says, their high status will not prevent them from being brought down and judged by the true God.
This is very different than how Jesus uses the passage against the Pharisees.
Does Jesus care about the context?
We are taught that we must quote scripture in context, and it is generally a good idea. But Jesus didn’t seem to follow that principle, here at any rate. The Psalm only says “you are Gods” in a mocking way, and it certainly doesn’t teach that any person is divine. Rather, the Psalm is a judgment on social injustice.
What’s going on? What can we learn?
This little incident can teach us a lot if we are attentive.
Jesus was a Jew, not an evangelical christian
For Jesus, as for other Jews at the time, any scripture didn’t have one fixed meaning which God intended for us. Rather, they were happy to interpret the scriptures in a flexible way, that wasn’t necessarily based on the original context, but served to emphasise the point they wanted to make.
It turns out that about half the times the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, it changes some of the words or the meaning. Here’s just a couple of examples:
- In Luke 20:27-40, Jesus is arguing with the Sadducees about the resurrection of the dead, something the Sadducees didn’t believe in. To reinforce his point, Jesus quotes from Exodus 3:6, a passage that has nothing to do with resurrection, but records God saying to Moses that he is God of the long-dead Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, without making any suggestion that they were in any way resurrected. But Jesus used it to support he idea of resurrection, and some of his hearers applauded his explanation, showing that they were familiar with such a free-wheeling approach.
- The famous passage in Isaiah 7:13 about a young woman conceiving is clearly describing a situation in the very near future and reassuring the king that God would rescue Israel. It isn’t a prophecy of the far future, it has nothing to do with the Messiah and the word is indeed best translated “young woman” rather than “virgin”. Yet Matthew has no problem saying that Mary’s conception of Jesus while still a virgin was a fulfilment of this prophecy.
As outlined in Interpreting the Old Testament, scholars have examined this and have found that there are four different ways the Old Testament is quoted in the New:
- Most often, they change the original meaning to point to the coming Messiah, to show that Jesus has fulfilled the Old Testament, and now we see things differently.
- The first century Jews had interpretive “rules” that allowed extrapolation beyond the original meaning, for example, by allowing two verses containing the same word to interpret each other, even if there was originally no connection between them.
- The plain meaning of the text was used, much as we would today.
- In a very few cases, an allegorical meaning was given to the text.
This is all found in our New Testament, so we need to accept it as part of the scriptures, and learn from it.
“The scripture cannot be set aside”?
This saying of Jesus is sometimes used to support the view that the Bible is either inerrant, or at least its meaning cannot be changed or contradicted. Yet this passage actually shows the opposite:
- Jesus is being ironic in this saying, and it appears that this statement about the scriptures is ironic too.
- If we want to say he was being straightforward and literal, then we have to say he was being straightforward and literal when he said the people referred to in Psalm 82 were literally gods, something no christian could agree with.
- As we have seen, the only way to understand this passage is to see that Jesus was changing the meaning of the Psalm. Whatever he was saying, his actions showed he didn’t literally think the original meaning couldn’t be altered.
I believe the scriptures are God’s intended revelation to us, but we cannot honestly use this passage to support a conservative view of scripture.
Keep calm and keep praying
Some christians feel worried about these ideas, for they seem to threaten their view of the scriptures as a clear and reliable guide to life and faith. I don’t think we need to be worried.
God has given us the scriptures, and the Holy Spirit, but he hasn’t given us certainty. The scriptures can be interpreted in many different ways. The gifts of the Holy Spirit can be abused or misrepresented. We can never be absolutely certain about most things. But if we read the scriptures, pray for understanding and heed the Spirit, we can feel confident God will lead us to truth in time.
But this passage, and these examples, remind us that we don’t know it all. Human doctrinal systems are fallible. The Bible may have new messages for us if we are open to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can lead us in new directions if we are willing, and not too scared, to allow him.
And, looking at the church and the culture in many western countries today, we surely need some new directions!
But we need to be humble
We are not Jesus. We are not the apostles. We have the same Spirit, but he hasn’t entrusted us with the same responsibility as they had. We can be easily mistaken.
The starting point is to know and understand the scriptures in their original context. But if we pray, and if we keep in step with what the Spirit is doing among mature believers, we may find that he shakes some of our cherished traditions, and gives us new insights to suit our new, twenty-first century, situations.
Picture: Free Bible Images