The Greek word translated “God” or “god” is theos. The Bible refers to Jesus as theos about seven times. This article discusses the different meanings of theos to lay the foundation for a discussion of why Jesus is called theos.
- The only true God;
- A false god; a superhuman being worshipped as having power over nature, human fortunes, etc.
- An idol or image that symbolizes a god;
- A thing that opposes God, such as Satan or appetite or wealth; or as
- A person mandated by God to represent Him.
Or to qualitatively describe the characteristics or nature of a being that is not a god as ‘godly’ or ‘godlike’ or ‘divine’.
Difference between God and theos
This definition implies an important difference between our word “God” and theos:
God: The Greek language did not have the distinction between lower and upper case letters. Today we use “God,” with a capital G, as a name for the only true God; equivalent to His Old Testament name YHVH.
The word theos has a different meaning, for theos may also be translated “god” or “godlike.”
Jesus as theos
Of the more than 1300 times that the title theos is found in the New Testament, it is used for Jesus about seven times. Thayer’s says,
“Whether Christ is called God must be determined …
the matter is still in dispute among theologians.”
Considering the uses of theos identified above, Jesus is not called theos in the sense of a false god or in the sense of a being that oppose God. The following remaining meanings may be evaluated:
● He is co-equal part of the Trinity, or
● He is mandated by God to represent Him, or
● In a qualitative sense; that He is divine or Godlike, but distinct from God.
It is the purpose of this series of articles to answer this question.
Purpose of this article
God’s Hebrew name YHVH, which is found all over the Old Testament, does not appear at all in the New, which has been written in Greek. The Greek word translated “God” is Θεός (Strong number 2315); transliterated theos. This Greek word has survived in English in words such as “theology” and “theism.” The purpose of this article is to explain the various meanings of theos.
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon
Biblehub provides the various possible meanings of THEOS according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. The following is a summary of this complex but useful definition:
(1) THEOS is a general appellation (title) of deities or divinities (Acts 12:22; 19:37; 28:6; 1 Cor 8:4; 2 Thess 2:4). In other words, it is used for any god; not only for the Creator. In plural form, it is only used of the gods of the Gentiles (Acts 14:11; 19:26, 1 Cor 8:5, Gal 4:8, Acts 7:43).
(2) Whether Christ is called God is still in dispute among theologians, and must be determined from John 1:1; John 20:28; 1 John 5:20; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8f, etc.
(3) THEOS also refers to the only and true God;
(3.1) Sometimes with the article (Mt. 3:9; Mark 13:19; Luke 2:13; Acts 2:11) – (The ancient Greek language had a definite article (the), but not an indefinite article, equivalent to the English a or an.)
(3.2) Sometimes with both the article and prepositions (e.g. “of God” John 8:47; cf. 8:42; Luke 1:26; Acts 26:6; John 8:40; John 9:16; Romans 2:13; Col 3:3; Acts 24:15; John 1:2; Acts 24;
(3.3) Sometimes without the article (e.g. “You cannot serve God and wealth” Matt 6:24; cf. Luke 3:2; Luke 20:38; Rom. 8:8, 33; 2 Cor 1:21; 5:19; 6:7; 1 Thess 2:5);
(3.4) Sometimes without the article but with prepositions (e.g. “from God” John 3:2; cf. 16:30; Romans 13:1, John 1:6, Acts 5:39; 2 Cor. 5:1; Phil. 3:9;, 2 Thess. 1:6; 1 Peter 2:4; Mt. 22:32)
|In summary:||With Article||With Preposition|
THEOS is therefore used for the only true God with and without the article, and with and without prepositions. In other words, the absence or presence of the article or a preposition does not fully determine whether a particular THEOS refers to the only true God. Further identifications in the context must also be considered.
(4) THEOS is used of whatever can in any respect be likened to God, or resembles him in any way. Under this option, Thayer’s mentions three categories:
(4.1) Hebraistically, for God’s representative, of magistrates and judges. For example, in John 10:34 Jesus quotes Psalm 81:6: “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS’?”
(4.2) The devil, (2 Cor 4:4);
(4.3) The person or thing to which one is wholly devoted, for which alone he lives, e.g. “whose god is their appetite” (Phil 3:19).
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance
Biblehub also quotes Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance’s definition of THEOS:
The supreme Divinity, God, godly.
Of uncertain affinity; a deity, especially (with ho) the supreme Divinity; figuratively, a magistrate; by Hebraism, very — X exceeding, God, god(-ly, -ward).
Meanings of THEOS
Combining the definitions above, the following possible meanings of THEOS may be identified:
(A) The only true God
Of the 1314 times that theos appears in the New Testament, the NASB translates it 1267 times as “God.” According to Strong’s, THEOS is used for “the supreme Divinity” and “God,” especially when the article (the) is added. In other words, when THEOS is used without the article, it may refer to both God and to gods, but when the article is added it most often refers God. Thayer provides examples where THEOS without the article refers to the only true God. Oxford’s similarly refers to “God (in Christian and other monotheistic religions) creator and ruler of the universe.”
(B) False gods
THEOS is a general title of deities or divinities, including false gods. THEOS was used to describe even Roman Emperors. Oxford’s Dictionary refers to a “superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature, human fortunes, etc. b image, idol, etc., symbolizing a god.”
(C) Things that oppose God
This is Thayer’s categories 4.2 and 4.3. This meaning is not mentioned by Strong’s. Examples from the New Testament are the devil, appetite and wealth (Matt 6:24). Satan is “the god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4).
(D) God’s agents
THEOS is also used for beings who have been granted authority or power by God to represent Him. This is Thayer’s category 4.1. Strong’s refer to this category as “figuratively, a magistrate.” Examples include:
In John 10:35 Jesus, quoting Psalm 82:6, refers to people, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods.” (In Psalm 82, “God” says to the “rulers” of “His own congregation,” “you are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High.“)
Moses was appointed by God as “god” to Pharaoh (Exo 7:1).
Psalm 8:5 reads “You have made him (man) a little lower than ELOHIM.” (ELOHIM is the plural Hebrew equivalent of THEOS.) The LXX translates ELOHIM here as angels. Hebrews, relying on the LXX, quotes this as “Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels” (Heb 2:9). Angels are therefore indirectly called gods, probably for their role as God’s messengers.
(E) Qualitative use
In the previous four uses, THEOS identifies or categorizes a being (as a false god or as a thing that opposes God or as the only true God or as God’s agent). But THEOS may also be used to describe the characteristics or nature of a being. This is the qualitative use of the word. Strong’s gives the examples “god(-ly, -ward).” Thayer’s does not mention this meaning. Oxford’s gives one of the meanings of god as an “adored or greatly admired person.” This person is not really a god, but is godlike.
Adopting this meaning, some translations of John 1:1c read, “the Word was divine.” To describe a being as divine does not necessarily mean that the being is God, for instance:
“… you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust” (2 Peter 1:4).
To say that “the Word was divine” therefore implies that the Word is like God, having Godlike qualities, without being God Himself. As discussed in the article The Word was a god, grammarians who studied the special grammatical construct of John 1:1c concluded that that phrase uses THEOS in a qualitative sense. Commentators who prefer the translation “Jesus was God,” in defense against this finding, and to support the view that Jesus is co-equal with the Father, often describe Jesus as “fully divine,” as opposed to merely “divine.”
THEOS is not the same as God.
The definition above implies an important difference between our word “God” and THEOS:
God: Today we have something which the ancient Greek language did not have, namely the distinction between lower and upper case letters. In a Christian community, when we write “God,” with a capital G, everybody know that we are referring to one specific Being; the Creator. No further identification is required. But when we write “god” it is clear that we are not referring to the Creator. In other words, in the Christian culture, we actually use “God” as a name for the Creator; equivalent to His Old Testament name YHVH.
THEOS, on the other hand, is equivalent to our word “god,” which is a general designation for all deities or divinities. The ancient Greeks had many gods. Their deities were essentially just immortal, glorified humans with supernatural powers. The other ancient nations, when the New Testament was written, also had many gods. THEOS was used for all those gods.
Further Identification Required
THEOS is therefore only translated “God” when further identification makes it clear that the Creator is intended, for example:
When the context makes this clear.
Sometimes the only true God is identified by adding phrases such as such as “the living” (Matt 16:16) or the “Most High” (Mark 5:7).
The Old Testament often adds God’s personal name YHVH (Yahweh or Jehovah) to the Hebrew word ELOHIM (GOD).
Very often the Greek New Testament puts the Greek article (the) before THEOS to identify the only true God. John 1:1b is an example of this. THE THEOS in Greek is translated into English by omitting the article and by capitalizing the G (“God”). With G capitalized, we do not need the article.
Consequently, our translations are sometimes guilty of tautology. For example:
“A jealous and avenging God is the LORD” (Nahum 1:2). This is tautology, for “God,” in English, is a synonym for “the LORD,” which translates God’s name YHVH. Perhaps this would be more accurately translated “A jealous and avenging god is the LORD,”with a lower case “g,” but that seems a bit awkward.
Jesus is called THEOS.
Of the 1314 times that the title THEOS is found in the New Testament, it is used for Jesus about seven times. Thayer’s says, “Whether Christ is called God must be determined … the matter is still in dispute among theologians.”
Considering the five uses of THEOS identified above, Jesus is not called THEOS in the sense of a false god or in the sense of a being that oppose God. The following remaining meanings may be evaluated:
Firstly, He may be called THEOS because He is co-equal part of the Godhead, as Trinitarians propose; three Persons in one Being.
Secondly, He may be called THEOS in the sense of being God’s representative, like the Old Testament magistrates and judges, who were mandated by God to speak for Him, and who were called gods for that reason. Consistent with this concept, God always seems to work through Jesus: He created all things through Jesus. He saves through Jesus. We even worship God through Jesus. See Jesus is worshiped and God created all things through His Son.
Thirdly, Jesus may be called THEOS in a qualitative sense; that He is divine or like God, but not the Original Source of all things. This is consistent with Philippians 2, where it is stated that He is distinct from God but equal to God. (See Jesus emptied Himself.) Or, as stated in Colossians 2:9: “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.”
The Word is a god
Another possible meaning which may be considered is the Jehovah Witness New World Translation of John 1:1c; “the Word was a god,” implying that He is one of many created but extremely powerful beings. For a further discussion of this option, see the Word was a god.
The purpose of this series of articles is to determine which of these possible meanings apply to Jesus.
NEXT: John 1:1b has the article before GOD, but 1:1c omits it. Does this justify an indefinite translation; The Word was a god?