Elohim, translated God, is plural. Is God more than one Person?

SUMMARY

Elohim is an Old Testament Hebrew word that is frequently translated as “God.”  It is plural in form and is used hundreds of times for pagan gods. The Old Testament also uses elohim for God.  Some Trinitarians, therefore, argue that the Old Testament writers used elohim for God because these writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being. But this is not true:

(1) Elohim is consistently used with singular verb forms and with adjectives and pronouns in the singular.

(2) It was general practice among the Hebrew people to pluralize nouns when they desired to express greatness or majesty. It is then not a numerical plural.  For example:

Moses is also called elohim, for God made Moses very great in the land of Egypt (Ex. 7:1; 11:3).

Words such as Adonim (meaning “lord” or “master”), Adonay, Baalim and Behemoth are also plural in form but frequently refer to a single person in an exalted position.

The Old Testament sometimes refers to God as “the Holy Ones,” but used together with singular verbs.

(3) The most distinguishing teaching in Judaism is that “The Lord our God is one Lord.” This firm understanding that there is only one God denies any idea that the authors of the Old Testament used elohim because they thought of God as a multi-personal Being.

(4) The New Testament writers, when they quoted the Old Testament, always translated the Hebrew word elohim with the singular noun theos.

(5) The Septuagint, which is the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, also always translates elohim with the singular theos.

(6) On the basis of this ample evidence, dictionaries define elohim as a plural of majesty. For example, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says that “the plural ending is usually described as a plural of majesty and not intended as a true plural when used of God.

PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE

ElohimElohim (אֱלֹהִים) is an Old Testament Hebrew word that is most frequently translated “God.”  Elohim is plural in form, for it has the plural suffix im.  Plural nouns normally signify multiple instances of that noun, which is also true of elohim.  The Bible applies elohim more than 400 times to pagan gods.  In such instances it is translated as “gods” and is associated with plural verbs and plural adjectives.  For example, “My people have forgotten Me, They burn incense to worthless gods.

The Old Testament also uses elohim for God.  Some Trinitarians, therefore, argue that the Old Testament writers used elohim for God because they thought of God as a multi-personal Being.  The purpose of this article is to show that this is not true.

PLURAL OF MAJESTY

Firstly, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says the following about elohim:

The plural ending is usually described as a plural of majesty and not intended as a true plural when used of God. This is seen in the fact that the noun ’elohim is consistently used with singular verb forms and with adjectives and pronouns in the singular.

An example of this is Genesis 1:26: “God (elohim) said, “Let Us make man in Our image.  Here plural pronouns are used but the verb “said” is in the singular, which implies that “God” is a single Person.  This further implies that the “Us” and “Our” include persons other than “God.”  In the New Testament, God made the world through His Son (Heb. 1:1-2).  “God” therefore refers to the Father, and the “Us” in Genesis 1:26 may include His Son.

An example where elohim is used for a human being as a plural of majesty is Exodus 7:1, where “the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made you a god [elohim] to Pharaoh.”  Here, God told Moses that He was going to make Moses appear great in the eyes of Pharaoh, as we see in Exodus 11:3:

The man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people.

IT WAS GENERAL PRACTICE AMONG THE HEBREW PEOPLE TO PLURALIZE NOUNS WHEN THEY DESIRED TO EXPRESS GREATNESS OR MAJESTY.  It is then not a numerical plural.  For example, adonim is the plural form of adon, which means “lord” or “master.” In spite of its plural form, it frequently refers to a single person in an exalted position, for example to Abraham (Genesis 24:9, 10, 51).  Another example is Adonay, which is also a plural form of adon, and which always refers to God.  Still other examples are Baalim and Behemoth.  The Old Testament also sometimes refer to God as “the Holy Ones,” but used with singular verbs.

MONOTHEISM

The distinguishing maxim in Judaism was and still is:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut. 6:4)

This slogan stood in opposition to the polytheism of the day.  The Hebrew mind had a firm understanding that there is only one God.  The pervasive monotheism of the Old Testament denies any idea that the authors of the Old Testament used elohim because they thought of God as existing in multiple Persons.

TRANSLATIONS

The New Testament was written in Greek.  In that language, the word for “god” is theos. The plural form of theos is theoi, which is used to refer to multiple “gods,” for example, “When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying ‘The gods (theoi) have become like men and have come down to us.’” (Acts 14:11).

Although theos has a plural form, the New Testament always uses the singular form for God.

This is also true when the New Testament quotes passages from the Hebrew Bible.  The New Testament writers always translated the Hebrew word elohim with the singular noun theos, for example in Mark 12:29.  If elohim really indicated that the one true god consists of multiple Persons, then the New Testament writers would have also used the plural form of theos.

SeptuagintThe Septuagint is the ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.  When used for the God of Israel, the Septuagint also always translates elohim with the singular theos.

DICTIONARY DEFINITIONS

On the basis of this ample evidence, dictionaries define elohim as a plural of majesty.

“Elohim is a plural form which is often used in Hebrew to denote plentitude of might.” — (Hertz, The Pentateuch & Haftorahs)

“The form of the word, elohim, is plural. The Hebrews pluralized nouns to express greatness or majesty.” — (Flanders, Cresson; Introduction to the Bible)

“The Hebrew noun elohim is plural, but the VERB is singular, a normal usage in the OT when reference is to the one true God. this use of the plural expresses intensification rather than number and has been called the plural of majesty.” — (New International Version Study Bible, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985, p. 6)

“The plural form of elohim has given rise to much discussion. The fanciful idea that it referred to the Trinity of Persons in the godhead hardly finds now a supporter among scholars.” — (Smith’s Bible Dictionary)

COUNTERARGUMENTS

Despite this strong evidence, some still attempt to show that elohim ‘allows for’ a plurality of divine Persons within God.  To support this claim, they point to a few exceptions where the Old Testament uses plural verbs, pronouns, adjectives, participles, etc. with elohim.  But a handful of exceptions can never negate the evidence from more than 2500 instances where the Old Testament uses elohim for God with singular verbs.  It is much more probable that the few plural verbs, etc. are part of the Jewish practice of using plurals to express greatness.

WHAT IS HIS SON’S NAME

AnsweringIslam uses Proverbs 30 to support its claim that God is a Trinity:

The words of Agur son of Jakeh. … I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One (qadoshim – the NRSV renders this as “holy ones). Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name?” (Proverbs 30:1-4)

Since Agur speaks of “the holy ones,” of God’s incomprehensible acts and of “his son’s name,” AnsweringIslam concludes:

That “the holy ones” refer to the Father and the Son;
That “his son” refers to the pre-incarnate Jesus;
That they are equal;
That both incomprehensible;
That this text established the deity of the Son of God; and
That God has a multi-personal nature.

However, the Old Testament does not contain the concept that God has a Son, as we know Him from the New Testament. To find evidence of the existence of the Son in a few isolated and ambiguous verses is wishful thinking.  AnsweringIslam’s conclusion is therefore astounding.  To derive all of these conclusions on such an ambiguous passage is to hang a mountain on a camel’s hair.  “His son” is possibly just a metaphor to emphasize that, for Agur, as well as for us, God is utterly incomprehensible.

For a further discussion, see End Times Prophecy.

DEVELOPMENT OF THE TRINITY DOCTRINE

Christology of the persecuted church (First 300 years)
 – Introduction
 – Polycarp
 – Justin Martyr – Current Article
 – Ignatius of Antioch
 – Irenaeus
 – Tertullian – work in progress

 – Origen – work in progress
 – Jesus is our god.
Fourth Century (State Church)
 – Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
 – The Nicene Creed Interpreted 
 – Fourth Century Arianism 

 – What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
 – Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
 – Death of Arianism – Emperor Theodosius
Fifth Century
 – Fall of the Western Roman Empire
 – Why the Roman Empire fell 
 – The Fall of Rome proves Daniel as a true prophecy.

 – Roman Church grew in strength in spite of Arian domination 
Middle Ages

 – The massacres of the Waldensians

Ignatius of Antioch described the Son as our God, immortal and being life.

This is the fourth article in the series on the historical development of the Trinity doctrine.  These first articles discuss the views of the church fathers in the first three centuries to determine whether they were Trinitarians; whether they thought of God as One Being but three Persons.  The previous articles were An Introduction, which defined the Trinity doctrine, followed by analyses of the teachings of Polycarp and Justin Martyr.  The current article reflects on the thoughts of Ignatius of Antioch (died 98/117).

Triadic Passages

Ignatius wrote

“In Christ Jesus our Lord, by whom and with whom be glory and power to the Father with the Holy Spirit for ever” (n. 7; PG 5.988).

Trinitarians quote this and other triadic passages because it mentions the triad of three Persons together.  However, as stated in the discussion of Polycarp’s Christology, mentioning them together does not mean that they are one Being or that they are equal.  It only means that they are related.  In Ephesians 4:5, Paul mentions “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.”  That means that these four form a logical group; not that they are equal or the same.

One God

Ignatius contradicted the Trinity theory earlier in the same work when he identified the Father alone as God:

Thou art in error when thou callest the daemons of the nations gods. For there is but one God, who made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that are in them; and one Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, whose kingdom may I enjoy. (Martyrdom of Ignatius 2)

Ignatius here seems to interpret 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, which reads:

Even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth … yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

These statements explicitly identify the one God as someone distinct from the one Lord Jesus Christ.  In other words, the Father is the one God.

The only true God

Ignatius further wrote (the words and phrases in bold are discussed below the quote):

There is only one true GodBut our Physician is the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son
We have also as a Physician the Lord our God Jesus the Christ;
the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began,
but who afterward became also man, of Mary the virgin. For ‘the Word was made flesh.’
Being incorporeal, He was in the body;
Being impassible, He was in a passible body;
Being immortal, He was in a mortal body;
Being life, He became subject to corruption, that He might free our souls from death and corruption, and heal them, and might restore them to health, when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts.
(Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The ante-Nicene Fathers, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975 rpt., Vol. 1, p. 52, Ephesians 7.)

Unbegotten and Unapproachable

The Father is “unbegotten” in contrast to Jesus, who is “begotten.” “Unbegotten” means to exist without cause.  See Long Lines Creed.

Unapproachable” is a quote from 1 Tim. 6:16, which says that the Father “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light.” 

Afterward became also man

Not all Christians believe that Jesus existed before He became a human being.  See, for instance, Dr. Tuggy’s Case Against Preexistence.  But Ignatius did believe in Christ’s pre-existence.

Incorporeal and Impassible

According to this quote, before the Son became a human being, He was incorporeal (intangible) and impassible (incapable of suffering or feeling pain).  This seems like to be speculation, for such things are not mentioned in the Bible.

Being life

The description of the Son as “being life” is perhaps explained by the statement, “Just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself” (John 5:26).  On the one hand, it means that He received “life in Himself” from the Father, which means that He is subordinate to the Father.  On the other, there are only two Beings who have “life in Himself,” which testifies of a close relationship and which makes the Son very similar to God.

Immortal

The statement that the Son was immortal seems to contradict the statement that the Father alone “alone possesses immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16).  However, there are two kinds of immortality; conditional and unconditional.  Only the Father exists without cause and is therefore essentially (unconditionally) immortal.  The Son derives His immortality from the One that exists without cause.  Even created beings will become immortal “when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:54).  

Only-begotten Son … Before time began

For Ignatius, as per the quote above, the Father is “unbegotten” and the “Begetter of the only-begotten Son.”  This is an important distinction between the Father and Son.  Later Arius allegedly concluded that the Son had a beginning; that there was a time when the Son was not.  For Ignatius, the Son was begotten “before time began,” which implies that He existed as long as time existed.  But this does not mean that the Son is equal to the Father.  To explains:

Time was created.  There exists an infinity outside time, for God exists outside time.  In that incomprehensible infinity beyond time, the Son was Begotten, according to Ignatius.  If we use the word “before” metaphysically (not in a literal time sense), then we can say that the Father existed “before” the Son.

That the Son was “begotten” is human language for something that humans are unable to even begin to understand.

Physician

In the quote above, both the Father and Son are called physicians.  Later in the quote, Ignatius describes the sinner as “diseased.

In other words, Ignatius does not describe the work of the only-begotten Son as to judge.  He describes Him as a Physician who aims to “heal … restore … to health.”  “Physician” is a most appropriate description of God’s attitude towards sinners, for He is not an independent Judge, but a passionate Father.

Our God Jesus the Christ

Ignatius describes the Son as “our God.”  Trinitarian apologists use such phrases to argue that the church fathers before Nicene did believe that Jesus is God. Since many writers in the first 300 years referred to Jesus as “our god,” this is discussed in the article, Jesus is our god.

In summary, they described Jesus as “our God” and the Father as “the only true God.”  Actually, the word “God” did not exist in the ancient Greek texts. We use the modern word “God” as the proper name for the One who exists without cause.   The ancients did not have such a word.  They only had the word “god” (theos in Greek).  This word was used for a wide variety of beings, such as Moses, angels, Israel’s judges, appetite, those who receive the word of God, Satan and obviously also for the only true god.  The translators decided to capitalize the “G,” when theos refers to Jesus, but that is an interpretation.  It is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof of it.  It must not be used to support the Trinity doctrine.

Summary

Ignatius condemns by Trajan. Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Ignatius all died for their faith.

In Ignatius’ view, Jesus, before He became a human being, was “being life.”  This is perhaps explained by the statement, “Just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself” (John 5:26).

Ignatius described Jesus as the “Only-begotten Son … before time began.”  This means that Jesus existed for as long as time existed.  But it does not mean that the Son is equal to the Father, for there is an infinity outside time: God Himself exists outside time.  In that incomprehensible infinity beyond time, the Father begat the Son.  The Father alone is “Unbegotten;” the Uncaused Cause of all things.

For Ignatius, the Father is “the only true god, the unbegotten and unapproachable.”  This puts the Father in a category all by himself; infinitely above the only-begotten Son.  For Ignatius, the Father and Son are not equal, as Trinitarians propose. 

Conclusion

Ignatius had an extremely high view of Christ, but only the Father is the Uncaused Cause of all things.  There is also no evidence in the quotes above that Ignatius thought of the Holy Spirit as a self-aware Person, or that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit consist of one substance, or that they are one Being or that Jesus has both a divine and a human nature.

Articles in this series

Christology of the persecuted church (First 300 years)
 – Introduction
 – Polycarp
 – Justin Martyr 
 – Ignatius of Antioch – Current Article
 – Irenaeus
 – Tertullian – work in progress

 – Origen – work in progress
 – Jesus is our god.
Fourth Century (State Church)
 – Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325 
 – The Nicene Creed Interpreted 
 – Fourth Century Arianism 

 – What did Arianism believe in the fourth century?
 – Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
 – Death of Arianism – Emperor Theodosius
Fifth Century
 – Fall of the Western Roman Empire
 – Why the Roman Empire fell 
 – The Fall of Rome proves Daniel as a true prophecy.
Middle Ages

 – The massacres of the Waldensians