Did Thomas, in John 20:28, address Jesus as “God”?

SUMMARY

After God resurrected Jesus, He appeared to His disciples, but Thomas was not with them. When they told Thomas that Jesus is alive, he did not believe. But, a few days later, Jesus again appeared to them and this time Thomas was with them. When He saw Jesus, and when Jesus showed him His wounds, he exclaimed with great joy:

My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

Jesus did not correct Thomas.

CLEAREST PROOF

Elsewhere, the New Testament has a very high view of Christ. For example, Jesus always existed (Rev 1:17) in the form of God and with equality with God (Phil 2:6), and God made and maintains all things through His Son (Heb 1:2-3). However, in the view of some, John 20:28 is the clearest proof of Christ’s deity.

THOMAS DID NOT SAY,
JESUS IS GOD.

In contrast, the first purpose of this article is to show that ‘Jesus is God’ cannot be the right interpretation of John 20:28.

A STRICT MONOTHEIST

Firstly, Thomas, like all Jews, was a strict monotheist (cf. Deut 6:4). It would have required a huge amount of persuasion to convince the disciples otherwise, namely that Jesus is God.

WHAT JESUS TAUGHT

Secondly, Jesus never attempted to change the views of the disciples in this regard. Jesus never taught that He is God. On the contrary, He always made a clear distinction between Himself and God (e.g., John 17:3).

And when the Jews accused Him: “You … make Yourself out to be God,” Jesus immediately corrected them: “I said, I am the Son of God” (John 10:36). “Son of God” is a synonym for the title “Christ,” a Greek word that means “the anointed one,” or “the chosen one” (cf. John 1:49; 11:27; 20:31; Matt 26:63).

So, if Jesus during the preceding three years never attempted to teach His disciples that He is the Most High, how on earth could Thomas have thought that He is?

THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT

Thirdly, in the immediate context of John 20, we can see that the disciples, at that time, did not understand Jesus to be God. For example:

      • A few days before His death Jesus addressed His Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3).
      • The day after He died, the disciples described Him as “a prophet … the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:19-21).
      • A few days before Jesus appeared to Thomas, He referred to the Father as His God (John 20:17).
      • Just three verses after Thomas’ exclamation, John, summarizing his gospel, identified Jesus not as God but as “the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).

WHAT THE DISCIPLES TAUGHT

Fourthly, we also see what the disciples believed in what they taught afterward. A few weeks after John 20:28, the disciples received the Holy Spirit and preached as recorded in the Book of Acts. If the apostles really believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their constant and main message. But they not even once proclaimed Jesus as God. On the contrary, they consistently made a clear distinction between God and Jesus (e.g., Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15, 26). If it is true that John 20:28 teaches the deity of Jesus, why didn’t the apostles preach it even once in the book of Acts?

WHAT PAUL TAUGHT

Fifthly, what the disciples believed in this regard is also reflected in Paul’s letters. He is the most important writer of the New Testament and wrote decades after Thomas met Jesus. Paul never taught (at least explicitly) that Jesus is God. On the contrary, Paul continued to make a distinction between God and Jesus (e.g., Rom 10:9; 1 Tim 5:21; 1 Cor 11:3). Paul did describe Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), through whom God made all things (Col 1:16), in whom “all the fullness of Deity dwells” (Col 2:9), who “existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” (Phil 2:6). Nevertheless, it is important to understand that all these statements make a distinction between Jesus and God, meaning that Jesus is NOT God.

THE HIGH VIEW

Lastly, we must also remember that the high view of Christ, which we find, for example, in John 1:1-2, Colossians 1:15-17, and Hebrews 1:2-3, was revealed by the Holy Spirit, particularly to John and Paul, decades after the events of John 20:28. Consequently, at the time of John 20:28, Thomas and the disciples did not yet understand who Jesus really is. They had no idea of the profound concepts that God would later reveal.

CONCLUSION

For the three years or more before John 20:28, Jesus taught His disciples but He never taught them that He is God. Neither did the disciples, after Thomas said this, teach that Jesus is God. Therefore, Thomas could not have said that Jesus is God.

Remember, Thomas doubted that Jesus was alive. In other words, he thought of Jesus as a mortal being. It is simply unsound logic to argue that, just by seeing Jesus alive, his view of Christ immediately jumped from being a mortal man to being the immortal God.

WHAT DID THOMAS MEAN?

This second part discusses what Thomas could have meant to say. The following possible meanings are discussed below:

1) The basic meaning of the Greek word theos is an immortal being with supernatural powers – such as the Greek gods. Since Thomas described Jesus as “my theosafter he saw that Jesus is alive, Thomas could have described Jesus as such.

2) Jesus referred to people “to whom the word of God came” as theos (“gods” – John 10:35). Since the Father did send Jesus and gave Him His message (e.g., John 8:16, 26), Thomas could have described Jesus as such.

3) The word theos can also be used in a qualitative sense, namely as “Godlike” (cf. Col 1:15; Heb 1:3).

The God of me4) When theos is preceded by ho (the), it almost always refers to the supreme Divinity. (There are exceptions. For example, Satan is also referred to as ho theos.) In the Greek of John 20:28, Thomas did not merely say theos; he said ho theos. Therefore, another possibility is that Thomas used theos to refer to the Father. In other words, Thomas, in the extreme joy of the moment, cried out something like, “Oh my Lord (Jesus) and oh my God (the Father).” In that way, Thomas exclaimed “my God” as praise directed at God, the Father, for raising Jesus. Since ho theos usually refers to the Father, it probably also has that meaning in John 20:28.

CONCLUSION

As shown in the first part of this article, it is not possible that Thomas could have thought that Jesus is God. In the second part, a number of alternative possible meanings have been considered. Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine exactly what Thomas meant. But two things should be clear:

      • Thomas did not say that Jesus is God.
      • There are several other valid interpretations of the phrase.

– END OF SUMMARY –


INTRODUCTION

After Jesus rose from death, He appeared to the disciples, but Thomas was not with them. When they told Thomas that Jesus is alive, he refused to believe. But, a few days later, Jesus again appeared to them and this time Thomas was with them. When He saw Jesus, and when Jesus showed him His wounds, he exclaimed with great joy:

My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

CLEAREST PROOF

Of the 1300 times that the word theos (translated as “god” or “God”) appears in the New Testament, there are about seven verses where theos possibly describes Jesus. However, in each and every case, either the original text or the interpretation is disputed. (Several articles have been posted discussing these verses. For a general summary, see Is Jesus called God?)

Brian J. Wright, himself a Trinitarian, after careful and detailed study, concluded that John 20:28 is the only verse in the New Testa­ment that, with full certainty, refers to Jesus as God.

John 20:28Therefore, for some people, this verse is the clearest proof of Christ’s deity. The Pulpit Commentary describes these words as the climax of the Gospel. For Spurgeon, this is the plainest confession of Jesus’ deity.

Such writers support their view with arguments such as:

1) The words “my Lord” can only refer to Christ (compare with John 20:13). Therefore, the natural meaning of the phrase, “My Lord and my God” is that his Lord was also his God.

2) David, similarly, described Jehovah as: “My God and my Lord” (Psalm 35:23). Thomas, as an Israelite, knew this and would never have applied these words to any person whom he did not believe to be God.

3) If Jesus were not God, the Lord Jesus would have corrected Thomas. But Jesus responded:

Because you have seen Me, have you believed?
Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed

(John 20:29).

4) There is really no significant question as to how the original text reads.

THE HIGH VIEW

And, of course, elsewhere, the New Testament has a very high view of Christ. For example:

Through whom (His Son) also He (God) made the world.
And He
(His Son)

 – is the radiance of His (God’s) glory
 – and the exact representation of His (God’s) nature,
 – and upholds all things by the word of His (God’s) power
(Heb 1:2-3).

It is difficult to understand that a being that was able to become a human being is also the One through whom God created and still maintains all things. Elsewhere, we also read that Jesus is “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17), which means that He always existed. And that “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col 2:9). According to Philippians 2:6, before He became a human being, He existed in the form of God and had equality with God. In the article on Philippians 2, I attempt to explain who Jesus really is. I prefer to understand Jesus as the church understood Him during the first 300 years, namely before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (See, The Apologists).

THOMAS DID NOT SAY
THAT JESUS IS GOD.

However, the first purpose of this article is to show that ‘Jesus is God’ cannot be the right interpretation of John 20:28. This is justified as follows:

A STRICT MONOTHEIST

Firstly, Thomas, like all Jews, was a strict monotheist. In Judaism, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deut 6:4) was a foundational statement. It would have required a huge amount of persuasion to convince the disciples otherwise and that Jesus is God.

WHAT JESUS TAUGHT

Who do you say I AmBut secondly, Jesus never attempted to change the views of the disciples in this regard. Jesus never taught that He is God.

For example, Jesus never referred to Himself as θεός (theos). Rather, He described Himself as the Messiah and as the Son of God.

Furthermore, He always made a distinction between Himself and God. For example, at the end of His ministry – probably days before He appeared to Thomas – Jesus, in prayer, described the Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3). In using the word “only,” Jesus excluded Himself as “true God.”

The one verse where people sometimes say that Jesus claimed to be God is John 10:33, where the Jews accused Him:

You … make Yourself out to be God.

But Jesus immediately corrected them:

I said, I am the Son of God” (John 10:36).

(See here for a discussion of John 10:33-36.)

Some people, when they read the words, “the Son of God,” they subconsciously convert that into “God the Son.” However, the latter title is never found in the Bible. The following verses have been selected because they contain both the title “Son of God” and another (parallel) title, giving us an understanding of what the title “Son of God” means:

Nathanael answered Him,
Rabbi, You are the Son of God;
You are the King of Israel.
” (John 1:49)

Lazarus’ sister said to Him,
Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ,
the Son of God,
even He who comes into the world
” (John 11:27).

These have been written so that you may believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God
” (John 20:31).

The high priest said to Him,
Tell us whether You are the Christ,
the Son of God
” (Matt 26:63).

In other words, the “Son of God” is a synonym for the title “Christ,” a Greek word that means “the anointed one,” or “the chosen one.”

THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT

Thirdly, in the immediate context of John 20, we can see that the disciples, at that time, did not understand Jesus to be God. For example:

1) A few days before His death Jesus prayed and addressed His Father as “the only true God” (John 17:3). Why would John record that and then, a little later, write that Thomas said that Jesus is God?

2) If they believed that Jesus was God, they would not have “all fled” just a few days earlier when Jesus was arrested.

3) The confession of the two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus demonstrates the views of Jesus’ followers at that time. Speaking to the resurrected Christ, whom they mistook as just another traveler, they described Jesus as:

a prophet,
powerful in word and deed before God …
we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel
” (Luke 24:19-21).

4) As recorded in that same chapter, a few days before Jesus appeared to Thomas, He spoke to Mary Magdalene and referred to the Father as His God:

Go to My brethren and say to them,
‘I ascend to My Father and your Father,
and My God and your God
’” (John 20:1, 17).

5) Just three verses after Thomas’ exclamation, John summarized his gospel and identified Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God” and not as God:

These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31).

WHAT THE DISCIPLES TAUGHT

We also see what the disciples believed in what they taught afterward:

Thomas made his exclamation after Jesus was resurrected and a few weeks before the Holy Spirit was poured out. Therefore, after Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples had to preach without Jesus. They no longer had Jesus to do the talking. But they now had the support of the Holy Spirit, guiding them “into all the truth” (John 16:13). If the apostles really believed that Jesus is God, that would have been their constant and main message. But, in Acts, which records their sermons, the apostles not even once proclaimed Jesus as God. No sermon in the book of Acts attributes the title θεός (theos) to Jesus. On the contrary, they consistently proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead. At Pentecost, Peter told the multitudes:

      • God raised him up” (Acts 2:24).
      • God raised up this Jesus” (Acts 2:32).
      • You killed the author of life,
        whom God raised from the dead
        ” (Acts 3:15), and
      • God raised up his servant” (Acts 3:26).

In other words, Acts, just like the gospels, maintains a distinction between God and Jesus, for if God raised Jesus up, then the Father only is called God. If it is true that John 20:28 teaches the deity of Jesus, why didn’t the apostles preach it even once in the book of Acts?

WHAT PAUL TAUGHT

What the disciples believed in this regard is also reflected in Paul’s letters:

Paul was given the task to interpret the dramatic events of the first century and to teach the church through his letters. And Paul never taught that Jesus is God.

EXPLICIT STATEMENTS

If Jesus was God, Paul’s letters would have taught this explicitly. An explicit statement would be something like we find in the Old Testament:

I am Yahweh your God” (Exo 6:7; 16:12; 20:2).

Yahweh is identified as God about 400 times in the Old Testament, using phrases such as:

      • Yahweh God,
      • Yahweh, God of heaven,
      • Yahweh your God,
      • Yahweh, God of Israel
      • Yahweh our God, and
      • Yahweh, God of compassion.

But not once do we find an equivalent explicit statement in the New Testament, saying that Jesus is God.

DISTINCTION

On the contrary, similar to the gospels, Paul continued to make a distinction between God and Jesus. For example, similar to what Peter said in Acts, Paul wrote that God raised Jesus from death:

If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord,
and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead,
you will be saved
” (Rom 10:9).

Other examples of where Paul makes a clear distinction between God and Christ are:

    • In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 5:21)
      and, most strikingly,
    • The head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3).

Hundreds of other examples are available. See, for example, The New Testament makes a distinction between God and Jesus.

ROMANS 9 VERSE 5

According to some translations of Romans 9:5, Paul referred to Jesus as God, but the article on Romans 9 verse 5 shows that it is all a matter of punctuation, and all punctuation in the Bible is interpretation.

CONCLUSION

Therefore, Paul, the most important writer of the New Testament, and writing decades after Thomas met Jesus after His resurrection, NEVER taught that Jesus is GodHe did describe Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), through whom God made all things (Col 1:16), in whom “all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col 2:9), who “existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” (Phil 2:6). Nevertheless, it is important to understand that all these statements make a distinction between Jesus and God, meaning that Jesus is NOT God.

THE HIGH VIEW

We must also understand that the high view of Christ, which we find, for example, in John 1:1-2, Colossians 1:15-17, and Hebrews 1:2-3 was not something that the disciples knew about at the time that Thomas made his exclamation. Those things were not taught by Christ. As Jesus said to His disciples:

I have many more things to say to you,
but you cannot bear them now.
But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes,
He will guide you into all the truth
” (John 16:12-13).

The very high view that John and Paul had of Jesus was revealed to them by the Holy Spirit decades after the events of John 20:28. When Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” the Holy Spirit was not yet poured out. Consequently, the disciples did not yet understand who Jesus really is. Thomas had no idea of the profound concepts that God would later reveal. It is unthinkable that Thomas, when He saw the risen Jesus, could think of Him as the same as or equal to the Only True God (John 17:3).

CONCLUSION

For the three years or more before John 20:28, Jesus taught His disciples but He never taught them that He is God. Neither did the disciples, after Thomas said this, teach that Jesus is God. Therefore, Thomas could not have said that Jesus is God.

Remember, Thomas doubted. What did he doubt? One could speculate that he doubted that Jesus is the Christ. Trinitarians might speculate that he doubted that Jesus is God. But what he really doubted is that Jesus was alive. In other words, he thought of Jesus as a mortal being. It is not sound logic to argue that, just by seeing Jesus alive, his view of Christ immediately jumped from being a mortal man to being the immortal God.

Some Trinitarians consequently admit that the New Testament does not teach that Jesus is God. For example, Richard Swinburne, a prominent Christian philosopher at Oxford, wrote a book titled, Was Jesus God? (Oxford University Press). In it, he searches the Bible and church doctrine for evidence that Jesus is God. Swinburne concludes with cautious uncertainty that “it is very probable that Jesus was God,” but he offers no explicit proof from the Bible. He finds more evidence for Jesus’ deity in the teachings of the Church Fathers. He admits that some NT passages “deny this doctrine” of “the divinity of Jesus.” He says, “It is undisputed that Jesus did not teach this doctrine” (of the Trinity). This is quite a concession from a brilliant Trinitarian. Swinburne does believe that Jesus is God; not because that is what the Bible teaches, but on the basis of reason only.

And the trinit­arian Brian J. Wright, after an in-depth study, admitted:

No author of a Synoptic Gospel explicitly ascribes the title θεός to Jesus. Jesus never uses the term θεός for himself. No sermon in the book of Acts attributes the title θεός to Jesus.

WHAT DID THOMAS MEAN?

The first part of this article shows that it is not possible that Thomas could have thought that Jesus is the Most High God. In this second part, we discuss what Thomas could have intended to say.

(1) IMMORTAL BEING

The ancient Greeks had a pantheon of gods. They did not have one single Supreme Being which is the ultimate reality, as we find in the Bible. They used the word Θεός, transliterated as theos, to refer to their gods. The word theos, therefore, is equivalent to the modern English word “god.” In Greek thought, it described an immortal being with supernatural powers.

Since Thomas described Jesus as “my theos” after he saw that Jesus is alive, one possible meaning is that Thomas described Jesus as similar to one of the Greek gods; an immortal being with supernatural powers.

(See The Meanings of the Word theos for a further discussion.)

(2) GOD’S REPRESENTATIVE

According to Strong, one of the uses of theos is a person appointed by God as a magistrate. Jesus similarly referred to people “to whom the word of God came” as theos (John 10:35). This is a quote from Psalm 82:6 and probably refers to the judges of the Old Testament.

Therefore, another possible meaning is that Thomas described Jesus as theos to identify Him as the Christ, namely, mandated by God to speak and act for Him. Since the Father did send Jesus and gave Him His message (e.g., John 8:16, 26), that is a possible explanation.

(3) LIKE GOD

The word theos can also be used in a qualitative sense, as opposed to a definite (the god) or indefinite (a god) sense. It is unlikely but possible that Thomas used theos in a qualitative sense, namely as “Godlike,” similar to the following statements:

      • He is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).
      • He (His Son) is … the exact representation of His (God’s) nature” (Heb 1:3).

John, after decades of meditation, in the first verses of his gospel, declared that “the Word (Jesus) was theos” and the creator of all things. It is possible that John 1:1 and John 20:28 use theos in the same sense. In a series of articles on the translation of John 1:1, I concluded, because the word theos is used in a qualitative sense in that verse, that John 1:1c should NOT be translated as “The Word was God” but as “the Word was Godlike,” or, to use Paul’s words, “the Word was in the form of God and had equality with God” (Phil 2:6).

(4) GOD

According to Strong, in the Bible, especially when it is preceded by ho (the), theos refers to the supreme Divinity. To put it differently, since the New Testament was written in Greek, it used the same word that the Greeks used for their gods (theos) for the god of the Bible. But since the Greek word theos is used for all gods, when the writers of the New Testament wanted to specify the supreme Deity, they added the definite article “ho” before theos. (This is a general rule but there are exceptions. For example, Satan is also referred to as ho theos.)

Modern English has something which ancient Greek did not have, namely differentiation between lower- and upper-case letters. Modern English, therefore, was able to invent the word “God.” While the word “god” refers to a category of beings, the word “God” functions as a personal name for one single being, namely the supreme Divinity, similar to the names John and Paul for human beings. The ancient Greek in which the New Testament was written has no word exactly equivalent to “God.”

For these reasons, generally, ho theos is translated as “God.” (Translators drop the definite article and capitalize the G.)

The point is that in the Greek of John 20:28, Thomas did not merely say theos; he said ho theos mou, literally “the god of me.” This implies that he used the word theos to refer to the supreme Divinity. This can be understood in at least the following ways:

One option is to understand that Thomas intended to describe Jesus as the Most High God; the supreme Divinity. However, as discussed, the immediate and wider context does not allow that interpretation.

An alternative possibility is that John referred to the Father when he wrote ho theos. In other words, Thomas, in the extreme joy of the moment, cried out something like, “Oh my Lord (Jesus) and oh my God (the Father).” In that way, Thomas exclaimed “my God” as praise directed at God, the Father, for raising Jesus.

Paul similarly wrote:

If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord,
and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead,
you will be saved
” (Rom 10:9).

Could this verse explain Thomas’ confession?  It contains both the words “Lord” and “God” but “God” is identified as the Father.

CONCLUSION

As shown in the first part of this article, it is not possible that Thomas could have thought that Jesus is God. In the second part, a number of alternative possible meanings have been considered, namely that Jesus:

      • Is similar to one of the Greek gods; an immortal being with supernatural powers.
      • Has been mandated by God to speak and act for Him.
      • Is like God in a qualitative sense; “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).

The fourth alternative was that theos in John 20:28 does not refer to Jesus at all but to the Father.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine exactly what Thomas meant. But two things should be clear:

      • Thomas did not say that Jesus is God.
      • There are several other valid interpretations of the phrase.

OTHER AVAILABLE ARTICLES

When referring to Jesus, how theos be translated?

Overview

Purpose

The Greek word that is translated as “God” or as “god” is theos (Θεός Strong number 2315). This Greek word has survived in English words such as “theology” and “theism.”

Of the 1314 times that theos is found in the New Testament, there are about seven instances where Jesus is referred to as theos. There are instances where even the more pronounced title “ho theos” (the god) is clearly applied to Jesus (John 20:28; Heb 1:8).

The purpose of this article is to discuss the word theos to determine how it should be translated when describing Jesus.

Senses of the word God

Two of the possible seven passages, namely Hebrews 1 and John 20, refer to Jesus as theos but to the Father as His theos (His God) (John 20:17; Heb 1:9). The question, therefore, is whether theos has different senses.

Based on dictionary definitions, the English title “God” is defined as the Ultimate Reality; the Almighty Being who exists unconditionally without cause but who brought all things into existence. With such a definition of God, there can only be one God.

Senses of the word theos

To understand the different senses of the title “God” in Bible translations, we need to analyze the meanings of the word theos. Based on Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance and Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, this article identifies the following possible meanings:

(1) The gods in general

(2) The true God, sometimes with and sometimes without the article.

(3) A person granted authority or power by God to represent Him and to speak for Him, such as those to whom the word of God came” (John 10:34-35) or Moses (Exo 7:1).

(4) A supernatural, immortal being, such as the gods of the ancient Greeks, who were worshipped as having power over nature, human fortunes.

(5) An idol or image that symbolizes a god (e.g., Acts 7:43);

(6) A thing that opposes God, for example, “the god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4).

(7) Qualitatively, a being that is ‘godlike’.

Which sense applies to Jesus?

This article then discusses specifically John 20, Hebrews 1 and John 1:1, but also briefly all verses that refer to Jesus as theos, and compare these texts to the alternative meanings of theos listed above to determine in what sense Jesus is described as theos.

The article concludes with comments on how theos should be translated; both when theos refers to the Father and to the Son.

END OF OVERVIEW

The nature of Christ was revealed later.

Jesus always referred to God as somebody else. For example, in Mark 13:19, Jesus refers to “the beginning of the creation which God created.” In other words, He made a distinction; not only between Himself and the Father, but also between Himself and God, implying that He Himself is not God. (The article – God is three Persons but one Being – mentions many other examples.)

Consequently, even after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, even after Thomas’ acclamation, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), Peter continued to make a distinction between Jesus and God:

A man attested to you by God
with miracles and wonders
” (Acts 2:22).

Furthermore, Jesus never claimed to be “God.” He consistently claimed to be “the Son of God” (John 20:30-31). When the Jews accused Him, “You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God,” He corrected them, saying, “I said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (John 10:33, 36).

But, while He was on earth, Jesus told His disciples:

I have many more things to say to you,
but you cannot bear them now.
But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes,
He will guide you into all the truth
” (John 16:12-13).

Perhaps decades later, Paul and John received wonderful revelations about the nature of Christ as reflected, for example, in John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 8:6. Therefore, when we discuss the meaning of the statements that identify Jesus as theos, we need to consider these later revelations as well.

The Father is Jesus’ God.

Two of the possible seven passages, that refer to Jesus as theos, namely Hebrews 1 and John 20, explicitly also describe the Father as His God:

According to John 20, while Thomas described Jesus as ho theos (John 20:28), Jesus referred to the Father as His theos (John 20:17).

Hebrews 1 applies the title theos to Jesus (Heb 1:8). But the very next verse describes the Father as Jesus’ theos (Heb 1:9).

The Bible describes the Father also elsewhere as Jesus’ God (2 Cor 11:31; Eph 1:3, 17; 1 Peter 1:3; Rev 1:6; 3:2, 12).

Different senses of “God?”

Since Jesus is “God” but the Father is His “God,” the title “God” is used in different senses. However, the definitions of the word “God” do not allow for such different senses:

The definitions in secular dictionaries have to cater for all categories of people; not only for Christians. Nevertheless, Bible translations attempt to give the ancient sense of the Hebrew and Greek texts as best as possible in modern languages, and these secular dictionaries reflect how modern people understand the modern word “God.” Such dictionaries define the term “God” as “the supreme or ultimate reality” (Merriam-Webster) and as the “originator and ruler of the universe” (The Free Dictionary).

GotQuestions – a Christian source, similarly defines God as:

“The Supreme Being;
the Creator and Ruler of all that is;
the Self-existent One.”

I would like to summarize these definitions by a single attribute, namely that God is the Ultimate Reality; the Almighty Being who exists unconditionally without cause but who brought all things into existence. With such a definition of God, there cannot be different senses of the word “God.” There can only be one Almighty Being.

True versus false gods

In both the above-mentioned secular dictionaries, “God” is one of the subcategories of the definition of “god.” In these dictionaries, the title “god,” therefore, is a name for a category of beings with “God” referring to a single instance of the “gods.”

But, in the Christian context, we use “God” and “god” are opposites to distinguish between true and false gods.

The Senses of the title theos

Since the title “God” has only one meaning, to understand the different senses of the title “God” in Bible translations, for example in Hebrews 1:8-9, we need to analyze the meanings of the word theos in the original Greek text:

Strong's concordanceBiblehub provides Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance’s definition of theos. In brief, theos can mean:

      • The supreme Divinity, God, Especially with ho (the)
      • A deity – god;
      • Figuratively, a magistrate;
      • Godly of Godward.

Combining this definition with Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the following possible meanings may be identified:

(1) The gods in general

Theos is a general title of deities or divinities (Acts 12:22; 19:37; 28:6; 1 Cor 8:4; 2 Thess 2:4), including all the categories of “gods” listed below. 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) The true God

According to Strong’s Greek: 2316. θεός (theos), theos “especially” means “the supreme Divinity” when the article precedes theos (ho theos). (The ancient Greek language had a definite article (equivalent to “the”), but not an indefinite article; equivalent to “a.”)

Of the seven instances of theos that possibly refer to Jesus, in both Hebrews 1:8 and John 20:28, Jesus is “ho theos” (Hebrews 1:8 Interlinear) (John 20:28 Interlinear). On that basis, we might want to argue that Jesus is God Almighty. However, the absence or presence of the article is not conclusive:

ThayersAs Thayer’s states, the title theos sometimes refers to the true God without the article (e.g., Matt 6:24; Luke 3:2; Luke 20:38; Rom 8:8, 33; 2 Cor 1:21; 5:19; 6:7; 1 Thess 2:5). Further identifications in the context must also be considered.

How the ancient Greek language uses the article is a very complex matter. It is notorious for not using articles where we would expect to find them. Balz and Schneider concluded that theos is used either with or without the article “without any apparent difference in meaning” [Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Vol. 2. 140]. For example, Satan is also described as ho theos (2 Cor 4:4).

(3) Christ

Thayer’s says that, 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.

(4) God’s representative

The title theos is also used for a person granted authority or power by God to represent Him and to speak for Him, such as magistrates and judges. For example, in John 10:34-35, Jesus refers to people, “to whom the word of God came,” as “gods.”  This is a quote from Psalm 82:6, where “God” says to the “rulers” of “His own congregation:” “You are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High.“)

In this sense, God appointed Moses as “god” (Elohim) to Pharaoh (Exo 7:1). (Elohim is the plural Hebrew equivalent of theos.)

Psalm 8:5 reads “You have made him (man) a little lower than elohim.” The letter to the Hebrews, following the LXX, quotes this as “Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels” (Heb 2:9). In this way, angels are indirectly called gods, probably due to their role as God’s messengers.

(5) A supernatural, immortal being

The ancient Greeks used theos for their many gods. Their deities were essentially just immortal superhuman beings, worshipped as having power over nature, human fortunes, etc. (e.g., Acts 12:22; 28:6).

The other ancient nations worshiped many other similar gods. Anciently, the Greek term theos was used to refer to all such gods. Theos was even used to describe Roman Emperors.  

To the Christian mind, these are false gods. However, for the ancient Greeks and other pagan nations, these gods were real (1 Cor 8:5-6).

(6) An idol

An idol or image that symbolizes a god (e.g., Acts 7:43; 1 Cor 8:6);

(7) A thing that opposes God

Examples from the New Testament are the devil – “the god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4), appetite (Phil 3:19), and wealth (Matt 6:24).

(8) Godlike

Theos may also be used to qualitatively to describe a being as ‘godly’, ‘godlike’ or ‘divine’.

What sense of theos applies to Jesus?

Since John 20 and Hebrews 1 indicate that the Father is Jesus’ theos, the Father is theos in the sense of the Ultimate Reality.

But, given that theos has a wide range of meanings, and given that the title or name “God” refers to the Ultimate Reality alone, in what sense do these same chapters refer to Jesus as theos?

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 opposes God. The following remaining meanings may be considered:

(1) A superhuman being

Thomas referred to Jesus as ho theos after he realized, contrary to his earlier doubts, that Jesus has indeed risen from death (John 20:28). That seems to align well with one of the meanings listed above, namely theos as an immortal superhuman being, having power over nature and human fortunes; similar to the immortal Greek gods. For this reason, it is not impossible that Thomas described Jesus as such.

Support for this interpretation is that:

(a) Jesus, while He was on earth, did not claim to be God, as is discussed above.

(b) Thomas made this acclamation soon after Jesus’ resurrection and, therefore, decades before the revelations that were later received through the Holy Spirit about the nature of Christ.

(c) Even after Thomas said this, Peter described Jesus as “A man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders” (Acts 2:22).

(2) A person mandated by God to represent Him

Hebrews 1 refers to Jesus as theos because that letter applies the description of the king of Israel in Psalm 45 to Jesus and because that psalm refers to the king as god (elohim – see Psalm 45:6 Interlinear), which is the Hebrew equivalent of theos (Psa 45:1, 2, 6).

This seems to align well with one of the other meanings of theos, namely a person mandated by God to represent Him. As stated by Psalm 45, “your God, has anointed You” “for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness” (Psa 45:4, 7).

Consistent with this concept, God always seems to work through Jesus: He created all things through Jesus (Heb 1:2), He saves through Jesus (John 3:16), and we even worship God through Jesus (Phil 2:10-11). See Jesus is worshiped and God created all things through His Son.

(3) Like God

We find a third meaning of theos, when describing Jesus, in John 1:1, which reads:

(a) In the beginning was the Word,
(b) and the Word was with God,
(c) and the Word was God.

John 1:1(b) makes a distinction between God and “the Word,” which is the Word of God, identified in Revelation 19:13 as Jesus Christ. But then John 1:1(c) seems to contradict phrase (b) by saying that “the Word was God.” As discussed in the article The Word was God, Greek specialists, who have studied the special grammatical construct of John 1:1c, concluded that that phrase describes Jesus as theos in a qualitative sense. In other words, the meaning of John 1:1c is: “The Word was like God.” Similar statements are:

He is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).

He is the radiance of His glory
and the exact representation of His nature” (Heb 1:3).

He existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” (Phil 2:6). (See Jesus emptied Himself.)

If the Word “was like God,” He is distinct from God – similar to John 1:1(b) – and not God Himself.

(4) Co-equal Person of the Trinity

We have now discussed that the Bible could refer to Jesus as theos in three different senses:

      • John 20:28 – An immortal superhuman being, having power over nature and human fortunes;
      • Hebrews 1:8 – A person mandated by God to represent Him; and
      • John 1:1 – That He is like God.

We will now consider a fourth option, namely as proposed by the Trinity doctrine, in which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three Persons (three minds and wills) but one Being (one substance). Consequently, in this doctrine, the Son ‘is’ the Ultimate Reality. In that case, theos, when referring to Jesus, must be translated as “God.” However, this interpretation faces at least the following difficulties:

(a) Two Gods

To translate theos, when referring to Jesus, as “God” would imply two “Gods,” for the New Testament consistently refers to the Father and the Son as two different Persons. The Trinity doctrine proposes to solve this anomaly with the “three Persons, one Being”- formula. 

(b) Jesus is distinct from God.

The New Testament not only makes a distinction between the Son and the Father; it also makes a consistent distinction between Jesus Christ and God. See, for example, the opening of any New Testament letter, e.g.:

Paul … set apart for the gospel of God
concerning His Son
” (Rom 1:1-3).

We give thanks to God,
the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
” (Col 1:3; etc.).

For a discussion, see Jesus and God.

(c) The Bible never refers to Jesus as theos in the sense of the Ultimate Reality.

In almost every instance that Christ is allegedly described as theos in the sense of the Ultimate Reality, probable alternative interpretations exist. John 1:1 has been discussed above briefly.

John 20:28 and Hebrews 1:8

In the Trinity doctrine, the Father and Son are co-equal. In contrast, in John 20 and in Hebrews 1, the Father is Jesus’ God, implying that the Father is superior over the Son (cf. John 14:28; 1 Cor 11:3). These verses, consequently, apply the title theos to Jesus in a subordinate sense, which implies that He is not the Ultimate Reality.

Romans 9:5

In many translations of Romans 9:5, Jesus is not theos but blessed by theos. See, Jesus in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

John 1:18

Many of the ancient manuscripts of John 1:18 describe Jesus as huios (son) and not as theos (god). See, Did John refer to Jesus as theos or as huios?

1 John 5:20

In 1 John 5:20, the title “true theos” is sometimes understood as referring to the Son. However, the entire purpose of that verse is to say that the Father is the “true” God, in contrast to the idols mentioned in the next verse (1 John 5:21). Consistent with this, verse 20 refers twice to the Father as “Him who is true.” Therefore, when that verse concludes by saying, “this is the true God,” this should be understood as referring to the Father.

The conclusion is supported by the fact that the phrase “true God” elsewhere always refers to the Father (John 17:3; 1 Thess 1:9-10). The same applies to the related phrases one God” (1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Eph 4:4-6), one and only God” (John 5:44), and only God” (Jude 1:25; John 5:44; 1 Tim 1:17);

Titus 2:13

Titus 2:13 is often translated as “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,” implying that Jesus Christ is “our great God.” However, this translation is easily challenged. In many other reliable translations, such as the King James Bible, the New King James Version, and the American Standard Version, this verse reads: “The great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.” This translation makes a distinction between God and Jesus Christ – consistent with the distinction which Paul always and everywhere in his letters makes between God and Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

If the New Testament refers to Jesus Christ as theos in the sense of the Ultimate Reality, then such instances of theos must be translated as “God.”

We have now briefly addressed all the verses that refer to Christ as theos, as listed by Thayer’s. The conclusion is that there is not a single reference in the New Testament that unequivocally describes Jesus as theos in the sense of the Ultimate Reality. Coupled with the unambiguous and consistent distinction which the Bible makes between God and Jesus, we need to conclude that theos, when describing Jesus, should not be translated as “God.”

How should theos be translated?

Consider the following:

(a) “God” is a name.

The original Greek text of the New Testament was written only in capital letters. Consequently, it was unable to distinguish between “god” and “God.” When that differentiation developed, centuries later, people began to capitalize the G as an indication that one specific being is in mind, namely the Ultimate Reality. That means that, while the titles theos and “god” both identify a category of beings, in a Christian community, the title “God,” with a capital G, functions like a proper noun (a name) for one single Being. 

(b) The New Testament makes theos specific.

Since theos has such a wide range of meanings, the New Testament Greek uses various techniques to make theos specific when it wants to identify the God of the Bible. The main technique is simply context. But sometimes the only true God is identified by adding phrases such as “the living” (Matt 16:16) or the “Most High” (Mark 5:7). Other identifying phrases include the words “one,” “only,” or “true,” for example:

      • Theos is one” (Mark 12:28-30; James 2:19);
      • One theos” (1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Eph 4:4-6);
      • The one and only theos” (John 5:44);
      • Only theos” (Jude 1:25; John 5:44; 1 Tim 1:17);
      • True theos” (1 Thess 1:9; 1 John 5:20); or
      • Only true theos” (John 17:3).

These phrases refer to the Self-existent One and must be translated using the title “God.”

Since the Greek text finds it necessary to add explanatory words to theos to identify the Self-existent One, I conclude that the title theos is equivalent to the English title “god;” a general designation for all deities or divinities. Again, the conclusion is that God must be understood rather like a name for one specific Being.

Translation of theos when referring to the Father

Consequently, because there is only one true God, to translate the phrase “only true theos” (John 17:3) as “only true God” is tautology (saying the same thing twice). To translate theos as “God” is not really a translation but a replacement of a word with a different word. It is similar to, in a translation, replacing the phrase “Son of God” with “Jesus” because the context indicates that the “Son of God” refers to Jesus. “Only true theos” should rather be translated as “only true god” or simply as “God.” The same applies to the other phrases in the list above.

Translation of theos when referring to Christ

In secular language, “God” is one instance of the category “gods.” But the meaning in a Christian context has a different nuance, namely that “God” and “god” have opposite meanings. “God” refers to the only true God while “god” refers to false gods – everything that opposes God. And since Jesus always existed (Col 1:16), has “all the fullness of Deity” in Him (Col 2:9), has “life in Himself“ (1 Tim 1:26), “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb 1:3), and is often mentioned together with the Father and the Holy Spirit (etc.), it is impossible to describe Him as “god.”

In other words, the ‘modern’ capitalization of words, coupled with nuances with which these words are used in Christian circles, have created a translation dilemma. I am not sure how we could solve it.

But consider the following: When we translate theos, when it refers to the Father, we replace the category name theos with a name, namely “God.” Could we consider doing the same when we translate theos, when it refers to Jesus? For example, could we replace theos with another descriptive that has also become a name for one specific Being: “the Son of God?”

Summary of Conclusions

This word theos, translated as “God” or as “god,” appears 1314 times in the New Testament. It is claimed that, in about seven instances, theos refers to Jesus.

God and god

The English title “God,” with a capital G, only has one meaning. It functions as a proper noun (a name) for the Ultimate Reality; the Almighty Being who exists unconditionally without cause but who brought all things into existence.

In secular dictionaries, “God” is one of the subcategories of the definition of “god.” But in Christian circles, the term “god” is associated with false gods.

Theos

The word theos has a range of possible meanings, including:

      • The gods of the nations;
      • The true God;
      • A person granted authority or power by God to represent Him;
      • An idol or image that symbolizes a god; or
      • Something that opposes God.

Theos is also used qualitatively; to say that a being is ‘godlike’.

Since theos has such a wide range of meanings, the New Testament Greek uses various techniques to make theos specific when it wants to identify the Supreme Being. Consequently, the title theos is equivalent to the English title “god.”

Jesus described as theos

In most of the seven instances of theos that refer to Jesus, either the original manuscripts or the interpretation of the verse are in dispute. The three undisputed passages are interpreted as follows:

Thomas described Jesus as theos in the sense of an immortal, superhuman being (John 20:28). When Christ ascended to heaven, the disciples did not yet understand the true nature of Christ, as reflected, for example, in John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 8:6.

Hebrews 1:8 refers to Jesus as theos in the sense of a person mandated by God to represent Him.

John 1:1(c) uses theos to describe Jesus as “like God.”

Two of these three passages explicitly describe the Father as Jesus’ God (John 20:17; Heb 1:9; cf. 2 Cor 11:31; Eph 1:3, 17; 1 Peter 1:3; Rev 1:6; 3:2, 12). All three passages (John 20:28, Hebrews 1:8 and John 1:1) describe Jesus as subordinate to the Father.

Consequently, there is not a single undisputed instance where the Bible refers to Jesus as theos in the sense of the Ultimate Reality, which would require theos to be translated as “God.”

This is confirmed by the consistent distinction made by the New Testament; not only between the Son and the Father but also between Jesus Christ and God.

Most translations assume the Trinity doctrine, namely that the Son ‘is’ the Ultimate Reality. Consequently, the fact that theos, when referring to Jesus, is translated as “God,” rather than as “god” is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof there-of.

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