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, in about seven instances, it refers to the Son of God. There even are instances where the more pronounced title “ho theos” (the god) is 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.
Meaning of the word God
Two of the seven passages that refer to Jesus as theos also refer to the Father as His theos (His God) (John 20:17; Heb 1:9). The question, therefore, is whether theos has different senses.
Dictionaries define the English title “God” as the Ultimate Reality; the Almighty Being who exists without cause but who brought all things into existence. With such a definition of God, there can only be one God.
Meanings of the word theos
Based on Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance and Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the word theos has 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 and 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 who is ‘godlike’.
Which sense applies to Jesus?
This article 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:
Biblehub 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:
As 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).
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).
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.
In many translations of Romans 9:5, Jesus is not theos but blessed by theos. See, Jesus in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
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 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.
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.
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.
Other Available Articles
- Is Jesus God? – List of all articles
- The historical development of the Trinity doctrine – List of Articles
- All articles – List of all article series on this website