Does the Bible really say Jesus is God? – A text-critical study of corrupt passages (1/2)

29 05 2010
  • “You are my witnesses,” declares YHWH, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.”

(Isaiah 43:10)

Muslims, Jehovah’s witnesses and anyone else to whom the doctrine of Christ’s divinity is a stone of stumbling continually accuse Christians of the deification of a mere created person. They will try to show that the earliest New Testament manuscripts were corrupted to conform to the doctrine of the council of Nicaea (325 AD) that declared Jesus to be one in essence with God, the Father.

Does the Bible say that Jesus is God? Even though the answer is straightforward for most orthodox Christians, I think this is a legitimate question that needs to be addressed. Before we can assess this, we must critically examine what the Bible says. So the question is: Do the earliest manuscripts demonstrate that Jesus is God, i.e. theos, or was it added to the Bible later by Trinitarians?

One of the reasons why this is an important question is that Christianity is all about Christ: how Christ is presented in the Bible marks out our Christian faith. Yet even if I should fail to provide any overtly explicit statements that Jesus was theos meaning ‘God’, this still wouldn’t mean that the Trinity is an unbiblical doctrine and should be abandoned. It may well be that Jesus made undeniable implicit or oblique claims to divine status, which I believe is the case, but our quest will be rather for explicit claims. For it is these claims that most skeptics cast doubt upon.

First of all, we must acknowledge that Jesus never used theos meaning ‘God’ to refer to himself. For, although Jesus may have called himself the Son of God, whatever that may mean, He never used theos ‘God’ directly. He even distinguishes himself from God in several passages such as the well-known cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And even Paul, who believed Jesus was God, confirms this distinction in, for example, Eph 1:17, which reads “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory”. Moreover, we don’t find any theos claims either in the synoptic gospels or in the apostles’ preaching in the book of Acts. So we have to look in other sources.

The idea skeptics tend to defend is that the early church altered the Biblical manuscripts to make sure it agreed with their Trinitarian understanding of the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Father. Though we can’t deny that such practices may have occurred, it doesn’t follow that all direct theos claims we might find must be the result of corruption. After all, prior to the Arian controversy in the 4th century, early church fathers explicitly professed the deity of Christ. They must have concluded this from a certain authority other than the council of Nicaea.

Romans 9:5
One of the possible earliest confessions of Jesus’ being called theos is the passage of Romans 9:5.

  • “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (ESV)”

(which in Greek reads: ὧν οἱ πατέρες, καὶ ἐξ ὧν ὁ Χριστὸς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα: ὁ ὢν ἐπὶ πάντων θεὸς εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν)

Since this final doxology1 in the relative clause ὁ ὢν ἐπὶ πάντων θεὸς εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας meaning “the one being God over all worthy of praise unto the ages” doesn’t have punctuation in the earliest manuscripts, it can either be read as a syndetic doxology to ὁ Χριστoς meaning “Christ” preceding it or an inserted asyndetic2 doxology to the Father. But what is the most plausible reading? Bruce Metzger (1994: 460-461), a textual commentator, gives us five reasons why the doxology most likely refers to Christ. In brief, these are:

  1. it suits the natural structure of the sentence: we would not expect a change of subject;
  2. the participle ὁ ὢν meaning “the one being” or “he who is” would otherwise have been superfluous;
  3. the construction, if asyndetic, would be unique for Paul’s doxologies;
  4. the construction, if asyndetic, would be syntactically unique for the Bible;
  5. there is no contextual-psychological explanation for the insertion of a doxology to the Father.

Since it is a lament about Paul’s kinsmen rejecting the Messiah, a climactic doxology to Christ would be more likely. Objections to this syndetic reading could be that Paul never designates theos to Christ elsewhere and that in the light of what we know of Paul’s doxologies, an equation of Christ’s glory with that of the Father would be improbable. So, in short, taking the doxology together with Christ would be grammatically as well as contextually the most plausible reading, but theologically the most implausible. However, the alleged theological uniqueness of this theos designation to Christ is questionable.

Titus 2:13
For, not only do we find Paul equating Jesus with theos in Phil 2:6, which reads “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”, but also in Paul’s epistle to Titus we may be dealing with yet another reference of theos to Christ. In Titus 2:13, we read:

  • “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us …”

(Titus 2:11-14a ESV)

The final part in Greek: ἐπιφάνειαν τῆς δόξης τοῦ μεγάλου θεοῦ καὶ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.

There are no significant discrepancies between textual variants for this verse. Moreover, the essential unity of the titles God, Saviour and Jesus Christ in this passage is grammatically, textually and contextually unmistakable. First of all, in the Greek, both the initial article of tou and the final pronoun hemon in Greek enclose the unity of “great God and Savior”, which is again combined with the following apposition “Jesus Christ” through case agreement. (This copulative construction is found quite often, cf. Revevelations 1:6, but also 2 Corinthians 1:3, Luke 20:37). If it weren’t about one and the same person, we would definitely expect an article after the conjunction. Lastly, even though, throughout Paul’s epistle to Titus, the title soter meaning “Saviour” is taken together interchangeably with both God (1:3, 2:10, 3:4) and Jesus Christ (1:4, 3:6), the concurrence of epipháneia meaning “appearance” and “Jesus Christ” has many parallels in Paul’s letters, cf. esp. 2 Tim. 1:10 “the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus” and 1 Tim. 6:14 “the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

2 Peter 1:1
In 2 Peter 1:1 we find a similar case:

  • “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

A few manuscripts have “our Lord” instead of “our God”, but the reading we find here has the best external evidence and is according to the lectio difficilior potior principle3. It also likely to be intended by the author, for Peter begins to speak of “his divine power” and things pertaining to “godliness” in v. 3 and calls his addressees “partakers of the divine nature” in v. 4. Therefore, we are forced to conclude, together with Daniel B. Wallace (1995), that both in Tit 2:13 and 2 Pet 1:1, “on a grammatical level, a heavy burden of proof rests with the one who wishes to deny that “God and Savior” refers to one person, Jesus Christ.”

Hebrews 1:8
Let’s have a look at another passage, where theos may refer to Christ, namely Hebrews 1:8-9:

  • “But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

Here the writer of Hebrews quotes a royal Psalm, Psalm 45:6-7 from the LXX (44:7-8). There is an early textual variant that reads rhábdos tês basileías autoû meaning “the sceptre of his kingdom” instead of “your kingdom”, in which case other variants could have been corrected to correspond with the LXX and thus one should render the first part of the quotation with God as the subject something like “Your throne is God forever and ever, the sceptre of uprightness is the sceptre of his kingdom.” But grammatically this would imply a shift from the third to the second person in the next sentence, which would be odd. Contextually, God as the throne of the Son would either imply that God gives up his throne, which doesn’t make sense at all, for Yahweh was believed to be enthroned forever (Ps 102:12) and the Messiah sat down at the right hand of God’s throne (Hebrews 1:3, 12:2), or it would imply that God has final authority over the Son, which could also be said of any angel, whereas this passage is about the supremacy of the Son, being “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (1:3) and “much superior to the angels” (1:4). So, together with the external evidence, the standard reading with sou meaning “your” is to be preferred, making the unique Son of God coequal in sovereignty with God, the Father. It is not surprising that some take this very passage to be the source for the early veneration of the Messiah.

Furthermore, there is a clear parallel here to Yahweh’s Messiah or ‘anointed one’ in Isaiah 61:1, which Jesus read out loud in the synagogue on the Sabbath in Luke 4, thus essentially professing that He was God. Moreover, in Hebrews 1:10, the writer of Hebrews continues his quotation chain with Psalm 102 from the LXX (Ps 101) with reference to the Son: “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands” thus practically equating him with Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth.


Notes:
1. A doxology is an expression of praise.
2. Asyndetic means without a connector.
3. The reading that is the most difficult is more likely to be the correct one.

References:
B. M. Metzger, 1994. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament.
Wallace, D. B., 1995. The Article with Multiple Substantives Connected by Kaiv in the New Testament: Semantics and Significance. Ph.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary.


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COPYRIGHT © 2010 Life put in perspective by Harry Buckley. All rights reserved.
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