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Jesus as “God”: Scriptural Fact or Scribal Fantasy?

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Note: For academic treatment on this topic, see earlier article posted on bible.org. The final form of this work was included in the Christian Research Journal (vol 31.4 [2008]).


“Who do you say that I am?”

As we turn to the Bible, we expect an explicit answer to Jesus’ question. In fact most Bible scholars have, at some point, searched the New Testament for passages that explicitly refer to Jesus as “God.” This may seem like an easy pursuit with many “validating” texts, yet several problems quickly surface.

First, Jesus never used the term “God” when referring to Himself. Matthew, Mark, and Luke never explicitly give the title “God” to Jesus. No sermon in the Book of Acts attributes the title “God” to Jesus. Few existing New Testament manuscripts contain such “Jesus-God” passages prior to the fourth century, with several scholars assuming the Orthodox Church corrupted most of those. Finally—and arguably the biggest obstacle in ascribing the title “God” to Jesus—the existing New Testament manuscripts differ in all potential passages that explicitly call Jesus “God.”

What is at stake here? At first glance, this undermines the traditional and essential Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ.

Why is this issue important? The ascription of “God” to Jesus contributes to our understanding of who Christ is. C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, wrote, “Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God.” In addition, some modern scholars continue to challenge the textual authenticity of these passages—leaving people in doubt whether the New Testament ever explicitly calls Jesus “God.”

Fortunately, in the face of these challenges, we can turn to the Scriptures.

We begin by considering the compilation of our Bible. After a group or person received an original Gospel or letter, copies were made to make such letters accessible to a wider audience. The Apostle Paul even mentions providing it to a wider audience in Colossians 4:16, “And after you have read this letter, have it read to the church of Laodicea.”

Unfortunately for us, scribes lacked the “copy and paste” functions current technology offers, they wrote copies by hand, and such copies were inconsistent. Most of the inconsistencies happened by mistake, such as spelling errors or word-order differences. On the other hand, some changes happened on purpose. How do we know what they did and why? How can we be sure what the original said?

Textual criticism is the study of surviving documents of which the original is unknown to determine the exact wording of the original. In this case, it is the study of the surviving copies of the New Testament.

Though different methods exist for determining what the original said, most textual critics today include both internal and external evidence when deciding on the original text. Basically, they evaluate everything: date, location, style, context, vocabulary, scribal habits, etc. Although this might seem mechanical, most working in the field would say that this discipline is both an art and a science.

So a textual critic is not one who has a “critical attitude” toward the Bible but rather one who works in the field of determining originals. Their task is important because we have none of the original New Testament manuscripts, and the ones we do have differ from one another. Consequently, before we can determine what the Bible means, we must first determine what it says. This, again, is what some textual critics now challenge relating to the “Jesus-God” passages. Let’s briefly take a look at a few examples.

Until fourteen years ago, when professor and best-selling author, Bart Ehrman first published The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, New Testament scholars agreed unanimously in their textual certainty of the statement in John 1:1, “and the Word was God.” This scholarly agreement continues today with the exception of Ehrman. In at least three more published books and one published lecture series, Ehrman continues to suggest that the original text does not necessarily teach the deity of Christ, most often pointing to textual problems behind such verses. In this case, John 1:1, he remains unpersuaded by the scholarly consensus because of his hesitancy to dismiss a single eighth-century manuscript—a manuscript which once again gives him the “distinct impression” that the Orthodox Church changed the text in order to confirm the full deity of Christ.

Why would the Church want to do this? Allegedly, in this case, they changed it after declaring a man named Arius heretical for denying the full deity of Christ. The Orthodox Church, then, according to Ehrman, changed this text so that the implicit identification—Jesus as simply divine—would become an explicit one—God himself.

One problem with his thesis is that Arius never had a problem calling Jesus “God.” In fact, he does so in a letter he wrote to Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, in which he wrote “he [the Son] subsisted before times and ages, full of grace and truth, God, only-begotten, unchangeable.” Ehrman’s orthodox-corruption theory, in this case, remains unjustifiable at its basic level.

Furthermore, the difference in this one eighth-century manuscript does not deny the deity of Jesus. Most scholars interpret this phrase as, “the Word had the same nature as God.”

New Testament professor, Dr. Craig Keener, wrote in his commentary on John, “Regarding Jesus as merely ‘divine’ but not deity violates the context; identifying him with the Father does the same. For this reason... scholars from across the contemporary theological spectrum recognize that, although Father and Son are distinct in this text, they share deity in the same way.”

Attempts to understand the theological motive(s) behind the variant in this one eighth-century manuscript do not change the fact that the text is certain and it explicitly ascribes the title “God” to Jesus: “and the Word was God.”

Next we consider John 20:28. As world-renowned New Testament scholar Dr. N. T. Wright believes, John 20:28 is the fullest confession of faith in the entire Gospel. “My Lord and my God,” cries Thomas upon touching the risen Christ. Even more intriguing is that this confession comes from the lips of “doubting Thomas.”

So, does John 20:28 have an untrustworthy history? Once again, a single fifth-century manuscript has given Ehrman some textual reflux because it omits a Greek article before “God.” Assuming Ehrman is correct, however, his argument is backwards. If the variant in this one manuscript is the original wording then the verse has a Greek grammatical construction which scholars label Granville Sharp’s Rule—which requires us to understand both “Lord” and “God” in this verse as referring to Jesus. In other words, if Ehrman is correct in going with this one fifth-century manuscript, this verse is actually even more explicit.

Thus, no matter which manuscript contains the original wording, John 20:28 explicitly refers to Jesus as “God.”

Hebrews 1:8 is another verse that possibly attributes “God” to Jesus, and the last one we will evaluate. The main textual difference is whether the last word in Greek should read “his” or “your.” The answer will help us determine if Jesus is explicitly called “God”:

Option 1 is a direct address, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and a righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.”

Option 2 makes God the subject, “God is your throne [or, Your throne is God] forever and ever, and a righteous scepter is the scepter of his [i.e. God’s] kingdom.”

External evidence favors the pronoun “your”—in option 1—as having better textual credentials than the pronoun “his”—in option 2. Yet Ehrman says, “It is interesting to observe that the same manuscripts that evidence corruption in Hebrews 1:8 do so in John 1:18 as well, one of the other [Jesus-God] passages.” While this brief statement is correct, he leaves the reader with a blurred view of the manuscript evidence. Indeed, all the manuscripts he used regarding this topic include other “Jesus-God” passages in them. Two examples include the following:

1. The fifth-century Western manuscript (D)

· Corrupted text according to Ehrman: John 1:1.

· Text that supports Ehrman’s reading: John 20:28.

2. The eighth-century Alexandrian manuscript (L)

· Corrupted text according to Ehrman: John 20:28.

· Text that supports Ehrman’s reading: John 1:1.

In light of these two examples, which are only a small sampling, the point is that no one would have received a distorted view of the deity of Christ if they received only their manuscript. Both manuscripts listed above have at least one “Jesus-God” verse that affirms the full deity of Christ. It is not essential, then, that every potential “Jesus-God” passage in every manuscript affirm the same. This evidential conclusion causes another major problem in Ehrman’s overall orthodox-corruption thesis.

In the end, the best evidence in Heb 1:8 points to the true textual reading, “but to the Son [he declares], ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and a righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.’ ” In other words, there is a high probability that Hebrews 1:8 is another explicit affirmation of Jesus as “God.”

At the end of the day, no one contests that the New Testament usually reserves the title “God” for the Father. Yet this usage, though dominant, is not exclusive. The question now is not whether Jesus is explicitly called “God” in the New Testament, but how many times He is thus identified and by whom. This debate, then, does not jeopardize Orthodox Christology. We can therefore be confident in the midst of these challenges. In fact, the title “God” only makes explicit what other Christological titles such as “Lord” and “Son of God” imply. Dr. Murray Harris, prolific author and expert on the deity of Christ, concludes:

“Even if the early Church had never applied the title [‘God’] to Jesus, his deity would still be apparent in his being the object of human and angelic worship and of saving faith; the exerciser of exclusively divine functions such as creatorial agency, the forgiveness of sins, and the final judgment; the addressee in petitionary prayer; the possessor of all divine attributes; the bearer of numerous titles used of Yahweh in the Old Testament; and the co-author of divine blessing. Faith in the deity of Christ does not rest on the evidence or validity of a series of ‘proof-texts’ in which Jesus may receive the title [‘God’] but on the general testimony of the New Testament corroborated at the bar of personal experience.”

Still, with at least one text that undoubtedly calls Jesus “God” in every respect (John 20:28), the question whether Jesus is ever called “God” in the New Testament is resolved. This does not mean the cry of skeptics will be silenced, but any other conclusion divorces itself from the textual evidence internally and externally. In other words, the overwhelming evidence clearly attests to the fact that Jesus as “God” is a scriptural fact. Whether one chooses to believe in Him as such is another matter.

Related Topics: Christology