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Recently someone wrote in asking about the meaning of John 10:34-36, where Jesus, having been accused of blasphemy for claiming to be God, responds by saying:
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?John 10:34-36
There are two schools of thought on this, which are related and are not mutually exclusive.
Viewpoint #1: “gods” = judges
First of all, this passage is interesting because it shows that Jesus had a high view of the Old Testament scriptures. He says that it is written in the “Law,” but then proceeds to quote from Psalm 82:1 & 8, showing that He believed the Psalms to be the inspired Word of God in the same way as the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible). Some people at this time, e.g. the Sadducees, only accepted the Pentateuch as the inspired Word of God, but Jesus spoke of the Psalms as being part of the canon of Scripture, and just as much “the Bible” as the Pentateuch.
Jesus’ main argument is that he should not be accused of blasphemy for calling himself the “Son of God” (see: What Does It Mean that Jesus is the “Son of God”?) since God himself had used the word “gods” to refer to the Jewish people in His inerrant Word.
The word “gods” (Elohim in Hebrew) can also mean “judges.” An example of this is found in Exodus 21:6 & 22:8, where the word translated “master” in English (because it refers to a human master), is actually “Elohim” in the Hebrew text… but since it is referring to a human master, it is understood that though the word for “elohim” is used, it is not talking about Yahweh, but about human “masters.”
E.A. Blum explains, in his commentary on the Gospel of John:
“Psalm 82 speaks of God as the true Judge (Ps. 82:1, 8) and of men, appointed as judges, who were failing to provide true judgment for God (Ps. 82:2–7). “Gods” in Psalm 82:1, 6 refers to these human judges. In this sense, God said to the Jews, You are gods. In no way does this speak of a divine nature in man. Jesus was arguing that in certain situations (as in Ps. 82:1, 6) men were called “gods.” The Hebrew word for God or gods is ’ělōhîm. This word is used elsewhere (e.g., Exodus 21:6; 22:8) to mean human judges. Since the inerrant Bible called their judges “gods,” the Jews could not logically accuse Him of blasphemy for calling Himself God’s Son since He was under divine orders and sent into the world on God’s mission.”Blum, E. A. (1985). John. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 312). Victor Books.
Viewpoint #2: “Living like gods”
C.G. Kruse explains another viewpoint, based on the rabbinic exegesis of Psalm 82:6-7:
The full text of Psalm 82:6–7 reads: “I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.”
The statement ‘You are gods’ was understood in later rabbinic exegesis to be God’s word to the Israelites at Sinai when they received the law. God said to them, ‘You are gods,’ because in receiving the law and living by it they would be holy and live like gods. But because they departed from the law and worshipped the golden calf while still at Sinai, he said to them, ‘you will die like mere men’. The opening words of Jesus’ argument, ‘If he called them “gods”, to whom the word of God came’, suggest that he interpreted the quotation from the psalm in relation to the Sinai events as did later rabbinic scholars.
Jesus used the exegetical methods of his opponents to show they had no grounds for accusing him of blasphemy.Kruse, C. G. (2003). John: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 4, pp. 240–241). InterVarsity Press.
What Jesus is Not Saying
Jesus is not saying here that all human beings are divine – we are not.
Jesus is not downplaying his own divinity – he affirms it multiple times and in various ways throughout the Gospel of John.
Jesus is not saying that Psalm 82 was incorrect – just the opposite: he references one of the most confusing passages for modern non-Hebrew literate Bible readers, in order to make us dig in to seek understanding of that passage!
What Jesus was Doing
Jesus was masterfully diffusing a situation by using the very Scriptures and exegetical methods of his attackers, to show them they they were being inconsistent in their theological method.
For more on theological method, see: Theological Method: Sources of Theology and Why People Arrive at Different Conclusions About Matters of Faith & the Bible
At the same time, Jesus consistently claimed to be divine, in his seven “I Am” statements, for example.
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