God and Christ: Examining the Evidence for a Biblical Doctrine
By David Barron
Monotheism has always served as a staple of Judaism and Christianity. With rampant polytheism among early peoples, the biblical teaching identifies only one true God. Deriving a belief from this outlook many have suggested a strict doctrine where the one true God is recognized with all others termed gods thought to be false gods. While this strict definition is appealing, the matter is vastly oversimplified, failing to account for many others who are properly termed gods.
Significant misunderstanding stems from a failure to recognize that the words translated “god(s)” (Hebrew: elohim; Greek: theos) meant much more to the ancient reader than realized by many today. On this Carl Mosser explains: “Moderns are often unaware that theos had a much broader semantic range than is allowed for G/god in contemporary Western European languages.“1 Only by recognizing how god can refer to more than the one true God and false gods is the full range of meaning appreciated.
With their own ideas about monotheism some suggest that recognizing any others as gods is incompatible, at best viewing it as henotheism and at worst polytheism.2 As early Jews and Christians understood themselves to be monotheists, we should carefully consider how they understood monotheism in forming our own belief, not forcing a strict definition into the text that they did not hold. Larry Hurtado has commented:
“It is mistaken to assume that we can evaluate ancient Jewish texts and beliefs in terms of whether or how closely they meet our own preconceived idea of ‘pure’ monotheism… If we are to avoid a priori definitions and the imposition of our own theological judgments, we have no choice but to accept as monotheism the religion of those who profess to be monotheists, however much their religion carries and may seem ‘complicated’ with other beings in addition to the one God.”3
The monotheistic belief of early Jewish and Christian believers is to be understood by evaluating their writings. Though priority should be given to canonical texts, extra-biblical Jewish texts should not be ignored.
“God” – Use and Meaning
Biblical times found the words translated "god" applied both to false gods and the Almighty, and it is within these two categories that biblical monotheism is founded. While these two are most common, the term included applications between the extremes, identifying various gods who were neither false nor Almighty. It is this often neglected middle range that demands analysis.
Commenting on the various uses of the word god, the New Unger’s Bible Dictionary relates:
“This term for deity is used in a threefold connotation in the O[ld]T[estament]: (1) In a singular sense of the one true God in a plural of majesty and excellence. It is construed with a singular verb or adjective (Gen. 1:1; 2 Kings 19:4, 16; Pss. 7:10; 57:3; 78:56) but with a plural verb only in certain phrases… (3) Of judges or prophets as ‘to whom the word of God came’ (John 10:35; Ps. 82:6), and whom God consequently dignified with authority to bear His own name (Ex. 21:6, see marg.; 22:8; ‘judges’)…”4
Murray Harris similarly remarks:
“For any Jew or Gentile of the first century A.D. who was acquainted with the OT in Greek, the term theos would have seemed rich in content since it signified the Deity, the Creator of heaven and earth, and also could render the ineffable sacred name, Yahweh, the covenantal God, and yet was capable of extremely diverse application, ranging from the images of pagan deities to the one true God of Israel, from heroic people to angelic beings. Whether one examines the Jewish or the Gentile use of the term theos up to the end of the first century A.D., there is an occasional application of the term to human beings who perform divine functions or display divine characteristics.”5
Several passages exemplify the various uses of “god.” For example, Moses was “a god to Pharaoh” (Ex. 7:1). Jehovah had not exalted his nature to make him something other than a human, but he gave him authority to act in his behalf, allowing Moses to speak for him and carry out his works. In all Moses did to Pharaoh he was ‘performing divine functions and displaying divine characteristics,’ making the identification of him as “a god” appropriate.
The judges of Israel were on several occasions identified as gods: “God… judges in the midst of the gods… I myself have said, 'You are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High’” (Psa. 82:1, 6). On this text The Bible Knowledge Commentary explains:
“The psalmist envisioned God presiding over an assembly of judges. The word gods (’ělōhîm) is used here for authorities in Israel (cf. 45:6; Ex. 21:6; 22:8-9). Some have thought this refers to angels (e.g., the Syriac trans.) in God’s heavenly court. However, the remainder of the psalm clarifies that these are God’s representatives who are in authority on earth.”6
Keil and Delitzsch further note:
“Everywhere among men, but here pre-eminently, those in authority are God's delegates and the bearers of His image, and therefore as His representatives are also themselves called elohim, ‘gods’…”7
Denying the implications of Psalm 82:6, some argue the passage presents the referenced ones as gods only in sarcasm or irony. This notion is foreign to the text as Keil and Delitzsch note:
“The idea that the appellation elohim, which they have given to themselves, is only sarcastically given back to them in Psa[lm] 82:1 (Ewald, Olshausen), is refuted by Psa[lm] 82:6, according to which they are really elohim by the grace of God.”8
They are gods “by the grace of God” just as it is by this that they are "sons of the most high." Though they “shall die as men,” this tells only that because of their sin they shall die as common men irrespective of their position. Many commentators have recognized the meaning of such texts while missing the implications for a proper monotheistic doctrine, as John Gill:
“[In Exodus 22:8 the judges are] called Elohim, gods, because they were God's vicegerents, and represented him, and acted under his power and authority; and who at this present were Moses, and those that judged the people under him, and afterwards the seventy elders, and all such who in succeeding times were judges in Israel, and bore the office of civil magistrates.”9
Angels, too, are given this appellation (Psa. 8:5). Referencing man as “a little lower than elohim“(God/gods),10 this is not the Almighty who is infinitely greater. The Septuagint translators and the author of Hebrews understood elohim in this context to be angels. The psalmist, speaking of man's creation and the book of Hebrews applying this text to Jesus becoming a man, presents a contrast between the higher nature of angels with the ‘lower’ nature man. In their existence as “spirits” (Heb. 1:7) they are gods.
Early Jewish literature other than the Bible substantiates allowing for others termed gods within monotheistic thought. The story of Joseph and Aseneth—a work likely penned between the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D.—speaks of an angel who is “the chief of the house of the Lord” (14:8), identifying him as “a god” (17:9). From the Dead Sea Scrolls another example comes with reference to angels:
“And exalt his exaltation to the heights, gods of the august divinities, and the divinity of his glory above all the august heights. For he is the God of the gods … Sing with joy those of you enjoying his knowledge, with rejoicing among the wonderful gods … Praise him, divine spirits, praising for ever and ever the main vault of the heights … The spirits of the holy of the holy ones, the living gods, the spirits of everlasting holiness.”11
From this sampling there are two apparent applications for the word god outside of the traditional monotheistic contrast between the true God and false gods. The first is principally of men who possess divinely granted authority, having been ordained by God and given special authority to act on his behalf. This authority was extended to the judges and kings of Israel (Psa. 82:6; 45:6). The second applies to beings of a higher order as the angels. So in Psalm 8:5 the angels are “gods” in contrast to the lower nature of man. These spirits are powerful beings, unmatched by any human but not vastly superior as Jehovah.
An important consideration is that those termed gods outside of the strict monotheistic definition were not entitled to divine worship. Worthy of great respect and honor, on occasion having been given homage (cf. Gen. 19:1), such never crossed the line into divine worship that God alone was counted worthy of. They were not rivals to God and those who made themselves into such, in turn, became false gods. In doing this they would have exalted themselves to a higher level, creating expectations with those who might follow them that they were unable to fulfill and perhaps even demanding divine worship of which they were not worthy.
No Other Gods – Interpreting in Context
With evidence supporting the proper identification of gods other than the true God, some suggest that several passages contradict this notion. Indeed, numerous theologians have argued that certain passages expressly deny the existence of gods in any sense other than the true God.12 As the scriptures are not contradictory careful examination of these texts is required.
A fundamental principle of interpretation is to read in context. One would avoid taking a passage out of context to make blanket application when the context dictates a meaning that is specific. For example, Exodus 20:4 provides a command to not make “a carved image or a form like anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth.” This language at first seems clear and absolute, but there appears to be a contradiction when the Bible later condones its violation. In fact, any non-religious statue or carving would violate the command as here quoted.
Examples of this law’s violation would be in the building of Solomon’s temple. Solomon is said to have “engraved cherubs upon the walls” (2Ch. 3:7) and to have “carved with engraved carvings of cherubs and palm tree figures and engravings of blossoms” (1Ki. 6:29). Similarly, Solomon built for himself a house with images of oxen (1Ki. 7:25). Yet with these both Solomon and the temple remained acceptable to Jehovah (1Ki. 9:3).
How, then, is the command of Exodus 20:4 understood? Verse 3 narrows the command to be against having other gods before Jehovah. Verse 5 further clarifies, instructing that they should not “bow down” or “serve” the carved images. Keil and Delitzsch relate:
“It is not only evident from the context that the allusion is not to the making of images generally, but to the construction of figures of God as objects of religious reverence or worship, but this is expressly stated in ver[se] 5; so that even Calvin observes, that ‘there is no necessity to refute what some have foolishly imagined, that sculpture and painting of every kind are condemned here.’”13
Exodus 20 defines the type of carved image prohibited. That Calvin tells of ones who have gone so far as to argue that “sculpture and painting of every kind are condemned here” cannot be overlooked when this is plainly not the case. The context speaks against this, as do other texts. Similarly, the application of passages appealed to for denying the proper identification of others as gods is refuted by these passages’ own context.
Isaiah provides the principle proof texts from which strict, absolute monotheism is derived. Passages have been isolated as some have done with Exodus 20:4, making an absolute statement out of what must be understood contextually. Prominently featured but misapplied in this discussion is Isaiah 43:10. Here God speaks: “Before me there was no God formed; nor shall any be after me.”
This verse is often read to be a statement about the non-formation of other gods, but in fact it is a statement about the sovereignty of Jehovah. Note that the text addresses specific times during which no gods have been or will be formed. These times are “before” and “after” Jehovah.
It is necessary to ask when Jehovah has ever not been so that gods might have been formed before him. Having existed throughout all eternity there is no time when he did not exist, so there has never been a time that was “before” him nor will there be any “after” him. This does not deny that other gods have been formed, but it is expresses Jehovah’s eternal duration where there will never be a time either “before” or “after” him. A credible understanding of why Jehovah expressed himself this way may be presented:
“This is already evident in the contrast between the pantheon of benevolent and dangerous gods and Israel’s God who is the same in his judgments, 42.22ff., and in the salvation which he promises, 431ff. This v. emphasizes the contrast in the sense that Yahweh has no beginning and no end. The epic Enuma Elish (ANET, 60ff.) gives a good example of the theogony in Mesopotamia. In the course of history one deity is ousted by another, depending on the political powers of their worshippers. Morgenstern also draws attention to an ancient Semitic concept of three aeons, successively ruled by various deities.”14
With Isaiah 43:10 shown as not particularly relevant to the discussion, an examination of its context is worthwhile, for it limits the scope of the verse and more importantly, those that are to come. Early in and throughout the significant texts of Isaiah clarity is given as to the gods in view.15 Intending to demonstrate the absurdity of accepting these things as gods, the manner in which they derive their existence is explained.
Isaiah 40:19 The craftsman pours out the casted image, the smelter spreads it with gold; and he casts the chains of silver. 20 He too poor for that offering chooses a tree that will not rot; he seeks a skilled artisan for him, to prepare a carved image that will not be shaken.
The preceding continues with God focusing his attention on these idols as man-made creations, not beings properly identified as gods. While God strengthens his people, idols must be strengthened by their makers.
Isaiah 41:7 So the carver strengthens the refiner; and he smoothing with the hammer, him who struck the anvil, saying of the soldering, It is good. And he made it strong with nails; it will not totter.
Those idolaters who come to realize the truth will be ashamed of their former course; they will realize all of the activities that centered on these gods were in vain.
Isaiah 42:17 they are turned back; they are ashamed with shame, those trusting in the carved image, who say to cast images, You are our gods.
Isaiah 44:9-20 continues the argument against the so-called gods with these in view when statements are made denying their existence. Not discussed are those created by Jehovah as highly exalted beings or humans who have been appointed by God to exercise divinely granted authority. It is the idol makers who form their gods out of various materials so that they are not gods at all.
Isaiah 41:29 Behold, all of them, their works are vanity and nothing; their molten images are wind and confusion.
The context thus established, it is easy to identify the similarity between these passages and Exodus 20:4. While Exodus 20:4 had specific “carved images” in view, Isaiah had specific “gods” in mind. These gods are discussed in the second passage necessary to review.
Isaiah 44:6 This is what Jehovah has said, the King of Israel, his Repurchaser, Jehovah of armies: I am the first and I am the last, and besides me there is no god.
The denial of any other god is plainly in reference to idols as man's creation. This does not extend to others whom we have considered rightfully identified as gods. The contextual limitation is similarly necessary in Isaiah 43:11 when we are told that there are no saviors other than God himself. This statement is certainly true, but it is true within this context.
On a number of occasions Scripture identifies various individuals as saviors. One is of Ehud. Not a savior of himself or in opposition to God, he is said to have been ‘raised up’ as a savior by Jehovah (Jdg. 3:15). In other words, Jehovah established Ehud as a savior, and so the title is appropriately applied to him. Were Isaiah 43:11 removed from its context there would be clear contradiction, but by considering the context this interpretive issue is resolved. Ehud is appropriately termed a savior not only because the context is contrasting God’s saving ability and the lack of such with idols, but also because God granted him the position so that Ehud saved by God’s own power.
Isaiah establishes within itself a context, providing a specific contrast between the Almighty Jehovah and the idols of the nations as man made gods. The negative statements within these texts do not deny the existence of others who are properly identified as gods, but the existence of the idols and in principle all made into gods by men.
Other passages similar to those in Isaiah include Jeremiah 10:11 where it is stated that “the gods who have not made the heavens and the earth… shall perish.” Here, too, the context removes any difficulty potentially.
Jeremiah 10:3 For the ordinances of the people are vanity. For one cuts a tree out of the forest with the axe, the work of the hands of the craftsman. 4 They adorn it with silver and with gold; they make them strong with nails and hammers, so that it will not wobble. 5 They are like a rounded post, and they cannot speak; carrying they must be carried, because they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil nor good; it is not with them.
These words refer to the specific gods made by men with reference to the idols formed directly by human hands. This does not mean that those not made directly by human hands such as emperors, the sun or the moon could be identified as gods. The principle behind these texts extends into anything made into a god by man (or a demon), be it by direct formation or mere identification.16 This sharply contrasts those Jehovah has made into gods by creation or through the bestowal of divine authority.
The One and Only True God
The New Testament affirms on several occasions the existence of “one God.” By way of context or express identification this one is shown to be the Father (1Cor. 8:6; 1Ti. 2:5).17 To some readers this proclamation would seem to refute the notion of any other as a god. Nevertheless, just as it is essential to interpret passages in their context, it is also essential to understand the meaning behind certain expressions as they were understood by the Bible's human authors.
A close parallel with the expression “one God” was presented in a dialog between Jesus and the Jews. Within the discussion the Jews respond to an accusation made by Jesus: “We were not born of fornication; we have one father, God” (John 8:41). This affirmation did not preclude anyone else from being their father. Two verses prior the Jews identified one other than God was their father, Abraham: “Abraham is our father” (John 8:39). These two statements, though within a single context, did not equate Abraham with God for they were both appropriately termed their father even though God alone was their “one Father.”
This passage is affirming God as their absolute father. He is the ultimate source of their existence, the source of all life and the source of their father Abraham. Similarly, Christ is affirmed as our “one Lord” (1Cor. 8:6) not to deny that the Father is our Lord just as the expression did not prohibit the apostle John from identifying one of the twenty-four elders as his (Rev. 7:14), but it expresses Jesus’ direct and absolute rulership over us, with all commands and direction coming from him. Jesus holds this position because God 'gave him authority over all flesh,' having men that 'were God's' but that he 'gave to Jesus out of the world' (John 17:2, 6). This is a position that God has granted Jesus (Acts 2:36).18
To identify Jehovah as our “one God” does not deny that others can be called gods, but it demonstrates that he is the one who is absolute God. Any other that is appropriately identified as a god is so in a derivative sense, where they have been created by Jehovah as a highly exalted being or they have been granted divine authority to act in his stead.
In harmony with the preceding Jesus identified the Father as “the only true God,” while the apostle John spoke of him also as “the true God” (John 17:3; 1Jo. 5:2019). It is not uncommonly argued from this text that all others that are gods must be false gods, for only one is the “true God,” yet this stems from a misunderstanding of the term translated “true,” alethenos. On this word The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament observes that “the opposite is not necessarily false.”20 The truth of this statement is well-attested to by several New Testament texts.
At Hebrews 9:24 the author writes of Jesus entering the holy of holies. Contrasting the holy of holies in the physical temple on earth with the holy holies that Jesus entered, we read:
For Christ did not enter into the Holy of Holies made by hands, types of the true things, but into Heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
The holy of holies in the physical temple building was not considered “true,” but only a “type of the true.” As a type it cannot be said that the holy of holies on earth was somehow false, but neither was it “true.” The meaning must be that the holy of holies in the earthly temple was derived from the heavenly, in some way modeled after it. The one built upon the earth was an image of the heavenly, much as Jesus is the image of God (Col. 1:15).
With another occurrence of avlhqino,j Jesus is said to be “the true light” (John 1:9). It would not be appropriate to say that if ones are not “the true light” they are false lights, for Christians are “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14, 16) and yet we are neither false lights nor “the true light.” Rather, we are modeled after Christ with him serving as the archetypal light.21
The third century church writer Origen apparently recognized how “true” is used in John 17:3. He noted: “The true God, then, is ‘The God,’ and those who are formed after Him are gods, images, as it were, of Him the prototype.”22 Vincent remarks extensively on this as well:
"A different word, alethes also rendered true, occurs at [John] iii. 33; v. 31; vii. 13, and elsewhere. The difference is that alethes signifies true, as contrasted with false; while alethenos [the word used to speak of God as "the only true God"] signifies what is real, perfect, and substantial, as contrasted with what is fanciful, shadowy, counterfeit, or merely symbolic. Thus God is alethes (John iii. 33) in that He cannot lie. He is alethenos (1Thess. i. 9), as distinguished from idols. In Heb. viii. 2, the heavenly tabernacle is called avlhqino,j, as distinguished from the Mosaic tabernacle, which was a figure of the heavenly reality (Heb. ix.24). Thus the expression true light denotes the realization of the original divine idea of the Light - the archetypal Light, as contrasted with all imperfect manifestations: 'the Light which fulfilled all that had been promised by the preparatory, partial, even fictitious lights which had existed in the world before.'"23
Even idols, though false gods, were based upon the archetypal God Jehovah. They were modeled after him in that their worshipers assigned them power and authority belonging to the true God. It was not that the idols had access to Jehovah’s power and authority, for they were not really gods at all, but their worshipers claimed for them that which belongs to Jehovah.
Carefully considering the preceding points it is apparent that biblical monotheism is, as we initially affirmed, the recognition of the unique position of the one true God. This is in contrast to the idols that their worshipers placed on the same level as Jehovah. He was and is the only one who can truly and in a complete way be said to be God. Outside of the standard monotheistic definition the term “god” is also applicable to others in lesser, derivative ways. They are gods by Jehovah’s will, either through the delegation of divine authority or inherit in their creation as highly exalted beings. In no way were they before or in opposition to God. Rather, they derived their divine status from Jehovah.
1 Carl Mosser, “The Earliest Patristic Interpretations of Psalms 82, Jewish Antecedents, and The Origin of Christian Deification”, JTS 56 (April, 2005), 22.
2 So James White, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1998).
3 Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 113-114.
4 Merill F. Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Revised and Updated Edition, Edited by R.K. Harrison (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 482.
5 Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 270.
6 J.F. Walvoord and R.B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, 2 Volumes (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books), 1:854.
7 C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 Volumes (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., repr. 1978), 5:2:402.
8 Ibid., 5:2:404.
9 John Gill, Exposition of the Bible, [www reference cited Oct. 15, 2005], http://www.studylight.org/com/geb/, Psa. 82:6. See also Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: Old Testament, (Colorado Springs, CO.: David C. Cook, 2003), 186.
10 This can be used as either a plural of majesty, reflecting God’s exalted position (used for God and others with singular pronouns), or a true plural with reference to more than one god.
11 “4QSongs of the Sabbath,” The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English, Second Edition, Edited by Florentino Garcia Martinez, translated by Wilfred G.E. Watson, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 422, 427.
12 Some limit their opinion to gods “by nature,” borrowing Paul's language at Galatians 4:8. This qualifier imported into other passages is entirely unjustified and done only out of theological necessity as will be demonstrated. Those appealing to Isaiah in defense of a strict monotheism include White, Forgotten Trinity; Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism & Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmand Publishing, 1998). As will be seen, these texts present only the Father speaking (Heb. 1:1-2) and the limitations on deity and other functions would thus exclude the Son even if the Trinity was a reality and these interpretations were accurate.
13 Keil and Delitzsch, 1:2:115.
14 Jan L. Koole, “Isaiah,” Part 3, Volume 1: Isaiah 40:48, Historical Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. by Corelis Houtman, Willem S. Prinsloo, Wilfred G.E. Watson, Al Wolters (Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1997), 310-311. See too BN, 6:2:118.
15 This is not to suggest that there may have been other gods outside of those specified by the context that existed before Jehovah, but only that this context is addressing specific ones and by recognizing this we better understand this passage and others surrounding it.
16 Brief comments are necessary on Galatians 4:8 and 1 Corinthians 10:20. Galatians refers to that which “by nature are not gods,” referencing the idols formerly worshiped by the Galatians and having nothing to do with those properly termed gods. 1 Corinthians 10:20 speaks of demons, but whether or not this refers to wicked spirits or only to the gods imagined to be behind the idols is questionable with the term possibly referencing either. If we accept the former we must answer Paul's rhetorical inquiry of whether “an idol is anything” negatively, recognizing that as in Isaiah it would make little sense to deny that a mere statue is a god, instead denying the existence of any god represented by an idol. The sacrifices made would not have a god to accept them and with the sacrifices in opposition to god the demons would take them unto themselves. Nothing indicates that the fallen angels were somehow the gods behind the idols. Such would have required these demons to communicate with men, representing themselves as these gods to have the idols formed, but this lacks any supporting evidence.
17 The following chapter will discuss this in greater detail.
18 So Jude 4 identifies Jesus as “our only owner and master.” Trinitarians must deny these statements (though possibly denying their own denial) because they do not actually believe that Jesus is really “our only owner and master” and our “one Lord,” instead identifying all three persons of the Trinity as this. God may be identified as such just as men (cf. 1Ti. 6:1), but only in a sense different than when applied to Jesus. Thus, in the way that Jesus is “our only owner and master,” it is even to the exclusion of the Father.
19 On the proper interpretation of 1John 5:20 see chapter 6.
20 Cleon L. Rogers Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 176.
21 It would not be inappropriate to also identify God as “true light.” Christ as “the radiance of his glory” displays light from God, making the expression applicable to both.
22 Origen, “Commentary on the Gospel of John,” ANF, 10:323.
23 Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 4 Volumes (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 2:44.
The following video is here added for it directly pertains to this issue: