In the debate over whether the New Testament clearly teaches of Jesus that he was literally God, Christian orthodoxy finds itself faced with opponents ranging from some secular scholars, to Jehovah’s witnesses, and even some Muslims. Muslims obviously are inspired by those passages in the Qur’an which witness to the authority of the Biblical scriptures as they existed in the day of the prophet Muhammad, such as Surah 6:34 which attests to how even if the prophets should be rejected the word of God cannot be altered (continuing to verse 38 the Qur’an says that nothing has been omitted from ‘the book’ – meaning the Bible), and yet the Qur’an affirms unequivocally that “they do blaspheme who say ‘God is Christ the son of Mary’” (Surah 5:72). Jehovah’s witnesses because Charles Taze Russell and his Bible Study entourage concluded that the New Testament simply does not teach Trinitarian theology – thus they conclude that Jesus is the archangel Michael. A number of secular scholars because they suppose that Christology evolved in the early Church by a gradual succession of steps, will suppose that the earliest pictures of Jesus were merely as a Rabbi and Messiah, and later the Christology developed and systematized the idea of Christ as the ‘Son of God’, and later as God himself.
Now, when asking for Christians to make their case in the favour of the New Testament’s teaching that Jesus is God, many avenues may be taken. For example, we can point out with scholars like N.T. Wright that Jesus, in a Jewish context, could not have not thought that he personally was carrying out the vocation which belonged properly to Yahweh. We could point out that Jesus’ actions betray a presumption of divinity on his part – such as by the fact that he performed exorcisms in his own name rather than in God’s name, or by his forgiving people of their sins as though he had been the party principally offended by them. We could also point to various New Testament passages where Jesus refers to himself as ‘I Am’ (which is a shorthand idiom for the Tetragrammaton) such as John 13:19 or John 8:58 (John 18:5-6, when the soldiers bell backwards, Jesus answered simply ‘I Am’ – meaning probably ‘I am he’, but the Greek reads only ‘I Am’). We could also point to episodes in which New Testament Christology comes to it’s climax, such as at Thomas’ confession that Jesus is both Lord and God:
Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord [κύριος] and my God [θεός]!’
We can easily turn to other passages, such as:
we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, [μορφή – Nature]
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
~1 John 5:20
all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
~Colossians 1:16-17, 19-20
But of the Son he says,
‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever,
and the righteous sceptre is the sceptre 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.’
‘In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like clothing;
like a cloak you will roll them up,
and like clothing they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will never end.’
And a host of others along with these could be counted in as evidence. However, there is one passage of which I had not, before today, heard about, (I heard about it on William Lane Craig’s Defender’s podcast, in his series on the Trinity, and I also conferred with the Nestle-Aland and Scott Hahn’s Biblical commentary) and which should convince the Jehovah’s witness and the secular scholar [the Muslim who rejects the idea that the Bible has changed significantly from the time the New Testament writings were written to the copies we have as early as a few generations later will similarly be in a tough position]. Jehovah’s witnesses will argue that the proper way to translate John 1:1-3 is to say that the Logos is ‘a’ God because the definite article in the Greek is lacking. Now, not only does no real Greek scholar hold to their translation without a definite article, and not only would this entail a contradiction in the theology of the passage (according to which nothing which was created was not created by the Logos, and thus the Logos could not have been created), and not only would it also conflict profoundly with the way the term Logos was used by intellectuals of the day, such as Philo of Alexandria, but worse still, there is a variant reading in verse 18 of this great opening of John’s Gospel which should compel us to recognize that, for the author of John, the figure of Jesus was God himself.
Typically this verse reads:
No man hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
~ Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition
However, a significant variant of this verse has, in place of ‘the only begotten Son’, instead ‘the only begotten God’. Now, New Testament scholars often appeal to certain principles of textual criticism to determine which reading is most likely faithful to the original, such as if some reading is more difficult it is more likely original. For instance, a popular example is in the Gospel of Mark where it says:
Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus, moved with compassion [ σπλαγχνισθεις], stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.”
Most manuscripts read with ‘ σπλαγχνισθεις’, but a minor reading is actually ‘ὀργίσθειζ’ meaning that Jesus became angry. Most scholars believe that this verse originally said that Jesus was ‘angry’, since the words are spelt so differently and sound so differently, that the variant cannot be accounted by either of those kinds of slip ups. Moreover, there is good reason for a scribe to change the reading to ‘compassionate’, and no obvious reason for a scribe to change the reading from ‘compassionate’ to ‘angry’. Thus, the more difficult reading has become the standard reading in modern translations. Similarly in this passage, it seems plausible that the early believing community found it often so scandalous and incomprehensible that God had been begotten that they may have been tempted to correct the text before them to say that the ‘Son’ had been begotten – that is what the scribes would have sincerely expected the original text to read, and they simply presumed [likely in good faith], when faced with the more difficult and probably authentic reading, that it must have been a mistake. If they did change it, then it originally said that ‘God was begotten’ and made God known to us.
If we accept this reading, however, then it clearly spells out that God was begotten, and thus presents a seemingly indissoluble witness to the divinity of Jesus in at least some of the minds of the New Testament authors.