Sunday, June 10, 2012

The charge against Jesus at John 10:31

During a conversation I once had about the charge against Jesus at John 10:31, I stated that Christ's opponents probably felt that he made himself QEOS functionally rather than ontologically. I was asked to unpack the bases for this view, and this post is meant to satisfy that request.

I think that the best way to discern what was behind the religious leaders' charge at John 10:31 is by noting (i) how the phrase "Son of God" was understood in this context and at this point in Jewish history, and (ii) how Jesus responded to his opponents' accusation.

Regarding #i, at this point in Jewish history Son of God was primarily a functional title, and when used of Jesus during his earthly life it was synonymous with "Christ" (=Messiah). This is supported by the question that constituted the charge against Jesus at his trial, "Are you the Christ the Son of the Blessed One?" It seems pretty clear that the high priest wasn't asking "Are you the Christ and also the Son of God?"; rather, he seems to have meant "Are you the Christ a/k/a the Son of God?"

The attempt of the religious leaders to build a case against Jesus at John 10 involved his claim to be the Messiah. Notice that verse 24 says, "Therefore the Jews encircled him and began to say to him: 'How long are you to keep our souls in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us outspokenly.'" Jesus then confirmed his Messianic status, calling God his Father 4 times, and it was in response to this self claim to said functional status that his opponents charged him with committing blasphemy by making himself QEOS.

Regarding #ii, Christ's response confirms that their charge was based on an objection (whether feigned or sincerely felt) to Jesus' self-proclaimed functional status, for he answers their charge that he was making himself QEOS by reminding them that in their own law other agents of God, certain judges of old, are called "gods" (Ps. 82:6). Many have argued that it was Jesus' claim to be "one" with God that angered his opponents, and that when they charged that he was "making himself QEOS" they meant that he was claiming ontological status as the one God of the Bible (=YHWH). This doesn't cohere with Jesus' response in at least two ways. First, to demonstrate why this isn't likely, I'll paraphrase the dialogue in harmony with this presupposition:

Jesus: "I displayed to you many fine works from the Father. For which of those works are you stoning me?"

Opponents: "We are stoning you, not for a fine work, but for blasphemy, because you, though a man, make yourself to be none other than God (YHWH) himself."

Jesus: "Is it not written in your Law, `I said: "You are gods"'? If he called the judges of old `gods' then how is it that I blaspheme by claiming to be God's Son?"

Do you see the problem? If the basis of the Jews' charge was that Jesus was making himself God (=YHWH) ontologically, then Jesus' reply becomes a non sequitur. It would be silly for Jesus to suggest that since agents of God can be called "gods" then his opponents shouldn't have a problem with his claim to be YHWH. On the other hand, if the charge was based on opposition to the fact that Jesus made himself God or a god in a functional sense, then Jesus' response fits.

Finally, notice that Jesus does not respond by saying "do you say to me...`You blaspheme,' because I said, I am one with the Father?"[see footnote]; rather, he says, "do you say to me...`You blaspheme,' because I said, I am God's Son?" Jesus' response clearly shows that it wasn't ontological oneness but functional son-ness that was at the heart of their objection.

Footnote:  So what did Jesus mean when he said "I and the Father are one", and why was this the last straw, as it were, that caused his interrogators to pick up stones?  Though other explanations have been offered, I think that it was probably because Jesus was thereby claiming God's absolute endorsement of his self-claim to Messianic status.  An ambassador who wants to stress that what he says is fully backed by his Sovereign might likewise say "I and my Sovereign are one".