A poster recently used John 5:18 to support the contention that the NT develops Jesus’ sonship in ontological categories. I have seen this sort of argument so many times over the years that I’ve decided to interact with it here.
The primary part of the text that’s in question reads as follows, according to the NASB:
“15 The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” 18 For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.”
To use this account to support the notion that the NT develops Jesus’ sonship in ontological categories is begging the question, because to make this connection one must first assume (a) that Jesus was in fact “making Himself equal with God”, and (b) that the “equality” in view was ontological. Both of these assumptions are problematic at best.
Right off the top of my head I can think of at least 5 or 6 possible interpretations of John 5:18, and so I think it’s a bit dangerous to automatically assume that it’s speaking to Jesus’ ontological constitution.
There are a number of crucial questions that impact interpretation:
- When the Evangelist said that Jesus was “making himself equal with God”, was he making a factual statement from his own perspective, or was he simply relating what Jesus’ opponents were ostensibly thinking or trying to assert for their own purposes?
- What is the significance of the words “own Father”, and how does that impact our understanding of the account?
- What would a man’s claim to be “Son of God” likely suggest to the Jews who first heard it?
- Was the notion that Jesus was “making himself equal with God” true or false?
- If the answer to #4 is ‘true’, then was the “equality with God” to be understood functionally, hyperbolically, or ontologically?
- How does Jesus’ response help us in understanding the nature of the charge?
- How does sensitivity to historical probability help us to determine which of the plausible understandings is more likely to be correct?
Regarding Question 1: I find it probable that the Evangelist was simply noting what Jesus’ opponents were ostensibly thinking or trying to promote for their own purposes. There are several reasons for this:
(a) The charge that Jesus was “making himself equal with God” is presented in conjunction with a charge that he broke the Sabbath. Did the Evangelist believe that Jesus was a Sabbath breaker? I find that unlikely, because then he’d have a lot more explaining to do to justify presenting Jesus in a favorable light to the Jewish community. One expositor, whose name escapes me at the moment, said during a radio interview that Jesus didn’t break the OT Sabbath law, but that his actions may have been at odds with certain oral traditions in which the Sabbath law was expanded upon to include elements that are not stated in the original law. If this is so, then note that breaking a subsequent tradition of men is not the same as breaking the original law. As Adela Yarbro-Collins has put it, “…talk about Jesus ‘breaking the Sabbath’ is clearly spoken from the point of view of the opponents of Jesus, not necessarily from the vantage point of Jesus as a character in the narrative or of the audience of the gospel.” (Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children), p. 64
(b) Since the claim that Jesus was a Sabbath breaker was probably meant to convey the ostensible view of Jesus’ opponents, and not the Evangelist’s own view, it becomes likely that the “making himself equal with God” part also reflects the ostensible view of Christ’s opponents, and not the Evangelist’s own view.
(c) A claim to be God’s Son by a Jewish man in a Jewish context probably wouldn’t have had ontological implications at the time the claim was made. I develop this in more detail below.
Regarding question 2: I have been quite bemused by the way some apologists with whom I’ve conversed have used the words “own Father” as a basis for asserting that the man Jesus was God ontologically. It is almost as though some think that for one to call God “his own Father” (Πατέρα ἴδιον) is equivalent to a claim to be God’s “ontological” Son. I think that this is a very strange exegetical path to take, and I can only guess that it is traversed by some because they are reading the text with later theological developments or categories in mind, and those later developments or categories constitute the controlling presupposition.
An inference to divine Sonship based on those words may have been a natural one for pagan Greeks, but it would not have been a natural inference for a community of ancient Jews (see below). The reason Jesus called God his Father in verse 17 (Πατήρ μου) rather than saying “our Father”, is twofold:
(a) The Sonship in view was Messianic Sonship, and to say “our Father” would have necessitated an inference to general sonship, as no one would have thought that the Messianic office would be shared by a group.
(b) By their rejection of Jesus and their determination to have him killed, Jesus’ opponents, from the perspective of the Evangelist, clearly showed themselves to be sons, not of God, but of the Devil.
In light of these considerations, Jesus really had no choice but to refer to God as “my Father”, from the perspective of the Evangelist. This description was probably meant to function as a sort reverse image reflecting his status as “Son of God”, which, as noted, was Messianic in its significance.
Regarding Question 3: Rather than repeat myself unnecessarily, let me direct you to the lengthy post I’ve already submitted on the topic of what “Son of God” would have signified in Jesus’ day, which is located here:
I will repeat the observations of two scholars before moving to the next question, though:
Geza Vermes: “To a Greek speaker in Alexandria, Antioch or Athens at the turn of the eras, the concept hUIOS QEOU, son of God, would have brought to mind either one of the many offspring of the Olympian deities, or possibly a deified Egyptian-Ptolemaic king, or the divine emperor of Rome, descendant of the apotheosized Julius Caesar. But to a Jew, the corresponding Hebrew or Aramaic phrase would have applied to none of these. For him, son of God could refer, in an ascending order, to any of the children of Israel; or to a good Jew; or to a charismatic holy Jew; or to the king of Israel; or in particular to the royal Messiah; and finally, in a different sense, to an angelic or heavenly being. In other words, ‘son of God’ was always understood metaphorically in Jewish circles. In Jewish sources, its use never implies participation by the person so-named in the divine nature. It may in consequence safely be assumed that if the medium in which Christian theology developed had been Hebrew and not Greek, it would not have produced an incarnation doctrine as this is traditionally understood” (Jesus in His Jewish Context), p. 66
As you review the post on what “Son of God” means, you’ll notice that numerous expositors have commented on how that phrase would have denoted obedience, not equality. This is such a likely connotation in a first century Mediterranean setting, and Jesus’ response so consistent with this understanding, that one scholar has suggested that ποιῶν should be understood concessively:
James F. McGrath: “This further suggests that the traditional translation of v. 18 is very probably incorrect. It is usually rendered along these lines: ‘He claimed that God was his own father, thereby making himself equal with God’, equality being understood as a corollary of sonship. However, in view of the evidence we have surveyed, it appears better to take the participle ποιῶν as a concessive participle, which would mean that the phrase as a whole be given a sense something like, ‘He claimed that God was his Father, yet at the same time made himself equal with God.’ Jesus has claimed to be God’s son; the Jews are accusing him of not behaving in a way appropriate to sonship, because he is claiming for himself his father’s unique prerogatives. That is to say, ‘the Jews’ are accusing Jesus of behaving in a way that discredits or tells against his spoken claims, of saying one thing but doing another, of contradicting his claims through his behaviour. This interpretation not only fits with the cultural background of the time, but also with the response which the Johannine Jesus goes on to give.” (A Rebellious Son? Hugo Odeberg and the Interpretation of John 5:18, NTS, Vol. 44, 1998), p. 472
McGrath makes very good points, and I think that his sensitivity to historical context is instructive and important. In my judgement, McGrath’s view is certainly higher on the plausibility scale than the view that this post is addressing. However, I don’t think the view that ποιῶν must be taken concessively is necessary, and while I think that an inference to ontological equality must almost certainly be ruled out, I suspect that an inference to either hyperbolic or functional (= legal) equality can’t be so confidently set aside.
To be continued…
Check back later to see my response to questions 4-7.