Answering Sami Zaatari on the Pharisaic Accusation that Christ Claimed Deity
Were the Pharisees correct to infer from Jesus’ bold statements that he was claiming to be God? According to sound exegesis of the 1st century texts, yes. According to a Muslim apologist whose 7th century Arabian tradition does not allow for Christ’s deity, no. In his article, The Jewish Accusations, Sami Zaatari argues one should not appeal to New Testament texts where the Pharisees charge Jesus with claiming to be God as an argument for Christ’s deity. Zaatari briefly looked at John 10:29-33, but should have also included John 5:16-18 since there the Pharisees charge Jesus with making himself God as well.
Were the Pharisees too Incompetent and Deceptive to know what Jesus was Saying?
Instead of offering a deep a meaningful discussion on such texts in order to ascertain whether or not the context dictates the Pharisees were inferring correctly based on Christ’s words and deeds, Zaatari’s approach is to argue that since Jesus elsewhere calls the Pharisees liars, hypocrites, sons of the devil, murderers, those who do not follow God’s commands, and those who follow extra-biblical traditions instead of the Word of God (Mk 7:5-9; Jn 8:44), it therefore follows the Pharisees were unreliable and thus definitely incorrect in their assessment that Jesus was claiming deity. Zaatari asserts,
“Well as in any other case, whenever a witness makes a claim, the first thing you do is check if the witness is even competent enough to be trusted. So are these certain Jews even to be trusted in the first place? ... according to Jesus his accusers are hypocrites, they do not follow their Torah, rather they throw it away, and use their own man made traditions. So it is quite clear that these accusers are not competent enough to be trusted, nor is their speech to be taken as evidence”
Thus, this criticism needs to be addressed since there are biblical and logical problems with it. Then afterwards we will refute Zaatari’s sloppy handling of John 10:29-33 and also explain John 5:17-18.
Although Jesus correctly identifies the Pharisees as deceptive hypocrites who set aside God’s Word based on their conduct and discussions with Him, did that mean for Jesus that it was impossible for them to get anything right or to infer anything correctly in regard to Jesus’ words and deeds or connected theological issues? According to the same 1st century material the answer must be given in the negative.
Jesus granted their general ability to explain and apply the Law of Moses correctly in Matthew 23:2-3 when he says “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat (v. 2).” This is significant since Christ is speaking in light of the fact that “synagogues had a stone seat at the front where the authoritative teacher, usually a grammateus (‘teacher of the law’), sat.”(1) Jesus then told the people to “observe whatever they [Scribes and Pharisees] tell you (v. 3)” which presupposes their general ability to correctly teach the Law. Thus, according to Christ they were not always incorrect about everything theologically related, though it was said they did not practice what they preached (v. 3b). This refutes Zaatari since, with regard to the Pharisees’ charge that Jesus claimed deity, he asks, “And these are the people whom the Christians want us to believe?! I don't think so” as though the position of Christ comports with Zaatari’s refusal to admit they could be right about certain things.
On this same note, it should be made clear that although Jesus castigates the Scribes and Pharisees as liars in certain texts etc., he was not hesitant to say when they got something right. For example, in Mark 12:30-34 Jesus explains the two most important commands: loving God and loving your neighbour (vv. 30-31). Then v. 32 says “And the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher.” This demonstrates the Scribe was able to understand Jesus correctly and know his theological statements were true. Yet, Zaatari argues as though these people were completely untrustworthy as theological witnesses and could not have gotten anything right insofar as interpreting Jesus’ statements and deeds is concerned. Thus Zaatari claims, “it is quite clear that these accusers are not competent enough to be trusted.” However, v. 32 clearly shows this Scribe was competent enough to realize Jesus’ teaching was correct. This is why v. 34 says “when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” Not only was this Scribe not incompetent, he actually answered wisely or intelligently (NASB) according to Christ.
Moreover, although Nicodemus the Pharisee was not able to understand everything Jesus said to him in John 3:1-15, he did on the other hand correctly understand Jesus’ teachings to prove He was in union with God the Father and not working of his own accord: “This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him’” (John 3:2). Notice, Nicodemus said “we know” demonstrating other Pharisees were also able to infer correctly concerning Christ’s teachings that He was in union with God the Father and not a renegade false teacher, though many assumed the opposite.
Therefore, according to the same New Testament material Zaatari appealed to which shows the Pharisees and Scribes were inclined to lie and engage in error, we see it was in fact possible for them to infer correctly from Jesus’ statements and interpret him in a valid sense at times. Hence, Zaatari is not justified in arguing they could not have been correct in their observations as to what Jesus’ teachings about himself proved in regard to who exactly He was claiming to be in John 10:26-36.
Logical Problems with Zaatari’s Argument
Now, with respect to the logical problem with Zaatari’s approach, it needs to be stressed that just because someone is prone to lie or be inclined to error, that does not mean they can not be right about anything. It does not mean everything they say should be automatically discounted. Their claims should be judged based on evidence. It is the logical fallacy of the inappropriate generalization to argue that just because the Pharisees were prone to lie, therefore their statements about Jesus and their understandings of his words and deeds must all be wrong. That is an illogical position to take. I personally view Zaatari and his Muslim colleagues as liars but that does not mean I would say everything they say is wrong. If, by chance, Zaatari said something on doctrine or morals which comported with biblical revelation, then he would be right; though he is in error regularly and has repeatedly been exposed to deliberately lie in his attempts to discredit the Bible, as one can easily see from our many rebuttals to his arguments here.
We demonstrated that according to Jesus and the New Testament witness, the Pharisees and Scribes were able to correctly infer things at times and were not completely incompetent. So now the decisive factor in determining the truth of this issue is whether or not exegesis of the relevant texts validates their charge that Jesus was claiming to be God, or if proper exegesis refutes their charge and shows they were wrong.
Exegesis of John 5:16-18; 10:26-36 Proves the Pharisees’ Correctness on this Matter
In his essay Zaatari only quoted and interacted with John 10:29-36. However, to really understand the text one must not start at v. 29, but must examine vv. 26-36:
26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. 30I and the Father are one.” 31The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. 32Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” 33The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” 34Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? 35If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— 36do 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 10:26-36).
The first question is: Were the Pharisees correctly interpreting what Jesus said in vv. 26-30 which immediately led them to pick up stones in v. 31 and say Jesus was making Himself God in v. 33? If in vv. 26-30 Jesus said something indicating He was God, that means the Pharisees were right to say he was claiming deity in v. 33. Close examination of those verses shows Jesus was applying Old Testament texts about YHWH to Himself demonstrating He is the God of the Old Testament. Thus, in this case the Pharisees were correct in their assessment.
Themes in vv. 26-29 such as Jesus having sheep, sheep hearing Jesus’ voice, sheep following Christ, Jesus giving His sheep life, and no one snatching the sheep out of Jesus’ hand are lifted directly from Old Testament texts concerning YHWH and His sheep. Hence, Jesus was showing He is the God of the Old Testament. Such Old Testament texts include:
“5The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. 6Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! 7For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, 8do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness” (Psalm 95:5-8).
9 “‘See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
“2There is none holy like the Lord: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.6The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Samuel 2:2, 6)
13Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?” 14Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “For your sake I send to Babylon and bring them all down as fugitives, even the Chaldeans, in the ships in which they rejoice” (Isaiah 43:13).
Hence, in vv. 31, 33 the Pharisees correctly realized Jesus was applying these Old Testament texts about YHWH to himself and rightfully stated He was making Himself God by doing so. Jesus adds to this Old Testament application by then declaring that He is one with the Father (v. 30). D. A. Carson’s comments are noteworthy:
“If ... Jesus’ will is exhaustively one with his Father’s will, some kind of metaphysical unity is presupposed, even if not articulated. Though the focus is on the common commitment of Father and Son to display protective power toward what they commonly own (17:10), John’s development of Christology to this point demands that some more essential unity be presupposed, quite in line with the first verse of the Gospel. Even from a structural point of view, this verse constitutes a ‘shattering statement’ (Lindards, BFG, p. 52), the climax to this part of the chapter, every bit as much as ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’ forms a climax to ch. 8. The Jews had asked for a plain statement that would clarify whether or not he was the Messiah. He gave them far more, and the response was the same as in 5:18; 8:59.”(2)
Thus, according to the overall context and structural considerations, Jesus was claiming deity when saying He was one with the Father.
Now, the second question is: Is Zaatari correct in his assessment of vv. 33-36 that “Jesus does not accept their accusation [of claiming deity], rather he rejects their accusation”? He presents two arguments here. The first is Jesus allegedly corrects the Pharisees by identifying Himself as the Son of God in v. 36 which Zaatari claims “does not make you God, rather it made you a servant of God.” Hence, Zaatari posits Jesus denied their charge of claiming to be God and declared Himself a servant of God instead. Second, Zaatari argues Jesus’ quotation of Psalms 82:6 (“I said, you are gods”) shows Jesus rejected He was God Almighty.
However, he is reading things into the text when he asserts Jesus’ use of the title Son of God in v. 36 is a corrective to their accusation that He was claiming to be God. He also errs when claiming Jesus’ use of Psalms 82:6 somehow shows He did not believe He was YHWH. The actual meaning of this text leaves no room for Zaatari’s opinions as we will see.
Jesus’ point in vv. 34-36 is that if these Jews are going to fault Him for claiming to be the Son of God (as they did in 5:17-19 already), claiming to be one with the Father, and applying Old Testament YHWH texts to Himself, then they are inconsistent. Why? Because if it is blasphemous for Jesus to teach His divine sonship involving metaphysical unity with the Father, when Jesus was actually “consecrated and sent into the world” (presupposing pre-existence and unique unity with the Father), then surely these Jews are guilty of hypocrisy by this logic. For, men in Psalms 82:6 are called “gods” and “sons of the Most High” when they are neither metaphysically one with God the Father (deity), nor consecrated and sent into the world by the Father (pre-existent). Hence, Jesus was mocking them and their futile conclusion that He was a blasphemer when really He came from heaven and had the Father’s support. They, on the other hand, were hypocritical since they had no problem identifying mere mortal Israelite judges as elohim and sons of the Most High.
Far from denying deity, Jesus was simply showing their double standards and demonstrating how ignorant their charge of blasphemy really was. As noted, Jesus in v. 36 affirmed His pre-existence (by saying the Father set Him apart and sent Him into the world) and unique sonship (a divine Old Testament office different from your average “sons of God;” see Prov. 30:3-4; Isa. 9:6 cf. John 5:18); never rejecting their correct inference in v. 33 that He was making Himself God. Therefore, Zaatari is way off base when he claims, “he rejects their accusation.” There is nothing indicating that at all once the context is understood. That has to be read in. This is clear and so Merrill C. Tenney stated,
“Had Jesus not meant to convey a claim to deity, he undoubtedly would have protested the action of these Jews by declaring they had misunderstood him. On the contrary, Jesus introduced an a fortiori argument from the Psalms to strengthen his statement. Psalms 82:6 represents God as addressing a group of beings whom he calls ‘gods’ (Heb. Elohim) and ‘sons of the Most High.’ If, then, these terms could be applied to ordinary mortals or even angels, how could Jesus be accused of blasphemy when he applied them to himself whom the Father set apart and sent into the world on a special mission?”(3).
Confirming our point is A. W. Pink who noted:
“The meaning and force of our Lord’s argument is obvious. If, in a book which you admit to be of Divine authority, and all whose expressions are perfectly faultless, men which have received a Divine communication to administer justice to the people of God are called ‘gods’ and sons of the Highest; is it not absurd to bring against One who has a higher commission than they (One who had been sanctified and sent by the Father), and who presented far more evidence of His commission, a charge of blasphemy, because he calls Himself ‘the Son of God’?”(4).
Jesus was not saying that His title “Son of God” was on the same level as those in Psalms 82:6, he was simply showing that since they had a similar title they should likewise be condemned according to the faulty logic employed by the Pharisees. For more information on the uniqueness of Jesus’ title and position as Son of God see here.
Now, Zaatari’s concluding claim is that the Pharisees lied about Jesus asserting deity so that they could have Him executed. However, we refuted that by explaining Jesus never denied they were correct to infer He was claiming deity in John 10:26-36. He in fact affirms His deity very strongly in the context by applying Old Testament texts about YHWH directly to Himself and then affirming His oneness with the Father in a climactic way in v. 30, as well as His pre-existent sonship in v. 36.
Also, after applying those Old Testament texts to Himself and claiming to be one with the Father in vv. 26-30, the Pharisees immediately picked up stones in v. 31. This fits with our view which says they were genuinely offended and convinced He was blaspheming and claiming deity. This does not fit with Zaatari’s idea that “they began to create lies against Jesus, so they could use these lies as an excuse to murder him.” Their speedy grabbing of stones after Jesus’ bold claims is not the same thing as “creating lies against Jesus.” Again, their quick reaction shows they were not using lies as an excuse to Murder Him here, but were actually persuaded that He was equating Himself with God, and they wanted to murder Him because of it.
Moreover, it is not the desire of John to convey the idea that the Jews were incorrect to think Jesus was claiming deity. We know this is the case because of John 5:16-18 which has a similar charge from the Jews. Zaatari failed to interact with this important text in his essay:
16And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’ 18This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:16-18).
Notice when v. 18 says “he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” that this is John’s commentary on the situation. Why then did the Jews want to kill Jesus according to John? Was it not because they genuinely and correctly thought he was making Himself equal with God? John himself is affirming Jesus was, as a matter of fact, making Himself equal to God by identifying Himself as God’s Son; and that this is the reason the Jews wanted to kill him. He does not say they incorrectly or deceptively said he was making Himself equal with God as to get Jesus executed based on lies. So why would John in other places then switch his position and say the Pharisees lied by claiming Jesus was making Himself God, as Zaatari posits?
John affirms they were correct in their claim that He was asserting deity. This is because the Jewish persecution of Jesus for working on the Sabbath like His Father is recognition of the fact that Jesus was claiming to be on the level of God who alone sustains creation on the Sabbath (i.e., works on the Sabbath). As Andreas J. Köstenberger remarks,
“The consensus among Jewish rabbis was that God does indeed work constantly, but that this does not amount to him breaking the Sabbath. Since the entire universe is his domain, he cannot be charged with transporting an object from one domain to another; and God lifts nothing to a height greater than himself”(5).
By saying both He and the Father can work on the Sabbath, He was asserting that He is on the level with the One who constantly works due to upholding the universe. Christ’s deity was clearly affirmed and recognized by the Jews and John in regard to this point.
But, again, the question for Zaatari is: If John, as he argues, wished to convey the idea that the Jews were lying about Jesus claiming to be God so as to have him executed based on something they made up, why does this same author say, as a matter of fact, that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus because he really was making Himself equal with God (v. 18)? The reality is the Jews actually did believe Jesus was blaspheming and hence that is one of the reasons they wanted to have him executed. It is not the author’s intention for people to come away with the false opinion that the Pharisees deceptively and incorrectly charged Jesus with claiming to be God. Thus, Zaatari needs to rethink his specious argument.
Christ has risen, He is Lord!
1.) D. A. Carson, Matthew, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, vol. 8, [Zondervan, 1984], p. 471-472
2.) D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, [Wm B. Eerdmans, 1991], p. 395
3.) Merrill C. Tenney, John, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, [Zondervan, 1981], p. 113
4.) Arthur W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John: Three Volumes Complete and Unabridged in One, [Zondervan, 1975], pp. 556-557
5.) Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, [Baker Academic, 2004], p. 185