Biblical texts that called mortals "gods" attracted attention from commentators and became the focus of ingenious interpretations and exegetical principles. [1] This is certainly true of Ps 82:6, "I said: 'You are Gods.'" The present study examines the use of Ps 82:6 in John 10:34-36. It is my hypothesis that the Fourth Gospel understands Psalm 82 very much the way it was understood in Jewish midrash, for which it might be the earliest extant example. An examination of the understanding and function of Ps 82:6 in John 10:34-36 will necessarily entail a survey of Jewish interpretations of that Psalm to put the Johannine passage in its proper perspective.


I. Status Questionis


In the 1960s, a debate emerged over the interpretation of Ps 82:6-7 in relation to John 10:34-36, the general lines of which were summarized by Anthony Hanson. [2] He called attention to four different ways in which Psalm 82 was understood in Jewish traditions, with reference to (a) angels, (b) Melchizedek, (c) judges, and (d) Israel at Sinai. All four interpretations are attested to in midrashic literature, but which one relates to John10:34-36?


Angels. In an early study on Psalm 82, J. A. Emerton [3] argued that in the targum to the Psalms, [4] Qumran, [5] the Peshitta, and the Fathers, elohim in Psalm 82 was understood to refer to "angels." Emerton suggests that elohim refers to superhuman beings to whom the nations were allotted (e.g., Deut 4:19; Daniel 10), whom the Jews regarded as angels but whom the Gentiles called gods (see 1 Cor 10:20).


Melchizedek In llQMelch, Psalm 82 was cited apropos of Melchizedek The modern editor of llQMelch described the document as an "eschatological midrash" which cast Melchizedek in the role of judge. [6] Emerton, who had argued that the "gods" mentioned in Psalm 82 were "angels,"' now saw the Melchizedek = Elohim reference in llQMelch strengthening his earlier interpretation of Psalm 82; he suggested that Melchizedek was being identified with the archangel Michael. [7]   Hanson conceded that Melchizedek might be called "god," but rejected its relevance for John 10. [8]


Judges. Psalm 82 has also been interpreted in Jewish tradition to refer to the judges of Israel, evidence for which comes from b, Ber. 6a and Midr. Ps. 82. [9] This interpretation of the psalm enjoyed considerable popularity during a certain period of Johannine scholarship. [10] Returning to the issue of Melchizedek in llQMelch, Joseph Fitzmyer, [11] who basically agreed with van der Woude's original interpretation of the passage, paraphrased line 10 of this fragment as follows: "Elohim (Melchizedek) has taken his stand in the assembly of El (Yahweh), in the midst of gods (angelic court) he gives judgment." [12]   He understands Melchizedek's role in that text not as an angel but as a judge. [13]


Israel at Sinai. As far back as Billerbeck, [14] it was argued that Ps 82:6-7 was historicized in Jewish traditions to refer to Israel at Sinai when God gave it the Torah, making it holy and so deathless. This midrash, which has become a popular understanding of the use of Ps 82:6-7 in John 10:34-36, [15] implies that Israel experienced a new creation at Sinai.   Because God gave Israel the word of Torah, to which it became obedient, Israel became deathless once more as it resumed the "image and likeness of God" given it at creation. James Ackerman, the chief proponent of this argument, suggested that the Johannine Prologue bears striking resemblances to the "Sinai myth,"' indicating how Wisdom once dwelt on earth with humankind (Ps 82:6), thus making them immortal; but because Wisdom was rejected and returned to heaven, sinful mortals now die (Ps 82:7). [16]


As regards these interpretations and John 10, Hanson rejected the traditions that interpret "god" as either angels or judges. [17] He correctly concluded that only the last interpretation of Psalm 82 (Israel at Sinai) has any bearing on the argument in John 10. [18] All of the studies cited above, however, are deficient for several reasons. First, they tend to argue for an extrinsic interpretation of Psalm 82 in John 10: if Jews in their scriptures or tradition can call a man "god," then Jesus is not totally out of line in being called a divine figure. [19] This type of extrinsic argument shows little respect for the midrashic understanding of Psalm 82 or other texts from scripture about the justification in the first place for calling any human "god," even by extension. Are there intrinsic reasons in the midrash on Psalm 82 which give warrant to such a predication? Second, those who treat the background of Psalm 82, even in passing, do not present an adequate exegesis of the argument in John 10 to see on what grounds Jesus is acclaimed "equal to God" (10:30, 33) and what Psalm 82 has to do with that argument- There are some commentators who deny that Psalm 82 in any way responds to the charges. [20] There is, then, much work left to be done. We turn now to a more detailed exegesis of John 10 to see what is being argued, so that we might assess more clearly the meaning and function of Psalm 82 in relation to that argument.


II. The Argument in John 10:28-37


Unless Psalm 82 is used in a purely extrinsic manner [21] in John 10:34-36, then we must investigate how it functions as an apology to a specific charge in the forensic dynamics of John 10. The starting place is 10:30, where Jesus claims "I and the Father are one (or equal)."  The crowds correctly interpret this to mean that Jesus in some way claims "equality with God." His claim leads them to a judgment, "blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God" (10:33). Several questions arise: In what respect are Jesus and God "one" (or equal)? Is it true that Jesus "makes himself" God? This means that we must examine both the earlier part of John 10 to see in what sense Jesus and God are "equal" and the subsequent apology in 10:34-38 to see how Psalm 82 relates to the claims of equality.


The First Forensic Proceeding (10:1-28a)

After Jesus claimed to be the door and the shepherd (10:1-16), the Gospel describes confusion in the crowd about these claims: Is he a demon or a saint (10:19-21)? So intense is this popular confusion that a formal forensic process is begun in 10:22-27 about Jesus' claims. Since the crowd, who is an uneducated 'am ha-ares (7:47-49), could not possibly decide these claims, a solemn assembly gathers "in the temple, in the stoa of Solomon" (10:23). There it puts a formal question to Jesus: "Tell us plainly, if you are the Messiah?" (10:24). Thus, 10:1-28a can be seen as a forensic proceeding [22] which formally examines Jesus' claims:

        Claim:              Jesus is the Door, Good Shepherd (10:1-16)

        Judgment:         Tell us plainly if you are the Christ? (10:24)           

        Apology:          Defense of Jesus as Shepherd (10:25-27)


Jesus' defense of his claim contains no new material which proves its truth, but is itself a judgment on his judges, [23] an actual demonstration of how his claims work.


10:1-16                                                        10:27-28a

1. The (true) sheep hear                               1. My sheep hear

    his voice (10:3b)                                           my voice (10:27a)

2. 1 know my own                                       2. I know them (10:27b)

    and my own know me (10:14)

3. The sheep follow him, for                         3. And they follow me (10:27c)

    they know his voice (10:4)


By Jesus' criteria of judgment, then, he proves that his judges are not his sheep nor is he their shepherd. According to the Gospel's logic, these self-confessed non-sheep have rejected Jesus' basic claims to be God's agent and so are convicted of sin and unbelief (see John 3:18, 20; 5:40-45; 9:39-41; 12:46-48). Yet the forensic process is not yet finished.


The Second Forensic Proceeding (10:28b-39)

In 10:28-30 Jesus makes newer and bolder claims Although formerly this Gospel claimed that believers by their own judgment come to life and pass beyond death (3:16-19; 5:24), now Jesus asserts that he himself is the giver of eternal life: "I give them eternal life and they never perish" (10:28a).  He asserts that "no one shall snatch them out of my hand" (10:28b). [24] Thus, Jesus now functions as the active agent of life, as giver of eternal life and as protector of his sheep even in death. Yet these claims would put him on a par with the all-powerful God.


10:29 states two things about God. First, God is "greater than all" [25] in virtue of God's ruling or executive power as pantocrator, despotes, and basileus. [26] Second, of God it is said, "My Father…has given them [the sheep] to me and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand" (10:29). Concerning the latter remark, then, Jesus and God are alike, even equal.


Jesus (10:28)                                     The Father (10:29)

I give them eternal life                          My Father…has given

and they shall not perish                       them to me


and no one shall snatch                     and no one is able to snatch

them out of my hand.                         them out of the Fathers hand.


To underscore the boldness of Jesus' claims, the text emphasizes that "God is greater than all (10:29b), thus raising God above all other creatures, be they of no power or great power. Yet Jesus claims that he is "equal to" God who is "greater than all," when he draws the conclusion in 10:30, "I and the Father are hen."


Literally hen means "one." But the context suggests that this adjective be translated as "equal to" or "on a par with." Jesus claims far more than mere moral unity with God, which was the aim of every Israelite; such moral unity would never mean that mortals had become “god;” as Jesus' remark is understood in 10:31-33. The very argument in John, then, understands hen to mean more than moral unity, that is, "equality with God." By way of confirmation, 1 Cor 3:7 indicates that hen can mean "equality." [27] In virtue of the com­parison noted above, Jesus claims equality with God, who is "greater than all," because there is “no snatching out of their hands.”  To what does this refer?


In the context of 10:28, Jesus claims both the power to give eternal life so that his sheep do not perish and the power to guard them from being snatched. “Being snatched,” then, has to do with life and death, such that Death [28] has no ultimate power over Jesus' sheep. Conversely, this implies that Jesus has such power from God so that he is the one who gives eternal life and rescues the dead from the snares of Death (see John 5:25, 28-29; 6:39, 44, 54; 8:51; 11:25). Since God alone holds the keys of life and death, Jesus claims an extraordinary power which belongs exclusively to God. [29] There is substance, then, to the claim that Jesus and the Father are "equal" (10:30).


I have shown at great length that the Fourth Gospel clearly and formally argues that Jesus is "equal to God" (5:18; 10:33) because God has given him full eschatological power (5:21-29). [30]   God gave him power (1) to give eternal life (5:21; 10:28), (2) to judge (5:22, 27; 8:21-30), (3) to be honored as Lawmaker and Judge (5:23), (4) to have life in himself (5:26; 10:17-18), and (5) to raise the dead and judge them (5:28-29). In fact, 5:21-29, a summary of Jesus' eschatological power, functions as a topic statement which the Gospel subsequently develops in chaps, 8, 10, and 11. [31]   The claims in 10:28-30, then, continue the exposition of Jesus' full eschatological power.


Our exegesis of 10:22-30 yields the following information. A second forensic process begins in 10:28-30. Jesus is formally on trial, not just concerning whether he is "the Christ" (10:23-24), but especially about his claim to be "equal to God" (10:30, 33), The chief issue that is contested, moreover, concerns ultimate power over death, whereby Jesus is equal to God.


Claim:  “I and the Father are ‘one.’” (10:30, 33), i,e., power over death (10:28-30):

(a) “I give them eternal life

(b) "they do not perish forever"

(c) "no one snatches them out of my hand"


Judgment: "Blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself equal to God" (10:33)


Apology: Use of Ps 82:6 (10:34-36): their judgment is false, because God makes Jesus to be "Son of God"


Our focus necessarily turns to the apology in 10:34-36. How does the Fourth Gospel understand and use Psalm 82, and does this usage have any relationship to the claims made in 10:28-30? As we begin, let us pay special attention to the form of the charge in 10:33. Jesus is accused of "making himself" equal to God, a charge that dominates the many forensic proceedings against him:


5:18            "…making himself God"
10:33          "you, a man, make yourself God"
19:7            "he made himself the son of God"
19:12          "who makes himself king…" [32]

The evangelist distinguishes two elements of the judgment against Jesus: (1) Does Jesus make himself God or equal to God? (2) In what sense is Jesus equal to God or “god”? The distinction is important, for the Johannine Gospel denies the former half, that is, that Jesus makes himself anything, but care­fully explains and defends the assertion of his equality with God. [33]


Psalm 82 as Apologetic Response

In response to the charge of blasphemy, Jesus advances an argument from scripture using Psalm 82. When he cites Ps 82:6 in 10:34, he establishes the mode of argument by comparing two things: if scripture was not in error calling mortals "gods" (Ps 82:6), then neither is there error in calling the one whom God consecrated and sent into the world "the Son of God" (10:35-36).


Jesus' reference to "Son of God" in 10:36 does not weaken the argument by reducing the claim from “god” to “son of God,” because if one continues reading Ps 82:6, the two terms are considered parallel and equivalent there ("I said, 'You are gods, all of you, sons of the Most High'"). [34]   In claiming to be the consecrated "Son of God," he does not claim less than what is claimed by being "god" according to Ps 82:6. On the contrary, he claims more.


Yet how does the Fourth Gospel understand Ps 82:6? One stream of critical opinion takes the citation extrinsically, on a literal level as a mere play on words. If mortals, for whatever reason, can truly be called "gods" according to scripture, then the term is not a priori preposterously applied to Jesus. This type of explanation does not ask under what circumstances mortals might be called "gods," and it sees Jesus basically engaging in an evasive maneuver.


Such reasoning, however, does not mesh with the Johannine perspective for several reasons. The Fourth Gospel always criticizes people who take things literally, either Jesus' word or the scriptures. Regularly we find a pattern where Jesus makes a statement, which his hearers misunderstand because they take it on a literal level, which leads Jesus to issue a clarification which exposes the spiritual or inner meaning of his words. [35] It seems improbable, then, that the Fourth Gospel is dealing superficially with Psalm 82, asking readers to take its phrases and argument on a literal or extrinsic level. This is all the more true since the Gospel constantly maintains that spiritual vision is needed to see the inner meaning of texts from the scriptures which Jesus fulfills (see John 2:17, 22; 6:31; 8:56, 58, etc.).


A literal reading of Psalm 82, moreover, seems inconsistent with the more typical pattern of Johannine Christology. Wayne Meeks noted that when something claimed about Jesus causes a reaction from the synagogue, the Johannine community tends not to moderate its claim, but to rephrase it in such a way as to cause even greater offense. [36] Thus, if mortals may be called "god," then Jesus, whom God consecrated and sent into the world, can be called "Son of God," meaning "equal to God." A purely extrinsic reading of Ps 82:6 in regard to John 10:34-36 hardly seems warranted.


How, then, does the Fourth Gospel understand and use Psalm 82? The chief clue to a special reading of Ps 82:6 lies in 10:35, when we observe the way the Gospel interprets Ps 82:6 as part of its argument: “If he called them 'gods' to whom the word of God came… Whoever, then, is called "god" is so named because "the word of God came" to them. Scholars have long argued that this refers to Israel at Sinai when God gave it the Torah, which I think is absolutely correct. [37]   Yet what is the shape of the midrash on this and how might it apply to the Fourth Gospel?


B. F. Westcott, for example, argued that when the Fourth Gospel speaks of "those to whom the word of God came," the evangelist refers to the preexistent Word who regularly gave theophanies to Israel's patriarchs. [38]   Although the Fourth Gospel indeed develops an argument that Jesus is the appearing deity of the OT, [39] it is not apparent that an allusion is being made to that tradition in John 10, nor is it clear how such an allusion really advances the argument that Jesus is rightly called "god." The evangelist, moreover, does not propose here the argument which was made in the prologue, that the "Word came unto his own and his own received him not" (1:11). [40]   Israel is not being reproached here for rejecting once more God's revelation to it.


III. Ps 82:6 in Jewish Midrash


The emphasis in John 10:35 is not on Jesus, the preexistent Word, but on "those to whom the word of God came," who are called “gods.”  Who were these people? Although it is not the only stream of interpretation of Ps 82:6-7 in Jewish literature, there is a clear sense that Ps 82:6-7 was understood in terms of Israel at the Sinai theophany. A second-century midrash goes as follows:


If it were possible to do away with the Angel of Death I would. But the decree has long ago been decreed. R. Jose says: It was upon this condition that the Israelites stood up before Mount Sinai, on the condition that the Angel of Death should have not power over them. For it is said: “I SAID: YE ARE GODS (Ps 82:6). But you have corrupted your conduct. "SURELY YE SHALL DIE LIKE MEN" (Ps 82:7). [41]


Commentary: the occasion is Sinai (“Israel stood up before Mount Sinai”), when God descended on the mountain to give the Torah. According to Exod 20:18-19, when the Israelites saw the mountain blazing with lightning and heard the thundering, they said to Moses: "You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die." In light of this, the Mekilta indicates that God restrained the Angel of Death, so that Israel did not die. And so because Israel became deathless, that is, beyond the power of the Angel of Death, Ps 82:6 applied to them, “I said ‘You are gods.’” Gods, then, because deathless. But with the worship of the golden calf, Israel sinned, and suffered once more the penalty for sin, which is death: "You shall die like men" (Ps 82:7).


An important variation of this midrash occurs in b. 'Abod. Zar: 5a. The context is a discussion of Deut 5:25-26 where Israel received the Sinai revelation. The author comments that they have seen God and yet still live (recall the discussion of Exod 20:18-19 above); “therefore,” they ask, "why should we die?" This question becomes the occasion for comment about the fluctuating power of the Angel of Death.


R Jose said: The Israelites accepted the Torah only so that the Angel of Death should have no dominion over them, as it is said: “I SAID: YE ARE GODS AND ALL OF YOU SONS OF THE MOST HIGH (Ps 82:6). Now that you have spoilt your deeds, "YE SHALL DIE LIKE MORTALS' (Ps 82:7). [42]


Commentary: the occasion is Sinai; Israel is once again called god because deathless. But now we find the explicit note that being called god and being deathless are linked to the reception of Torah. In fact, Israel chooses God's Torah for the express purpose that the Angel of Death should not have power over it. Something else, then, is operative here which suggests that receiving God's word (Torah) makes one holy, and if holy, then sinless, and if sinless, then deathless.


A third early midrash can help to clarify the basic lines of this interpretation of Ps 82:6-7. The context is a reflection on Deut 32:20, "I will see what their end will be," which is seen referring to a fickle, perfidious people.


You stood at Mount Sinai and said, "All that the Lord hath spoken will we do, and obey" (Exod 24:7), (whereupon) "I SAID: YE ARE GODS' (Ps 82:6); but when you said to the (golden) calf, "This is thy god, 0 Israel" (Exod 32:4), I said to you, NEVERTHELESS, YE SHALL DIE LIKE MEN” (Ps 82:7). [43]


Commentary: at Sinai Israel received God's word of Torah ("all that the Lord hath spoken") and became holy and sinless ("...we will do and obey"), for which reason they are called gods. Although it is not explicitly stated here, this argument assumes that holiness leads to deathlessness, which is a godlike quality, for which reason Israel is called god. Yet with Israel's new sin comes death, the typical fate of sinful mortals ("ye shall die like men").


The basic lines of the midrashic understanding of Ps 82:6-7, then, are clear. When Israel at Sinai received God's Torah and obeyed, this led to genuine holiness which resulted in deathlessness; hence, Israel could be called god because deathless. But when disobedient and sinful, Israel deserved the wages of sin, that is, death; hence, Israel could be called man.


Yet this type of argument presumes some biblical understanding of death and deathlessness as well as of the nature of humanity and God. In short, the link between obedience-holiness-deathlessness lies back in the Genesis exposition of Adam in God's "image and likeness," [44] an implicit scenario made explicit in the following midrash. The segment is somewhat long, but because of its importance and the complicated argument in it, it deserves to be cited as fully as possible.


R. Eleazar b. R. Jose the Galilean remarked: The Angel of Death com­plained to the Holy One, blessed be He: 'I have then been created in the world to no purpose!' The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: ‘I have created you in order that you shall destroy idol-worshippers, but not this people, for you have no jurisdiction over them.’ That they should live and endure for ever; as it says, "But ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you" (Deut 4:4). In the same strain it says, "The writing was the writing of God, graven (haruth) upon the tables" (Exod 32:16). What is the signification of "haruth"? R. Judah says: Freedom (heruth) from foreign governments; R. Nehemiah says: From the Angel of Death; and Rabbi says: From suffering. See then the plan the Holy One, blessed be He, had made for them! Yet forthwith they frustrated the plan after forty days. Accordingly it says, "But ye have set at nought all my counsel" (Prov 1:25). The Holy one, blessed be He, said to them: 'I thought you would not sin and would live and endure for ever like Me; even as I live and endure for ever and to all eternity; I SAID: YE ARE GODS, AND ALL OF YOU SONS OF THE MOST HIGH (Ps 82:6), like the ministering angels, who are immortal. Yet after all this greatness, you wanted to die! INDEED, YE SHALL DIE LIKE MEN (Ps 82:7)--Adam, i.e. like Adam whom I charged with one commandment which he was to perform and live and endure for ever'; as it says, "Behold the man was as one of us" (Gen 3:22). Similarly, "And God created man in His own image" (Gen 1:27), that is to say, that he should live and endure like Himself. Yet [says God] he corrupted his deeds and nullified My decree. For he ate of the tree, and I said to him: "For dust thou art" (Gen 3:19). So also in your case, “I SAID YE ARE GODS;but you have ruined yourselves like Adam, and so "INDEED, YE SHALL DIE like Adam" (Num Rab. 16.24) [45]


The typical features of the midrashic understanding of Ps 82:6-7 are clearly evident: (a) Sinai and the giving of the Torah, (b) Israel's obedience ("cleaving unto the Lord"), (c) deathlessness or immortality ("freedom from the Angel of Death" .."live and endure for ever like Me"), and hence (d) Israel being called god (Ps 82:6). This midrash makes explicit the generally assumed doctrine of the relation of sin and death found primarily in Genesis 1-3, for it points out that God created Adam “in His image and likeness,” that is, deathless. Adam was deathless because holy and obedient (“I charged with one commandment which he was to perform and live and endure for ever”). Adam died precisely because he sinned and lost God's holiness and "image." This midrash also makes clear that interpreters of Ps 82:6-7 saw Sinai as a new creation, when the obedience, holiness, and deathlessness of Adam were restored to Israel, thus linking the Adam myth with the Sinai myth, as the following diagram suggests.

    Adam in Paradise                                 Israel at Sinai

1. created in holiness                              1. reconstituted in holiness

2. and so deathless                                 2. and so deathless,

3  yet sinned (ate fruit)                            3. yet sinned (worshiped calf)

4. and so died,                                        4. and so died.


The midrashim we are examining all presume a complex yet traditional explanation of the source of death. Good biblical doctrine states that God created Adam in a state of holiness. He was, moreover, created in God's “image and likeness,” which Wisdom 2:23 explains as a state of deathlessness: [46]

God made man for incorruption
and made him in the image of his own eternity.


Deathlessness (or “eternity”) was conditioned upon holiness. God said, “On the day you eat it you shall die” (Gen 2:17; 3:3). The tempter deceived Eve that if she broke God’s commandment “You shall not die” (Gen 3:5), which was a lie; for of the sinful Adam God said, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).


Although we have surveyed only four instances of the midrashic understanding of Psalm 82, many more can be found in Jewish literature. Yet as we investigate those other citations of Psalm 82, they only confirm what has just been shown. In general, it can be stated that when Psalm 82 is cited in Jewish midrash, writers generally understand that Israel is called god because of its holiness and/or its deathlessness. [47]


Evidently some midrashim contain a fully developed exposition of the Psalm, while others have but fragments of an explanation. Yet even the earliest midrash cited above, the Mekilta, implies as much as it states, probably because it reflects a very common tradition which is presumably well known. Not all of the elements of the midrash, moreover, need be explicitly mentioned when the Psalm is interpreted, for midrash is like an iceberg. As much is implied as is visible. With this survey of midrashic interpretation of Ps 82:6 in mind, we return to John 10:34-36. Does the Fourth Gospel interpret Psalm 82 in a midrashic manner, and, if so, how much of the midrash does it know and use?


IV. Midrash in John 10:34-36


If the Fourth Gospel understands Psalm 82 in a midrashic manner, we would want to see where John 10:34-36 stands in regard to three issues which regularly arise in the midrashim. First, the historical occasion of Psalm 82 is regularly seen to be Israel’s reception of God’s word at Sinai. Second, the midrash on Psalm 82 does not call Israel gods for purely extrinsic reasons, but links godlikeness with deathlessness and/or holiness. Finally, even the simple midrash assumes some biblical notion of death and deathlessness, which implies an understanding of Genesis 1-3 or some popular myth of the origin of death in the world. With these points in mind let us return to John 10.


As we noted above, the Fourth Gospel seems to understand Psalm 82 in a midrashic sense as referring to Israel at Sinai. For the evangelist interprets the content of “I said, ‘You are gods’” apropos of “those to whom the word of God came” (10:34-35). People, then, are not called god gratuitously, for there is intrinsic content to the predication. The Fourth Gospel does not explicitly state that gods...those to whom the word of God came” refers to Israel’s deathlessness, but only to its holiness in virtue of an obedient hearing of Torah. Although deathlessness is not explicitly mentioned in 10:34, I would argue that it is assumed in the link between holiness and godlikeness. After all, it is not the mere physical hearing of the Word of God, but hearing in faith and obedience which constitutes holiness. Such is the hearing that is celebrated in John 5:24; 8:37; 9:27. This Gospel clearly sees an intrinsic link between hearing in faith and passing to eternal life. Nevertheless, John 10:34-36 does not explicitly link godlikeness with deathlessness, but only with holiness.


The focus on holiness, moreover, continues in the application of Ps 82:6 to Jesus in 10:36. If Israel, who became holy, may be called god, then it is not blasphemy if Jesus, whom God consecrated and sent as his apostle into the world, is called god and Son of God. Holiness or sinlessness again serves as the ground for calling someone, Israel or Jesus, god.


Throughout the Fourth Gospel. Jesus’ holiness or sinfulness has been a formal topic of debate. As regards his alleged sinfulness, the Gospel repeatedly takes note of the popular judgment of Jesus as a sinner (9:16, 24), a judgment based on his two healings on the sabbath (5:1-17; 9:1-7). His enemies, moreover, charge him with being thoroughly evil, that is, possessed of a demon (7:20; 8:48; 10:20). Here in 10:33 and 36 he is charged with a new sin, blasphemy, for claiming to be “equal to God.”


In the face of these accusations, the Fourth Gospel denies any sin on Jesus’ part. John 10:36 represents but the most recent evidence of this defense, as it proclaims that God consecrated Jesus. After all, God’s judgment of Jesus must surely have greater weight than that of his peers (see 5:31-46). We have, moreover, heard of God’s evaluation of Jesus elsewhere, that “The Father loves the Son” (3:35; 5:30). Sinners, of course, find no place in God’s presence, yet Jesus was “face to face” with God (1:1-2) and in God’s “bosom” (1:18). And Jesus will return to God’s presence at the completion of his mission (13:3; 17:5, 24). God, then, judges Jesus to be sinless and worthy to stand in the divine presence.


Nor could anyone convict Jesus of sin (8:46). His working on the sabbath constituted no breach of God’s law, but must be perceived precisely as obedience to God’s will (5:31; 7:21-23). In fact, Jesus’ very ability to open the eyes of the blind testifies to his closeness to God (9:31-33). Jesus’ holiness (6:69) and his consecration (10:36) attest to his preeminent sinlessness or holiness.


Divine consecration of Jesus, moreover, suggests a picture of him as one totally set aside for God’s purposes [48] and completely obedient to God’s will. This radical image of commissioning evoked for Rudolf Schnackenburg the sense of a person sealed with the Holy Spirit, [49] a comment that makes us recall the testimony of the Baptizer in 1:30-31. John testified that he saw God’s Spirit not only descend on Jesus but “remain on him” (1:32-33), which suggests that divine power and holiness were no passing phenomenon for Jesus. Because of the dwelling of the Holy Spirit on Jesus, John testifies that he is “the Son of God” (1:34), a figure whose task was to purify others with the Spirit which remained in him (1:33).  Jesus, then, is no sinner, but God’s Holy One.


Thus far we have noted that 10:34-35 understands Ps 82:6 to mean that obedience to God’s word leads to holiness and godlikeness. As we saw with the midrashim, this interpretation presumes some notion of deathlessness linked with holiness. Yet it is important to pay attention to where and how Ps 82:6 functions in the forensic structure of 10:28-36. The Fourth Gospel uses Psalm 82 as a refutation of part of the charge. Jesus’ judges judged wrongly when they accused him of making himself god or equal to God, because God Himself makes Jesus Son of God, just as God mode Israel “god” by delivering the Torah to it. At a minimum, then, Jesus refutes the essence of the charge by maintaining that God makes him what he is, namely, a consecrated servant, agent, and apostle, a person totally set apart by God for sacred duty. [50]    The apology based on Psalm 82, then, argues two things:  it refutes the charge that Jesus makes himself “Son of God,” even as it affirms his radical holiness against the charge of blasphemy. But if it confounds his accusers (10:31-33), does it explain or support the claims made in 10:28-30 which precipitated the forensic controversy in the first place?


We claimed above that Jesus is “equal to God” because of his “power over death.” In regard to this, Ps 82:6 does not seem to play a significant part.

         Claim:      Equal to God: power over death (10:28-30)

         Judgment:  Blasphemy, you a man, make yourself a god (10:33)

         Apology:   Charge refuted: it is God who makes Jesus “Son of God” because

                          of his holiness (Ps 82:6//John 10:34-36)

Ps 82:6, then, functions in a limited way; it proves the judges’ judgment is false, but it hardly pertains to the substance of Jesus’ claims in 10:28-30. Psalm 82, moreover, would not be a satisfactory explanation for Jesus’ “equality with God” according to the Fourth Gospel. Even when made deathless, Israel always remained less than God, merely mortal; the Angel of Death might still have power over them. Of Jesus, however, this Gospel claims that he is no mere mortal, but a divine figure. He has power over the Angel of Death, not vice versa. Ps 82:6 may function to prove the judges’ judgment wrong (he does not “make himself” anything; God makes him “Son of God”), but it is not exploited as an adequate explanation for the Johannine assertion that Jesus has power over death (10:28-30). Ps 82:6 functions only to prove that the judges’ judgment is false.


What then of the forensic claims themselves? Jesus and God are “equal” in terms of power over death. Yet is Jesus himself deathless? Whence comes his power over death? Friend and foe both know that he died on the cross. Friends proclaim that his death was God’s will and plan (Acts 2:23; 4:28) and that he was fully obedient to God, even unto death (Phil 2:8; Mark 14:35-36). The Fourth Gospel, moreover, proclaims a more remarkable thing about God’s involvement in Jesus’ death. In 10:17-18 Jesus asserts that God loves him precisely because he dies: “For this reason the Father loves me, that I lay down my life, that I may take it again” (10:17). Death is usually a sign of God’s wrath, not love. Jesus’ death, then, is clearly not the result of sin, as the midrash on Ps 82:7 argues. Nor is Jesus the helpless victim whose life is taken from him, either by men or the Angel of Death. For, as he declares, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (10:18a). Furthermore, his death occurs in strict obedience to God, not as punishment for sinfulness on his part: “This commandment I have received from my Father (10:18b). In 10:28-30, moreover, Jesus claims to be equal to God in having God’s own power over death. Jesus, then, while not literally deathless himself, has full power over death.


Indisputably Jesus dies, but the Fourth Gospel steadfastly maintains that Jesus has power over death, both the death of his followers and his own. We noted earlier how this Gospel proclaims that Jesus has God’s eschatological power to the full, one aspect of which is to “give life” to others (5:21; 10:28) and to “raise the dead” (5:25, 28-29; 11:25). Yet Jesus has power over his own death, to lay down his life and to take it back (10:17-18); this power was received when God gave him to “have life in himself” (5:26), just as God has life in Himself. And so Jesus is proclaimed deathless in a special way: although he dies, he has complete power over death, his own and that of his followers. He raises himself from death to life and he raises his followers from death as well.


Ps 82:6 in the midrashim explains deathlessness, but in a way that is not adequate to the claims made in the Fourth Gospel about Jesus’ power over death. For this reason, I suggest, the evangelist did not employ the full midrashic understanding of Psalm 82 which was available to him.


IV. Conclusions and Further Questions


In summary, John 10:34-36 can be said to understand Ps 82:6 and use it in specific ways. (1) According to 10:34-35, Ps 82:6 (“I said, ‘You are gods’”) is understood to refer to Israel at Sinai when it received the Torah (“to whom the word of God came,” 10:35). (2) Implied in this understanding is the intimate link between holiness :: deathlessness :: godlikeness. The Fourth Gospel cites only an abbreviated form of this, holiness ::  godlikeness (3) Ps 82:6b (“sons of the Most High”) is cited by Jesus when he calls himself “Son of God” (10:36), and it refers to his godlikeness in terms of holiness (see “consecrated and sent”). (4) Ps 82:6 does not touch the substance of the claims made in 10:28-30 which precipitated the forensic process in 10:31-39. It functions as an adequate refutation of the erroneous judgment of Jesus’ judges, who charged that he, “a man, makes himself equal to God,” This judgment is false because God makes him “Son of God.” (5) According to the apology in 10:34-36, holiness is linked with godlikeness in ways that are appropriate to human beings, first Adam, then Israel. Jesus would be a mere human being even if acclaimed “god/Son of God,” as was Israel. But the forensic argument in John 10 claims much more. No mere human being, Jesus is a heavenly figure who is “equal to God.” His equality rests not on holiness but on divine powers intrinsic to him, that is, full eschatological power.


(6) Jesus’ claims in regard to power over death always remain important in John 10. In this Gospel, his deathlessness [51] does not formally derive from sinlessness/holiness as in the case of the midrash on Ps 82:6, but from full eschatological power which God gave him over death (5:21-29; 10:17-18). In 5:18 and 10:30, Jesus may be called “equal to God” for a much greater reason than ever justified calling Israel god, namely, because of powers intrinsic to him. Power over death is the specific content of “equal to God.”


(7) If we are correct that Ps 82:6 is understood in 10:34-36 in line with its basic midrashic interpretation, then the remark in 10:28-29 that “no one shall snatch them out of my hand” probably echoes what the midrash dis­cusses in terms of the Angel of Death whose power over God’s people was restrained. The Angel of Death will not snatch Jesus’ followers/sheep either from his hand or God’s hand. (8) Although the midrashim studied above were written considerably later than the Fourth Gospel, the understanding of Ps 82:6 in John 10:34-36 belongs in that same trajectory of interpretation. It might be the earliest extant witness of that tradition, although not the most complete example.


This study has not by any means exhausted the inquiry into John 10:31-39. But it does raise new questions. It focuses on the formal forensic process which structures the narrative in 10:21-28a and 28b-39, highlighting especially the claims made by Jesus. The use of Psalm 82 in 10:34-36 only deflects the judges’ false judgment; a full exposition of Jesus’ claims in 10:28-30 and their adequate apology in 10:37-38 remains to be examined.  The relationship of 10:28b-30 to issues of Jesus’ eschatological power in 5:21-29; 8:21-59; 11:1-41 remains to be considered.


The use of midrashic traditions is not confined to 10:34-36. [52]   Appreciation of John’s use not only of the scriptures but especially their midrashic understanding will go a long way toward clarifying the context of the Johannine community. Finally, if there is substance to the argument about two forensic processes narrated in 10:21-28a, 28b-39, this might provide further clues to the historical development of the Johannine community. It would stand as another piece of evidence for a development from a “low” Christology (“Messiah”) to “high” Christology (“equal to God”). [53]





[1] For example, Exod 7:1, where God says to Moses, “I make you as god to Pharaoh.” This caused no 1ittle difficulty to Philo, as he wrestled with its interpretation in Leg All. 1.40; Sac. 9; Det. 39-40, 161-62; Migr. 84, 169; Mut. 19-20, 125, 128-29; Somn. 2.189; Quod Omn. 43-44;  see also Post. 43-44 and Vit. Mos. 1.158.

[2] Anthony Hanson, "John's Citation of Psalm LXXXII Reconsidered," NTS 13 (1966-67) 363-67.

[3] J. A. Emerton, "Some New Testament Notes," JTS II (1960) 329-32.

[4] See Luis Diez Merino, Targum de Salmos (Biblio Poliglota Complutense IV,1; Madrid: Instituto Francisco Suarez, 1982) 142 and 269.

[5] See John Strugnell, “The Angelic Liturgy at Qumran-4QSerek Sirot 'Olat Hassabbat,” in Congress Volume: Oxford 1959 (VTSup 7; Leiden: Brill, 1960) esp. 336-42.

[6] The original study was by A.S. van der Woude, “Melchisedek als himmlische Erloser­gestalt in den neugefundenen eschatologischen Midraschim aus Qumran Hohle XI,” in Oudtestamentliche Studien XIV (Leiden: Brill, 1965) 354-73; see also Marinus de Jonge and A.S. van der Woude, “11QMelchizedek and the New Testament,” NTS 12 (1965-66) 304.

[7] J. A. Emerton, “Melchizedek and the Gods: Fresh Evidence for the Jewish Background of John X.34-36,” JTS 17 (1966) 400-401.

[8] Hanson, “John's Citation of Psalm LXXXII Reconsidered,” 366.

[9] See W. G. Braude, The Midrash on the Psalms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959) 2. 59-60.

[10] For example, B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St John (London: John Murray, 1908) 70; M.-J. Lagrange, Evangile selon Saint Jean (Paris: Gabalda, 1948) 290; and R. H. Lightfoot, St John's Gospel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956) 209.

[11] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Further Light on Melchizedek from Qumran Cave 11,” JBL 86 (1967) 25-41, which is also found in his Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1974) 245-67.

[12] Ibid., 261-62.

[13] Ibid., 251-53.

[14] See Str-B, 2. 543.

[15] For example, see C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John (2d ed.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978) 384-85; and Nils Dahl, “The Johannine Church and History,” in Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976) 109-10.

[16] See James Ackerman, “The Rabbinic Interpretation of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John,” HTR 59 (1966) 186-91.

[17] Not all agree with Hanson; for example, see E. Jungkuntz, "An Approach to the Exegesis of John 10:34-36," CTM 35 (1964) 556-65.

[18] This interpretation has already been urged; see James Ackerman, "Rabbinic Interpreta­tion;" 186-91.

[19] Jungkuntz summarizes how many modern commentators see the use of Psalm 82 either in an ad hominem argument or consider it simply irrelevant to the narrative's claims ("An Approach to the Exegesis of John 10:34," 556-58).

[20] For example, Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971) 389.

[21] That is, "a play on words"; see, e.g. A. Loisy, Le quatrieme Evangile (Paris: Emil Nourry, 1921) 335.

[22] Some suggestions have been made about the relationship of John 10:22-39 and the trial before the Sanhedrin in the Synoptic Gospels, but no analysis has been made of the Johannine passage in terms of the formal elements of a forensic proceeding; see Paul Winter, "Luke xxii 66b-71," ST 9 (1955) 112-15; Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (AB 29; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 1. 404-6; and Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John (New York: Crossroad, 1982) 2. 306. On forensic process in John, see J. H. Neyrey, "Jesus the Judge: Forensic Process in John 8,21-59," Bib 68 (1987) 509-41.

[23] It is vintage Johannine argument to turn a judgment against Jesus into a judgment against his accusers (e.g., 5:31-46; 3:6-12); see J. H. Neyrey, "John III-A Debate over Johannine Epistemology and Christology," NT 23 (1981) 117-18. Often "judgment" in the Fourth Gospel is self-judgment, so that if people judge Jesus incorrectly, they judge themselves.

[24] Robert Aytoun pointed out that 10:28-30 bears striking resemblance to John 17:12 ("No One Shall Snatch Them Out of My Hand," ExpTim 31 [1919-20] 475-76). While there are clear parallels, Aytoun did not notice that 10:28-30 speaks about Jesus' power over death, but 17:12 speaks about protecting the disciples from death--two quite different issues.

[25] C. K. Barrett dealt convincingly with the textual issue here (Gospel, 381-82); see also J. Birdsall, "John X.29," JTS 11 (1960) 342-44.

[26] See J. Whittaker, “A Hellenistic Context for John 10,29,” VC 24 (1970) 241-44.

[27] See J. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1926) 366; and Barnabas Lindars, The Gospel of John (London: Oliphants, 1972) 370.

[28] One recalls how Paul personifies Death in Romans when he speaks of "Death reigned" (5:14,17,21).

[29] Jewish lore notes that God gave Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel the key to three things that are exclusively in God’s power, viz., the key to rain, the womb, and the grave; see b. Ta'an. 2a; b. Sanh. 113a; Midr. Ps. 78.5; see also Barrett, Gospel, 260.

[30] See J. H. Neyrey, An Ideology of Revolt: John’s Christology in Social-Science Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988) 9-93: a precis of this can be found in "'My Lord and My God’: The Divinity of Jesus in John's Gospel," Society of Biblical Literature 1986 Seminar Papers (ed. K. H. Richards; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986) 154-59.

[31] See Neyrey, An Ideology of Revolt, 33-34.

[32] See Heb 5:5. The substance of this charge is best understood from the perspective of cultural anthropology, which would describe Mediterranean culture in terms of "honor" and "shame"; Jesus’ peers interpret his remarks as claims to very great honor, claims that seem vain-­glorious for a person who has never studied (John 7:15); see Bruce J Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981) 27-33.

[33] In John 5:19-29, for example, the Fourth Gospel rejects the assertion that Jesus "makes himself" anything; see Neyrey, An Ideology of Revolt, 20-22.

[34] See Brown, Gospel, 1. 409.

[35] On this form in the Fourth Gospel, see Herbert Leroy, Ratsel und Misverstandnis (Bonn: Peter Hanstein, 1968) 45-47, 53-67; and Neyrey, An Ideology of Revolt, 42-43.

[36] Wayne Meeks, “The Man from Heaven In Johannine Sectarianism,” JBL 91 (1972) 70-71.

[37] I hasten to add that John 5:37, which alludes to the Sinai theophany, denies that Israel actually saw God: "His (God's) voice you have never heard, His form you have never seen." This text basically argues the repeated claim in the Fourth Gospel that no one has ever seen God (3:13; 6:46); it functions to diminish the authority of Israel's previous revealers, such as Moses, Elijah, Abraham, and the prophets, by replacing them with Jesus, the unique revealer of God (1:18). Such an argument does not deny that theophanies indeed took place in Israel’s history, but rather that it was Jesus, the revealing deity, who appeared in them (see 8:58; 12:41). Although I claim that 10:34-35 refers to Israel's reception of Torah at Sinai, this interpretation is not contradicted by 5:37 because the two passages are arguing quite different points.

[38] Westcott, Gospel, 70; a modern version of this is argued by A. T. Hanson, "John's Citation of Psalm Ixxxii.  John x.33-6," NTS 11 (1965-66) 158-62.

[39] See J. H. Neyrey, “Jacob Allusions in John 1:51,” CBQ 44 (1982) 589-94.

[40] For this type of argument, see R. H. Lightfoot, St. John’s Gospel, 208.

[41] Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Bahodesh 9 (trans. Jacob Lauterbach; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1933) 2. 272.

[42] Trans. I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino Press, 1935) 19.

[43] Sifre: A Tannaitic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy, Piska 320 (trans. Reuven Hammer; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986) 329.

[44] On this point, see Jacob Jervell, Imago Dei (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1960) 103, 113-19. As Jervell noted, Gen 1:26 ("image and likeness of God") played a  more implicit role in the explanations of deathlessness; the more frequently cited text in this regard was Gen 3:22 ("the man has become like one of us").

[45] The translation is from Midrash Rabbah (H. Freedman and M. Simon; London: Soncino Press, 1939).

[46] See Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, "Christological Anthropology in Phil., II, 6-11," RB 82 (1976) 31-37.

[47] Besides the three examples cited, other instances of the use of Ps 82:6 would include: Exod. Rab. 32:7; Lev. Rab. 4.1 and 11.3; Num. Rab. 16:24; Pirqe R. El. 47; Pesiq. R. 1.2; 14.10; 33.10; Tanhuma B Lev 7:5; Pesiq. Rab. Kah. 4; Eliyyahu Zuta 4; Eliyyahu Rabbah 24.

[48] So Barrett, Gospel, 385.

[49] Schnackenburg, Gospel, 2. 311.

[50] See Peder Borgen, "God's Agent in the Fourth Gospel," in Religions in Antiquity (ed. Jacob Neusner; Leiden: Brill, 1968) 137-48; and more recently George W. Buchanan, “Apostolic Christology,” Society of Biblical Literature 1986 Seminar Papers (ed. K. H. Richards; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986) 172-82.

[51] The Fourth Gospel has very conflicting material about “deathlessness.”  Concerning disciples, one might literally take statements such as 3:16; 5:24; 6:50, 54 to mean that true disciples do not die; some characters in the narrative are said to believe just this (8:51-53; 11:21, 32). It is even suggested that the Beloved Disciple would not die (21:23). Yet the Gospel seems to have quickly corrected that literal reading of Jesus' words. Concerning Jesus himself, however, his followers could never claim "deathlessness" for him, given his evident demise on the cross. Yet they did claim that he overpowered death (8:28; 13:1-3). His resurrection from death is seen as his own act of power (10:17-18), thus affirming his power over death, if not deathlessness itself in another form

[52] For example, concerning the Johannine use of midrashic traditions about Jacob, see J. H. Neyrey, “Jacob Traditions and the Interpretation of John 4:10-26,” CBQ 41 (1979) 419-37.

[53] See J. Louis Martyn, “Glimpses into the History of the Johannine Community,” in his The Gospel of John in Christian History (New York: Paulist, 1979) 90-121.

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