Who were the “gods” and “sons of the Most High” in Psalm 82:6? Whom does Jesus say they were in John 10:34-36? Many commentators offer their opinion, and they are unanimous about who they were not. Now what about–who they were?
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Translation of John 10:31-39
It is my own. Let’s look at the larger context. The target verses are 34-36, in bold font.
31 The Jews again picked up stones, so that they may stone him. 32 Jesus replied to them, “I have demonstrated many good works from the Father. For which work of them are you going to stone me?” 33 The Jews replied to him, “We don’t stone you concerning a good work but concerning blasphemy, because you, though being a man, make yourself God.” 34 Jesus replied to them, “Is it not written in your law that ‘I have said, “You are gods”’? [Ps. 82:6] 35 If he calls these ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came (and Scripture cannot be abolished), 36 do you say to the one whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world, ‘He is blaspheming’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” 37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, do not believe me. 38 But if I do them, and even if you may not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and continue to know that the Father is in me and I in the Father. 39 Then they were attempting to arrest him, but he departed out of their hands.
Please see this post:
And scroll down to vv. 34-36,
Let’s look at how these commentators interpret the verses.
Bruce says that whether these “gods” are human or divine is not of first importance:
Jewish interpreters were divided (as other interpreters have been divided since then) on the question whether those addressed in these terms by God are celestial beings or human judges. For our present purpose this question is of the first relevance: what is relevant is that they are manifestly inferior beings to the supreme God, and yet he calls them ‘gods’ (verse 6)–theoi in Greek. If God himself calls them ‘gods’ (and ‘sons of the Most High’ at that), why should it be counted a capital offence in the sent one of the Father if he calls himself the Son of God? (comment on vv. 34-36)
So Bruce does not decide on whether the persons in Ps. 82:6 were divine or human. The point is that Jesus can call himself the Son of God without committing the crime of blasphemy. He is the one whom the Father has sent and sanctified (set apart) for his divine mission to go into the dark world and rescue it. Therefore, he definitely can call himself the Son of God.
He summarizes the various interpretations: (1) The “gods” are Israel’s judges. (2) The gods are Israel’s people when the law was given on Sinai (note the phrasing “to whom the word of God came”). (3) The gods are angelic powers. Beasley-Murray likes the second option. The wording “those to whom the word of God came” is:
best understood as describing Israel’s gathered tribes about Mount Sinai, as virtually all the Rabbis believed. In this connection we should recall the importance to the Jews of Exod 4:21-22, ‘Israel is my first-born son … Let my son go that he may serve me.’ The citation of Ps. 82:6 in the context before us is thoroughly comprehensible in a discussion between Jesus and the Jewish teachers and leaders … The parallelism within Ps. 82:6 ‘You are gods, you are all sons of the Most High,’ explains the reproduction of v. 30 (I and the Father are one’) in the changed form of v. 36 (‘I said, “I am God’s Son”‘). If the thought of Jesus as the representative Son of the people called to be sons of God may be assumed in the context, the ‘how much more’ of v. 36 is yet more understandable.” (comment on p. 177).
So it seems Beasley-Murray favors the interpretation that says that the gods and the sons of the Most High are the ancient Israelites to whom the law came at Sinai, not angelic beings or human judges.
He says the “gods” of Psalm 82:6 were humans:
Indeed, Jesus turned the charge back on them and challenged them to provide a rationale for the use of the word “god” or “gods” in the Scriptures/Law (10:34–35; law here is used in the generic sense) when the reference was to human beings. One of the texts in Jesus’ mind was undoubtedly Ps 82:6, where human beings are called both “gods” and “sons of the Most High.” Jesus’ logic was impeccably clear. If their sourcebook (“your Law”) called humans “gods” and the Scriptures are utterly reliable (“cannot be broken”), then where was their problem (10:35)? (comment on vv. 34-38)
He summarizes the interpretations, much as Beasley-Murray did. Then he favors the interpretation which says that the “gods” and the “sons of the Most High” were the Israelites to whom the law was given. “The argument in John 10, then, is that if being addressed by the pre-existent Word justifies the usage in Psalm 82, where human beings are called gods, then we are amply justified in applying ‘Son of God’ to the man who is the human bearer of the pre-existent Word” (comment on vv. 34-36, p. 398). As usual his commentary is thorough, as he explains other nuances, but this is the main point for my post here.
He says that the gods of Ps. 82:6 are human “judges of Israel, and the expression ‘gods’ is applied to them in the exercise of their high and God-given office” (comment on v. 34). Jesus’s argument is of the “how much more” variety. But Morris goes on to warn that Jesus is not placing himself on a human level equal merely to human judges because he says that he is the one whom the Father set aside (consecrated) and sent into the world. He claims a special filial (sonship) relationship with the Father (v. 36).
He too reviews the three options laid out by Beasley-Murray (comment on v. 34). He excludes the angelic beings option because there is not enough textual evidence in John 10. These gods can only be humans (comment on v. 34). He settles on the interpretation which says that these gods were human judges (comment on v. 35). Jesus the Judge and Ruler replaces his contemporary judges / rulers in Jerusalem, and he calls himself God’s Son. If the judges in Ps. 82 were called “gods,” then it is logical, per the exegetical methods of Jesus’s contemporaries, “for the Father to create another office that receives the title” of God’s Son (Klink, comment on v. 36).
He entertains the option that in some sense God made the sons of Israel “gods” at Sinai, where they received the law. “So he could certainly install Jesus as his Son” (p. 829). Alternatively, the psalmist of Ps. 82 uses the language of a divine court, “but actually addresses Gentile rulers who saw themselves as divine kings (Ps. 82:1-2, 6-7), but who failed to execute justice (82:3-4) and would die like mortals (Ps. 82:7). The sarcastic claim of 82:6 might then apply ironically to ‘rulers’ of the Jews (though Jesus’ interlocutors here are called only ‘Jews’)” (comment on p. 829). Jesus deploys the “how much more” form or reasoning or argumentation (p. 829). If these human rulers are called gods, (probably sarcastically, since they failed), then how much more can Jesus claim to be the Son of God? Thus, Keener sees the gods in Ps. 82:6 as mere human rulers or mere Israelites at Sinai. I especially like this idea about sarcasm in Ps. 82.
Gary M. Burge
He believes that the sons of the Most High are the Israelites to whom the law was given at Sinai. Then he writes:
If the word ‘god’ can be applied to those other than God himself in the Scriptures–if someone else can be called a ‘son of God,’ here in God’s unbreakable word–why are Jesus’ words blasphemy? In John 10:36, Jesus calls himself “God’s Son,” and this is surely an echo of this historic context. (John: NIV Application Bible, Zondervan, p. 297)
Grant R. Osborne:
He says the “sons” are the ancient Israelites who committed injustice against the poor. They had received God’s message at Sinai and had been called God’s first-born son (Exod 4:22), but they failed both by worshipping a golden calf and dealing injustice to the poor. Then Osborne writes:
Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater in verse 36. If these failed people could be called “gods,” how could anyone object to Jesus being called the “Son of God”? They received “the word of God”–the law–at Sinai, and Jesus adds, “Scripture cannot be set aside,” meaning that those at Sinai were truly “gods” because they became the children and family of God. It is stated in Scripture and cannot be ignored … Moreover, Israel failed in its mission. So Jesus fulfills and carries out the very mission that Israel failed to perform, and therefore he has a perfect legal right to call himself “Son of God.” They have no right to call that blasphemy. (John: Verse by Verse, Lexham P, 2018, p. 263)
He says that they were the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai at the giving of the law:
But to whom was he speaking [in Ps. 82:6]? Some have suggested angelic beings who have abused their power over nations. The contrast in John, however, is not between God and angels but between God and ‘mere man’ (v. 33). Others, stressing the the context of Psalm 82, conclude that the psalmist was speaking to the corrupt judges of Israel, but the fact that they are those, writes John, “to whom the word of God came,” (v. 35) identifies them rather clearly as Israel at the time of the giving of the Law. Thus, Jesus is saying that if the Israelites were called ‘gods, then there can be no real objection when he refer to himself as “God’s Son” (v. 36). The argument holds, even if they would not accept the fact that he was appointed by the Father and sent into the world. (comment on vv. 34-36).
Jesus replied by quoting Ps. 82:6. While the passage is difficult, the most likely interpretation is that it speaks of Israel’s leaders (judges) in terms of gods. They fulfilled their God-given role by their judicial function. Jesus’ argument was from the lesser to the greater. If God called Israel’s leaders gods, how much more is it appropriate for the Son of God to speak of himself this way? (comment on 10:31-39)
Biblical Theology Study Bible:
Jesus quotes Ps. 82:6 to question their umbrage. “gods” can refer to others than to God himself, so if God called humans “gods” and “sons of the Most High,” (i.e., sons of God) in some sense, on what Scriptural basis can the Jews charge that Jesus–whom the Father sent–is necessarily guilty of blasphemy when he says that he is God’s Son? (comment on vv. 34-36)
NIV Study Bible (2011):
Jesus is making an argument from the lesser to the greater: If there is any sense in which humans can be spoken of as “gods” (as Ps. 82:6 speaks of human rulers or judges), how much more may the term be used him whom the Father set apart and sent! (comment on v. 36)
To sum up these commentators, every one of them teaches that the “gods” in Ps. 82:6 were humans, not divine beings (except Bruce who said the issue is not of first importance in John 10). In John’s interpretation, they were either human judges / rulers or they were the ancient Israelites during their time before Mt. Sinai, receiving the law.
It would be unwise of me to overthrow the united opinion of such high-ranking commentators. Therefore, I conclude the same way as they do, though in my commentary, I see them as being Israel’s judges or rulers. For sure they were not celestial beings.
John 10 (scroll down to vv. 34-36 for my commentary)
Beasley-Murray George R. John. Word Biblical Commentary. Rev. ed. Zondervan, 1999.
Borchert, Gerald L. John 1-11. New American Commentary. Vol. 25a. Broadman and Holman, 1996.
Bruce, F. F. The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. Eerdmans, 1983.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel according to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Eerdmans, 1991.
The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (United Bible Society, 2014).
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Vol. 1. Baker Academic, 2003.
Klink, Edward W. John. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Zondervan, 2016.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to John. Rev. ed. Eerdmans, 1995.
Mounce, Robert H. John. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. ed. Zondervan, 2007.