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Is the Theos of John’s Gospel the Zeus of the Greek Pantheon?

August 1, 2012

When John the apostle picked up his quill, dipped it in ink and wrote “In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with Theos” he was letting the Greeks know that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had a name that the Greeks were already familiar with. In fact, Theos was filled with meaning; Theos was Zeus and Logos was a Grand Unifying Principal binding the universe together. John, consciously writing as a missionary to the Greeks, decided that if he himself controlled the meaning of Theos he would make it mean something new; he would make Theos mean the God of the Bible, and Logos would be the person of Jesus Christ. There is a missionary lesson for us to learn here.

In the Beginning

Such a seemingly simple text as John 1:1 brings forth many theological questions.

The Greek concept of “god” is essentially polytheistic, an ordered totality of gods, of a world of gods, a pantheon. According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Theos found its fullest expression in the god Zeus.[1]  “Zeus has the final word. But there develops out of the original plurality of gods (theoi) a divine genealogy and hierarchy.” We read of higher and lower gods, of families of gods, and finally of a pantheon.[2]

And here’s something else. In ancient Greece an outstanding ruler may be called a Theos because he created a new political order. Demetrius and his father Antigonos are celebrated as “saving gods” in Athens (307 B.C.).[3]  In Caesarea Herod causes himself to be acclaimed and honored as Theos. In Malta, Paul himself is regarded as a god because he does not succumb to the bite of the viper.

The gods are called the immortals, but this does not mean eternal pre-existence. It means only that they have no end, and they are not subject to death. They have eternal youth, the Greeks finding it distasteful to think of the gods ever growing old. We find no trace of moral seriousness or of what is for us the characteristic trait of holiness. Men and gods are separated by an eternal and unbridgeable gulf, and yet they originally related: “Theos stands before us not as an infinite being of another kind, but simply as an infinite being of the same kind.”[4]

Neither in the anthropomorphism of Homer nor in the later metaphysics of ideas (Epicureanism and Stoicism) is there a personal conception of Theos or even a personal relation of the individual soul to God. The early and later view are merely different forms of the same basic religious attitude, which is absolutely different from the NT concept of Theos.[5]

Now we come to the first chapter of John’s Gospel. The term Theos is no longer a non-Christian term in John’s hands; he re-fashions it into the God of Moses and the Father of Jesus because John controls the whole book that he is writing. For John, “Theosso loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” And at the end of John’s Gospel, the Risen Lord discloses Himself to Thomas and the astonished disciples exclaims, “My Lord and my Theos” (John 20:28). John is a missionary to the Greeks; what is the lesson for missionaries today?

[1] Kleinknecht and others, “Theos,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964). 67

[2] Ibid. 68

[3] Ibid. 68

[4] Ibid. 70

[5] Ibid. 79

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2012 3:23 am

    [18] The only Son, God: while the vast majority of later textual witnesses have another reading, “the Son, the only one” or “the only Son,” the translation above follows the best and earliest manuscripts, monogenes theos, but takes the first term to mean not just “Only One” but to include a filial relationship with the Father, as at Luke 9:38 (“only child”) or Hebrews 11:17 (“only son”) and as translated at John 1:14 . The Logos is thus “only Son” and God but not Father/God.

  2. Dr. Ken Shultz permalink
    August 10, 2012 11:37 pm

    It may be that “Theos” in the whole Bible would “refer to Zeus”, but only to the Greeks who had not yet accepted the Gospel. The reason being that 250 years before the birth of Jesus, most Jews had accepted the Septuagint as authority. There is evidence that the New Testament writers had actually seen almost nothing of the Hebrew text for the simple reason that for the most part the common people did not have access to the Scriptures except by hearing them read in the synagogue. Besides, most of them who could read at all read only Greek.

    Perhaps even more significantly, the Greek translation of the Old Testament was significanly distorted in a number of ways: First, God’s name YAHWEH was completely removed from the Greek text. It appears no fewer than 6,829 times in the Hebrew text, but is in the Septuagint not even once.

    Second, evidence of the Trinity was obliterated by the false translation of the generic name “Elohim”, which in Hebrew is an unquestioned plural–“Gods”. Moderns insist that to be no more than a “plural of nobility”. If that is so, then why does the text not use a plural verb with it? It may be that the Jewish translators were so anxious to prove themselves to be monotheists, and believing that the gentiles would never believe in such a possibility as a triune Being.

    In fact, in Deuteronomy 6:4, they quite simply distort their own “Shema”–in order to avoid having to explain such a phenomenon. All translations I have seen follow the Greek very closely.

    Even the modern Jerusalem Bible does not follow the Hebrew text. The essential part of the passage begins with “Listen Israel” alright; but then comes the distortion. The Hebrew verse does not contain the word “Lord” at all. The Hebrew word following “Israel” is “YAHWEH”, God’s revealed name. But, as in most cases, the word “LORD” is simply substituted for the divine name God revealed to Moses and said that it was to be, in God’s words, “My name for all time” and “for all generations” (Exodus 3: 15).

    The next Hebrew word is with a common plural construct form; the first of which, “Elohey-” (from Elohim) meaning “Gods”, is completed by “nu” which is the first person plural possessive suffix meaning “our”. The verse actually should be translated: Listen, Israel, Yahweh, our Gods; Yahweh is one.” By the way, the word “elohey-nu” occurs no fewer than 174 times in the Hebrew Old Testament.

    If such ommissions and distortions occurred in the very first translation of the Holy Scriptures, why should we be surprised if they were carried forward not only into the New Testament period, but to our own day as well. Perhaops that is why we are faced with well-intentioned Bible translators in the modertn world who are willing to deny Jesus’ Sonship in order to get Muslims and others to “buy in” to Christianity.

    • March 2, 2015 1:28 am

      There are very strong reasons to believe that the “corruptions, distortions and omissions” are in the newer Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts not the older Greek Old Testament manuscripts. This is why the New Testament quotations of the Old Testament much more frequently agree with the Greek Old Testament manuscripts over the Hebrew manuscripts. The Hebrew Old Testament differs from New Testament quotations of the Old Testament in ways that undercut the New Testament’s arguments for Jesus as the Christ. I would sooner believe that the Christ-exalting New Testament writers were guided by God than the Christ-rejecting Jewish copyists who provided the Hebrew texts long after Jesus was crucified. Either the Jewish copyists (aka “Scribes”) were in error or the New Testament writers (aka “Apostles.” I’m going with Jesus and the Apostles. This has been the position of the Orthodox Church from the earliest Christian times to this day.

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