Did Yeshua Really Say, "You Are Gods"?

Yeshua's quotation of Psalm 82 makes it sound like people can be gods. What did He mean?

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "Hanukkah". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

The Gospel of John records that Yeshua’s opponents objected to His description of His relationship with God. After He said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), they took up stones to stone him.

Yeshua defends His use of the title “Son of God” and the unique divinity He shares with God by quoting Psalm 82: “I said, “You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High.”

This highly unusual psalm invokes the ancient Near Eastern concept of the Divine Court. It depicts God as a chief deity presiding amid the heavenly court of angelic beings or, as Paul refers to them, “the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). The Bible sometimes refers to angels and angelic beings as gods, and, on some occasions, the Tanach refers to them as “the sons of God.” Psalm 82 employs both those titles in its address to the angelic court:

I said, “You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High. Nevertheless you will die like men and fall like any one of the princes.”

Jewish tradition has an alternate way to read the psalm, and this alternate interpretation of the psalm is the one that Yeshua had in mind in the discussion in John 10. A popular rabbinic teaching takes Psalm 82 out of its original context and creatively applies it to what happened at Mount Sinai. In this teaching, Psalm 82 addressed the nation of Israel after the sin of the golden calf. When the children of Israel accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, they attained an angelic status: “gods” and “sons of the Most High.” When they sinned by making a golden calf, they lost that status:

It is written, “I said, ‘You are gods!’” This means that if Israel had waited for Moses and not sinned by making the golden calf, neither a foreign power nor the Angel of Death would have prevailed over them … freedom from the Angel of Death …What is meant by the verse that says, “you will die like men and fall like any one of the princes”? It means they will die like Adam or Eve.” (Exodus Rabbah)

According to this idea, through the giving of the Torah, God elevated the children of Israel at Mount Sinai to a spiritual status on par with the angelic beings, granting them immortality. When they made the golden calf, they forfeited eternal life:

It is written, “I said, ‘You are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High.’” This means that when Israel stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to the angel of death, “You may have power over all the other nations but not over this people, for they are my portion, and just as I live forever, so will my children be eternal.” … Yet Israel refused to remain faithful and did evil and said to the golden calf, “This is your God, O Israel.” Because you sinned, “Like men you shall die.” (Exodus Rabbah)

According to this imaginative reading of Psalm 82, had the Israelites at Mount Sinai kept the Torah and not sinned, they would have retained a divine, godlike status and been, ever after, “sons of the Most High.” Had they not sinned, they would have been like the angels, comparable to the state of the resurrected righteous of the future. As Yeshua says, “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30): The resurrected are undying, immortal, imperishable, neither in need of food and drink to survive, nor engaged in marital relations, but elevated above the flesh and free from death.

In this reinterpretation, when Israel attained angelic status, the psalm refers to them as gods and sons of God, just as angels also receive those designations in the Bible. This unlikely interpretation of Psalm 82 appears in many places across rabbinic literature. For example, in the Talmud, a sage named Resh Lakish expounds on the same interpretation, with reference to the angels who neither marry nor are given in marriage, as follows:

Resh Lakish said: We should be grateful to our forebears, for had they not sinned by making the golden calf, we would not have been born into the world, as it says, [in Psalm 82] “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.’” After they sinned, however, the LORD told them, “Now that you have done evil, though, ‘Like men you shall die.’” Resh Lakish means that if the children of Israel had not committed the sin of the golden calf they would not have reproduced. (Talmud)

In his Hebrew commentary on the New Testament, the Messianic Jewish luminary Rabbi Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein states, “This interpretation was without controversy in the days of the Master.” He also quotes a pertinent teaching of Rabbi Meir:

Regarding the Torah I said to you: “By upholding the Torah you will be ‘gods’ and all of you will be ‘children of the Most High,’ for death will not have dominion over you. ‘But like men you shall die,’ because you have transgressed the Torah like the first Adam.”

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