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Yeshua in Context >> Divinity of Yeshua , Formation of the Gospels , Identity of Yeshua >> Early Divinity in John 5

Early Divinity in John 5

Many have argued that the idea of Yeshua's divinity was a late development. This is commonly applied to the Fourth Gospel as a principle for detecting layers of sources. What I mean is, people will say the gospel of John was written in layers, by multiple hands. An early and simpler version of the gospel, it is said, did not have the strong theme of Yeshua's divinity. Supposedly Greco-Roman ideas are the source of the divinity doctrine. So as the movement for Yeshua became less Jewish and more Roman, the doctrine developed and the Fourth Gospel underwent several edits and additions.

First, Larry Hurtado has made what is perhaps the best case that the worship of Yeshua (which itself implies divinity) was early, very early, during the predominantly-Jewish stage of the movement (see his book How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? ). A huge piece of evidence? Philippians 2, which is a hymn Paul is quoting because he knows the Philippians give it credence. So this hymn has been around long enough to be considered authoritative. That means it could easily be from the 40's or at latest the 50's.

Second, and what this post is all about, in John 5, we see Yeshua making an argument related to his divinity, which is thoroughly Jewish in character and not something which would arise in a Greco-Roman type of thought. Raymond Brown, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, points out that Yeshua's argument about why he does his work on the Sabbath (rather than waiting for the six working days) is a Jewish argument.

The controversy and Yeshua's response are explained as follows:

THE CONTROVERSY: And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath.

YESHUA'S RESPONSE, PART 1: But Jesus answered them, "My Father is working until now, and I am working."

REACTION: This 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.

YESHUA'S RESPONSE, PART 2: So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
(John 5:16-24 ESV)

What is the Jewish argument which Yeshua is making?

  1. What we are to do on the Sabbath is to imitate God in his rest (Gen 2:2).
  2. All life on earth is continually sustained by God, even on the Sabbath.
  3. Therefore it is lawful to sustain life on the Sabbath as this is what God is doing ("my Father is working until now," i.e., even on every Sabbath since creation).

God did not completely cease work on the Sabbath, men were born and died, and only God can give life. Yeshua has just healed a man so incapacitated he cannot even move on his own. In giving this man mobility, Yeshua is giving him fuller life. Thus, Yeshua fixes his redemptive work on the Sabbath in light of God's work.

This style of argument is Jewish in nature. It is based on a text, an idea strongly rooted in Judaism. Yeshua does not cite Genesis 2:2, nor does he have to. The Sabbath principle is foundational. But it is not foundational in Greco-Roman thought. On the contrary, the Roman sources lampoon the Jewish people for laziness for needed a seventh day rest.

Brown alludes to other commentaries which list rabbinic arguments that God does not get tired or need to rest and that no child would be born and illness healed on the Sabbath if it was thought that God ceased all his labors on the Sabbath. It is not from life-giving but from creating that God rests on the Sabbath.

It is not the kind of argument that would suit later Christianity. This section in John 5 is profound, reflecting on Yeshua's transcendent authority (vss. 20-24), at resurrection (vss. 25-29), the judgment according to works (vss. 22-23, 30, 45), the judgment given over to the Son (vs. 22), the Son as Life-Giver (vs. 21), the witnesses to Yeshua's identity (vss. 30-44), and Yeshua as the ultimate subject Torah points to (vss.45-46). Yeshua's teaching that he works as his Father works and does what his Father is doing is saying, in essence, "Life does not cease on the Sabbath and my Father works to sustain life as do I." The implication is not that Yeshua, by virtue of his identity, is exempt from the Sabbath law. It is, rather, a halachic statement: doing whatever promotes life on the Sabbath is permitted and Sabbath restrictions should not promote death or suffering to continue.

John 5 is one more piece of evidence that the divinity of Yeshua is an early development, a Jewish one, and not a late, Greco-Roman-inspired doctrine.

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Filed under: Divinity of Yeshua , Formation of the Gospels , Identity of Yeshua

8 Responses to "Early Divinity in John 5"

  1. "So as the movement for Yeshua became less Jewish and more Roman, the doctrine developed and the Fourth Gospel underwent several edits and additions."

    Well, there are signs in the gospel itself that the audience for which the gospel was tailored was not a Jewish one. Why would, for example, the author need to include the statement "Passover of the Jews " in the text if this wasn't already self-explanatory? This appears early in the text.

    "The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem." (John 2:13)

  2. yeshuain says:


    I am neither saying it is impossible that the gospel was written in layers nor that it is strictly for a Jewish audience.

    I am saying the divinity doctrine did not develop late and out of a Greco-Roman way of thinking. I am saying the divinity doctrine in the Fourth Gospel comes from early Messianic Jewish thought.

    I am of the opinion that all four gospels are written with a general audience in mind (see Bauckham, The Gospels for All Christians ). So, I think explanatory glosses for non-Jewish readers fit with the writer's purpose to explain to Jews and gentiles.

  3. herbert says:

    I have a few questions too.

    1) Yeshua was divine in the sense of having the same substance as God. Where is the necessity to worship the messiah / son ? what is the function of worshiping the messiah ? I can understand being thankful but worshipping is a different level altogether.

    2) What about the shift in the gospel of Jesus to the gospel about Jesus seen in the NT books ? If that is true then did the deification of Jesus start sometime later ?

    3) I also dont understand the reaction - 'This 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.'

    The jews did consider themselves to be children of the Holy One right ? if so what was their problem in Yeshua calling himself the son ?

    1. yeshuain says:

      1) After the resurrection the disciples saw the exalted state of Yeshua and worship was the natural response.

      2) After the resurrection the kingdom message of Yeshua was all the more clear and he was revealed as the king, so that his life, death, resurrection, and enthronement became the gospel.

      3) It was clear he meant the unique son.

  4. Excellent post, Derek! Deep insight. I will keep this one with me.

    Herbert asked, "Where is the necessity to worship the messiah / son ?"

    The disciples worshiped him . Paul said every person will bow in submission to Messiah . And Revelation says that all creation will bow before the throne of the Lamb and worship him, give glory to him forever . (Amein!)

    Jewish Christian apologist Dr. Michael Brown once said that Revelation is a bad place for those who deny Yeshua's divinity. I'd go further and say that the New Testament is a bad place for those that wish to say Jesus should not be worshiped.

    1. yeshuain says:


      Thank you. Yes, Herbert is a good friend and he accepts scriptural authority but always asks the logical and historical questions as well. He has an inquisitive mind.


  5. Daniel says:

    I understand Yeshua's answer as to why he is healing on Shabat is Jewish, it's quite obvious actually. I think it is even based on Leviticus 12:2 "be holy for I am holy." It is the concept of imitating God. As the sages say Just as the Holy One, Blessed is He, is Merciful, so be merciful (i'm quoting from memory here so excuse the errors).
    What I don't understand is how you link this to Yeshua's divinity, or how you see it as yeshua defending his divinity. What I mean is that the concept of imitation is not limited to 'divine status holders', all Israel is called to imitate God.
    Maybe I just don't see the conect between the first part of the text and the second one (where he speaks of authority,etc).

  6. Pauline Donnelly says:

    This is a really nice, scholarly website! It's interesting to see the Jewish perspective. As a non-Jew, I would never have recognized the Jewishness of Jesus's argument/explanation. And I didn't understand His references to His Father's "work". It makes sense that He is talking about sustaining life and healing, which makes more sense of His imitation of the Father. Thank you so much!

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