The term GOD in the Bible

We may fittingly start our essays on interpretation by considering some concepts that puzzled the theologians of ancient Antioch, namely those of GOD, LORD, and LOGOS. We shall start with having a look at the word GOD.

If we consider this word in modern English, it usually carries the connotation of an object of worship or veneration. In Christendom its main connotation is that of a transcendent Creator who has revealed Himself to man. As the word GOD is used on Jesus as well, it is generally believed that he is part of a trinity consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It should be mentioned, though, that the New Testament does not use the term GOD on the Holy Spirit.

The Greeks

Many of the Christians of the second century were speaking Greek although their native tongue may have been some other language. This also applies to Antioch.  The word for GOD in Greek is θεος [theos]. The denotation of this word is defined “a God (as an individual), also God, Deity.”[i] Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words has this definition: “THEOS (θεος), (A) in the polytheism of the Greeks, denoted a god or deity.” It adds: “(B) (a) Hence the word was appropriated by Jews and retained by Christians to denote the only true God.”[ii]

Among the Greeks, the term GOD had connotations of worship and devotion. You had to appease the gods or secure their approval by offering sacrifices to them. These gods and goddesses had differing functions. Therefore, one day the ancient Greek may have had to offer a sacrifice to one god and the following day to another. This is what we call polytheism. In the article Religion in ancient Greece, Wikipedia has the following observation: “Ancient Greek theology was based on polytheism; that is, the assumption that there were many gods and goddesses.” Under the subheading Sacrifice it continues: “Worship in Greece typically consisted of sacrificing domestic animals at the altar with hymns and prayer. Parts of the animal were then burned for the gods; the worshippers would eat the rest.”[iii]

Consequently, when in the world of the first century the word THEOS was heard, people were inclined to think of worship and polytheism.

The Jews

However, among the ancient Hebrews or Israelites their word for GOD had other connotations. The word אלהים [elohīm] is the plural form of the word for GOD, אלוה [elōah]. Except in the Book of Job the singular form of this word is not used very often in the Hebrew Bible. The plural is by far its most common form. It is used on God the Almighty, but also on false gods as in the Book of Judges 16:23: “Then the lords of the Philistines gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god [elohīm],  and to rejoice; for they said, Our god [elohīm] hath delivered Samson our enemy into our hands.”[iv] Evidently the plural is used in the Old Testament, not just to indicate plurality but also to indicate respect.[v]

The word GOD in plural is in certain cases used on idols. In Exodus 32:4 we read: “After he had made it a golden calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel …” Here the translators of the King James Version have used the plural form, which is grammatically correct, although there was only one idol, one golden calf.[vi]

The word GOD is even used on human beings. Jesus was quoting Psalm 82:6 in the Old Testament when he according to the Gospel of John (10:34-36) said: “Is it not written in your law, I said ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest ; because I said, I am the Son of God?”

When the Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, had the Old Testament translated into Greek a couple of centuries before the birth of Jesus, they used the Greek word θεος [theos] for the Hebrew word אלהים [elohīm]. In this translation the Greek word is in singular when rendering the Hebrew majestic plural. The plural θεοι [theoi], however, is used when the word elohīm in the Hebrew text designates real plurality.

In his Hebrew Grammar, the German orientalist Wilhelm Gesenius has an interesting observation on the term “sons of God.”

  • There is another use of  בן־ or בני to denote membership of a guild or society (or tribe or any definite class). Thus בני האלים or בני האלהים Gn 6:2, 4, Jb 1:6, 2:1, 38:7 (cf. also בני האלהים Ps 29:1, 89:7) properly means not sons of god(s), but beings of the class of האלהים or האלים.[vii]

If this is correct, the Jews in ancient times understood the term “sons of god”” to mean DIVINE BEINGS and recognised the existence of such beings although they did not hold them to be equal with the Supreme God, the only god to be worshiped.

It seems that the translators of the Septuagint Version agreed. According to the Book of Job chapter 2 verse 1, “the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD.” Here the Septuagint version says: “ηλθον οι αγγελοι του θεου παραστηναι εναντι κυριου.”[viii] ‘Sons of God’ has been translated with ’angels of God.’[ix] This is also how the term בני האלהים  [benē ha- elohīm] as used in Genesis 6:2 is understood in the early Christian writings of Peters second Letter (chapter 2 verse 4) and the Letter of Jude (verse 6). Genesis 6:2 has “sons of God” while 2 Peter and Jude referring to the same incident have “angels.”

All this is in harmony with this commandment in the Mosaic Law (Exodus 20: 3): “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This is not a denial of other divine beings. However, they are not to be worshiped. A god may be a superhuman person or even a human. All the same, worship should be directed to only one person, the Creator of the universe.

The connotations are beautifully summed up by the rabbi Ernest Klein. Under אלהים in his Etymological Dictionary he writes: “1 god. 2 God (plural of majesty). 3 supernatural beings. 4 judges.”[x]

The early Christians

The first of the early Christians were Jews. Consequently, they were familiar with Hebrew, and as we see in the New Testament, their connotations in connection with the word GOD [ אלהים] matched those given by Ernest Klein as quoted above.

Many of the early Christians, however, were more familiar with the Old Testament in Greek as represented by the Septuagint Version. Nevertheless, when we read the Greek New Testament or its translations, we see that the connotations they had to θεος [theos], the Greek word used for God, were similar to those they had in connection withאלהים  [elohīm], the Hebrew word for God.

Thus the plural of the word θεος [theos] is used for false gods in Acts 7:40, 14:11, and 1 Corinthians 8:5. The early Christians, though, did not regard them as gods in the sense of objects of worship. For them there was only one God, as stressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:5, and by Jesus in John 17:3.

Serve and worship

This brings us to the two words used in connection with the religious acts performed by man towards their object of worship. In Greek especially two words are used, namely those of προσκυνεω [prosküneo:  to make obeisance, do reverence to] and λατρευω [latreuo: to serve, to render religious service or homage].[xi]

The word προσκυνεω [prosküneo] may or may not have religious connotations. The early Christians in Antioch knew from the Septuagint version of the Old Testament that Abraham “did obeisance [προσεκυνησε] to the people of the land, to the sons of Chet.” [xii] Naturally, he was not worshiping the Hittites but showing them his respect. Ruth did the same to Boaz (Ruth 2:10)[xiii] and Bathsheba to King David (1 Kings 1:16),[xiv] just to mention a couple of examples.

The word προσκυνεω [prosküneo] in the Septuagint has mostly been translated from a Hebrew word derived from the root שחה. In many English translations, it has been rendered WORSHIP. This may be correct in certain contexts, but in general the word just describes an action, that of bowing down. Consequently, the early Christians understood that this word described an action that could be performed in respect to anybody, but naturally not to any god except the Creator.[xv]

When it comes to the word λατρευω [latreuo: to serve, to render religious service or homage], it occurs 21 times in the New Testament, and always in connection with the worship of God. The same applies to its noun λατρεια [latreia: religious service] which occurs 5 times.

To sum it up: comparing the use of προσκυνεω [prosküneo] in the New Testament to that of λατρευω [latreuo], one gets the clear impression that λατρευω [latreuo] was something that was to be directed to God only while προσκυνεω [prosküneo] could be directed to anybody you wanted to show respect. This person, though, might feel it in order to decline, asking the other part to direct his respect to God.

After the apostolic age

As the early Christians, Jews and gentiles alike, regarded the Old Testament as their sacred writing, it is only natural that their idea of monotheism was the idea they found there: many persons could be called gods but only one should be worshiped.[xvi] However, also many persons who were not acquainted with the use of the word GOD in the Old Testament became Christians. Thus the connotations of this word changed within the Christian community. To them a god was not just a mighty person but a member of a pantheon. Consequently the word GOD when used on Christ gave way to some confusion. Let us consider an example.

Justin Martyr was born in Palestine abound 100 AD, or about the time when the Apostle John died in Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor. Justin had a dialogue with a person named Trypho, and speaking about Jesus in his pre-human existence and about the visit of three angels to Abraham, he wrote:

  • I replied again, “If I could not have proved to you from the Scriptures that one of those three is God, and is called Angel, because, as I already said, He brings messages to those to whom God the Maker of all things wishes [messages to be brought], then in regard to Him who appeared to Abraham on earth in human form in like manner as the two angels who came with Him, and who was God even before the creation of the world, it were reasonable for you to entertain the same belief as is entertained by the whole of your nation.”
  • “Assuredly,” he said, “for up to this moment this has been our belief.”
  • Then I replied, “Reverting to the Scriptures, I shall endeavor to persuade you, that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things, — numerically, I mean, not [distinct] in will. For I affirm that He has never at any time done anything which He who made the world — above whom there is no other God — has not wished Him both to do and to engage Himself with
  • Then the fourth of those who had remained with Trypho said, “It must therefore necessarily be said that one of the two angels who went to Sodom, and is named by Moses in the Scripture Lord, is different from Him who also is God and appeared to Abraham.”
  • “It is not on this ground solely,” I said, “that it must be admitted absolutely that some other one is called Lord by the Holy Spirit besides Him who is considered Maker of all things; not solely [for what is said] by Moses, but also [for what is said] by David. For there is written by him: ‘The Lord says to my Lord, Sit on My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool,’ as I have already quoted. And again, in other words: ‘Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever. A sceptre of equity is the sceptre of Thy kingdom: Thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity: therefore God, even Thy God, hath anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows.’ If, therefore, you assert that the Holy Spirit calls some other one God and Lord, besides the Father of all things and His Christ, answer me; for I undertake to prove to you from Scriptures themselves, that He whom the Scripture calls Lord is not one of the two angels that went to Sodom, but He who was with them, and is called God, that appeared to Abraham.” [xvii] (Italics ours.)

That Justin would speak of another god (please remember that the word is not capitalised in ancient Greek) hardly made Christians well versed in the Old Testament lift their eyebrows. After all, Justin was basing his claim on the Scriptures. However, to contemporary Christians with a pagan background, the idea of more than one god no doubt sounded like polytheism, and while shunning their former religion, they tried to interpret the Christian ‘lingo’ by means of Hellenistic philosophy. This, though, exposed them to aberrant decoding. [xviii]

The result was that some claimed that the Father and the Son are just different modes the Almighty reveals Himself. This school of thought was called Modalism. To the other extreme were the Adoptionists who said that Jesus was a common human until his baptism. At that moment (or at his ascension) the Almighty adopted him as His son and infused him with the divine Logos.

Between these two extremes a lot of other explanations flourished, but common to most of them was the idea that God the Father is superior to his Son.[xix]

The misunderstandings about the meaning of the word GOD could have been avoided if the readers of the Old and the New Testament had interpreted the text by means of the codes the writers of these texts had shared with their original target groups.

To give an example: In Turkey a police officer or a soldier who is killed during his duty is called a şehit [martyr]. To interpret this Turkish word within a Christian framework would be aberrant decoding. A similar phenomenon is the Arabic word for apostle [رسول: rasūl]. If used in a Christian context, this word refers to somebody sent out by Jesus or by the congregation (the connotations: messenger, envoy, delegate &c). If used in a Muslim context, it has the connotations of a religious leader, not unlike the Judges of ancient Israel, such as Gideon and Samuel (the connotations: prophet, the Prophet, the Messenger of God, Mohammed).[xx]

To understand a message not originally addressed to us personally or to the interpretative community to which one belongs, it is vital to acquaint oneself with the codes shared by the writer and his intended readers.[xxi]


[i] C. Berg, Græsk-Dansk Ordbog (Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel – Nordisk Forlag, 1963).

[ii] W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictonary of Old and New Testament Words (Michigan: Fleming H. Revell, 1981), 160.

[iii] “Religion in ancient Greece” Wikipedia. Accessed August 22, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_ancient_Greece.

[iv] The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version (Oxford:Oxford University Press, (no year)), 282.

[v]  “Several prominent epithets of the Bible describe the Jewish God in plural terms: Elohim, Adonai, and El Shaddai. Some scholars take these names to represent an early stage in Jewish religion when God was still seen as a council or family of dieties; others note that the present Biblical text always employs grammatically singular verb forms and argue that they represent a majestic plural.Similarly, the God of the Qur‘an employs the Arabic pronoun nahnu (“We”) or its associated verb suffix in many verses. Some grammarians distinguish this divine usage as a pluralis excellentiae rather than a majestic plural.” – “Majestic Plural,” Wikipedia. Accessed August 27, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majestic_plural.

[vi]The Holy Bible, 98.

[vii] Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), § 128, 2, rem. 2c.

[viii] A. Rahlfs ed., Septuagint, (Stutgart: Würtembergische Bibelanstalt, 1935 (9th edition of 1971)

[ix]   בני האלהים [sons of God/gods]  >  οι αγγελοι του θεου [the angels of God].

[x] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for English Readers (London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1987) 29.

[xi] Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary, 235-36.

[xii] The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, [no year]) 27.

[xiii] Ibid., 351.

[xiv] Ibid., 441.

[xv] The Gospel of Mathew uses the Greek word in connection with persons bowing down to Jesus, even by people not regarding him as divine, such as the Three Sages and a Phoenician woman. Jesus himself uses is on an action performed by a default debtor to his creditor (Mathew 18:26).

[xvi] See Luke 4:8; John 17:3; 1 Corinthians 8:5, 6.

[xvii] The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Co. 1885) 444-46.

[xviii] “Aberrant decoding: Eco’s term referring to decoding a text by means of a different code from that used to encode it. See also: Codes, Decoding, Encoding and decoding model of communication.” –  Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners: Glossary of Key Terms, accessed September 28, 2013, http://users.aber.ac.uk/dgc/Documents/S4B/sem-gloss.html.

[xix] J. Daniélou, A.H. Couratin and John Kent, The Pelican Guide to Modern Theology, Volume 2 (Baltimore: Pelican, 1969), 79.

[xx] Rohi Baalbaki, al-Mawrid: A modern Arabic-English Dictionary (Beirut: Dal el-Ilm lilmalayin, 2005), 585.

[xxi] “Encoding and decoding model of communication: Following Jakobson’s model of interpersonal communication which moved beyond the basic transmission model of communication Stuart Hall proposed a model of mass communication which underlined the importance of active interpretation within relevant codes and a social context.” – Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners: Glossary of Key Terms, accessed September 28, 2013, http://users.aber.ac.uk/dgc/Documents/S4B/sem-gloss.html..

About Antiochene

Writer, living in Antioch on the Orontes (Antakya, Turkey).
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