“My Lord and my God!” Is this theology or rhetoric?

Read time: 4 minutes

This is a brief re-examination of Thomas’ famous declaration “My Lord and my God” in John 20:28. I looked at this some years ago, noting the common argument that the wording of the confession reflects the “custom,” recorded in Suetonius and Dio Cassius, of addressing the emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) as “our master and our god”:

With no less arrogance [Domitian] began as follows in issuing a circular letter in the name of his procurators, “Our Master and our God (Dominus et deus noster) bids that this be done.” And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way even in writing or in conversation. (Suet. Dom. 13.2)

For [Domitian] even insisted upon being regarded as a god and took vast pride in being called “master” (despotēs) and “god.” These titles were used not merely in speech but also in written documents. (Dio Cassius, Hist. 67.4.7)

When [a conspirator] was on the point of being condemned, he begged that he might speak to the emperor in private, and thereupon did obeisance (proskynēsas) before him and after repeatedly calling him “master” (despotēn) and “god” (terms that were already being applied to him by others), he said…. (Dio Cassius, Hist. 67.13.4)

We could imagine that this custom was a matter of common knowledge and at least loosely attached to the fitful persecution of Jews and Christians under Domitian. If the majority view is correct that the Gospel was composed in Ephesus towards the end of the first century, it seems plausible that Thomas’ confession functions as a figure for a transfer of allegiance from the emperor to the risen Christ. The Christian in Ephesus does not do obeisance to the emperor but to the risen Christ, even though he or she has not seen him.

This rhetorical purpose seems to make good sense of the context of the confession in the Gospel. There is something very odd about a direct identification of Jesus as “God” at this juncture.

1. A little earlier, when Mary moves to touch or clasp (haptou) Jesus, she is told that he is “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17). She then goes to the disciples and tells them that she has “seen the Lord.” This differentiates quite emphatically between Jesus as “teacher” (Jn. 20:16) and “Lord” and the God who will exalt him, precisely when the physical body of Jesus is at issue.

2. Thomas’ acclamation functions as an expression of his belief that Jesus who was recently crucified is actually alive. That is why so much is made of seeing the marks of the nails and placing his hand in the wound in his side (Jn. 20:25, 27). That accounts for “my Lord,” but why would belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus elicit the further “and my God,” especially when Jesus has himself just uttered the words “my God”?

3. We are then told, in what may originally have been the closing paragraph of the book, that the signs which Jesus performed have been recorded so that John’s readers may “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (Jn. 20:31). In the Gospel, the “Son of God” is not God but one who receives the Spirit of God (Jn. 1:33-34), who can be addressed as “Rabbi,” the “King of Israel” (Jn. 1:49), who is sent into the world by God (Jn. 3:17-18), and who is executed as a false messiah (Jn. 11:27; 19:6; 20:31). So the definitive and climactic confession, at the close of the Gospel, ought to have been that Jesus is the “Son of God.”

It seems likely that the assumed readership here—the Johannine community in Ephesus, in the first place—is already Christian: John’s Gospel is not an evangelistic tract but an encouragement to those who already believe that they might persevere and have life in the name of the one who was raised from the dead (cf. 1 Jn. 5:13).

If that’s the case, the immediately preceding account of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Jesus has in view those who are “blessed” because they have believed without seeing and touching. It is just one of many “other” signs that have been written down for the benefit of a later generation of believers, who perhaps are having a hard time maintaining their commitment to an intangible Lord under the intense and very tangible social and political-religious pressures that prevailed in late first century Roman Ephesus—whether or not direct imperial persecution was involved.

It would make sense, then, to look for an explanation of Thomas’ anomalous confession in the circumstances of the reading community.

For these reasons, I think it may be better to regard Thomas’ confession as a rhetorical statement, an affirmation of political-religious loyalty on the part of the Johannine community, than as anything like an ontological or direct identification of Jesus as “God.” To do obeisance to the risen Jesus was somewhat like doing obeisance to Domitian as “master” and “god.” It begins as a response to the human person, not as a revelation of divine nature.

Still, it also appears that this acute practical dilemma was just one of several channels along which Christian thought flowed on its way towards the sea of trinitarian orthodoxy.

Hi Andrew,

Have you ever noticed that John 20:28 is an incomplete sentence? 

Most claim that a nominative for vocative is at work here, but what if both Κύριός and Θεός are functioning as nominatives?  Bill Mounce has pointed out two interesting things (see the link below):

1. If Jesus is called Κύριός, then this would be the only verse in the New Testament in which that’s the case, as he is otherwise referred to or addressed as κυριε. 

2. He also notes that if Κύριός and Θεός are functioning as nominatives, then this would mean that part of the sentence is missing, requiring us to infer what is not stated.    

Mounce suggests that the complete sentence could be, “My Lord and my God has risen,” but I wonder if this isn’t his theology talking?  I say, why not, “My Lord and my God has truly raised you!”?  

Is κυριος Nominative or Vocative? (John 20:28) | billmounce.com


@Sean Kasabuske:

You would have to explain the truncation, the “aposiopesis”: “My Lord and my God….” Why does he not finish the sentence? Is that really in keeping with John’s style?

I also wonder if the repeated mou (“my”) makes sense if this is really the singular subject of a  statement about the resurrection. The Domitian quotations indicate that the two terms “master” and “god” were applied separately, so the point may be that the two part vocative, with “my” repeated, reflects that distinction. Perhaps the nominatives are used because this is effectively a quotation, an allusion to the Roman practice.

@Andrew Perriman:

Good question about John’s style, and I’m not in a position to answer whether or how that question informs the one about what Thomas actually meant.  

I read somewhere that Theodore of Mopsuestia felt that the QEOS at least applied to the Father, so that would be in harmony with the possibility that you suggested.  I don’t remember if he thought that KURIOS applied to Jesus and QEOS to the Father, or that both terms applied to the Father.  

I just can’t help but think that the observation Mounce made must have some significance: If Jesus is called Κύριός at John 20:28, then that would apparently be the only time that happened in the entire New Testament!  He is otherwise referred to as κυριε.   Why did the Evangelist decide to stray from common practice?  Was the Domitian quote in Greek, and do we find nominatives there functioning as vocatives?  

@Sean Kasabuske:

We have the repeated “my” in Ps. 34:23 LXX: “Wake up! And pay attention to my trial, my God and my Lord (ho theos mou kai ho kyrios mou), to my case!” So perhaps it’s not so strange, merely emphatic.

The Dio Cassius quotes above are in Greek, but despotēs is used for “master” rather than kyrios, and they do not record the actual form of the address.

The Latin “Dominus et deus noster” is the subject of the verb, not vocative.

@Andrew Perriman:

I think you’ve misunderstood me, Andrew.  I didn’t say that it was strange for a nominative to function as a vocative.  What I said was that everywhere else in the New Testament Jesus is called κυριε, and so why would we assume that when the Evangelist uses Κύριός, which is never applied to Jesus in the New Testament, that he is applying it to Jesus here?  I think that’s strange by definition.

Also, if the majority view is correct, then John 20:28 is quite different from Psalm 34:23 in that the former is addressed to a man, while the later is addressed to God.  That would also be a bit strange, by definition.   

The majority view also seems quite unnatural, in context.  Thomas was overwhelmed with grief and doubt, not about whether Jesus was God, but about whether he truly had been resurrected.  That was the point of agony that consumed his soul, and in a moment that was surely attended by a release of all-consuming joy, he finally came to believe!  But *what* did he come to believe?  That Jesus was his God or that Jesus really had been resurrected?  Isn’t it rather obviously the later, and, if so, isn’t that what we would expect Thomas to exclaim?    

So, if we assume that the terms are functioning as nominatives here, then we have an incomplete sentence, which provides us with an opportunity to infer missing words that form an exclamation that actually comports with context, e.g.: “My Lord and My God really HAS raised you!”  

Is my suggestion correct?  We have no way of knowing, but I think it fits the context much more naturally than the majority view, which seems to place an exclamation on Thomas’ lips that comes out of left field.  Indeed, the majority view seems to place a non sequitur on Thomas’ lips.  

@Sean Kasabuske:

Sorry, my comments weren’t very well framed. The “not so strange” comment was directed at what I said earlier about the repeated mou. I was talking to myself. I mentioned Psalm 34:23 LXX only because it shows that one “person,” divine or human, can be addressed in this way, though there may be a contextual reason for the emphasis.

On further reflection, the argument about the nominative may fail on account of the article + possessive construction.

None of the instances of kyrie in John has the possessive. The only place in the New Testament where we have kyrie mou, I think, is Revelation 7:13, which is addressed to one of the elders: ‘I said to him, “Sir (kyrie mou), you know.”’ So it may be that with the possessive the nominative case is retained even the function is vocative.

It needs more work, but notice the difference here:

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God (θεέ μου θεέ μου), why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God (ὁ θεός μου ὁ θεός μου), why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

Matthew has the vocative thee, Mark has the definite article with the nominative form + mou, which is exactly what John has: ὁ κύριός μου καὶ ὁ θεός μου.

So the kyrios form doesn’t really seem to be an obstacle to reading it as vocative.

@Andrew Perriman:

“So the kyrios form doesn’t really seem to be an obstacle to reading it as vocative.”

Sure, agreed, but I didn’t argue that it was.  I assume that the part I quoted is just you thinking things through, and not meant to be a counter to anything I’ve said?