DID JESUS DENY HIS OWN DEITY IN MARK 10:18? The Significance of Jesus’ Answers to the Rich Young Ruler

DID JESUS DENY HIS OWN DEITY IN MARK 10:18? The Significance of Jesus’ Answers to the Rich Young Ruler

© 2017, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.” (Matthew 19:17a)

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.” (Mark 10:18)

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.” (Luke 18:19)

The three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all record the incident in which a rich young ruler[1] comes to Jesus, calling Him “Good Teacher,” and asking how he may gain eternal life.  Jesus’ initial answer is “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God,” (Τί με λέγεις ἀγαθόν; Οὐδεὶς ἀγαθός εἰ μὴ εἷς ὁ θεός) according to all three synoptic writers.

However, if one consults any major modern translation other than the NKJV, he will see the following in Matthew 19:17a:

“Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” (ESV)

“Τί με ἐρωτᾷς περὶ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ; εἷς ἐστιν ὁ ἀγαθός.”

Why is there this difference?

In fact, the overwhelming majority of the actual manuscripts, a full 99% or more,[2] of the Gospel According to Matthew read,

“Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.”

Nevertheless, using an unsustainable text critical method,[3] the Nestle-Aland Greek text chooses the reading found in 1% of the manuscripts or fewer,[4] which is

“Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.”

And since the Nestle-Aland Greek text is used as the textual basis for all modern English Bible translations except for the NKJV, that is the reading that will appear in most English Bibles.

This unfortunate choice of a secondary reading is, of course, not fatal to the concept of Biblical inerrancy.  Even if that reading were the original, it would certainly be possible that Jesus said both things to the rich young ruler, and Matthew recorded only one of the things while Mark and Luke recorded the other.[5]

Bruce Metzger, in his widely used Textual Commentary, speculates that if the reading found in 99% of the manuscripts “were original in Matthew, it is hard to imagine why copyists would have altered it to a more obscure one, whereas scribal assimilation to Synoptic parallels occurs frequently.[6]  Such assimilations are supposedly done either accidentally (the scribe remembers the other form and that affects what he writes) or deliberately, to make the texts accord with each other.

However, Muslim apologists have been quick to claim that the reading “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good” is indeed original to the Gospel According to Matthew, and that the writer of Matthew deliberately altered what he found in Mark because the reading in Mark was problematic for the Deity of Christ.[7]  For example, well known Muslim apologist Shabir Ally writes,

Matthew reduced the distinction between Jesus and his God.  For example, in Mark 10:18, Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”  But, in the same episode in Matthew 19:17, Jesus said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.”  Hence in Matthew Jesus did not repudiate the attribution of goodness to himself as he did in Mark.[8]

According to Ally, Jesus “repudiate[d] the attribution of goodness to himself” in Mark 10:18, thus distinguishing Himself from God, the only One who is good.  Matthew, wanting to elevate the status of Jesus by “reduc[ing] the distinction between Jesus and his God” altered the statement in Mark, thus creating the Nestle-Aland reading in Matthew 19:17a.

Yet Ally is reading more into the text than is there.  The rich young ruler, as we have seen, comes to Jesus, calling Him “Good Teacher,” and asking how he may gain eternal life.  Jesus’ initial answer is “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.”  Did Jesus “repudiate the attribution of goodness to himself,” as Ally claims?  Did He say, “I am not good”?  Had He said that, He would indeed have been repudiating the attribution of goodness to Himself.  But He said no such thing; what He did was ask the rich young ruler, “Why do you call Me good?”  Since only God is good, says Jesus, He could well be asking, are you deliberately attributing Deity to Me by calling Me good?  Do you realize you are doing that, and are you doing it intentionally?

Ally is therefore mistaken; whatever Jesus is doing, we cannot say that He is repudiating His own goodness.  And further investigation will, in fact, suggest the opposite.

We note that Luke records the same response to the rich young ruler that Mark does: “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God” (Luke 18:19).  Yet in the same book, Jesus says, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good” (Luke 6:45a)!  Later, He tells a parable in which a servant is praised,

“‘Well done, good servant …’” (Luke 19:17a)

So clearly Jesus did consider that other beings than God could be considered “good.”  This, in turn, indicates that Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God” was not a universal statement but applied only to that specific situation.  Let us, therefore, look in detail at that situation.

Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.

You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.”

Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”

But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

First, we see the rich young ruler asking Jesus, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” and it is this question that prompts Jesus’ response, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.”  Why should He answer thus?  Because there is only one “Good” Teacher who has the right to proclaim the way to inherit eternal life, and that is God.

Now, every believer can tell people what God has said in this matter, and that is what Jesus does at first:

“You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

Of course, that is the official answer according to the Mosaic covenant (Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Leviticus 18:4-5).

But the rich young ruler knows this, and affirms that he has, in fact, faithfully done them.  That, though, raises the crucial question: Why did the rich young man come to Jesus to ask how he may inherit eternal life, if he is already doing what is required under the Mosaic covenant?  There seems to be only one answer: the rich young ruler feels that this is not enough.  He wants another, different answer – and surely Jesus knows this (John 2:23-25).  He knows that the rich young ruler is going to ask Him how to inherit eternal life, looking for a different answer from the one in the Mosaic covenant.  And so Jesus begins by pointing out to him that there is only one “Good” Teacher who can give such an answer – God Himself.

And then Jesus answers the question:

“Come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”

Jesus does not simply repeat the Mosaic covenant’s way to inherit eternal life; He proclaims the way to inherit eternal life that is not in the Mosaic covenant – and He does so after stating that God is the only one who can do such a thing.  The conclusion is inescapable: Jesus is proclaiming Himself God.

The fact of the matter, then, is that Jesus was not distinguishing Himself from God by saying, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.”  On the contrary, He was setting the stage for a revelation of His own Deity to the rich young ruler, by affirming that only God can do what the rich young ruler is asking, and then doing it Himself.  This is another of the many proofs in the New Testament that Jesus is indeed God “become flesh and dwelling among us” (per John 1:14).


Endnotes

[1] Matthew tells us the man was young (19:20) and Luke tells us he was a ruler (18:18).  All three tell us the man was rich.

[2] Pickering, Wilbur N. The Greek New Testament According to Family 35, Lexington, KY, 2014, p. 34

[3] See Tors, John. “A Primer on New Testament Textual Criticism (in Manageable, Bite-Sized Chunks)” at https://truthinmydays.com/a-primer-on-new-testament-textual-criticism-in-manageable-bite-sized-chunks/ for a brief overview.

[4] It should be noted that the few manuscripts that have this reading do not fully agree with each other, having various omissions and changes among them.

[5] See Tors, John. “Contradictions in the Gospel Books? Lessons from the World Junior Hockey Championships” at https://truthinmydays.com/contradictions-in-the-gospel-books-lessons-from-the-world-junior-hockey-championships/ for a modern-day example of this phenomenon.

[6] Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgeselleschaft, 1994, p. 40.  This comment of Metzger’s however, is wrong on two counts.  First, one must assume that in each such case the differing reading is the original before one can conclude that “scribal assimilation to Synoptic parallels occurs frequently,” which makes this a colossal circular argument.  Second, it is predicated upon the assumption that scribes took it upon themselves to alter the text they were copying deliberately, yet all of the available evidence shows that they did no such thing.  (See Tors, “A Primer on New Testament Textual Criticism,” op. cit. and Kruger, Michael J. “Early Christian Attitudes toward the Reproduction of Texts” in Hill, Charles E. and Michael J. Kruger. The Early Text of the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 71-80)

[7] This presupposes both literary dependence among the Gospel writers and Markan priority, neither of which is true.  See Wenham, John. Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992, and Tors, John. “The Three-Headed Monster and the Evangelical Betrayal of the Bible: Exposing the Major Weapons Levied Against the Trustworthiness of the Bible” at https://truthinmydays.com/the-three-headed-monster-and-the-evangelical-betrayal-of-the-bible-exposing-the-major-weapons-levied-against-the-trustworthiness-of-the-bible/.

[8] Ally, Shabir. “Did Jesus Claim Deity?: My Reflections on the Ally-White Debate.” Posted on March 27, 2012, at https://shabirally.wordpress.com/2012/03/27/did-jesus-claim-deity/

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