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The consensus among ancient Greek language experts seems to be that the term 'theon' in John 10:33 should be translated as 'God'. For example

"“We are not stoning You for any good work,” said the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because You, who are a man, declare Yourself to be God.”" (Berean Study Bible)

Yet, in Acts 28:6 the censensus seems to be to translate 'theon' as 'a god'. For example,

"[...] they changed their minds and said he was a god."

John 10:33 is 'sy poieis theon' while Acts 28:6 is 'auton einai theon'.

Are these translated differently for grammatical reasons, contextual reasons, or theological reasons?

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The reason for the difference in translation of these two passages, John 10:33 vs Acts 28:6 is subtle. For completeness let me list the two:

  • John 10:33 - ὅτι σὺ ἄνθρωπος ὢν ποιεῖς σεαυτὸν Θεόν = because you being human make yourself God
  • Acts 28:6 - αὐτὸν εἶναι θεόν = he is a god

Grammatically, the two are slightly different with different coupling verbs and the context is different as well.

Note that in John 10:33, the thrust of the remark by the Jews is the distinction between human vs being God; it is a true qualitative statement. This does not obtain for Acts 28:6.

However, the main difference is the mind-set of the speakers:

  • The Jews were (and still are) strident monotheists. They would never say, "a god" implying multiple gods.
  • By contrast, the local Maltese were polytheists and such a statement is entirely expected.
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  • +1 "Grammatically, the two are slightly different with different coupling verbs" To be clear, are you saying the slight difference in the grammar matters for the different translations of 'God' and 'a god', or just noting it is slightly different? – One God the Father Apr 7 at 21:08
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    @AnthonyBurg - I note that they are different verbs: "to make" and 'to be" - grammatically they are very similar. The main difference is the emphasis on quality in one vs the declaration in the other. – Dottard Apr 7 at 21:10
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In English "a god" specifies a particular instance. It is an instantiation of the abstract notion of "god". The difference is

 quantitative vs  qualitative or
 concrete     vs  abstract or 
 particular   vs  general.

Acts 28:4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This [concrete] man must be a [concrete] murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a [concrete] god.

The islanders first thought he was "a murderer". Later, they thought he was "a god". Both are in the concrete sense of the words "murderer" and "god". When we talk about concrete items in English, we use the indefinite articles "a" or "an" to show that it is a particular instance. Accordingly, the Greek nouns for "murder" and "god" are both anarthrous because of the lack of indefinite articles in the Greek language. The islanders were not talking about the philosophical (abstract) concepts of "murderer" or "god".

On the other hand, in John 10:33, Jesus' accusers said:

“We are not stoning You for any good work,” said the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because You, who are a man, declare Yourself to be God.” (Berean Study Bible)

Leviticus 24:16

Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD must surely be put to death; the whole assembly must surely stone him, whether he is a foreign resident or native; if he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death.

They didn't just accuse Jesus of being a particular god. They accused Jesus of assuming the general notion of Godhood, HaShem.

Are these translated differently for grammatical reasons, contextual reasons, or theological reasons?

For grammatic and semantic reasons, not theological ones.

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  • "They didn't just accuse Jesus of being a particular god. They accused Jesus of assuming the general notion of Godhead." Can you say more about this - how do you know this? – One God the Father Apr 7 at 17:03
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    Good question. I added. – Tony Chan Apr 7 at 17:13
  • So to be clear, you're making a contextual argument based on the notion of blasphemy in ancient Jewish culture? – One God the Father Apr 7 at 17:15
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    Blasphemy was in the minds of his accusers. – Tony Chan Apr 7 at 17:20
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As I discuss in this answer to a similar question, there is no indefinite article in Greek. A literal translation would be "God."1

They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was [a] God.

A translator's decision to render μεταβαλόμενοι ἔλεγον αὐτὸν εἶναι θεόν as "they changed their mind and said he was a god" reflects a translator's theological monotheistic position. There is one God and all other gods are a god.

In addition, "they changed their minds and said he was a god..." implies those speaking understood a monotheistic (or possibly supreme) "God" to which all other gods, were a god. There is no evidence to support this was the case.

The fundamental challenges to putting "a god" in the mouths of the Malta natives are twofold. First, as there is no indefinite article it implies a conceptualization for which there was no word. Arguably, if there is no word to express an idea or concept, it is because that idea or concept has not yet developed to the point where it is articulated. The second challenge is that polytheism is not "gods" in general but specific gods with specific attributes which controlled the natural world. One did not invoke "a god" for rain, or fertility, for example: one called upon the specific god whose province was rain or fertility. One could say "a god" as an indefinite deity was not in the Vorlage of people because "god" was always in some way, specific and definite.

"A god" was not linguistically possible since people think in terms of a single god generically. Polytheism is a belief in multiple gods, each of which have specific identity, name, position, characteristics, and so forth. For example, it is impossible to believe someone who believed in multiple gods would decide to offer a sacrifice to "a" god. Either their act would be to a specific god or described simply as to God or the gods. The language did not have an indefinite article because people did not think in those terms.


1. A second issue arises over capitalization. The original manuscripts would have been written in block letters so it would be impossible to differentiate God from god. Like the decision to insert "a," capitalization is an interpretation.

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  • +1 "The language did not have an indefinite article because people did not think in those terms." Would you apply this only to the God-god translations, or more generally anywhere an interpretation from NT Greek uses an indefinite article? – One God the Father Apr 7 at 21:06
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    I believe it would apply everywhere. I believe it is safe to say that if a word does not exist it would be impossible to express the concept that word embodies. It may not mean the concept of a "generic" something did not exist but certainly it wasn't expressed as it is today. – Revelation Lad Apr 7 at 21:26

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