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In a famous story in the Synoptics, a rich young ruler comes to visit Jesus. He asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good?” (Mark 10:17; Luke 18:19). At first glance, it appears as if Jesus is creating a distinction between God and himself. Does he deny his goodness here?

Critics have long interpreted this passage to mean that Jesus not only denies his deity but contradicts other passages showing the connection between God and himself (Matthew 22:41-45; 28:18-20; John 10:30), as well as Trinitarian beliefs that date back to earliest days of the church. Muslims interpret this passage to mean that Jesus denied any divinity, claiming he makes it clear that he is not as good as God—meaning that the two must be different persons. Many other non-Christians hold the same view.

The most natural reading of the passage is to see Jesus testing the man because he has too simplistic an idea of what goodness is. The rich young ruler is not ready to address Jesus as “Good Teacher” until he has a more thorough understanding of both goodness and Jesus’ deity. This becomes clear when we observe that the man states that he has kept the law of Moses from his youth (Luke 18:21). It appears the young ruler believes being good is so simple that a child could do it. Jesus rightly challenges the man’s rather simplistic satisfaction with his achievements.

It would be a mistake to interpret Jesus’ words as a denial of his deity. First, no one in the early church would have put these words into Jesus’ mouth. The first Christians taught the deity of Jesus, a fact supported by all of the earliest available Christian writings we possess. No one would have invented a story that contradicted other biblical authors.

Second, the story of the rich young ruler is found in the same documents in which Jesus expresses his divinity in other narratives. Numerous passages depict Jesus receiving worship and making no attempt to stop the individuals from revering him (Matthew 28:9; John 9:35-38). The Gospels portray Jesus receiving worship even when he was a small child (Matthew 2:11). After his resurrection, Thomas flatly states that Jesus is both Lord and God (John 20:28). Earlier, Jesus said that anyone who had seen him had seen the Father (John 14:9). Why would the ancient authors fail to harmonize their work?

The episode between Jesus and the rich young ruler is one in which the master teacher questions his subject to get past the assumptions the latter is bringing to the conversation. To read this as Christ denying his deity is to miss the natural interpretation of the passage.