This text is a difficult one and it is frequent that Muslim apologists cite this text to demonstrate that Jesus denied divinity. I am not sure this follows from the various accounts of this narrative in the different Gospels, especially not Matthews’ account.
τί με ἐρωτᾷς περὶ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ; εἷς ἐστιν ὁ ἀγαθός
“Why ask me about the Good? The Good is One (or One is the Good) (trans. mine).”
τί με λέγεις ἀγαθόν; οὐδεὶς ἀγαθὸς εἰ μὴ εἷς ὁ θεός.
“Why do you say me to be good? No one is good except One, the God.”
Or “No one is good except God alone.”
τί με λέγεις ἀγαθόν; οὐδεὶς ἀγαθὸς εἰ μὴ εἷς ὁ θεός. (same as Mark)
Translating the Greek word heis (bolded above) as “alone” is not very apt because Greek has a better word for this task, “monos,” from which we get “monotheism.” Heis means “one” and is a noun, not an adjective.
Luke and Mark’s account are the same and Matthew’s differs a little but the point in all three is the same: all goodness comes from God so claims that persons are “good” ascribe the attribute of “goodness” inaccurately. It is better to say that God is good and we all share in that goodness. Some might think that saying only God is good implies that everyone else is evil but I think this is too strong based on God’s cosmological (i.e., at the beginning of the world) declaration, all creation is “very good.”
There are three ways to settle this matter: 1) rhetorically, 2) grammatically, and 3) theologically-philosophically. Most commentators and theologians combat the Muslim claim that Jesus is denying divinity by saying that Jesus is asking the question to help the man realize the significance of calling someone good and to help him realize that he is calling Jesus good without properly understanding who Jesus is. I have always found this unconvincing because it takes so much interpretation of the text, namely, adding a lot of rhetoric to the text, to make this point. And so I do not find the rhetorical (1) argument very potent.
But there is a grammatical point that most assume or concede when speaking of this text: that “except” is the only way to translate the Greek ei mē (εἰ μὴ). Just as legitimate, grammatically, are the translations “if not” and “except that.” Trying these two options results in the following:
No one is good if not One, the God.
No one is good except that One (is), God.
If this is correct–and certainly grammatically warranted and plausible–then Jesus is not saying that He is not good or that no one else is good but rather making everyone else’s goodness dependent upon and sustained by the “One,” the God. Therefore, we need not concede this grammatical point to the Muslim detractor but can stand firm on this translation as a very real option and, actually, as my following points will show, align better with the Book of Genesis. So, (2) the grammatical point is worth holding out there in any conversation.
But (3), Jesus saying that “no one is good except God” faces the difficulty that God originally called everything “good” and that all things come from God, “the Good,” and so their very existence implies their goodness. Further, humans have the image of God, even after the fall and the Book of Genesis repeats that man was made after God’s image (9:6) as the reason for not shedding men’s blood. But what makes fine order out of these points is Jesus saying “No one is good if not One, the God.” This would indicate that both the image of God and everything else have their goodness derivatively from God’s creative activity. And so it is not that nothing else is good but, rather, nothing would be good without the fountain of all goodness to supply it, namely, God.
Next time, I will deal with Jesus’ Trinitarian status in relation to this question of His goodness as it relates to God.
B. T. Scalise