The first half of the question, namely what the word “gods” means in Psalm 82:6, is fairly straightforward:
82: 1 God has taken his place in the congregation; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
2 “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
3 Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” 5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6 I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; 7 nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.”
8 Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!
Clearly here gods, or god-like beings, are being condemned as unjust, and will die “like men”. The use of plural Hebrew verbs throughout confirms that this is elohim, gods plural, not Elohim, great god, with the singular verb.
Men or angels as “gods”?
The three possibilities traditionally raised for the “gods” here are:
(a) a term for judges, standing in the place of the one god, Yahweh : this was the view of Franz Delitzsch (1866), J. J. Stewart Perowne (1868) Charles Augustus Briggs (1906) among others.
(b) angels, since in the Greek Old Testament a few difficult passages with “gods” in Hebrew are sometimes rendered “angels” in Greek.
(c) a reference to polytheism.
(d) a reference to the congregation of Israel before the Law at Sinai
The problem with (a), “judges”, although it was a very widely held reading in the 19th Century, is that the “judges” interpretation is dependent on a reading of a few verses such as Exodus 21:6 “and his master shall bring him before God” (Hebrew text) where first the Greek Old Testament had complicated matters by introducing “before the judgment of God”. The idea of plural gods and judges was found in Wycliffe’s Bible which had “brynge him to godds, that is, judges; and he shall be set to the door”. Later the 1560 Geneva Bible removed elohim with the rendering “bring him before the judges”. The Geneva Bible’s translation then passed unchanged into the 1611 King James Bible, leading to the understanding that Hebrew “gods” could actually mean “plural judges representing one God”.
The even bigger problem with (b), “angels”, is that it misunderstands what the Alexandrian translators of the Greek Old Testament were attempting in several embarrassing passages where they changed the Hebrew text “gods” with a plural verb to “angels”. This was not translation, but conscious censorship, avoiding the implication of polytheism. In this case, Psalm 82, explanation (b) is even less likely since Psalm 82 is one of the plural “gods” passages which the translators of the Greek Old Testament decided that they had no option but leave as it stood. The Greek text also says “gods”, not angels or judges. Having said that, the Targums (commentary in Aramaic on the Hebrew version of Psalm 82) having rendered “gods” in 82:1 as “judges”, then render “gods” in 82:6 as “angels”.
It is reading (c), “gods”, which is taken by some more modern commentaries which argue that the intended meaning is simply what the Psalm says, namely “gods”. A representative of this reading would be J. A. Emerton, a scholar of Israelite and Canaanite religion, who in 1960 published against the judges view in favor of the view that the gods of Psalm 82 were simply gods. Commentaries taking the reading (c), “gods”, vary in whether the polytheistic meaning is an unknowing borrowing of pagan ideas, or deliberate irony similar to mocking of idols in the prophets – this choice generally following the attitude of the individual modern writer to the inspiration of the Bible, but not really changing that “gods” means gods.
A fourth reading (d), “Israel”, is in evidently related to the “judges” reading but rather than being based on Exodus 21, it draws on rabbinical interpretation of Psalm 82. A major evidence for view (d) is a retelling of the Sinai story attributed to Tanhuma, a famous 4th Century Syrian rabbi, where the giving of the Law at Sinai is expanded with addition of an appearance of the Angel of Death, with whom God enters into a dialogue about Israel:
When I created you [the Angel of Death], I created you for the nations of the world, but not for my sons; for these I have made gods, as it says, ‘I myself have spoken: You are gods and sons of the Most High, all of you.’‛
There is further midrash on Exodus 32:7 which identifies the giving of the Law at Sinai as the event which declared the Israelite people to be “gods”, and that – in reference to Eden – if they remained obedient to the Law at Sinai then they would not die. And in these midrash it was the sin of the golden calf which repeated the sin of Eden and relegated the nation to mortality again.
Psalm 82:1,6 : “gods” means gods
Of these four options (a)(b)(c)(d) it is the two readings (c) and (d) where “gods” does means gods, which best brings out the irony of princes (or the nation at Sinai) who deluded themselves that they were almost divine before dying like men. The reading (a) “judges” would have to be adjusted to something similar to (d) to carry the same level of irony. In other words judges deluding themselves that they were gods would allow irony, but again the meaning of “gods” would still be gods (c), – not judges deluding themselves that they were judges (a), which is no delusion – since they were judges – and the ending of the Psalm would then make no sense.
So what does “gods” mean in John 10:34?
Of the two questions asked at the header, it is the second regarding John 10 which is the more difficult question to answer, because first a decision has to be made as to whether Jesus is being ironic or not. Admittedly the idea of Christ being ironic is difficult for some Christian readers to accept. While irony, and even sarcasm, is something with which every reader of the Old Testament is familiar from the sharp tongue of prophets such as Elijah and Isaiah, the idea that the Lord Jesus would use irony to answer his opponents is more challenging.
All the same, Jesus demonstrably did sometimes use irony. If someone objects on principle to the idea of Jesus ever using irony, then the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is perhaps a good place to start before approaching John 10:34.
The text in John 10 runs as follows:
31 The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” 33 The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” 34 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? 35 If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—36 do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? 37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; 38 but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” 39 Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.
There are two ways of reading this.
1. Without irony:
Without irony the anyone to whom the word came – meaning not just prophets like Elijah or John the Baptist, but even the corrupt princes of Psalm 82, and even the Pharisees about to stone Jesus – was a god.
2. With irony:
With irony Jesus is fully aware of, and deploying, the irony of the original Psalm, as if to say “You Pharisees must be aware of those verses, yet you judge me for claiming to be less than God, only the Son of God, while you yourselves are behaving as these corrupt prince-gods, or judge-gods in the Law of which you consider yourselves custodians”.
It’s clear that the first reading, without irony, is the simpler reading. On that basis any Christian pastor today can claim to be a god, or even any Bible-reading church-goer can be a god. But the second reading, with irony, is more in keeping with surviving rabbinical evidence.
A frequently referenced study on this question is an article entitled ‘The Rabbinic Interpretation of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John: John 10:34’ written by James S. Ackerman which appeared in The Harvard Theological Review Vol. 59, No. 2 (Apr., 1966), pp. 186-191. In the article Ackerman first notes that the gods as judges interpretation (a) above, is well supported by rabbinical commentary on the first four verses of Psalm 82:1-4, including the Talmud (Sanhedrin 6b-7a, Sotah 47b) and Targum Jonathan. Ackerman himself expands this into other territory, but eventually as other writers following him concludes that some human “gods” are intended.
With the uncertainty about what exactly the Pharisee audience understood Psalm 82 to mean, it is equally impossible to be certain about Jesus expected them to understand from the comment – as there is enough surviving evidence to show that rabbis and Jewish translators and commentators had a wide view of understandings of Psalm 82. But generally, with variants, the Jewish readers all understood and agreed that humans were attempting the divine, but becoming corrupt and ending the same as all men.
The one conclusion we can make is that Psalm 82 is no justification for casually slotting in “judges” “angels” or “Israel” into the Hebrew text where we encounter “gods”. Some level of irony is demanded in Psalm 82 to make the condemnation at the end of the psalm have any sense. That then confirms that “gods”, basically means what it says, “gods”, and then we need to read the text with the words it has, not substitute others.
A second fairly secure conclusion is that in John 10:34 Jesus is neither claiming to be “a god”, nor teaching that the Pharisees were “gods”. His comment is rhetoric, either based on Psalm 82 itself, which is already a good enough explanation of John 10:34, or possibly on Pharisaical understanding of Psalm 82, which is not a necessary explanation, but about which it might be worth keeping an open mind. Either way, Christ’s status as “Son of God” is maintained above these so-called “gods”.