Within our community discussions are ongoing about Muslim Idiom Translations and the desire to accurately translate the term “Son of God.” To facilitate meaningful dialogue, I seek to clarify what the term “Son of God” likely means in the Gospels. I think it helps to look at the issue from a biblical theological standpoint, not a systematic or historical theological standpoint. (A biblical theological standpoint means one looks at the historical background of the term, and then how the term is used in context in specific books. It doesn’t mean that the standpoint is more biblical.)
The term Son of God has been used historically to refer to the deity of Jesus Christ. This is due in large part to the church’s creeds, confessional statements and later systems of theology that addressed the deity of Jesus. However, was this the title that the earliest churches used to speak of the deity of Jesus or are we reading back into the term a meaning that the earliest churches did not share?
It appears that “Son of God” was not the primary term that the earliest churches used to speak of Jesus’ divinity. The biblical data indicates that the earliest churches made a distinction between divinity and divine sonship, a distinction that became blurred as the church moved into the later part of the first, and in the second and third centuries. Therefore, denoting divinity likely was not the primary function of the term “Son of God” in the Synoptics, in Acts, and possibly not even in John’s Gospel.
To demonstrate this I will look at how the term was used in the Old Testament, in Second Temple intertestamental texts, in Luke-Acts, and finally in Matthew.1 I will not refer to its usage in John as addressing its use in John would be beyond the scope of this paper.
Old Testament Understanding of Divine Sonship
In the Old Testament the people of Israel were called sons of God (Deut 14:1; see also Deut 14:1; Deut 32:6; Isa 43:6; Jer 3:4; Jer 31:9) and God’s firstborn son (Ex 4:22). Being identified as sons of God did not mean that the people of Israel enjoyed some kind of divine or semi-divine status. Divine sonship in this Old Testament sense meant that the people of Israel enjoyed a unique, covenantal relationship with God. This unique relationship with God as Father was also extended in particular to the kings of the Davidic monarchy (2 Sam 7:14-15; 1 Chr 17:13-14; Ps 2:7; Ps 89:26-27) and also to the coming messianic king (Isa 9:6-7). In addition, in Hosea 1:10 the redeemed and restored people of Israel were to be called “Sons of the Living God.” In none of these usages did divine sonship indicate that the children of Israel were divine.
Divine Sonship in the Writings of the Second Temple Period
In the Second Temple period the usage of the term Son(s) of God aligns with the way the term is used in the Old Testament. From among the scrolls that were found at Qumran, in Scroll 11 Q Melchizedek (11Q13) the term sons of God is used and it is used in reference to the people of Israel (Vermes 1997, 501). In the Aramaic Apocalypse (4Q246) the term son of God and son of the Most High appear: The son of God he will be proclaimed (or proclaim himself) and the son of the Most High they will call him (Vermes 1997, 576).2 These usages demonstrate that the term was used to speak of a person or people who enjoy a relationship of favor with God. However, the term in these instances did not imply that the person or persons were divine.
In the deuterocanonical book, Wisdom of Solomon, which was likely written in the second or first century BCE, there is a section in the second chapter about “the righteous man.” In this section the righteous man refers to God as his father and calls himself a child of the Lord (2:12-20). These familial terms denoted enjoying a special relationship with God but it did not signify divinity. In the pseudepigraphical work Psalm of Solomon 17 which pulsates with a strong messianic theme the term sons of God is used for the people of God:
28 And he shall gather together a holy people, whom he shall lead in righteousness, And he shall judge the tribes of the people that has been sanctified by the Lord his God. 29 And he shall not suffer unrighteousness to lodge any more in their midst, Nor shall there dwell with them any man that knoweth wickedness, 30 For he shall know them, that they are all sons of their God. And he shall divide them according to their tribes upon the land, 31 And neither sojourner nor alien shall sojourn with them any more. He shall judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness. Selah.3
In these intertestamental works the term son(s) of God was used to refer to the children of Israel as well as the promised, coming, messianic king. It was not a term that was used to denote divinity. Is this how the term was understood by the earliest Christians? To begin to answer this let us look at the Book of Acts and see how the term was used. We will look at this book first because the clearest data we have of the earliest churches are in the Book of Acts.
Divine Sonship in Acts and Luke
The term Son of God is strikingly used only once in the Book of Acts. The term appears in Acts 9 where Paul called Jesus the “Son of God” as he worked in the synagogues in Damascus after his conversion. In this passage the term Son of God does not appear to refer to Jesus’ divinity because it is paralleled with Jesus’ other title, “Christ”:
And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is this not the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 9:20-22).
Due to this parallel in usage, the term “Son of God” in Acts 9:20 is most likely a messianic term, referring to Jesus being the promised messianic king. It is unlikely that the term in this instance indicated that he was divine.
This parallel between Son of God and Christ occurs also in Luke 4:41: And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God.” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.
If Son of God in Luke-Acts denotes Jesus’ unique standing as God’s chosen, anointed, Davidic, messianic king we would expect to see the term used as a synonym with other messianic terms in Luke’s Gospel. This is what we see happen in the discourses during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus in Luke 22:66-23:43. In these discourses, the terms Christ, Chosen One, King, King of the Jews, and Son of God appear to be used interchangeably:
When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes. And they led him away to their council, and they said, 67 “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe, 68 and if I ask you, you will not answer. 69 But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” 70 So they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.” 71 Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.”
23:1 Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. 2 And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” 3 And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” 4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” 5 But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”
32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Luke uses the term Son of God elsewhere to denote divine sonship rather than divinity. In Luke 3:38 Adam is also called the son of God. We know that this does not suggest that Adam was divine in nature. The term refers to the unique relationship Adam had with God. In Luke 20:36 we read: For they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, sons of the resurrection. In this verse divine sonship is given to those who attain to the resurrection from the dead. Luke 20:36 indicates that the term denoted being in a special, covenantal relationship with God. This harmonizes with the meaning in Luke 3:38. However, due to our western Christian heritage with regard to Jesus we automatically read the meaning of divine nature into the term divine sonship.
Is divine sonship meant to shape the meaning of God’s proclamation that Jesus is his beloved son at his baptism? Is this meant to shape meaning when we read of Jesus talking about God as his father? Are we supposed to read deity into these discourses or are we supposed to understand that Jesus enjoyed a special covenantal relationship with God and was God’s chosen, anointed, messianic king? It appears from the data in Luke, in Acts, in the Old Testament, and in the writings from the intertestamental period that the latter is meant.4
If Son of God is not a term through which Luke speaks of the deity of Jesus, how then does Luke talk about the deity of Christ in his Gospel? It appears that Luke develops the deity of Jesus through his use of the term “Lord” (kyrios) (see Rowe 2005). In Luke Jesus and God are the only ones referred to as Lord. Jesus the Lord does what God the Lord does. We are to conclude from this narrative paralleling that Jesus is God. Luke continues to develop the deity of Jesus in this same manner in the Book of Acts. This particularly Lucan development helps to explain why the earliest confession of the Church was “Jesus is Lord” (see Hurtado 2005).5
Divine Sonship in Matthew
It appears that Matthew uses the term “Son of God” in this same manner as we have seen it used in Luke and in Acts. It appears that Son of God is a title that highlights Jesus’ divine sonship and messianic, kingly role and does not necessarily refer to his divinity.6
This could be questioned because Matthew begins his Gospel with the quote from Isaiah indicating that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecy that the virgin would conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel. Due to our western heritage we immediately read divinity into this name because Matthew includes its meaning, “God with us.” However, we tend to overlook two points as we read this passage.7 First, God is not identified as the father in the passage. Second, Matthew’s intended readers would not have necessarily interpreted the name Immanuel to indicate that the child would be divine in nature. Since the prophecy came from the Book of Isaiah a first century Jew would have read the passage as indicating that the child was a sign that God was with his people. This was its meaning when Isaiah initially gave the prophecy and this is likely how Matthew’s intended readers would have interpreted it.
The first time we encounter the reference to Jesus as Son of God is in 2:15 Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 (and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.) This quote lays the groundwork for Matthew’s development of as the true, regal, representative of Israel (see Holwerda 1995). Since the term in Hosea’s prophecy referred to Israel as a people it denoted divine sonship not divinity.
The next time we encounter the term Son is at Jesus’ baptism. Given the interpretive schematic world of the first century Jewish reader, God’s proclamation indicated divine sonship not divinity. This would also be the case with God’s affirmation of Jesus at the transfiguration in Matthew 17:5 (He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him”).
In the desert the devil tries to tempt Jesus into proving that he enjoyed divine sonship. The temptation to throw himself down from the temple does not make much sense if the devil thought Jesus was divine. If Jesus was divine he could have saved himself. However, if Jesus was a person who enjoyed divine sonship as well as experienced the limitations of being human, then Jesus would have had to depend on God to protect and keep him as he jumped from the pinnacle of the temple.
In 14:33 the disciples pay homage to Jesus by bowing down and they assert that he is truly the Son of God. However, this assertion does not necessarily indicate that they believed that Jesus was divine. It may have simply indicated that they recognized that he was God’s chosen, messianic king though this act clearly extended far beyond any expectation that they had regarding the authority of the Messiah.8
Matthew’s addition to Mark’s and Luke’s record of Peter’s confession of who Jesus was in Matthew 16:16 (You are the Christ, the son of the living God) is another quote from Hosea. Hosea 1:10 states that the redeemed of Israel would be called sons of the living God (LXX). This additional quote from Hosea in the Gospel functions to further develop Matthew’s theme that Jesus is the promised, regal representative of Israel. Therefore, this confession does not function within the text as an assertion of Jesus’ divinity. This limitation of the meaning of the confession is reinforced by how the Son of God term is paralleled with the title Christ at the end of this discourse in Matthew 16:20 (Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ). If the disciples had understood Jesus to be God, Jesus likely would have commanded them to not tell anyone that as well.
As in Luke’s discourses Matthew uses the terms Son of God, Christ, and King as synonyms during Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. We see this in the discourses in 26:63-68 and in 27:39-44.
26: 63 But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65 Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. 66 What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” 67 Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, 68 saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?”
27: 39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.”
The confession of the Roman centurion in 27:54 is not necessarily meant to denote Jesus’ divinity (When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!). This confession likely came from the Roman belief about sons of the gods being human but since they had one divine parent they were super-human. Jesus’ character as expressed in his dying moments was so overwhelmingly remarkable that the soldiers were compelled to acknowledge his super-human quality. Their confession functions as a stark contrast to the Jewish people that had rejected Jesus and failed to recognize how truly distinct Jesus was. This confession also serves as a bridge to where Matthew is going with his Christology his final chapter. Though this confession does not likely function as a direct affirmation of Jesus’ deity, Matthew uses it to set the stage for what is coming.
Acknowledging the distinction between divine sonship and divinity does not in any way diminish the divinity of Jesus in Matthew. It simply causes us to be more attentive to how Matthew develops the divinity of Jesus in his Gospel. It appears that Matthew narratively develops the divinity of Jesus through what Jesus says and does as he exercises his authority.
The narrative development of Jesus’ authority culminates in the commission of his disciples. In this commission Jesus declares that all authority on earth and in heaven had been given to him. This statement aligns with Second Temple understandings of the comprehensive reign of the coming Messiah; yet, it also goes beyond the anticipated range of authority the Messiah was to be given. His authority extended into heaven. The baptismal formula makes Jesus’ unlimited range of authority intelligible and takes Second Temple messianic understandings to a whole new level. This formula is the climax of Matthew’s Christological development portraying the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one and demonstrating that Jesus is not only God’s regal, messianic representative of Israel but that he is also divine. What narratively had been subtly developing through what Jesus had said and done is now stated propositionally. In addition, Matthew closes his Gospel with Jesus promising his omnipresence, a promise only God could fulfill.
For Matthew’s intended readers, upon reading this commission of Jesus to his disciples the full meaning of the Isaianic prophecy with which Matthew opened his Gospel would have exploded for them. Jesus was much more than the chosen, Davidic, messianic king who enjoyed divine sonship, much more than a symbol of God’s presence, Jesus was and is “God with us.”
Bateman IV, Herbert W. 2007. “Defining the Titles “Christ” and “Son of God” in Mark’s Narrative Presentation of Jesus” in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50:3.
Bauer, D. R. 2007. ‘Son of God.’ In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Green, Joel B., Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007
Holwerda, David E. 1995. Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Hurtado, Larry W. 2005. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Keener, Craig S. 2003. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
Nolland, John. 1997. “No Son-Of-God Christology In Matthew 1.18-25” in the Journal of the Society of the New Testament 62.
Rowe, C. Kavin. 2005. Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Schreiner, Thomas. 2008. New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Vermes, Geza. 1997. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. New York, NY: Allen Lane The Penguin Press.
- For an analysis of the term “Son of God” in Mark, see Herbert Bateman IV, ‘Defining the Titles “Christ” and “Son of God” in Mark’s Narrative Presentation of Jesus’ in JETS 50:3, 2007. [return]
- Compare with Luke 1:32-35. [return]
- taken from: http://wesley.nnu.edu/sermons-essays-books/noncanonical-literature/the-psalms-of-solomon/, accessed August 7, 2011. [return]
- David Bauer concurs and states that in the Synoptic Gospels “Jesus did not speak of his divine sonship in terms of pre-existence or focus on ontological realities (such as his divine “nature”). Rather, Jesus emphasized the elements of personal relationship and active function” (1997). [return]
- This may explain why Paul’s preferred titles for Jesus were Lord and Christ and not Son of God. Paul calls Jesus Lord 184 times while only referring to Jesus as God’s Son 15 times (Keener 2003, 293). This may also explain why Paul wrote that Jesus was appointed to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead in Romans 1:4 (concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was appointed to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord). It appears that the term in this verse refers to Jesus’ messianic role rather than to his divine status. [return]
- Craig Keener concurs that “Son of God” in Matthew is likely a synonym for Messiah (2003, 297). [return]
- For a fuller development of this, see John Nolland’s No Son-Of-God Christology In Matthew 1.18-25. [return]
- Thomas Schreiner states: “When Jesus calms the storm, the disciples confess that he is God’s Son (Matt. 14:33). Perhaps the disciples received a glimmer of Jesus’ special relation to God, but they likely meant by this acclamation that Jesus was truly the Messiah, the one to whom the covenantal promises given to David pointed. The same conclusion should be drawn from Matt. 16:16, where at a crucial juncture in the Gospel Peter exclaims that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”. It is doubtful that at this stage in his thinking Peter grasped that Jesus was divine” (2008, 236). [return]