What did “Son of God” actually mean?

In the Jewish context “Son of God” does not mean “more than human”.  All Jews were “Sons of God” (E.P. Sanders – Professor Oxford)

Every male Israelite could pride himself on being a “son of God”, and reciprocally he was in a position to call God his Father…in Judaism the phrase [“Son of God”] is always used metaphorically; it never designates a person who is believed to be simultaneously man and God, a human being who also shares in some way divine nature.  (Geza Vermes – Professor Oxford)

Christianity began as a revitalization movement within Judaism. The movement was inspired by the preaching of an itinerant charismatic, Jesus of Nazareth, who proclaimed the “reign of God” as a future reality anticipated by his own healing, exorcism, and provocative teaching. His claims about his own status in that reign of God remain unclear. It is highly unlikely that he claimed to be divine, as his followers would later assert. He probably did understand himself in prophetic terms, as a divine emissary, but not without irony. He may have spoken of his role allusively, with images such as “Son of Man” from the Hebrew scriptures (Dan. 7.13). (Harold Attridge – Professor Yale) [italics added]

[Son of God]  Where the phrase occurs in the gospels, we cannot be sure whether it was actually used in the time of Jesus or has been introduced later in the writing of the gospels.  What can be said is that, if it was used in the time of Jesus himself, it meant no more than the special human agent of God; it could not have meant the second hypostasis of the Trinity.  (William Montgomery Watt – Professor Edinburgh)

The Son of God in Jewish tradition did not mean a divine figure.  In the Old Testament God says to the Israel i.e. king “You are my son, today I have begotten you” (Psalms 89:27).  Angels, Israelites in general, righteous mean and (in the New Testament) Christians can all be spoken of as sons of God, and can address God as Father.  This process of elaboration can sometimes be linked to what looks like the process of the development of a doctrine.  Thus in Mark’s view of Jesus as “son of God” (a purely human title which in the Old Testament could be applied to a king like Solomon) developed by the time John wrote his Gospel into Jesus as “The Son of God” (a divine figure who existed with God I the beginning).  (Don Cupitt and Peter Armstrong – Cambridge and BBC)

The Lord’s Prayer is not an example of a unique address:  the prayer begins “Our Father,” not “My Father” … It is not “to Jesus”; it says nothing uniquely Christian; and it fits neatly within Jewish piety. (Amy-Jill Levine – Professor Vanderbilt and Cambridge)

Although Mark and the other evangelists use titles that Christians today often take as indicating Jesus’ divinity, such as “son of God” and “messiah,” in Mark’s own time these titles designated human roles.  The Christians who translated these titles into English fifteen centuries later believed they showed that Jesus was uniquely related to God, and so they capitalized them – a linguistic convention that does not occur in Greek.  But Mark’s contemporaries would mostly likely have seen Jesus as a man – although one gifted, as Mark says, with the power of the holy spirit, and divinely appointed to rule in the coming kingdom of God.  (Elaine Pagels – Professor Princeton)

There was no expectation of a coming Son of God at all … [and] as far as we know Jesus did not call himself “Son of God”.”  (E.P. Sanders – Professor Oxford)

[“Son of God”]  Most scholars agree that the Aramaic or Hebrew word behind “son” is “servant”.  So as the Sprit descends on Jesus at his baptism Jesus is addressed by the voice from heaven in terms of Isaiah 42:1, “Behold my servant… my chosen.. I have put my spirit upon him”.  So although Mark 1:11 and 9:7 affirm that Jesus is called by God to a special messianic task, the emphasis is on Jesus’ role as the anointed servant, rather than as Son of God.  (Graham Stanton – Professor Cambridge)

In the book of John, Jesus talks about himself and proclaims who he is, saying “I am the bread of life.” Whereas in Mark, Jesus teaches principally about the coming kingdom and hardly ever mentions himself directly. These differences offer clues into the perspectives of the authors, and the eras in which they wrote their respective Gospels, according to Ehrman. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is not interested in teaching about himself. But when you read John’s Gospel, that’s virtually the only thing Jesus talks about is who he is, what his identity is, where he came from,” Ehrman says. “This is completely unlike anything that you find in Mark or in Matthew and Luke. And historically it creates all sorts of problems, because if the historical Jesus actually went around saying that he was God, it’s very hard to believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke left out that part — you know, as if that part wasn’t important to mention. But in fact, they don’t mention it. And so this view of the divinity of Jesus on his own lips is found only in our latest Gospel, the Gospel of John.”  (from interview with Bart D. Ehrman)

Bible, the New Testament, they are all operating in a pre-enlightenment world.
In a pre-enlightenment world it is taken for granted by everyone (expect maybe
some very erudite philosophers who don’t believe in it, but the general culture
takes it for granted) that, for example, divine babies can be conceived, that
gods can come to earth and have intercourse with mortals and that this
intercourse can produce divine babies. They take it for granted. It’s simply
part of the baggage of their culture. Therefore in their culture, in a pre-enlightenment
culture, to announce that your Jesus is a divine child is not going to
get the general post-enlightenment reaction that this can’t happen, couldn’t
happen, doesn’t happen, we don’t believe that stuff. It might get the reaction
that we don’t believe your claim, but they cannot and would not argue that it could
not happen. What they would like to know is: what has your baby done for
anyone? If your Jesus is divine, what has he done for the world? That is a
pre-enlightenment question. The post-enlightenment argument that it can’t
happen is never used in the first century. The most you’ll ever get is that we
don’t believe your claim. So in a pre-enlightenment world, whether we live in a
post-enlightenment world or not, we have to respect that. For example, if Paul
goes around the Mediterranean saying that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, the
immediate answer from a polite, pious pagan is not that we don’t believe in
that stuff. The proper answer is: good for you, good for Jesus, but so what? We’ve
heard these kinds of stories before, what’s he done for us? That is a
pre-enlightenment question.  (John Dominic Crossan – Professor Chicago)

The two most important textual problems in Mark’s gospel concern its beginning and its end.  The words “Son of God”… in 1:1 are omitted in a few important early manuscripts.  … But the words could have been accidentally omitted; they are found in the majority of early and significant manuscripts, and the inclusion of the phrase fits well with Mark’s Christology… The ending of Mark’s gospel poses a quite different and more severe problem… The arguments against this ending being original are very strong.   (D.A. Carson – Professor Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)

In Mark’s gospel “Son of God” is a much more important title than “Messiah-Christ”.  In most modern translations it occurs in the opening line.  But there is a puzzle here.  The phrase “Son of God” is not found in many important manuscripts.  Did later scribes add the phrase or omit it?  … it is just possible that a very early scribe’s eye jumped over the phrase inadvertently. … The evidence and the arguments are evenly balanced, though the early addition of the phrase is probably more likely. (Graham Stanton – Professor Cambridge)

“Jesus seemed to have been quite reluctant to adopt a title for himself.  I think that even “king” is not precisely correct, since Jesus regarded God as king.  My own favourite term for his conception of himself is “viceroy”.  God was king, but Jesus represented him and would represent him in the coming kingdom”.  (E.P. Sanders – Professor Oxford)

…the reference to the Deity as “father” appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as other Jewish texts … To call a god one’s father was also a familiar motif in the Greco-Roman world…Divine births” fill Greek and Roman mythologies:  Achilles is the son of Thetis, and his rival Aeneas the son of Aphrodite;  Zeus fathered Hercules and Dionysus;  Apollo was the father of Ascelpius and Aristaeus;  Romulus, the founder of Rome, was the son of Mars… Divine paternity was also accorded to historical figures:  Plato was deemed the son of Apllo, and Alexander the Great the son of Zeus.  Seutonius speaks of Augsutus Caesar as Apollo’s offspring;  Apollonius of Tyana was, according to his biographer Philostratus, fathered by Proteus and Egyptian god, and the list continues…  (Amy-Jill Levine – Professor Vanderbilt and Cambridge)

Jesus was a retro-constructed sacred hero.  Most of the important Christian claims about him:  his pre-existence before his earthly life, his co-creation of the universe with God, his miraculous birth, life teachings, miracles, arrest, trial, crucifixion, resurrection, post-resurrection appearances, and reunion with God his Father were invented after his death.  I do no mean that none of these events occurred.  What I mean is that they significance of all these events was imagined, discovered, contemplated and magnified, only once Christians had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ and son of God.  They then set about creating Jesus’ divinity, just as contemporary pagans deified their dead emperors, and called the living emperor “son of God”:  Son of God was a pagan title.  Exceptional pagan holy men were even called God out of respect during their lifetimes.  (The title “son of God” occurs in hundreds of surviving Greek inscriptions from all over the eastern empire.  But, for the sensitively Republican Roman elite, Augustus was only divi filius (in Greek: theiou huios), which means son of the divine or godlike, as distinct from son of God (deus, theos).  Augustus was the (adopted) son of his deified father, Julius Caesar, whose ascent to Heaven had been marked by the appearance of a comet.  As with Jesus, his divinity was confirmed only after death.  After Augustus “son of god” became a regular imperial title, with which Christians would have been familiar.  On the title God for pagan holy men, see Philstratus, life of Apollonius of Tyana 8:5… “Every man who is considered good in honoured with the title God”.)  But ancient Christians believed that Jesus Christ was truly divine, the Son of the one true god.  They would have forcefully resented any comparison with human emperor or holy men…. But early Christians also fiercely disagreed among themselves for several centuries about the degree and nature of Jesus’ divinity:  was he divine from birth or from baptism, or only after his resurrection?  Was he wholly divine, or a mixture of human and divinity, or, as pagans and Jews thought, wholly human? (Keith Hopkins – Professor Cambridge)

augustus divi filius coin What did Son of God actually mean?

Coin describing Octavian (soon to become Augustus) as son of god


“The use of abba for God is not… unique to Jesus, indicating the affectionate relationship of childhood; children called their father abi rather than abba, and abba does occur occasionally in Jewish prayers”.  (Henry Wansbrough – Oxford)

Although both king and father are terms characteristic of his teaching he did not inaugurate the use of either of them but gave them his own emphasis.  … Jesus had neither to explain nor justify speaking of God as king, for this image was deeply embedded in the religious tradition that formed him…. Despite the oft-repeated claim that Abba is the small child’s Daddy, the word was used also by adults to express respect.  Like the image of God as king, God as Father too is deeply rooted in scripture and early Jewish literature. (Leander E. Keck – Professor Yale)

“Son of God” is a metaphor frequently encountered in the Hebrew Bible…., but Matthew and Luke and the rest of the new Testament have endowed the phrase with a meaning stronger than it usually carries in Jewish writings”.  (Geza Vermes – Professor Oxford)

Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, O king.” He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”  (Daniel 3:24-25)

“In a pagan world, however, Paul’s words would once again have been understood somewhat differently. The term “Son of God” would have suggested a divine being of some kind… would have been interpreted as indicating … the descent of a “heavenly” being into the world.  Inevitably, then, new questions began to be asked – e.g.  about the Son’s pre-existence.  As time went by, Paul’s language about Jesus as Son of God was understood as spelling out his “divinity”….According to the later exegesis of the Church, “the Son of God” expressed Christ’s divinity, while the term “the Son of man” referred to his humanity.  Were those who read New Testament language in this way distorting its meaning, or were they drawing out the implications of its teaching in ways that were appropriate to their own culture?  Unfortunately, what tended to happen was that the later interpretation came to be seen as the authoritative and only way of understanding the text, with the result that “New Testament theology” was not  only identified with the theology of a later community, but was itself regarded as though it were set in stone”.   (Morna Hooker – Professor Cambridge)

the phrase ‘son of God’ is systematically misleading because in pre- and non-Christian Judaism its primary referent is either Israel or the Messiah, and it retains these meanings in early Christianity (e.g. Rom. 1:3-4) while also picking up the overtones of Paul’s early, high Christology. It seems to me, in fact, that the title was perceived very early on in Christianity—within the first decade or so at least—as an ideal one for Jesus because it enabled one to say both ‘Messiah’ and ‘the incarnate one’. (NT Wright – Professor St Andrews and Oxford)

Important variations between the versions of the [Lord’s] Prayer in Matthew and Luke… adaptations and additions made both by Matthew and Luke … [but] The other words in the Lord’s Prayer almost certainly go back to Jesus himself.  There are no traces of later post-Easter Christian convictions… this brief examination of the Lord’s Prayer has illustrated both the difficulties and the fascination of serious study of the gospels.  This passage has given us an excellent example of the ways earlier material is reinterpreted by the evangelists.   (Graham Stanton – Professor Cambridge) [italics added]

The Old Testament used the term “Son of God” in a broad sense, perhaps best translated as “belonging to God”.  It was applied across a wide spectrum of categories, including the people of Israel in general (Exodus 4:22), and especially the Davidic king and his successors who were to rule over that people (2 Samuel 7:14).  In this minimalist sense, the term could be applied equally to Jesus and to Christians.  Jesus himself does not appear to have explicitly used the term of himself.  It is found used in this way elsewhere in the New Testament, especially by Paul and in the letter to the Hebrews.  Paul, for example, stated that Jesus had “been declared Son of God” on account of the resurrection (Romans 1:4).  Paul uses the term “Son of God” in relation to both Jesus and believers.  However, a distinction is drawn between the sonship of believers, which arises through adoption, and that of Jesus, which originates form this being “god’s own son” (Romans 8:32).  In the fourth gospel and in the Johannine letters, the term “son (huios) is reserved for Jesus, while the more general term “children” (tekna) tends to be applied to believers.  (Alistair McGrath – Professor KCL and Professor Oxford)

It is generally agreed that the infancy narratives belong into a relatively late phase of the development of the gospel tradition.  For Paul, the sonship of Jesus dates from his resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:3-4).  This is reflected in the Gospel of Mark where the confession of the centurion at the cross of Jesus constitutes the first time that a human being applies the title “son of God” to Jesus.  That the two later Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke , date the divine sonship of Jesus from his birth is not only related to a Christological development which eventually resulted in the formulation of a christology that assumed Christ’s pre-existence as God’s Son from before the beginning of the world.  It is also related to the full realisation of Christianity’s entrance in to the world of Hellenism and Rome.  (Helmut Koester – Professor Harvard)

Traditions about Hanina ben Dosa describe a miraculous immunity to snake bites, two healings at a distance through prayer, and power over demons.  Like Jesus, he deliberately renounced possessions and was indifferent to questions of ritual.  Contemporaries and tradition connect him, like Honi and also Jesus, with the prophet Elijah… It is also striking that charismatic miracle-workers in the ranninic tradition were given the status of sons of God:  Hanina ben Dosa is designated “my son” by God himself… It is said of Honi that he was “like a son of the house” before God.  Conversely, the address “Abba” is used towards God only twice in rabbinic literature:  on the lips of Honi and his grandson Hanan ha-Nehba… The parallels to Jesus, who particularly in the context of miracles is regarded as “son of God” and is known for addressing God as “Abba” are obvious. (Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz – Professors Heidelberg and Utrecht)

The gospels record a few sayings in which Jesus makes explicit reference to his own unique significance (thought there is extensive debates amongst scholars about their authenticity).  Some of these sayings suggest that Jesus is ordained by God to inaugurate the divine rule on earth.  Others have Jesus openly declare that he is the “Son of God”.  John’s gospel goes furthest by including long discourses in which Jesus reflects on his divine status (the “I am …” discourses)…. More important than words in establishing Jesus’ extraordinary status are miracles… Since the Jewish people believed that God alone had ultimate control over the world, the clear implication was that god was at work in Jesus.  Even those who are not convinced by Jesus’ miracles admit that some supernatural power must be at work – if not God, then Beelzebub the devil.  (Linda Woodhead – Professor Lancaster, Cambridge)

“The evangelists’ aim is to write “gospel” – “good news” – not biography, and in their presentation of Jesus the so-called “historical Jesus” is already fused with the “Christ of faith”…. … the focus of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels is the Kingdom of God, not Jesus himself.  Jesus speaks only rarely about himself, and when he does, he demands secrecy.. or refers enigmatically to his approaching suffering and vindication… It is only during the “trial” before the high priest that Jesus is said to have agreed that the terms “Messiah” and “Son of God” were appropriate ways of referring to him”… … the picture of Jesus presented by John is very different. Instead of implicit Christology, we have explicit claims… spells out clearly the claims of the Christian community about Jesus by placing them in the mouth of Jesus himself”. (Morna Hooker – Professor Cambridge)

That “son of God” mean unqualified obedience to God is precisely the point of the temptation stories (Mt 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13 [Q]).  They show that divine Sonship must be actualised as human sonship by obedience… In short, both his style and his specific deeds suggest that he understood his vocation to be not only that of saying what the kingdom’s coming entails but also representing it by what he did… This suggests that Jesus subjected himself to the coming kingly rule of god so fully that his mission was more than a vehicle for a message; it became its harbinger.  In a word, since one is a “son of” whatever determines one’s existence, by allowing himself to be so shaped and driven by the impending reign of God that he could embody it, Jesus probably understood himself as the “son of God”.  (Leander E. Keck – Professor Yale)

The Gospel of John is the first Christian writing actually, and probably deliberately, to make the verbal distinction between Jesus as “Son” (Greek huios) and Christians as “children” (Greek tekna) of God (e.g.  John 1.12).  in fact, in this gospel, the unique relationship of God and Jesus as Father and Son is the doctrinal axis on which everything rests (see, especially, chapters 13-17), though, at the same time, no NT writing goes further in integrating Jesus and his followers.  We may not how Matthew, by contrast, solid in his belief in Jesus’ unique role, can show Jesus referring to God frequently as “my”, “your” and “our” Father, apparently finding no difficulty in not insisting on “son” as special for himself.  Seen as Israel’s messiah-king, he is addressed as “Son” by God at his baptism (Mark 1.11, referring back to Ps 2.7).  In Luke 20.36, “sons of God” appears as a term for angels, and in Revelation, Jesus is seen in just such a heavenly guise and called God’s Son (2.18).  The upshot is twofold.  First, “Son of God” in line with senses found in the Jewish background and in the early Christian usage, is a term referring not only to Jesus but also to Christians, and only in the late first-century Gospel of John was a start made on confining the term to Jesus to signify his uniqueness, though Romans 8.29 may be an attempt by Paul to show how he saw the connection:  Jesus as “the firstborn among many brethren”.  (Leslie Houlden – Professor Kings, Oxford)

So much for the New Testament.  What followed?  Once the Jewish context of thought had become largely lost in Christian thinking, and new intellectual questions about Jesus had arisen, it is not surprising that “Son of God” came to play a different role… in this context “Son of God came to signify Christ’s “divine nature” whereas the New Testament term “Son of Man” signified his “human nature”.  It is ironic that this move, insofar as it was based on the Gospels, was wholly misjudged, in that in its earlier use, as we have seen, “son of God” was a term chiefly for humans, and so for Jesus as human (however exalted in significance), and “Son of Man”, among a number of senses, could signify a heavenly (though still not divine) figure.  (Leslie Houlden – Professor Kings, Oxford)

Ideas about Jesus as pre-existent and divine originated in Jewish context, in the conviction that he was the messiah, although they were subsequently transformed as Christianity spread in the Gentile world.  The Jewish context, even where Semitic languages were spoken, was itself part of the Greco-Roman world, and influenced by Hellenistic culture in various ways.  The old antithesis of Judaism and Hellenism cannot be maintained.  But it was within the specifically Jewish sector of the Hellenistic world that the idea of the divinity of Christ had its roots.  The study of the growth and development of this idea must be interpreted in that context, before its development and transformation in the world of Gentile Christianity can be understood.  (Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins – both Professors at Yale)

[In the context of] the imperial cults it is then not surprising that Jesus was viewed as a god and that worship of him became an alternative to the worship of the emperor.  (Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins – both Professors at Yale)

[on the relationship between the terms “son of God” and “messiah” - useful overview of one perspective on this from book description “King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature” by Adela Yarbro Collins]  This controversial book traces the origin and history of the idea that the king and later the messiah is the Son of God, from its origins in ancient Near Eastern royal ideology to its Christian appropriation in the New Testament. King and Messiah as Son of God is distinctive in its range, spanning both Testaments and informed by ancient Near Eastern literature and Jewish non-canonical literature. The authors argue that Jesus was called the Son of God precisely because he was believed to be the messianic king. This belief and tradition, they contend, led to the identification of Jesus as pre-existent, personified Wisdom, or a heavenly being in the New Testament canon. However, the titles Jesus is given – including son of God, son of man, and Christ – are historical titles tracing back to Egyptian New Kingdom ideology. Therefore the title Son of God is likely solely messianic and not literal.

Many Israelites at the time of Jesus were expecting a Messiah who would be divine and come to earth in the form of a human.  Thus the basic underlying thoughts from which both the Trinity and the incarnation grew are there in the very world into which Jesus was born and in which he was first written about in the gospels of Mark and John.  (Daniel Boyarin and Jack Miles – Boyarin Professor Berkley)

A dying and living Messiah, is completely at odds with any conceptuality that would have been understood or known in Palestine at this time. But of course… it has everything to do with how these sorts of god-like figures were seen elsewhere in the Mediterranean World outside of Palestine.   One can see views of the same conceptuality in the tomb paintings of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs and how to enter the environment of the gods in ancient Egyptian mythology and folklore. It runs through the whole Book of the Dead, a good ten or fifteen centuries earlier – instructions for how to become a living and dying God or a dying and living God.  The same is true in the Hellenistic Roman world where figures like Alexander – probably influenced by this kind of earlier Egyptian practice and ideology – start to claim that they are descendants, not of their own fathers, but of much more important supernatural deities. This, then, becomes transferred to the Roman Emperors in succession to him, who seem to feel they have to make the same kinds of claims – particularly someone like Augustus, with whom it seems to really have begun, has to start to claim that he is the son of a Jupiter or whomever, since he wasn’t really the son of Julius Caesar or anyone like that; and then this idea of being the son of God starts to permeate the whole Julio-Claudian line and Emperors up to the time of the fall of the temple and the fall of that line.  Each member, in turn, had to declare himself the son of God or some such phenomena so obviously, if you were going to compete in the Greco-Roman world with these kind of conceptualities, the Messiah-type person you are trying to disseminate had to incorporate many of these kinds of qualities. This kind of material had already been circulating in the Horus/Isis/Osiris theology, also from Egypt, and it was widespread in Mithra and other Greek Mystery Religion materials that someone like Paul, familiar with the part of the world now called Asia Minor (but then just ‘Asia’), would have known.  (Robert Eisenman – Professor California State, Oxford)

Religions create, and thrive on, passionate commitment and passionate conflicts. Jesus is a symbol both of devotion and of disagreement. Pagans and most Jews thought that it was absurd to claim that Jesus was the Son of God. And early Christians disagreed fervently among themselves as to whether Jesus was wholly divine, or wholly human, or a subtle mixture of human and divine. Modern believers have tried to forget these ancient debates, and have largely succeeded. But these were only some of the beliefs which early Christians died and later killed for. They help to remind us that there were then, as there still are today, many Christianities. And it was by no means predictable which orthodoxies would win. (Keith Hopkins – Professor Cambridge)

In the pagan world, Son of God was a regular title of kings, and the lineage of mythical heroes.  Hercules, for example, was the son of Zeus and a human mother; the twins Castor and Pollux, had a human mother; one twin was also the son of Zeus, the other of a human father;  so with divine consent they were both half-human and half-divine.  The line dividing Gods from humans was more crossable then than it is now:  in ancient stories, Gods came down to earth;  and special humans, like emperors, lived after death in heaven.  The concept of God as father was well-known, in pagan religions and Judaism.  So Israel collectively, or pious Jews, or even angels were sometimes thought of as God’s sons, as was the apocalyptic Messiah who would rule at the end of days:  “I will be his father and he shall be my son”.  But giving the title “Son of God” to a crucified criminal, was bold bordering on sacrilegious.  And restricting the idea of God the Father to the special sense, that he had only one son, as a magnificent religious innovation… (Keith Hopkins – Professor Cambridge)

In the Fourth Gospel the relation of the Son to the Father is a theme essential to the significance of Jesus as the giver of life.  But in the synoptics, Jesus makes no such claims in his public ministry, despite the fact that these gospels present him as God’s Son, whether because of his exceptional conception in Mary’s womb (Matthew and Luke) or because God’s voice said so at his baptism and transfiguration ( all three Synoptics).  Still, none of them includes a single saying in which Jesus claims this publically for himself. (Leander E. Keck – Professor Yale)

But even if such words had passed between the High Priest and Jesus in 30 [AD], they would have meant one thing to them and quite another to readers of the gospels forty or more years later.  In the Jewish context, messiah would have denoted “leader”, most particularly a royal and military leader (apocalyptic or otherwise) whose special dignity as the chosen instrument of the divine plan could be indicated by the title Son of God; but he would have been fully and normally human.  A dissenting hearer might think that the person making such a claim for himself was wrong, but he would have no reason to consider the claim itself blasphemous.  In later Hellenistic Christian circles, however, messiah had a special theological significance and Son of God a particular metaphysical content that were in fact offensive to most Jews.  Such Christological development was the interpretive work of the churches reflecting back on Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Only though anachronism can it be seen as an issue between Jesus and his contemporaries.  (Paula Fredriksen – Professor Boston, Princeton, Stanford)

… standard Jewish usage, in which God is addressed or described as Father in scripture, prayer, and commentary.  Nonetheless, some scholars have wanted to see in Jesus’ particular use of abba – less formal, more intimate and affectionate than the Hebrew ab – an indication of Jesus’ personal consciousness of his uniquely close relationship with and to God.  This interpretation asks abba to bear the burden of later theological developments, which made particular claims about Jesus’ unique metaphysical nature as divine Son.  The Aramaic abba is indeed a term of intimate address.  AS such it was used by Jewish charismatics, such as Hanan the Rainmaker… clearly he [Jesus] was not the only Jewish miracle-worker in this period to do so … …. If God is a Father, who is his son?  In scripture, any number of entities and persons.  Angels, monarchs, just men, the entire nation of Israel – all could properly be called “son(s) of God”.  But in post-biblical Judaism, son of God came particularly to designate the Davidic – that is, royal – messiah … If [italics] the apostles used this term of Jesus, it would have been by attraction to messiah:  Son of God, in other words, would have been an alternative messianic designation.  But even this is unlikely, for son of God is really the language of royalty, and Jesus had not been a royal messiah … Within thirty years of Jesus’ death, however, these terms are no longer linked.  Messiah does denote Davidic royalty, but Son of God denotes something far greater:  a unique, pre-existent divine entity…. The resurrection, Paul proclaims, reveals Jesus’ status as Son of God.  But this divine Son and Lord originates in heaven.  He descended to earth, died on the cross, was exalted at his resurrection back to heaven, and is about to come down from heaven again. (Paula Fredriksen – Professor Boston, Princeton, Stanford)

Paul introduces Jesus first of all as God’s son.  This idea of sonship – that the king (thus “son of David”) is also in some sense God’s Son – pertains, as we have already seen, to ancient Jewish traditions of kingship.  God when speaking through the prophet Nathan to David had promised sovereignty to David’s house, saying of the future ruler “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me (2 Samuel 7:14).  The kingship language expressed the abiding bond of affection between God and king.  But, in the light of the metaphysical claims that later, Trinitarian Christianity will make for Jesus, we should note that this biblical tradition also affirms the king’s earthly, physical paternity:  The descent from David as human father is precisely the point of God’s promise of permanence to his royal line.  “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever (7:17).  David as messiah and, therefore, God’s son, appears similarly in Psalm 89: “I have found David, my servant, with my holy oil I have anointed him… He shall cry to me “you are my Father “” (89:20, 26).  So also Psalm 2, the so-called Enthronement Psalm: “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (v7).  “Son of God” in other words, is ancient phrase native to Jewish tradition for designating the human messiah.  Such a phrase signals the intimate relationship between God and the designate.  It is also used in the Bible for other close relationships between God and select beings.  Angels, prophets, particularly just or righteous men, the entire national of Israel (as Paul at Rom 9:4) – all could properly be called “son(s) of God”.  (Paula Fredriksen – Professor Boston, Princeton, Stanford)

It is at least possible that it was only when the heavenly Christ came to be recognized as Son of God that the idea arose that he had claimed to be such, and been recognized as such in the days of his flesh, no explicit tradition to that effect being known.  (Denis Nineham – Professor Cambridge, Professor Oxford)

People’s attitude towards history in the ancient world was often rather different from our own.  If, for example, an ancient writer was convinced that Jesus was, as a matter of fact, Christ and Son of God, he might well tell the story of his earthly life in terms of his having claimed, and been accorded, those titles, even though there was no explicit tradition to that effect.  Indeed, he might well fell that it would be wrong to do otherwise; for if Jesus was in fact Son of God, then any account of his earthly life which did not make that clear would be misleading and would not convey the true meaning of the events if professed to describe.  (Denis Nineham – Professor Cambridge, Professor Oxford)

[“Son of God” in Mark]  Although it occurs only some five or six times in the Gospel its occurrence is almost always at key points, and the Evangelists clearly attached great importance to it.  Unfortunately, it is not possible to be certain exactly how he understood it.  in Jewish usage it was applied to the whole Israelite people from the time of their election by God, and to individual kinds from the moment of their anointing, apparently with the meaning that they had been chosen by god as his representatives, and that he had adopted them, as it were, and cold be relied on to give them the love and protection that a son can always expect form a father (c.f. e.g.  Hos 11.1 … … ) It is possible, though we have no direct proof, that the term was already used in Our Lord’s day as a messianic title.  In any case, such a passage as 1.11 shows clearly that these Jewish ideas lay behind St Mark’s use of the term.   On the other hand, the phrase was also current in the Hellenistic religious of the day to describe great rulers and other “divine men” or “spirit-filled men” whose remarkable deed were thought to betoken a divine origin, and this usage also seems to lie behind St Mark’s understanding of the term, perhaps without being completely integrated in his mind with the Jewish usage.  (Denis Nineham – Professor Cambridge, Professor Oxford)

The tendency was to read texts as though they had been written in the present without due account being taken, for instance, of the way in which the meaning of words can change over the centuries.  We have already encountered this problem in the case of the title “Son of God”.  (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford)

[Jesus] does not seem to have thought of himself as God, and may even have thought that the world was coming to an end. … St John’s Gospel is unequivocal in its assertion of Christ’s divinity.  Thus it opens in its first verse with an emphatic declaration that the Word who became flesh (1:14) was God, and throughout has on Jesus’ lips the claim to be one with God…. But the situation is very different in the Synoptics.  Jesus’ teaching is almost wholly about the Kingdom of God rather than about himself, while even the titles used of him do not imply as much as was once thought.  So, for instance, we now know that “Son of God” implies a special rather than a unique relationship with God and that it was in fact ancient Israel’s way of conceiving the special bond that existed between God and the King (cf, for example, Ps 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14).  Nor was it unique in the Middle East in using such language, since parallels exist in Assyrian descriptions of their monarch.  Nor will it do to suggest that the phrase had narrowed its significance by the time of Jesus to carry something of the implication of divinity, as in Greek thought.  For, while such a claim might have once been possible, evidence form the Dead Sea Scrolls has conclusively shown that it was commonly taken simply to refer to the coming Davidic Messiah.  (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford)

The Akedah, the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 touches a deep nerve in Jewish and Christian sensibilities.  It is a story of strange violence and tenderness, of a father ordered by his God to sacrifice “his only son”.  … … Christian interpretation of the Akedah… is refracted through its own central narrative of the crucifixion of Jesus.  Remarkably, though, despite the obvious similarities between the two stories, there are few actual literary allusions to the Akedah in the Gospel narratives.  When Jesus prays to God in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion, we may hear distant echoes of Isaac’s questioning of his father and the subsequent traditions of his willing acceptance of his father’s purpose.  Of course the plot is different: there is no human father as mediator of God’s purposes; no relenting on the part of the heavenly father; no more testing of the victim’s father.  Rather it is the victim himself who must struggle to accept freely the heavenly Father’s unwavering will (a motif which does indeed occur in some of the version of the Akedah).  (John Riches – Professor Glasgow)

But after he failed the shengyuan examinations for the fourth time, he opened the Christian tracts and read them fully.  In a sudden shock of realisation, Hong saw that the two men in his vision must have been the God and Jesus of the tracts, and that therefore he, Hong, must also be the Son of God, younger brother to Jesus Christ.  Like Lin Qing in north China thirty years before, Hong was able to persuade people of his spiritual powers through a charismatic manner and a strong religious conviction.  But unlike Lin, Hong did not work secretly through a network of local sectarian cells.  Instead he began to preach his message publicly, baptize converts, and openly destroy Confucian and ancestral shrines…. By 1849 he had attracted around 10,000 followers.  (Jonathan D. Spence – Professor Yale)

Most people today probably suppose that they know what truth is, but one often finds that Westerners fail to understand the complexity of truth.  They have become very literal-minded, and assume that the only kind of truth is literal truth.  In New Testament times people were not so literal-minded, and were often chiefly interested in symbolic truth.  (William Montgomery Watt – Professor Edinburgh)

The absence of a human father has doubtless helped some Christians to think of Jesus as the Son of God, wand many still seem to think that this is a proof of divinity.  What few Christians realise is that 800 million Muslims also believe in the Virgin Birth or virginal conception, while firmly denying the divinity of Christ.  (William Montgomery Watt – Professor Edinburgh)

The New Testament writers seem to have been beginning to understand the phrase “son of God” as indicating the unique position of Jesus.  They also speak occasionally of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and this suggests that a conception of the threefoldness of God was taking shape in their minds.  At the same time, however, they held that those who believed in the uniqueness of Jesus were themselves children of God.  As John put it, “as many as received him, to them he gave the power to become the sons fo God” (John 1:12).  While the sonship of Jesus was held to be unique, it was not always clear how it different from that of Christian believers.  Sometimes they were said to be sons by adoption, but elsewhere Jesus was called the firstborn of many brethren – a phrase which would link up with his achievement as inaugurating a new and deeper relationship between God and human beings.  (William Montgomery Watt – Professor Edinburgh)

The world’s first city [Uruk] is celebrated I the world’s first work of epic literature; “The Legend of Gilgamesh” told the story of Mesopotamia’s King Gilgamesh, two thirds god, one-third man, who was credited with the building of Uruk’s famous city walls.  (Richard Miles – Sydney and Cambridge)  [italics added]

When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth months after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo. (Suetonius, Life of the Deified Augustus, Chapter 94)

When you read Mark’s Gospel, which was probably our first Gospel, Jesus says very little about himself. He talks about how he must go to Jerusalem and be rejected and be crucified and then raised from the dead. But he never identifies himself as divine, for example. He never says, I am the son of God. The only time in Mark’s Gospel that he admits that he’s the Messiah is at the very end, when he’s put on trial, and the high priest asks him, are you the Messiah? And he says yes, I am. So in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is not interested in teaching about himself. But when you read John’s Gospel, that’s virtually the only thing Jesus talks about -is who he is, what his identity is, where he came from – he came from above with the Father – where he’s going – he’s returning to the Father. And he, himself, is in some sense, divine.   As he says in John Chapter 10: I and the Father are one. Or as he says in Chapter 8: Before Abraham was, I am. Abraham was the father of the Jews, who lived 1,800 years before Jesus. And Jesus actually appears to be claiming to be a representation of God on Earth. This is completely unlike anything that you find in Mark or in Matthew and Luke. And it – historically, it creates all sorts of problems because if the historical Jesus actually went around saying that he was God, it’s very hard to believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke left out that part – you know, as if that part wasn’t important to mention. (Bart D. Ehrman Professor University of North Carolina)

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God (Mark 1:1).  Footnote from “The Bible Gateway” site reads “Some manuscripts do not have the Son of God“.

The title of father for God is everywhere in antiquity, including the Hebrew bible.
(Shaye Cohen – Professor Harvard)

Minos, who became king of Crete… The rape of Europa is mentioned in the earliest surviving work of Greek literature (Homer’s Iliad), and is commonly depicted in Greek
art, on painted vases and in sculpture.  It is thus a good example of a Panhellenic myth, a story known in different parts of the Greek world, and told for a variety of different reasons.  (Thonemann and Price – Oxford)

When Christians in the first century said Jesus is Lord, what did they mean? What
they meant was that Caesar was not lord…. … when I see “Jesus is
divine,” I read that immediately in the world of Roman imperial theology
in which Caesar was divine. If you say Jesus is divine you’re either saying
that Caesar is divine and our guy is just one more divinity or you’re saying
that Jesus is truly divine and Caesar is not.  (John Dominic Crossan – Professor Chicago)

you call Jesus “messiah” (of course that is only public discourse in
Judaism, you’d probably have to explain to a pagan what a messiah was) – but if
you said Jesus was lord, a pagan would get it immediately. So you’re dealing
with public discourse. Some might be less open, like son of man, and need
explanation but in general it was public discourse. It was making a claim on
the world. Rome always talked about the world, not about the Mediterranean or
Italy. Caesar was savior of the world. So from the start it is a public, global
thing and it never occurs to me that it could only be had by a Christian.
Christianity, like most of the world’s great traditions, is a particular way of
expressing an ideal of what the world should be…. When a title like “son
of god” is used by Caesar – which is on every one of his coins – it is
interpreted to mean: first establish victory, then establish peace. That’s what
a divine being must do in running the world. Now Christians are using exactly
the same language to say: no, first you establish justice and doing that will
establish peace.  (John Dominic Crossan – Professor Chicago)

have to understand the matrix surrounding Jesus’ life. We have to understand
what was happening in the Roman imperial world to understand the radical
challenge Jesus represented… OK, here’s an example: Today, we can listen to a
recording of a speech by Martin Luther King, talking about the inspirational
power of his dreams. We may think: What a nice guy! What a great orator! How
inspiring! But the civil rights movement was much larger than just Martin
Luther King and one speech about his dreams. We can reduce it to that once a
year in a short documentary honoring King, but the real story of civil rights
is a much larger matrix of events and forces and people. The same thing is true
of Jesus. We can read the gospels and say: What a great guy! How inspiring! But
what was happening around Jesus was so much larger. He represented a real
challenge to the basic ideas on which Roman Imperial Theology rested…Before
Jesus ever existed, there was already a human being who was called God
Incarnate and was given all of these titles that Christians later would use to
describe Jesus. What Jesus and his early followers were doing was a direct
challenge to Roman theology. Caesar, the divine conqueror, was saying that
peace only comes through victory, through war. Jesus was saying that peace
comes through a much different process… When Caesar Augustus was called Savior
of the World, everyone knew what that meant. It meant that 20 years of savage,
devastating Roman Civil War was over. Augustus had ended that. He brought peace,
finally. When people began applying that same title to Jesus, they weren’t
talking about Jesus simply taking everybody away into some other world. They
were saying that Jesus was the Savior of this world. They were talking about
Jesus bringing a time of peace here in this world. If you believe in God’s
creation, it’s blasphemous to say that God blew it and that this world is evil
and that, in fact, this world is such a bad mistake that it should be called
back to the factory. No, Jesus was talking about the transformation of this
world. Pilate would not have had Jesus crucified if Jesus was talking about
some other world. Pilate would have said: “Oh, you’re only talking about some
other world. Well, no problem, then. We Romans are only interested in ruling
this world, thank you.” That’s why it was so radical when the same titles used
in Roman Imperial Theology got shifted to Jesus. Pilate understood that Jesus
really was a threat to the Roman world view. (John Dominic Crossan – Professor Chicago)

Before Jesus ever existed, there already was in the first century Mediterranean world
a human being whose titles were Divine, Son of God, God Incarnate, God from
God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, Savior of the World. Those were the titles of
Caesar the Augustus, that is, Caesar the One To Be Worshiped. What happens when
the titles of the Emperor in Roman Imperial Theology are taken from Caesar and
given to Jesus in Christian Jewish Theology? What has changed? Imagine somebody
saying to Paul, “What do you mean that Jesus is the Savior of the World? Caesar
is already that—so we already have a Savior of the World. Who needs a second
one?” How and why, then, did Caesar get such a title, Savior of the World, or
Augustus, or all those other divine titles?  (John Dominic Crossan – Professor Chicago)

The Romans didn’t waste much time saying, “How can Caesar be fully
human and fully divine?” They did it primarily with images. On every coin
you have inscriptions of Caesar as divine. In the ancient world, being divine
was a job description, meaning somebody who does something very important for
the human race. So when that claim was made of Jesus, they were not claiming
that he wasn’t human–they were quite aware in that world that he could be a
human being–but they claimed it based on his having done something
extraordinary for the human race. That
question is asked all the time among modern Christians. But in the first
century, it was utterly unlikely we would have asked the question. This is
because you also would have to ask if Caesar believed he was the son of God.
Well, did Caesar believe he was running the world? Yeah. Did he believe he
should be running the world? Yeah. Does that mean he wasn’t human? No. Jesus
was claiming to know the will of God and to know what the Kingdom of God was
supposed to be. If I were talking to Jesus, I would say, “How do you know
that? How are you so certain that Caesar isn’t right? He’s brought peace to the
world and everything else, how do you know your system is right?” I think
he would say, “Well, it’s in the covenant with God.” If I asked if he
was the Messiah, he would ask, “What do you mean by Messiah?” If the
Messiah is the leader who is going to win a battle against the Romans, then no,
Jesus wasn’t the Messiah. But if the Messiah is the one who reveals the word of
God, Jesus’ answer might be, “Yeah, because I’ve done that.”  (John Dominic Crossan – Professor Chicago)

In Suetonius , you get the whole story of Caesar. Along with Tacitus, he’s one of two major sources for history about the Roman emperor. He goes through the whole life of Caesar–tells you all he did. Then you get into the death of Caesar and you’re ready to believe Suetonius is telling you something big was happening. And then at the very end, he says, “By the way, this is how he was conceived.” You see the
story first, and then you’re ready to believe this guy can’t be conceived by
just anyone. According to the story, his mother, Atia , went to the temple
of Apollo, fell asleep during the service, and Apollo impregnated her in the
guise of a snake. Therefore, Augustus is the son of Apollo–so it’s another way
he’s divine. Not only is he the son of Julius Caesar who is divine, he is also
directly conceived by Apollo. I have no idea how many
people took that story literally. Or how many people took it metaphorically.
And I think most of them didn’t make that distinction. They heard the story,
they got the message. If you’re going to tell the story of Jesus and you’re
going to play it off against this, then you’re going to have divine birth and
divine conception. The story of Jesus’ conception comes up late in the gospels.
It’s only in Matthew and Luke, which were written after Mark, the oldest
gospel. But even if the gospel writers created a story of Jesus’ divine
conception and birth, the top question someone in the first century would
nevertheless ask is: “What has he done for the world?” Because that’s
how they thought of the “Son of God.” Not just what he’s done for me
or how he makes me feel. What has he done for the world? And that’s where Paul,
as Jesus’ apostle, has to come up with an explanation.  (John Dominic Crossan – Professor Chicago)

[Mao] was worshipped as a semi-divine figure – as Stalin was in the Soviet Union.  (John Gray – Professor London School of Economics)

[Alexander the Great as son of god]
Alexander advanced on Egypt in later 332 BC, where he was regarded as a
liberator.[83] He was pronounced the new
“master of the Universe” and son of the deity of Amun
at the Oracle of Siwa Oasis in the Libyan desert.[84] Henceforth, Alexander often
referred to Zeus-Ammon as his true father, and subsequent
currency depicted him adorned with rams horn as a symbol of his divinity.

In Egypt, [the Macedonian general] Ptolemy and his successors became pharaohs; in
Alexandria and the Mediterranean they were Greek kings.  Ptolemy Soter – the “Saviour” as he was known – adopted the local gods, Isis and Osiris, and Egyptian traditions of kingship, promoting his dynasty as both Egyptian god-kings and semi-divine Greek monarchs.  (Simon Sebag Montefiore – Professor University of Buckingham)

A casual reading of the New Testament will make clear that the claim

of New Testament writers is that Jesus is the Messiah prophesied

in Scriptures (i.e., the Hebrew Bible), and they identify him with

the titles of the Davidic kings and the future David, the messiah

par excellence—and indeed with the epithets of the Priestly Messiah.

The sobriquet “Son of God” is one borne by the Davidic kings.

Scholars have long debated whether this “high Christology” of the

Judean royal house is meant to claim divine kingship or points to an

“adoptionist” royal ideology. Incidentally, both understandings of the

title “son of God” may be found in the New Testament.

In my view, there are two basic theologies or ideologies of kingship

in Israel. One is that the king is the son of God. The other is

that the king has an eternal covenant with the deity. Both amount

to the same thing in Israel. Both adoption and covenant are legal

substitutes for kinship. They place the obligations and benefits of

kinship on both the deity and the king. In adoption procedures, you

declare someone “my son,” “today I have begotten you,” and he becomes,

by a legal fiction, blood kin. So the Lord addresses the son of

David, “Thou art my son. Today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7).

Alternately, one can speak of the Davidic covenant with the Lord that imposes the duties of kinship on both parties. In short, the language

of divine sonship or kinship is already in the Hebrew Bible, and it

comes as no surprise to find terms like “son of God” and “son of the

Most High” in the pseudo‑Daniel fragment from Qumran.

As a matter of fact, in 14th‑century Ugarit, the Canaanite epics

use as a standard epithet of their king, “son of gEl” (bn gIl), eerily

close to the Aramaic barceh di gEl, “son of God.” There is some

evidence that in Canaanite royal ideology the king was fully divinized

(as in Egypt and in Mesopotamia in some periods). In Israel, I

do not believe there was true divination of the king even in eras of

syncretism. Israel’s kingship was limited by the prophets, who were

perennial critics of the royal house, and by the rejection of the notion

that kingship belonged to the orders of creation. (Frank Moore Cross – Professor Harvard)

(Interviewer’s question)The New Testament takes the sonship (of God) a little further along.

It is no longer an adopted sonship but rather a genealogical sonship from

birth—Canaanite royal mythology popping up again? (Frank Moore Cross response) There may also be some influence from the ontological thinking

in the Greek world. Sons (and daughters) of gods were very much

at home in the Greek world. In the early church, reflected already in

the New Testament, an ontological understanding of the expression

“son of God” evidently replaced the vocational or legal understanding

of the epithet, which is primary in the Bible…. … The simple [historically uninformed] believer who says that Jesus was or was not the Son of God is actually

thinking in sophisticated ontological (or physical) terms, Greek categories.

The church, orthodox or fundamentalist, often encourages

this anachronistic approach to scriptural texts…. …I think the late New Testament understanding—the ontological—

is not part of Jesus’ thinking or of Paul’s belief or the thinking

of his early followers. For the person who supposes that the Holy

Spirit is the physical father of Jesus, I think it would be disturbing

to discover that Paul is unaware of the doctrine of the virgin birth;

or to read the genealogies of Jesus carefully and discover that they all

trace his Davidic lineage through Joseph. What is the meaning of a

genealogy that goes through Joseph if in fact Jesus is not the son of

Joseph? The testimony of the New Testament, if examined historically

and critically, is complex, with different strata and a mixture of

understandings of messianic titles. (Frank Moore Cross – Professor Harvard)


The threat to the orthodox doctrine of the divinity of Jesus

comes not from the appearance of the epithet “son of God” at

Qumran. As I have noted, this was a title of the Judean kings. (Frank Moore Cross – Professor Harvard)

THE concept of
divinity in non-Christian antiquity near the beginning of our era was complex.
It was possible to speak of the two extremes, gods and men, and to mean by the
former the eternals like Zeus/Jupiter in contrast to mere mortals.  In this case, divinity was far removed from
humanity. It was also possible, however, to speak of certain men as divine.
There were two separate categories of divinity into which such men might fall
that are of special interest to us in this article. On the one hand, certain
men were believed in their historical existence to have displayed the divine
presence in some special way and were hence regarded as theioi andres.

Opinions have differed over exactly what constituted the divine presence.
Whereas some circles looked for it in a man’s physical beauty or in his prophetic
utterances and miraculous feats, others saw it manifest in extraordinary virtue
and rationality
. There were also divergent views about the origin or source
of the divine presence. Some looked to a supernatural conception, others to the
conscious cultivation of virtue.  At times these varying views, both of what constituted the divine presence and of the source of such divinity, merged into a synthetic portrayal of the theios angr. If a mortal possessed in an unusual way that which was believed to
constitute a sign of divine presence, however conceived, he was regarded as a
divine man. On the other hand, a more select group of men were believed at
the end of their careers to have been taken up into heaven, to have attained
immortality, and to have received a status like that of the eternal gods
Such figures were designated immortals. (Charles H. Talbert – Professor Baylor)  [italics added]

More significant is the
influence that the mythology of the immortals had on certain of the gospels
taken as wholes. This influence is seen at its fullest in Luke-Acts. Here we
find a supernatural conception (Luke 1:35), followed by a virtuous life.
According to Acts 2:36 (cf. also 13:33), it is by virtue of his exaltation that
Jesus becomes Lord/Christ/Son of God. Luke gives a synthetic portrayal of his
becoming Lord. On the one hand, his passing from mortal to immortal is attested
by the absence of Jesus’ physical remains (Luke 24:1-11 [12]), reinforced both
by appearances to friends and disciples in which further instruction is given
(Luke 24:13-49; Acts 1:1-5) and by predictions made during his life (Luke 9:22;
18:32-33-to which specific reference is made in 24:6-8). On the other hand,
Jesus’ ascent amidst a cloud is witnessed by the Galileans (Acts 1:9-11). There
is no way a Mediterranean person could have missed this as a portrayal of Jesus
in the mythology of the immortals. (Charles H. Talbert – Professor Baylor)

I refer, in fact, to Dionysus. Although the mother of this truly estimable
demi-god was not only a mortal, but a barbarian
, and his maternal
grandfather a tradesman in Phoenicia, one Cadmus, it was thought necessary to
confer immortality upon him… … The long and short of it is, that Heaven is
simply swarming with these demi-gods of yours
; there is no other
word for it (Momus speaking to Zeus in Lucian’s “The Council of the Gods”) [italics

Jupiter himself — the name means
' the helping father,' whom with a change of inflexion
we style Jove, from iuvare ' to help ' ; the poets call
him ' father of gods and men,' and our ancestors en-
titled him ' best and greatest,' putting the title ' best,'
that is most beneficent, before that of ' greatest,'
because universal beneficence is greater, or at least

more lovable, than the possession of great wealth (Cicero – On the Nature of the Gods) [italics added]

With the ignorant you get superstitions like the Syrians' worship of a fish, and the
Egyptians' deification of almost every species of
animal; nay, even in Greece they worship a number wine, and
of deified human beings, Alabandus at Alabanda,
Tennes at Tenedos, Leucothea, formerly Ino, and her
son Palaemon throughout the whole of Greece, as name).
also Hercules, Aescuiapius, the sons of Tyndareus ;
and with our own people Romulus and many others,
who are believed to have been admitted to celestial 
citizenship in recent times, by a sort of extension of
the franchise ! Well, those are the superstitions of the unlearned.
(Cicero – On the Nature of the Gods)  [italics added]  SON OF GOD.

Are we then to deem these gods, the sons of mortal mothers ? Well then, will
not Aristaeus, the reputed discoverer of the olive,
who was the son of Apollo, Theseus the son of Nep-
tune, and all the other sons of gods, also be reckoned

as gods ? (Cicero – On the Nature of the Gods)

“Son of God began
as a relational metaphor. Within Judaism by the time of Jesus, it had a number
of meanings. In the Hebrew Bible, it could be used to refer to the king on the
day of his coronation: ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you”(Ps 2.7). It
could also be used to refer to Israel as a whole: ‘When Israel was a child, I
loved him and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11.1). According to Jewish
traditions near the time of Jesus, this metaphor could be used to refer to
other Jewish persons. What all of these have in common– the king, Israel, a
Spirit person–is a relationship of intimacy with God. Thus to call Jesus Son
of God was to speak of an intimacy of relationship between Jesus and God. As
Son of God developed in early Christian tradition, it moved from being a
relational metaphor to being a biological metaphor in the birth stories in
Matthew and Luke. In these stories, Jesus is conceived by the Spirit and, if
the texts are read literally, is Son of God became conceptualized. Specifically
to call Jesus Son of God became an ontological and doctrinal statement about
the ultimate status of Jesus, reaching its climax in Nicene Creed. There, in
the language of fourth century Christian theology, with strong undercurrents of
Hellenistic philosophy, Jesus is spoken of as ‘the only begotten Son of God,’
true God of true God’, and ‘of one substance as the Father.” Metaphor became
doctrine.” (Marcus J Borg – Professor Oregon State)

The Mahabharata is an epic poem of the Indian sub-continent, which is one of the
most important text of the Hindu faith. It dates back as far as the 8th century
BCE, with later portions being added up to the 4th century BCE… …The sons of
King Pandu, known as the Pandavas, were each the children of a god as well, and
the gods play heavily in the story of the Mahabharata.

[angels as sons of God] When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans
were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, “My
Spirit will not contend with[a] humans forever, for they are mortal[b]; their
days will be a hundred and twenty years.”The Nephilim were on
the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the
daughters of humans and had children by them. (Genesis 6: 1-5)

[discussing one of the Dead Sea Scrolls – fragments of the War Scroll from Qumran Cave 4]  There were, however, traditions associated with Moses that envisaged deification by enthronement, and this text may be understood

as an adaptation of those traditions. In what sense the author
experienced this deification we cannot say. We do not even have a
description of the experience, only a claim that it occurred. Such
claims are quite rare in the Judaism of the period, and they are made
by exceptional individuals. That such a claim should be made by a

sectarian teacher in the late first century BCE is obviously of great

interest for the milieu in which Christianity developed. (John Collins – Professor Yale) [italics added]

The Christian interpretation of the Old Testament was early set upon finding in it
a figure corresponding to the Son, or the Word (Logos), in the New Testament, a
divine being, intermediary between God the Father and the world in
creation, revelation, and redemption. For Christian theology, with its
philosophical presumptions, a God who visibly and audibly manifested himself to
men in human form and action was necessarily such a being; the Supreme God,
in his supramundane exaltation or his metaphysical transcendence, could not
be imagined thus immediately to intervene in mundane affairs
. (George Foot
Moore – Harvard) [italics added]

Alexander the Great being pronounced as son of Zeus-Ammon.  Coins struck showing him with horns that symbolised his divinity.

Alexander Zeus Ammon coin What did Son of God actually mean?


Ptolemy 1 c. 367 BC – c. 283 BC honoured as a god in Egypt and given the title “soter” – saviour.  Later Ptolemies also took titles equal to those of gods.

ptolemy 1 saviour What did Son of God actually mean?

List of people who have been considered deities.

Paul demands that the people of God, belonging to Abraham, be defined in a new way. The meaning of ‘descent’ from Abraham has to be radically reconsidered: it no longer has a ‘physical’ connotation. Christian believers, Jewish and Gentile, are the sons of God; they can now cry ‘Abba’ and are the heirs of the promise to Abraham. They do not need to observe the Law in order to be sons of God (Romans 4:1-12). (W.D. Davies – Professor Princeton and Duke)

Could they-the monotheistic believers that proclaim three times a day “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is alone!” (Deut 6:4) – consider one, even a fellow Jew, to be a biological son of God? (Howard Abraham – Professor University Missouri)

[Pythagoras as son of god] Apollonius, as part of his Hellenizing  reaction,  made  Pythagoras the son of the pre-eminently Greek god, Apollo.
Yet another miraculous account of  Pythagoras’
origin probably lies behind the story reported
by Antonius Diogenes. Here the miraculous child found feeding on manna was probably Pythagoras. [Life of Pythagoras by Porphyry - Haddas and Smith]

[Alexander the Great as “son of God”, god incarnate, and being worshipped]  The reign of Alexander marks a watershed
in the development of the ruler cult. After his death divine honours
for living monarchs become almost commonplace… There can be little doubt that Alexander changed the entire climate of thought,
creating a precedent for the worship of a sovereign as god incarnate and prefiguring the cults of the Hellenistic rulers… Early in  his reign Alexander became convinced that he was more than  the distant
progeny of Zeus by heroic ancestors and was in some sense the actual son of the god.
The sources retell  a number  of  stories according to  which Olympias was impregnated by Zeus in some manifestation, as a thunderbolt or a serpent… After his accession the field for speculation was open  and  it  was  possible  to  argue  that Alexander   had  a  dual
paternity comparable to that of Heracles – he had an earthly father and a divine father…. …
He was greeted publicly as son of Zeus… … …. At banquets  Alexander  assumed  the guise of Ammon with
purple….robes and ram’s..horns. At others he wore the cult dress of Hermes. and even o( Artemis (FGrH 126
F 5). The assumption of the Ammon horns, if nothing else,
is historical. They appear on portraits of  the  king  immediately  after  his  death,   most notably on  the Alexander Sarcophagus (31 l )  and  the
celebrated tetradrachms of Lysima­chus, and they must  have
been a recognisable  feature of  his dress. To have assumed   divine  attributes  Alexander   must have believed that he  shared
divinity  : not only son of Ammon but in some sense Ammon  incarnate.
 .. …. …. In 323 the god died, but his cult continued tenacious! …. Beginning as a Heraclid and descendant of heroes, he had become son of  Zeus and competitor with the heroes. Finally he had become a god manifest on earth, to be honoured with all the appurtenances of cult. The precedent for the worship of a living man was firmly established, and cults were offered to his Successors with greater frequency and magnificence.  (Brian Bosworth – Professor University of Western Australia)

When Alexander had passed through the desert and was come to the place of the oracle, the prophet of Ammon gave him salutation from the god as from a father ; whereupon Alexander asked him whether any of the murderers of his father had escaped him. To this the prophet answered by bidding him be guarded in his speech, since his was not a mortal father. (Plutarch – Life of Alexander)

For many Christians, Jesus’ rule as God’s Son seems obvious. Orthodox doctrine teaches that he is uniquely “begotten” by and “of one substance” with God the Father—part of the triune deity. But, as Peppard points out, these beliefs, which many Christians now take for granted and affirm in creeds, were the outcome of over three centuries of debate, disagreement, and dissent. He claims that “scholarship on divine sonship in the New Testament has relied anachronistically on the philosophical and theological categories of the fourth century, especially the key distinction, “begotten, not made”. Peppard reasonably questions the wisdom of imposing fourth-century meanings on first-century terms and proposes instead that we try to understand what the first Christians might have been thinking when they called Jesus the “Son of God”?  Peppard believes that early Christians were inspired more by soteriology than philosophy. That is, for them Jesus’ power to save testified to his sonship. But by the fourth century, increasing theological reliance on Greek thought encouraged Christians to trace this power to the nature of his sonship. Influenced by the Platonic distinction between a realm of eternal ideals and a less real world of approximations, they posited a gulf between the absolute Creator and His creatures. This raised the issue of where Jesus belongs, and Nicene orthodoxy chose to stress his likeness to God. (Frankforter Pennsylvania State review Michael Peppard “Son of God in the Roman World)
To be “son of god” in the Roman Empire, in the time period under consideration, meant primarily to be the son of the emperor. Divine sons and daughters were otherwise always sons and daughters of a particular named deity, such as Zeus, Hermes, or Apollo. (Michael Peppard – Fordham University)

In the first century, before the philosophically rooted conception of divine sonship became the standard, Jesus’ status as “son of God” was grounded in multiple claims: there were dynastic considerations in depicting him as a son of David, who himself was a royal son of God; his miraculous infancy and childhood narratives suggested a divine begottenness from birth; and his baptismal, transfiguration, and resurrection experiences suggested an adult divine election or adoption for diverse authors. (Michael Peppard – Fordham University)


When one investigates father-son relationships in the Roman family, one finds a strong emphasis on inheritance and transmission of power… To read a list of powerful Roman men is necessarily to read a list of adopted Roman men: Scipio Africanus the Younger, Caesar Augustus, Tiberius, Germanicus, Gaius Caligula, Nero, Pliny the Younger, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and Constantius I, to name only the most famous. In law, rhetoric, and social practice, adoption was a crucial technique for sustaining the peculiarly Roman perspective on fathers and sons, in which every Roman was under the patria potestas or “paternal power” of the eldest male in the family. Adopted sons were chosen for the job and then assimilated into new families as natural sons through text and image. An adopted son became literally “affiliated” with his adoptive family… In the Roman worldview, sonship did not primarily point backward to begetting, but forward to inheritance, often through the medium of adoption… Far from being second-class family members, they were pivotal and often favored. (Michael Peppard – Fordham University)

Mark’s narrative characterization of Jesus can be justifiably construed in the light of Roman imperial ideology. Regardless of exactly where Mark began to narrate the Son of God, he was doing so in the Empire governed by the other “god” and “son of god,” the emperor who had even begun to be worshipped by some in Palestine itself. …How would a listener more attuned to Roman culture than the Jewish scriptures have understood this short baptismal narrative? What connections and conclusions might that listener have made concerning the identity of Jesus? (Michael Peppard – Fordham University)

Reading the baptism of Jesus through the lens of imperial ideology encourages one to see the baptismal voice as a kind of adoption, the beginning of Jesus’ accession as a counter-emperor. The dove is interpreted as an omen and counter-symbol to the Roman eagle, which was a public portent of divine favor and ascension to imperial power. Finally, the adoptive relationship, which can be traced later in the Gospel, also relates to the divine sonship offered by God to all people through the Spirit. I contend, though, that the supposedly “low” connotations of such adoptive sonship are a misconstrual of ancient evidence. Using the concept of “colonial mimicry,” I argue that the baptism, transfiguration, and passion narrative—the end of which culminates in a postmortem declaration of divine sonship by a representative of the Roman army—articulate a vision of Jesus’ power that subverts Roman political power even while relying upon its symbolic grammar. (Michael Peppard – Fordham University)





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