The Glossary of Terms

Son & Son of God


Oxford Dictionary of the Bible

by W.R.F. Browning (NY: Oxford University Press, 1996)

Son of God. A title of the king in the OT (e.g. Ps. 2:7), and in the plural form it is applied to faithful Jews (Wisd. 9:7). It is a Messianic title in the Dead Sea scrolls and in 4 Ezra (7:28) . Although Christians attributed divine Sonship to Jesus as Messiah after the resurrection, the tendency was to push its usage ever earlier -- to the baptism by John (Mark 1:11) and the Transfiguration (Mark 9:7), or even before his birth. According to Paul (Rom. 1:4 and also John 1:18) Jesus was designated 'Son of God'. This could mean that a pre-existent divine being entered human life and functioned in the person of Jesus. At any rate according to Matt. 1:18-25 the beginning of Jesus' life was an act in which God took the initiative. A saying is recorded in which Jesus refers to God as his Father (Mark 13:32). At the end of the gospel (Matt. 27:54, following Mark 15:39) the centurion makes the Christian confession of faith. If he in fact spoke such words, he may have said, ' He is a son of God' (there is no definite article in the Greek) meaning a divine being in the pagan sense, the emperor Augustus had the title 'Son of God' after his adoptive father Julius Caesar had been deified by decree of the Roman senate in 42 BCE. For the Christian readers of the gospels the importance was in the words being an unsolicited witness to what they themselves believed. It is a Christological title in the epistles of Paul (e.g. Gal 4:4) and Heb (1:5) quotes Ps. 2:7. Unambiguous divine status was accorded to Jesus by the Council of Nicaea (325 CE)

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

son, a male offspring. The Hebrew word ben (Aramaic bar, Gk. auios) enjoyed a rich semantic range, although it is used most often in the Bible with reference to actual physical lineage. In the plural it frequently combines with the word Israel to designate a specific group of people, male and female (the Israelites). An adopted son was also referred to by this word. In polite address persons with no actual kinship to the speaker were afforded this title; the one addressed was ordinarily an inferior (cf. the aged priest Eli’s use of ‘my son’ in speaking to the child Samuel, 1 Sam. 3:16). The expression ‘son of’ came to describe a characteristic feature of something. For example, ‘son of fatness’ with reference to the land suggests fertile soil (Isa. 5:1), and ‘son of strength’ connotes might. A similar use of ‘daughter’ occurs (cf. ‘daughters of song,’ Eccles. 12:4) and ‘daughter of Zion’ really means the sister city, Jerusalem. When used with a place, as in ‘sons of Zion,’ the meaning is ‘inhabitants.’ In Proverbs and Ecclesiastes ‘my son’ develops into a technical form for a student, although it seems also to retain its literal sense in many instances. This designation of students as sons was also the practice in Egyptian and in Mesopotamian wisdom literature. The biblical prophetic tradition uses the expression ‘sons of prophets’ to describe professional membership in the prophetic guild (cf. Amos 7:14). Likewise, allegiance to a particular deity was expressed in this way (sons of Chemosh, Num. 21:29; cf. sons of Belial, kjv Deut. 13:13), and ‘sons of God’ alludes to divine beings (godlike creatures). Satan belonged to this select group, according to Job 1:6. The singular ‘son of man’ simply meant ‘human’ at first (e.g., Ezek. 2:1) but eventually signified a heavenly being who descended to earth (Dan. 7:13-14; cf. Mark 8:38), whereas ‘son of God’ was merely an exalted way of referring to a great man.

In the NT, the use of the word ‘son’ to designate a physical descendant (e.g., Matt. 21:28; Mark 13:12; Luke 15:31) is also common. In addition, the apostle Paul uses the word to denote a close and affectionate relationship in the Christian faith, both of individuals (1 Cor. 4:17; Phil. 2:22; Philem. 10) and of groups (1 Cor. 4:14). Because the term ‘son’ was used to denote the unique filial relationship of Jesus to God (Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:1; Luke 9:35; Acts 3:26), it also came to be applied to those who through trust in Jesus attained the same relationship with God (John 1:12; 1 John 3:1-2).

Son of God, a person or a people with a special relationship to God.

In the OT: In the OT and pre-Christian Judaism there are four notable uses of the term ‘Son of God.’ First, it is predicated of Israel constituted as a nation through the Exodus (e.g., Hos. 11:1). Second, it is a title given to the monarch at the time of enthronement (e.g., Ps. 2:7, a coronation psalm). Third, the angels are called ‘sons of God’ (e.g., Job 38:7). Fourth, in the deuterocanonical book The Wisdom of Solomon it is applied to the righteous individual (Wisd. of Sol. 2:18). Primarily, it denotes not physical filiation but a divine call to obedience in a predestined role in salvation history.

It is a matter of dispute whether the term ‘Son of God’ was already current in pre-Christian Judaism as a messianic title as Mark 14:61 would seem to suggest. But in view of the discovery of Psalm 2:7 in a messianic application in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QFlor. 10-14), it is probably safe to conclude that it was just coming into use in this context during the period of Christian origins.

In the NT: The pre-Easter Jesus undoubtedly had a unique experience of God as his Abba (‘Father’). He addressed God with this intimate appellation, normally reserved for an earthly father (e.g., Mark 14:36). Although the synoptic tradition contains two sayings in which Jesus refers to himself as ‘son’ in relation to God as his Father (Mark 13:32; Matt. 11:27 [Q]), the authenticity of these sayings is widely questioned, and it remains uncertain whether Jesus actually called himself ‘son’ in relation to God as Father. The most we can be certain of is that, since his use of Abba implies a unique filial consciousness, it implies the idea that he is ‘son.’

The use of ‘Son of God’ as a christological title should be clearly distinguished from the Father/Son language. The evidence suggests that in spite of its presence in the synoptic Gospels, the title did not come into use until after Easter. At his resurrection/exaltation Jesus was appointed ‘Son of God’ (Rom. 1:4). This belief seems to have arisen through the application of the coronation psalm, already interpreted messianically at Qumran, to the Risen One (Acts 13:33; cf. Heb. 5:5). The use of the word ‘appointed’ in Rom. 1:4 indicates that ‘Son of God’ at this stage in the history of Christian thought denoted an office or function, rather than a metaphysical quality as in later dogmatics. This usage is in accord with OT and Jewish practice. Christology of this type is sometimes designated ‘adoptionist,’ but it is not adoptionism in the later, heretical sense, according to which Jesus, having been initially purely human, later became divine. It means that at his resurrection/exaltation Jesus embarked upon a new role in salvation history as the mediator of God’s final offer of salvation.

In the course of time the moment at which Jesus was appointed ‘Son of God’ in this functional sense was pushed back to his baptism as is indicated by the voice from heaven (Mark 1:11). At that moment Jesus was marked out for his messianic role. This process of retrojection does not entail the christologizing of a life that had been previously unmessianic, for from the earliest time after Easter the community had recognized that God had been at work in Jesus (Acts 2:22; 10:38) and such terms as ‘prophet’ or ‘servant’ were used to indicate that in his earthly lifetime Jesus had appeared as God’s agent (prophet, Luke 24:19; servant, Acts 3:13). ‘Son of God’ simply takes over the duty of these earlier titles. It has also been suggested that the Son of God christology was first pushed back only to the moment of the transfiguration (Mark 9:7), but this is unlikely for the voice at the transfiguration seems rather to have been modeled on the voice at the baptism. Once this process of retrojection had shifted the crucial christological moment to baptism, the title ‘Son of God’ could be used occasionally by others, e.g., the demons (Mark 3:11). It is noteworthy, however, that Jesus never claims for himself the title ‘Son of God.’ While he is represented as accepting it in Mark 14:61-62, both Matthew (27:64) and Luke (22:67) are at pains to tone down Jesus’ acceptance of the title as though what he says to the High Priest is, ‘It—like the title ‘messiah’—is your word, not mine.’ The ejaculation of the crowd, ‘For he said he was the son of God’ (Matt. 27:43), is clearly secondary, as a comparison with the Markan parallel shows.

A connected development with the foregoing process of retrojection is the idea of the sending of the Son. This appears in a formula exhibiting a constant pattern: God as subject; a verb of sending or its equivalent; the Son as object; and a statement of God’s saving purpose in sending the Son (see Gal. 4:4-5; Rom. 8:3-4; John 3:17). In the parable of the wicked husbandmen (Mark 12:6) a similar image occurs, though without an explicit statement of the saving purpose. The roots of this sending formula probably lie in the earlier designation of Jesus as ‘prophet,’ which in turn originates in his own self-understanding. Jesus had a strong consciousness of his sending (cf. Mark 9:37), a consciousness that was shared by the OT prophets, on whom it was patterned (e.g., Isa. 6:8). When ‘Son of God’ took over from ‘prophet’ the sending of the Son formula was born.

A related formula is the ‘handing over’ formula (Mark 14:21; Rom. 4:25; John 3:16). This in turn could have its roots in the earlier designation of Jesus as ‘servant of God,’ for the term ‘handed over’ or ‘delivered’ occurs in the Servant Song of Isaiah 53 (Septuagint).

It is sometimes held that the sending formula was designed to express a preexistence Christology, according to which sending refers to the incarnation of the preexistent Son. The origin of the preexistence Christology is probably to be dated later than the sending formulas, for the latter almost certainly antedate the writings in which they occur. Thus, Gal. 4:4 is widely held to be pre-Pauline and John 3:16-17 to be pre-Johannine. However, Paul may have understood and John certainly understood these formulas in light of their own preexistence theologies.

In the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke the title ‘Son of God’ is shifted back to the conception, birth, or infancy of Jesus (Mat. 2:15; Luke 1:35). However, this also does not imply a preexistence and incarnational Christology or a divine sonship in the metaphysical sense. Rather, it implies his predestination from the womb for a messianic role in salvation history. This functional sense of the divine sonship is made particularly clear in Luke 1:32-33.

There is a growing consensus among scholars that the preexistence Christology originated not with the title ‘Son of God,’ but with the identification of Jesus as the personal incarnation of the divine Wisdom. This identification underlies the development of preexistence Christology in the wisdom hymns of the NT (Phil. 2:6-11, though the presence of preexistence in this hymn is sometimes questioned; Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:2-3; John 1:1-18). This identification leads to an expansion of the meaning of ‘Son of God.’ The preexistent Wisdom or Word of God is as such also the eternal Son of God, who was with God from all eternity as the agent of creation, revelation, and redemption. That identification has already taken place in the Logos hymn of John 1 (see v. 14; also v. 18, if ‘Son’ rather than ‘God’ is the correct text).

The traditional, dogmatic Christology of Nicea (a.d. 325) and Chalcedon (a.d. 451) and of Christian orthodoxy since that time rests upon the Johannine development from a functional to a metaphysical Christology.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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