Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How Did Jesus Become “Son of God”?

In the Bible and ancient Jewish writings, the title “son of god” has a number of senses (see Fossum 1995), as follows:
(1) angels are sometimes called “sons of god” (Job 38.7);

(2) the people of Israel are sometimes metaphorically called son of god (Hos. 11:1), and

(3) the Israelite king is spoken of as god’s son (2 Sam. 7:14; see Cooke 1961 and Mettinger 1976: 259-275). Psalm 2 was an important example of this, in which the king of Israel is son of god at his enthronement:
“I will tell of the decree of the Lord: he said to me, you are my son, today I have begotten you”. (Psalm 2.7).
This was part of Israelite royal ideology: the king became god’s son at his coronation (Goulder 1995: 147). It is also possible that the fragmentary Qumran document 4Q246 is a Messianic text calling the Messiah (which means “anointed/chosen one”) the “son of god,” in the Israelite royal sense, an expected future king of Israel who will be son of god in this way (Collins 1993; cf. Fitzmyer 1993).
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, there appears to be a pre-Pauline Christology where this idea is also attested:
εὐαγγέλιον θεοῦ, ὃ προεπηγγείλατο διὰ τῶν προφητῶν αὐτοῦ ἐν γραφαῖς ἁγίαις, περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ τοῦ γενομένου ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυὶδ κατὰ σάρκα, τοῦ ὁρισθέντος υἱοῦ θεοῦ ἐν δυνάμει κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης ἐξ ἀναστάσεως νεκρῶν, Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν …

“[the] gospel of god, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy writings, concerning his son Jesus Christ our Lord, born/come from the seed of David according to the flesh, and designated son of god in power according to the spirit of holiness, by resurrection from the dead …” (Romans 1.1–4).
Paul probably inherited the Christology of Romans 1.1–4 from earlier Jewish Christians, and we can deduce that their Christology was like this:
(1) Jesus was the Messiah, the long awaited king, and at some point the earliest Christians came to believe that Jesus must have been a descendent of king David, because the Messiah was thought to be of his dynasty (Goulder 1995: 99-100). This the Messiah could be called “son of David” in a figurative sense as his descendant (as in Mark 10:47). But at this stage the early Christians had probably not invented a Davidic genealogy for Jesus, as in the gospel of Matthew 1:6–16.

(2) in believing that Jesus was the Messiah, or king of Israel, the earliest Jewish Christians took over the Israelite royal ideology that held that the king, at his coronation, was “god’s son”: what is fascinating is that in this pre-Pauline Christology Jesus appears to have been made god’s son at his resurrection, which suggests that Jesus’s messiahship formally began at his resurrection as well. In fact, this is not that strange, as many scholars have concluded that the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah by his disciples happened after his death: this was the theory of William Wrede in his ground-breaking study The Messianic Secret (Wrede 1971; see also Wells 1996: 122; Tuckett 1983 and Räisänen 1990). This idea is also attested in Luke 24:44–45, Acts 13:33, Acts 2:32 and 2:36.

Thus there is considerable doubt whether the historical Jesus ever claimed to be the Messiah during his lifetime. One might speculate that, at the end of his ministry, during the Passover events in Jerusalem many of Jesus’s followers and ordinary people in Jerusalem might have started to think he was Messiah, but whether Jesus explicitly denied this or, alternatively, “tacitly” accepted it is not known.

(3) The phrase used by Paul τοῦ γενομένου ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυὶδ κατὰ σάρκα (“come/born from the seed of David according to the flesh”) strongly suggests that at this stage the Jewish Christians thought Jesus was a real descendant of David in the natural human sense of descent through his father. The word γενομένου (which should be understood in the sense of born/conceived) implies Jesus was fathered by a normal human father, because by the contemporary Jewish conception of birth it was the father who created the child through his seed/sperm, not the mother (Goulder 1995: 102). The ancients were ignorant of DNA and genetics: they did not understand women contributed genetic material to the child. In their view, it was the father who made his child, who grew out of the male seed. Therefore the earliest Jewish Christian belief (deduced from the proclamation of Jesus as risen Messiah) was that he really had been born from his father naturally as a descendant of king David, and this is still reflected in 2 Tim. 2.8 and Ignatius, Ephes. 18. At this stage, the virgin birth story had yet to be invented.
The title “son of god,” then, was held to be a title of Jesus by his Jewish disciples only after his death and imagined resurrection, and it reflects Israelite royal ideology, not the belief that he was divine.

After Paul took over this earlier, primitive Jewish Christology, he appears to have developed it further, by inventing the notion of the pre-existence of Jesus, which is attested in Philippians (written in the mid-50s or early 60s AD):
… Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων
οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ,
ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών,
ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος•
καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος
ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου,
θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ.

“…. Christ Jesus
who, being in the form of God,
did not deem the being equal with God a prize,
but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave
born/becoming in the form of men,
and having appeared (or having been found) in shape as a man
he humbled himself, becoming obedient until death,
and death on a cross.” (Phil. 2.6–8).
Of course, there is already a huge literature on the interpretation of Philippians 2:5–11 (see Marshall 1968. Martin and Dodd 1998; Wright 1986; Burk 2004). Many think that this “Christ hymn” was a pre-Pauline creed, but the arguments adduced are not very convincing: there is no reason why Paul could not have composed this in a language and style different from the prosaic style of his letters (for a review of arguments see Martin 2005). I would contend that this is Paul’s own composition, reflecting his Christological innovations.

According to Paul, after his resurrection God bestowed on Jesus the name that is above every other name: the title “Lord,” or kurios in Greek (Phil. 2.8–11), which is the regular title of god in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

For Paul, Jesus has now become an eternal, first-born semi-divine being, even though Paul may possibly shrink from saying that Jesus wanted to be an absolute equal of god (see Philippians 2:6: “[sc. Jesus] did not deem the being equal with God a prize,” which of course does presuppose some kind of equality). At this point, the title “son of god” has become a semi-divine title for Paul and Pauline Christians referring to Jesus as the first born “son of god” before creation (Goulder 1995: 102) and a type of cosmic king, not simply a reflection of Israelite/Messianic royal ideology. Already the Pauline gospel of Mark written c. 70 AD uses the “son of god” as a semi-divine title, reflecting Paul’s Christology: Mark has already transcended the primitive use of “son of god” in the royal ideological sense.

In other Jewish Christian communities, a different doctrine was developed: the virgin birth, which is never stated by Paul and was probably unknown to him.

The author of the gospel of Matthew was from a liberal Jewish Christian community, possibly in Antioch in Syria, which believed that Jesus was Messiah and “son of god” in the royal sense at his resurrection. Matthew wrote his gospel after 70 AD (possibly in the late 70s AD), and certainly after the gospel of Mark (which he uses as a source). In time, these communities were unsatisfied with the idea that Jesus was Messiah only after his death and the messiahship was retrojected back onto Jesus’s life and ministry. The term “son of god” was also given a new interpretation. Many Christians poured over the Old Testament looking for passages that they imagined prophesied Jesus. When they read such passages many will have believed that the holy spirit entered into them, and that they read these passages with divine inspiration, so that prophecies about Jesus were revealed to them by revelation. Once they had found some text they thought was a prophesy, it was a natural step to write some story about Jesus they thought must have happened to fulfil the prophecy (because their thinking will have been something like this: “if the holy spirit has revealed some passage with a prophecy about Jesus, surely it must have happened”). Thus many stories about Jesus in the gospels have been created in this way (perhaps not as conscious fraud, but as the deluded midrash of early Christians), and it follows, of course, that many such stories never really happened. The virgin birth is one of these.

It is likely that some Jewish Christian (possibly the author of Matthew himself) read Isaiah 7:14 in the Greek Septuagint (or LXX = Septuaginta) in this way and imagined he had found a prophecy of Jesus’s birth:
διὰ τοῦτο δώσει κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον• ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ …

“Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign:
behold, a virgin will conceive in the womb, and will bring forth a son,
and you will call his name Emmanuel ...” (Isaiah 7:14; the Greek text follows Rahlfs 1971 [1935]).
This passage in the Masoretic text (the Hebrew text of the Old Testament) was originally meant to be nothing more than a prophecy of the Israelite king Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. Even a Catholic scholar like Raymond Brown admits that Isaiah 7:14 originally referred to a sign that was just a normal birth: “The sign offered by the prophet was the imminent birth of a child, probably Davidic, but naturally conceived, who would illustrate God’s providential care for his people” (Brown 1999: 148).

The idea of a “virgin” giving birth is not really even in the original Hebrew text. In the Hebrew, the crucial word is almah, meaning either (1) a young unmarried woman (possibly a virgin) or (2) a recently married young woman (but not a virgin):
לכן יתן אדני הוא לכם אות הנה העלמה הרה וילדת בן וקראת שמו עמנו אל
[note this is the Hebrew text without diacriticals].

לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא לָכֶם אוֹת: הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ עִמָּנוּ אֵל
[note this is the Hebrew text with diacriticals; to read Hebrew one starts at the end of the first line and reads backwards, then goes to the end of the second line and reads backwards].

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.
See! the young woman [almah in Hebrew] is with child
and the one bearing a son
will call his name Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14).
The Greek Septuagint translated almah (העלמה) with the word parthenos (παρθένος), which is easier to understand in the sense of “virgin.” The Greek word parthenos could mean:
(1) a maiden or girl, often with the sense of virgin, e.g., ἡ Παρθένος (“the Virgin”) was the title of the goddess Athena at Athens; the sacred παρθένοι was used to describe the Vestal virgins at Rome.

(2) unmarried women who are not virgins.
(Liddell and Scott 1996, s.v. parthenos, p. 1339).
The Jewish Christian (as I noted, possibly the author of Matthew himself) read this text in the Greek and understood parthenos as “virgin” and thought it was a prophecy of Jesus’s birth (Goulder 1995: 103; for more on this, see the discussion here by Richard Carrier). How, then, was Jesus conceived? As the passage was turned over in his mind, he thought that Jesus must have been “conceived” in a miracle by god: hence the origin of the virgin birth story in Matthew and the idea of Jesus being “god’s son” in a more literal sense than merely the metaphorical sense of “son of god” as king of Israel at his resurrection, which had been the earlier view (Goulder 1995: 149).


Brown, Raymond Edward. 1999. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (updated edn.), Doubleday, New York, N.Y.

Burk, D. “On the Articular Infinitive in Philippians 2:6: A Grammatical Note with Christological Implications,” Tyndale Bulletin 55.2: 253-274.

Carrier, Richard. 2003. “The Problem of the Virgin Birth Prophecy,” The Secular Web

Collins, J. J. 1993. “The Son of God Text from Qumran,” in M. C. De Boer (ed.), From Jesus to John: Essays on Jesus and New Testament Christology in Honour of Marinus de Jonge, JSOT Press, Sheffield. 65–82.

Cooke, Gerald A. 1961. “The Israelite King as Son of God,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 73: 202-225.

Fitzmyer, J. 1993. “4Q246. The ‘Son of God’ Document from Qumran,” Biblica 74: 153–174.

Fossum. Jarl. 1995. “Son of God,” in Karel van der Toom, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst (eds.), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, EJ Brill, Leiden. 1485–1497.

Goulder, M. D. 1995. St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY.

Liddell, Henry George and Robert Scott. 1996. A Greek-English Lexicon (9th edn.; rev. and augm. by Henry Stuart Jones with Roderick McKenzie, with rev. supplement), Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Marshall, I. Howard. 1968. “The Christ-Hymn in Philippians,” Tyndale Bulletin 19: 104–127.

Martin, James D. 2005. Carmen Christi: Philippians ii. 5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Martin, Ralph P. and Brian J. Dodd (eds). 1998. Where Christology Began: Essays on Philippians 2, Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY.

Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. 1976. King and Messiah: The Civil and Sacral Legitimation of the Israelite Kings, LiberLaromedel/Gleerup, Lund.

Rahlfs, A. (ed.). 1971 [1935]. Septuaginta: Id est Vetus Testamentum Graece iuxta LXX interpretes (9th edn.), Württembergische Bibelanstalt Stuttgart, Stuttgart.

Räisänen, Heikki. 1990. The “Messianic Secret” in Mark (trans. Christopher Tuckett), T & T Clark, Edinburgh.

Tuckett, Christopher (ed.). 1983. The Messianic Secret, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, Pa. and London.

Wells, G. A. 1996. The Jesus Legend, Open Court, Chicago and La Salle, Ill.

Wrede, William. 1971. The Messianic Secret (trans. J. C. G. Greig), Attic Press, Greenwood, S.C.

Wright, N. T. 1986. “άρπαγμός and the Meaning of Philippians 2:5–11,” Journal of Theological Studies 37 n.s.: 321–352.


  1. Let me just say that what you have been writing has been incredible food for thought for the past few days.

    It still boggles how a simple idea can suddenly involve into something grand in the process of transmission across several people across several years. We all played Chinese Whispers in school, and saw how a simple sentence becomes something completely different once it transmits across several people.

    In this case, we have a man possibly regarded as a mortal rabbi in his own lifetime become regarded nothing less than a god a few decades after his death.

    One word - almah - is translated inexactly and the result vibrates across millenia. To think a historical misunderstanding hinges upon one single word.

    1. "In this case, we have a man possibly regarded as a mortal rabbi in his own lifetime become regarded nothing less than a god a few decades after his death."

      Yes, it is remarkable, but then so was the movement of Sabbatai Zevi in the 1600s. He was a mystical Jewish rabbi and Kabbalist who proclaimed himself the Messiah. He even actually signed letters with this phrase:

      “the Lord, your God, Sabbatai Zevi”

      Think about this: this was the most blasphemous thing imaginable in orthodox Rabbinic Judaism, but the man attracted a vast Jewish following in his own lifetime. The man proclaimed himself a god and many contemporary Jewish people were willing to accept this.

      Even after he apostatized, some of his Jewish followers continued to think he was the Messiah - the movement, the Sabbatians, went on until the 19th century.

      His chief disciple Nathan of Gaza continued to believe him as well.

      See Halperin, David J. 2007. Sabbatai Zevi: Testimonies to a Fallen Messiah, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford, for the source material.


  2. Sabbatai Zevi is also an interesting story.

    It seems that some "Doenmeh" in Turkey still revere the man nearly 400 years later, which is also astounding given that most others were disillusioned with him after his conversion.