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Messiah and Divine Son

May 16, 2016

Among interesting points raised in the discussion at the Salamanca symposium last week was the observation by Prof. Guijarro that ascriptions of divine sonship to Jewish messianic figures of the second-temple period aren’t common, whereas in earliest Christian discourse Jesus’ filial status with God is more frequent and prominent.

Some have proposed the influence of Roman emperor discourse, in which the living emperor is son of the divine (deceased) predecessor emperor.  But it’s curious that, for example, Paul’s references to Jesus as the divine son are (1) few in comparison to other honorific claims (“Lord,” “Christ”), and (2) are clustered, not in letters in which “pagan” religion is engaged, but in letters in which Paul engages issues arising from the Jewish context (Galatians and Romans in particular).  You’d think that Paul would flout the claim of Jesus’ divine sonship in letters addressing the “pagan” environment if the point was to contrast Jesus with the Emperor or to draw upon imperial claims.

As well, it’s interesting that the actual title “Son of God” appears only four times among the 17 references in the 13 letters traditionally ascribed to Paul, and that there are variations in the form of the expression in each of these four instances:  tou . . . huios theou (Rom 1:4); ho tou theou . . . huios (2 Cor 1:19); tou huiou tou theou (Gal 2:20; and Eph 4:13). In the remaining 13 references, Jesus is “his [God’s] Son” (Rom 1:3, 9; 5:10; 8:29, 32; 1 Cor 1:9; Gal 1:16; 4:4, 6; 1 Thess 1:10), and “his [God’s] own Son” (Rom 8:3), “the Son” (1 Cor 15:28), and “the Son of his love” (Col 1:13).  As I’ve written in an earlier study, “The conviction that Jesus is God’s Son was apparently what mattered to Paul, not so much the Christological title or the fixed verbal formulas to express that conviction.”

The consistent feature in all of these references, however, is the use of the definite article:  Jesus for Paul is the Son of God.  This suggests that Paul saw Jesus as holding a unique sonship, and not as one member of a wider class of individuals.  But, to be sure, Paul also refers to people being made God’s sons/children through being incorporated into Jesus (e.g., Romans 8:12-30).  So, for Paul, Jesus’ status is unique but not exclusionist in effect; instead, Jesus’ divine status becomes the basis for the incorporation/inclusion of others into a filial status with God.

Jesus’ filial status seems to have been Paul’s favoured way of referring to Jesus in relation to God.  In relation to believers, Jesus is “Lord.”  In relation to God’s  eschatological purposes Jesus is also “Christ” (Messiah).  These latter two terms are used considerably more frequently by Paul as honorific terms for Jesus.  But Jesus’ filial status with God seems to have held a special place in Paul’s beliefs.

For further discussion, see my entry, “Son of God,” in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin, D. G. Reid (InterVaristy Press, 1993), pp. 900-6; and my essay, “Jesus’ Divine Sonship in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” in Romans and the People of God, eds. S. K. Soderlund & N. T. Wright (Eerdmans, 1999), 217-33.

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9 Comments
  1. Dr. Hurtado,

    Just a few questions:

    1) For Paul, what exactly does it mean that Jesus is God’s “Son”? I’m guessing it’s not quite what modern Christians mean when they refer to Jesus as “God the Son”?

    2) When you say that “In relation to believers Jesus is Lord,” does this mean that believers just saw Jesus’ lordship as a relativistic position? Sort of how a teacher to some students can himself be a student to a higher teacher, relative to which position you view it from?

    • I point you to the publications I mentioned in my posting, Harrison. Some things can’t be fleshed out adequately in a short blog posting or comment! But, yes, there are differences. Most people today think that “Son of God” is the key way to refer to Jesus’ divinity; but for Paul the emphasis is more on Jesus’ unique and intimate relationship with God (as reflected in his consistent use of the definite article). And the title “Lord” is portrayed as conferred on Jesus at his resurrection/exaltation by God (e.g., Philip 2:9-11), and it is used particularly in texts where believers are exhorted and in liturgical contexts where they address Jesus in reverence.

  2. Jihe Song permalink

    Jesus’ Divine Sonship in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” in Romans and the People of God, eds. S. K. Soderlund & N. T. Wright (Eerdmans, 1999), 217-33.

    Dear Professor Hurtados, Thank you for this post. Is there an electronic copy of the above article available? I do not have easy access to this book.

  3. Does Greek behave as English with respect to definiteness?

    I recall a long explanation in David Aune’s commentary on Revelation on anarthrous being even more important that the same word with the ‘definite’ article. The anarthrous saying – listen – you don’t know what I am saying. Then the word (in this case new havens and new earth) would be used with the article as a backwards (or sometimes proleptic) reference.

    Definiteness in Hebrew is definitely different from English. And English can even use the definite article generically, i.e. without specific reference to uniqueness.

    sonship is of Israel, of Ephraim, and so on. How can we really say what early Christian thinking is here based on a definite article in some instances of ‘the’ Greek?

    • The definite article in Koine Greek functions in various ways that are specific to the sentences/constructions in which it is employed. The consistent (NB) Pauline usage of it with “son of god” has the effect of making Jesus’ divine sonship singular, implicitly distinguishing him from all others to whom the expression was given. Check out standard Koine Greek grammars if you’re in need of more instruction.

  4. Thank you, Prof. Hurtado. I agree with the limitations of the imperial background for illuminating early Christian claims of divine sonship for Jesus. I wonder how much of a reverse effect imperial use of the title may have had in inoculating hearers from any metaphysical implications of its use. It seems even Romans kept the title in perspective. Vespasian’s well-known alleged deathbed quip that he was now becoming a god takes a significantly lighter and more formal view of the extravagant title than those who apply Roman emperor discourse to the early Christian context might have us believe.

  5. Hi Dr Hurtado
    Sorry, can you please clarify: it’s interesting that the actual title “Son of God” appears only four times among the 17 references…

    By this I think you mean that this exact title only happens 4 times, the other references being composed differently, but I wanted to check.

    Finally got your book One God One Lord as a birthday gift, enjoying very much indeed.

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