Messiah and Divine Son
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.