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Christological Non-Starters: Part 1, “Adoption as Divine Son”

January 25, 2019

Having spent now some forty years exploring and attempting to understand how earliest Christians understood and reverenced Jesus, it is sometimes almost amusing to see proposals presented confidently that actually have scant basis in the earliest evidence.  In this and a couple of ensuing postings I’ll mention a few (and, no doubt, make proponents a bit angry, but “them’s the breaks”).

One claim is that Paul and/or other early believers saw Jesus as God’s “adopted Son,” the putative adoption posited as his baptism or resurrection.  Certainly, there are reports of individuals and groups from the late second century AD and later about such ideas.  These include the figure associated with a Valentinian gnostic position, a Theodotus, extracts of his thought cited and commented on by Clement of Alexandria.[1]  But, if I may, where exactly do we find an “adoption” of Jesus by God stated in Paul, or in other earlier texts?

One attempted answer is that it happened at Jesus’ baptism, as related in the Synoptic Gospels.  Proof is alleged in the divine voice:  “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  But the first thing to ask is this scene one of adoption or an acclamation?  As widely recognized, the statement in the baptism scene draws upon (and may allude to) Psalm 2:7, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.”  It’s commonly thought that the Psalm originated to celebrate the installation of the Judean king, at whose coronation he was “begotten.”  This divine “begetting” has sometimes been taken as a metaphorical statement that the king was adopted by God, but this has been challenged more recently.[2]  But, whatever the case, if the Synoptic writers wanted to make it clear that at his baptism Jesus was likewise supposedly adopted as “son”, why didn’t they just include the full Psalm statement?  Instead, the baptism scenes all simply affirm Jesus’ divine sonship,  making it unique “my beloved Son,” without any reference to “today I have begotten you,” which looks more like an acclamation and commissioning of Jesus as royal Messiah, not an adoption.[3]

Certainly, the terminology of adoption was readily at hand.  Verbal forms, from huiotheteō or huiopoieō, and noun forms such as huiothesia, for example.  Indeed, Paul does use this last term, but only to refer to the action by which God makes believers “sons” (Galatians 4:5; Romans 8:15).  That is, Paul uses adoption terminology in what theologians term “soteriological” statements (concerning the salvation of believers), but not in “christological statements” (concerning the work or status of Jesus).  So, if early figures such as Paul wished to affirm Jesus’ adoption as divine son, why didn’t they say so, equally explicitly, in the terminology readily available to do so?

And that brings us to Romans 1:3-4, the Pauline text to which appeal is sometime made.  But, here again, it bears noting that the text says nothing about adoption.  It portrays Jesus as born from “the seed of David,” and “declared/affirmed [horisthentos] the son of God in power” at his resurrection (presented here as the first to experience the general resurrection “of the dead”). The term, horisthentos, is a form of a verb used variously to refer to separating or designating something or someone (for some special use or significance), but never for adoption.  Further, the emphasis in the statement appears to be that as of Jesus’ resurrection he is thereafter the son of God “in power,” which likely refers to the well-known belief that Jesus’ resurrection involved also his exaltation to function as God’s plenipotentiary.

It is sometimes claimed, however, that the belief in Jesus as adopted divine Son was initial and early, but was then superseded by belief in his “pre-existence,” such as is reflected already in Paul’s letters, written ca. 50 AD and thereafter. Anything is possible, of course.  But this supersession would have to have been very early, and any “adoption-christology” rather short-lived.  For, by common scholarly consent, Paul underwent his “revelation of God’s Son” within a couple of years at most after Jesus’ crucifixion.  And, moreover, by common scholarly judgement he was initiated into a Jesus-movement that already held the basic christological convictions that are reflected in his letters (e.g., that Jesus had been glorified and given a status second only to God, and that in some manner he was already “there” from, and the agent of, creation).  Indeed, I suspect that Paul was reacting against such convictions in his previous opposition to the Jesus-movement.  So, in any case, if there was an early adoption-christology, it would have been very short-lived, and, it appears, it left scant explicit trace or impact.  It would have been an abortive non-starter.  So, certainly as far as Paul knew (and he did get around quite a lot!), whether in Jerusalem or his own assemblies, Jesus was reverenced similarly as designated “Lord”, not as adopted Son.

To be sure, the powerful ignition factors in the explosive development of early Jesus-devotion included particularly the experiences of the risen and exalted Jesus.  In that sense, Ehrman is correct to refer to an early “exaltation” view of Jesus, as having been given a new place of unique status “at the right hand” of God.  But, by all indications, the view that Jesus was exalted to a new status/role by God (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11) went fully hand-in-hand with beliefs that Jesus was God’s “Son” by right all along, so to speak, with no adoption involved.  To appeal to an ancient practice for rough comparison, when an ancient king elevated a son to the position of co-regent and successor, this wasn’t an adoption.  It was the conferral of a new status, to be sure, but the person didn’t thereby become a son.  He was already a son, who was designated with a new explicit role, and obedience to the reigning king required that this designated son be acknowledged and honoured by the king’s loyal subjects also.  Just so, earliest Jesus-followers stressed that God had exalted his Son, given him divine glory and “the name above all names,” and now required him to be reverenced appropriately.[4]

[1] R. P. Casey (ed.), The Excerpta Ex Theodoto of Clement of Alexandria, Studies & Documents, 1 (London: Christophers, 1934). Esp. 33.1.

[2] See, e.g., Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah As Son of God:  Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), esp. 19-24.

[3] See, e.g., Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary Hermeneia (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2007), 150, who proposes that the divine voice “appoints” Jesus as Messiah.

[4] For a more detailed critique of “adoption Christology” proposals, see Michael Bird, Jesus the Eternal Son:  Answering Adoptionist Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017).  For more on the historical importance of the place of Jesus in earliest devotional practices, Larry W. Hurtado, Honoring the Son:  Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).



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  1. unkleE permalink

    I have been a christian (a total layperson) and an inquisitive Bible reader for more than 50 years, and many years ago I came to the view that there was development in the early christians’ understanding of the status of Jesus. Besides the baptism narratives that you mention, the key evidence of this (to me) was Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 (which I assumed Luke had recorded faithfully from earlier sources, though not necessarily verbatim!) where he says:

    “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (Acts 2:36)

    It was this conclusion that led me to purchase, read and greatly benefit from your book How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Is there any reason why you didn’t mention this verse in this post? Do you think it is a speech constructed by Luke rather than reported by him? Or do you think the adoptionist overtones I see there are mistaken?


    PS I regard this idea of development in understanding to be entirely natural. Belief in a divine Jesus was a jump for those who had known him as a flesh and blood person, particularly friends and family, so I think it would naturally have taken at least a little while to re-think their theology.

    • The assumption that christological beliefs developed seems intuitively so, which is what makes the apparent explosive nature of the appearance of early christological beliefs so remarkable. And we have to go with the evidence, not assumptions. As for Acts2:36, quite evidently it only states the claim that in Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation God has now openly designated Jesus as Messiah and Lord. That’s not an adoption, but only a designation of him.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    You don’t mention Heb 5:5 where the author apparently makes explicit use of the wording of the Pslam: “today I have become your father”.

    Do you think it is accurate to say that the synoptic gospels present Jesus as being anointed as Messiah at his baptism, therefore he was not Messiah until that point?

    • Donald: In the context of Hebrews, it’s quite evident that the author didn’t cite Psalm 2:7 to refer to an adoption of Jesus as Son. From the opening words of Hebrews onward, it’s clear that the author saw Jesus as “pre-existent” Son. Instead, he cites the verse, along with Psalm 110:4 to show that God’s affirmation of Jesus as Son and Priest is the basis for christological claims about him.

  3. Michael permalink

    Jews adhered to Jewish monotheism for 1000’s of years worshiping The Lord God alone and keep away from idolatry as they were commanded to do ….and now to contradict this fundamental monotheistic belief after Jesus left this earth, by some professed followers of Jesus claiming to have received “revelations” expressing Jesus had now been glorified and given a status second only to God, and that he pre-existed as a personal divine being from the beginning and also the agent of creation to be worshipped alongside God is i think a misguidance rather than a “revelatory experience” or conviction comimg from God….no wonder later professed Jewish followers of Jesus claimed that Paul was demon possessed proclaiming a misguided message, which he also received from unknown people professing the similar message about inappropriately worshipping Jesus as God alongside Tbe Lord God….

    • No, Michael, “Jews” didn’t practice the “monotheism” that you portray for thousands of years. Read your Tanach/OT! The perpetual claim is that Israel and Judah DIDN’T do this, but worshiped also the gods of Canaan, etc. Actually, an exclusivie worship of YHWH alone became dominant only during/after the exilic period.
      But your allergic response to the inclusion of the risen Jesus into worship practice likely replicates the response of some/many Jews of the time of earliest Jesus-circles. Believers had their task before them of persuading fellow Jews of their message. They didn’t rely on experiences alone, but also on searching their scriptures and arguing from texts. And, by the way, it wasn’t Paul who was responsible for the exalted view of Jesus–he inherited it from previous Jewish believers.

  4. MichaelM permalink

    I know this post is not about “the name above all names,” but may I assume you’ve written about what you think “the name” is?

    • With a good many others, I take it that “the name” is “Kyrios”, and represents Jesus sharing in divine name, divine throne, and divine glory.

      • MichaelM permalink

        Which of your books or articles do you cover “the name” please.

      • I include discussion of “the name above every name” in my essay on Philippians 2:6-11, in my book, “How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?” (Eerdmans, 2005), 83-1-7.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Plus there’s a section on the passage in “One God, One Lord”.

  5. Erich von Abele permalink

    My question/comment is indirectly related to the theme of this article. I have only begun recently reading Prof. Hurtado’s writings, and thus far, it seems that Prof. Hurtado has been modulating his language over time with regard to discussing the theme of Jesus-devotion, where in earlier writings he was readier to use the word “worship” but lately (as in the present article) has transitioned to the seemingly less frontal “reverencing”. Is “reverencing” a simple synonym of “worship”, or is there a subtle distinction implied?

    • Hmm. Well, Eric, I think I’ve rather consistently tried to make my understanding clear over the decades. when I’ve referred to the “worship” of Jesus, I’ve always emphasized that he was not worshiped as a second/separate deity, but rather included in the worship of the one God. Still more clearly, I’ve specified what actions I meant by “worship” (or, in academic terms “cultic devotion”), baptism in his name, the meal as his, cultic invocation and confession, prayer in/through his name/him and with God, etc. All these amount to the “reverence” early believers directed to Jesus.

  6. Donald Jacobs permalink

    I look forward to a discussion of angel Christology, because I think the early Christians did view Jesus as an exalted angel, as explained in the classic work of Martin Werner, and more recently Bart Ehrman.

  7. john permalink

    Thanks for the interesting post Larry. I certainly agree with you that “adoption as divine Son is a Christological non-starter.” Psalm 2 intrigues me as a possible Christological starter because of verse 2, where it mentions “the kings of the earth….and the rulers, take counsel together, against the Lord.” Looking forward to this series and especially, perhaps, some conclusive thoughts you may have to share about the real “Christological starter”. I think I may know what that is in your view, from your books and other posts, but it is great that your readers get to ask polite questions here. Thanks again.

  8. Bill permalink

    I agree with your post and understand that you were providing only a ‘rough’ analogy. But the analogy cuts both ways since some Roman Caesars in Paul’s day were adopted and thereby exalted – as, of course, you know. Hope you are feeling better!

    • Yes, but there were two steps in the Roman imperial process that you mention; adoption, and then exaltation. More widely in the ancient world, a son was simply designated heir. The early Christian texts refer only to the latter step in Jesus’ case.

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