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“Son of God” in NT Writings

February 19, 2019

Rumaging through notes on some of my tracing of word/phrase usage in NT writings, I came across the data I’d collected on the use of “son of God” with reference to Jesus.  There is an interesting variation in the use of the expression among NT writers.

In an earlier posting (here) I summarized briefly some data about Paul’s use of the expression, with references there to a couple of my publications in which I discuss the topic more fully.  In contrast to Paul’s many uses of “Christos” (Christ) and “Kyrios” (Lord) as titles for Jesus, there are only three uses of “son of God” in the uncontested epistles (Romans 1:4; 2 Corinthians 1:19; Galatians 2:20), plus one more use in Ephesians 4:13.  As I noted in that previous posting, in another dozen or so cases, Paul refers to Jesus’ divine sonship, but without using the “son of God” expression.  Moreover, the few cases where Paul does use the full expression “son of God” vary in their precise Greek construction.  So, as I noted in those previous publications, it appears that what mattered to Paul was Jesus’ divine sonship (expressive of Jesus’ close relationship to God), not so much the title.  (My essay on Paul’s references to Jesus’ divine sonship is now republished in L. W. Hurtado, Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion [Baylor University Press, 2017], 407-24.)

The situation seems to change, however, with a greater frequency of use as we track onward through later NT writings, or at least in some of them.  GMark has “son of God” clearly in 3:11, and perhaps in 1:1 (there’s a textual variason of  here), and again (though with a different Greek construction) in 15:39.  In addition, there are references to Jesus as God’s “beloved son” (1:11; 9:7), “son of the most High God” (5:7), “the Son” (13:32), and “son of the Blessed” (14:61).

GMatthew refers to Jesus as “the son of God” in 4:3, 6; 8:29; 14:33; 26:63; 27:40, plus variations in 27:43 and 27:54.  There are also references to “the Son” (11:27; 28:19), and God’s “beloved son” (3:17; 17:5).  GLuke refers to Jesus as “the son of God” in 1:35; 3:38; 4:3, 9, 41: 22:70.

But it’s the GJohn where we see a more noteworthy increase in usage:  “the son of God” appears in 1:34, 49; 3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4, 27; 19:7; 20:31.  And in 1 John the usage is also frequent:  3:8; 4:15; 5:5, 10, 12, 13, 20.  Indeed, in these writings, “son of God” appears to be the authors’ favorite confessional title for Jesus.

On the other hand, in some other late first-century NT writings, the title features only a few times.  Three times in Hebrews (4:14; 6:6; 7:3; plus references to Jesus simply as God’s “son” as in 1:2, 5, 8), once in Acts (9:20, characterizing Paul’s preaching), and once in Revelation (2:18).

So, it’s clear that the NT authors vary in their use of the expression “son of God”, with no clear pattern readily apparent to me.  The authors of GJohn and 1 John easily out-distance other NT texts in usage of the phrase, and in the confessional significance attached to it.  The Gospels show varying frequencies of usage too.  As the case with Paul, GMark seems to care more about the idea of Jesus’ divine sonship than the phrase “son of God” itself.  And in some other NT writings, the idea scarcely is mentioned.

All this leads me to question some claims (e.g., by Wilhelm Bousset, and some others more recently) that “son of God” was an early Christian appropriation from the larger (pagan) religious environment and was used as the key claim to communicate Jesus’ divine significance in/to the pagan population.  In Revelation, for example, where we have perhaps the most explicit and combative tension with the imperial cult, we have only the one use of the expression.  As for Paul’s uses of the expression and his other ways of referring to Jesus’ divine sonship, they are all are clustered heavily in two epistles (Romans and Galatians) where he is in an intensive engagement with Jewish traditions, not in the epistles such as the Corinthian letters where he addresses a non-Jewish readership and is in explicit engagement with the pagan environment of his day.

So I remain of the opinion that Hengel’s little book is a good guide to questions of origins and impetus for the term in earliest Christian texts:  Martin Hengel, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).  Also worth noting:  A. D. Nock, “‘Son of God’ in Pauline and Hellenistic Thought,” in Essays on Religion and the Ancient World, ed. Zeph Stewart (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 928-39.

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24 Comments
  1. Hey Dr. Hurtado. I managed to find time to finish reading Lord Jesus Christ yesterday and it ends on the note of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity with Justin (and you also provided some discussion on the triadic expressions of the Ascension of Isaiah). If I can, can I ask you about any standard monographs on the history of the development of the Trinity doctrine? Furthermore, do scholars find trinitarian expression in any of the books of the NT, and if not, what is the earliest source?

    • My book, “God in New Testament Theology” I recommend! I show that the God-discourse in the NT is “triadic” in shape, references to God (the Father), Jesus, and the Spirit (e.g., 2 Cor. 13:13. But the “doctrine of the Trinity” comes later. On early Christian doctrinal formation, see, e.g., J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1960)

  2. John Mitrosky permalink

    So am I correct to assume Larry, that you doubt the title “Son of God” was ever used as a title for Jesus during his Pre-Easter ministry? I am thinking here of the three ways of speaking that seem to point toward authentic Jesus: parables, aphorisms and witty replies to controversial attempts to entrap him. So, for example, Jesus’ response to the Beelzebul accusation is both a parable and a witty reply. If he does not cast out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, or by Satan, than what is implied, it seems to me, is that he casts out demons by God, therefore some may have thought he is the “Son of God”, Context not explicit, but implied certainly.

    • I doubt that “the son of God” functioned as a title used by Jesus or his disciples in his ministry. I do think, however, that he spoke of his relationship with God in quite intimate terms, reflecting a conviction that he held a particular role in God’s plan, as a Father/Son relationship. I don’t see how people would have thought “the son of God” by his exorcisms. There’s no connection, neither explicit nor implicit.

  3. Griffin permalink

    It is suggested somewhere that often pagans, Romans, Pharaohs, claimed to be sons of gods. In this context, could this term have been a loaded, potentially controversial phrase in Roman-occupied Jerusalem?

    Traditional Jews loyal to a monolythic God, with no particular son beside him, might therefore have read the new, proto trinitarian, Christian concept as foreign. Even a bit Roman. So that allusions to it, names for this son, would not always be confidently consistent and firm. Until rather late. In the time, say, of GJohn and 1 John.

    • Griffin: You’ve not paid attention! In the OT/Jewish tradition, God did have sons/children: The Judean king, the nation of Israel, the devout, were all “sons”. This meant an intimate relationship with, and strong approval by, God. Also, Messiah can be described as God’s son. When we read the sentences in which Jesus’ divine sonship is affirmed, they reflect this sense of divine sonship, not the ontological connotation that appeared later. So, the impetus for the initial affirmation seems to be Jewish tradition, not Egyptian, Roman, etc.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Fascinating; Larry.

        I can see that the Hebrew Bible does describe kings as sons of God; and too that Wisdom in the LXX applies that description to the ‘righteous man’. But is there anywhere in Jewish biblical tradition where “Son of God” is applied as a title, either to a king or other person of high esteem? Did any Judean (or Hasmonean) king claim this title?

        My understanding was that there is only one surviving non-biblical Jewish reference to ‘Son of God’, specifically as a title; which is in the Aramaic text from the Dead Sea Scrolls 4Q246.

        Edward Cook’s reconstruction of this (in part):

        “He will be called the son of God, And the son of the Most High they will call him.
        Like the meteors that you saw, So will be their kingdom.
        (A few) years they will reign over the land, And they will crush everyone (or everything)
        People will crush people, Nation (will crush) nation.
        Until the people of God shall arise, And all will have rest from the sword.”

        On the face of it it would appear that the DSS community see the one who will claim (or has claimed) the titles ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of the Most High’, as an enemy of the people of God; a short-lived anti-messiah, rather than a messiah (though the term messiah nowhere survives in the text).

        Although this shows that the title ‘Son of God’ was current in one school of Jewish thought around the time of Christ, I don’t see it demonstrating that ‘Son of God’ was recognised in Jewish usage at this time as a title that could appropriately be applied to someone truly having the qualities of divine sonship.

      • Tom: On 4Q246, since you cite Cook, I’ll cite J. Collins: John J. Collins, “The Son of God Text From Qumran,” in From Jesus to John: Essays on Jesus and New Testament Christology in Honour of Marinus De Jonge, ed. Martinus C. De Boer (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 65-82.
        And on Jewish messianic titles more generally: John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1995); 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).

      • Griffin permalink

        Yes. But if you compare mentions in the holy books, the Tanakh, to the New Testament mentions of some kind of rather singular son, almost a compeer for God, or a very elevated, almost unique son? The volume of mentions in say the Hebrew OT, might add up to 1/19,000 of mentions in the New Testament.

        Which leads me to look for the origins of the NT story of a very close and very, very holy son of God, a near equal of God, outside the Hebrew bible.

        Possibly more in Jewish non canonical texts and stories?

      • But “son of God” isn’t used in Paul to convey Jesus as “co-peer with God”. Words take on their meaning in sentences. REad the texts.

      • Griffin permalink

        “Almost ” a compeer. But certainly of much, much higher status or importance than previous sons.

        Standing next to God as his designated savior of the world, gives Jesus far higher status than most earlier sons. Even if the dead sea scroll son is important in the abstract, the sheer amoint of material on Jesus vastly exceeds that single reference.

        So what accounts for this huge, sudden, fantastic increase in the prominence of this kind of figure, who really has no very direct historical Jewish equivalent? What cultural trends prepared so many to accept Jesus as such a formerly rather obscure kind of figure?

        Here my thesis might be that the idea had been presented more, not by Jewish tradition. But was borrowed from other ethnic cultures. Who influenced some normally resistant Jews, and gentile followers, to accept a mere man or legend as being rather close to God. Even in Paul.

        In one account, Paul claimed to be a Roman citizen. Perhaps he was unconsciously borrowing from the Roman mindset. Which often thought of lords, emperors, as sons of gods.

      • Griffin: If you could trouble yourself to read some relevant scholarly work, you’d learn that in fact in ancient Jewish tradition there was what I’ve referred to as the category of the “chief agent” figure, second only to God. Sometimes a high angel, sometimes a patriarchal figure, sometimes a personified attribute of God. Jesus was essentially defined via this category, but then also with a decisive “mutation”: Early believers felt compelled to express their devotion in cultic rituals. This, they believed, was required by God. Their convictions arose from a combination of factors, including their religious experiences. Read, e.g., my book, “One God, One Lord: early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism.” Your own hypothesis has been put forth previously, and shown to be improbable. Read!!

      • Griffin permalink

        Many figures, like angels, agents, etc., were said to be 1) second only to God. But 2) only a few to be very high sons of God. And 3) fewer to be heirs, or part of God, as in Trinitarianism.

        But most importantly to me here, none generated the very, very high staus, and 4) huge volume of followers that Jesus had.

        So why did so many suddenly, c. 30 ACE ff., allow what had never been fully achieved in Judaism till then? I still suggest that only the addition of some non-Jewish
        or Hellenized, Platonized Jewish influences could achieve such a) status and b) massive popularity.

      • Griffin: “Trinitarianism” is a later development, and so a red herring. As for the Jesus-devotion reflected in the NT, as I and others have shown it originated among Judean/Jewish circles of devout Jews, for whom divinized human heroes of pagan religion were anathema and worse. So, it’s not really reasonable to presume that such circles would either deliberately appropriate these (to them) hateful views, or unconsciously do so. I’ve contended this, e.g., in my Epilogue to the 3rd edition of “One God, One Lord”. Again, lay down your keyboard, stop speculating off the top of your head, and read some serious scholarship. OK???

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        I have no capability of judging between the respective textual assessments of Cook and Collins on 4Q246, Larry; but even I can see that Collins’s overall argument is circular. Collins states that “There is no indication in the extant text that the Son of God was regarded with disapproval”; and so maintains that this figure should be considered as the ‘Messiah’. Which is an argument from silence; but might be still be good if the lines immediately preceding the text in question were complete. But as all these lines are only partially preserved, the only way Collins can assert what is not to be found in the lacunae, is to assume that the missing text can be reconstructed from known ‘messianic’ biblical parallels in the Old and New Testaments.

      • Tom: There’s more to the matter than lacunae, but in any case, it’s not crucial. The Judean king was declared God’s son, and so the royal messiah was as well, as reflected in other texts, e.g., 4 Ezra. But my main point about Paul is that the claim of divine sonship was what mattered, not the title.

  4. WAYNE BRINDLE permalink

    There is a helpful source on Academia.edu that can be found by searching for Definition Title “Son of God.”

  5. D.A.Carson’s “Jesus the Son of God”?

  6. john permalink

    In Mark, the unusual singular term, “Son of God” seems to first surface as a way of indicating that Jesus had a special power to exorcise. Is there anything in Paul or elsewhere, besides the gospels, that supports that “power to exorcise” origin of this title for Jesus? It is often said that Mark inherits an exorcism tradition. He may embellish it, but he does not create it. Do you think it could have become an historical title first, in a “power to exorcise” context? Or do you think Mark is embellishing the title into the exorcism tradition, to make his gospel more palatable to Gentiles?

    • No, John. The term “the son of God/most high” doesn’t function in sentences relating exorcism. It is an acclamation put in the mouth of demoniacs, functioning in Mark as the ironic note that humans don’t perceive Jesus’ larger significance but the demons do. The term “son of God” isn’t unusual, for in the OT Israel, Judean kings, and the devout can be referred to as “son” of God. It’s also clearly a royal messianic title in some Jewish texts.

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        I think we may be splitting hairs here Larry. If I look at E.P. Sanders’ book “The Historical Figure of Jesus” (p. 245 paperback version), he makes the same point I am making about the “Son of God” title related to Jesus’ exorcistic powers. None of this is to say I don’t agree with your points too. I am just wondering if you think the title was another title used during Jesus’ Pre-Easter ministry, or not? Or if you think Mark added it in later? As you know, I feel the same question relevant as to the other title Mark uses, “the Son of man”.

      • There is good reason to think that Jesus referred to God as his father, along with many devout Jews of his day. But he may well also have claimed and exercised some special filial status. But there is no connection of “son of God” and exorcists/exorcism.

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