Son of God

From New World Encyclopedia

The phrase Son of God is a title that was applied to different figures in antiquity but has become particularly well-known in the context of Christian theology, in reference to Jesus of Nazareth. In anceint Judaism, the term "Son of God" denoted many diverse characters including angels, persons, and even all humankind. In mainstream Christianity, however, the term refers to the relationship between Jesus and God, as well as the biblical ideal that "to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God."[1]

Many figures in the ancient world used the phrase "Son of God" to justify their political authority. Rulers and heroes were often treated as supernatural sons of a particular god among a polytheistic pantheon such as Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Hermes, Ares, and so on. Historians believe that Alexander the Great implied he was a human-god by actively using the title "Son of Ammon–Zeus." (His mother Olympias was said to have declared that Zeus impregnated her while she slept under an oak tree sacred to the god.) The title was bestowed upon him by Egyptian priests of the god Ammon at the Oracle of the god at the Siwah oasis in the Libyan Desert.[2] Similarly, the Roman emperor Augustus was called "divi filius" (son of the deified Julius Caesar):[3] In Greek, the term huios theou was applied to both.[4]

The title "Son of God" was also used by wonder-workers such as Dositheus in the ancient world.[5]

In modern English usage, the phrase the Son of God is almost always a reference to Jesus; however, "a son of God" may also be understood in a broader context to refer to one of the "sons of God" or "children of God," taken as referring to all humankind or all Christians or some more limited group.

Historical context

The concept of a "Son of God" was a known idea in the religious and ideological landscape of ancient thought. Greek and Roman mythology contain many characters with both a human parent and a god parent. These include Hercules, whose father was Zeus, and Virgil's Aeneas, whose mother was Venus. The concepts of demi-gods, sons and daughters of a god were commonly known and accepted (as in the story of Perseus).

Furthermore, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh contains one of the earliest recorded legends of humanity, Gilgamesh claimed to be of both human and divine descent. Thus, human (or part-human) offspring of gods were known in non-Christian religions and mythologies

In 42 B.C.E., Julius Caesar was formally deified as "the divine Julius" (divus Iulius),[6] His adopted son, Octavian (better known by the title "Augustus" given to him 15 years later, in 27 B.C.E.) thus became known as "divi Iuli filius" (son of the divine Julius)[7] or simply "divi filius" (son of the god).[8] He used this title to advance his political position, finally overcoming all rivals for power within the Roman state.[9] The title was for him "a useful propaganda tool," and was displayed on the coins that he issued.[10]

The word applied to Julius Caesar as deified is "divus," not the distinct word "deus."[11] Thus Augustus was called "Divi filius," but never "Dei filius," the expression applied to Jesus in the Vulgate translation of the New Testament, as, for instance, in 1 John 5:5, and in earlier Latin translations, as shown by the Vetus Latina text "Inicium evangelii Ihesu Christi filii dei" preserved in the Codex Gigas. As son of Julius Caesar, Augustus was referred to as the son of a god, not as the son of God, which was how the monotheistic Christians referred to Jesus.[12]

Greek did not have a distinction corresponding to that in Latin between "divus" and "deus." "Divus" was thus translated as "θεός," the same word used for the Olympian gods, and "divi filius" as "θεοῦ υἱός" (theou huios),[13] which, since it does not include the Greek article, in a polytheistic context referred to sonship of a god among many, to Julius Caesar in the case of the "divi filius" Augustus. In the monotheistic context of the New Testament, the same phrase[14] can refer to sonship of the one God.[15] Indeed, in the New Testament, Jesus is most frequently referred to as " υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ" (ho huios tou theou), the son of God.[16][17]

John Dominic Crossan writing in God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (2007), says, early in the book, that "(t)here was a human being in the first century who was called 'Divine,' 'Son of God,' 'God,' and 'God from God,' whose titles were 'Lord,' 'Redeemer,' 'Liberator,' and 'Saviour of the World.'" "(M)ost Christians probably think that those titles were originally created and uniquely applied to Christ. But before Jesus ever existed, all those terms belonged to Caesar Augustus." Crossan cites the adoption of them by the early Christians to apply to Jesus as denying them of Caesar the Augustus. "They were taking the identity of the Roman emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant. Either that was a peculiar joke and a very low lampoon, or it was what the Romans called majistas and we call high treason. "[18]

The title of Messiah or Christ was considered to apply to a political office. The New Testament might thus be understood as threatening the political authority of Caesar, who used the title "Divi Filius" (son of the deified preceding emperor) as shown in literature, coinage and lapidary inscriptions of the time

"Sons of God" according to Judaism

The phrase "son(s) of God" is found in the Hebrew Bible but has an ambigious meaning. Consequently, many interpretations of this phrase exist. The Hebrew phrase Benei Elohim, often translated as "sons of God," is seen by some to describe angels or immensely powerful human beings (Genesis 6:2-4 and Book of Job 1:6). The notion of the word as describing non-divine beings most likely comes from the Targumic Aramaic translation, which uses the phrases "sons of nobles," "Bnei Ravrevaya" in its translation. The phrase is also used to denote a human judge or ruler (Psalm 82:6). In a more specialized sense, "son of God" is a title applied only to the real or ideal king over Israel (II Samuel 7: 14, with reference to King David and those of his descendants who carried on his dynasty; cf. Psalm 89:27, 28). The people of Israel are called God's "son," using the singular form (cf. Exodus 4: 22 and Hosea 11:1).

The term "son of God" is rarely used in the sense of "messiah, or anointed one" in the Jewish scriptures. Psalm 2 refers to God's appointed king of Zion as both God's messiah (an anointed king) and like a son of God.

Deuterocanonical books

In the Jewish literature that was not finally accepted as part of the Hebrew Bible, but that many Christians do accept as Scripture (see Deuterocanonical books), there are passages in which the title "son of God" is given to the anointed person or Messiah (see Enoch, 55:2; IV Esdras 7:28-29; 13:32, 37, 52; 14:9). The title belongs also to any one whose piety has placed him in a filial relation to God (see Wisdom 2:13, 16, 18; 5:5, where "the sons of God" are identical with "the saints"; comp. Ecclesiasticus iv. 10).

It has been speculated that it was because of the frequent use of these books by the Early Christians in polemics with Jews, that the Sanhedrin at Yavneh rejected them around 80 C.E.

"Son of God" in the New Testament

Throughout the New Testament the phrase "son of God" is applied repeatedly, in the singular, only to Jesus. In the Gospel of John, the author writes that "to all who believed him and accepted him [Jesus], he gave the right to become children of God" [John 1:12]. The phrase "children of God" is used ten times in the New Testament.[19] To these can be added the five times, mentioned above, in which the New Testament speaks of "sons of God." As is evident from the fact that these phrases are always in the plural, they are not used in the exclusive sense sometimes given to the phrase "the Son of God" applied to Jesus in the New Testament.

It is possible that Jesus viewed himself as the Son of God in the same sense as any righteous person might call oneself the "son" or "child" of God. However, while many of the Israelites portrayed in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible speak in the name of God ("The Lord says this …"), Jesus often spoke by his own authority (for example, "Truly, I teach to you …"). He also claimed to hold the power to forgive sins, a power notioned by Judaism as belonging solely to God (as the commandment says "…no other God but me…"). A central tenet of Pharisaic Judaism is that each person has the power, indeed the obligation, to forgive sins of others, but only those committed against themselves.

In Luke 3:38 (the end of the genealogy tracing Jesus' ancestry back to Adam), it could be argued that Adam is implicitly called son of God.[20] "Sons of God" is applied to others only in the plural.[21] The New Testament calls Jesus God's "only begotten son" (John 1:14, 3:16 3:18, 1 John 4:9), "his own son" (Romans 8:3). It also refers to Jesus simply as "the son," especially when "the Father" is used to refer to God, as in the phrase "the Father and the Son" (2 John 1:9, Matthew 28:19).

Christian theology

In Christianity, the title of "Son of God" is used to describe Jesus as a divine being and a member of the Trinity. The idea behind this view is that God entered into his Creation in the fullest sense, by taking human form in the flesh. Thus, because God is Jesus' Father and his Father is divine, Jesus is also divine. (In the same way, because Jesus' mother is human, he is human. This logic reflects rather the plurality of God than his unity and is often referred to as the Hypostatic Union). Some also see the title as an oblique reference to Proverbs 30:4. The New Testament refers to, or implies, the deity of Jesus as in, for example, Hebrews 1:8, which quotes Psalm 45:6 and interprets it as a confirmation of Jesus' divinity by God the Father. In John 8:58, Jesus states, "Before Abraham was, I am," implying his divinity both by claiming existence prior to his earthly conception, and by referencing God's name "I am" (revealed in Exodus 3:14) in such a way as to suggest that it applied to himself. However other passages, such as John 14:28 or Matthew 19:17, may be perceived as showing that Jesus as the Son of God is not identifiable with or equal to God.[22]

In either case, Christians point out that this interpretation does not conflict with the New Testament's portrayal of Jesus as more than merely human and, in their view, both human and divine, as indicated by the miraculous resurrection of God-the-Son from the realm of the dead, miracle-working, forgiveness of sins, and judgment over all people.

Modern usage

The title of Son of God is used by some groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, who do not view the title as implying that Jesus is himself God or equal to God.

In the Rastafari movement, Haile Selassie is considered to be God the Son, as a part of the Holy Trinity. He himself never accepted the idea officially.

New Testament passages

The devil or demons calling Jesus Son of God

Humans, including the New Testament writers, calling Jesus Son of God

Attributed to Jesus himself

Unclear whether attributed to Jesus himself or only a comment of the evangelist

  • ὀ υιὸς τοῦ θεοῦ (ho huios tou theou)
    • John 3:18 - with "μονογενής" (only-begotten)

Jesus referred to as ὀ υιός (ho huios)


  1. John 1:12
  2. "Not the least of the many extraordinary facts about Alexander is that both in his lifetime and after his death he was worshipped as a god, by Greeks and Ancient Macedonians as well as, for example, Egyptians (to whom he was Pharaoh). The episode that led to Callisthenes' death in 327 was connected to this fact. Greeks and Ancient Macedonians believed that formal obeisance should be paid only to gods. So the refusal of his Greek and Macedonian courtiers to pay it to Alexander implied that they, at any rate, did not believe he genuinely was a living god, at least not in the same sense as Zeus or Dionysus were. Alexander, regardless, did nothing to discourage the view that he really was divine. His claim to divine birth, not merely divine descent, was part of a total self-promotional package, which included the striking of silver medallions in India depicting him with the attributes of Zeus. Through sheer force of personality and magnitude of achievement he won over large numbers of ordinary Greeks and Macedonians to share this view of himself, and to act on it by devoting shrines to his cult."Cartledge, Paul (2004). Alexander the Great. History Today 54: 1.
  3. Restena, Augustus. The Facts. Retrieved November 19, 2007.
  4. Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: Harper One, 2007, ISBN 0061430706), 96.
  5. Bauer lexicon, Contra Celsus VI. Retrieved November 19, 2007.
  6. Biographybase, Julius Caesar Biography. Retrieved November 19, 2007.
  7. Telemaco, Inscription on Porta Tiburtina in Rome. Retrieved November 19, 2007.
  8. Nina C. Coppolino, Augustus (31 B.C.E. - 14 C.E.). Retrieved November 19, 2007.
  9. Pat Southern, Augustus (New York: Routledge, 1998, ISBN 0415166314), 63.
  10. Juliette Reid, Auguste vu par lui-même et par les autres. Retrieved November 19, 2007.
  11. Encyclopedia Britannica, Divus.
  12. Writing more than a century after the death of Augustus, Suetonius included among a series of wonders associated with his birth a story recounted by a certain Asclepias of Mendes in Upper Egypt that the birth of the future emperor resulted from the impregnation of his mother, while fast asleep, by a serpent in the temple of Apollo, and that her child was therefore called a son of Apollo, an Olympian deity (a "deus"), not a "divus," the word in the title given to Augustus.
  13. Perseus, Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon. Retrieved November 19, 2007.
  14. Used of Jesus in Mk 15:39; Lk 1:35; Rm 1:4
  15. In that context there are no other gods to which it could refer!
  16. Leonard J Swindler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1979, ISBN 0664221769), 216-217.
  17. The following are instances of the use of " ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ" in the New Testament: Mt 16:16; 26:63; Mk 3:11; Lk 4:41; 22:70; Jn 1:34, 49; 3:18; 5:25; 11:4, 27; 20:31; Ac 9:20; 2 Cor 1:19; Ga 2:20; Ep 4:13; Heb 4:14; 6:6; 7:3; 10:29; 1 Jn 3:8; 4:15; 5:5, 10, 12, 13, 20; Rv 2:18. "Υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ" (huios tou theou) appears in Mt 4:3; Lk 4:3; Jn 10:36. Mark, according to most modern commentators the earliest of the gospels, uses " ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ" once, attributing it to "unclean spirits" who were "making him known" (3:11-12) and "θεοῦ υἱός" (theou huios) in (15:39), putting it in the mouth of a pagan centurion. In the first verse of this gospel, some manuscripts have (in the genitive case) "υἱὸς θεοῦ " (huios theou), others "υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ" (huios tou theou), others omit the phrase in either form; critical editions such as that published by the United Bible Societies therefore bracket the phrase to indicate that in the present state of New Testament textual scholarship it cannot be taken as completely certain that the phrase is part of the text. Paul the Apostle uses "θεοῦ υἱός" (theou huios) of Jesus once, in Romans 1:4, a letter in which he four times (1:9, 5:10, 8:3, 8:32) refers to Jesus as "his son" (literally "the son of him," not "a son of him"). He uses "his son," with "his" referring to God, also in other letters (1 Corinthians 1:9 and Galatians 4:4, 4:6) and uses " ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ" three times (2 Corinthians 1:19, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 4:13).
  18. John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2007, ISBN 0060843233), 28.
  19. The other nine instances are John 11:52, Romans 8:16, Romans 8:21, Romans 9:8, Philippians 2:15, 1 John 3:1-2, 1 John 3:10, 1 John 5:2
  20. The word "υἱός" (huios) is not actually used in the verse.
  21. Five times explicitly (Matthew 5:9, Luke 20:36, Romans 8:14 and 8:19, Galatians 3:26, and implicitly in Galatians 4:6
  22. Skeptics Annotated Bible, Is Jesus God? Retrieved November 19, 2007.
  23. Only verses that contain a reference also to "the Father" are listed here.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Holt, Brian. Jesus-God or the Son of God? A Comparison of the Arguments. Tellway Pub., 2002. ISBN 978-0971376083.
  • Hurtado, Larry W. How On Earth Did Jesus Become A God?: Historical Questions About Earliest Devotion To Jesus. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005. ISBN 978-0802828613.
  • Hurtado, Larry W. One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. T. & T. Clark Publishers, 2003. ISBN 978-0567089878.
  • Shelly, Rubel. Surely This Man was the Son of God: Five Studies about Jesus from the Gospel of Mark. 20th Century Christian 1987. ISBN 978-0890980811.
  • Wayner, Walter. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of Man. 2002. ISBN 978-1553693086.

External links

All links retrieved February 3, 2023.


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