Jesus: The Son Of God, Part I of 2

God According To First-Century Judaism

In chapter nine of his work titled The New Testament and the People of God, the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues that first-century Judaism’s belief can be summed up as creational and covenantal monotheism.  Surrounded by various beliefs in divine beings like Epicurean gods who are as far away as possible from their own world and a Stoic god who ends up being synonymous with nature itself, the Jewish tradition saw their God as a kind of combination of both and yet utterly different in His nature and relationship to Israel than the two.  For the Jews, YHWH was not only the One who interacts within the created world, but is the One Who has created all things.  We can find evidence of this throughout the part of the biblical text we now call the Old Testament.  Take for example chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah where YHWH is praised for His mighty powers and wonders that He has done, and the many Psalms that sing of YHWH’s glory and mercy.  Indeed, for the Jews of Jesus’ time, the belief in YHWH can be summed up in that daily Jewish prayer: “YHWH is our God, and YHWH is One”.

Classic Jewish monotheism’s belief in God was twofold.  First, this Jewish tradition believed that God was first in the order of existence, was One, and created all things; and second, that God called Israel to be His chosen people.  Because of this, God was seen as completely other than the world, but also is continually active within the world.  This is a God who is to overthrow the pagan gods and powers of those nations belonging to these pagan gods.  And in His vindication, He will free His people from oppression of these pagan worshipers, as well as show the nations His glorious name.

Son Of God In First-Century Palestine

James DG Dunn reminds us that whatever we may say about Jesus’ title ‘Son of God’, we cannot claim that first-century Christians had the same understanding as our own Nicene profession of this title in mind when they posited it of Jesus.  Divine sonship was not something novel to the Early Christians.  In fact, the title ‘son of God’ was a title ubiquitously used in reference to many people in the time of Jesus.  Take for instance the various attributions of divine sonship to the legendary heroes of Greek mythology, like Dionysus and Heracles.  Or take for another instance where the title ‘son of God’ is found throughout the scriptural texts as being attributed to Israel, Israelites, and the king.[1]

Divine sonship, or attribution of divinity, in the first two centuries of Palestine is liberally used when talking about men for numerous reasons.  First, we need to understand that early Christianity was not inhibited by a fear of attribution of divinity to men because they did not approach the predication as modern day Christians approach it.  Dunn tells us that when this predication is used in these first centuries “in reference to individual human beings it could denote anything from a righteous or pious man, one who lived in close accord with the divine, to a heavenly or semi-heavenly being, including or the way particularly kings and rulers and especially wise or gifted or inspired men.”[2]  As a result, those who are seen as “son of God” are not necessarily seen as, to borrow Nicene terms, begotten by God from before all ages and consubstantial with God.  Rather, these men are seen as people who reflect the goodness of God through living their lives in accordance with the divine law.

Drawing from various evidence of the ancient world, Dunn argues that because of the variety of beliefs about the divine and humanity that when the ancient people spoke of someone as being “son of God,” it is not positing anything about a divine relation insofar as their natures are concerned; instead, it is a reflection of the person’s relationship to the divine in terms of their living out the divine mandates.  This leads Dunn to conclude that “there is little or no good evidence from the period prior to Christianity’s beginnings that the Ancient Near East seriously entertained the idea of a god or son of god descending from heaven to become a human being in order to bring men salvation, except perhaps at the level of popular pagan superstition.”[3] Thus, we can reasonably conclude that first-century Christians did not understand Jesus’ divine sonship as contemporary Christianity does.

[1] Ibid. 15 – Here Dunn provides the reader with a list of Old Testament text ranging from Ex. 4:22  where Israel is called God’s firstborn son to II Sam 7:14 where God tells David that his descendent will be a king who will be a son of God.
[2] Ibid. 18
[3] Ibid. 22