Was Jesus Divine? Part One
What does it mean to be the "Son of God"
Last Sunday at GracePointe I did a Q+R about Jesus to wrap up a series I’ve been doing called, “Meeting Jesus Again.” That title is, of course, an homage to the brilliant, late Marcus Borg. There were so many good questions that I didn’t have time to respond to on Sunday, so I thought I’d explore some of them here at Re:Imagine Faith.
Here’s today’s question:
Some say that Jesus is the Son of God, but others say he was just a human that was a teacher and someone to pattern our behavior after. What are your thoughts?
See? Good question, right? This question—Jesus’s relationship with God—spawned church councils, creeds, accusations of heresy, excommunications, and even violence. I’m not going to be able to fully respond in one post. There’s so much going on here, and so much I want to say. I hope you’ll join me for the next three posts that will speak to the meaning of the title “Son of God,” and to the idea of if, and if so, when, Jesus became divine.
To state it up front, it is my perspective that the reason such debates about the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God ever happened is because of the gentileification of the church. Yes, I made that word up. What I mean is that, as the makeup of the church became more and more gentile, the connection to Jewish ideas and understandings was lost. This means that early gentile Christians looked at Jesus through the lens of Plato, and not the lens of Abraham/Moses/David, etc. That shift led to a disconnect between the Jesus of history and the Jesus that emerged in Christian theology. Recognizing that transformation of Jesus over time is an important first step. Then, we must try to see and understand the life of Jesus through the lens of the Judaism of his day.
What did it mean to be called “Son of God” in the first century context in which Jesus lived? It was not a biological claim. To put it another way, it wasn’t about Jesus’s paternity. The idea of someone being a “Son of God” was about being the rightful Davidic king.
Let’s rewind to a scene from the life of David, who had brought Israel and Judah together in one, united kingdom. His goal was to build a temple in Jerusalem to centralize the worship of Yahweh. However, that was not to be. It would be David’s son, Solomon, who would build the temple. This news came with a promise, a covenant. Through the prophet Nathan God announced to David:
Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7:11-16, NRSVue)
David would not build the temple, but he would build a dynasty. His descendants would experience a parent-child relationship with God. To be the heir of David is to be the son of God. This theme is picked up in the royal/coronation Psalms as well. For example:
Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Psalm 2:1-9, NRSVue)
In Psalm 2 the newly anointed king, called God’s son has been begotten by God for the task of governing the nations. The language clearly isn’t asserting that the new Davidic king is biologically the son of God. It’s the language of metaphor.
Similar language is used in the New Testament to describe Jesus’s relationship to God. In Luke 3, after Jesus is baptized by John, the Divine voice proclaims his sonship.
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Interestingly, some ancient manuscripts contain a different, and according to some earlier, reading of that text, which references Psalm 2.
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”
The argument goes that scribes could have altered the text later to avoid the appearance of adoptionism, which was the belief that, at some point, Jesus was adopted as the Son of God. It was deemed to be a heresy in the late third and early fourth centuries. (More on that in the final installment of this series)
Another reference to Psalm 2, by the same author, occurs in Acts 13:
And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm,
‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.’ (Acts 13:32-33, NRSVue)
Finally, the writer of Hebrews also applies this same verse from Psalm 2 to Jesus:
So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest but was appointed by the one who said to him,
“You are my Son;
today I have begotten you”… (Hebrews 5:5, NRSVue)
What’s the point of this trip down Bible-memory lane? The title “Son of God” was not a claim about someone being divine, but about someone having a particular task. The “Son of God” was the anointed Davidic king, the rightful leader of Israel/Judah.
If we are seeking to understand the meaning of Jesus within his own first century context, that leaves a couple questions with BIG implications:
What does the application of this title to Jesus mean?
What is the claim being made?
Yeah. See? BIG implications.
Coming next week in part two we’ll explore how the association of Jesus with the title “Son of God” would have been understood in the context of the Roman Empire’s domination of first century Palestine.
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