The Scandalous Son of God

August 14, 2006

The very little that I’ve read concerning the title ‘Son of God’ comes mainly from Wright. From my understanding, in the Old Testament the phrase was used specifically of Israel (Hosea 11:1), and then in other passages of the Messiah (Psalm 2:7). In the New Testament, the writers, particularly Paul, use this phrase of Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord.

In reading the gospel narratives, it is obvious that there was something scandalous about claiming to be the Son of God. Now, my question is this: if, as is often contested by Wright, that the term did not originally have trinitarian connotations (so that Peter was never confessing Jesus’ divinity when he calls him the son of the living God), what was so scandalous about Jesus’ making himself to be the Son of God?

Did those attempting to put him to death understand his calling himself the Son of God as claiming divinity, and thereby blaspheming? Why should Christ be accused of blasphemy in John 10:36 by calling himself the Son of God if such trinitarian connotations were not discovered until after the exaltation and Pentecost?

Is Wright wrong (I love writing that) in stating that the word was originally empty of trinitarian meaning, or am I missing something here?

Thoughts? Comments? Snide remarks? College tuition donations?

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13 Responses to “The Scandalous Son of God”


  1. N.T. Wright’s own rendering in his John For Everyone:

    “how can you accuse someone of blasphemy when the father has placed him apart and sent him into the world, and he says, “I am the son of God”?
    If I’m not doing the works of my father, don’t believe me, believe the works!Then you will know and grasp that the father is in me, and I in the father.”

    In his commentary, he does indeed acknowledge that the passage has incarnational implications, but not so much because of the “I am the son of God” as a divine claim, but rather because he’s doing the things only God can do.

  2. Barbara A. Telleria Says:

    No, no, no, and definetely not.

  3. Kyle Says:

    Son of God in the OT usage could have connotations of divinity, but not necessarily. (Isn’t David a “son of god,” after all?) Also, to be a son of God in other Hebrew usage of the time denotes power and blessing connected to God (see Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus 160-62, et al.). For example, a miracle-worker named Honi the Circle Drawer, roughly contemporary with Jesus, was called “son of God.” In pagan usage, it meant in some psuedo-biological sense, son.

    So a Jewish “son of God” means there is divine favor and divine power, not “divine essence.” “Son of God” is not a Trinitarian term; it’s a later misunderstanding of the phrase that collapses its meaning into trinitarian theology.

    Mind you, Trinitarian theology doesn’t rise or fall on that title, and you don’t need it to have a trinitarian theology – I mean, we didn’t to start out with, after all.

    I think Jesus calling himself Son of Man was a much bigger deal than Son of God – Son of God wouldn’t have been heard as (what do the Baptists say?) “unique son of God,” because that would be nonsense. That category doesn’t exist. Now the (probably) heavenly and apocalyptic Son of Man figure who was to sit down next to the Ancient of Days and judge the Nations? Now we’re talking about some blasphemy…

  4. Q Says:

    in the Old Testament the phrase was used … of the Messiah (Psalm 2:7).

    You’ve skipped over a step there. The title was used of the king. The Psalm was probably sung when a new king ascended the throne; on that occasion he became God’s son (figuratively, of course!).

    It was believed that the Messiah would be the ideal king, and therefore particularly worthy of the title, son of God.

    In reading the gospel narratives, it is obvious that there was something scandalous about claiming to be the Son of God.

    It is only John who makes this leap, assuming that any claim to be the son of God would be understood as a claim to deity and therefore a blasphemy warranting death.

    The synoptics show Jesus referring to God as his Father in a highly distinctive way in private. But they don’t have him declaring his (divine) sonship as part of his public proclamation. Again, it’s only John who presents Jesus that way.

    If Jesus did make such a claim publicly, I think it would have been interpreted as a Messianic claim, but not a claim to deity. In other words, I think John’s historicity is dubious at this point.

  5. Rob Says:

    Kyle,

    I agree that the designation ‘Son of Man’ was more important in Jesus’ ministry than ‘Son of God.’ You raise an interesting point about the blasphemy inherent in claiming to be the Son of Man of which Daniel spoke. However, if it was so blasphemous, how did it ever pass into acceptance in Jewish literature? Didn’t they think that eventually someone would fulfill the prophecy? If it is blasphemous, it represents a seed of equality with God which Jesus grew to full bloom.

    Q,

    I am not yet ready to disregard the historicity of John, though I do understand your point. I have yet to find a solution as to why ‘Son of God’, with its apparent only Messianic connotation (until later trinitarian reflection), would be a charge of blasphemy if it weren’t trinitarian from the outset. Of course, if you see John being historically off and theologically inspired, this makes sense.

  6. Kyle Says:

    Rob, if you think John is historically accurate, then how do you deal with such different accounts of what Jesus did, and such different sayings? John presents a Jesus who talks about himself in some very different ways than the synoptic Jesus. More to the point, there is nothing in the synoptics (that I can recall!) that indicates Jesus thought of himself as “equal with God.”

    I’m not sure I understand your Son of Man question. The heavenly Son of Man was an apocalyptic Jewish concept. And no, Son of God doesn’t imply divinity, this is only assumed in later Christian usage.

  7. Rob Says:

    I think we’re misunderstanding each other, Kyle.

    On the John question, I have not yet crossed the fence into saying John is historically inaccurate. The day could come, but I dno’t think I’m ready for that yet.

    I never said that “Son of God” implied divinity. What I said was that later Christian reflection, after the influence of the Spirit, would have prompted Christians to see a new significance in the term “Son of God” applied to Jesus. I agree that it origally had no divine connotations.

    As for the Son of Man misunderstanding – let me try to rephrase.

    You said that the Jews accused Jesus of blasphemy because he claimed to be the Son of Man who would sit next to the Ancient of Days and judge the nations. Now, why did the Jews think this blasphemy? Because it put Jesus on a level equal with God? How could this be blasphemous if their own Scriptures prophesied such a figure appearing? Were they not prepared to accept that one day someone would show up fulfilling this role? Or how exactly was Daniel 7 interpreted in Second Temple Judaism (I’m sure there were a plethora of readings), but is there any mainstream reading, and did they think the Son of Man would be a man who would assume that role?

    Or was the blasphemy in the fact that Jesus proclaimed it himself, and that God didn’t make it clear that this was his Son of Man?

    I hope I cleared up my question a bit, if not muddled it even more.

    Thanks again for all your participation guys.

  8. Q Says:

    “Son of man” is perhaps the single most controversial of all the messianic titles, in terms of its precise interpretation. I won’t bore you with the technical arguments, but here are two relatively straightforward reasons for ambiguity:

    a) The phrase “son of man” has two meanings in the OT. Aside from the Daniel 7 reference, there is also the Psalm 8 usage, where “son of man” means merely, “a human being”. Thus Jesus may be rerferring to himself as a representative of the human race (quite far removed from a claim of deity!).

    b) There are no pre-Christian texts, aside from Daniel itself, which offer commentary on the Daniel 7 figure. Thus it’s hard to say what speculation was current prior to the Christian appropriation of the term. We don’t know, for example, whether 2nd Temple Judaism thought of Daniel 7 as a messianic prophecy.

    In my opinion, Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah, but not in the militaristic “Son of David” sense. He deliberately used an ambiguous title for himself that he could invest with a meaning of his own choosing.

    I view the Daniel 7 figure as having a dual significance. In context, it’s clear that the figure has a corporate significance: the “one like a son of man” (= “man-like figure”) is the nation of Israel, over against the pagan (animal-like) nations.

    But the “one like a son of man” also appears to be an individual: i.e., someone who represents the nation of Israel before God.

    When the son of man is ushered into the presence of God, this symbolizes Israel’s vindication. There is no thought of pre-existence or deity whatsoever.

    Thus the simplest understanding of “son of man” makes Jesus out to be representative Man, and/or the representative Israelite. Nary a blasphemy in sight.

    Why was Jesus killed? Not because he blasphemed by claiming to be God’s equal.

  9. Rob Says:

    Thanks for that response, Q.

    I recognize the man/beast Genesis background in Daniel 7 from Wright’s reading of the passage.

    So, why do you think Jesus was killed?

  10. Q Says:

    In historical Jesus studies, that’s the $64,000 question! If we could establish exactly why Jesus was killed, it would give us a window into the kinds of claims he made for himself: before his death and resurrection, and before the Church began to work over the tradition.

    One of the compelling knocks against the liberal Jesus is that it is such a congenial figure: no one would have killed a kindly Jesus who proclaimed nothing more than the universal fatherhood of God.

    I think E.P. Sanders has the best argument on this point. He connects Jesus’ death to the cleansing of the Temple (the last event of his life). More controversially, he argues that the Sadduccees (who ruled the Temple), not the Pharisees, were responsible for turning Jesus over to the Romans.

    If Sanders is right, Jesus’ death would have been related to his critique of Second Temple Judaism and his “liberal” view of the law and the cult. That strikes me as a compelling argument, well grounded in the synoptic Gospels, and laying a foundation for the battles with Judaism later fought by Paul and John.

  11. Kyle Says:

    I’ll follow Q on this, but also add that there is a tradition of an Enochic Son of Man: a funky apocalpytic book called 1 Enoch, which was part of the Ethiopian canon, but undiscovered in the west until the late 19th century, carries an interpretation of the Son of Man figure as a personal entity. Where as (I think) in Dan. 7, SoM represents Israel sitting on the throne after the Ancient of Days judges the nations, the SoM in 1 Enoch is described as a person who actually judges for the Ancient of Days. It’s an apocalyptic development of tradition, adn we don’t know the source. There are arguments that it’s pre-Christian and representative of a tradition that Jesus may have had some access to, which would mean that Jesus didn’t do all the theological work himself (if that was indeed how he was using the phrase “SoM”) that cast him as a kind of Judge for/as Israel. Daniel’s SoM is a representation, but Enoch’s is a cosmic figure. And that book could be Christian-era. We just don’t know.

    The idea that the Sanhedrin could have had familiarity with the Enochic conjecture and seen that as some kind of blasphemy (Jesus would be saying, Yahweh wants me to sit next to him on the throne, though that still says nothing about “essence”) is my own conjecture. It can’t be proven, and it could very possibly be cut down – I’ve not read any discussions that might cover that.

    You have to understand, the temple action itself could have been seen as blasphemy – John represents a later, high-christological reading that could see “Son of God” as a claim to divinity, which Jesus’ contemporaries wouldn’t have. I don’t think he would have seen it that way, either.

  12. Q Says:

    Kyle is certainly right, “son of man” could have a higher christological significance – i.e., depicting Jesus as transcendent. It was certainly understood that way by the early Church, after Jesus’ ascension. The question is, what did Jesus himself mean by the title?

    (Assuming he actually used it, which some scholars deny – unreasonably, in my view.)

    Unlike Kyle, I don’t think we should turn to 1 Enoch for information. I follow Dunn (I usually do!), who points out that this section of 1 Enoch (“the Similitudes”) cannot be shown to pre-date Christ. Notably, every other part of 1 Enoch is represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls, except for the Similitudes.

    But this is the stuff that fuels scholarly debate!

  13. Rob Says:

    Thank you all for your reading my blog and commenting. Though I disagree sometimes, I find much of it enlightening and I get a lot to mull over.

    I also think that the Temple action was what eventually caused the rulers to give it up and want to crucify Jesus – because of this I give John more liberty with shifting occurences in the life of Jesus around to fit his presentation (Jesus fulfilling Jewish festivals and cultic functions like the temple), and I don’t think there were two temple cleansings, ’cause it would’ve gotten him killed much earlier on in his ministry.

    Anyway, thanks again.


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