Theological accounts of Jesus tend to portray him as a divine figure who descended to earth at a certain moment in human history, died on the cross for the sins of humanity, and then returned to heaven. Historical accounts place him firmly within a story about Israel under Roman occupation in the first century.
In the theological paradigm Jesus is the eternal Son of God—or God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. In the historical narrative “Son of God” has quite different connotations, but since Caesar was also acclaimed as “son of a god” or “god”, perhaps it can be argued that history arrives at the theological conclusion by another route.
From Augustus onwards the emperor took the Latin title divi filius, “son of the divinised”, which in Greek inscriptions was translated theou huios. In the Latin West the basic procedure was to divinise an emperor after his death; therefore, his son was the son of a divine person. In the Greek-speaking eastern part of the empire, which is the setting for the writing of most of the New Testament, the tendency was to regard the emperor as theos while he was alive.
So is this one of the ways in which the New Testament authors asserted the divinity of Jesus? We shall see.
If we are going to interpret the phrase “son of God” historically, then we need first to get some idea of the Jewish background.
1. Angelic figures, members of the heavenly court, are sometimes called “sons of God” in the Jewish scriptures (e.g., Gen. 6:2, 4; Deut. 32:8; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7).
2. Israel is addressed as “sons” or “son” in relation to God as father. For example: ‘Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me”’ (Ex 4:22–23). Hosea records God’s words with reference to the Exodus: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11:1).
3. The Davidic king is God’s “son”. It is part of the original covenant with David: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Sam. 7:14). Psalm 2:7 is especially important:
I will tell of the decree: The LORD 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.” (Ps. 2:7–9)
“I have begotten you” is a reference not to the physical birth of the king but to the inauguration of his reign. From this moment he has the right to ask for the nations as his heritage.
4. Isaiah’s servant is not spoken of as a “son”, but pais in the Septuagint can mean both “servant” and “child”, and Isaiah 42:1 clearly lies behind the words heard at Jesus’ baptism and on the mount of transfiguration:
Jacob is my servant (pais); I will lay hold of him; Israel is my chosen; my soul has accepted him; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth judgment to the nations. (Is 42:1)
5. Wisdom of Solomon gives an account of the “righteous man” who is a “child (paida) of the Lord” and a “son of God” (huios theou) but who is condemned to a “shameful death” by the wicked leadership of Israel (Wis. 2:12-24). As a result, “in the sight of human beings [the righteous] were punished” as wrongdoers, but “their hope is full of immortality, and having been disciplined a little, they will be greatly benefited, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself” (3:4-5).
Son of God in the Gospels
Initially Jesus is “Son of God” both as obedient Israel and as the servant anointed by the Spirit of God to bring about YHWH’s purposes. At his baptism, and again at the transfiguration, he is identified as the servant who will establish justice in the earth:
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:16–17)
Matthew connects the journey out of Egypt with Hosea’s statement (Matt. 2:15) and seemingly thinks of Jesus as obedient Israel reenacting the journey from Egypt, through the waters, and into the wilderness to be tested. When his sense of vocation as “Son of God” is challenged by Satan, he quotes from “the testimonies, the statutes, and the rules, which Moses spoke to the people of Israel when they came out of Egypt, beyond the Jordan in the valley opposite Beth-peor” (Deut. 4:45–46). He is Israel as people and servant on the brink of entering into a new promised land.
From the time of Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, in the “district of Caesarea Philippi” (Matt. 16:16; cf. Mk. 8:29; Lk. 9:20), the expression begins to take on connotations of Davidic kingship. Certainly, when we get to the clash with Caiaphas at the trial, Jesus interprets his sonship in terms of Davidic kingship:
And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matt 26:63–64)
That he refers to himself as “Son of Man” highlights the fact that his reign will be inaugurated only after suffering, but the allusion to Psalm 110 brings two important themes into view: he will reign at the right hand of God, in defiance of the hostile kings of the nations, until all his enemies have been defeated (cf. 1 Cor. 15:25-27; Eph. 1:22); and he will be a priest-king for ever “after the order of Melchizedek”.
The taunt at the cross, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross”, reminds us of the testing in the wilderness (Matt 27:40). But he has been crucified under the titulus “King of the Jews”, and the scribes and elders mock him:
He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ (Matt. 27:42–43)
They are referring, presumably, to his pretension to be Israel’s king.
Even in John’s parallel universe Nathanael’s declaration stands out as determinative: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (Jn. 1:49).
The parallels with Wisdom of Solomon 2:6-20 here, however, are powerful and may be significant. The wicked plot against the righteous man because “he opposes our actions and reproaches us for sins against the law”. He “professes to have divine knowledge”; he “calls the last end of the righteous happy and boasts that God is his father”. So they will torture him and will “test what will happen at the end of his life”. For “if the righteous man is a divine son (huios theou), he will help him and will rescue him from the hand of those who oppose him”.
In view of this, I half suspect that the words of the centurion point to a familiarity with this tradition: “Truly this was a son of God” (Matt. 27:54). Perhaps he had seen enough poor honest Jews shamefully put to death to have understood what was going on.
Son of God in the Letters and Revelation
Paul’s message to both Jews and Gentiles across the Greek-Roman world that Jesus had been “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4; cf. Acts 9:20). This is likely to be an allusion to Psalm 2:7-9. Jesus has been installed as king with respect both to Israel and the nations by virtue of his resurrection from the dead.
Hebrews exploits the connection with Melchizedek that we saw in Psalm 110: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Heb. 4:14; cf. 7:3). Jesus is the Son of God who was given the nations as his heritage on the day of his installation as king (Heb. 1:5); but as a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek he also mediates on behalf of the vulnerable, fallible, persecuted community of believers (eg., Heb. 6:19-20).
Finally, in the letter to the church in Thyatira, Jesus is identified as the “Son of God”, who is also the “one like a son of man” of the opening vision (Rev. 2:18; cf. 1:13-15). As in all the letters, the theme of the prescript is picked up in the closing words to the church:
The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. (Rev. 2:26–27)
So Jesus is the “Son” who is “begotten” on the day of his installation and given the nations to rule with a rod of iron and dash in pieces like a potter’s vessel (cf. Rev. 19:15). But the promise to the suffering church is that, if they remain faithful and conquer, they will share in his reign over the nations. After Rome is judged, the martyrs are raised in a first resurrection, and “reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4).
Jesus and Caesar
The declaration that Jesus is the Son of God is fully explained by the Jewish scriptures. He is, first, the servant, ideal Israel, anointed by the Holy Spirit, who is sent by YHWH to his troubled vineyard. He becomes the Son of Man who is opposed by apostate Israel and oppressed, but will be vindicated and given kingdom and glory. He becomes the “Son of God in power” by his resurrection from the dead, to judge and rule over both Israel and the nations.
But inevitably, when this Jewish story about Jesus was told amongst the Greeks and Romans, it gave rise to the perception that the apostles were “acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7).
A clash between these two divine sons is certainly part of the apocalyptic vision of the New Testament. I think it is implicit in the so-called Christ-hymn of Philippians 2:6-11; it is given expression in the story of the “man of lawlessness” who proclaims himself to be God but is brought to nothing by the revelation of the Lord Jesus to the world (2 Thess. 2:3-8); and Revelation 19:11-21 predicts the eventual defeat of idolatrous Roman power by the “King of kings and Lord of lords”, who will strike down the nations and rule them with a rod of iron.
Perhaps this opposition suggested to the early Christian mind that Jesus was no less worthy of cultic devotion than Caesar was, but the emphasis in the New Testament texts is consistently on kingdom and rule rather than on divine identity. The argument is not that Jesus is truly God and Caesar isn’t but that Jesus is truly Lord and Caesar isn’t.
Jesus spurned grasping equality with God, but precisely for that reason was given the authority as “Son of God in power” to judge and rule over the nations of the pagan world (cf. Phil. 2:6-11).
In any case, it was John’s Logos christology, not the political-apocalyptic antagonism between Christ and Caesar, that in the end gave the Fathers the conceptual basis for integrating Jesus into the godhead.