One of the critical points at which a narrative-historical method and post-Christendom mission intersect, in my view, is the confession of Jesus as Lord. To say that Jesus is Lord is not the same as saying that Jesus is God, contrary to the arguments of many who support an early high christology. It means only that God has delegated or devolved the authority to judge and rule over Israel and the nations from heaven, which otherwise was his prerogative alone, to the “Son” who had faithfully fulfilled his mission to Israel. For a pre-existence christology we have to look to the Wisdom/Logos motif, not to the language of sonship.
So one of the questions that arises at this intersection is whether Jesus was in some sense, at some point, “adopted” into an exceptional relation to God.
In a parable in The Shepherd of Hermas (late first, early second century) Jesus is depicted as a slave entrusted with the management of a vineyard. He carries out his task so well that the master makes him “joint-heir” with his son, who in the parable (confusingly) is the Spirit (Hermas 55).
The explanation is that because Jesus cooperated perfectly with the “pre-existent” Holy Spirit, God “took the Son and the glorious angels as counselors, in order that this flesh also, having served the spirit blamelessly, might have some place to live, and not appear to have lost the reward of its service” (Hermas 59:7). In other words, humanity is assimilated into the godhead.
The doctrine of adoptionism, however, is usually traced back to Theodotus of Byzantium (late second century), whose views are known to us from Hyppolytus of Rome. Theodotus supposedly got his ideas from the Gnostic Cerinthus and the Ebionites. He believed that Jesus was a normal man who became very religious and who received the Christ or became Christ at his baptism. This is why he performed no miracles before his baptism. Some of the followers of Theodotus, however, denied that Jesus was ever made God, while others took the view that he was made God after his resurrection (Hippolytus of Rome, Philosophumena 7.23).
So there’s a couple of questions here. First, what’s the difference between being “Christ” and being God? Secondly, when did the “adoption” take place—at Jesus’ baptism or at his resurrection?
The Son of God in power
Michael Bird has some good things to say on the matter in a Centre for the Study of Christian Origins article—and see his book refuting adoptionist christology below. He takes issue with 1) Dunn’s view that early Jewish belief in Jesus would have looked much like an Ebionite adoptionist christology, which won’t concern us here, and 2) Bart Ehrman’s “exaltation christology”.
The only text discussed is Romans 1:3-4, which Bird suggests is “normally regarded as pre-Pauline and containing vestige of an early adoptionist christology”.
He argues that what this passage speaks about is not adoption but the transition from a messianic or Davidic mode of divine sonship to a new mode of divine sonship “defined by a regal function exercised from his heavenly position as God’s vice-regent”.
He goes on to say:
Jesus the Son of David is raised up by the Spirit and so becomes the first son of the resurrection, arrayed in glorious immortality combined with heavenly royalty, the true meaning of “Son of God in power.” By entering into this state Jesus thereafter makes it possible for his followers to be fully and finally incorporated into his own sonship at the general resurrection (see Romans 8).
In many respects this seems an excellent statement, but I think there are a couple of problems—one relevant to this discussion, the other not.
First, while perhaps Paul thought of Jesus in the flesh as the “Son” descended from David, this does not necessarily mean that he thought of him as king before the resurrection. The Davidic descent is widely emphasised in the Gospels, and he is declared to be the “beloved Son” at his baptism, which we’ll come back to in a moment. But a descendant of David is not automatically a king of Israel. He needs to be crowned as king, and presumably Paul’s point is that Jesus the descendant of David, while being a Son in another sense, became king through his resurrection from the dead.
But this narrative says nothing about Jesus being “divine”, in the sense of being God, either before or after the resurrection. He simply goes from being descendant of David according to the flesh to “Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness”. He now has a glorious resurrection body, he is seated at the right hand of God as king, but he is still a man, the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”, the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:20, 45).
This doesn’t seem so different from Ehrman’s “exaltation christology”, as Bird cites it: Jesus “became the Son of God when God worked his greatest miracle on him, raising him from the dead and adopting him as his Son by exalting him to his right hand and bestowing upon him his very own power, prestige, and status.”
Secondly, I think that the reference to the “general resurrection” is imprecise. Bird is right to stress that the transformation of Jesus anticipates the incorporation of his followers at the parousia. But I don’t think this is the “general resurrection”. In the language of Revelation, this is the “first resurrection”, when the martyrs are raised, vindicated and seated with Christ to reign throughout the coming ages (Rev. 20:4-6). The resurrection of all the dead comes at the end of the thousand years (Rev. 20:12-13). But as I say, this is a bit off-topic.
There are, however, two other texts to consider, which I think will bring some clarity to the discussion.
You are my Son, today I have begotten you
The first is the proto-adoptionist Psalm 2. The kings of the earth conspire against YHWH and his anointed king. YHWH laughs at them from heaven, saying that he has set his king on Mount Zion. Then the king recites 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)
So the kings and rulers of the earth should abandon their scheming and get in line if they know what’s good for them.
If this is simply a coronation Psalm, the decree of the Lord would be a renewal of the covenant between YHWH and his king (cf. 2 Sam. 7:14). But the narrative of political conflict rather suggests that the point of the decree is less that the king has been installed as YHWH’s Son than that on this day YHWH has made the hostile nations his inheritance. The king has been promised a future rule over the nations (cf. Ps. 110). He just needs to ask.
Psalm 2:7 is only implicit in Romans 1:3-4, but it is used elsewhere to express the significance of Jesus’ resurrection—for example, by Paul in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch:
…we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to 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)
Here again, Jesus is the descendant of David according to the flesh (cf. 13:23). He is condemned by the leadership in Jerusalem, handed over for execution, but raised from the dead in fulfilment of the saying about the Son who is begotten on this day. So this particular descendant of David (he wasn’t the only one around) is crowned and installed as king, in fulfilment of promises made to the fathers, at his resurrection.
More importantly, he becomes entitled to the inheritance, the right to judge and rule over the nations, that he had refused while in the flesh (Matt. 3:8-10).
After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? (Heb. 1:3–5)
Hebrews makes no explicit reference to Davidic descent, preferring the high priest/Melchizedek typology. But Jesus is portrayed as the son who “learned obedience through what he suffered”, who did not exalt himself but was ‘appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”’, who was seated at the right hand of God, who became superior to the angels, and who “inherited” a more excellent name than theirs as the Son who was “begotten” on the day that God raised him from the dead (Heb. 1:3-5; 5:5, 8).
The significance of the quotation from Psalm 2 is that the “Son” who learned obedience inherited an authority to rule when he was raised from the dead. As such he has been brought into the world as the “firstborn”—the “highest of the kings of the earth” (Heb. 1:6; cf. Ps. 89:27).
But who was this “Son” who learned obedience? Isn’t Bird right to say that Jesus is the divine Son all the way through but shifts from a corruptible to a glorious state at the resurrection?
This is where the second passage comes into consideration.
This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased
At Jesus’ baptism the Spirit descends upon him and a voice from heaven declares: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). The unspoken Old Testament reference in this case is not Psalm 2:7 but Isaiah 42:1:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Is. 42:1)
This passage is directly applied to Jesus in Matthew 12:15-21. The same voice is heard at the transfiguration (Matt. 17:5), to which reference is also make in 2 Peter 1:17: “For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Theodotus was right to this extent. At his baptism Jesus was declared to be the anointed Son or “servant”—the terms effectively overlap—who would be the agent through whom YHWH would transform the circumstances of his people in the midst of the nations. In other words, he was made the Christ—and would later be made Lord (cf. Acts 2:36).
This “Son” is not Israel’s enthroned king. He is the son sent to the vineyard to get the fruit for its owner. He is the son who learned obedience through his suffering. But at the resurrection the “beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”, the servant Son (cf. Phil. 2:7; Hermas 58:2: “the slave is the Son of God”), becomes the “Son” who on this day inherits the nations, the ends of the earth as his possession, the king who will rule throughout the coming ages.
Two “Sons” and no adoption
So we have two statements about sonship, both drawing on Old Testament antecedents. At his baptism Jesus is declared to be the Son/servant who will restore his people and bring justice to the nations. At his resurrection he is declared to be the Son/king who will judge and rule over the nations.
Ehrman overlooks this distinction when he says that in a hypothetical Gospel written shortly after the resurrection “Jesus would not have become the Son of God for his entire ministry, starting with his baptism”.1
Neither sonship entails an identification with God. There is no basis here for an adoptionism in the classical sense—that the man Jesus is adopted to become God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.
But in that case, “adoption” is probably the wrong word to be using in this context anyway. Paul speaks of the adoption of believers, who participate in the sonship of Jesus through their suffering and vindication (Rom. 8:29; Gal.4:5). But neither Isaiah’s servant nor the Davidic king is “adopted” as such. It is much more like an appointment—to messianic mission, on the one hand; to a future rule over the nations, on the other.
- 1B.D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (2014), 246.