Was Jesus (as) Really the ‘Son of God’? – Examining the Historical Context

MAGAZINE: EDITION SEPTEMBER 2021
Azhar Goraya CHRISTIANITY

28th December 2021 THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS

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Azhar Goraya, Mexico

One of the arguments put forward by Christians in trying to prove the divinity of Jesus (as) is the claim that he was called ‘Son of God’ – a title of divinity. After all, the ‘Son of God’ must be divine like his father.

However, a careful study of the Old Testament and the words of Jesus (as) lead us to conclude that Jesus (as) was not divine. Indeed, he was a monotheist himself, and interpreted the term ‘Son of God’ metaphorically and in no way used it to validate the idea that he was divine (John 10:34-36). Moreover, it was a term that Jesus (as) probably only used very sparingly for himself, preferring the terms ‘son of man’, and most likely the term ‘servant of God’. 

The question thus remains as to how Jesus (as) came to be understood as a divine son of God, rather than just a mortal one. There is a lot of theology and history to unpack here, and only by determining the reality of the matter can we understand the capacity in which Jesus (as) came to this world.

It is imperative that when trying to find the truth about the nature of Jesus (as), that we firstly understand the words of Jesus (as) in their context, without the filters placed upon them through later interpreters. 

Son of God – Literal or Metaphorical?

Right from the beginning, it is important to realise that Jesus (as) cannot be understood as the literal, flesh-and-blood son of God. For that would mean that God has a body that is capable of siring children, and that he mated with Mary – a product of His own creation – which resulted in the birth of Jesus (as), a half-man-half-God chimera. The senses reel from even the thought of such blasphemy.

What then does the term actually mean? Muslims propose an interpretation that falls in line with pure monotheism and does not deify Jesus (as), in line with the historical Jewish usage of the phrase ‘Son of God’ and the declarations of Jesus (as) himself, while Christians generally insist on understanding Jesus (as) as divine.

To come to any sort of conclusion, one must first embark on a journey to understand the underlying terminology and the context in which the term ‘Son of God’ [1] was used during the time of Jesus (as).

The Term ‘Son of God’ in the Bible

Beginning any discussion about the term ‘Son of God’ from the Old Testament is beneficial because the term did not originate from the Gospels. So first we must understand how it was used by the Jews in Hebrew and Aramaic. 

Jesus (as) and his followers spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, not Greek. This is important, since the language of the oldest New Testament manuscripts are, in fact, in Greek. Therefore, the Greek terms found in the Gospels are, at best, only translations of the original Hebrew and Aramaic words of Jesus (as) and those around him. And Jesus (as) being a Jew, and preaching to Jews, his religious language would likely closely follow the Hebrew idiom of the Old Testament. 

While the New Testament, has  passages that refer to Jesus (as) as the ‘Son of God’  In addition to similar constructions of ‘son of x’, referring to various other people in a wide context, we first need to understand how ‘Son of God’ and ‘son of x’ were used within the Old Testament, and generally amongst the Jews of his time. This will give us better understanding of how Jesus (as) and his contemporaries most likely understood and used them.

The Jewish Context of the Title ‘Son’ and ‘Son of x’

The word ‘son’ is used in a wide variety of contexts in the Old Testament. Likewise, the construction ‘son/child of x’ appears in many metaphorical contexts, where the metaphorical ‘son’ would partake of some characteristic or be in some way affiliated with the figurative ‘father’.

The word for ‘son’ is בֵּן (bēn) in Hebrew. Another term is יֶלֶד (yě∙lě), meaning child, and זֶרַע (zera) meaning offspring. All have been used in the sense of ‘sonship’ in the Old Testament, both literally and metaphorically. 

It is used:

  1. literally to refer to physical descendants. For example, ‘he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch’ (Genesis 4:17). Here Cain names his biological son Enoch. 
  2. as a broader term of association. The plural ‘sons’ at times refers to youth or young men (Proverbs 7:7) and children. For example, ‘in pain you shall bring forth children’ (Genesis 3:16). 
  3. as a form of intimate address for younger companions, students or listeners to whom the one speaking stands in the relation of a father., such as in ‘My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you…’ (Proverbs 2:1).
  4. to express that the one speaking regards the one addressed as subordinate, For example, ‘‘Is this your voice, my son David?’ David said, ‘It is my voice, my lord, O king.’’ (1 Samuel 26:17), or that the speaker is calling himself subordinate (2 Kings 16:7). 
  5. for belonging to a certain class of individuals. For example, ‘son of Adam’ refers to being part of the human race (Ezekiel 2:1). It also refers to belonging to a certain social, national or ethnic group. For example, ‘Sons of Israel’ refers to the Israelite people (Genesis 32:32). 
  6. for belonging to a certain time or age. For example, ‘Son of a night’ refers to something that is one night old (Jonah 4:10)
  7. As being characterised by a certain attribute, state or condition.

It is this final usage that is most relevant to our discussion about the meaning of ‘Son of God’. 

Compare the term ‘Son of God’ to the following examples:

  • בֵּן חַיִל (bēn ḥǎ∙yil), literally means ‘son of strength’. It refers to a brave soldier, i.e., an elite fighting soldier (2 Samuel 17:10).
  •  בֵּן בְּלִיַּעַל (bēn beliy∙yǎ∙ʿǎl), literally means ‘son of wickedness’ or ‘Son of Satan’ and refers to a wicked or rebellious individual (Deuteronomy 13:14). 
  • עֳנִי בֵּן  (ben oni), literally means ‘Son of poverty’, and refers to an oppressed individual (Proverbs 31:5)
  • מוּת בֵּן (ben maut), literally means ‘son of death’, and refers to a death-row inmate (Psalms 79:11)
  • אָדָם בֵּן (ben adam) means ‘Son of man’ refers to a person of person of low social class (Psalms 49:2). 

In all of these cases, the construction implies that the ‘son’ is characterised or is in some way affiliated with the metaphorical father. In Jewish idiom, when applied to an individual, ‘Son of God’ would mean a person who is in some way characterised or affiliated with God or godliness. 

‘Son of x’ Used by Jesus (as)

The general construction of ‘son of x’, was also employed by Jesus (as)  on a few occasions, always in its common and generally accepted usage.  

In the New Testament, the Hebrew term בֵּן (bēn – son) is usually found translated as the Greek word υἱός (huios).

A few of the cases where he used the construction are:

  • He granted two of his followers (both brothers) the title of ‘sons of thunder’ (Mark 3:17), a reference to their zeal in following the faith. 
  • He declared an unrelated follower as the ‘son of Mary’ (John 19:26-27), demonstrating how his followers were like his spiritual family, something he also confirmed in another place when he said, ‘For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Matthew 12:50). 
  • He referred to the Jews as ‘sons of the Devil’ (John 8:44) and denied their ‘sonship’ of the prophet Abraham in the spiritual sense, even though they were his physical descendants, when he stated ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did(John 8:39).
  • He referred to wisdom as being justified by her children (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:35).

Jesus (as) was also aware that the construction sometimes implied a sense that the son was subordinate to the father. He rejected this inference in terms of the title ‘Son of David’, and stated that he was not subordinate to David, rather that he was a prophet who was independent in his commission (Mark 12:37). 

Yet no such declaration exists for the term son of God, indicating that it never meant anything to him other than its orthodox Jewish use. Jesus (as) was a ‘Son of God’ as the Jews understood the term – a righteous individual, subordinate to God, who had been given a divine mandate – in his case, being the Messiah. ‘Son of God’ was in his case synonymous to the Hebrew terms prophet (navi) or messiah (mashiakh). Both denoted human beings, not in any way divine, who carried out prophetic duties. 

Jewish Context of the Title ‘Son of God’

Now that we understand the general grammatical construction of the term ‘Son of God’, we can look into its specific uses in Jewish idiom and in what context. Just knowing that it grammatically refers to someone being affiliated with God in some undefined way is not enough.

Use of this construction has been in reference to kings, judges and prophets of God. For example, it is stated that God said to King David:

‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’ (Psalms 2:7).

And more generally about judges, prophets and kings:

‘I say, ‘You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;’ (Psalms 82:6).

It was also used to refer to a people who were to do the will of God on earth, such as the tribe of Israel or Ephraim. The Bible states that God said about Israel:

‘Israel is my firstborn son.’ (Exodus 4:22)

God states about the tribe of Ephraim:

‘Is not Ephraim my dear son?’ (Jeremiah 31:20).

In certain later texts, the term is also used for a righteous individual. In one place, it is stated:

‘for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him.’ (Wisdom of Solomon 2:18). 

Thus, according to Old Testament usage, ‘Son of God’ refers to the affiliation of a human being with God, either in being granted temporal authority through divine mandate, or in being righteous,carrying out the Law of God, and being characterised by piety. 

This final point was also accepted and explained by ancient Jewish commentators:

‘The Rabbis lay impressive stress on the fact that Israel’s divine sonship is grounded in the Law entrusted to it and will be seen in a walk according to the commandments of the Law. Rabbi Aqiba derives from Dt. 14:1 the assertion: ‘Beloved are the Israelites; for they are called the sons of God. It was declared to them as a special love that they are called God’s sons,’ Abot Pirque, 3, 14. Acc. to Rabbi Jehuda b. Shalom (c. 370) God said to the Israelites: ‘You have the wish to be singled out, that you are my sons? Busy yourselves with the Torah and observance of the commandments, so all will see that you are my sons,’ Deuteronomium rabba (Debarim rabba), Homiletic Midrash on Deuteronomy (Strack, Einl., 206), 7 on 29:1: The same thought underlies the statement: ‘When the Israelites do God’s will they are called sons; when they do not do God’s will they are not called sons.’[2]

The term is also used to refer to spiritual entities, such as angels or fallen angels. The Bible states:

‘For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings (lit. בִּבְנֵי אֵלִים bi bani elem, the sons of God) is like the Lord.’ (Psalms 89:6)

Angels are the sons of God in that they carry out His commandments, not because they share the same nature as God. 

In all cases, the term maintains a sense of being subordinate to the wishes and desires of God, and implies a hierarchy in which God, the ‘father’, maintains a sense of authority over his servants or ‘children’. 

In short, the Jews were and are resolute monotheists, and never interpreted the term ‘Son of God’ in any sort of polytheistic fashion. They were conscious enough to never use the construction ‘Son of God’ with the personal name of God (Yahweh), instead joining it with the term ‘Elohim’ instead:

‘The Old Testament often uses בֵּן (ben) and בַּר (bar) for beings which belong to the divine world or sphere, but they are combined with other words for God, never with the name יהוה (Yahweh), rather with אֱלֹהִים (Elohim).’ [3]

‘Son of God’ used by Jesus (as)

Jesus (as) was also aware of the construction ‘Son of God’ and employed it exclusively in its orthodox meaning on several occasions. 

Jesus (as) used the term ‘sons/children of God’ for peacemakers. He stated:

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

And also, for those who love and pray for their enemies:

‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;’ (Matthew 5:44-45).

We find that he was explaining that the sonship of God was something that could be attained through good deeds. The term denoted becoming holy, purified, and godly. His own sonship was no different in nature. Jesus (as) , too, was not born a ‘Son of God’ but rather  became a ‘Son of God’: according according to all four Gospels, it was at or close to the time of his baptism that he was first declared to be the son of God.

Jesus’ (as) Own Testimony 

It seems then that the historical context provided by the Old Testament and later Jewish writings provide a decidedly non-divine interpretation of the term ‘Son of God’. The next question is whether Jesus (as) himself ever explained the use of this term This is especially important since Jesus’ (as) own words are more important and authoritative than any interpretation could be. 

In this case, we are fortunate to have such a testimony.

There is only a single place in all four Gospels where Jesus (as) explains the use of the term ‘Son of God’ in relation to himself. This explanation is found in the Gospel of John, which states that Jesus (as) proclaimed that he was one with the father, upon which the Jews tried to stone him, stating that he had blasphemed by calling himself God. Jesus (as) replied:

‘Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled— can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? (John 10:34-36)

Here Jesus (as) answers the question of how he is one with God while also providing an explanation for how he was, or at least said to be, a ‘Son of God’. One possible explanation for this is that the interpretation of being one with God was the same as being the son of God. Or, that in the process of answering their main objection, he also cleared up another objection they had, which was the title of ‘Son of God’.

In any case, in reply to their accusation of blasphemy, he stated that their own Jewish scriptures referred to certain human beings as gods. The reference seems to be to the Book of Psalms, where it is stated: 

I say, ‘You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.’ (Psalms 82:6-7)

The Jews never interpreted such texts literally; rather they always understood them as being metaphorical – a term applied to human beings who had been given a divine mandate. Therefore, his argument was that if he had very sparingly used the term son of God for himself, what problem did they have with such a metaphorical term that was well-known to them and was interpreted in an entirely monotheistic manner? Moreover, being a ‘Son of God’ was surely not as great or problematic a claim (theologically and polemically) as being God Himself, yet they themselves interpreted the greater claim which appeared in their scriptures in a purely monotheistic fashion, but unscrupulously would not do the same in his case, and that too with a comparatively inferior claim. 

He went on to confirm that the use of the term was one of adoption; of a metaphorical import, purely monotheistic and not in any way affirming divinity:

‘Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works…’ (John 10:37-38)

He did not tell them, ‘believe me because I am literally God; bow before me and observe my great divine power.’ Rather, he directed them to view his works –t he was doing the work of God by fulfilling His commandments.

In other words, he was a righteous individual who was carrying out God’s mandates on earth. Therefore, he was a ‘Son of God’ in terms of his actions making him a son of God. His works proved that he was a son of God in the same way that the works of previous righteous people proved that they were sons of God. This was completely in line with Jewish thought, which spoke about people whose piety granted them the distinction of being labelled the sons of God:

‘…the title belongs also to any one whose piety has placed him in a filial relation to God (see Wisdom ii. 13, 16, 18; v. 5, where ‘the sons of God’ are identical with ‘the saints’; comp. Ecclus. [Sirach] iv. 10). It is through such personal relations that the individual becomes conscious of God’s fatherhood…’ [4]

The Promised Messiah (as)

Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) (1835-1908) was the divinely appointed reformer of the age. Born in Qadian, India, he was sent by God to clarify the teachings of Islam as well as demonstrate their truthfulness. He claimed to be the awaited second coming of Jesus (as) – the Promised Messiah. He dedicated hundreds of pages in exploring and explaining the reality of Jesus (as). In one place, he writes:

‘According to my understanding, other prophets were superior to Jesus (as) in regards to these epithets and titles. This is because Jesus (as) himself has decided this matter and stated that, ‘why are you grieved at my using the term ‘son of God’?’ This was not a huge ordeal. In the Psalms it is stated that ‘you are all gods’. The words of Jesus (as) which are recorded in John 10:35 are: 

‘I have said you are ‘gods’’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?

Now, those that are fair should study these verses with fear of Allah Almighty in their hearts. Was it not imperative for Jesus (as) at this time, when his sonship was being questioned, that he state, if he was truly the son of God, that the fact is that I am the Son of God Almighty, and you all are human beings? Rather, he challenged them through his response in such a way that he brought a close to the argument, that you yourselves are deeply involved in my way of speech. I have been called ‘son’ whereas you have been called ‘god’.’[5]

‘Son of God’ vs. ‘Son of Man’ and ‘The Son’

As noted previously, Jesus (as) hardly ever used the term ‘Son of God’ for himself.

Whil the term is tacitly accepted in many places where people (even demons) refer to him as the ‘Son of God’, but his explicit use of the term is very hard to come by. In none of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) does he ever directly use the term ‘Son of God’ for himself. In the Gospel of John, he uses it in only three instances:

‘But when Jesus (as) heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ (John 11:4)

‘Can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? (John 10:36)

‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. (John 5:25)

It is highly unusual that three of the four Gospel writers omitted any reference of Jesus (as) using this important term for himself, and that its explicit use is only found in the Gospel of John, which was written last. Moreover, it is very telling that the same writer also included a purely monotheistic explanation of the term through the words of Jesus (as). 

In any case, Jesus (as) refers to himself almost exclusively in the Gospels using other terms: ‘Son of Man’ and the absolute ‘The Son’. Why is this, and what do these other terms refer to? 

Some Christians try to paint the term ‘son of man’ as a reference to a divine apocalyptic figure of the latter days in the Book of Daniel. Nevertheless, even there the figure has not been referred to as ‘son of man’, rather only as ‘like a son of man’. A comparison has been drawn between the figure and other human beings, with the prophet Daniel stating:

‘I saw one like a human being (lit. ka bar enas כְּבַר אֱנָשׁ like a son of man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.’ (Daniel 7:13)

This was a vision that the prophet saw, and therefore is subject to interpretation. Jesus (as) was not ‘like a son of man, rather he always claimed to be ‘a’ ‘son of man’. That all-important ‘like’ is nowhere to be found in his many usages of the term for himself. 

Coming back to the term ‘son of man’, we find that it has been almost exclusively used in the Old Testament, not as referring to a divine figure, but rather to man as contrasted with God – an antonym. In Hebrew, the term is ben adam:

‘Son of Man

A title derived from a Hebrew (ben ˒āḏām) and Aramaic (bar ˒ĕnāš) idiom which designates a collective (humanity) or an individual within the collective (human being)…In the OT the phrase occurs often as a designation for ‘humanity’ or a ‘human being’ in contrast with divine prerogatives (Ps. 8:4 [MT 5]; cf. also Num. 23:19). The phrase is used 93 times in Ezekiel as a designation for the prophet, perhaps here too emphasizing the mere mortal nature of the prophet in contrast to the majesty of God who speaks to him (e.g., Ezek. 2:1).’[6]

Therefore, Jesus (as) was most likely using this term to declare his humanity and as a rebuttal to the thought that he was  divine. It t clarified that he was a (very human) prophet and also highlighted his humility. In the Old Testament, ‘son of man’ has been used in many places by the prophets to highlight their frailty as humans and dependence on the grace of God. For example:

‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals (lit. ben adam בֶן־אָדָם the son of man) that you care for them?’ (Psalm 8:4)

Jesus (as) also used it in this sense:

‘Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay His head.’ (Matthew 8:20). 

The absolute use of ‘the son’ can also be viewed in this sense. Judging by his common use of ‘son of man’ it is most likely that his use of ‘the son’ referred back to ‘son of man’ and not the term ‘Son of God’. Even if it did refer back to ‘God’ instead of ‘man’, his consciously omitting it in favour of the more ambiguous ‘the son’ shows that he, in any case, did not commonly use the phrase for himself. 

Thus, the term ‘Son of God’ was very sparingly used by Jesus (as), and only tacitly approved by him in a monotheistic sense when used by others. He himself almost always gave preference to the titles ‘son of man’ and ‘the son’, which were not subject to the same misunderstandings that could arise from the use of the term ‘Son of God’. 

Jesus (as) as the ‘Servant of God’ in the Old Testament

Despite the use of ‘Son of God’ in the New Testament, it is significant that no clear instance of the term can be found in the Old Testament or in later Judaic writings in reference to the Messiah:

‘Thus far there is no clear instance to support the view that in pre-Christian times Judaism used the title ‘Son of God’ for the Messiah. The Messiah is ‘my son’ in Ethiopian Enoch 105:2, but this verse was added later, since it is not in Greek Enoch and has thus to be disregarded. The Latin of 4 Esr. 7:28; 13:32, 37, 52; 14:9 uses filius meus for the Messiah, but the Greek original is undoubtedly παῖς (pais – servant) corresponding to Hebrew עַבְדִּי (abdi – my servant) Thus, all the apocryphal references which might seem to testify to the Messianic title ‘Son of God’ fall to the ground.’ [7]

Despite this admission, there are a few places in the Old Testament that Christians identify as prophecies referring to the coming of the Messiah as the ‘Son of God’. But all of them are disputed since their immediate context suggests that they refer to other individuals. Some of these alleged prophecies are:

‘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.  (2 Samuel 7: 12-14)

And: 

‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’ (Psalm 2:6-7)

By and large, the Old Testament’s prophecies refer to the coming Messiah as a ‘servant’ rather than a ‘son’. The author of Matthew also claimed that one such prophecy, in Isaiah 42:1, was fulfilled in the person of Jesus (as):

‘This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.’ (Matthew 12:17-18)

It is telling that no such prophecy has been quoted from the Old Testament by the authors of the Gospel to support the idea that the Messiah would be called a ‘Son of God’. 

Moreover, we find that the term ‘servant’ (pais – παῖς) was also applied to Jesus (as) in the Book of Acts (Acts 3:13, 26, 4:27, 30), meaning that some of the earliest followers of Jesus (as) commonly referred to him as a servant of God. 

The word for ‘servant’ in the Old Testament is עֶבֶד ebed, meaning slave, servant, or worshipper:

‘The term serves as an expression of humility used by the righteous before God. Different emphases in this regard are self-abasement, the implied claim on God for help, and grateful self-commitment when help is received. These elements are present in other nations too, but distinctive in the OT are the exclusiveness and totality involved in being God’s servant, the gracious decision of God which makes it possible, and the historical character of the relationship.’ [8]

When used in relation to God, it generally refers to righteous individuals chosen by God to fulfil the duty of prophethood and  implies their subordination to God. Ebed has been used to describe prophets such as Abraham (Genesis 26:24), Moses (Deuteronomy 34:5), Jacob (Isaiah 44:1),Isaiah (20:3), Job (1:8) and David (2 Samuel 7:5).

The Old Testament thus refers to the Messiah as the Servant of God, according to the prophecies about his advent that Christians themselves present. There are various examples of this, such as:

‘Here is 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.’ (Isaiah 42:1)

‘See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.’ (Isaiah 52:13)

‘Now listen, Joshua, high priest, you and your colleagues who sit before you! For they are an omen of things to come: I am going to bring my servant the Branch.’ (Zechariah 3:8)

These passages demonstrate that the Messiah was foretold as being a humble servant of God. In other words, he was not to be in any way divine, nor different in essence from other servants of God who had been granted the mantle of prophethood. 

Was Jesus (as) Called ‘Son of God’ or ‘Servant of God’?

Keeping in mind all of these points, the question that remains to be answered is, ‘was Jesus (as) called the son of God or the servant of God?’

The writers of the Gospel did not quote any passage from the Old Testament supporting the idea that the Messiah would be called the ‘Son of God’, nor is there any explicit text referring to the Messiah as such.

This lessens the validity and importance of the title ‘Son of God’ in comparison to the title ‘servant of God’.

It is thus more likely that Jesus (as) and his followers used the term ‘servant of God’ and other terms found in the Old Testament, such as ‘son of David’, when referring to Jesus (as), and not ‘Son of God’, which was uncommon and less significant.

When the stories about Jesus (as) were finally penned by the Greek authors of the Gospels, they adopted a term regarding Jesus (as) that was subject to interpretation: huios tou theos. This term could, admittedly, be translated literally as ‘Son of God’, but could also be understood figuratively as ‘servant of God’: 

‘“υἱός huiós, hwee-os”; apparently a primary word; a “son” (sometimes of animals), used very widely of immediate, remote or figuratively, kinship:—child, foal, son.’ (Strongs Definitions)

Unfortunately, there are no texts which preserve the original words of Jesus (as) in his native tongues to compare the Greek texts against. Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidence drives us strongly to the idea that Jesus (as) most likely did not commonly refer to himself as the son of God, nor did his contemporaries. It was not a common term amongst the Jews, nor was the awaited Messiah to be referred to primarily as a ‘Son of God’. 

Therefore, we can conclude that the term ‘Son of God’, if used at all, was most likely done so infrequently, and that too within a monotheistic Jewish context, as the explanation of Jesus (as) in John clearly indicates. Jesus (as) most likely referred to himself as a ‘servant of God’ and ‘son of man’, with his Jewish followers most likely referring to him in terms other than ‘Son of God’. They may have preferred other terms that were commonly used for the awaited Messiah, such as the title of ‘son of David’, found upon the tongues of many of his believers (Matthew 9:27).

Why then did the Gospel authors use the term ‘Son of God’ so liberally for Jesus (as) , if it was not used as such by his contemporaries? This is perhaps due to the legends that arose about him, guided by propaganda, superstition, and the  common ignorance prevalent at the time, in the intermediary period between his disappearance and when the Gospels were finally written. How this came about will be discussed shortly.

An How to Separate the Metaphorical from the Literal

While on the topic of the true interpretation of ‘Son of God’, it is helpful to view the term within the larger context of other titles that are attributed to Jesus (as).

The point to take home here is this: without a common standard by which we can judge what is meant literally from what is a metaphorevery person is at liberty to construct their own interpretation of the Gospels. The hope of understanding the historical Jesus (as) and his true message would then go out the window. 

Christians are, by and large, guilty of falling into this error. Whereas they adamantly pursue a decidedly non-monotheistic interpretation of the term ‘Son of God’, they quite easily and happily accept certain monotheistic interpretations for many of Jesus’ (as) other titles of. 

For example, Jesus (as) has been called the ‘Lamb of God’ in the Gospel of John (John 1:29, 36). But no Christian thinks that Jesus was a literal lamb. The interpretation is one that is inevitably metaphorical.  

He was the ‘King of the Jews’ (Matthew 2:12), or at least alleged to be (Matthew 27:37). Again, a literal king and kingdom evokes a vastly different image than the ministry of Jesus (as). The interpretation of this title, once again, is decidedly metaphorical.

He was the ‘son of Joseph’ (Luke 4:22). Now, this is an interesting case. Was he the literal son of Joseph or the son of God? If he was the biological, literal son of Joseph, one must deny the virgin birth. Because of these difficulties, most Christians declare that this title was was also metaphorical. 

And the list goes on. He claimed to be the ‘Light of the World’ (John 8:12), ‘The Bread of Life’ (John 6:35), ‘The Living Bread’ (John 6:51) ‘The Resurrection and The Life’ (John 11:25). No Christian claims that all of his titles were literal.

Nevertheless, we find that there are certain titles that Christians are adamant are literal, despite the difficulties.

For example, Christians claim that Jesus (as) was the awaited Messianic king from the Davidic line and was a literal ‘son of David’, although they are hard-pressed to demonstrate it.

The lineage of Jesus (as) is recorded in two different ways in the Gospels, one in the Gospel of Matthew (1:1-17) and the other in Luke (3:23-38). Both Gospels trace his lineage through Joseph – problematic, to say the least, because Christians claim Jesus (as) was not his biological son!

To get around this problem, commentators usually state that Matthew traces his lineage through Joseph, while Luke through Mary, the mother of Jesus (as). With this explanation, commentators admit then that the genealogy presented in Matthew is invalid and unnecessary – Jesus (as) had no share in it, since he did not share any blood with Joseph.

Coming to the second lineage in Luke, we find that Jesus (as) is stated to be ‘of Joseph, the son of Heli’. Commentators claim that the passage is not literal. Rather, they claim Heli refers to the father-in-law of Joseph; that is, the father of Mary. This too is implausible. There is no genealogical record, in either the Old or the New Testament, which refers to a man as the son of his father-in-law. There is no verse in the New Testament that says Mary is the daughter of Heli.

In any case, even if one does accept that Luke presents the lineage of Mary and not Joseph, problems persist. Maternal connection is not sufficient for succession to the throne of David, which is passed on only through a continuous male line. Biblically, the right kingship and priesthood are exclusively passed on through the male line. There is no example of it having been passed on through the maternal line. 

So, through either lineage, Jesus (as) is disqualified from being a descendant of David who could sit on the Davidic throne. Nevertheless, Christians are adamant, and through theological wrangling, try to demonstrate that Jesus (as) was literally a descendant of David. Because, in this case, a metaphorical interpretation just will not do.

In a similar vein, Jesus (as) is also called the son of Mary (Mark 6:3). Is this passage literal or metaphorical? By what objective standard would we determine the answer?

The difficulty with metaphors is that there are no qualifying words telling us that we are dealing with something that is not literal. That must be understood from the context and common sense. Moreover, especially in the case of theology, once we determine that a term is metaphorical, it must also be interpreted in the correct fashion. That interpretation must be based on common sense and basic, tried-and-true accepted fundamentals. 

In the case of Christianity, nothing can be more basic or fundamental than the belief in pure monotheism, a God who is One, indivisible and is uniquely divine with no equal or partner. Jesus (as) himself emphasised that to believe in one God is the very first, most important commandment:

‘One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus (as) answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one’ (Mark 12:28-29)

In another place he stated:

‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus (as) Christ whom you have sent.’ (John 17:3)

Conclusion

In short, there is scant evidence from the Old and New Testament that the term ‘son of God’ can legitimately be understood as a literal term. Indeed, looking at both how the Jews used the term at the time and how Jesus (as) himself used it, it becomes clear that the term is metaphorical – and that Jesus (as) is, in fact, a ‘son of man’. 


ENDNOTES

[1] Christians sometimes capitalise the term ‘Son of God’ as ‘Son of God’ when it comes in relation to Jesus (as). This is a clear bias, when the same term is not capitalised for other individuals in the Bible. Neither the Hebrew of the Old Testament nor the original Greek New Testament manuscripts distinguish between capital and lower-case letters:

‘At the time when the books of the New Testament were written, Greek writing did not distinguish between capital and small letters. The early biblical manuscripts are written entirely in what by later standards would be called capital letters. The original Greek manuscripts can give us no guidance at all about capitalisation…’ (Jason DeDuhn, Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in the English Translations of the New Testament, p. 143)

[2] Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Vol. 8 pg. 359.

[3] Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 11, pg. 461, under ‘Son of God’

[5] Jang-e-Muqaddas (The Heavenly War), Ruhani Khazain (Spiritual Treasures) vol. 6, pg. 108.

[6] Freedman, D. N., Myers, A. C., & Beck, A. B. (2000). Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (1242). Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans.

[7] Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Vol. 8, pg. 361. 

[8] Kittel, G., Friedrich, G., & Bromiley, G. W. (1995). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (763). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

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source THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS

Was Jesus (as) Really the ‘Son of God’? – Examining the Historical Context

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