Christianity claims that Jesus was the Messiah, or sometimes uses the term the ‘Son of God.’ In the Christianity we encounter today for the most part, the term God the Son is used in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, which claims that Jesus is of the same substance as the Father (Hashem) through a process called hypostasis, that God is triune consisting of three co-equal parts: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy spirit.
Whilst there is a lot of discussion around this topic, and there are Christian groups that deviate in some form or another from some aspects of this doctrine, we will in this post be looking at the term Son of God in Jewish and biblical understandings in contrast to the above view.
Son/s of God in the Hebrew Bible
The term Son of God is not a title that is reserved only for the Messiah. Christianity often refers to Jesus as Gods only begotten son. The first point to note is that the people of Israel, the entire Jewish nation is referred to as Gods first-born son:
“You shall say to Pharaoh, ‘So said the Lord, My firstborn son is Israel. So I say to you, send out My son that he may serve Me – but you have refused to send him out; behold I shall kill your firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4:22-24)
“When Israel was a lad I loved him, and since Egypt I have been calling out to My son.” (Hosea 11:1)
Ephraim is also called God’s first born:
“…For I (God) am a Father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first born.” (Jeremiah 31:9)
In the book of Psalms, David is also referred to as God’s first born as well:
“Also I will make him my first born, higher than the kings of the earth” (Psalms 89:27)
An individual who is referred to as a Son of God means that this person has a close relationship with God. In relation to its reference to the Jewish people as a collective this too implies that God has a particular covenant with the Jewish people. These descriptions do not imply any divine status to those individuals or the Jewish people.
In fact in both Judaism and Christianity, reference to God as a Father figure is used not simply to describe the relationship between God to those described as his Son/s, but used in His relationship to anyone.
In Jewish prayer God is described as a Father and hence we as his Sons. Most Jews will be very familiar when they go to synagogue on High Holy days when we say, “Avinu, Malkainu,” “Our Father, our King,” or “Avinu She’bashamayim,” “Our Father in heaven.”
Christians too have liturgy-addressing God in exactly the same terms, where God is referred to as not exclusively Jesus’s father but their Father as well. In the Lords prayer for example.
Jesus may have been thought to be or considered himself the Messiah, and by virtue of being the Messiah may have also been called a Son of God. It is however unlikely that he or his followers understood these terms in any other way than as just described.
The concept of God the Son
The Son of God most likely developed into God the Son when Christianity began to spread under the preaching of the Apostle Paul to the Gentiles. Not necessarily because Paul introduced this new concept to them, but because based on their backgrounds and understandings of the Pagan religions and Mystery cults may have heard Paul’s message but interpreted it within their own understandings of those concepts.
It is easy to see how such an audience might have assumed that if Paul were talking to them about having spoken to some sort of angelic being of Jesus and spoke of him as a savior, that these non Jewish groups could have believed that Jesus was divine or a God himself, and not merely a human being.
We need only look briefly at some of those religions that deified their leaders as having been born to a god, often also through a Virgin birth, and who were given the same titles of “Son of God.” Lets glance at some of the Pagan mythologies of the ancient world, of whom many of the first gentile converts to Christianity belonged. Yehezkel Kauffman, Biblical scholar from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in his book The Religion of Israel, From its beginnings to the Babylonian Exile gives us an overview of the relationship between the Pagan Gods and men throughout the ancient world:
“A characteristic expression of this intermingling of realms is the idea of physical bond between gods and men. We have already noted the Babylonian legends telling how man was created out of the blood of a slain god and the Indian story of the creation of men out of the body of the purusha. The Greeks also regarded the gods as genetically related to men, there being no clearly defined boundary between them; the gods were distinguished only by immortality. Paganism knows of unions not only between gods, but between gods and mortals. The Gilgamesh epic tells how its hero spurned Ishtar’s advances, throwing up to her the harm she did to all her previous human and animal lovers. In early times, the kings of Sumer and Akkad were considered husbands of Ishtar; Antiochus Epiphanes still maintained this conception, as evidenced by his intention to marry Nanaia (Ishtar) in her temple (taking the treasury as dowry). Rites celebrating the nuptials of gods and women are found in many cultures. Herodotus speaks of a priestess dedicated to Bel who used to sleep in his temple in Babylon; he tells of a similar custom in the temple of Zeus-Amon in Thebes, and in Patara (in Lycia). How popular such notions were can be judged from the story in Josephus (Antiquities xviii. 3, 4) about the Roman woman who was violated by her lover in the temple of Isis with the connivance of priests who deluded her into believing that the god Anubis desired her. In Athens there was an annual festival commemorating the marriage of Dionysus with the local “queen.” Stories about heroes (i.e. demigods) who mated with women and begot children were also common and frequently utilized by royal pretenders.
There is widespread belief among pagans that peoples and families have descended from gods. The Germans thought themselves the children of a god who was born of the earth; the Gauls traced their ancestry to Dis Pater; Arabian tribes claimed divine ancestors. Divine ancestry was claimed by aristocratic families of Greece, Rome and Carthage. Kings of many lands represent themselves as offspring of gods; this is the ground of the common belief that the reigning monarch was begotten by a god who visited his mother.
The continuity of the divine and human realm is the basis of the pagan belief in apotheosis, in the possibility of man’s attaining godhood. The idea manifests itself in various forms: in the cult a the worship of deified men; in eschatology as the promise of ultimate immortality, of joining the gods, or even rising above them.
The Babylonians knew of men, such as Utnapishtim, upon whom immortality was conferred, and an early phase of Sumero-Akkadian kingship knew of the deification of kings and their worship. But it was in Egypt that the divine kingship found its classic expression in the ancient Near East. The Pharaoh is “the beneficent god,” “the great god,” the “son of Re,” and is worshipped a god. This notion prevailed during the reign of the reformer Akhenaton as well. The dead king becomes Osiris, reigns with Atum, rises and sets with Re. Deification of dead kings is also found among the Hittites and the Aramaeans. Worship of kings and heroes was current throughout the Roman and Helenistic world. In Samos, Lysander was worshipped as a god, with alters, sacrifices, and songs; Dion was received with divine homage at Syracuse. Alexander was defied in life and death as the son of Amon or Zeus; in Alexandra, he was worshipped as the local deity until the triumph of Christianity. His Seleucid and Ptolemic successors maintained the cult of royalty. Roman deification of kings becomes customary after the time of Julius Caesar.” (Kaufmann, Y 1961:29-30)
The point being that the biblical concept of the coming of a figure referred to as ‘The Messiah’ does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. The Messiah or Mashiach in Hebrew simply means “anointed,” which meant that you were initiated into the service of God, by having oil poured over ones head. This was not a process of deification nor did it mean that such a person became a demi-god or held divine status. All Israelite Kings were anointed as well as all High Priests and therefore held the title of a Messiah.
The title of ‘The Messiah,’ is a name that the Jews ascribe to the passages in the Bible that talk about the coming of a descendent of King David who will reign as the King of Israel in the Messianic age, when the world would be transformed to a utopian period of universal world peace (Isaiah, 2:4, Isaiah 60:18, Micah 4:1-4) universal knowledge of God (Jeremiah, 31:34, Isaiah, 11:9, Zechariah 8:23), when the Temple will be rebuilt and serve as a temple not only to Jews but to all nations (Isaiah 2:2-3, Ezekiel 40-44), where the Jews will return to the land of Israel (Isaiah 11:11-12, Ezekiel 34:13) and to the Torah (Ezekiel 11:19-20) and the Davidic monarchy reinstated by the Messiah will continue (Isaiah 11:1-2).
The Bible does not describe this figure as a divine being made flesh in this world or a manifestation or incarnation of God. But it is clear that such concepts were widespread and common amongst the religions and cults of the non-Jewish world in antiquity and at the period when Christianity began to spread.
The Pagans believed that their Emperors were god’s or Demi-gods or the Son of god. Such ideas came naturally to them and so to sell the idea of Jesus to them as a normal human being might have been difficult for them to grasp. Among the early “heretical” Christian groups there were groups such as the Marcionites who believed Jesus wasn’t human at all, and was fully divine, claiming that he only appeared human and that there were two gods.
If it were the case that Jesus’s followers believed that Jesus was divine and part of the trinity, then it is difficult to explain why their opponents, the early Church fathers in their hunts for ‘heretical’ groups including the Jewish Christian groups would all consistently note that the Jewish followers of Jesus believed he was human and not divine, or to explain how the question of Jesus’s divinity or humanity came about.
We do not have first hand material to the ideas of what the gospels call the Jerusalem Church, the Jewish followers of Jesus and the movement of the disciples, led by James and Peter from Jerusalem following Jesus’s death. Other than through what their rival enemies had to say about them. Irenaeus, who was one of the first heresy hunters of the emerging Catholic Church in the second century in his Refutation of All Heresies. Writes of the Ebionites (the Jewish followers of Jesus in his time):
“They use the gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the Law. . . . they practice circumcision, persevere in those customs which are enjoined by the Law, and are so Judaic in their style of life that they even adore Jerusalem as if it were the house of God. ” [Refutation of All Heresies, 1.26.2]
“God, then, was made man, and the Lord did Himself save us, giving us the token of the Virgin. But not as some allege, among those now presuming to expound the Scripture, [thus:] “Behold, a young woman shall conceive, and bring forth a son,” [Isa. 7. 14] as Theodotion the Ephesian has interpreted, and Aquila of Pontus. Both Jewish proselytes. The Ebionites, following these, assert that He was begotten by Joseph; thus destroying, as far as in them lies, such a marvellous dispensation of God, and setting aside the testimony of the prophets which proceeded from God.”
Another Church father, Eusebius in 325 CE wrote of the Ebionites, in Ecclesiastical History 3.27:
“1 The evil demon, however, being unable to tear certain others from their allegiance to the Christ of God, yet found them susceptible in a different direction, and so brought them over to his own purposes. The ancients quite properly called these men Ebionites, because they held poor and mean opinions concerning Christ.
2 For they considered him a plain and common man, who was justified only because of his superior virtue, and who was the fruit of the intercourse of a man with Mary. In their opinion the observance of the ceremonial law was altogether necessary, on the ground that they could not be saved by faith in Christ alone and by a corresponding life.
3 There were others, however, besides them, that were of the same name, but avoided the strange and absurd beliefs of the former, and did not deny that the Lord was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit. But nevertheless, inasmuch as they also refused to acknowledge that he pre-existed, being God, Word, and Wisdom, they turned aside into the impiety of the former, especially when they, like them, endeavoured to observe strictly the bodily worship of the law.
4 These men, moreover, thought that it was necessary to reject all the epistles of the apostle, whom they called an apostate from the law; and they used only the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews and made small account of the rest.
5 The Sabbath and the rest of the discipline of the Jews they observed just like them, but at the same time, like us, they celebrated the Lord’s days as a memorial of the resurrection of the Saviour.
6 Wherefore, in consequence of such a course they received the name of Ebionites, which signified the poverty of their understanding. For this is the name by which a poor man is called among the Hebrews.”
This account describes two groups among the Ebionites, those who seem to have adopted the belief in the Virgin birth and those who rejected it. Eusebius description confirms the belief that the early Jewish followers of Jesus did not believe that salvation came through faith in the saviour, but that it came through observing the Torah and also a rejection of Paul and his teachings. The Gospel according to the Hebrews is another reference to the Gospel of Matthew.
Another Church father Epiphanius, who lived in the third century, writes of the Ebionites:
“They declare that he (Paul) was a Greek... He went up to Jerusalem, they say, and when he had spent some time there, he was seized with a passion to marry the daughter of the priest. For this reason he became a proselyte and was circumcised. Then, when he failed to get the girl, he flew into a rage and wrote against circumcision and against the sabbath and the Law.”
The Christian tradition tells us that Paul of Tarsus was a Jew, a student of Rabban Gamliel. But from the writings of Epiphanius, we learn that the Jewish followers of Jesus not only despised Paul as an apostate but claim that he was not a Jew by birth, he was according to them an in insincere convert, who converted in order to marry a Jewish girl, who did not wish to marry him, who then became very hostile towards Judaism.
Lets look at what another early Church father, Origen, had to say about these groups who he condemns as heretics:
“Let it be admitted, moreover, that there are some who accept Jesus and who boast on their account of being Christians, and yet would regulate their lives, like the Jewish multitude, in accordance with the Jewish law, and these are the twofold sect of the Ebionites, who either acknowledge with us that Jesus was born of a Virgin, or deny this, and maintain that He was begotten like other human beings.” (Contra Celsum 5:6)
“For there are certain heretical sects which do not receive the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, as the two sects of Ebionites, and those who are termed Encritites” (Contra Celsum 5:65)
All these reports of these groups of Jewish followers of Jesus share their observation that they all rejected Paul of Tarsus and regarded him as an apostate. They all were observant of the law and hard to distinguish from other Jews in much of their beliefs and practices. There are of course some deviations between these groups, such as mention that there were some among them who accepted the Virgin birth and those who did not. However it should also be duly noted that whilst Eusebius reports that there are those who accepted the Virgin birth, they rejected claims to his pre-existence or divinity. Scholar of what is often called ‘Jewish Christianity’ Jeffrey Butz believes this belief in the virgin birth was not an innovation of the Jewish Christians but that it had developed among the gentile Christians nearby and that over time the some amongst the Ebionites slowly came to adopt these ideas and eventually became integrated into the local gentile Christian movements.
So what from the above reports can we gather that these Jews believed?
- Jesus was human and not divine.
- Some accepted the virgin birth but others did not.
- All these groups rejected and hated Paul and all his teachings.
- They believed that salvation came through observing the Torah and not by faith in Jesus.
- They saw significance in the Temple and in sacrifices after the crucifixion.
- They only used a version of the Gospel of Matthew, which is likely to not be exactly as it appears in a standard King James Bible.
- The movement centred itself in Jerusalem.
- They believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
It is well documented that different Christian groups struggled with this questioned, as well as it being evident from the above Gentile Church father’s condemnations of the Jewish sects that they believed to the contrary, that Jesus was human. It was eventually settled at the Council of Nicea that the Church would declare that they believed Jesus was both 100% human and 100% divine.
However early Christian groups may have interpreted these terms, the title the Son of God being ascribed to the coming Messianic King is not found in the Hebrew Bible, it is only introduced as a title for Jesus as the Son of God in the New Testament.
Christianity believes Jesus to be the Son of God, meaning that he is Gods only begotten son and is therefore divine. Trinitarians claim that Jesus is one third of a triune Godhead that is co-equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit. Some Christians claim that Jesus is God in human form, the word made flesh. Some Christians may claim that Jesus is subordinate to the father but is still divine and that the way to God is through Jesus. There is a belief known as Arianism, which in some ways it’s thinking still resonates amongst some Christians today, that Jesus was God’s first creation, and that it is through Jesus that everything else came into existence. This belief claims that Jesus was not born when he took on human form through the Virgin birth but had existed since the beginning of creation.
Judaism believes that the Messiah is a human being, in no way divine and will be a descendent of King David and reign during the Messianic era. God is purely spiritual and does not take on human form or give birth to mortal human sons who are deified at any particular point in their life or following their death, as was the case in Pagan religions. The term the Son of God is used throughout the Hebrew bible to describe individuals and groups, particularly the nation of Israel as God’s son. Neither Jews nor Christians would interpret this to mean that every Jewish person is therefore divine in the same sense that Christians describe Jesus. A Son of God means someone who has a close relationship with God. The Jewish people have a particular covenant with God made at Mount Sinai and so the relationship may be likened to that of a father and son. A King, a High Priest or perhaps a Prophet may be described as a Son of God as well.