This essay aims to be a brief summary of Christology in the New Testament and unfortunately it is longer than my blog essays usually are.
My title is awkwardly stated, unclear, and imprecise. Nevertheless, it must be so stated in order to accommodate the numerous contradictory ways that the New Testament responds to questions about Jesus' divine sonship. The question that my title appears to ask concerns the nature of Jesus: what in his nature makes divine sonship possible? Another way of putting the question asks about the process of his becoming son of God: How is it that Jesus came to be son of God? The first question is appropriate for one text; the second question is appropriate for others. Just figuring the right question to ask about Jesus' divine sonship reveals a fundamental divide in the New Testament incapable of a satisfactory resolution.
A big part of the problem is that no New Testament text ponders the character of Jesus' divine sonship in an extended essay. A reader must track the issue through the texts searching here and there for fragments of the authors' ideas on the issue and then match them up with related ideas, sometimes from other texts.
There appear to be in New Testament literature at least four distinct ways that early followers of Jesus explained his divine sonship.
Jesus is Chosen by God to be God's Son
Mark presents Jesus to the reader as a fully grown man. He was a follower of John the Baptizer (1:4-9) and a skilled craftsman (6:3), who was part of a family unit having a mother and brothers and sisters (3:31-35; 6:3). At his baptism by John he has a private vision in which "the heavens are torn apart" and a voice directly addresses only him "from the heavens, You are my beloved son" (1:9-11; cf. Ps 2:7; Luke 3:22; Heb 1:6; 2 Pet 1:17).1 Jesus makes the affirmative claim that he considers himself to be son of God (14:61-62). Hence, one is led to conclude that Mark presents Jesus as a human being whom God chooses to be his son at his baptism. In Mark what divine sonship appears to mean is that Jesus has authority over nature, disease, and evil spirits.
Jesus is born son of God
This view of Jesus' divine sonship is held by the authors of Matthew and Luke who present to the reader two different narratives of his birth. In Matthew the reader is told that Mary has conceived a child from a holy spirit (Matt 1:18, 20) in fulfillment of what the Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah (Matt 1:23): a young woman will give birth to a child who will be named Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14). What this means, Matthew takes from the name of the child, which being interpreted is "God with us" (Matt 1:23). Even though the divine sonship of Jesus is acknowledged by the demonic world (8:29), recognized by his disciples (14:33), publicly announced to the people assembled at his baptism by John (3:16-17) and to his inner circle at the transfiguration (17:1-8), Jesus still evades the question of the high priest: "tell us if you are the Christ, the son of God"; Jesus evades the question (26:62-64). Matthew, however, presents the child to the reader as the son of God (Matt 16:16) by virtue of his divine conception and birth, but does not explain the appellation "son of God" further.
Luke's imagery about the birth of the child is more graphic than that of Matthew. An angel announces to Mary that the Lord is 'with you'" (1:28), which greatly upset Mary (1:29). The angel replies do not be afraid "for you have found favor with God" (1:30) and clarifies that she will conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus (1:31). This child will be great and called "son of the Most High" (1:32). Mary asks how does that happen because she has not "known a man" (1:34). The angel responds in language mildly evocative of a physical encounter:
A holy spirit will come upon you and power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child being born will be called a holy son of God. (1:35, italics mine)
Powers of the demon world acknowledge his divine sonship (4:41; 8:28). It is announced to Jesus in a private vision at his baptism (3:21-22) and to his inner circle at the transfiguration (9:35-36), where a heavenly voice calls him "my son the Chosen One." Nevertheless, Jesus twice publicly evades the question of his divine sonship (22:66-71).
Jesus is Inherently the Son of God
In the Gospel of John two things are immediately clear. The first is that there never was a time when Jesus was not the divine son of God. In the poetic section on the Word at the beginning of the gospel (1:1-18) the Word is identified as the "one and only from the Father" (1:14) and the "one and only God in the bosom of the Father" (1:18). Thus, he is inherently divine. What I mean by inherently is: "Involved in the constitution or essential character of something; belonging by nature."2 Or as the Revised English Bible puts it:
In the beginning the Word already was. The Word was in God's presence and what God was, the Word was. He was with God at the beginning. (1:1-2)
The second clarity of John is that the author insists that Jesus is not "a" son of God rather he is the "one and only" son of God (1:14, 18; 3:16,18). The only passage in which the appellation "the son of God" appears in John without the article "the" (ὁ) is John 10:36, while in the synoptics it appears frequently without the article.
The Word "becoming flesh" (1:14) in the Gospel of John is not describing a birth. It is an "enfleshment" of the primal Word, who was from the beginning (1:1-2). The description is akin to a pre-Pauline hymnic section, where describing Jesus Paul states:
Although he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God
As something to be exploited
But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,
Being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in form as a man,
He humbled himself…(Phil 2:6-8)
In other words, he wasn't a human being but only temporarily took human form.
Enfleshment was a manifestation of a temporary condition (1:14) that did not affect his essentially divine character.
Jesus becomes a Child of God through Faith
Literary fragments of such a view survive, hinting at what may have been the case—if these fragments ever became fully developed and then were simply swept into the dustbin of history by a rising orthodoxy, and forgotten. One hint that there may have been such a such a view of Jesus is the appearance of a rare appellation for Jesus that survives in Acts (3:15; 5:31) and Hebrews (2:10; 12:2). Jesus is called archēgos, which has usually been translated "pioneer" in the New Testament.3 He is a pioneer, according to the author of Hebrews, in that "it was fitting that he…in leading many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through [his own] sufferings" (Heb 2:10): that is to say, suffering perfected him as the pioneer of a Way of faith. Hence, Jesus was not the perfect son of God who suffered "in our behalf" (Rom 5:8). His own faith and confidence in God (Gal 2:16) and perfection through suffering qualified him to lead the Way to glory for many other sons of God (Heb 2:10). It is in this way that Jesus became the firstborn among many brothers (Rom 8:29).
A second hint is found in the Pauline correspondence, when Paul refers to followers of Jesus being "justified through the faith of Jesus" rather than being justified "through faith in Jesus." That is to say: it was what Jesus believed that mattered rather than what people believed about him:
…a person is not justified by works of the law but through the faith of Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by the faith of Christ and not by works of the law…(Gal 2:16).4
A third hint lies in Luke's description of a sect called "the Way" (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). The name likely derives from members of the group describing themselves as following the way of the Lord or God (Acts 13:10; 18:25-26) or the Way of life or salvation (Acts 2:28; 16:17). Nothing else is known of this group. Nevertheless, if these references to the Way are historical and not Luke's creation, the Way appears to have been an early nascent movement around Jesus growing out of Israelite traditions.5
It will depend on who is drawing the conclusions. There are two institutions that have an interest in this material, the institutional church and critical New Testament scholarship.6 Let me draw two conclusions in the form of challenges to both. For the institutional church the question becomes how can deference continue to be rendered to the dominance of Pauline Christology in the face of such diversity? On the other hand, scholarship has long been aware of the diversity of ideas in New Testament Christology. For my colleagues the question becomes, has that diversity grown larger? Is the recognition of another kind of "Christology" valid?
Missouri State University
1See Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 112-13. The Western reading adds to Mark 1:11: "This day have I begotten thee." In Matt 3:17 the voice from the heavens addresses the crowd: "This is my beloved son."
2Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1990): s.v. inherent.
3Other ways it has been translated is leader, ruler, prince, instigator, originator, founder, author. See Danker/Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, 2nd ed., 2000).
4See Arthur Dewey et al., The Authentic Letters of Paul. A New Reading of Paul's Rhetoric and Meaning (Polebridge Press, 2010), 65-66. In recent years Gal 2:16 has been mistranslated as "faith in Christ."
5See Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog: "The Gospel of Mark and the Way, a Sect reported in Acts," Monday, January 11, 2021: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=the+way
6If Hector Avalos is correct in his assessment of contemporary biblical scholarship, there may be three institutions concerned with the material. Avalos describes what he calls an ecclesial-academic complex in the field of biblical studies, in which "much of biblical scholarship still exists as part of a commitment to specific religious traditions and bears an apologetic subtext." See Hector Avalos, "Review of Charles W. Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths." Review of Biblical Literature 2020, by the Society of Biblical Literature.