2021-03-12

When the Messiah Became the Son of God in Early Jewish Thought

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

How or from where did Christianity get the idea that the Messiah was also the Son of God? It is easy to get the idea that the standard belief among scholars is that there was a gradual evolution of Christological concepts, that over time Jesus became ever more exalted in the minds of worshipers. But the evidence of early Jewish writings points us to another explanation, one that leads us to think that the idea that the Davidic Messiah was also a Son of God was part of the same idea from the beginning.

As I prepared to write the next instalment on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier I found myself burrowing down into more citations than I could hope to fit into such a post. So here I address just one detail as a stand-alone composition.

This post has a narrow focus. It zeroes in on the early evidence, from before the Christian era up to the first century CE, that among Jewish sectarian ideas there was one that explicitly identified the Davidic Messiah with the Son of God. I do not address questions of the actual meaning of “son of God” — except insofar as the label is applied to a pre-existent and heavenly being as well as an earthly king. The two become fused.

The fusion of the heavenly ‘son of man’ figure envisaged in Daniel, with the traditional hope for a Davidic Messiah was of fundamental importance for early Christianity. The ‘Son of God’ text from Qumran shows that this fusion did not originate in Christianity, but was already at home in sectarian Jewish circles at the turn of the era. (Collins, 82)

The term Son of God in Jewish writings has many different applications: angels, the king of Israel, the people of Israel, righteous Israelites (Jubilees 1:24-25) — and the royal messiah. This post looks at the instances where Son of God is directly applied to that messiah king.

The Davidic branch is identified as the Son of God in Qumran texts.

The branch of David is explicitly identified with the Messiah in 4Q252: . . . there shall not fail to be a descendant of David upon the throne . . . until the Messiah of Righteousness comes, the Branch of David . . . 

I will establish the throne of his kingdom f[orever] (2 Sam 7:13). I wi[ll be] a father to him and he shall be a son to me (2 Sam 7:14). He is the branch of David who shall arise . . . in Zi[on in the la]st days . . . (4Q174)

. . . when God has fa[th]ered the Messiah . . . (1QSa/1Q28a)

Similarly in the Jewish apocryphal work 4 Ezra:

For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years.

And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath. (4 Ezra 7:28f)

4 Ezra 13 is dependent on Psalm 2: the messianic figure stands on a mountain and repulses the attack of the nations; God sets his anointed king on his holy mountain, terrifies the nations, and tells the king “you are my son…”
Daniel 7 also inspires 4 Ezra 13: vision of a man emerging from the sea and flying with the clouds, preceded by war among the nations. (Collins p. 76f)

And when these things come to pass and the signs occur which I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed, whom you saw as a man coming up from the sea. (4 Ezra 13:32)

And he, my Son, will reprove the assembled nations for their ungodliness (this was symbolized by the storm) (4 Ezra 13:37)

He said to me, “Just as no one can explore or know what is in the depths of the sea, so no one on earth can see my Son or those who are with him, except in the time of his day. (4 Ezra 13:52)

for you shall be taken up from among men, and henceforth you shall live with my Son and with those who are like you, until the times are ended. (4 Ezra 14:9)

The Book of Enoch

More specifically, the Epistle of Enoch in the Book of Enoch, dated between 170 BCE and the first-century BCE. . . .

In Enoch 105:1-2 (mistakenly cited as 55:2 in Charbonnel’s source)

1. In those days the Lord bade (them) to summon and testify to the children of earth concerning their wisdom: Show it unto them; for ye are their guides, and a recompense over the whole earth. 2. For I and My Son will be united with them for ever in the paths of uprightness in their lives; and ye shall have peace: rejoice, ye children of uprightness. Amen.

There is debate over the identities of “I and my son” in Enoch. Some scholars have suggested it might refer to Enoch and his son Methuselah. George W. E. Nickelsburg in his commentary writes

In the context of chaps. 81 and 91, “I and my son” here could mean Enoch and Methuselah rather than God and the Messiah, as Charles suggested.11

11 Charles, Enoch, 262-63.

(1 Enoch 1, p. 535)

His note 11 is a problem, at least it is for me. There are four titles in his bibliography that it could refer to.

  • Charles, R. H. The Book of Enoch: Translated from Dillmann’s Ethiopic Text, emended and revised in accordance with hitherto uncollated Ethiopie MSS. and with the Gizeh and other Greek and Latin fragments (Oxford: Clarendon, 1893).
  • Charles, R. H. The Book of Enoch, or 1 Enoch: Translated from the Editor’s Ethiopic Text, and edited with the introduction notes and indexes of the first edition wholly recast enlarged and rewritten; together with a reprint from the editor’s text of the Greek fragments (Oxford: Clarendon, 1912).
  • Idem “Book of Enoch,” in idem, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, volume 2, Pseudepigrapha (Oxford: Clarendon, 1913) 163-281.
  • Idem The Book of Enoch (Translations of Early Documents, Series 1; London: SPCK, 1917).

Wanting to read what Charles had to say I consulted the third title listed above (1913) and found Charles identifying the Messiah with God’s Son:

105:2. I and My Son, i.e. the Messiah. Cf. 4 Ezra vii. 28, 29, xiii. 32, 37, 52, xiv. 9. The righteous are God’s children, and pre-eminently so the Messiah. Cf. the early Messianic interpretation of Ps. ii, also I En. lxii. 14 ; John xiv. 23. (Charles 1913, p. 277)

In the first title (1893) I found the same identification:

The Messiah is introduced in cv. 2, to whom there is not the faintest allusion throughout xci-civ. . . . To My Son. There is no difficulty about the phrase ‘My Son’ as applied to the Messiah by the Jews : cf. 17 Ezra vii. 28, 29 ; xiv. 9. If the righteous are called ‘God’s children’ in lxii. 11, the Messiah was pre-eminently the Son of God. Moreover, the early Messianic interpretation of Ps. ii would naturally lead to such an expression. (Charles, 1893, p. 301)

Charles does say that the reference to the Messiah seems out of place in the context of the preceding chapters but for that reason thinks a different author is responsible for the passage being inserted. Michael A. Knibb has this to say:

[T]he possibility that there are Christian elements within the Ethiopic version of 1 Enoch — beyond, that is, the presence of occasional Christian glosses — needs to be considered, as has been suggested in relation to 105:2a and chapter 108. Chapter 105 comes at the end of Enoch’s admonition to his children, and the Aramaic evidence (4QEnc 5 i 21–25) showed that the material in this chapter . . . did form part of the original. But 105:2a (“For I and my son will join ourselves with them for ever in the paths of uprightness during their lives”) was apparently not in the Aramaic. It may well represent a Christian addition, but such a statement is not impossible in a Jewish context.63 . . . and it is possible that . . . 105:2a [is not] Christian. 

63 Cf. 4Q246 ii 1; Knibb, “Messianism in the Pseudepigrapha in the Light of the Scrolls,” DSD 2 (1995): 165–84 (here 174–77).

The Son of God Text

 

4Q246:
— Opening verse of column 1: someone falls before the throne;
following verses seem addressed to a king and refer to “your vision“;
— then, “affliction will come on earth … and great carnage among the cities“;
— a reference to kings of Asshur and Egypt;
— verse 7 reads “will be great on earth” (does this refer to the great affliction of preceding verses or the great figure of the following verses?);
— line 8 says “all will serve” and then, “by his name he will be named“.
— Then column 2 opens with our famous line quoted in the post (ii 1)

So we come to 4Q246, “better known as the ‘Son of God’ text” (Collins). See the side box for an overview, but the key line of interest to us:

He will be called the Son of God, they will call him the son of the Most High (ii 1)

Following this line we read about a kingdom destined to rule the earth, trampling all, until the people of God rise up and “all rest from the sword“. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and righteous; the sword will cease; all cities will pay homage; God will be its/his strength and make war on its/his behalf, giving the prostrate nations to him/it; its rule is everlasting. (I have relied on Collins for this summary.)

The remainder of this post follows selected points from an article by John Collins, “The Son of God Text from Qumran”, in From Jesus to John: Essays on Jesus and New Testament Christology in Honour of Marinus de Jonge, with a few glances at Knibb’s work.

The correspondences with the infancy narrative in Luke are astonishing. — Collins, p.66

Three phrases correspond exactly: 

will be great, (Luke 1:32)

he will be called the son of the Most High (Luke 1:32)

he will be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35)

Luke also speaks of an unending reign. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Luke is dependent in some way, whether directly or indirectly, on this long lost text from Qumran. 

(Collins, 66, my formatting and highlighting)

Collins lists five different interpretations that have been proposed in the literature:

  1. That the one who boasts of being the Son of God is a historical king such as Antiochus Epiphanes;
  2. That the line refers to a future Messianic ruler over God’s kingdom on earth;
  3. That the figure is an eschatological adversary, an antichrist;
  4. That the figure is the heavenly Melchizedek, Michael or the Prince of Light;
  5. That the figure should be interpreted collectively, as a representative of the Jewish people.

There are parallels with our canonical book of Daniel (everlasting kingdom, everlasting sovereignty, “trampling” kingdoms; tribulation followed by deliverance; kingdom given to people of the Most High). Collins lists some objections, however:

[I]t is tempting to suggest that the ‘Son of God’ represents an early interpretation of the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel 7, who also stands in parallelism to the people. This is, indeed, a possibility, but a word of caution is in order. The ‘Son of God’ text is not simply an exposition of Daniel 7. While some words and phrases are drawn from that source, most elements of the biblical vision are ignored (the sea, the beasts, the clouds, the judgment, for example). The vision interpreted here is a vision of a king, not Daniel’s vision, and it is presented as an original revelation. (71 f)

Further, 4Q246 has parallels with other texts such as the Qumran War Scroll, not only with Daniel. And even parallels don’t help us a great deal when those parallels themselves can raise so many questions about their interpretation: is the key figure in Daniel a personification of the people or a representative figure or an archangel?

Knibb, like Collins, is not persuaded by the view that the line refers to a boasting enemy king. He writes,

In particular, the designation of the saviour figure as “son of God” and “son of the Most High” makes most sense against the background of the beliefs associated with the Davidic king in the Hebrew Bible (cf. 2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:7; 89 :27- 30) . . . (Knibb, 1995, p. 176)

As for the interpretation that the verse refers to an angelic or heavenly being, specifically to Melchizedek, especially given certain parallels with another Qumran document, 11QMelchizedek, Knibb, again like Collins, has reservations:

The “son of God” in 4Q246 has an exalted status: as “son of God” he has a divine status, and he is the object of worship (2:7). Puech, inasmuch as he allows for a messianic interpretation of the passage, speaks of a “divinisation” of the eschatological figure which goes back to a utopian view, the days of final peace, and which is not a simple national restoration of the kingdom of David, [but] has crossed one step nearer to the figures of Melchizedek of 11Q Melch (an elohim who carries out the vengeance of God), and of the patriarch Enoch identified as the heavenly son of man of the Parables…. ” It is perhaps also worth noticing that in Ps. 110:4 the promise is made to the Davidic king that he will be “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Knibb, 1995, p. 177)

Collins concurs:

The individual most often designated as ‘the Son of God’ in the Hebrew Bible is undoubtedly the Davidic king, or his eschatological counterpart. The adoption of David as God’s son is clearly stated in 2 Sam. 7.14 (‘I will be a father to him and he will be a son to me’) and in Ps. 89.26-27 (‘He shall cry to me: “you are my father”…I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth’). The relationship is expressed in more mythological terms in Ps. 2.7-8 (‘I will tell of the decree of the Lord: he said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” ‘). The statements in the ‘Son of God’ text, that the great God will be his strength and will give peoples into his hand, can apply equally well to the king in the Psalm. God is also said to sustain the ‘shoot of David’ in 4QpIsaa 7iii 23.

The notion that the Messiah or Christ is the Son of God is obviously of crucial importance in the New Testament, notably the Lukan infancy narrative cited earlier. (76)

Clearly, the Gospel of Luke supports the view that there was a Jewish view that a Davidic Messiah was to be called the Son of God:

He will be great and will be hailed as Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will bestow on him the throne of his father David.

Son of Man and Son of God?

What do we make of early interpretations of the “son of man” figure in Daniel? Is the son of man also thought to be called the son of God?

It is difficult to say whether the ‘Son of God’ figure should be regarded as an interpretation of the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel 7. If so, it would probably be the oldest surviving interpretation. . . .

The two earliest Jewish interpretations of Daniel 7 are found in the Similitudes of Enoch and 4 Ezra 13 [both quoted at the beginning of this post]. Both these passages assume that Daniel’s ‘one like a son of man’ is an individual, and both use the term ‘Messiah’ with reference to him. In both these documents, the ‘son of man’ figure is pre-existent, and therefore transcendent in some sense. In 4 Ezra, however, he also had a Davidic ancestry. The Similitudes of Enoch also apply some traditional messianic language to the ‘son of man’, for example, ‘the spirit of righteousness was poured out on him and the word of his mouth kills all the sinners’ (7 En. 62.2, cf. Isa. 11.2, 4), but he functions as a heavenly judge, higher than the angels, rather than as a Messiah on earth. . . . 

In both the Similitudes and 4 Ezra, the ‘son of man’ figure is to some degree assimilated to the deity. This is more prominent in the Similitudes, where he sits on the throne of glory and becomes an object of worship.

The ‘Son of God’ in the Qumran text is not identical with either of these figures, but he has much in common with them. While he is not called Messiah, the titles he is given have messianic overtones. His role in the eschatological battle is closer to 4 Ezra, but he is worshipped by the nations like the Enochic ‘son of man’. It should be emphasized that the extant fragment from Qumran lacks clear allusions to Daniel’s ‘one like a son of man’ such as we find in the Similitudes and in 4 Ezra. Nonetheless, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the author had Daniel’s figure in mind. . . . 

The fusion of the heavenly ‘son of man’ figure envisaged in Daniel, with the traditional hope for a Davidic Messiah was of fundamental importance for early Christianity. The ‘Son of God’ text from Qumran shows that this fusion did not originate in Christianity, but was already at home in sectarian Jewish circles at the turn of the era. (Collins, 80-82)


Collins, John J. “The Son of God Text from Qumran.” In From Jesus to John: Essays on Jesus and New Testament Christology in Honour of Marinus de Jonge, edited by Martinus C. de Boer, 65–82. Sheffield: Bloomsbury, 1993.

Knibb, Michael A. “Messianism in the Pseudepigrapha in the Light of the Scrolls.” Dead Sea Discoveries 2, no. 2 (1995): 165–84. https://doi.org/10.1163/156851795X00148.

Nickelsburg, George W. E. 1 Enoch: 1 : A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch: Chapters 1-36; 81-108. Augsburg Fortress, 2001.

and

  • Charles, R. H. The Book of Enoch: Translated from Dillmann’s Ethiopic Text, emended and revised in accordance with hitherto uncollated Ethiopie MSS. and with the Gizeh and other Greek and Latin fragments (Oxford: Clarendon, 1893)
  • Idem “Book of Enoch,” in idem, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, volume 2, Pseudepigrapha (Oxford: Clarendon, 1913) 163-281.

 

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)



If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!


9 thoughts on “When the Messiah Became the Son of God in Early Jewish Thought”

  1. There is so much discussion of “the Messiah” when there clearly were many messiahs. High Priests were anointed. Kings were anointed, and so on. I liken messiahs to “heroes” in Greek stories. These were not ordinary people who did extraordinary things. These were supernatural agents sent by the gods to help you out, for example Herakles, who was a demi-god. He was a hero, it was his job title so to speak.

    So, when the Hebrews were looking for “a” Messiah, they were looking for a god-sent hero to bail them out of this or that problem. People seem to have fixated upon Jesus as the one and only such messiah, but that was certainly not the case.

    Also, I wonder why Jesus being “a” Jewish Messiah is so important to Christians. That status plays no role in the Christian scheme of things.

    1. Charbonnel’s interesting take is that the gospel Jesus figure was created as an embodiment of the several different concepts of the messiah: https://vridar.org/2021/01/03/jesus-embodies-all-the-jewish-messiahs-continuing-jesus-christ-sublime-figure-de-papier/

      Your last query is an interesting one. Geza Vermes, a Jew who was raised a Roman Catholic and who entered the RC priesthood before leaving the church and identifying primarily as a Jew, believed that the idea of Jesus being Jewish was most important to emphasize for the sake of fighting against the anti-semitism he had grown up with in the church. Hence his book, Jesus the Jew. (Just one tidbit after having read Vermes’ autobiography last week.)

      1. If there was such a person, of course Jesus would have been Jewish. But the Christos of Saul/Paul of Tarsus, i.e. a shapeshifted avatar deity who came “in human likeness…being found in appearance as a man” (Phil. 2:6-8) is a totally different concept and character.

        1. Well, there most certainly is such a person — a literary and theological one — and his attributes and emergence most certainly can be explained by reference to Jewish literature.

  2. None of this corresponds directly with either John 1:1. where the “Logos” was god and with god since “the beginning”, or Philippians 2:6-8, which deopist a shapeshifted avatar deity who existed “in very nature God” but chose to take on “human likeness”, was “found in appearance as a man”.
    That is Christianity. Those references to “son of God” do not suggest that that “son” was a deity that pre-existed before appearing on Earth, nor that that “son” was produced by “God” through impregnating a human virgin.

    1. Take a second look at 1QSa/1Q28a. There does indeed appear to be the concept of “begetting”, something more than simply “naming”. The expression would seem to be ripe for further elaboration by Jewish sectarians so inclined. Further, note also the divinization and worship offered the Son of God figure in some texts; and the interpretation that allows some scholars to see identification with a pre-existing heavenly being.

Leave a Reply to Attila Csanyi Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.