Book Excerpt: John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened
Nathanael calls Jesus the Son of God (the chosen king), but Jesus immediately ups the ante to Son of Man (the anticipated Messiah).
“Son of God” is not a new title at all. This identification with God grew common in Hermetic literature and among Hellenistic thinkers, even among Jews, but always in metaphor and always in ambiguity.
Romulus, the founder of Rome, was the Son of God, as was Alexander the Great. Roman emperors were labeled sons of God, a tribute to their deified fathers. Philosophers reserved the title for particularly wise men. Even in Judaic tradition, the title never literally meant divine offspring. It applied to those who belonged to God and in time came to mean a righteous man in general. Some argue that by Jesus’ day, the title implied messianic fulfillment in the Davidic lineage, a “mighty God” who would rule forever (Isaiah 9:6–7), but it is applied to people in the Old Testament in a number of less dramatic ways. It refers to any of the children of Israel; to a lawful or holy Jew; to a messenger or mediator sent by God; to the coming Messiah; or to an angelic being. It never implies physical sonship.
The king of Israel also boasted the title Son of God, not in the sense of Roman emperors but as a representative of Yahweh. “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” (Psalms 2:7, echoed in Hebrews 1:5). Thus, on the day of his anointing, each king became a “son” to Yahweh, going back to Solomon in 2 Samuel 7:14, and this appears to be Nathanael’s insinuation here in John’s Gospel.
But irony is a favorite tool of John, and surely he intends Nathanael’s assertion as an understatement. How, then, does John mean for the phrase “Son of God” to be interpreted? John’s usage throughout his Gospel seems to speak of the Son of God as a “sent one” by the Father. It might make the most sense to consider Jesus as one who comes in the name of the Father. We are familiar with the way Matthew carried the title “Son of God” to extremes, telling the story of how God stepped down to earth and impregnated a human woman, who then bore a half-human/half-divine offspring. This theme proliferated in legends about demigods and heroes, but among New Testament writers, the biological claim is unique to Matthew’s Gospel—not even Luke shares such a literal understanding (see Luke 1:35)—and John’s Gospel has no use for these birth stories, his preexistent version of Jesus is far more encompassing. When John writes of the Son of God, we can certainly discard the romantic idea of a literal offspring of God and a human. Instead, John twice points out that Jesus is the child of Joseph (1:45, 6:42). John nowhere betrays any knowledge of or interest in the doctrine of the virgin birth. In fact, the idea of a miraculous conception contradicts the Johannine teaching of a preexistent Logos. For John, Jesus proved worthy of far greater praise than the overused birth stories put forth to honor kings and heroes in his day.
Yet the title “Son of God” quickly grew pregnant with meaning within Christian circles, where it began to carry intimate and eschatological overtones. God hid himself from Moses, the greatest of Hebrew heroes, yet Jesus claimed a blasphemously close relationship with God, even calling him “Abba” (presumably a term of affection like “daddy”), such that “son of God” came to refer primarily to one’s relationship with God. Jews understood that in the final days, God himself would come back down to earth and dwell with his people, making himself personally known, bringing back the intimacy shared with Adam in the garden of Eden. In the golden age, all Christians would be called sons and daughters of God!
For now, let’s merely embrace the mysticism inherent in the phrase and the intimate union with God that it implies. Perhaps John will make his meaning more clear.
–John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, 2013, by Lee Harmon