Wednesday, October 17, 2007

When Did Jesus Become God's Son?

If you read my blog religiously – and I know you ALL do – then you may remember me talking in the past about how John Shelby Spong breaks down the change in theology within the Bible about when Jesus became God’s son.

To briefly explain it, Spong takes the four Gospels and the letters of Paul, and puts them in chronological order – with Paul’s letters coming first, followed by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

In Paul’s letters, Spong argues, it seems clear that Jesus was a human being, who was made into the Messiah – and thereby became God’s son – at the time of his death and resurrection. God chose Jesus, presumably because of his upstanding life and message, to be his son, and to usher in the coming of his kingdom.

By the time of Mark, about a decade later, this moment of Messiah-ship is moved up to Jesus’s baptism. Mark tells the well-known story of Jesus being baptized and a voice coming from the sky (God, of course, is an astronaut), proclaiming Jesus as his son, with whom he is well-pleased. For Mark, this is when Jesus became God’s chosen Messiah.

Matthew and Luke, writing still another decade or so later, move the magical moment up to Jesus’s conception. God decides to father a son, he chooses an upstanding virgin of good stock who is engaged to a descendent of King David, and Jesus is born, a Messiah in the making.

Finally, the book of John – written about 100 C.E. – moves Jesus’s divinity up to the beginning of time itself: Jesus was with God from the very beginning, and, in fact, is God’s creative force.

Being familiar with most of these stories, but having never viewed them in this sort of light, Spong’s argument really struck me as reasonable, poignant, and well thought out.

I haven’t changed my mind at all about this, but reading today from the book of Romans, I was simply struck anew by this concept. As I’ve argued so often in the past, one of the biggest problems facing Christianity today is the tendency to read all the books of the New Testament through the lenses of all the others. In my wife’s “Life Application” Bible, which has so-called scholarly commentaries at the beginning of and throughout each book, it states at the beginning of Genesis: “As the book of beginnings, Genesis sets the stage for the entire Bible.” As if the Bible is a chronological account of literal history, told from start to finish, in order, by a person or people working together toward the same literary goal, each telling their own little part. (This Bible also provides dates for each book of the Bible, and it dates Luke at 60 C.E, while setting Mark at 55 to 65 C.E., implying that Luke might have predated Mark – despite the fact that there is not a reputable scholar on the planet who believes Luke was earlier than Mark. I don’t personally know of any scholar who dates Luke prior to 80 C.E. This Bible also dates 2 Peter at 67 C.E., despite the fact that most scholars believe it was written in the SECOND CENTURY.)

Anyway, this linear, “coherent whole” way of reading the Bible is, of course, precisely how most Christian approach the Bible. Each book is one little cog, and they all function together to make a working machine.

This is not, however, how the Bible was written. Each book of the Bible is an individual text, written by individuals who did not know each other and frequently weren’t living at the same time, telling stories most often about people they didn’t know personally, writing accounts for specific and unrelated reasons, and inserting their own personal ideas, theologies, interpretations, and doctrines into the texts.

As I continue to study biblical scholarship more and more, I am better able to approach the Bible as a collection of individual texts, written for individual purposes, rather than a coherent whole. So when I opened my Bible this evening to read from Romans, I was struck by the first four verses of the very first chapter. So struck, in fact, that I didn’t read beyond those four verses, but got right online, instead, to write about it.

The NIV translation records these verses as follows:

“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed to be the Son of God with power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Now, without reading this passage through the lens of what we know from other New Testament texts and traditional Church doctrine, what does this opening paragraph actually say?

It says, quite clearly and unequivocally, that Jesus was a human descendant of David (which would seem an odd thing to say if Joseph wasn’t Jesus’s biological father), and, more starkly, that Jesus was “appointed to be the Son of God” through his resurrection from the dead. It does not say that Jesus was with God from the beginning, or was literally fathered by God through the virgin Mary, or even that he was named at his baptism, but rather, it says that Jesus was “appointed” – chosen, selected, named – as the Son of God at the time of, and through, his death and resurrection.

None of this is really new to me, of course – as I stated above, I’ve read commentaries on this subject by scholars and theologians before. But reading it for myself, on my own, and seeing it with my own two eyes in a way that I would have been unable to see it before, really just struck a chord with me. Jesus, for Paul, was chosen to be the Messiah at his death. Prior to that, he was just a regular old guy, who must have impressed God enough with his upstanding life to single him out for glory.

This flies directly and completely in the face of basic Christian theology about the nature of Jesus, and it comes from the most prominent, prolific, and influential writer in the New Testament – the Apostle Paul himself.

If you’re a Christian, and this doesn’t make you feel as stunned as it makes me feel, then I would question whether you are really open to being intellectually honest about the doctrines you believe in. I don’t say that as an antagonistic remark – I simply say it out of an overwhelming feeling that this is important and needs to be considered seriously by Christians who may otherwise assume that their doctrines and theologies are a nice, consistent little package, sealed with a kiss, and sent down from heaven by God.


Anonymous said...

Like many of the mindless Christians you like to degrade so often, I believe that you are reading into it what you want to see. Paul says at the end of the verse that Jesus was ressurrected from the dead, but I don't think you believe that part though, unless you explain it intellectually as not a literal bodily ressurrection.

Scott said...

Whether I believe in Jesus's resurrection or not is completely irrelevant to the point. Paul is saying without any ifs, ands, or buts, that Jesus was "appointed" as the Son of God -- that is, the Messiah -- by and through his death and resurrection. That is a fundamentally different doctrinal idea than what other New Testament books say, and the Church teaches. That's the point of the essay.

As for Paul's comment about the resurrection, I had a period of time where I thought it likely that Paul's statements about the resurrection were spiritual in nature -- that is, that Paul never meant it as a bodily, physical resurrection. After reading some more scholarly commentaries, however, I have changed my mind on that. I do believe that Paul thought Jesus had been physically resurrected. I think he was probably wrong on that point, but I think he thought he had really experienced a vision of Jesus.

Jeff said...

You read the Bible? What? Only joking. I appreciate your study of scriptures despite your cynicism (if that is the right word) for most of it. Anyway, i have to agree a bit with the comment made here that you dont always take Paul at his word, but do want to take him literally at his word here to prove your point. Now, that said...i think you bring up a great point for discussion and would even lean toward you in your analysis. But wanted to say i thought anonymous made an interesting point.

Scott said...

I think you all are both missing the point. This isn't about whether I think Paul's theology is sound, or whether or not I accept Paul's theology, or whether or not I read the stories in the bible as literal history or mythology. The fact is that the New Testament has both literal history and mythology. One of the things a biblical scholar does is try to separate the two. But this essay was not about that.

This essay is about Paul's theology, as he records it. Paul says, in this passage, that he believes Jesus became the Messiah -- was "appointed" as the Messiah -- upon his death and resurrection. That is a fundamentally different theology than what the Church teaches, what other New Testament texts teach, and what most Christians abide by. That's the point of this essay, and I think it's a fairly unassailable point, because the evidence is right there in black and white.

Scott said...

To put it in a different light, I can read, analyze, and discuss David Koresh's theology without actually accepting it as literal history. This isn't about what I's about analyzing the theology put forth in the text.

Rich said...

Phillipians 2.5-11

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself. And became obedient to death. Even death on a cross!

This text proves that Jesus is God by nature. He had to become a man so he could die for our sins. Read Exodus 3:14 and John 8:58, you will see my point.

Scott said...

Thanks for the comment, Rich. The thing that stands out most to me in your remarks is your assertion that the verses you reference provide "proof" that Jesus is God by nature. The bible can't exist as proof for itself. Otherwise, you would have to agree that the same argument could be made that anything contained in any sacred text (the Koran, the book of Mormon, etc.) provides proof that the claims of the text are true. This is basically a circular argument...The claims made in the bible are true, because the bible says so. That may be "proof" enough for many traditionally-believing Christians, but it is not a very good argument by any other human standard, and it is, in fact, no "proof" of anything, other than proving that the one who asserts such a thing isn't willing to let their faith be challenged. If you and I were discussing sports, and I argued that the perspective of an ESPN analyst was correct, as opposed to that of a FOXSports analyst, asserting that my reasoning for such belief is because the ESPN analyst said his views were correct, I scarcely believe you would be persuaded by that argument alone. In fact, the enitre point of my essay was to show that even within the bible itself, there is no consensus as to when Jesus became the Son of God.

skyler said...

I think you're sought of on the right track here Scott. One thing that needs to be corrected in Christian Theology is the idea that the title "Son of God" refers to deity. I see the Bible using this title only as a messianic title that Jesus took on after becoming human. While Jesus does say that he is the Son of God before his death (John 10), Romans 1:4 says he is appointed to be Son of God from the resurrection of the dead. While Jesus was called "Son" by the Father at his baptism, Acts 13 refers to God giving birth (figuratively) to Jesus as his Son after his resurrection ("You are my son, today I have begotten you"). When exactly he became son may be debated but no Bible passage has him as the Son pre-incarnation (cf. Logos in John 1:1).

Scott said...

Thanks for the post, Skyler. What you are illustrating is that the bible is not, in fact, consistent about just when Jesus became "God's son." Paul says one thing, Mark says another, Luke and Matthew say something else. Furthermore, as you pointed out, there is essentially nothing in the Bible that can be taken as strong evidence that the "Son" was actually God Himself in human form.

As to the passage you reference in the book of John where Jesus says that "The Father and I are one," (or something similar), I believe this passage is not quoting authentic words of Jesus.

Now, having said that, it would be easy to accuse me of just picking and choosing what I thought was "authentic" based on whether it suited my personal needs. That is not the case. I believe the New Testament is made up of fact and fiction, history and mythology. The job of a biblical scholar is to analyze the available texts, both within the canon and outside the canon, to get an authentic and reliable image of what the historical Jesus may have been like, and what the historical Jesus may have said. No reputable biblical scholar, however, would ever claim to have unassailable proof. The best anyone can do is gather the available evidence and make reasoned and probable speculation based on that evidence.

Many, many scholars have devoted their entire careers to this very thing.

I believe the words attributed to Jesus in John, where Jesus more or less claims to be God, are the authentic words of the 9th decade C.E. author who wrote the book of John, illustrating how that particular group of Christians had come to understand the meaning of Jesus's life. I do not think they represent what the historical Jesus would have said. I don't believe the historical Jesus ever made any claims for divinity. He may have used messianic language, but for a 1st century Jew, the messiah was a human being, not God in the Flesh. God incarnated in a human being would have been utterly and unthinkably blasphemous to a Jew in the 1st century. Which, of course, is precisely why Christianity eventually turned to non-Jews -- the idea of God taking on human form and walking and talking among human beings was deeply offensive to Jewish senisibilities -- and for good reason. It equaled blatanted idolatry.

In the available texts, when the disciples attempted to suggest Jesus was Elijah or Moses reincarneted, he chastised them. This is at least one clue to suggest that he was probably more likely to have told them to hush with the messiah language rather than to simply go with it and agree. I think Jesus was an alternate wisdom teacher, teaching within Judaism, and I think he intentionall shunned any efforts to equate him with messianic expectations, and I definitely don't think he ever claimed to be God.

Even without the gathering of scholarly evidence, a simple contemplation on the famous stories from Jesus's life would reveal an uncomfortable contradiction. Why would a Jesus who knew and freely proclaimed that he was God experience the sort of self-doubt and anxiety illustrated by the story of Jesus's time in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was so overwhelmed by what was happening that he was said to have produced drops of sweat that were "like blood"? Why would a Jesus who knew he was God in the Flesh proclaim from the cross: "My God, why have you forsaken me!"? Furthermore, why did God need to sacrifice himself to himself in order to change a set of religious rules that he himself had created?

If Jesus did claim to be God, then I have to side with the skeptics and/or atheists: If Jesus claimed to be God, then he was probably insane, and his claims should not be taken seriously. When anyone else in history has claimed to be God, they have been regarded as delusional and schizophrenic. I don't see why Jesus should be the exception to the rule. However, as I explained above, it's a moot point for me, because I don't believe Jesus ever made such a claim. There is nothing consistent in the biblical stories of Jesus's life to suggest this. Written much later than the other Gospels, and even much later than most of the other New Testament texts, it is not surprising to find in John a more deeply-developed set of mythological stories about Jesus's words and actions -- another good example is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. That only happens in the late-written Gospel of John, the same Gospel that has Jesus claiming to be God.

I think claims of being God were made FOR Jesus, and superimposed back into his teachings, in the decades after his life.

skyler said...

Well Scott, I agree with you to some degree. I don't think Jesus made a claim to deity in the way we often present it today. Orthodoxy presents Jesus as always being fully God while others present him as never being fully God. Orthodoxy takes texts that are pre-incarnation and post-resurrection and transfer them to Jesus when he was here on earth. They also take statements, titles, texts, etc. that have no deity content and make them deity statements. Like Jesus walking on the water or calming the storm. But others have done similar things, even raising the dead. If Jesus was Moses and made the Red Sea split in two and later drown the Egyptian army, we'd say he did this with his divine nature or something similar... and Jesus was able to dry the land in the sea because he made it and he can take the Egyptians' life because he gave it. But Moses did it. So I think it is better to see that Jesus did all he did here on earth in the power of God and knew what he knew (lots of things) because God revealed them to him (Acts 10:38; John 6:61; 8:40). Jesus is presented throughout his earthly ministry with limited deity not full deity. He does claim to have come from heaven and is going back there. He is no ordinary man, he is the divine messiah who has laid aside his divine nature in order to die (for God cannot die, i.e. be separated from one's life source). Jesus was separated from the Father on the cross but the Father did not die in this separation, rather the Son died as he was dependent on the Father for his life (cf. John 5:26).
Scott, I don't think we are on the same page when it comes to biblical inspiration. I believe they are Jesus' words recorded under the supervision of the Holy Spirit. Picking and choosing his words and adding to them would make the New Testament writers lack all credibility and ultimately make them deliberate liars. This undermines the claims of Scripture for itself (2 Tim. 3:16).
At the same time, I believe that when Jesus said that he is one with the Father he is claiming unity, not deity (just as when he prayed that we may be one as he and the Father are one he was referring to our unity not our humanity).
I do not see the difference in your point between Jesus claiming deity for himself and John claiming it for him 60 years later. Both would be blasphemy and rejected by Jews if it was some kind of polytheism. The New Testament writers are committed to monotheism (1 Tim. 2:5) as well as to the deity of Jesus post-resurrection and pre-incarnation (John 1:1; 20:28; Col. 2:9; Tit. 2:13).
Take the Bible for what you will - but if you take it to be the Word of God, this is the most consistent explanation of it I have found - it certainly is not the orthodox teaching of the Church (which has lead to a lot of complications and contradictions especially in the Gospels).

Dan Batson said...

A couple of make some very good points as usual. I would like to disagree with you on the points where you say that "many many scholars" and the like to enhance and support your arguments. Often you will say things like most scholars or something of this nature and then go on to make your point. While scholars that you have read may agree with you...there are also many many scholars out there that disagree with you. Now, i am not saying that makes you wrong or right...i am just saying you like to use that to further enhance your claims and convince others that you are correct in your statements. All the while, the opposite is true, there are many in other schools of thought that would disagree.

Second, i think some of the questions you brought up in your last posted comment are some of the most thought provoking questions i have thought through in a long time regarding this subject matter.

I will copy them here:"Why would a Jesus who knew and freely proclaimed that he was God experience the sort of self-doubt and anxiety illustrated by the story of Jesus's time in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was so overwhelmed by what was happening that he was said to have produced drops of sweat that were "like blood"? Why would a Jesus who knew he was God in the Flesh proclaim from the cross: "My God, why have you forsaken me!"? Furthermore, why did God need to sacrifice himself to himself in order to change a set of religious rules that he himself had created?"


Scott said...

Skyler: Thanks again for your thoughtful responses. You bring up some good points. I can definitely identify with your argument that perhaps Jesus's God language in John was an indication of unity with God, not equality with God.

As for biblical inspiration, I agree that we are not likely to see eye to eye. I approach the New Testament as a man-made text, written by 1st century Jewish men (yes, Luke may have been a Gentile), and written by men who mostly did not know each other, did not know Jesus personally, who each had separate interpretations of the importance and meaning of Jesus's life, and who therefore each brought different perspectives and biases to the table. I also do not believe the Bible is in any way "inerrent." As a human text, human errors are naturally and demonstrably present.

Having said that, it does not mean the Bible is meaningless or a pack of lies, or useful only as a historical/academic text. I do find immense spiritual relevance in the stories of Jesus's life. But I find that relevance through reading and understanding those stories as largely parabolic and metaphorical, not literal descriptions of literal events. I definitely do not approach the Bible as Holy Spirit inspired. If that were the case, then it would appear that the Holy Spirit is fallible, because the Bible is rife with contradictions, incosistencies, and errors.

Scott said...

Dan: Make sure to tell Kah-Los hi for me.

As for your comments, thank you for taking the time to read and respond. You are probably right that I wield the "most scholars agree" phrase too often to provide legitimacy to what I am saying. I guess my reason for doing so is because A) if I say "most scholars agree" it is because I really do believe most scholars agree with whatever point I'm making, and B) I use the phrase because traditionalists frequently assume that "liberal" scholars are somehow on the fringe of the scholarly world, and this simply isn't the case. I think a systematic look into the theological conclusions of most biblical scholars around the world would reveal that, in fact, most scholars fall under the "liberal" heading. Of course there are exceptions. N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington are examples, to name a few. But in my experience, both from the authors I have specifically read, as well as from the research I have done on the figures within biblical scholarship, most scholars are what most people would call "liberal."

It's interesting that you made this point, because I just wrote an essay for school that deals with this very exact subject. I'll probably post it to my blog soon.

As for the thought-provoking questions, yes, they do sort of force you to pause, don't they? That last one, I have to admit, was not my own original thought. On the Rush Message Board, one of the atheist members has a signature with a cartoon picture in it, and it has a man standing before God, pleading entrance into heaven. The man is saying, "But God, I believed in you! I'm a Christian! I accepted Jesus into my life!" And God's response is: "Gimme a break. Why would I sacrifice myself to myself to change a rule I made...MYSELF?!?!"

Anonymous said...


If the Bible is not inspired book, why don't you read Harry Potter and write a review than wasting your time. Jesus said,"only the sick people need a doctor". The Bible is not for you, maybe!

If you don't believe the Bible as an inspired book, why have to worry about God/


Scott said...

Anonymous: Uh, thanks? A truly inspiring comment. Well thought out, poingnant, and completely relevant. You clearly know your stuff. In fact, you have convinced me to go put on my Harry Potter glasses and work on some of my spells.

Rick said...

Spirit resurrections? Where does the bible talk of a "spirit" resurrection? Every biblical account referring to the resurrection of Jesus (as well as the future resurrection of both the righteous and wicked) testifies to a bodily resurrection. Jesus Himself proved that He was not a spirit (only a spirit) after His resurrection. He made it a point to prove the body that was crucified is the same body that was resurrected.

Also, to think that a spirit is resurrected is to concede that the spirit is first dead. Jesus revealed that He would be in paradise on the day of His crucifixion. So, on that day, after His crucifixion and before His resurrection, He was spiritually alive.

Still, back to the thought of Jesus becoming God's Son... using Romans 1:1-4 (NIV - your post replaced word 'declared' with the word "appointed". Anyway, the verse has nothing to do with Jesus becoming the Son God but, instead, declaring that Jesus IS the Son of God as demonstrated by His resurrection. He is also the heir to David's throne by way of His human lineage (Mary's side of the family). Jesus is the Son of God that became, in His incarnation, the son of David; you have it the other way around. Isaiah chapter 9and John chapter 1(acutally, John's entire gospel account - especially 6:27-40),and so many other biblical references testify of Jesus' relationship to the "Father" prior to His incarnation.

This comment is not intended to insult or offend its readers.


Scott said...

Hey Rick, thanks for following-up. Clearly we approach the Bible differently. You take anything in the Bible to be historical truth, but I don't, so we are obviously going to come to different conclusions. For instance, the story you reference from Luke where Jesus refers to being in paradise after his crucifixion is one that I have no reason to suppose is a true account. The disciples all abandoned Jesus after his arrest, remember? How could anyone, 60 years later (which is about when Luke was writing) have any idea what was said from the cross?

As for my use of "appointed" instead of "declared," I was actually quoting from the NIV. But the word used there in the original Greek is more accurately translated as "appointed," which is why I worded it that way. This is an illustration of why one cannot always just assume that what they are reading in an English translation is actually accurate and true to the original word.

Mandy said...

Hi, I think you may be focusing too much on the "Son of God" aspect in the scripture. Perhaps you might study further from a different perspective as to how the Son of God {on earth} differed to the "Son of God WITH POWER" by his resurrection.

I personally do not believe that Jesus was and is God as Christianity portrays Him. Neither was He a mere man. He was unique and chosen. A study of the Hebrew Concept of Agency is very revealing.

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