Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Meaning of ‘Son of God’ in the Bible and Extra-Biblical Literature: An Answer to Islam (Part 2)

In a previous post, I addressed Part 1 of  the subject of the meaning of 'Son of God' in the Bible and Extra-Biblical Literature. In this second part I would like to expand further on this topic by examining the use of son of God language in Rabbinic Judaism, the Targums, and the New Testament. I will also address the term "Son of Man" as it is used in the Old Testament, but also as it used especially by Jesus as a self-designation. I will then draw this subject to a close by commenting on the Qur'an's view on the usage of 'son' language in reference to Jesus and then attempt to steer the argument forward in Christian-Muslim dialogue.

Rabbinic Judaism

In the rabbinic writings such as Sukkah 52a, Rabbi Nathan (ca. A.D. 160) refers Psalm 89:27 to the Messiah where the king is spoken of as God’s “firstborn”. Some rabbis like Honi “the circle drawer” known for his miracles (first century B.C.), had a reputation of having intimate sonship with God (Tann. 3:8). This would be one explanation for his reported miracles. Another rabbi by the name of Hanina ben Dosa, who lived a generation after Jesus claimed that a heavenly voice addressed him as “my son Hanina” (b. Tann 24b). God is said to appear to Eleazer ben Pedath in a dream and says, “Eleazer, my son…” (b.Tann 25a). On a midrash of the death of Moses, it states, “The Holy One immediately began to soothe him and said to him, ‘My son Moses…” (Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrash, I, 121).

The High Priest Ishmael ben Elisha had a vision of God in the heavenly Holy of Holies and God said to Ishmael, “Ishmael my son, bless me” (Ber 7a).

It is clear from these rabbinic texts that the use of the term ‘son of God’ was used of someone who shared a close contact with God in a relational context. Notice there is no aversion at all to the use of the term ‘son of God’ and there is no understanding of this term in a sexual context where God needs a wife or a consort for someone to be called His son.

The Targums

The Targums were Aramaic paraphrases of the OT. They were not really translations as they expanded upon the text of the Hebrew Bible for theological and didactic purposes. It is important to note that the Targums as such, are not a replacement for the Hebrew Bible. They are intended to be more like commentaries in Aramaic on the Hebrew text which Jews considered sacred and inspired.For instance, whenever the Bible spoke about God creating, the Targum would say, “The Word [Memra in Aramaic] of the Lord” created. The phrase “Word of the Lord” is usually used as a substitute for “God”. The writers of the Targums also tried to safeguard God’s transcendence by using such substitutes as “Word of the Lord” and “Glory of the Lord” to describe any contact with the physical world. This understanding of course has enormous ramifications when we consider that it is this concept of the “Word of the Lord” that sets the backdrop for John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…we have seen his glory” (John 1:1, 14).

In terms of the usage of son of God, the Targums were hesitant and cautious in using this term as a literal term. They were not opposed to its usage, but only to the misunderstanding of the term as literal in a sexual context. As Christianity began to expand, the Jewish religious leaders began to tone down the use of son of God for the Messiah, and for obvious reasons. Christians were using OT texts which spoke about the Messiah as the son of God. The view of the Messiah in the first century was one of a divine pre-existent person who would usher in God’s kingdom. After the second century A.D. rabbinic Judaism (in reaction to the expansion of Christianity) reduced the Messiah to a mere human son of David, and stripped him of his divinity, the view which is currently held today in Judaism.

An example of the Targum’s use of son of God language is seen in its use of 2 Samuel 7:14, 1 Chronicles 17:13, and Psalm 2:7. It avoids any literalistic interpretation by rendering 1 Chronicles 17:13 as, “I will love him as a father loves a son, and he will love me as a son loves his father” (italics mine). Also in Psalm 2:7, the Targum renders the passage as, “Beloved as a son is to his father you are to Me” (italics mine).  Notice the attempt to avoid a literal reading of the term “son”. Jews have always understood that when the language of son is used towards God it is not to be taken literally. However, for some strange reason, the Qur’an accuses Jews (and Christians) of using the language of sonship to God as literal, the very thing the Targums argue against!

The New Testament

As we come to the New Testament (hereafter NT), we come to this collection of texts with all the background we have just examined above. There is no doubt that sonship language was deeply rooted already in the OT, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, rabbinic texts, and the Targums. Thus, it will be no surprise to find this language in the NT. It is in fact, widely attested in the NT. The question now before us is the following, how did Jesus use the term “son” of Himself, and what did the NT writers understand by the use of this ‘son’ language?

In the NT, it is clear Jesus is also called the Son of God. Does this term carry a different meaning from what we saw above? The Jews by the time of the NT, regarded themselves as God’s children (John 8:41). This as we saw is already well established in the OT (Exodus 4:22-23; Deuteronomy 14:1). However, when Jesus spoke of Himself as Son of God and spoke of God as His Father, His hearers became angry and irate. Why was this so? Jesus spoke of God as His Father in a special and unique way.

God identified Jesus as His Son at His baptism (“You are my beloved Son”; Mark 1:11), and at His transfiguration (Mark 9:7). Jesus spoke of God as “My Father” (John 5:17), and He claimed some unique privileges such as raising the dead as the Father does, giving eternal life and so on (John 5:21; 10:28-30). He went so far as to say that all should honor the Son, just as they honor the Father indicating that the Father and Son were worthy of equal honor (John 5:23). There is clearly a different meaning in the way Jesus employs the word “Son”. Notice the following:

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27; cf. Luke 10:22)

“I and the Father are one”. (John 10:30, 33, 36)

Jesus as the Son has intimate knowledge of the Father and reserves the sovereign right to reveal the Father. The use of this language has clearly transcended the sonship language we saw above.
Notice the real reason why Jesus calling God His Father caused a lot problems for His hearers:

“This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18; italics mine).

It is clear that Jesus understands Himself as Son of God in a way that is unparalleled, no one shares that privilege except Jesus Himself and that is because of His identity. He is the eternal Son of God, He is the eternal Word who pre-existed and came into the world (John 1:1-3, 10, 14; 17:5).

Notice that the Jews understood the claim to be the Son of God to be blasphemous:

“The Jews answered him [Pilate], "We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7; italics mine). 

We have seen already that the Jews had no problem with the term “son of God”. Why did they take such offence to Jesus using that title?

When Jesus is called Son of God, it is clearly used in a very special way. Jesus is not just the Son of God like Israel. or the Israelite king, or Adam, He is the “unique,” “one and only” Son of God. The NT underscores this point by using the Greek word monogenes in reference to Jesus (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9; cf. Hebrews 11:17). This word is made up of two Greek words, monos (‘one’) and genos (“kind”), and it means “one of a kind,” “unique,” “only”. In fact, in John’s gospel the word “son” (huios) is only used of Jesus to describe his relationship with the Father as God’s Son. Believers in John’s gospel are called teknon / “children” of God (John 1:12; 8:39; 11:52; 13:33; 21:5). We see the same pattern in the letters of John. Only Jesus is “Son,” believers are “children” (the King James Version unfortunately blurs this distinction in the gospel of John and the letters of John by translating teknon as “sons” instead of “children” as the vast number of Bible translations do). This distinction is unique to John’s writings (except Revelation) as the other NT texts use both “sons” and “children” to refer to believers.

Jesus as we noted above is the eternal Son of God who came into the world. He has always been in an eternal relationship with the Father. He had no beginning as the Son. He was in the beginning, but He became human (John 1:14). God did not need a consort or a wife for Jesus to be His Son. Why? Because He as the eternal Son, He always existed with the Father (John 17:5).

Christian Believers

But are not believers also sons or children of God? Yes, but not the same way as Jesus. Believers are adopted as sons of God. This is made clear in the following passages:

“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" (Romans 8:15; italics mine).

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" (Galatians 4:4-6; italics mine).

Notice in the second passage, the Son and the Spirit of the Son are “sent” by God the Father. The Son was sent forth into the world to be born of a woman, and this presupposes that the Son pre-existed. This recalls Isaiah 9:6 that the child that is born, is a son who is given. Notice as well that “the Spirit of his Son” is also sent into our hearts. Here the Spirit of the Son is spoken of in terms of the Holy Spirit (cf. Romans 8:9). This is the language of deity.

Son of Man

A favorite title of Jesus that He used as a self-designation, was the “Son of Man”. This word can be used in 2 ways in the Bible, especially the OT. The first way it can be used is to mean just a human being as it used in Ezekiel 2:1 (used throughout Ezekiel), and Daniel 8:17. The second way it can be used is to refer to a heavenly divine being mentioned in Daniel 7:13-14. How did Jesus use that term? He used it the way Daniel 7:13-14 used it. The text of Daniel 7:13-14 reads,

13 I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

 Notice Jesus’ words at His trial:

61 But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" 62 And Jesus said, "I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven." 63 And the high priest tore his garments and said, "What further witnesses do we need? 64 You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?" And they all condemned him as deserving death (Mark 14:61-64; italics mine)

Notice the question to Jesus also included “Are you the Son of the Blessed? [a substitute term for ‘God’]”. Notice Jesus answered,“ I am”. Jesus understood Himself to be the Son of God in this passage. Notice he is charged with “blasphemy. Blasphemy which included claiming to be God brought the death penalty (Leviticus 24:16). The reference to “coming with the clouds” is interesting as this term was used only of a divine being.

In the ancient Near East, the gods were said to come or ride with the clouds of heaven. For instance, Baal in the Ugaritic literature is referred to frequently as “the Rider of the Clouds”. Notice in the Old Testament, Yahweh is said to be the One who rides the clouds:

“There is none like God, O Jeshurun [an affectionate term used of Israel], who rides through the heavens to your help, through the skies in his majesty” (Deuteronomy 33:26; italics mine).

“to him [God] who rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens; behold, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice” (Psalm 68:33; italics mine).

“He [God] lays the beams of his chambers on the waters; he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind” (Psalm 104:3; italics mine)

“An oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them” (Isaiah 19:1; italics mine).

It is clear from this usage that the cloud rider is a divine being. This phrase is used 4 times of God, but, it also used of the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13-14, the very figure that Jesus identified Himself with. Now we can understand why the high priest accused Jesus of blasphemy, He was claiming to be the divine person of Daniel 7, the One who in Second Temple Judaism was believed to be the second Yahweh.

The divine nature of the Son of Man in Daniel is further reinforced by the fact that in Daniel 7:14, 27, this Son of Man is worshipped by all the nations. The NIV of Daniel 7:14, 27 actually uses the words “worshiped,” and “worship” whereas other translations use the word “served,” and “serve”. In a religious context as we see in Daniel 7, serving a divine being translates into worship. The Aramaic word used here is palach (Daniel 2:4b-7:28 is all in Aramaic) and every time it appears in the book of Daniel, it is always used in a religious context dealing with service or worship to the gods or the true God (Daniel 3:12, 14, 17-18, 28; 6:17, 21). It is also used as just mentioned, in reference to the Son of Man who will be worshipped by the nations.

Is this beginning to sound all too familiar when we look at the person of Jesus in the NT and the fact that from the earliest times, the risen Jesus was already worshipped in the early church? For readers who are interested in researching this subject at a deeper level, I would direct you to my book on this subject. Did the church, or the apostle Paul make this up, or did they get this information from the OT? I think the answer is obvious. The Sonship of Jesus and the worship of the Son of Man was already deeply rooted in the OT.


This clearly poses some serious problems for our Muslim friends. The Qur’an 6:101 says, “To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth: How can He have a son when He hath no consort? He created all things, and He hath full knowledge of all things” (Yusuf Ali; italics mine)

“And Exalted is the Majesty of our Lord: He has taken neither a wife nor a son” (Qur’an 72:3; Yusuf Ali’ italics mine)

Do Christians believe according to the Bible that in order for God to have a son He needs a wife or consort?? The Bible as we have seen, does not teach this because God does not have a human body to procreate children. God is Spirit and thus is incorporeal (John 4:24). God doesn’t have a wife. It was actually the ancient pagans who attributed goddesses as the wives of the gods. Jews and Christians do not do this. There is a serious misunderstanding because the passages above from the Qur’an do not accurately reflect what Christians believe.

It is interesting that the Qur’an also uses the language of “son” an even “mother” without implying that these terms are to be taken literally. The Qur’an refers to a traveler as waibni alssabeeli, literally, “a son of the road” (Qur’an 4:36). I have not met one Muslim to date who believes that this passage actually means that the road fathers sons and that a traveler is begotten by the road. This is clearly metaphorical language.

Consider Qur’an 13:39, “God doth blot out or confirm what He pleaseth: with Him is the Mother of the Book [ommu alkitabi]” (Yusuf Ali; italics mine). The heavenly tablets which are the source of the Qur’an are called ‘mother’. Does this mean that the written text of the Qur’an is the son? Whould this make God or Allah the ‘father’ of the Qur’an? Why is the Qur’an allowed to use metaphorical language like ‘son’ and ‘mother’ but the Bible is not? Why is there one rule for the Qur’an, and another rule for the Bible? This is clearly the epitome of inconsistency.

We have seen in this article that the idea of son of God is deeply rooted within the OT and other Second Temple Jewish literature. This is the background to the NT language of sonship. Neither the Old or New Testaments take the language of sonship in relation to God as implying a literal meaning within a sexual context. The truth of the matter is, the author(s) of the Qur’an was / were abysmally ignorant of the Bible and its language. The sooner our Muslim friends come to terms with this reality, the sooner we can move forward in dialogue with honest and open discussion.


midwesterngirl said...

I love reading these articles because they are like mini essays. Not to change to subject from this specific article about the meaning of "son of God", but I would really love to read an article about the Muslim chant "Allah Akbar." How did this become a religious chant? Wasn't this a war chant for Muslims? Did Mohammad himself invent this chant? I don't really understand why Muslims scream god is great.

Keep up the good work.

Angelo Immanuel said...

I highly recommend everybody to watch the YOUTUBE videos of ISLAMIC DILEMMA. After that HONEST Muslims will become non Mmuslims and NO NON MUSLIM will convert to Islam.

Tony Costa said...

Allahu akbar" is a superlative phrase in Arabic meaning "Allah is the greatest". This was a cry of supremacy that Allah is the greatest god over all other Arabian deities like Allat, al-Uzzah and Manat. This phrase was also used as a war cry as seen in the Hadith, “Narrated Abu Musa Al−Ash`ari: When Allah's Apostle fought the battle of Khaibar, or when Allah's Apostle went towards it, (whenever) the people, (passed over a high place overlooking a valley, they raised their voices saying, "Allahu−Akbar! Allahu−Akbar! None has the right to be worshipped except Allah" (Sahih Bukhari 5.516).

Unknown said...

I think that literally "Allahu akbar" means "God is greater." It is the comparative form, not the superlative, which would be Allahu al-akbar, or Allahu 'lakbar with elision. The idea of the cry is that Allah is greater than any would-be competitor for His glory/dominion/throne. Ultimately, this has the same final meaning as "God is the greatest," except that in the comparative sense it conveys the idea of a challenge -- "the One we worship is greater than the one/ones you worship -- so give up your false gods and come submit to Allah, who is greater!"