Sonship in the Bible

Joshua Maurer and Amy Peeler

The people of Israel and the early Christians considered themselves to be in a privileged familial relationship with God. It is this special status as ‘sons’ which necessitates careful examination of this theme throughout the biblical narrative. First, it is vital to apprehend, as much as is possible, the cultural dynamics of sonship among the people groups from whom these texts arose. Then, close attention to the specific stories of sons in Israel’s scriptures and the New Testament will allow the reader to see elements of consistency as well as distinctiveness between types of sonship. In the First or ‘Old’ Testament, the unexpected experiences of individual sons demonstrate Israel’s sense of gracious election by God. In the Second or ‘New’ Testament, the central figure of Jesus is known prominently as both Son of God and Son of Man. Tracing these identities throughout the canonical text allows a foundation upon which to understand the communities who confessed Jesus’ sonship as those who were then described as adoptees into the family of God.

This article seeks to introduce students to resources and biblical texts vital for engaging with the theme of sonship. This common word takes on many complicated meanings and implications; readers of the biblical text must inquire which are at play in any particular instance of the theme. Special attention is given to the entailments of sonship (its gender exclusivity noted and discussed) for the people of Israel and the early believers in Jesus.

1 Sonship in the ancient Near East

Before surveying various texts in Israel’s scriptures in which the concept of ‘sonship’ appears, it is important to have a broader picture of how this term was used in the surrounding cultural landscape of which ancient Israel was a part (see especially Walton’s ten principles for comparative studies, 2006: 26-27). This section, therefore, will briefly examine ‘sonship’ in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Ugaritic literature in order to provide a synthetic sketch of ‘sonship’ in the ancient Near East.

1.1 Egypt

The Egyptian word for ‘son’ (sA) is the same word used for ‘heir’, which signals one of the most significant aspects of ‘sonship’ – namely, that a son is the one who receives his father’s inheritance, carries on his father’s name, and is responsible for his deceased father’s burial cult (Theological Disctionary of the Old Testament [TDOT] 1975: 145–146 [vol. 2]). In addition to this more ordinary usage of ‘son’ is the common royal epithet, ‘son of Re’, which was applied to the pharaoh. Such usage elevates the significance of ‘sonship’ from the mundane to the ‘divine’, for Egyptian kings were often designated as ‘sons’ of a deity by virtue of being ‘elected by the gods and adopted into sonship’ (Walton 2006: 283). In fact, the formula ‘his beloved son’ is used to signal the intimate relationship between the pharaoh and the god (TDOT 1975: 146 [vol. 2]). Moreover, because ‘kingship was the central institution of society and civilization’ in Egypt (as well as in the ancient Near East more generally; see Baines 1998: 16), the idea of ‘sonship’ was thus equally prominent and central.

1.2 Mesopotamia

Besides the general word bīnu (used for both gods and men), Akkadian also, like Egyptian, had a word for ‘son’ that was the same as the word for ‘heir’ (aplu), thus reinforcing the connection between ‘sonship’ and inheritance. But unlike Egyptian, Akkadian had an additional word for ‘son’ (māru), which meant ‘lord’ (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis [NIDOTTE] 1997: 167 [vol. 1]). Akkadian distinguished between natural sons and daughters (‘his own flesh [nu-nu-ne, šīršu] and blood [nu-sa-ne, dāmūšu]’, his ‘seed [zēru]’) and adopted sons and daughters (a frequent practice in Mesopotamia; see Donner 1969: 97, 112). Nevertheless, adopted sons shared equally in the privilege of being heirs (TDOT 1975: 146 [vol. 2]).

Interestingly, in Sumer, at least early on, if a father lacked a son but had a daughter, she could receive his inheritance (CAD 1968: I/2, 176; see Roth 1956–2010). This seems to have changed over time, however, such that only a son could inherit and carry on the father’s name (Meissner 1920: 394), bringing Sumer into closer alignment with the wider custom of the ancient world. Consequently, a situation in which a father lacked a son was considered particularly unfortunate, as reflected in the following sentiment: ‘the heart of a husband is grieved over a wife who has given birth to a girl, but not a son’ (TDOT 1975: 147 [vol. 2]; cited in Meissner 1920: 389).

Returning to māru (‘son,’ ‘lord’): like the Hebrew bēn (‘son’, see below), māru can also be used to denote membership of a particular class or group. Some examples include: mār awīlim (‘citizen’), mār ālim (‘son/citizen of a city’), and mār šiprim (‘son of the message’, i.e. ‘messenger’) (Akkadisches Handwörterbuch 1972: 615ff. [vol. 2]; see also TDOT 1975: 147 [vol. 2]). The most significant usage of māru in this regard pertains to cases where the man belongs to the class of the gods – as in Mār-Shamash (‘son of Shamash’; see TDOT 1975: 147 [vol. 2]) – which has the effect of placing the individual under the protection of the deity. If this is true for expressing an ordinary man’s relationship to his god, it is especially true for the king, who is the son of the deity in a unique way. The king may even have been construed as the physical offspring of the deity – although the fact that the same king is at times described as the son of multiple gods should caution against too literal an interpretation of such language (see, e.g. Seux 1967: 42, 159; NIDOTTE 1997: 671 [vol. 1]). Such usage for the king further solidifies the intricate connection already noted between sonship and sovereignty. (For a comparative sampling of primary texts in which kings claim divine sonship, see Walton 2006: 282.)

1.3 Ugarit

The Ugaritic word for ‘son’ is bn. This term can also denote relationship to, or membership of, a larger class or group, such as when used to refer to an inhabitant of a particular land or city: ‘citizen of Ugarit’ (TDOT 1975: 148 [vol. 2]). Similar to what has been observed in Egypt and Mesopotamia, several Ugaritic texts demonstrate the importance of having a son (bn) as one’s heir. For example, ‘the entire Keret Epic is concerned about procuring a woman who can bear Keret a son’ (TDOT 1975: 147 [vol. 2]; see ANET 1969: 144–146). A son’s role goes beyond receiving his father’s inheritance, however. The Aqhat text enumerates a son’s responsibilities and duties towards his father, which include such mundane things as repairing his house, washing his clothes, and tending to him while drunk, in addition to more exalted things like fulfilling cultic duties and protecting him from attacks, both physical and verbal (ANET 1969: 150; see also van Selms 1954: 100). A special usage occurs with the expression ‘the sons of El’, which refers to a sort of heavenly council or divine assembly in which the ‘sons’ are lesser divine beings in the pantheon of gods that El heads (Walton 2006: 94).

1.4 Summary

Though minor differences certainly exist, a general and coherent picture emerges from the ancient Near East regarding the meaning and significance of sonship. First, the vocabulary used for ‘son’ shows that this term not only referred to literal male children born of a woman, but also to sons by adoption/election, especially when the father was conceived of as a particular deity. Furthermore, ‘son’ can denote membership of a broader class, group, or place of which one is a part or is characterized by. Second, central to the concept of ‘sonship’ is the idea of inheritance – namely, the privilege and responsibility of a son as heir to receive his father’s inheritance, carry on his name, and fulfil his cultic duties. Finally, also central to the concept of ‘sonship’ is the idea of sovereignty, that is, of royal rule. Kings were considered to be ‘sons’ of god with regards to their role as supreme ruler (with the degree of divinization varying slightly within different cultures). Therefore, ‘sonship’ expresses primarily three things in the ancient Near East: (1) relationship, (2) inheritance, and (3) royal rule (see Gentry and Wellum 2012: 190–192).

2 Sonship in the scriptures of Israel

This section considers several broad patterns of sonship in Israel’s scriptures before addressing the significance of several notable sons that appear in the text. This is followed by an exploration of how the various meanings of the phrases ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’ display the roles Israel considered itself and its leaders to have in relation to God.

2.1 The social setting of sons in Israel

Evidence for the important role of sons in the ancient Near East appears throughout the scriptures of Israel. Initially readers notice that the genealogies within those scriptures focus on the progression of families through their sons. Israel, like many other of its neighbours, was organized according to patriline (see Johnson-Hodge 2007).

Not all sons were equal, however. As early as the story of Esau and Jacob (Gen 25–27), it is clear that in Israel the firstborn son had particular privileges. Deut 21:15 acknowledges that the firstborn son should have a double portion of the father’s possessions (Davies 1993). The value of this son makes the loss during the final plague in Egypt particularly poignant. Protected by the blood of the Passover lamb (Exod 12), all the Israelite firstborn henceforth belonged to the Lord (Exod 13:13; 22:29). Instead of claiming ownership over their lives, the Lord takes the Levites as a substitute (Num 3:12).

No matter their rank in the family, however, all sons were held to a very high standard of behaviour. Throughout Proverbs, for example, parents are instructed in how to discipline their sons – or, more often, sons are addressed directly with the admonition to adhere to the way of wisdom and blessing, and to avoid the path of folly and destruction. If they fail to embrace this standard, Deuteronomy 21 lays out instructions for their punishment: parents should first try to discipline their son, but if he is not responsive, they are to take him before the elders and have him stoned. Such rebellion is an evil in the midst of Israel (Deut 21:21; note that this portrayal of punishment by death deserves careful interpretation; see Reeder 2012).

2.2 Preference for the younger son

Although being the firstborn afforded benefits, Israel’s story displays a frequent trope in which the younger son, contrary to expectation, takes precedent over the older (Fox 1993). Several key stories provide illustration.

2.2.1 Isaac

When God makes a covenant with Abraham in Israel’s scriptures, God promises to make Abraham a great nation (Gen 12:2). Abraham is curious about the nature of God’s blessing since, at that time, he has no heir (Gen 15:2–3); nevertheless, God promises that he will have a child from his own body (Gen 15:4). While Abraham and his wife Sarah seek to provide this heir with the use of Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar (whose son Ishmael God does bless), God further explains that a miraculous intervention will come upon Abraham and Sarah in their great age and they together will bear the a son. Although Abraham and Sarah both laugh at this prospect (Gen 17:17; 18:12), God keeps the promise and Isaac is born. Hence, Isaac is technically the second-born son of Abraham, since Sarah’s permission legitimized the pregnancy through the concubine (Gen 16:2). This is further supported by the fact that Abraham pleads Ishmael’s case before God (Gen 17:18). God, however, decides to give another son through Sarah: Isaac. In the following vignette, God asks Abraham to offer up Isaac, and Abraham complies, trusting that God has the best intent and will provide even in the face of death (Genesis 22). The angel of the Lord stays the hand of Abraham before he slays Isaac, and provides a ram instead. Isaac, in addition to being an early important younger son in the biblical narrative, also becomes a quintessential story of hope (see Heb 11:17–19).

2.2.2 Isaac’s descendants

The next two generations, as recorded in Genesis, follow the same pattern. Although they are twins, Esau comes first before Jacob (Gen 25:25–26). Nevertheless, through Esau’s own short-sightedness (Gen 25:29–34) and Jacob’s trickery (Genesis 27), it is Jacob who secures the blessing of the firstborn. Shortly thereafter, God promises that the covenant blessing given to Abraham will proceed through Jacob and his descendants (Gen 28:13–14). He is given the name Israel and becomes the namesake of his people (Gen 35:10). All of his sons are considered part of the covenant people, but when he blesses Manasseh and Ephraim, his grandsons through Joseph, the pattern appears again: Jacob intentionally gives the superior blessing to the younger grandson, Ephraim (Gen 48:17–20).

2.2.3 David

A final younger son worthy of mention is David, the preeminent king of Israel. Already the second king after Saul, David is one of the eight sons of Jesse, to whom God sends the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 16:1). Jesse presents seven sons before Samuel, but the Lord indicates that none of them are to be the chosen king. David, the very youngest, who was tending sheep and not even considered worthy of the moment, is the one upon whom God wishes to place the kingdom. The consistency of this theme points to the sovereignty of God over the family of Israel and reiterates that God often chooses the lesser valued to accomplish divine purposes (see a similar theme in 1 Cor 1:26–29).

2.3 Son of God

2.3.1 Angelic beings

In a few instances, interpreters of Israel’s scriptures view ‘sons of God’ as a reference to angelic beings (Stuckenbruck 2014). Beginning with the infamously arresting passage in Gen 6:1–4, the ‘sons of God’ mate with the daughters of humanity to produce a renowned race of giants. For early interpreters, including 1 Enoch (6:2 in Codex Panopolitanus), Philo (Questions and Answers in Genesis 1.92; Philo 1993), and Josephus (Antiquities 1.3.1.73; Josephus 1926), these ‘sons of God’ were angels. Outside of antediluvian history, some Greek versions of Deut 32:43 invite the angelic sons of God to praise the Lord. Several instances of angels as ‘sons’ also appear in the Psalms, including Ps 28:1 and Ps 88:6, where again they are depicted as praising God. Psalm 81 depicts a heavenly court scene where the sons of God are punished with death (Ps 88:6), which early Christian interpreters saw as a description of the rebellious angels’ punishment. This association between sons and angels seems clear in the early Hebrew portions of Job, where the ‘sons of God’ present themselves to God as a sort of heavenly council (Job 1:6; 2:1). Later these sons are mentioned as present with God at the beginning of creation (Job 38:7). Although a minor theme, angelic beings are therefore included within the category of ‘sonship’.

2.3.2 Israel

More common is the claim that the nation of Israel is the elected son of God (Wright 2007). God did not give birth to them by uniting with a consort, as in stories from some of the cultures surrounding Israel, but rather by electing (or choosing) Abraham and his family. God is the one who made and established the people (Deut 32:6, 18) by covenant and redemption (Exod 4:22–23; Hos 11:1, 3, 4). God the Father is especially attentive to the vulnerable (Ps 27:10; 68:5), but also pays heed to all the people of Israel as a father would to his children. The children can call out to God as they would call out to their fathers (Ps 89:26; 103:13; Isa 63:16; 64:8; Jer 3:4, 19) and receive inheritance of the land as they would receive inheritance from their fathers (Ezek 44:28). Moreover, God will discipline them as fathers discipline their children (Deut 8:5; Ps 82:6; Prov 3:11–12). The people of Israel should act in ways true to their sonship (Deut 14:1; Mal 1:6; Mal 2:10) and God will be true to them, even after they go astray, as a father longs for the restoration of an errant child (Jer 31:9).

2.3.3 Israel’s king

Within the above relationship with the people, only one individual is singled out as the ‘son of God’, namely Israel’s king (Collins and John 2008). Some of the royal psalms draw upon this imagery: the inauguration of the king is compared to his birth from God (Ps 2:7; Ps 109:3 LXX); the king can cry out to God as Father because the king is God’s firstborn (Ps 89:26). In the narratives of Israel, sonship is the relationship through which God made the covenantal promises to David’s heir (2 Sam 7:14; 1 Chron 17:13; 22:10; 28:6) for an eternal throne. Theologically, however, Israel rejected any divination of its kings, and so the birth/sonship theme was used as a metaphor to communicate the king’s close favour with God.

2.4 Son of man

The designation ‘son of man’ (ben adam) applies to two different fields of reference in Israel’s scriptures (Hurtado and Owen 2011). First, it is simply a way of speaking about humanity (Gen 11:5; Num 23:19; 1 Sam 26:19; Ps 8:4; Isa 52:14). This usage is prominent in the book of Ezekiel, as God most often addresses the prophet with this phrase. This is a way of connecting the prophet not only to the plight and hope of his people, Israel, but to that of all creation. God addresses Daniel the prophet in the same way in Dan 8:17. However, ‘son of man’ (bar enash) is also used distinctly in that text to refer to a different figure: in Daniel’s visions, he sees one ‘like a son of man’ presented before the Ancient One and given dominion over the previous kingdoms, a dominion that will last forever (Dan 7:13–14). With this usage, the phrase ‘son of man’ takes on eschatological and royal tones.

3 Sonship in Second Temple Jewish literature

Between the end of the First or Old Testament and the opening of the Second or New Testament, a vast array of Jewish literature exists, revealing the varied ways of life, culture, and theology of the Jewish people between approximately 516 BCE and 70 CE. Such literature is important for assessing continuity and discontinuity between the First and Second Testaments, especially regarding the latter, since the documents it contains were written during the same period (see esp. Helyer 2002; Nickelsburg 2005; Cohen 2014; cf. Ferguson 2003: 396–582). Since all of what was surveyed above in section 2.1 is also found within Second Temple literature, with little explicitly new material being added (see esp. Balla 2003; Burke 2003), the following discussion will focus on the phrases ‘son of God’ and ‘son of man’.

3.1 Heavenly (angelic) beings

In continuity with the First Testament, Second Temple Jewish literature also evidences an interpretation of divine sonship language, especially the expression ‘(the) son(s) of (the) God(s)’, in terms of angelic/heavenly beings. For example, 1 Enoch understands the ‘sons of God’ who had sexual relations with the ‘daughters of man’ (Gen 6:2–4) to be angels, and refers to them with the circumlocution ‘sons of heaven’ (6:2, ‘the angels, the sons of heaven [hoi angelloi huioi ouranou]’; 13:8, ‘to/for the sons of heaven [tois huiois tou ouranou]’; 14:3, ‘[the] watchers, the sons of heaven [egregorous tous huious ouranou]’; so also Philo, Questions and Answers in Genesis 1.92, and Josephus, Ant. 1.3.1.73; see Byrne 1979: 19). Also testifying to this angelic usage are passages depicting the righteous as being counted among their number or resembling them in some way. For example, in Wisdom of Solomon we read that the just man is ‘reckoned among the sons of God and his lot is amongst the holy ones’ (5:5). Here the ‘sons of God’ are paralleled with the ‘holy ones’, a common reference to angels, further supporting the identification between ‘sons of God’ and angelic beings. (For more on this notion of ‘sharing the lot of the angels’, see especially Qumran literature: 1QS XI:7–8; 1QH III:22; XI:11–12; Vermes 2004; see also Brooke 2019.)

3.2 Israel

3.2.1 Corporately

Not surprisingly, the idea of the people of Israel being collectively ‘the son(s) of God’, so significant in the First Testament (see above), carries on into the Second Temple period. Many examples could be adduced, but a small sampling will suffice. With reference to the events of Exodus, especially the final anguish that came upon the Egyptians after the final plague – the death of their firstborn sons – the author of Wisdom has Israel’s enemy say, ‘They, who had been incredulous by reason of the sorceries, upon the loss of their first-born confessed the people to be the son of God’ (18:13; see Byrne 1979: 46). In addition to the famous section in the Psalms of Solomon identifying eschatological Israel with the plural expression ‘sons of God’ (Ps Sol 17:30; cf. Deut 14:1), another passage within that text sees its author refer to Israel as God’s ‘first-born, only-begotten son’ (Ps Sol 18:4; cf. Exod 4:22) in the context of reminding Israel of God’s love and discipline. The Book of Jubilees contains one of the most significant references to Israel’s sonship, which focuses on the eschatological reconstitution and salvation of Israel in terms reminiscent of the new covenant promise of Jeremiah and Ezekiel:

And after this they will turn to me in all uprightness and with all [their] heart [...] and I will create in them a holy spirit, and I will cleanse them so that they shall not turn away from me from that day unto eternity. And their souls will cleave to me and to all my commandments [...] and I will be their Father and they shall be my sons. And they shall all be called sons of the living God, and every angel and every spirit shall know, yea, they shall know that these are my sons, and that I am their Father in uprightness and righteousness, and that I love them. (Jubilees 1:23–25; cf. Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 36:24–32; see Byrne 1979: 30; Scott 1992: 107–108)

3.2.2 Individually

One development of the sonship motif in comparison to the First Testament is worthy of brief attention – namely, the identification in Wisdom of the individual Israelite, the righteous one, as ‘son of God’ (see esp. Joosten 2019). Apart from the Davidic king (2 Sam 7:14), no other Israelite previously bore the title ‘son of God’ (though, in some cases, it could be argued to have been implied). But in the first section of Wisdom (chapters 1–5), the author of the text focuses on the fate of the righteous Israelite in the face of opposition and persecution by the ungodly, identifying him explicitly as God’s son. For example, before the ‘ungodly’ actually test the claim of the righteous Israelite to be God’s son and that his end will be blessed, they say, ‘For if the just is a son of God, he will uphold him and rescue him from the hand of his attackers’ (Wis 2:18). In fact, as God’s son, the Israelite’s blessed end is ‘perpetual life in intimate knowledge and communion with God’ (Byrne 1979: 43). In addition, as we saw above in Wisdom 5:5, the Israelite will share the lot of the angels/sons of God: the righteous Israelite has been ‘reckoned among the sons of God and his lot is amongst the holy ones’.

3.2.3 Summary

Though over-systematization of the data should be avoided, some general observations can be made about Israel’s divine sonship as presented in the above literature. First, being God’s son(s) is the unique privilege of Israel alone, rooted in God’s election and calling of Israel as described in the First Testament (Brooke 2019). Second, many of the passages in which the language of sonship appears are situated in eschatological contexts, suggesting that such language was particularly apropos for God’s final act of vindication and salvation on behalf of his people. Third, as God’s son(s), the Israelites are the proper recipients of the promised inheritance, whether this is conceived of in physical terms (i.e. the land), spiritually (i.e. eternal life), or both (i.e. new creation). What is clear is that the main contours of divine sonship for God’s people in the First Testament continue through the Second Temple period, to be subsequently picked up again in the Second or ‘New’ Testament in striking ways (see section 5, below).

3.3 The king/messiah

In the absence of a reigning Davidic king during the Second Temple period, the question naturally arises as to whether the literature of this period continues the use of divine sonship language for the longed-for future king, the messiah. This continues to be a debated question. While all agree that the usage is by no means prominent, the majority of scholarship believes it to be attested (see esp. Novenson 2019: 82–83). The least uncertain text, and therefore probably most significant, is 4Q Florilegium (4Q174), which in juxtaposing Psalm 2 with 2 Sam 7:14 identifies the branch of David with the son of God:

I [God] will raise up your seed after you. I will establish the throne of his kingdom [forever]. I [will be] his father, and he will be my son. He is the branch of David, who will arise with the interpreter of the Law [to rule] in Zion [at the end of] days. (4Q174 I, 10–12)

Although it is true that this ‘son’/‘branch of David’ is not here explicitly called ‘messiah’, he is in 4Q252: ‘the messiah of righteousness, the branch of David’ (see Novenson 2019: 82) – although Byrne (1979: 60) suggests ‘there is no evidence here for the identification of “Messiah” and “Son of God” in a titular sense’. The other texts adduced in support of ‘son of God’ as a reference to the messiah are the Aramaic Apocryphon of Daniel (4Q246) and 4 Ezra 7:28–29. These, however, are even more speculative – in fact, according to Kratz (2019), the referent ‘son of God’ in 4Q246 is not the messiah but rather the Hellenistic ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

3.4 Son of man

During the Second Temple period, and in continuity with the First Testament, the Hebrew and Aramaic phrase ‘son of man’ can refer simply to a human being. For example, note the following parallelism between ‘son of man’ and ‘one born of woman’ in the Community Rule of Qumran: ‘Who can endure Thy glory, and what is the son of man in the midst of Thy wonderful deeds? What shall one born of woman be accounted before Thee?’ (1QS 11:20–21, emphasis added). But far more significantly, Second Temple literature picks up and develops the more exalted concept of ‘one like a son of man’ from Daniel 7 (noted above; see Nickelsburg 2010: 1249–1251). In particular, the Danielic vision of the ‘son of man’ is further interpreted in the Parables of Enoch (1 Enoch 37–71, 4 Ezra 11–131, and 2 Bar 36–39, all of which, when taken together, yield an understanding of this ‘son of man’ as an eschatological, transcendent, and royal agent of God’s salvation and judgment.

The confluence of all these themes can be clearly seen, for example, in 1 Enoch 48. Describing the eschatological time as ‘that hour’ and the eschatological place as one surrounded by fountains of wisdom and ‘the fountain of righteousness’ (48:1), the author of the text identifies a ‘son of man’ (48:2) as one who is in the presence of God (the ‘Lord of the Spirits’) and has been given a name even before creation (48:3). He will, the author continues, in language reminiscent of messianic motifs from the First Testament (e.g. Ps 2; Isa 11),

become a staff for the righteous ones in order that they may lean on him and not fall. He is the light of the gentiles and he will become the hope of those who are sick in their hearts. All those who dwell upon the earth shall fall and worship before him [...] In those days, the kings of the earth and the mighty landowners shall be humiliated [...] For they have denied the Lord of the Spirits and his Messiah. (1 Enoch 48:4–5, 8, 10)

The exact relationship between this ‘son of man’ and other messianic figures in this literature, the potential overlap between ‘son of God’ and ‘son of man’ language, and the significance of this material for understanding Jesus’ use of this expression, is still a matter of debate among scholars (see esp. Novenson 2019).

4 Sonship in Graeco-Roman literature

Vital to understanding familial language in the New Testament is the sociological context of the Graeco-Roman world. Human and divine families served as the framework in which early Christians thought about themselves and Jesus as sons and brothers.

4.1 The Roman familia

In the world of the first century, the law of the Roman Empire yielded incredible amounts of power to the father of a family. The power, potestas, of the father shaped the honour, economic outlook, and even lives of his children and slaves. The status of the father opened or closed vistas of opportunity for his children. His connections became theirs, and while an individual could acquire wealth and advance beyond their station, it was always remembered from whom one had come. Financially, all matters had to pass through the father. He could grant or withhold funds and cut out or incorporate individuals at will. This remained true for his daughters, too, as by the first century most women married without moving control of their dowry to their husbands, but instead retaining a financial connection to their family of origin.

The father was also the priest of the home, meaning children would follow his lead in the worship of the family gods. Finally, the father had the legal right to end the life of his child. It was the father who decided whether to keep an infant or expose it, and it was the father who had the right to take the life of his adult children – although bonds of nature and nurture more often than not prevented this legal allowance from becoming a reality. In summary, therefore, while their father was living, a child owed him honour and fidelity; one was never totally free of his oversight until his death. To be a son was to be under one’s father, legally and with regard to the honour due him, as long as he lived. The life of a son depended a great deal upon the status and nature of his father. The fact that Christians used familial language for their movement moved the weight of these realities into the sphere of faith (Mengestu 2013).

Nevertheless, sons also played an important and distinct role in the Roman family, being encouraged to carry on the line, business, and honour of the family name. Women, conversely, were expected to honour their families, but the children they bore would contribute to the line of their husbands. Oldest sons had the particular responsibility of caring for their younger siblings; as life expectancy was quite limited, they frequently stepped into this role early on, upon the death of their fathers.

4.2 Divine and semi-divine sons

Christianity was not the only religious movement to describe its deities using familial terms. The Graeco-Roman world had many divine sons (Litwa 2014). The stories of Homer and other dramatists depicted the gods as a large family who procreated through passion and intrigue. For example, the god Ares was the progeny of Zeus and Hera. Frequent, too, were stories in which a god impregnated a woman, resulting in a demi-god, like the famous Heracles/Hercules who was sired by Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. These demi-gods committed amazing acts worthy of poetry and drama. Jesus’ divine status and miraculous deeds would naturally associate him with these accounts, an association the Gospel writers and early Christians sought to disentangle.

4.3 The emperor

In the Roman world, divine sonship was no more prominent than in the cult of the emperor. As Rome underwent a transition from a republic to an empire, the emperor embraced the title of ‘father of the country’. As a father oversaw the home, so he oversaw the growing empire, becoming the father of all fathers. At the same time, the emperor was hailed as the son of god. For example, Augustus had been adopted by Julius, who was divinized, and so had the title ‘Son of God’ emblazoned in stone and on coins. He was the pre-eminent divine son in the Roman world (see Peppard 2012).

5 Sonship in the New Testament

Sonship in the New Testament is centred around Jesus. He is the Son par excellance. An investigation of his filial status with regard to God and humanity allows an investigation of the status of and entailments for his followers, also often identified as sons of the Father of Jesus Christ.

5.1 Jesus

5.1.1 Son of Man

5.1.1.1 Gospels and Acts

Of the nearly one hundred references to the ‘Son of Man’ in the New Testament, the vast majority apply to Jesus. Many are spoken by Jesus himself. Scholars have debated whether this phrase, previous to its appearance in the New Testament documents, functioned as a title or was instead used idiomatically simply to indicate ‘a human being’. Jesus’ repeated use of the phrase could have taken the idiom and made it into something like a title in the memory of his followers (Bock 2013).

At certain times in the text, Jesus uses the phrase ‘son of man’ to refer to the suffering he experiences during his ministry (Matt 8:20; 11:19; Mark 9:12) or will experience during his passion (Matt 12:40; 20:18; Mark 8:31). He also uses it to speak of his authority in the present and in the future (Matt 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 6:5; 22:69), and of his eschatological return (Matt 10:23; 19-28; 25-31). Mark and Luke highlight the compassionate purpose of the Son of Man, both to serve (Mark 10:45) and to save (Luke 19:10).

Unsurprisingly, considering the text’s focus on the discipleship of taking up the cross, Mark highlights the suffering of the Son of Man. Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, use the term to describe the path that Jesus, the human, invites all his human followers to undertake, assuring them of the reward at the end of that path because of the unique authority he wields on it. A smaller number of references to the ‘Son of Man’ also appear in the Gospel of John. Although they are distinct from those recorded in the synoptics, Jesus still uses the term to emphasize his own authority as being sent from God (John 6:27; 8:28). In Acts, Stephen is depicted as seeing the resurrected Jesus and crying out that he sees the ‘Son of Man’ at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56).

Scholars have debated extensively whether this phrase, Son of Man, as used by the writers of the Gospels and Acts, speaks of the human nature, as in Ezekiel, or points towards an apocalyptic or Messianic figure, as in Daniel (Reynolds 2018: 5). Amongst the debates about the complexity of these statements, however, is agreement that Jesus’ human identity is constructed as one who exerts unusual power.

5.1.1.2 Hebrews

The book of Hebrews affirms with equal vigour both Jesus’ status as the Son of God and his humanity. The latter is first alluded to in Heb 1:3 (in reference to Jesus making purification for sins) and then developed in the second chapter of the text, beginning with a citation of Psalm 8. Introduced as proof of the world’s subjection (Heb 2:5), Ps 8:5–7 becomes a statement about all humanity, including Jesus. The Psalmist wonders with awe that God remembers and notices humanity, utilizing the phrases ‘man’ and ‘son of man’. This word choice has prompted scholars to ask whether the author of Hebrews was aware of the Son of Man tradition in the gospels; but as this reference is from a citation and the author makes nothing much about the phrase itself, this possibility is hard to prove.

Nevertheless, the author of Hebrews asserts that what is said about humanity in the Psalm is true of Jesus: he was lower than the angels, but only for a little while. Playing upon the dual meaning of the phrase braxu ti (‘a little’), the author transforms what is always true about humanity (a little lower than the angels) to make a statement about the Son, Jesus, in a moment in time (he was lower for a little while).

Jesus’ position below the angels, as a Son of Man, is confirmed by his suffering and death, his being a sibling to humanity (Heb 2:11-12), and his sharing in flesh and blood (Heb 2:14), specifically as the seed of Abraham (Heb 2:16). Now, however, God has exalted this Son of Man with glory and honour and will put all things under his feet. While Jewish interpreters of the time looked to Psalm 8 as a promise of what would be fulfilled – that ultimately humanity would again reign over all creationcreation, including the angels, and that the stewardship and peace that was lost through the sin of Adam and Eve would be restored – the author of Hebrews builds upon this hope to assert that Jesus, the Son of Man, is the first to realize it. In so doing, Jesus becomes the trailblazer (archgos, Heb 2:10) for others to take their rightful place as stewards. His exalted status as a Son of Man becomes the hope for all humanity.

5.1.2 Son of David

Although Messianism was varied in ancient Judaism, one persistent theme was the hope for an ancestor of David to take the throne, promised by God to belong to David forever (2 Sam 7:14; 1 Chron 17:13; see Novenson 2012). The authors of the Gospels and the Epistles affirm that the followers of Jesus saw that hope as being fulfilled in him. Paul mentions this tradition in the opening of Romans: the gospel concerns God’s Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh (Rom 1:3). The author of Hebrews also refers to this messianic hope, albeit in a less direct way, sharing with his audience the belief that Jesus arose from the line of Judah (7:14), as did David. In the Gospels, both Matthew and Luke assert Jesus’ descent from David. Luke does so through Gabriel’s promise that Mary’s son would inhabit the throne of his father, David (1:32). Matthew emphasizes the point vividly by repeatedly highlighting Jesus as the Son of David in genealogical terms, both through naming Jesus as a son of David at the beginning (1:1) and structuring Jesus’ genealogy into three groups of 14 – the number that results from adding up the Hebrew letters of David’s name. Joseph is also depicted as a son of David; Jesus, by being taken into his home, is afforded this lineage by both birth and adoptive-like care.

Three times in his ministry, Jesus’ status as a Son of David is evoked. First, in the context of healing, several who longed for restoration cry out to him as ‘Son of David’ (Matt 9:27; 12:23; 15:23; 20:30; Mark 10:47; Luke 18:38). In some messianic traditions, the Messiah would have the gift of healing or exorcism, and these cries might be evidence of that belief. Second, Jesus brings this lineage to the fore in his teachings about Psalm 110. He asks his interlocutors how David call his descendent the Lord. In so doing, Jesus invites contemplation of both his descent from David and his superiority to him. It is a puzzle for which the Jewish leaders have no answer (Matt 22:42ff; Mark 12:37; Luke 20:41). Finally, upon his entry into Jerusalem for the week of his Passion in Matthew’s recounting, the crowds call out to him as the Son of David, angering the Jewish leadership with the implication that they desired to follow a new king (Matt 21:9–15).

This interest persists throughout the New Testament, the authors of which are interested in the genealogy of Jesus, that he is a ‘son’ of Judah (Heb 7:14), a son of David (Rom 1:3), and from the line of Abraham (Matt 1:1–17) all the way back to Adam (Luke 3:23–38). The bold claims concerning Jesus’ birth stand out in a particularly striking way against the background of this patrilineal descent (see section 5.1.3, below).

5.1.3 Son of Mary

The earliest attestation of Jesus’ birth appears in Gal 4:4, where Paul is teaching about human adoption into God’s family. Paul appeals to Jesus’ own birth, stating that God sent forth his Son born of a woman. The passage does not provide any more detail about this woman – not even her name – but shows awareness of the confession that the Son of God did not walk upon the stage of humanity as a grown man, but was born (Gaventa 1999).

Matthew’s birth narrative affirms that Jesus is the son of Mary in two different ways. The affirmation begins with a genealogy: here, as four times previously, the author mentions Jesus’ mother as the one from whom Jesus came. What is different in this instance, and different from all the other generations listed, is the placement of the word gennaw (‘to bear’). In every other instance, the father is the subject of the active form of the verb, such that X (father) begot Y (son). In the four times that mothers are mentioned, they are added after the son’s name with the preposition ek (from). By contrast, instead of repeating Joseph’s name after his status as the son of Jacob and the father of Jesus, the text describes Joseph’s relationship to Mary: Joseph is the husband of Mary. Once she has been named, the text asserts that from her was born (now a passive form of gennaw) Jesus. Like the others, she is a mother, but unlike the others the father does not beget the son through her. Rather, the son is begotten through her alone.

Matthew also sets Mary apart by the numerical arrangement of Jesus’ genealogy: for the last section to have fourteen generations as Matthew claims (1:17), Mary has to complete the generation. This is not the only solution scholars have proposed for the ‘missing generation’, but it seems to line up best with the way Matthew focuses upon Mary as Jesus’ mother. The affirmation of Jesus’ sonship from her continues in the narrative when she is named on multiple occasions as his mother, or the one who bore him (1:18, 21, 23, 25; 2:11, 13, 14, 20, 21).

Luke’s portrayal, conversely, focuses exclusively on Mary. This Gospel sets up her pregnancy in comparison to the wondrous birth of John to the elderly and barren couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5–25, 57-80). Even more amazing, however, is the birth of a son to a virgin. Gabriel approaches Mary with the blessing of being able to bear the King of Israel, but she wonders how such a birth will be possible since she has not known a man physically. How could she bear the seed of David without seed? This question allows Gabriel to affirm that Jesus will be her son, and also the Son of God, when the Holy Spirit of God overshadows her to bring about the conception and birth (Luke 1:35). Mary agrees to all the blessings and costs incumbent with this offer, and by the next vignette, when she goes to meet her kinswoman Elizabeth, she is pregnant (Luke 1:42).

In the fullness of time, Mary gives birth to her son in Bethlehem, having travelled there with Joseph to register for the census (Luke 2:6). Luke displays her and Joseph’s parental care for Jesus when they follow the law to have him circumcised (2:21), recognize his dedication to the Lord as her firstborn (2:23), and take him regularly to participate in the festival of the Passover (2:41–42). Luke closes Jesus’ birth narrative with the double assertion that Jesus is the Son of God and should be ‘about [his] Father’s business’ (2:49); but he is also the Son of Mary and Joseph, and submits to them until he is an adult ready for independent ministry (2:51–52).

Several times in the gospels, people around Jesus refer to his family, that they know his mother, father, and siblings. Their intimate knowledge of his family relations makes it hard for them to believe the claims about his true identity (Matt 6:3; 13:55).

The early church was adamant that Jesus was truly the son of Mary (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.22.1: ANF 1:454; Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ 20: ANF 3:538; Bernard of Clairvaux, Homily IV, 50; see The Ante-Nicene Fathers). He did not simply come through her womb, as if she were only a vessel, but took his flesh from her. She provides him with a connection to humanity.

5.1.4 Son of God

Scholars have engaged in vigorous debate concerning the historical background and theological implications of the title ‘Son of God’ (Bauckham 2008; Dunn 1996; Hurtado 2005; Kirk 2016; Wright 2019). As mentioned above, in Israel’s scriptures the ‘son of God’ is primarily the king who represents Israel to God. It suggested proximity, not divinity. Conversely, the Greek and Roman context of the first century affirmed that a Son of God had a father who was a god or was a person who had been divinized. These complex streams inform the possibilities of meaning for the phrase in the New Testament.

5.1.4.1 Gospels and Acts

All four gospels open with a vibrant assertion that Jesus is the Son of God. Mark may do so, as some manuscripts suggest, as almost the title of Mark’s narrative: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Matthew and Luke do so through their birth narratives. Matthew portrays Gabriel telling Joseph that Mary’s child is from the Holy Spirit (1:20); the child’s name will be Emmanuel because he will be the presence of God with them (2:6). Luke also speaks of the presence of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary so that her child will be called ‘Son of God’ (1:35). The text later recounts how, when he is twelve, Jesus knows this to be true when he stays behind in the temple to be in his Father’s house (2:49).

The Gospel of John asserts that Jesus is the Son of God using the language of monogenhs: the One who is the embodiment of the Word shows the glory of the only begotten of the Father (1:14). The text reiterates this status through the testimony of John the Baptist, who baptizes Jesus and proclaims him to be the Son of God (1:34). The Synoptics all record a voice from the heavens who declares Jesus to be the beloved Son (Matt 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). This heavenly testimony is repeated for the three disciples who join Jesus on the mountain when he is transfigured (Matt 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35), an event referenced in Peter’s second epistle (2 Pet 1:17). The enemy of God knows Jesus’ identity as the Son of God because the tempter evokes it in two of the three temptations, those concerning bread and jumping down from the temple (Matt 4:3–6; Luke 4:3, 9). The demonic controllers of the human afflicted also call out to Jesus by this title (Matt 8:29; Mark 3:11; 5–7; Luke 8:28). Hence, ‘Son of God’ has taken on a supernatural dimension in the gospels and Acts, being acknowledged as a title applied to Jesus by non-human entities.

Jesus’ human followers eventually come to make this claim as well. Several times in Matthew, their confession includes an affirmation of Jesus’ divine sonship, namely when they see him walking on water (Matt 14:33) and in Matthew’s version of Peter’s Cesarea Philippi confession (Matt 16:16). In John, it is Mary the sister of Lazarus who makes this confession (John 11:27); she voices what John’s author hopes all his readers will confess, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (John 20:31). Luke has Paul proclaim this message in the book of Acts, right after his conversion (Acts 9:20) and through an allusion to Psalm 2 in his sermon at Antioch in Pisidia (13:33).

In addition to the appearance of the specific phrase, ‘Son of God’, the theme of Jesus’ sonship is weaved throughout the Gospel of John. It features prominently in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus: as they discuss rebirth, Jesus’ filial relationship with God acts as a foundation upon which the renewal of humanity can occur (John 3:16–17). It is also a prominent feature of John’s imagery of life and death; as God has life in himself, so too does the Son of God, and those who hear and accept him will have life as well (John 5:25; 11:4). Such claims of a close relationship with God cause the Jews to worry that Jesus is setting himself up as a rival to God, as they consider the sonship language to be blasphemous (John 10:36; 19:7). This sharp disagreement is one reason Jesus finds himself before the authorities, who question him about his filial claims (Matt 26:63; 27:43) – yet it is the Roman centurion who, after observing his death, agrees that it must be true (Matt 27:54; Mark 15:39).

Although interpreters debate what this characteristic of ‘sonship’ might have been, it is clear from the Evangelists that its use was meant to indicate Jesus’ striking identity and relationship to God. Initial readers, based on previous usage of the phrase, might not have automatically considered that the title ‘Son of God’ indicated Jesus’ divinity. Rather, they would have seen the Evangelists portray him as representing the hopes of God’s son, Israel, in ways that developed into a reconsideration of Jesus’ own particular relationship with God.

5.1.4.2 Epistles

For Paul, Jesus’ sonship is fundamental to his understanding of the gospel. Jesus is the Son of David and the Son of God (Rom 1: 3–4), and the Gospel concerns him, the One who is God’s Son (1:9). He is the one Paul and his co-workers proclaim (2 Cor 1:19). The news about him is good because he has been sent by God, his Father, to deal with humanity’s problem of sin (Gal 4:4; 8:3). Readers familiar with the phrase may not have initially perceived the power of what Paul proclaimed. The heir of David, the ‘Son of God’, is one and the same with the one now sent by God to do what God had promised to do in person. His loving self-gift allows those in him to truly live (Gal 2:20). In the Son, humanity can enter a fellowship with God and one another (Gal 4:6; 1 Cor 1:9; Eph 4:13). At the end of all things, the Son will put all creation in correct alignment under the sovereignty of God (1 Cor 15:28).

The authors of the so-called General Epistles (Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1–3 John, and Jude) are deeply invested in Jesus’ divine filial identity as well. For the Epistle to the Hebrews, this is one of the two primary identities of Jesus. Introduced in the first sentence, he is the Son who was with God before creation and will be with God until the end of all things, when he will reign at God’s right hand as Sovereign. It is his status as Son that affords him a name above the angels, a role superior to Moses and the prophets (Heb 3:1–4) as a ministry superior to the other priests (5:5–5; 7:3). His status as the revealed Son of God is that which cannot be rejected, or else dire consequences will follow (Heb 6:6; 10:29). His faithfulness in setting his Father’s discipline provides the example and hope for filial endurance on the part of the Epistle’s audience.

As was true in the Gospel of John, the Letters of John consistently affirm Jesus’ sonship and the necessity of believing in it in order to receive eternal life in God and escape the threats of sin, death, and the devil (1 John 3:8; 4:9, 13, 15, 20; 2 John 3; 9). It is the enthroned Son of God who speaks to the church of Thyatira in Revelation (2:18). His identity as Son of God is both powerful by virtue of his relationship with God and compassionate by virtue of his coming to humanity.

5.1.5 Image of God

In the epistles to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:49; 2 Cor 4:4) and Colossians (Col 1:15; 3:10), Paul refers to Jesus as the ‘image of God’. This language is pertinent for sonship because of a canonical connection with Adam: Adam and Eve are both referred to as being in the image of God (Gen 1:26); furthermore, in Luke, Adam is also referred to the son of God (Luke 3:38). Image and sonship are closely related topics because sons may be expected to image their fathers in either body, temperament, or vocation. The language of image is another way of speaking of the close connection between the Father and the Son, as the Son images the invisible Father (Cortez 2017).

5.2 Followers of Jesus

5.2.1 Entrance: new birth and adoption

In the New Testament, new birth is used, chiefly in the Johannine literature, primarily as a metaphor for the creation of new spiritual life. It is used only secondarily as a metaphor for entry into the family of God. Furthermore, it is always juxtaposed with the language of ‘child(ren)’ (teknon/tekna), rather than ‘son(s)’ (huios/huioi). Nevertheless, it is still worthwhile briefly surveying its meaning here.

Although references to ‘new birth’ appear occasionally elsewhere in the New Testament (Titus 3:5; James 1:18; 1 Pet 1:3, 23), the Johannine literature is the primary and most developed source for this imagery (John 1:12–13; 3:3–8; 1 John 2:29–3:9; 4:7; 5:1–5; 18). Significantly, the Johannine literature never uses the language of ‘sonship’ for believers, reserving this for Jesus alone (Carson 1991: 126; the only exception is Rev 21:7, obscured in the NRSV by their translation of huios as ‘children’: ‘Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children [autos estai moi huios]’). This usage is distinct from that in the Pauline literature, which uses the language of ‘sonship’ for Jesus as well as for believers – although in the latter case only by adoption (see below). Thus, both Johannine and Pauline references to the ‘children’/‘sons’ of God preserve a significant distinction between Jesus and believers.

The emphasis of ‘new birth’ (or re-generation) is on the sovereign work of God, in which one’s sin is cleansed and new spiritual life, with all its capacities for love, joy, and obedience, is created. Jesus says to Nicodemus,

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above [...] Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit [...] The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:3, 5, 8)

Without the new birth, no one enters the kingdom of God. Therefore, even though it is true in one sense that all human beings are ‘offspring [genos]’ of God by virtue of creation (Acts 17:28–29), such a position does not inevitably lead to eschatological salvation. One must be a ‘child’ of God by virtue of a second (spiritual) birth to inherit the kingdom. In Pauline terms, one must be a ‘son’/’child’ by adoption to inherit all of God’s promises.

Whereas new birth primarily emphasizes the creation of new spiritual life, the metaphor of adoption more directly emphasizes the mode of entry for becoming ‘sons’ of God, as well as the necessary entailments of such a status, including privileges and responsibilities. Paul is the only New Testament author to employ the concept of ‘adoptive sonship’ for believers (huiothesia: Gal 4:5; Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; cf. Eph 1:5). The term huiothesia denotes the well-documented Graeco-Roman socio-legal institution whereby a father would choose a non-biological son and confer on him all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities customarily given to a natural son (Lyall 1984: 67–99). Significantly, the term is absent from the Septuagint and other Second Temple Jewish literature. Though previous scholarship has often debated the precise background informing Paul’s usage, whether Graeco-Roman or Jewish, more recent scholarship is reaching a consensus that an either/or approach is insufficient. While the Graeco-Roman institution would clearly resonate with first-century Christians in Rome, Galatia, and Ephesus, the historic privilege of Israel’s ‘sonship’ performs significant theological work in Paul’s letters as well. Paul himself understands Israel’s privilege of ‘sonship’ in explicitly adoptive terms (Rom 9:4). Therefore, as Erin Heim has rightly pointed out, ‘the different backgrounds would likely have been interwoven to create a multivalent and complex underlying model for Paul’s huiothesia metaphors in the minds of his audience’ (Heim 2017: 130; see also Watson 2008: 203).

5.2.2 Entailments

5.2.2.1 Intimacy

Being a ‘son of God’ means one has a new status and identity, which is characterized by certain necessary entailments or features. The first feature may be called filial intimacy, i.e. a new relationship with God, created and sustained by the Spirit, in which one intimately knows and responds to God as one’s Father. After reminding the Galatians of their true identity as adopted sons (Gal 4:5), and thus as heirs of the Abrahamic promise (Gal 3:29; 4:7), Paul turns to exhortation: ‘Now, however, that you have come to know [gnontes] God, or rather to be known [gnosthentes] by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?’ (Gal 4:9). Knowing God (and being known by God) is the result of their adoption as sons and reception of the Spirit, described in quite personal and experiential language: ‘And because you are children [huioi: ‘sons’], God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”’ (Gal 4:6). Therefore, to be a ‘son of God’ means one has a new and profound experiential intimacy with God that was non-existent before one believed (see also Rom 8:15–16; Rabens 2013: 224–228).

5.2.2.2 Holiness

The second feature of being a ‘son of God’ is the high privilege that status brings with it, namely the expectation of and empowerment for holiness, or what may be termed filial obedience. Notice Paul’s flow of thought in Rom 8:13–15:

For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children [huioi: ‘sons’] of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.

The ‘for’ (gar) at the beginning of verse 15 suggests that the experiential intimacy of that verse grounds the Spirit-empowered obedience of verses 13–14, which is necessary for attaining eschatological life. In other words, believers do not pursue holiness in order to become sons of God; they pursue holiness because they already are sons of God. And again, as with intimacy, the Spirit is crucial for holiness. This feature could also be analysed through the lens of imitation, which the author of Ephesians capitalizes on: ‘Therefore, be imitators [mimetai] of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us’ (Eph 5:1–2). With the privilege of being adopted as sons of God (Eph 1:5) comes the expectation of acting like the Son of God, of the son displaying a family resemblance to his father (see esp. Burke 2006: 143–148).

5.2.2.3 Suffering and glory

The third and fourth features – suffering and glory – of a ‘Son of God’ are really two sides of the same filial coin, together laying out a pattern of sonship. Just as the Son of God suffered the effects of sin in a fallen world, so the sons of God, in union with him, will suffer the same. And just as the Son was glorified, so the sons, in union with him, will likewise be glorified – filial suffering and filial glory. According to Paul, if we are God’s children/sons, then we are also ‘heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him’ (Rom 8:17). Suffering, then glory. The suffering Paul envisions in Romans 8 cannot be limited to persecution, though it certainly includes it. He calls it the ‘suffering of this present time’ (Rom 8:18) and goes on to list some specifics: ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ (Rom 8:35). The suffering of the ‘sons of God’, then, relates to the general tribulations of living in a fallen creation that was, and still is, subjected to futility while waiting for the day of its freedom, when the children of God will be glorified (Rom 8:19–21).

The author of Hebrews also makes the connection between the Son of God and the sons of God explicit with respect to suffering and glory, saying, ‘It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children [huious] to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings’ (Heb 2:10). The path of sonship is one of suffering leading to glory (see esp. Gorman 2001: 304–348; Kusio 2019: 171–187).

Closely related to this notion of suffering, and perhaps even included within it, is the idea of discipline – the notion that some of the suffering experienced by God’s children is due to God’s fatherly discipline. The author of Hebrews is the most explicit on this point. Drawing from the wisdom of Prov 3:11–12 (LXX), and while addressing the readers as God’s sons, he says, ‘Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children [huiois]; for what child [huios] is there whom a parent [pater] does not discipline?’ (12:7). Such discipline, which always in the moment seems painful, is ultimately designed by God for the good of his children as a means to ‘sharing his holiness’ (12:10-11). Without discipline, there is no true sonship. With discipline, true sons ‘share his holiness’ and enjoy the ‘peaceful fruit of righteousness’ (12:10–11). In other words, through suffering, including discipline, sons are ‘brought to glory’ (Heb 2:10).

‘Glory’ (doxa) and ‘glorified’ are notoriously difficult concepts to define, with scholarship having yet to reach a consensus on their precise meaning. With respect to the ‘glorification’ of the children of God under consideration here, debate is still ongoing. Nevertheless, there are some things that are clear. First, ‘glorification’ involves bodily resurrection, i.e. sharing the glory of eternal, resurrection life. It is this aspect of ‘sonship’ to which Paul refers in Rom 8:23, when he says, ‘And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.’ This is none other than the future ‘glory of the children of God’, which Paul says is not worth comparing to the sufferings of the present time (Rom 8:18–21; see esp. Jewett 2007: 519). Second, and receiving more attention recently, the ‘glorification’ of the sons also entails sharing with Christ the Son in his rule over creation, which will mark a restoration of God’s original design for humanity (Rom 8:21; see also Rom 5:17; Gen 1:26–28; esp. Goranson Jacob 2018: 266). Third, because Paul puts being ‘glorified with him’ in parallel with ‘heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ’ (Rom 8:17), that phrase is also taken to mean receiving all that God has promised. The sons of God are his heirs (Gal 4:7) and thus stand to inherit everything. The inheritance certainly includes what was promised to Abraham, as ‘heir of the world’ (Rom 4:13), and to his offspring, but it goes beyond that to include eschatological life, even ‘all things: ‘He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?’ (Rom 8:32). The unique phrase, ‘heirs of God’ (Rom 8:17), signifies the fact that the greatest treasure belonging to the sons is not ultimately the innumerable gifts of God, but the Father/Giver himself, for he is their ‘exceeding joy’ (Ps 43:4; see Forman 2011: 58–101; Byrne 1979: 68–70, 101-103; Schreiner 2018: 421).

5.2.3 Conformity to the image of Christ

As scholars have pointed out, there is a very close connection between being adopted as sons/children of God and conforming to the image of Christ. For example, Goranson Jacob (2018: 203) says that ‘Romans 8:29 can be understood only in the light of Paul’s references to sonship and adoption in Romans 8:14–16’. Attention is often drawn to two parallel Pauline texts, where the aim of predestination is described as ‘conform[ing] to the image of his Son’ (Rom 8:29) and as ‘adoption as sons’ (Eph 1:5; see esp. Byrne 1979: 126–127; Mawhinney 1982: 207–208; Scott 1992: 246–247). In addition to this textual parallel, the concepts of ‘sonship’ and ‘image’ are closely related in the ancient Near Eastern and biblical literature surveyed above. To be in the ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ of God is, among other things, to be related to him as a son is to a father (Gen 5:1–3; see also Gentry and Wellum 2012: 192–197; Dempster 2003: 58–59; Dion 1985: 65–403 [vol. 55]). The features of sonship just surveyed also demonstrate the veracity of this claim. The sons have intimacy with the Father because the Son has intimacy with the Father. The sons, in the power of the ‘Spirit of his Son’ (Gal 4:6), honour the Father in obedience and holiness because the Son honours the Father in perfect obedience and holiness. The sons endure suffering in this futile and sinful world because the Son endured suffering. The sons will be glorified because the Son was and is glorified. The sonship of believers is what it is precisely because it is grounded upon, realized in, and patterned after Christ, the Son (see Garner 2016: 168).

5.2.4 Implications of gendered language

Sonship language predominates in the many instances in which followers of Jesus share in his familial relationship with God. Since cultural norms have now shifted from biblical times – with such masculine terms no longer being considered generic and thus inclusive – Bible translators have broadened the Greek word huios past its direct definition of ‘son’ to the more gender-inclusive ‘child’. The NRSV displays this in its rendering of Gal 4:4–7: ‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God’ (emphasis added).

The benefit of such an approach in biblical translation is that contemporary readers hear clearly the meaning of the text: God’s redemption includes men and women, as Paul stated with complete clarity in Gal 3:28. Nevertheless, this translation decision means the close verbal connection between Jesus’ status and that of his followers becomes less apparent. We are ‘sons’ because God has sent the Spirit of his Son. A similar gain, and loss, occurs in Heb 2:10: ‘It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings’ (emphasis added). While the author of Hebrews 1 does use the language of children (teknia) in verse 13, in verse 10 the use of huioi connects their identity with that of God’s firstborn Son. Interpreters and teachers/preachers of scripture must decide whether to use ‘sons’, while reiterating that women are also included; or to use ‘children’ and explain that the original language makes a verbal connection to Jesus’ relationship with God. In this sense, ‘Son’ language may even be more inclusive than it might first sound. Sons who are granted the entailments discussed above; by using sonship language to apply to women as well as men, female addressees are being invited into spaces and realities often denied them in the ancient world.

Attributions

Copyright Joshua Maurer, Amy Peeler (CC BY-NC)

Bibliography

  • Further reading

    • Burke, Trevor. 2006. Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor. New Studies in Biblical Theology 22.
    • Byrne, Brendan. 1979. ‘Sons of God’ – ‘Seed of Abraham’: A Study of the Idea of the Sonship of God of All Christians in Paul Against the Jewish Background. Analecta Biblica 83. Rome: Biblical Institute Press.
    • Heim, Erin M. 2017. Adoption in Galatians and Romans: Contemporary Metaphor Theories and the Pauline Huiothesia Metaphors. Biblical Interpretation Series 153. Leiden/Boston, MA: Brill.
    • Johnson-Hodge, Carolyn. 2007. If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Peppard, Michael. 2012. The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Scott, James M. 1992. Adoption as Sons of God: An Exegetical Investigation into the Background of ΥΙΟΘΕΣΙΑ in the Pauline Corpus. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament 2/48. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
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