31 January, 2010
One of the claims that is very explicit in the New Testament is that Jesus is the Son of God. Moreover he is God himself. Apologists have noted that this idea would be utterly unthinkable in the Jewish context of Jesus’ life. No Jew could hear this without thinking it blasphemy, and so those that turned to this new idea would have to have been convinced by something extraordinary. The only thing that could be so extraordinary would be that Jesus was in fact God. Others took a different view. Rationalists of the 19th century all the way through to characters in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code have posited that Jesus himself was just a normal human, preaching a message of love and tolerance (and happily ignoring the end-times apocalyptic quotes of Jesus). They think that the son of God idea came from the neighbouring Hellenistic cultures. After all, gods, demi-gods, cult heroes, saviours born of virgins and so on were common place in the Greek world. As Christianity expanded it is natural that the new converts would start to include their own pre-held beliefs in their liturgy and rituals and eventually their theologies as well.
But it wasn’t just the Greeks who had the idea of Sons of Gods. The Jews themselves were once polytheistic and even by the time of the destruction of the Temple (70 CE) they had not entirely come round to pure monotheism. Just as future Christians would read back into the early churches their own brand of Christianity, so too did the Rabbinic Judaism formed in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem read its own monotheism right back to the beginning of their history. They were certainly correct that a form of monotheism had been the mainstay (or at minimum a very powerful force) of Judaism since at least the Exile in the sixth century BCE. The Deuteronomists give us vivid descriptions of the overturning of the pagan rituals that were performed in Judah just prior to the Exile. Sacred groves to Asherah, the wife of Yahweh were burned and statues removed from the Temple. Although portrayed as removing foreign influences it is clear that these were natives beliefs that were being challenged and changed. Despite the reformers best efforts the belief in multiple deities continued. The high god, El-Elyon and his son Yahweh, were separate beings for many Jews.
In addition to snippets of old belief the remain in the Old Testament we also have evidence of what other groups of Jews believed around the time of the emergence of Christianity. The writings discovered at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) reveal a more complicated picture of Judaism than some imagined. The writings of the Alexandrian Jew Philo show a theology that is perfectly content with a second God: the Logos – the son of the All Mighty. Jewish Gnostic writings are replete with descriptions of the angels, the sons of the God Most High. The argument that no Jew would ever tolerate the idea of someone being the son of God is manifestly false.
An interesting aspect of the title ‘Son of God’ within the Old Testament is that it can refer to different kinds of beings. The word translated to God was sometimes El (the High God) and sometimes Yahweh (God of Israel). The phrase Son of El was always used to describe heavenly beings, recognised as either Gods or Angels. Whenever the phrase is Son of Yahweh it refers to human beings (or sometimes the population of Israel). Most often this is done in the case of the King, he is made the son of Yahweh in a ceremony, the words of which are also used on Jesus when he is baptised. Does this imply Jesus was seen as the new King? Not at all. In each case where he is referred to as the Son of God he is the Son of El Elyon. Jesus was no mere mortal, he was an angelic being, a divine god. And which god? Over and over he is called Lord, the same translation into the greek that is used for Yahweh himself. Jesus was Yahweh. His very name means Yahweh Saves (or Yahweh is Salvation) and he is referring to himself. There was no need for centuries to pass and for legends and more impressive credentials to accrue to Jesus, it was there from the start. The stories of Jesus are the stories of Yahweh, returned to the world and ready to end it, all in preparation for a new world that never came.