Sunday, March 09, 2008

Geza Vermes on the Expression "Son of God"

I found this quote from Geza Vermes to be informative:

"To a Greek speaker in Alexandria, Antioch or Athens
at the turn of the eras, the concept hUIOS QEOU, son
of God, would have brought to mind either one of the
many offspring of the Olympian deities, or possibly a
deified Egyptian-Ptolemaic king, or the divine emperor
of Rome, descendant of the apotheosized Julius Caesar.
But to a Jew, the corresponding Hebrew or Aramaic
phrase would have applied to none of these. For him,
son of God could refer, in an ascending order, to any
of the children of Israel; or to a good Jew; or to a
charismatic holy Jew; or to the king of Israel; or in
particular to the royal Messiah; and finally, in a
different sense, to an angelic or heavenly being. In
other words, 'son of God' was always understood
metaphorically in Jewish circles. In Jewish sources,
its use never implies participation by the person
so-named in the divine nature. It may in consequence
safely be assumed that if the medium in which
Christian theology developed had been Hebrew and not
Greek, it would not have produced an incarnation
doctrine as this is traditionally understood" (Jesus
in His Jewish Context
, page 66).


Jason said...

Hi Edgar, I have some questions:

How does John 5:18 fit into your categories of Jewish understandings of divine sonship?

I found your choice of words: " the divine nature" interesting, for the reason that this very expression is used in 2 Pet. 1:4 in reference to those who elsewhere are spoken of as participating in Jesus' sonship. (Rom. 8:14-23,29; Gal. 3:26-4:7; 1 Pet. 1:3,23) Doesn't this imply that Jesus, by contrast, is the Son of God by nature, and not by participation in the nature and sonship of another?

Don't Jesus' words in John 3:6 reflect the definition that 'generation consists in the communication of the nature of the generator to the generated', so that the new birth spoken of in this context is to be conceived in terms of participation in the 'natural' divine sonship of Jesus?

Do you view it as being theologically insignificant that God saw fit to send His Son into the world at a time and place which would quite naturally lead to Christian theology being developed primarily through the medium of the Greek language, instead of the Hebrew language or any other language for that matter?

Edgar Foster said...

Hi Jason,

First, I would like to direct your attention toward the fact that the words to which you are replying are those of Geza Vermes, not my own. Nevertheless, his remarks basically are in harmony with my view of divine paternity.

I read John 5:18 (similar to Raymond E. Brown and John McKenzie) as a false charge leveled against Christ by certain Jews. The Jewish nation as a whole claimed God as its Father. This point is even borne out by the Fourth Gospel itself. What troubled those who viewed Christ as a sabbath breaker or blasphemer, however, was the fact that he spoke of God as his Father in a unique way. See John 5:17. But McKenzie and Brown argue that Christ actually spends time trying to refute the false charges trumped up against him. I can be more specific and provides references later.

I believe that Christ is the son of God in the sense that the holy angels are called "sons of God" (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-10; 38:1-7) or in the sense that Adam is called "son of God" in Luke's Gospel (3:38). The term is being used metaphorically as a reference to an act of creation whereby Almighty God (the Father or YHWH) brings it about that the Son exists. See Psalm 90:2 for a similar use of the metaphor "born" as a synonym for "create."

Edgar Foster said...

I don't understand how you derive the belief that God generates his nature to the one generated by means of participation of the natural divine sonship of Christ. Texts must be read in context and along with their respective cotexts. Moreover, a basic principle of hermeneutics is that there is no text as such without intertextuality. Therefore, the surrounding verses of John 3:6 should be considered in one's analysis of the text (cf. John 3:7-8 and compare Titus 3:5-6); moreover, we would do well to consult the Johannine epistles in order to shed light on John 3:6 (see, for instance, 1 John 3:6-9).

I don't believe that the Greek language as such was/is privileged by God. My belief that is God works through the accidents of history. God evidently appointed a certain time for his Son to become flesh, suffer and die. But I don't believe that the NT necessarily had to be written in Koine Greek. Greek was simply the Weltsprache or lingua franca of the time. Historical accidents (understood in the sense of PER ACCIDENS) brought it about that Koine obtained as the Weltsprache in the first century CE. However, that was due to accidents like Alexander's project of Hellenization and the manner in which his aims held sway until the fourth century CE.

Edgar Foster said...


I just want to clarify my comments regarding John 3:6. I personally think that talk of "natures" is a slippery venture. The words FUSIS, OUSIA, ESSENTIA or SUBSTANTIA are notoriously difficult to define. Of course, there is a sense in which I believe Christians now participate in God's nature to some extent. However, it seems that 2 Peter 1:4 will not be fulfilled in its fullest sense until the eschaton.

It also appears that the language of John 3:6 is partly metaphorical. When the apostle writes that what is born from spirit is spirit, I would say that he is appealing to ideas that one finds in the OT book of Ezekiel and other texts of Second Temple Judaism, wherein the language of birth via water and spirit functions as a metaphor for God's renewal of his repatriated people.

Hence, I humbly submit that the "water and spirit" mentioned in John 3:3ff is also metaphorical.

Edgar Foster said...


Here is what I have presented in another forum.

This text [John 5:18-19] is not a
proof-text for the so-called hypostatic union. Nor does it add any credence to the Nicene formula
hOMOOUSION TWi PATRI. Raymond E. Brown writes:

"What does the evangelist wish his reader to think about the charge-that Jesus is equal to God
and the Jews refuse to admit it, or that the charge is a misunderstanding of Jesus? Would the evangelist present Jesus as God's equal? Christians who
accept the 5th century 'Athanasian' creed believe that the Son 'is equal to the Father according to divinity, less than the Father according to humanity.' However,
the NT view of the relationship is primarily from the viewpoint of the humanity of the Son . . . Paul says
that Jesus did not consider 'being equal to God' a thing to be clung to. John 14:28 reports the words:
'The Father is greater than I'" (Anchor Bible, Vol. 29, Gospel According To John I-XII, p. 214).

John McKenzie is even more emphatic in his _Light on the Gospels_:

"The relation of the Father and Son as set forth in [John 5:17ff] is the foundation of later developments in Trinitarian and Christological belief and theology;
it is not identical with these later developments. Much of the discourse seems to be a refutation of the charge that Jesus claimed to be equal to God. This is met by affirming that the Son can do nothing independently of the Father. Later theology found it
necessary to refine this statement by a distinction between person and nature which John did not know"
(McKenzie 187).


Edgar Foster said...

Slight clarification. Earlier, I wrote: "Hence, I humbly submit that the 'water and spirit' mentioned in John 3:3ff is also metaphorical."

I should have said that the "water" mentioned by John could be "metaphorical" and so is the birth from above or again (ANWQEN). The "spirit" obviously is not metaphorical.

Jason said...

Hi Edgar, thank you for your responses to my questions.

Regarding John 5:18, I am failing to see how your responses answer the question as to how Jesus' first century Jewish opponents managed to construe (whether rightly or wrongly is besides the point) His statement in John 5:17 as a claim to equality with God if Geza Vermes is correct that first century Jews had no concept of any such thing as natural divine sonship? If Vermes is correct would it not follow then that it would have been contrary to their categories of thought for them to have taken Jesus' statement as affirming something more than a claim to be at the very most either the Messiah or to having pre-existed as a created angel?

However, if Jesus' response in the verses which follow John 5:18 was intended for the purpose of clarifying that He was not breaking the Sabbath and that He was not calling God His own Father in such a way that would entail His being in some sense equal with God, then it would seem to me that He did a very poor job of expressing Himself here. For, given the conclusion His opponents drew from what He said in John 5:17, why would they be less inclined to take the words: "the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing" as an affimation that the Son has no will or operation of His own distinct and independent from that of that Father, and is therefore essentially inseparable from the Father? (Certainly, the angels can do things of their own accord: if they were not able to do so, how could it be that some of them have sinned?)

"...whatever [the Father] does, that the Son does likewise." Interpretation: Just as the Father "works" on the Sabbath, not being bound to keep it, so also the Son works on the Sabbath, not being bound to keep it either. There is nothing that the Father can do that the Son also cannot do: Claim to equality of power with God.

Why would they not conclude from the words in John 5:21 that Jesus is asserting an equality of authority with God, making the giving of life just as dependent upon His will as it is dependent upon the Father's will? From verse 22, they could easily misconstrue Jesus' words as a claim that the Father has relinquished His own authority in giving it to the Son, leading to the charge that Jesus was claiming to be in at least one respect actually greater than God. Why would they not charge him with claiming to be worthy of equal honor with God, in view of the statement in verse 23: "that all may honor the Son, EVEN AS they honor the Father"? Finally, verse 26: The very unoriginated life of Father is communicated by the Father to the Son, and thus the Son has the same unoriginated life equally with the Father.

It would seem to me that the most natural reading of John 5:19-26 is that Jesus is affirming that as the Son of God He is not only equal but also identical with the Father in every respect EXCEPT that of being unoriginated. (I do not accept the implied interpretation of John 14:28 in the Athanasian Creed as being adequate to account for Jesus' statement about the Father being greater than the Son. Following Alexander, Athanasius, Hilary, Chrysostom, and the Cappadocians, I hold that the Father is eternally greater than the Son in that He alone is Unoriginated and in that He is the Cause of the Son's existence.)

In view of Heb. 1:5, how can you maintain that Jesus is the Son of God in the same sense as the angels are? Does not 'only-begotten' imply 'without brothers or sisters' so that, even if Jesus' sonship were metaphorical, it would still have to be a category of metaphorical sonship unique to Him?

In all of Luke 3:23-38 the term 'son' occurs but once, it being understood only by implication after its initial occurence. Since this is the case, how can its definition change in verse 38? Does this not necessitate understanding Luke 3:23-38 (as opposed to Matt. 1 which due to the word beget can only be taken as a biological genealogy) as giving a 'legal' genealogy, so that one and the same definition of the term 'son' can be consistently applied all throughout the passage, including its final statement? Doesn't the genealogy in Gen. 5 appear to purposely avoid speaking of Adam as being 'begotten' by God?

Given the inherent nature of poetry, it is not surprising that the term 'born' would be used in place of the more accurate 'made' or 'created' in Ps. 90:2 in reference to the origin of the mountains? (But is not the expression itself 'before the mountains' a metaphor for 'from olam', so that the literal origin of literal mountains is not directly in view here?) Are there any non-poetic passages in Scripture in which 'made' or 'created' can justifiably be substituted for 'born' or 'begotten'?