1st century meaning of "Son of God"

Hello, everyone!
So I wanted to began a new thread off a prompt @Carson posted last month re. people’s understanding of Jesus while he was incarnate/on earth. At the end of my last post, I reflected…

And I am still sitting with this question. Even this morning, in my reading of 1 John, the title “Son of God” pops out all over the page. John, like other Gospel and epistle writers, ties the concepts of Son and Christ together, but he adds the concept of the Word. John also seems to be wrestling with the question: What does all of this mean?

So I’m wondering two things:

  1. Does anyone have any thoughts re. the concept of “s/Son of God” from a 1st century perspective?
  2. Does anyone know of any scholars who have written on this? @jimmy, I specifically ask you as you also seem to be interested in Jesus in his 1st century context. :slight_smile:

@kathleen , great question! I am just a few chapters into a book by Michael Bird, Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles Hill and Chris Tilling, entitled ‘How God became Jesus’. It was written as a response to Bart Ehrman’s book, ‘How Jesus became God’, in which he argues that Jesus’ deification came much later in the early church and that the Bible doesn’t say he is God and doesn’t support the idea that the disciples or apostles worshipped him as God.

One of the arguments that Bart Ehrman puts forward is even that the term Son of God meant a range of things to Jews back then, and it didn’t necessarily follow that Jesus was seen as God, even if he was referred to as the Son of God. He goes onto compare Jesus to figures like Emperor Augustus, adopted son of Julius Caesar who was deified at death. Because of this, Augustus was referred to Son of God, and Divine Augustus during his lifetime. Ehrman argues that Jews would have been familiar with these concepts even in their monotheistic culture.

In response, Michael Bird writes in Chaoter 3, Did Jesus Think He Was God?, that this is not a good reason to think that the Jews understood ‘Son of God’ anything other than the claim that Jesus was God. He writes,

Elsewhere Jesus identifies himself as the Son of God who is Lord to the Son of David, an event of divine wisdom, the seat of the divine presence, and even an expression of divine power over evil. Jesus is remembered as referring to the Messiah as David’s own Lord (Mark 12:35-37), to himself as an envoy of divine wisdom (Matt 11:19/Luke 7:35; Matt 11:28-30), one who is greater than the temple (Matt 12:6), and one who is stronger than the Satan (Mark 3:27; Matt 12:29/Luke 11:21-22). These are not claims to superhuman abilities, but claims to be the one who embodies God’s reign, carries God’s wisdom into the world, conveys God’s presence in a manner greater than the temple, and is able to defeat God’s adversary, Satan. Jesus is then identifiable with God’s own activity in the world, and his victory over evil. Heed this point well. None of this material is a cheap ripoff from Homer or Virgil ostentatiously read back into Jesus’ life; rather, these ideas are all enmeshed in thoroughly Jewish ways or conceiving of God’s presence in the world and God’s purposes for the world.

The writers of this book also support the idea that ‘Son of God’ would have been understood by the 1st CE Jews within the context of their hopes of restoration for the future.

The chief among those hopes was the return of YHWH to Zion. Jesus believed that in his own person this return was happening, God was becoming king, and the day of judgement and salvation was at hand…he acted in such a way as to identify himself with God’s own activity in the world.

There’s some further (very interesting) debate between Ehrman’s ideas that the synoptic gospels disagree with the meaning of ‘Son of God’, and the criticisms of these other scholars of Ehrman’s methodology that bring him to such conclusions. Happy to share more if you like :slightly_smiling_face:.

In a nutshell, I take all this to mean that even if the Jews hadn’t grasped exactly what ‘Son of God’ meant in a trinitarian context, they would have recognised the allusion to unprecedented equality with God.


Thank you so much, @alison! This has been very helpful. I knew that there is debate out there around this, and I couldn’t remember who the voices were. That Bart Ehrman is a leading skeptical voice is not surprising! I’m vaguely remembering that NT Wright has also written about this at some point in his myriad of publications, so I’ll have to do a deeper search. Dang, I miss having digital access to a massive theological library!

Do you mean that Ehrman would contend that the synoptic writers do not agree with each other, and that each have different ways of conceptualizing “Son of God”? If you have the time, I’d love to hear more. (I know you have a lot on your plate!)

History was my first degree at uni way back, so historical Jesus studies have always fascinated me!


Yes, happy to do so, as it’s fairly fresh in my mind!
I realise that my answers are very specific to Ehrman versus these other scholars as that’s the majority of my reading so far. Hopefully it gives a view into the wider topic though.

Ehrman claims that Jesus thought about himself as the Messiah but not the Son of God.
You mentioned John’s Gospel as being a central one that wrestles with exactly what Jesus’ divinity means in terms of being The Word, Son of God, and the Christ. Interestingly,

Ehrman dismisses the gospel of John as a source about Jesus because the Johannine Jesus makes explicit claims to be equal with God that are not paralleled in the Synoptic Gospels and do not pass muster with any of the criteria of autheniticity*. (Michael F Bird, Ch 3, Did Jesus Think He Was God?)

*This is referring to specifically Ehrman’s criteria of authenticity which these scholars take time to critically examine earlier in the book and find it seriously lacking in coherent methodology, and other reasons why its incredibly problematic.

How Jesus Became God defines Jesus in [Matthew and Luke] as coming into exitence as God’s Son at his conception or birth. In Luke, the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary and therefore the holy child will be called the Son of God. Ehrman sees Matthew as not quite so explicit about the process whereby Jesus is conceived, but still this gospel views Jesus as Son of God from the moment of conception. As a result, Jesus is - in a loose or weak sense, at least - divine from the beginning of his earthly existence. (Simon Gathercole, Ch 5. What Did the First Christians Think about Jesus?)

Gathercole quotes Ehrman:

I should stress that these virginal conception narratives of Matthew and Luke are by no stretch of the imagination embracing the view that later became the orthodox teaching of Christianity.

In response, the scholars of this book concur:

The four Gospels as a whole agree that Jesus is God’s Son and that as the Son, he is the divine agent par excellence, and even part of the divine identity. John’s claim that Jesus is “equal with God” (John 5:18) and "one with the Father " (10:18) is simply verbalising what is already assumed by the Synoptics Gospels, namely, that Jesus has a unique filial relationship with ISrael’s God and Jesus possessed an authority equal to that of God. For case in point, note the famous “Johannine Thunderbolt”, a saying of Jesus appearing about the middle of Matthew and LUke, but which sounds strangely like the Fourth Gospel: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do” (Matt 11:25-27/Luke 10:21-22). The gospel of John expresses by way of several unique narratives and discourses that Jesus is the one-of-a-kind Son of God, whose very person is bound up with the God of Israel. It comprises a magnification rather than a mutilation of the claims of Jesus found in the Synoptic Gospels. (Michael F Bird, Ch 3, Did Jesus Think He Was God?)

Going back to the 1st Century understanding of the term ‘Son of God’, Ehrman also writes that the Jews at this time would have regarded Jesus’ exhaltation as the moment when he took on some divine nature. This is referred to as ‘exaltation Christology’ and ‘adoptionist Christiology’. Ehrman argues that in Paul’s writings Jesus is seen as an angel-like being - “pre-existent”, that is, existing even before becoming human. He may have at this time taken on a divine nature, although not equal to his newfound Father. Simon Gathercole summarises Ehrman’s belief that, “He could be worshipped by the earliest Christians, and because they were Jews, he was worshipped not as a separate deity, but alongside God the Father.”

Other points to consider when looking at how the Synoptics perceive the meaning of ‘Son of God’:

  • Jesus’ authority to forgive sins
  • The choice of 12 disciples that reflects Jesus “forming th enucleus of a renewed people of God”
  • The sea miracles
  • Jesus’ sending of prophets
  • Jesus’ exercise of supernatural knowledge
  • Jesus’ belonging to the divine triad Father-Son-Spirit (Matt 28:19)

Gathercole has written an entire book on how the Gospels perceive Jesus as the Son of God in the sense that the early church creeds state him as: ‘The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke’ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) but I haven’t read this yet. Might be an interesting one!

Another one worth reading is Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the God of Israel’ (Paternoster, 2008), and I have read this one and very highly recommend!


Sorry for the delayed response. I wanted to answer, but I could not stay on point.
This is a great question, but it is not what the 2nd Temple folks were asking. For them, the Son of God was the King as in 1Samuel10:1LEB, 1 Samuel 16:3LEB, 1 Kings 19:16LEB, 2 Kings 11:12LEB, and 2 Kings 23:30LEB. I have included an excerpt from Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels and the Jewish Christ. His writings are helping me solidify the many unanswered questions I have logged over the years that are being asked even as I type by people today. More importantly, questions were asked in the 2nd Temple period up to the close of the 4th century AD.

As pointed out by the dean of Catholic biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible does this usage (Son of God) imply anything but the extraordinarily close connection between the King of Israel and the God of Israel. No awaited or future divine King is contemplated in any of these instances.¹ The term Mashiach throughout the Hebrew Bible means a historical actually reigning human king of Israel, neither more nor less.

If what Boyarin is positing is true, then the man in the street could easily ask what is the big deal, just another wannabe king, big whoop. So, what got under the skin of the pious brothers? Boyarian says that the title that put the pious into a frenzy was Jesus referred to himself as the “son of Man.” For context, you need only to read Daniel 7: 9-13LEB

9 "⌊I continued watching⌋ until thrones were placed and an Ancient of Days sat; his clothing was like white snow and the hair of his head was like pure wool and his throne was a flame of fire and its wheels were burning fire. 10 A stream of fire issued forth and flowed ⌊from his presence⌋; thousands upon thousands served him and ten thousand upon ten thousand stood before him. The judge sat, and the books were opened.
13 "⌊I continued watching⌋ in the visions of the night, and look, with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man was coming, and he came to the Ancient of Days, and ⌊was presented⌋ before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all the peoples, the nations, and languages would serve him; his dominion is a dominion ⌊without end⌋ that will not cease, and his kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.

To use Boyarin’s words, this was “the pumping heart” of the 2nd Temple discourse. The Ancient of days, (God and, for many, the Father), the thrones (plural, logic would dictate only one throne, God’s throne), and the kicker, “son of man,” a human riding on the clouds who is given what? The incarnation was also in the discussion, and it’s all there.
dominion and glory and kingship that all the peoples, the nations, and languages would serve him; his dominion is a dominion ⌊without end⌋ that will not cease, and his kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.
If you recall, I believe that it was when Jesus identified himself as the “son of man” that he sealed his fate with the Sanhedrin: Matt 26:63-66LEB

63 But Jesus was silent. And the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath by the living God, that you tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God!” 64 Jesus said to him, "You have said it.* But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." 65 Then the high priest tore his robes, saying, “He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have just now heard the blasphemy! 66 What do you think?” And they answered and* said, “⌊He deserves death⌋!”

Going back to the son of God, it is safe to say that this would have irritated the Romans much more than the Israelites.


Appreciate your reply, @jimmy! It’s helpful that you brought “Son of Man” into the mix. When I did a quick concordance search of that phrase, I saw that it was used much more often in the Gospels than “Son of God”. Yet, 1 John focuses much more on “Son of God”. So many things to ponderrrrr… :thinking:


To shed more light on " son of man," “son of God,” and Messiah, I should have stressed that the terms were synonymous in the 2nd Temple parlance. Not everyone agreed, but if you used this language in conversation about Dan 7 or 3 Enoch, the participants could follow along and still hang on to their views.
I will stick my neck out on that by the time John put pen to parchment, the terms that applied to Jesus were best expressed as “Son of God.”

Thoughts, comments?


Just a few more thoughts regarding the usage of ‘Son of Man’, according to Michael Bird in How God became Jesus, *Ch 3. Did Jesus Think He was God?:

  1. Daniel 7:13-14

“Daniel 7 was a crucial influence on Jewish and Christian messianism as it designated a human figure with royal and transcendent qulaities who is enthroned beside God, and is even worshipped alongside God…The ‘one like a son of man’ is a multivalent symbol for God’s kingdom, God’s king, and God’s people. That is why the figure is closely connected with God’s reign…”

  1. In apolocolyptic literature like 1 Enoch 37-71

"Daniel’s ‘son of man’ was given an explicit messianic interpretation in apocolyptic literature like 1 En. 37-71, 4Q246 from the Qumran scrolls, obviously the Gospels, the book of Revelation, and the post-70 CE apolocolypse 4 Ezra. In the developing tradition, the Son of Man was also regarded as a heavenly and preexistent being.

  1. In the 4 Gospels

“It is in multiple sources like Mark, Q, John, and even the Gospel of Thomas.”

  1. The early church - an interesting twist

"The title ‘Son of Man’ was not even the church’s preferred way of referring to Jesus. It occurs nowhere in Paul’s letters, and it appears only four times in the entire New Testament outside of the Gospels (Acts 7:56, Heb 2:6, Rev 1:13, 14:14)

So what we see is a transition from the usage of ‘Son of Man’ before and during Jesus’ ministry to ‘Son of God’ after his ascension. As @jimmy said, they both imply the same thing, so why the change in terminology?

The title ‘Son of Man’ could also be used with a generic meaning of ‘humanity’, ‘a man’, ‘someone’ or ‘this man’ (in Aramaic bar enash). E.g. Luke 9:58, Luke 7:33-34. Michael bird suggests that this ‘ambiguity’ was

“a deliberately cryptic way of speaking about his messianic identity but still ambiguous enough to avoid creating a needless provocation to his royal aspirations.”

By the time Jesus had died, risen and ascended, there was no need to avoid ambiguity, hence the dropping of the title ‘Son of Man’ in preference for ‘Son of God’. The closest Jesus gets to of clearing away any ambiguity of ‘Son of Man’ before his death is at his trial when the high priest asks him “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tore his clothes. “why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as worthy of death. (Mark 14:61b-64)

The ‘blasphemy’ is not only the use of ‘I am’ - the divine name of Yahweh given to Moses in Exodus 3, - but also, according to Bird, “the conflation of Ps 110:1 and Daniel 7:13 with the implication that he was going to be - or was already being - enthroned with God.” Basically, where Son of Man could be taken ambiguously beforehand, just to keep a check on his arrest happening too early in his ministry, Jesus now removes that ambiguity to state clearly what he’s been referring to himself as the whole time. It’s too much for the High Priest, hence the condemnation.

Reading about that certainly helped me see a bit more nuance in the terms ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of God’. I hope that helps your line of questions too :slightly_smiling_face:


So very helpful, thank you to you both! And, can I add, an appropriate line to ponder as we enter Holy Week. :smile: