The Unhistorical Meaning of “Son of God” in the Gospels


On the 13th/October/2009, I gave a presentation to a group of postgraduate students and members of staff at the School of Philosophy, Theology, and Religion of Birmingham University, UK. The talk, which was part of their postgraduate seminars in Islamic Studies, was titled The Crucifixion of Jesus: History or Fiction? It was based on my book The Mystery of the Crucifixion: The Attempt to Kill Jesus in the Qur’an, the New Testament, and Historical Sources.

In my presentation, I reviewed problems in the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, the few references to this event in historical sources, and the Qur’an’s rejection of the crucifixion. Among the topics that I covered was the claim of the Gospels that one of the charges that the Jewish authorities laid against Jesus was blasphemy for claiming to be the son of God. Let me quote here what the four Gospels say about this:

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

But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. (Matthew 26:63-65; ESV)

So they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.” (Luke 22:70-71; ESV)

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

The problem with all of these quotes is that the claim to messiahship and/or sonship of God was not an act of blasphemy or a religious crime in Judaism. Many Christians do not know that the term “son of God” is used in the Old Testament but never to mean any form of divinity. On the other hand, claiming divine dignity was blasphemous. In other words, the Gospels’ unanimous claim is unhistorical.

What we have here is a case of anachronism, as the concept “son of God” is given a meaning that it had not acquired yet at the time of the reported event. By the time the Gospels’ were written, the divinity of Jesus had become an established belief, even though not for all who believed in Jesus. So, the Gospels present Jesus’ claim to the sonship of God as how he announced his divinity to people. They then go on to use this claim as the reason for the Jewish high priest and Sanhedrin’s charging of Jesus of claiming to be divine and, accordingly, blasphemy. In other words, the Christian authors of the Gospels attributed their later understanding of the meaning of the son of God to the Jewish authorities at the time of Jesus. The Gospels’ account is unhistorical.

During the Q&A session that followed my presentation, one member of staff argued that the Jewish authorities did not accuse Jesus of claiming to be divine only because he said he was the son of God — a term that I had already shown did not mean any form of divinity. He suggested that the Jewish leaders quoted to Pilate other sayings of Jesus that clearly confirmed that he claimed to be divine, but he could not provide a reference.

Actually, the Jewish authorities are not reported to have provided any evidence to support their accusation of Jesus that he claimed divinity other that their suggestion that he called himself the son of God. This fact represents another argument against the suggestion that Jesus claimed divinity. Let me explain. There are certain sayings that the Gospel of John attributes to Jesus that can be seen as suggesting that he claimed divine attributes. The problem, however, is that none of these sayings is quoted by the Jewish authorities when accusing Jesus of claiming to be divine! Instead, the religious authorities are said to have accused him of blasphemy only on the basis of his claim to the sonship of God. Had Jesus uttered any of those reported sayings in John, or indeed any other sayings that could be understood as meaning that he was divine, the Jewish authorities would have quoted them and used them in their attempt to seek his crucifixion. In their attempt to show that the Jewish authorities were aware of Jesus’ claim to divinity, which they thought would serve as proof that he did indeed make that claim, the Gospel authors ended up making up a scenario that can only be unhistorical.

But this is only one of many historical and consistency problems that permeate the Gospels. For many, including those liberals who do not believe that every word in the Gospels is inspired, these books recount the history of Jesus more or less as it happened. Yet as soon as one starts examining the accounts closely, that sense of history evaporates, leaving one with the inevitable conclusion that these sources are no different from numerous ancient documents that confused history and myths and propagated a version of history that never managed to happen. They became the canonical Gospels and other books were ignored, forgotten, burned, or banned by the Church because certain early fathers of the Church managed to make their views win the influence and popularity battle with their rivals’.

But is it possible that only four writers — Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John — could have dictated what billions of people over many centuries should believe Jesus said and did and what happened to him? To answer this question we only need to remember that it was only one individual, Paul, who did not meet Jesus or witness any of his sayings and doings who developed much of Christian theology!

Copyright © 2009 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved.


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