God’s Other Son

God’s Other Son December 22, 2017

Did you know that the New Testament refers to two Sons of God?

At this time of year, we hear a great deal about the Incarnation, and the Son of God. In the gospels, the title Son of God is famously applied to Jesus, and it clearly appears immensely daring, even shocking. All four gospels associate the Sonship idea with Jesus’s Baptism in the Jordan, but they differ greatly in how they develop it thereafter. In most translations of Mark, the phrase occurs in the opening verse, but that was probably an early addition to the original text. (This is a controversial textual issue). After the Baptism scene, the phrase subsequently appears in rather devious forms. In Mark 5.7, the amazing secret that Jesus is Son of the Most High God is revealed by a demon, who foreshadows the later human recognition. In Matthew, the phrase appears in the words of Satan during the Temptation (4.3). In Luke, the title is likewise attributed to Satan, and to demons, and to the evil humans at Jesus’s trial.

The evangelists might believe they are dealing with the Son of God, but they also know it is a weighty concept for their readers to comprehend. (John is much more overt). In the Jewish context, we assume, the language of Sonship breaches the inseparable wall that should divide human and divine realms.

We usually read such passages with Trinitarian eyes, understanding the title to mean Son in the unique context of equality with God, of being fully divine, and that may or may not be correct in the gospel context, at least in some instances. But there is a long story here. The Old Testament uses the concept of sonship to refer to angels, usually multiply (Job 1), or to fallen angels (Gen 6.2). In the Septuagint Greek, the Genesis passage tells us how oi uioi tou Theou, the sons of God, lusted after the daughters of men. The Dead Sea Scrolls include a reference to sonship in a messianic context (4Q246), but not in our Trinitarian sense. But that does seem to involve a human figure.

All of which brings me to a New Testament passage that most of us tend to ignore, because it is embedded in one of the genealogies that cause us to glaze over. Here is the sequence, which is centrally concerned with the Son of God theme. Luke 3 begins with the preaching of John the Baptist, culminating in the Baptism of Jesus, and his proclamation as Son, with the descent of a dove (3.22). We then move directly to the genealogy in question, vv. 23-38. And next, in chapter 4, there is the confrontation in the Wilderness, where Satan specifically tests the Sonship idea. (“If you are the Son of God…”)

So let’s explore that genealogy in detail. Luke traces the ancestry of Jesus back to the very beginnings of humanity, or as the RSV says, to “the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” The Greek text does not use the “son of God” phrase precisely, but that meaning is unavoidable. Wishing to avoid the endless “son ofs,” Luke goes back in various “ofs,” right back to “tou Enos tou Seth tou Adam tou Theou.” So we are told that Adam was son of G0d, and I am fighting to avoid the temptation to use the standard English capitalized form of Son of God, not to mention the definite article. (The Greek term for Jesus can equally be translated as “son of God,” or “the Son of God.”)

Significantly, Luke need not have used the “of God” phrase, since everyone knows that Adam was the first man, so why not stop there? He must have some reason for inclusion. This is also the only reference to Adam in any of the four canonical gospels. (Jesus does cite Adam twice in the Gospel of Thomas, but that is another blogpost). Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy that takes Jesus’s ancestry back to Abraham, and there is no apparent reason to go back further.

Obviously, Luke is not suggesting that Adam was a divine figure, or indistinguishable from God, nor is he advocating any kind of Adamic Trinitarian idea. Adam had indeed become an extremely exalted figure in the previous three or so centuries, as I have described in my recent book Crucible of Faith, but that did not imply divinity. So why does Luke cite Adam in this way? Partly, this might involve the analogy between Adam and Jesus that we sometimes find in early Christianity, where Jesus is a Second Adam who reverses the Fall of the first. (See Brandon Crowe’s recent book The Last Adam). Islam preaches a similar parallel.

But other agendas are at work, and it is essential to recall that these genealogies are not simply here for ornament: they are powerful theological statements in their own right. Reading them, we are meant to recall that Adam, like the angels, is a “son of God” because he is generated or created directly by God without human parentage, as in the case of the angels. In that sense, he has a supernatural nature, even if he is not divine.

Luke is surely recalling the Adamic precedent of a person born without human intervention, a special creation, and  by implication, that idea helps us understand Jesus. The gospel has already quoted the angelic declaration to Mary (1.32-35) that the child born without a human father shall be called Son of the Most High. And closely following, there is the recognition of Sonship at the Baptism, the event that directly provokes the genealogy. This is in fact why the genealogy occurs at this particular point in the narrative, and not – as in Matthew – at the very beginning of a gospel.

The genealogy then immediately reinforces these bold ideas, subtly establishing the vocabulary that will  be applied to Jesus. That genealogy even reminds us of that special conception when it begins by saying that Jesus was supposed or reputed [os enomizeto] to be the son of Joseph – as his readers already know not to be the case. It is almost as if Luke is assuring his readers that the Sonship idea presented in the preceding Baptism story is not that extreme – you believe it about Adam, don’t you? The Adam reference is part of a rhetorical strategy, almost a process of desensitization, to make a concept less intimidating than it would naturally be. Luke also goes further, specifying that Jesus is not just a son, like Adam, but specifically “the beloved son” (ho agapetos).

Reading these passages together does suggest the extremely cautious way in which even the evangelists dealt with the explosive concept of Sonship.

But yes, there is another son of God in the gospels, and his name is Adam.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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