Continuatum a parte secunda.
In the first installment of this series, I presented the historical Jesus as scholars more or less agree he should be abstracted from our extant data; in the second, I traced the evolution and meanings of belief in Jesus as messiah, a multifaceted first-century Jewish political idiom that, in application to Jesus, has taken many forms from its first acclamation to the present. Another feature of the apostolic kerygma about Jesus, derived from the confession of Jesus as Christ, was that he was huios theou, Son of God.
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In the ancient world, there were many sons of many gods—and daughters too. In myth, the gods populated the universe with divine, semi-divine, and human children. The Homeric Hymns offer mythic rationalizations of the cults to some of Zeus’ Olympian children, like Apollo and Hermes; in certain cases, the ancients were conscious that they had imported these deities from elsewhere but invented a mythic spot for them in the pantheon as children of Zeus (this likely happened with Dionysos, who famously left Mesopotamia for Greece because they “only drink beer there”). Beyond such gods, the Greeks and the Romans worshiped many demigods, heroes, and divine men who were thought responsible for finishing the task of the gods in clearing away the Titanic forces of chaos, settling the oikoumenē of the civilized world, founding rites, cults, legal and societal norms, cities, and their ruling families. For the Greco-Roman world, inarguably the most important of these was Herakles/Hercules, the son of Zeus and Alkmene, who defeated monsters, traveled the known world (that is, as known to his ancient mythographers, trekking across Europe, Asia, and Africa), and was frequently recast as a man of great piety and philosophy by his later readers. Herakles was fully deified as an Olympian god after death according to his cult and myth, and was widely available at temples and oracular shrines around the Mediterranean; one could also worship at the local shrines of other ancient heroes, mythic, legendary, or historical, to appease their proud spirits or get their help in times of need. Other demigods were beneficent helpers in other ways: Asklepios could be called upon in sacrifice at the Asklepieion and consulted by oneiromancy for help in healing disease and damaged body parts, and in exchange we have thousands of ceramic casts of those things healed by the attributed intervention of Asklepios. Orpheus, like other demigods, descended into Hades and returned, and initiation into the mysteries he founded could provide a beatific afterlife, just as careful cultivation of the psychagogy he practiced through music could, in one’s own instrumentation and poetry, charm one’s hearers. Sometimes one could worship heroes as a family or ancestral spirit: the Heraklidae, for example, took themselves to be actual descendants of Herakles; Julius Caesar took himself to be the descendant of Iulus or Ascanius, son of Aeneas, and therefore direct descendant of the goddess Venus.
The Greeks and Romans belong to a wider trend here also represented in the ancient Near East, particularly connected to monarchy, and brought Westward largely by Hellenism. Ancient monarchs of Southwest Asia and Northeast Africa often participated in divine or sacral kingship, assuming either that the king was a god, partially a god, a god’s avatar, highest priest to the gods, representative of the gods, etc. on earth. The theopolitics of divine kingship were frequently awkward, and the sanctity of the monarch did not eliminate the real possibilities and frequent occurrences of assassination or usurpation that troubled the region throughout its long history. Pharaoh was a god: one could always get a new god-king if the current one was weak, mad, or incompetent. The Persian emperors were arguably the most impressive iteration of the concept as it filled Mesopotamian, Levantine, Egyptian, and Asian (Minor) consciousness: ruling a territory that stretched from North India (which had its own deified heroes, demigods, avatars, and god-kings in its myths, some of them beginning to become quite religiously important at the time) to the borderlands of Asia and Europe, the Achaemenid king outshone his Assyrian and Babylonian predecessors as a genuine terrestrial symbol of a henotheistic or summodeistic king of the gods. When Alexander tore across the East, bent on destroying the Persian Empire, it was partly in order to proclaim himself the king (ho basileus, which throughout the classical period really did mean the king, the only king worth talking about, the Persian king) of Persia. The prostration (Grk: proskynesis) he demanded back home in Greek cities was tantamount to divine honors as a god during his lifetime, which offended traditional sensibilities whereby the honors of heroes could be paid to living men but not the honors of gods, which were reserved for postmortem veneration. But after Alexander, worship of Hellenistic kings as gods spread throughout the East, from Alexandria to Antioch, from Pergamum to Pella. Alexander had been proclaimed son of Zeus by the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon in Egypt; the Hellenistic kings, too, were children of Zeus par excellence, willing to make cult statues to the high god in their likeness and vying with one another for the stockpiling of godlike strength and intelligence in their military and cultural feats. Alexander himself was mummified and kept interred in Alexandria, except on the special feasts when his corpse was paraded through the streets for worship in a Pharaoh’s sarcophagus. It was Hellenic absorption of Near Eastern sacral kingship that impressed the Romans, negatively and positively: even as Rome destroyed the Macedonian kingdoms, absorbing their territories as Roman provinces, the increasingly super-powered imperatores and would be populist tyrants aspired to something of the same glory as the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kings, desiring something indeed of their divinity. Caesar’s proclamation by the Roman Senate as divus Iulius during his lifetime reflects the normalcy that the awarding of divine honors to human beings, especially human beings who had attained qualities ancient people associated with their gods—immortality, power, beauty, glory—had already attained in Rome during the first century BCE, long before the comet at Caesar’s state funeral, the proclamation of Octavian as Augustus in 27 BCE, his self-styling as divi filius, or the oikoumenē’s state worship of the emperor’s genius and his family members while he was still alive.
Generations of Jews, Christians, and scholars from among both and neither have been tempted to insist that the religion of ancient Israel, Judah, and Early Judaism was simply not participant in all that kind of thing: no divine or semi-divine offspring for the biblical God, no sacral kingship of divine monarchs. This temptation, however, should be resisted, for this is very much the direction the evidence points us in. From the earliest, pre-textual layers of religious history in ancient Israel and Judah, when El and YHWH were separate gods and YHWH was fathered into the pantheon as the chief son of El (still present in form in the poem of Deuteronomy 32, though whether the Deuteronomist understood El and YHWH as distinct is improbable at his late stage), to the edited form of the Hebrew Bible in which we frequently meet b’nai Elohim, sons of God, both the Bible and the culture that produced it knew fecund deities, with godling children to boot. When El and YHWH fused together, sometime before the authorship of the sources of the Pentateuch, these were the divine children of YHWH, divine husband, father, and king of the universe, and Asherah, divine bride, mother, and queen. (Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s recent book has quite a bit of good material on this.) Moreover, those gods also had semi-divine children with human women in Early Jewish myth. To the profound embarrassment of some late antique and medieval thinkers, and still itching the collars of many a priest and rabbi today, there is exactly such a story preserved in the early verses of Genesis 6, an Israelite myth of the age of heroes before the Flood. That myth had a long afterlife in Early Jewish literature in the form of the Enochic texts, which explained the presence of evil in the world as caused by the divine halves or spirits of the Nephilim, the giant, demigod children of the fallen Watchers and their human brides, whose mortal parts perished in the Flood (the point, for the Enochic books, of the Flood itself). But the Hebrew Bible and related Jewish literature also has more positive demigods. Genesis 4:1, read literally, suggests that Eve conceived Cain by YHWH. The Enoch texts and other Jewish pseudepigrapha, like the Genesis Apocryphon, strongly suggest that the patriarch Noah was a demigod (1 En 106:2-12; 1Q20 2:1-18). Genesis 18 and 21 also suggest that Isaac was divinely conceived. The story of Samson’s conception, in which an angelic being comes to Manoah and his wife, strikes most scholars as being the conception narrative for ancient Israel’s most famous demigod, whose oral construction surely preceded his literary representation in Judges and the Deuteronomistic History.
So the Bible has sons of God, and gods, to boot, with divine beings that range from the heavenly and angelic to the human. By far the most important bridge among them are the Davidide kings, who receive a special covenant to be sons of God (2 Sam 7:1-17) and are made such at their coronation (Ps 2:7-9; 110:1-4). Here, again, older scholars and contemporary apologists often try to mitigate the straightforward meaning of these words, talking of the king’s “adoption” by God or his metaphorical divinity. These are attempts at special pleading for the uniqueness of the Israelite tradition: in reality, it seems clear that the Davidic kings thought of themselves and were remembered in the Hebrew Bible as sacral kings in the style of their Near Eastern neighbors, albeit on a much smaller scale. It is probably for this reason that some of the messiahs of Early Jewish literature were thought to be angelic or preexistent beings: in the preexilic period, the kings were talked about as sons of God with exactly that sense. It did not matter that the kings had ordinary births and ordinary human biology: by virtue of their anointing and installation, they had assumed divine qualities and been revealed as quasi-divine beings in human flesh, just like other such kings of their time and place.
Not all of the Hebrew Bible’s authors are happy with the memory of that exalted sense of monarchy. There are responses as early as the Elohist writer to this idea of divine kingship, suggesting that Israel as a whole is God’s son (Exod 4:22; cf. Hos 11:1). The final redacted form of the Deuteronomistic History blames the kings for the misfortunes of Israel and Judah. Where Isaiah himself had several royal oracles, Deutero and Trito-Isaiah know and say basically nothing about a future king; Ezekiel’s future “prince” (Heb: nasi) plays a heavily mitigated role in a theocratic Temple state run by priests. Second Temple Jews preserved oracles supportive of the monarchy and its divine status together with texts critical of it; hence the variety, too, of messianic hope, for future deliverance from sons of God both earthly and heavenly, more and less divine.
This background gives important context to the idea that Jesus is Son of God in the different ways that claim is made in the first Christian centuries. Paul calls Jesus God’s Son throughout his undisputed epistolary corpus; all four Gospels, too, call Jesus God’s Son; sometimes Jesus refers to himself as God’s Son, and otherwise refers to God as his Father and his disciples’ Father. Jesus’ preferred self-designation was not Son of God—which to Jewish ears could mean Israel as a whole, the king, a righteous person, an orphan, etc.—but “Son of Man,” the eschatological king in Daniel 7:9-14 and the judge/monarch of the Parables of Enoch (1 En 37-71). Yet there is some evidence of conflation between these figures and their associations. For one thing, the Danielic “one like a Son of Man” is an angelic being, as is the heavenly, preexistent Son of Man of Parables; as the angels were the primary “sons of God” in ancient Judaism (e.g., Job 1-2), it stands to reason that the “Son of Man” is also one. Moreover, the Son of Man does in each text what an ancient son is expected to do if he is the heir of his father; namely, take over the family business, in this case the viceroyal tasks of judgment and ruling from God, the “Ancient of Days” (Daniel) or “Lord of Spirits” (Parables). But in some texts, the Son of Man figure is openly called the Son of God. The Gospels are themselves evidence for this: the Evangelists, writing towards the end of the first century, use the concepts of Messiah and Son of Man found in texts like Daniel and Parables together with the discourse of “Son of God” found in other streams of Early Jewish messianism (like, say, Psalms of Solomon 17) to talk about Jesus. Paul never calls his Jesus the Son of Man, but his Jesus clearly does some of the things that the Son of Man does (comes with the clouds of heaven, where the saints meet him; judges, rules; etc.), and he does call Jesus “Son of God” in a Davidic, messianic sense (but also while believing that Jesus is a preexistent divine being). 4 Ezra offers a Jewish alternative from around the same time as the Gospels, in which a man riding on a cloud (an allusion to the Danielic, Enochic, and perhaps Evangelistic Son of Man? 4 Ez 13:1-13) is called God’s Son (13:37).
The New Testament authors call Jesus “Son of God” on the grounds of their messianic belief in him; they do so in a Jewish, Near Eastern, and Greco-Roman milieu where gods have offspring, including partly human offspring, and some are human kings. Moreover, they do so in a cultural context quite accustomed to awarding divine honors to living kings or would-be kings. There’s an example of this kind of thing in the Book of Acts: Herod Agrippa is speaking to the crowd and wearing royal robes; the people decree that it is “the voice of a god,” and Agrippa dies—Acts argues, because of the blasphemy (Acts 12:20-23). While the author of Luke-Acts is not alright with this sort of thing in respect to other kings, all of the New Testament authors are very supportive of the tropes of divine and sacral kingship applied to Jesus. But Jesus never reigned as king; he was not anointed with oil other than by an unnamed woman in the Gospels; where did his divine sonship originate? Paul’s Jesus is a preexistent divine being “in the form of a god” (Phil 2:6), which might mean that Paul’s answer to the question of the origin of Jesus’ sonship is prior to his earthly life. But elsewhere, he says that Jesus is “designated Son of God with power” at the general resurrection, which is almost certainly a usage of “Son of God” keyed to messianic status (Rom 1:1-4). Mark, the earliest Evangelist, does not speak of Jesus as a preexistent Son of God, and a straightforward reading of his Gospel would suggest that Jesus becomes Son of God at his baptism by John in the Jordan (Mk 1:11). But thereafter, Jesus does seem to be a divine or divinized being: the other scene where he is hailed as God’s Son by God, his Transfiguration in ch. 9, has him shining with heavenly light—a thing that gods, and angels, do in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, among other places. (This is a classic point by Adela Yarbro Collins, more recently reiterated by M. David Litwa.) For Matthew and Luke, expansionists on Mark, however, Jesus’ divine sonship comes not at his baptism but at his very conception and birth. Both Matthew and Luke have a tradition that Jesus is conceived by divine pneuma, in Latin, spiritus, the divine, fiery, aetherial, subtle stuff of which the bodies of gods and stars are made, the cosmic breath of God himself. From a Jewish perspective, informed by the creation story of Genesis 1:2 in which the Spirit of God (Heb: ruach elohim; Grk: pneuma theou) is operative in forming the world, Jesus’ conception by holy pneuma evokes both creation and the stories of biblical divine conceptions I mention above. In Luke’s Gospel the allusions goes further, for Mary, Jesus’ Mother—a maiden (Grk: parthenos) in both Matthew and Luke—is actively compared to the Ark of the Covenant; just like over the Septuagintal Ark, holy spirit, “power from on high” overshadows her (episkeuazein; Lk 1:35), following which she goes into the Judean hills, and John the Baptizer in the womb dances before her like David before the Ark entering Jerusalem (1:41).
What is going on in these narratives? Paul knows nothing of a virginal conception and birth; neither does John, who writes after the Synoptics, and this is most interesting given that of all the Evangelists John is the most straightforwardly clear and explicit that Jesus is the incarnation of a divine principle or entity, the Logos (more on this in a moment). The narratives of Jesus’ conception and birth bear clear literary allusive power to events from Jewish scripture and scriptural expansion to the ears of Jews and Jewishly knowledgeable non-Jews. First and foremost, Jesus is like other Jewish heroes who similarly had a divine conception or birth, like Noah, Isaac, Moses, and Samson in Early Jewish expansions on the Bible. Second, Jesus’ birth narratives deepen his relationship to past heroes through the actions that happen around him. Like Moses, the Matthean Jesus is hunted while still an infant by a murderous tyrant; Jesus has a stepfather named Joseph who has dreams that tell him what to do now and in the future; Jesus goes down into Egypt, and is brought back out again to settle in the promised land. By contrast, Luke’s story builds up Jesus’ significance as a locus of the divine presence, especially in the analogy drawn between Mary and the Ark, implying that the unborn Jesus is like the manna or the Law or the flowering staff of Aaron in the womb. To Greek and Roman ears the tales of Jesus’ conception and birth would obviously have evoked the stories of demigods and heroes sired by gods. This is true despite the apparent distinction between Jesus as conceived by spirit and the heroes as conceived in myth by divine-human coitus; the apologetic value of that distinction aside, it is not one that would have held in ancient rhetoric. Ancient people interrogated their myths philosophically, and their best thinkers did not believe in divine adultery; the heavenly conception of the heroes was pneumatic, not inseminated. For some, an origin like this would be the only justification for giving Jesus the time of day alongside the available options in ancient Greco-Roman religion, or alongside the great deified patriarchs and prophets of covenantal history. Each of these authors, divine conception or not, depict a Jesus who, as a divine and human messiah, is Son of God; where they differ is where they locate the temporal origin of that sonship, and its mechanical cause.
John’s concept of divine sonship is in this sense arguably the most exalted despite lacking the concept that Jesus was literally divinely conceived and virginally born (Jn 1:1-18). For John, Jesus is the Divine Logos, the secondary, intermediate divine principle of reality in Middle Platonism, and a secondary quality of the Stoic God; in Philo, the Logos is expressly called God’s firstborn son (). Logos theology in Early Judaism is another form of the binitarianism also represented by the Son of Man tradition, the concept of a more exalted and a more immanent aspect of the deity; the metaphor of Father and Son makes perfect sense in application to it. In this Johannine tradition, Jesus is the highest Son of God there is or can be, described indeed as god (theos) from the very beginning (1:1).
Christian theology from the second century onwards took its primary cues from Paul and John, both of whom assess Jesus’ divine sonship on the grounds of his preexistence and divine ontology or status, and both of whom speak of an elevation of both for Jesus after his glorification. In Paul’s Christological metanarrative, Jesus is hyperexalted to the supreme divine position over the kosmos in vindication of his humble suffering (Phil 2:9-11); in John, the Logos is a god (in Jn 1:1, the inarticulate theos), a deuteros theos, and is not the manifestation of God until his resurrection (ho kyrios…ho theos; 20:28). For Christian thinkers prior to Nicaea, this narrative implied an obvious subordination of Christ to God, Son to Father: Jesus was the Divine Logos, the deuteros theos and Son of God par excellence, God’s agent of creation and providence in the universe, in and through whom he, as the highest and most transcendent principle, accomplishes everything in the kosmos of which is the ultimate cause but from which he is ontologically removed. The question for the first Christian theologians, operating in a largely Middle Platonic framework of reality, as well as for their Jewish and pagan interlocutors and critics, was never about whether Jesus was God, as in, continuous in some way with the supreme divine principle (he was not, for their metaphysics); but rather, whether Jesus was credibly worthy of occupying a cosmic position that generally everyone agreed existed, even if they named it differently. Non-Jesus believing Jews spoke of the Son of Man and the Logos as a second god alongside the One God; but they did not think Jesus was him. On the Platonic scale of reality commonly assumed in late antiquity, Pauline and Johannine thought had effectively equated Jesus with the Divine Nous, the Mind of God which emanates from the One as the secondary principle of reality, containing the entire intellectual universe in which all the Living Ideas which are God’s thoughts reside, and which acts as the true Demiurge (craftsman) of the universe, the God of creation and providence in view of the One God’s transcendent beatitude and generative idleness. Pagans, too, agreed with the principle; what was at dispute was whether Jesus was worthy of divine honors, whether as a son of God or as the Son of God. Celsus, one of the first seriously learned (both in Christian claims and traditional intellectual culture) pagan critics of Christianity, argued that Jesus was not even worthy of divine honors as a hero, a demigod, or a son of God in the general sense: Celsus argued that Jesus’ thaumaturgy was effectively magic, and as any good, pious Roman would opine, Celsus held magic to be morally wrong and spiritually dangerous. Porphyry, the student of Plotinus and pagan critic of Christianity traumatic enough in the Christian mind to earn ample mention by numerous Church Fathers, took a different tactic. To him, the wisdom and sanctity of Jesus were obvious and undeniable; what was at issue was both whether Jesus should be reckoned anything more than simply a son of God among other sons of God, human and not, and whether Christian elevation of Jesus to the exclusion of traditional worship of the gods was morally justified. Porphyry wanted to integrate Christian confession of Jesus as Christ and Son of God into the framework of traditional Greco-Roman religion: his attacks were not against Jesus but against what he took to be inconsistencies in the intellectual framework of the Christian project (and it must be admitted that his critiques are not without some weight when read clear-eyed). Julian the Apostate would take a more Celsan approach, disputing the admirability of Jesus himself while also criticizing Christian understanding of Jesus as careless and innovative even against Jesus’ own teachings. But all three authors agreed: Christian devotion to Jesus as deuteros theos at the expense of the gods and without obeying Jewish Law, as the one Roman religion granted that cultic exemption, constituted a threat of impiety to the stability and divine blessing of the empire and society. Christians insisted that they were not, of course, suggesting that they worshiped God and Jesus on analogy to the co-emperorship of some Roman emperors and their sons, for whom they prayed (there is some observation to be made across the evidence here surveyed about how political and social realities inform, but do not circumscribe, culturally specific views of the divine).
Charges of superstition, impiety, and irrationality, from both Jewish and pagan interlocutors, drove Christian intellectuals of the ante-Nicene period to try and specify what Christians meant in calling Jesus “Son of God.” This reflects a changed social position of the movement, with increasingly less of a foothold in Judaism (where it had originated, but from which it had not yet either entirely disentangled or stopped receiving sympathy in some individuals and communities) and more exposure to pagan view, as more Greeks and Romans embraced the new cult first as effectively a mystery religion and now had to demonstrate its credentials as a philosophical school. The crown of these efforts, which otherwise comprise largely the Apologists, Irenaeus, and Clement, was the work of Origen of Alexandria, who applied allegorical exegesis and late Middle Platonic philosophical concepts to his reading of Scripture and so composed a systematic theology that has come to define Christianity ever since. But for him, in the De Principiis, Jesus’ divine sonship is still a subordinate status to God the Father: Jesus is also God, but he comes from and owes himself to God the Father, as second to first, subordinate to arche. It would not be until the end of his century and the beginning of the next one that the exact character of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus would become unavoidable as a central topic of theological inquiry. Here, too, changed social location dictated what theology needed and could do. Christians were now a publicly tolerated cult, per the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, and had the direct interest of the emperor in their affairs (whether due to conversion or not). Of necessity, they needed a common Christology in resolution to the Arian Crisis; they were, for the first time, able to organize a large-scale meeting of local and regional leaders to decide on that Christology in response to Arius. Most transitions involve some level of cost and payoff, and Christianity’s public liceity and rise to establishment and power are no exceptions. Something is gained by an imperial council that professes Jesus Christ the unique Son of God; something is also lost by it.
Nicaea was a response to a new metaphysical landscape in late antique philosophy. Where previously the fundamental ontic divide was between the intelligible realities (the One, the Nous, the Soul, the forms, etc.) and sensible ones, it was now between Creator and creature, cause and effect. In that setting, Arius and his successors took the obviously traditional position that Jesus as divine Son was subordinate to the Father and pushed it to its logical extreme, claiming that Jesus did not always exist, being caused rather than ultimate cause. The Nicene synthesis was an attempt to preserve the older form of triadic language, which acknowledged Jesus’ relationship to God as Son to Father, without reducing Jesus to the status exclusively of a creature, and thereby rendering impossible the work of creation and salvation the churches had traditionally assigned to him in their liturgy and theology. Crucially, this involved first demonstrating the incoherence of the Arian position and, second, imagining a way that the relationship of Father and Son could be something internal to the life of God the Creator. Arius desired to maintain both the traditional subordinationist Christology and the traditional soteriology, which maintained that Jesus offered salvation by granting participation in divine life, in the new metaphysics; for him, the One God was immutable and ungenerated (Grk: agennetos); the Son, by contrast, was by definition generated from the Father and subject to change, both of which implied that he was also temporal and therefore that “there was a time when the Son was not.” The Nicene party correctly pointed out that this would not work: the new metaphysical insistence on creatio ex nihilo, “creation from nothing,” which is to say, no external principle separate from God, required a rethink also of what “God” could mean or include. First, so they argued, Arius and his successors (most importantly Eunomius) had hit upon a partially true description of God as ungenerated, at least in reference to the Father, but it was, importantly, not a scriptural concept but a philosophical inference, and when prioritized as the Arians rendered it to describe God, made even Arian Christology impossible to maintain. For if God is fundamentally ungenerated and immutable, then the Son can no more come to be in time than God can become Father when he was not previously; that is to say, if there was a time when the Son was not, there was also a time when God was not the Father, and therefore God either changed to become the Father of Jesus (impossible if God is really immutable) or he did not, in which case the language of Jesus as God’s Son does not really convey anything that is finally true of Jesus, only something conventionally or seemingly true. But this would be to undermine the very epistemic value of the apostolic kerygma and the New Testament themselves as having any philosophical value in describing the reality of things at all, in which case Pagan and Jewish interlocutors ought to be heeded and Christian Faith abandoned as foolish. And if Jesus is not really God’s Son in some kind of natural way, they went on to argue, then he is not really capable of either saving or deifying and is not worthy of the worship that both Arians and Nicenes mutually offered him in the liturgy. To join us to the divine nature for the sake of our healing and salvation, it must be the case that Jesus, as Son of God, is homoousios with God, what-it-is-to-be God, but in a generated rather than an ungenerated mode, humanized, and enfleshed (to use the language of the Creed).
Three closely connected moves are worthy of note here, which both develop the kerygmatic Jesus into the dogmatic Jesus and simultaneously develop the Neoplatonic metaphysics in use by all parties involved. The first is to suggest that what-it-is-to be God, the divine ousia, “essence,” includes both the ungenerated and generation. Indeed, the Fathers drew on Origen to argue contra the Arians that the Son was eternally generated from the Father: because the Son’s generation was eternal, it also stood to reason that what was generated was consubstantial with that which generated. Second, generation (gennēsis) was distinguished from creation (poiēsis) and becoming (genesis). This was a genuinely novel insight: it is one thing to reproduce by generation, another thing to make, and another thing to be subject to becoming and coming-not-to-be, and what the Cappadocians will call in the postconciliar period the hypostasis or substantive reality of the Son is of the first category in relation to God, constituting a second instance of the natural category of the divine. Third, then, the Divine Nous or Logos—recall, a live category for Pagans, Jews, and Christians, but only associated with Jesus by Christians—was not an inferior emanation of the One, but a secondary mode of existence (tropos hyparxeos) of the One. Far from destroying the Platonic mysticism of ante-Nicene Christianity, Nicaea did something altogether different, by lodging the intelligible ground of creation within the divine Son, and thus anchoring the universe’s truest metaphysical existence within God himself. Indeed, Nyssen grasped most truly that the questions of creatio ex nihilo, the relation between Father and Son, and the salvific power of Christ were in fact three distinct aspects of the one overriding question of the God-World relationship. By asserting that God created the world out of nothing and that Christ was consubstantial with God the Father, Nyssen argued, Christians had to maintain the following corollaries: that creation is an analogical, finite manifestation of the Godhead reflecting the infinite manifestation of God to God in the generation of the Son from the Father; that because there is no secondary arche of existence beyond the Godhead, there cannot be any such thing as matter, for any secondary substance would be a metaphysical rival to God, and what we misperceive as matter must really be the Ideas in the Divine Nous radiating outwards; and that Christ’s salvific power consists in the union of the divine archetype of creation with the currently obscured sensible universe, which did in fact necessitate the salvation of all creatures, eternally known and willed by God in and through the Son.
The Christian confession of Jesus as messianic Son of God was thus gradually conflated with philosophical conversations both within and beyond Judaism about secondary divine entities, powers, or personae responsible for creation and consummation on behalf of the high God, sometimes touching on the concerns of Jewish messianic thinking but often exceeding it. By the late third and throughout the fourth century, Jesus Christ, Son of God was an equation of Jesus with the Divine Mind or Word that encountered a new challenge with a shift in how Christians thought about the relationship of God and World. The Nicene synthesis provided innovative logic for reading the earlier tradition, but in this new context, it provided the only possible retention of what Christians has traditionally believed about Jesus. Crucially, Nicaea saved the concepts of divine adoption and deification which were central to Christian liturgy and soteriology. Because Christ is homoousios Son of God, the argument goes, partaking of him, we partake of his divinity; hence, we too become “sons of God” by incorporation into Christ.
In the Roman world, adoption (Grk: huiothesia) was more than a symbolic or compassionate practice. The Romans took son-making quite literally and seriously: extended family members of wealth often adopted the sons of their less fortunate kinsmen in a situation where they lacked an heir of their own to allow for retention of wealth and title within the family; this is after all how Octavian was able to call himself Julius Caesar’s son, and therefore to mint divi filius on his coinage. But once the adoption took place, it was thought to have a literal force that we often do not attribute to it today. (Michael Peppard’s book, The Son of God in the Roman World, is the classic here.) In antiquity, to say that Jesus or anyone else was made God’s son was not to proclaim a fiction but a new reality, a change not only of status but of physical being and constitution; at least, if one does not hold this to be true, much of the promise of Paul’s own gospel of huiothesia is lost. In the course of 400 years, a good deal of ground between Paul and Nicaea had been covered: Christianity had emerged from the Jesus Movement, evolved into a separate mystery tradition and philosophical school in the Greco-Roman world, competed with Pagans and Jews for social space in a transforming political landscape, and by the end of the fourth century become the public cult of the empire that had executed its claimed founder and launched several official persecutions of its local iterations. Yet fourth century Christians were just as concerned with the preoccupation of their forbears some 300 years prior with the special relationship of Jesus to God and the special relationship it enabled for themselves.
Here, though they were competitors in premodernity and are still recovering relationally now, Jews and Christians can find some common ground: for while Jews do not intellectually depend on the notion that Jesus is especially God’s son, which they reject, they do have a concept of the covenant community of Israel as a whole as possessing divine sonship: and so, without intending any ounce of “gotcha” rhetoric in saying so, Jesus, as a faithful Jew among other faithful Jews of the first century, was minimally God’s son for that reason. Logically, the Christian claim for Jesus’ divine sonship depends on Israel’s and the common self-understanding of (believing, observant, at least) Jews as children of God. As several generations of pagan and Jewish critics pointed out to their premodern Christian interlocutors and adversaries, Christians cannot coherently claim to be adopted children of God at the expense of Israel, from whom the Christian Tradition itself is derived; though Jesus as God’s Son is and has been and will continue to be a cause of division between Jews and Christians (not to mention Muslims as well!), there is something noteworthy about the fact that the Roman Empire, which celebrated the power of sons of gods whose might and glory were anointed by rivers and seas of blood in slave-built marble monuments and parades of passion-drunk violence, came to worship with the highest conceivable divine honor a Jewish son of God who lived and died in abject weakness and shame. True, and unforgettable; Jesus’ divine sonship did not lead them where it should have, to a corresponding appreciation of his own people, one that might have made his ascendancy as son of God, if not finally credible for most Jews of the ancient world, at least perhaps a benign turn of fortune instead of the deep pain it has caused for Jews down to the present. But however imperfectly, the nations have found some degree of participation in the mystery of Israel’s sonship to God in the crucified and vindicated Jesus. Billions of people—a third of the world—now call on the God of Abraham as “Our Father” in his name; and those who have no claim either to be Israel or to replace Israel (let me be here unequivocal that Christian supersessionism is baseless and inappropriate to any thinking Christian Faith) can still think on Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah, Moses and the Israelites, Hannah, Samuel, David and the prophets as “our fathers” and “our mothers”—not first, not foremost, not instead, but also. The same is true for Muslims, who also claim to be children of Abraham.
For Christians, the mystery of Christ’s sonship is a mystery of belonging—belonging to God, and belonging to a covenantal history of God in the world—that is at the heart of reality itself. In Jesus Christ, the Christian sees the human face of God in the world and the world to God, of God to Israel and Israel to God, of Israel to the nations and the nations to Israel. This vision is distinctively the Christian one: it has not been shared by all, nor even by all those who acknowledge Jesus as Christ or even as a son of God. There is, indeed, beyond the dogmatic Jesus a cosmopolitan Jesus, the Jesus perceived by the world in response to the Christian proclamation that this Son of God has been installed as the world’s true Lord. And as Christians have worked out more of the logic of their evangel about the Son of God, “begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came to be,” all about him there have arisen likewise, like the ancillary windows of a stained-glass mosaic, a thousand reflections.
Continuandum in parte quarta.
Nota bene: As I am largely only finding time to author these right now from a cellphone and while rocking an infant, I’m unable to put the footnotes I ordinarily would. A Christological bibliography will follow the series’ conclusion.
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As so often, mixed feelings. I really like the second half, where the development and logic of Niceaen orthodoxy (from both a theological-philosophical and historical-material perspectice) is laid out. I've obviously encountered this argument before in Hart, and I substantially agree with it. I'm not quite as sold on the first half of the piece. Some of the connections drawn between Jesus's historical context and ancient Israelite religion seem tenuous to me. While I obviously appreciate the value of historical context (after all, I teach it for a living), I also know that premodern people lacked a sense that the past was genuinely different from the present, so no matter how clearly, say, divine kingship or divine procreation is spelled out in the Old Testament, we can't assume First Century interpreters would have recognized those concepts after several centuries of religious development. Basically, I think Philo's appearance was both late and brief when we consider that he was actually Jesus's contemporary, while the Deuteronomist (whoever they were) died half a millenium before he was born.
If there's one thing missing from this article, I'd say it's a discussing of what Christians believed they were doing when they worshiped Christ, and only Him. That's been an area of significant interest in recent scholarship, and some researchers (like the late Larry Hurtado) believe it's key to understanding how early Christians understood Jesus and his relationship to God. Of course, you can't fit everything or please everyone, and there's obviously more to come.
One last thing: You seem to have a distaste for scholarly or historical claims which suggest an unapologetically positive or exceptionalist view of Christianity or Judaism rather than a critical or skeptical view. This may be a purely academic instinct (maybe something they drill into you in Religious Studies 101?), but I can't help but feel that you end up underselling both Christianity and Judaism out of fear over overselling them, or even selling them at all.
Take all this with a loving grain of salt, of course, because typing this out one a smartphone with a sleeping baby in your lap should probably unlock some kind of Fatherhood Achievement. I look forward to the final installment.
Not exactly related , but peripherally - do you have any recommendations in regards to books that read Paul as a faithful Jew proclaiming Jesus alongside a discussion of Paul's view of ethnicity and the dissolution of racial boundaries?
I'm not sure if my question is all that clear - are there scholarly books that discuss Paul and the Jew/Gentile boundary, that don't project the traditional Protestant misreading of Paul onto what Paul is actually saying?