Son of God

I was having a chat with the homies about Christological titles and since my response is longer than the original format allows, I will put it here. The crux of the matter concerns how the Synoptics deal with Jesus’ quotation of Ps 110:1. This quotation, which distinguishes the messiah from the son of David, appears in all three Gospels. From Mark 12:35-37 (NRSV):

35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? 36 David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”‘ 37 David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.

According to Jesus then, the messiah is not the son of David but a greater figure than David himself. The challenge this presents appears when reading Matthew and Luke, both of whom affirm that Jesus was the son of David. In the novelty of the infancy narratives, it is possible to lose sight of the Christological foundation of the Gospels.

 

 

Mark doesn’t use son of David as a confessional title. It appears only on the lips of Bartimaeus (10:46-52), and is never picked up by Jesus, God, or the narrator. The three central expressions of Jesus’ identity in Mark are Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man. One or more of these titles appear at significant moments in Mark’s narrative. Thus, the narrator introduces his story by telling readers that Jesus is Messiah and Son of God. God affirms his relationship with Jesus in two theophanies, the baptism and the transfiguration (1:11; 9:7); in both cases Jesus is Son, while Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. Son of Man, however, is not a confessional title. Instead, Jesus uses it to refer to himself and from a theological standpoint it expresses his destiny: he will suffer, die, be vindicated and return in power. Thus, all three of Mark’s titles show up when Jesus answers the high priest’s question (14:61b-62 NRSV):

61…Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” 62 Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.'”

Jesus is the Messiah because he is the Son of God, and his fate as God’s messianic Son is that of the Son of Man. The most foundational of these identities for Mark is probably God’s Son because that is the centurion’s confession after he watches Jesus die. In order to fulfill his messianic mission Jesus must trust himself to God in death; that intimate relationship is captured in the Father-Son imagery and attested by the centurion.

Both Matthew and Luke retell Mark’s story, and while both change it in ways that affect the Christology by, among other things, identifying Jesus as the son of David, both must also deal with Jesus’ citation of Ps 110:1. Matthew opens his Gospel by announcing that the genealogy that follows is that of “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1). Some fifteen verses later, however, he subverts this identification by noting that it is Joseph who is David’s son, not Jesus: “and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah” (Mat 1:16 NRSV).

In Matthew the term “Son of God” is Jesus’ primary identification, just as it is in Mark. Although Matthew is keen to tell readers that Jesus is the son of David in passages such as Matthew 1, he is also committed to showing them that Jesus is the Son of God. Thus, the actual birth of Jesus is the product of the activity of the Holy Spirit, so the foundational identification is that Jesus is the Son of God. Then, Jesus is adopted into David’s lineage when Joseph names him, thereby reversing the traditional pattern for Israelite kings who were born into royal families and then adopted by God.

At the close of Matthew 1, then, it is important that the reader knows that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of David and Abraham, the Son of God, and Emmanuel; his mission is to save his people from their sins. A reader so inclined will then have a good foundation to track these ideas and come to a fuller appreciation of Matthew’s contribution to our understanding of Jesus.

Son of David naturally appears as an acceptable title for Jesus in Matthew. In relevant examples it is usually on the lips of the poor and otherwise marginalized (e.g. 9:27; 15:22), until it pops up as Jesus rides into Jerusalem (21:9). The intent of this bit of narrative theology is probably to indicate to readers just what sort of a Davidic king Jesus is – if he is acclaimed as king only by the powerless, then readers will not be expecting the traditional domineering royal figure.

Son of God appears as it did in Mark, in the Christological highpoints. God declares Jesus to be his Son at the baptism and the transfiguration (3:17; 17:5). Peter’s confession is expanded so that he now identifies Jesus as both Messiah and Son of God (17:16). Likewise, the three central titles appear in Jesus’ trial (26:63-64) but the centurion’s witness of Jesus as “God’s Son” is somewhat muted by the immediate context.

There are also some changes to the complex of ideas associated with the Son of God, several of which are particularly interesting. First, Satan twice tempts Jesus precisely as the Son of God (4:3, 6). In both instances, Jesus responds as a Son should, by obeying his Father against what might be construed as his own best interests. This obedience is evidence of the trusting relationship that will endure through the crucifixion when the onlookers, in distinction from Mark’s telling (Mk 15:32), will again test Jesus with his claim of a unique relationship with God (27:40, 43). That Jesus does save his people from their sins follows from his trusting relationship with his Father.

Second, Matthew is more explicit about the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with God (11:27): “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Third, Son of God and Son of Man are conflated (16:27): For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Finally, readers see here that Matthew understands the Son of Man to be the eschatological judge who will separate the wheat from the tares (13:41-42).

…and so on and so forth, through the rest of the Gospel…but it is good to be careful with chapter 1, in order to prepare one’s self for the rest of the Good News.