On Palm (or Passion) Sunday, my church presented a play in which the congregation took the part of a jury in a trial in which Jesus stood accused before the high priest Caiaphas of acting with demonic power in transformational miracles involving a herd of pigs, celebratory wine, and the resuscitation of a corpse. It ended with Jesus being asked the question, “Are you the son of God?” Jesus answered, “I am.” Then he adds, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
But did Jesus ever make this claim? Did he consider himself the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of the Jews, and the Son of Man?
The text that makes this claim is Mark 14:60-62.
Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ 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.”’
(Note that Jesus’ response contains two quotations)
So Jesus answers in the affirmative to two political titles—Messiah and son of God (the Blessed One)—both of which refer to the anointed king of Israel (or king of “the Jews”) or to a military leader who wants to take the kingship by force. In the context of a nation controlled by Rome, it is a title of revolution and rebellion.
In addition Jesus adds two statements about the Son of Man, an apocalyptic figure who was expected to usher in a day of judgment—vindicating the faithful people of God (Israel) and punishing their oppressors (fill in the blank). In Mark’s gospel, these statements are indented and placed in quotation marks. My study Bible suggests that the quotations derive from the poetry of Psalm 110 (sitting at the right hand of power) and Daniel 7 (coming with the clouds of heaven).
Yahweh says to my lord,
‘Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.’ (Psalm 110:1)
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven. (Daniel 7:13-14)
Interestingly, Psalm 110 later clarifies the violent role of the one who sits at the right hand of Yahweh:
He will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgement among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter heads over the wide earth. (Psalm 110:5-6)
The play ends here, but in Mark’s gospel, the trial before Caiaphas is then followed by another trial before Pontius Pilate.
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed. (Mark 15:1-5)
Matthew and Luke parallel Jesus’ response to Pilate.
Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You say so.’ (Matthew 27:11)
Then Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ He answered, ‘You say so.’ (Luke 23:3)
So in Mark’s gospel Jesus answers the charges affirmatively to Caiaphas—“I am”— but in Pilate’s presence he makes no such claim—“You say so.”
Mark’s gospel is, in fact, the only one in which Jesus ever answers the question about a claim to messiahship affirmatively to Caiaphas. The other writers have him answer in a manner similar to his response to Pilate.
Then the high priest said to him, ‘I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. (Matthew 26:63-64)
When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council. They said, ‘If you are the Messiah, tell us.’ He replied, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer… All of them asked, ‘Are you, then, the Son of God?’ He said to them, ‘You say that I am.’ (Luke 22:66-70)
John’s gospel, of course, is very different. It is Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who questions Jesus, but he never confronts him with the role of Messiah.
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.’ When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’ (John 18:19-23)
So why does Jesus say “I am” to Caiaphas in Mark’s gospel but deflects the question in every other trial account? Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out that in the Greek text of Mark’s gospel the answer can be read either as “I am” or “Am I?” It can be interpreted either as an affirmation or a question. Big difference. Mark’s gospel is the earliest one written, so it carries some weight of authenticity, but the later writers who used Mark as their starting point clarified Jesus response (“You say so”) in a way that the question (“Am I?”) seems more likely than the affirmation (“I am”). If we take the reading by Borg and Crossan as plausible, then all of Jesus’ answers in both trials are consistent: Am I?… You say so… You say that I am…
Although Jesus probably never claimed to be the son of God, all of the gospel writers believed that he was.
huios theou—the son of God
Two different Greek words are translated as ‘son’ in English. The first, teknon (tek′-non), refers to a child of either sex by physical descent—a biological son or daughter. The second, huios (hwee-os′), is a legal descriptor for an heir, often by adoption. When the New Testament writers speak of Jesus as the son of God, they employ the Greek phrase huios theou (hwee-os′ theh′-oo)—theou meaning God. Thus, Jesus is the adopted son of God. Similarly, the plural version of the phrase, huioi theou (hwee-oh′-ee theh′-oo), is used for the followers of Jesus who are called the adopted ‘sons of God’ (or ‘children of God,’ if you prefer). Singular or plural, it has the same meaning about the relationship to God. Divine paternity is purely a metaphoric relationship, not biological. Paul stated that anyone who is ‘led by the spirit of God’ becomes God’s adopted child. (Romans 8:14)
In the Hebrew Bible, the word ‘son’—ben (pronounced bane)—was often used as a metaphor for a close connection or intimate relationship, so the Hebrew phrase ‘son of wickedness’ meant a wicked man and the ‘son of a bow’ was an arrow. The phrases ‘son of God’—ben ha’Elohim (bane hah-el-o-heem′)—and ‘sons of God’—bene ha’Elohim (ben-ay’ hah-el-o-heem′)—implied a special relationship to God. In most ancient temple-states—like those of Sumer, Akkadia, Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, and Israel—the ruler was considered an earthly representative of the national god, often regarded as the appointed or adopted son of the god. In some cases, the ruler was seen as a living manifestation of the god, but this was not the case in Israel. Throughout the ancient world, the expression ‘son of God’ was not a term of divinity—it was a label for a political leader. In ancient Hebrew culture, the term ‘son of God,’ referred primarily to the anointed king of Israel. For instance, Psalm 2 was written for the coronation of a king at Mount Zion, the prominent hill located at the center of ancient Jerusalem. This was a song written for an adoption ceremony. In this poem, the psalmist has Yahweh declare:
I have anointed my king on Zion, my holy mountain. I will proclaim the decree of Yahweh: You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery. (Psalm 2:6-8)
The son of God in this poem is envisioned as a mighty warrior who is destined to become an iron-fisted ruler of the surrounding nations. In a temple-state, consummate military and political power was seen as a necessary prerequisite for divine sonship. Who else would be worthy of the title? As one Roman writer pointed out, certainly not a peasant born in a stable.
Messiah / Christ
The term ‘son of God’ was tightly intertwined throughout ancient Jewish history with idea of the messiah. The term messiah comes from the Hebrew mashiach (maw-shee’-akh). It means anointed or the anointed one. The Greek translation is christos (khris-tos′), from which we get the word Christ. In ancient Israel and other Near Eastern nations, prophets, priests, and especially kings were anointed with olive oil that was poured over their heads as a sign that they were being commissioned to play a significant and holy function as a representative of God.
Early on, some followers of Jesus began to believe that he was the Jewish messiah—a long-awaited military conqueror and king who would bring their nation to victory and glory after centuries of subjugation. Perhaps that idea took shape even before his death. Certainly that is the image that presents itself in the gospel of Mark. According to Mark, as Jesus walked toward the city of Caesarea Philippi that lies north of the Sea of Galilee, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Some of the disciples replied, “John the Baptist.” Others said “Elijah” or “One of the prophets”—all references to contemporary and ancient prophets, not regal or military figures. Jesus persisted: “But who do you say that I am?” Only Simon Peter answered him: “You are the messiah.” In both Mark’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus declines to confirm or deny Peter’s confession. He simply orders his disciples not to discuss this conversation with anyone. Matthew, however, expands the episode—first having Jesus praise Peter and then claim that this confession would become the basis of his future church—and then sternly ordering the disciples to tell no one of this revelation. Why keep this belief a secret? Because it was a dangerously seditious claim. The messiah was not a spiritual or religious figure, but a decidedly political one.
Yet, similar to the title ‘son of God.’ Jesus never claimed the title of ‘messiah’—he never spoke of himself in that term—but as indicated in the gospels, at least Peter believed Jesus fulfilled the role. In the end, Jesus was executed because powerful figures in Jewish society were frightened that a messianic figure—whether self-proclaimed or acclaimed by others—could lead to civil strife if he incited a popular messianic movement aimed at violent revolution. For the Apostle Paul, Jesus was also seen as the messiah. Writing in Greek, Paul called Jesus ‘the Christ’—sometimes using his name and title so tightly linked (‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Christ Jesus’) that the Christ was no longer simply a title or role, but part of Jesus’ resurrected identity. Jesus was seen by the early church as the Christ, the son of God.
Because, the term ‘son of God’ was generally used to refer to a king or an emperor, it carried a powerful political significance. In Paul’s hands, calling Jesus ‘the son of God’ was a clear political critique of the Roman Empire and of its current leader, whether it was Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, or Nero, all of whom ruled during Paul’s lifetime.
In 42 BCE, two years after the death of Julius Caesar (100 – 44 BCE), the Roman Senate declared the assassinated Roman dictator to be Divus Ilulius (dee′-voos ee-loo′-li-oos) or the “deified Julius,” elevating him to the status of a god. Later, his adopted son Octavian (63 BCE – 14 CE) was deemed by the Senate to be Divi Filius (dee′-vee fee′-li-oos), or “son of the divine one.” When Octavian became the first Roman emperor, known by the title Augustus Caesar, he ushered in an era of peace and stability—the Pax Romana or Roman Peace—which allowed the devastated lands and economy of Rome to flourish once again. As a military leader, Octavian had ended a disastrous civil war by defeating his political rivals through a decisive military victory. In response, the Senate of Rome awarded him the title Augustus (ow-goos′-toos) a religious description meaning “the illustrious one” or “the revered one.” Due to his immense military and political power, and in recognition of the benefits that he had restored to the social fabric, Augustus soon became the central character in a Roman imperial religion. He was worshipped and revered throughout the Roman Empire as ‘the son of god,’ ‘the king of kings,’ ‘the lord of lords,’ ‘the prince of peace,’ and ‘the savior of all mankind.’ As we know, these terms were later applied to Jesus, beginning with the writings of the Apostle Paul and amplified in the book of Revelation. Giving these titles to Jesus was a form of countercultural religious and social protest by the early Jesus movement, a reaction to the kind of power and divinity that Augustus Caesar represented. As we stated in an earlier chapter, the mythology that developed around Augustus included the story that his birth was the result of a miraculous conception. Octavian’s mother Atia was reportedly impregnated by the god Apollo who came to her in the form of a serpent as she slept. Thus, according to the religious traditions of the empire, not only was Augustus the adopted son of a divine emperor, he was also the biological son of Apollo—who was the Roman god of light and sun, truth and prophecy, healing and plague, music and poetry.
When Paul called Jesus ‘the Son of God,’ he was making a decidedly anti-imperial statement that contrasted the servanthood and nonviolence of this peasant prophet to the militaristic power and iron-fisted rule of the emperor of Rome. In contrast to the Pax Romana, Jesus offered humanity a different kind of peace—one found in a lifestyle of love, generosity, and forgiveness. It was a peace achieved through nonviolence and compassion, not through warfare and domination. It was a peace which could be found in a close-knit and inclusive community that demonstrated a special concern for the weakest and most vulnerable members in their midst. Jesus called his followers to a different kind of life, a qualitatively richer and deeper life, a more profoundly authentic human existence. In John’s gospel, this is referred to as an ‘eternal life’—not because it is a life that continues after death, but because it is a life that is transformed in the here and now and that reflects the character of the eternal God. For John, eternal life is a way of living that reveals the coming reality of the kingdom of God on this side of the grave. (See footnote) In the minds of Paul and other early followers of Jesus, the way Jesus lived reflected the way they imagined that God operated in the world. In the Jesus movement, God was not seen as an all-powerful tyrant who ruled through domination and violence—like a Roman Caesar—but instead, God was revealed as a nonviolent, compassionate, and loving parent.
In Paul’s mind, if anyone was to be called the ‘son of God,’ it should be Jesus, because Jesus reflected and revealed the true character of a compassionate God, while the emperor of Rome did not. In spite of all the propaganda to the contrary, the great empires of history—whether Roman, Persian, Ottoman, British, Nazi, Soviet, or American—have never been godly. They may be powerful, but they are never godly. The message of the early Christian movement is that godliness is not found in regal splendor, military conquest, and global supremacy, but rather in the weakness and vulnerability of self-giving love and compassionate service to others.
Paul believed that Jesus had become the adopted son of God upon his resurrection from the dead. Paul’s letters were written in the mid-50s CE, about twenty-five years after the death of Jesus. If we follow the development of this idea through the subsequent Christian writings in the New Testament, we see the divine sonship of Jesus moving back earlier and earlier in his life as the metaphor took root and grew. Fifteen to twenty years later, Mark’s gospel (written c. 70) moves Jesus’ adoption as a son of God back to his baptism in the Jordan River.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:9-11)
Another fifteen years later, Matthew and Luke (c. 85) place it at his birth, and in fifteen more years, the gospel of John (c. 100) elevates Jesus to a divine role in the creation of the universe. (Matthew 1:18-23, Luke 1:26-35, John 1:1-5)
In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
This represents a remarkable transformation of the status of Jesus as the ‘son of God’ in less than five decades.
an icon and image of God
As we just saw, in addition to calling Jesus the ‘son of God,’ the gospel of John calls Jesus the ‘word of God’—another metaphor. Writing in Greek, John used the term logos (log′-os) to refer to the significance of Jesus. Although frequently translated as ‘word’ in English, logos has the additional connotations of reason, thought, and wisdom. Pastor and author Harry T. Cook sometimes translates logos as ‘the creative wisdom of the universe.’ As a metaphor relating to the life of Jesus, it means that Jesus represented a fundamentally different way of thinking—a radically creative wisdom that his followers believed gave insight to the character of God. John, like the other early Christian writers, was using metaphorical language to describe the significance of Jesus. ‘Son of God,’ ‘Word of God,’ and ‘Lamb of God’ are all metaphors used by John, but they were never intended to be read as literal statements.
John A. T. Robinson (1919-1983), the author of the small but influential book Honest to God, wrote that…
…the New Testament says that Jesus was the Word of God, it says that God was in Christ, it says that Jesus was the Son of God, but it does not say that Jesus was God, simply like that… Jesus never claims to be God; yet he always claims to bring God, completely.
(Honest to God, 70 and 73)
Biblical scholar Marcus Borg said:
Jesus is for us Christians the decisive revelation of what a life full of God looks like. Radically centered in God and filled with the Holy Spirit, he is the decisive disclosure and epiphany of what can be seen of God embodied in a human life.
An epiphany is a sudden, intuitive perception or insight into the essential meaning of something. It causes us to see things in a new way. It is one of those “ah-hah!” moments in life. In this case, the term ‘epiphany’ simply means a visual manifestation of something that had been invisible. In an epiphany, we can see what previously was hidden. Jesus represents the spirit of the invisible God as seen and experienced in a human life. At another point, Marcus Borg refers to Jesus as an icon and an image of God. This comes from Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae:
He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. (Colossians 1:15)
For the early Jesus movement, Jesus put a human face on God. Jesus—who they could see, touch and experience—represented or revealed the essential character of God, who they could not see, touch or experience. John’s gospel puts it this way:
No one has ever seen God. It is an only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18)
The question I have now begun to ask myself is whether those who encountered and were radically transformed by Jesus believed that Jesus was like God, or whether they believed that God was like Jesus. Was it the character of Jesus that provided their image of the character of God? Did the alternative wisdom of Jesus compel his followers to see a selective image of God as a divine father figure who embodied the transformative love exemplified by Jesus—his essential compassion toward those who suffer, his sweeping sense of generosity, his pervasive stance of forgiveness, his fundamental dedication to reconciliation, and his overwhelming commitment to justice?
In the end, the play presented on Palm Sunday in my congregation unfortunately gave an inaccurate portrait of the historical Jesus. Did Jesus claim to be the son of God? It is unlikely. But many of his followers in the evolving Gentile church believed it was true, even if metaphorically. Over the centuries, Jesus went from being the anointed son of God, to God himself—part of a triune godhead. Marcus Borg refers to the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. It is a way to differentiate the historical Jesus from the cosmic Christ of the church. The church turned Jesus into something he was not nor sought to be.
When Paul and the gospel writers confessed Jesus as the messiah, it was not on evidence from his earthly life, but on a belief in a future role. What these followers anticipated and what they fervently desired was the quick return of Jesus in power, majesty, and glory administering the violence of God upon all evildoers and oppressors of the Jewish people. They imagined that Jesus would one day return as a triumphant warrior king—a real messiah, a royal conqueror. The mythology of the victorious Christ developed into a militaristic image of Jesus descending from the clouds in splendor and might to defeat the powers of the present age and to put all nations under his control. They believed that Christ’s kingdom would become the greatest empire in history and would last for a thousand years. The church transformed the nonviolent prophet from Nazareth into the Emperor Augustus.
Yet, in spite of the church’s theology, the historical Jesus—the pre-Easter Jesus—was not God. Still, Jesus had a relationship with God that was extraordinary. Jesus went beyond a simple belief in God, to live a life completely based on a powerful trust in God’s love and compassion. Contrary to sound common sense, Jesus trusted that God’s abiding concern for the poor and God’s passion for the least among us would someday triumph over the injustice of the world. Against all reasonable odds, Jesus trusted that the power of love and non-violent resistance would ultimately overcome entrenched evil and brutality. In opposition to conventional wisdom, Jesus trusted that human kindness and generosity would eventually transform the status quo of selfishness, greed and apathy. This kind of radical trust seems truly mad given the realities of a world beset by evil and suffering. It invites one to be an open target for the contempt and dismissal of intimidating political, economic and religious powers. And it inevitably calls one to become a willing martyr in the ongoing struggle to overturn the unjust systems of the world.
Jesus trusted that the radical change of the reign of God would not come about easily. It would require dedication, risk, and suffering. Jesus never promised that the transformation of the social, political, and economic systems of domination would occur overnight. He never proclaimed that a sudden cosmic event would magically change the world in the twinkling of an eye. Neither did he promise that he or his followers would live to see the change he envisioned. Instead, Jesus trusted that a life of compassion and service in a suffering world would make a progressively small difference, one person at a time, one act at a time, just like the action of a tiny mustard seed in a well-tended garden, or a bit of yeast in a large batch of dough. In everything he did and said, Jesus trusted that God would provide the courage and strength to help his followers muddle through the overwhelming odds stacked against the lives of humble people, trapped in poverty and condemned as social outcasts. Jesus trusted that the spirit of God would empower and encourage a powerless people to prevail over oppressive social systems that were created to serve the narrow interests of a privileged few. Jesus calls us to that task. He calls us to that journey. He calls us to that life.
Note: The Greek phrase which is typically translated as “eternal life” is zoe aionios (zoh-ay’ ahee-ohn’-ee-ohs). Zoe means “life” and aionios refers to the “age to come,” from the root aiōn (ahee-ohn’), meaning “age.” So zoe aionios is the “life of the coming age.” This is an earthly life, not a heavenly one, and refers to the transformed life of the kingdom of God. John’s gospel, which is the most frequent New Testament source of the phrase ‘eternal life,’ equates eternal life with entering the kingdom of God. For John, eternal life consists in knowing and understanding God and embracing the way of Jesus (John 5:24, 17:3). It is not a reference to an ongoing life after death.
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