In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Son of God

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Israelite Kingship
  • Second Temple Judaism
  • Divine-Human Geneaologies
  • Roman Emperor and Imperial Family
  • Judaism in Late Antiquity

Biblical Studies Son of God
Michael Peppard
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0221


The title “Son of God” is most commonly associated with Jesus of Nazareth. In addition to being called “Lord” and “Christ,” Jesus was acclaimed as God’s “Son” throughout the New Testament. In subsequent centuries, the title gained more prominence, as the divine Father-Son relationship became a site of theological debate that culminated in the Nicene Creed. Other figures besides Jesus were also considered sons of divine beings in Antiquity. Within the Bible, the Israelite kings stand out as important. The narratives of David and Solomon, along with related Psalms of royalty and coronation, depict the Davidic line as distinctively related to God as sons to a father. The royal figures of neighboring cultures (Greek, Roman, Egyptian) were also imagined and presented as sons of various divinities. Though most of these were acclaimed as sons of named gods, the figure of the Roman emperor in the period of Second Temple Judaism did use the bare title, “son of [a] god” to portray divine ancestry and favor. In the New Testament and early Christianity, though, the category of divine sonship was attached not only to Jesus or other figures of royalty and power. Many central texts and rituals professed the divine sonship of all Christians.

Introductory Works

The title and concept “Son of God” has traditionally been studied by scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity. Most frequently it is interpreted in the light of Jewish messianic expectations. Some scholars also point to Greco-Roman heroes and rulers, whose identities often blurred the boundary of humanity and divinity, as fruitful sources of comparison. Hengel 1975 and Pokorný 1971 offer brief, organized surveys from a German intellectual milieu. Bousset 1935 is a classic that brings to light the Greek and Roman influence on early Christian understandings of Jesus as God’s Son. Hurtado 2003 aims to correct Bousset by returning to Judaism as the primary source of early Christology. The question of the eternal preexistence of Jesus as God’s Son often emerges as central, as in the historically minded survey of Dunn 1989 or Kuschel 1990, which comes at the same question from the perspective of systematic theology. Jüngel 1974 serves to remind historical-critical scholars of the metaphorical nature of the idea of God having a “son.” For a general audience, Ehrman 2014 synthesizes many currents of thought about early Christology and its multiple historical contexts.

  • Bousset, Wilhelm. Kyrios Christos: Geschichte des Christusglaubens von den Anfängen des Christentums bis Irenaeus. 4th ed. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1935.

    Classic work in the “history of religion” approach to early Christianity, which surveys various titles for Jesus and draws distinctions based on Jewish or Gentile influence. Emphasizes prominence of “Lord” and “Son of God” titles as Christianity became overwhelmingly Gentile. English-language version: Kyrios Christos, translated by John E. Steely (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970).

  • Dunn, James D. G. Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989.

    The foundational chapter (pp. 11–64) of this survey of New Testament Christology covers the “Son of God” as a concept in transition from Greek and Jewish origins through the latest New Testament writings. Combines a linear historical narrative for a theological concept with detailed exegesis and extensive citations of primary sources.

  • Ehrman, Bart D. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014.

    Presents to a general readership most of the historical and theological issues of early Christology. No chapter is alone devoted to divine sonship, but the topics of exaltation, incarnation, and relationships to parallels from Judaism, Greece, and Rome are covered throughout. In addition, Ehrman advances arguments about the possibility of understanding Christ as an angel in the New Testament era.

  • Hengel, Martin. Der Sohn Gottes: Die Entstehung der Christologie und die jüdisch-hellenistische Religionsgeschichte. Tübingen, Germany: J.C.B. Mohr, 1975.

    Deals with Greek and Jewish precedents for divine sonship, with special attention to sources from Second Temple Judaism. For Jesus, Hengel argues that divine sonship initially denoted exaltation, and other attributes (e.g., preexistence) accrued subsequently, by comparison to other intermediary beings in the Jewish tradition. English-language version: The Son of God, translated by John Bowden (London: SCM, 1977).

  • Hurtado, Larry W. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.

    Major study of devotion to Christ as an object of worship in New Testament sources. By marshaling biblical and Jewish resources to explain early Christology, it is consciously styled as a supplement or course correction for the Gentile focus of Bousset 1935.

  • Jüngel, Eberhard. “Metaphorische Wahrheit: Erwägungen zur theologischen Relevanz der Metapher als Beitrag zur Hermeneutik einer Narrativen Theologie.” In Metapher: Zur Hermeneutik religiöser Sprache. Edited by Paul Ricoeur and Eberhard Jüngel, 71–122. Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1974.

    In an exposition of the central role of figurative language in theology, Jüngel uses “son” of God as the primary example of the power of metaphor in Christian narratives. Introduction by Paul Gisel.

  • Kuschel, Karl-Josef. Geboren vor aller Zeit? Der Streit um Christi Ursprung. Munich: Piper, 1990.

    Theological exegesis aimed at discerning the origins of the idea of the pre-existence of the Son in Christian scriptures. A thematic supplement to the chronological investigations of Dunn 1989. English-language version: Born before All Time? The Dispute over Christ’s Origin, translated by John Bowden (London: SCM, 1992).

  • Pokorný, Petr. Der Gottessohn: Literarische Übersicht und Fragestellung. Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1971.

    Short book that expands on author’s extended article on same topic (in Reallexicon für Antike und Christentum). Provides solid, encyclopedia-style overview.

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