God-Man Talk At Christmas: Jesus' Birth In Context, Pt. 7

During Christmastime, in the Christian tradition, we hear over and over that Jesus is God made flesh. To put it differently, Jesus is the "God-man". The traditional teaching in Christianity is that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, she miraculously conceived a child as a virgin and gave birth to Him. Thus, He was "God's Son" or "The Son of God". In the opening verses of Mark's Gospel, the nomenclature is used: Jesus the Messiah, "Son of God" (Grk: yios theos). It also appears in Mk. 5 (Gerasene Demoniac story) and Mk. 15 (story of the Roman Soldier at the cross).

Interestingly, this title is not unique to Christendom and it is certainly not unique to Jesus. Nearly 50 years before Jesus stepped on the scene, Octavian was already referring to himself as the divi filius (the Latin of yios theos). For the 30 years prior to Jesus' birth Augustus was also being called this. During the rule of Tiberius, we know that his ruling son, Germanicus, also referred to himself (and had others refer to him) this way too. Elsewhere in Greek writings, we find that followers of Asklepius, Dionysius and Zeus, among other so-called deities, were referred to as the "sons" of that god.

In Jewish literature we find "son of God" language in Dan. 7 and Psa. 110. A. Y. Collins has also written an article that shows where this phrase can be found in Dead Sea Scroll literature. Among Hebrew persons, this phrase seems to have been a reference to a coming Messiah. The fact is, in scores of documents and inscriptions, all dated before Jesus, this label is used. It is found in both the biblical texts and in extra-biblical texts; it is found in Jewish lit. and Graeco-Roman lit. as well.

So, what do we make of this? How might it affect the language we use at Christmas? To answer the first question, I would suggest, along with A. Deissmann, that even if the "Son of God" characterization originated in Hebrew circles, by the time it came to be applied to Jesus, that is, in a predominantly Graeco-Roman society and culture, Gentiles were hearing and understanding it in a bit of a different light than their Jewish counterparts (and vice versa). Not only was this a "messianic" reference, it was also a socio-politically subversive title (e.g. there is a new King / Ruler on the empirical playing field now!). Moving on to answer the second question: What this means for us at Christmastime is that while this title is not unique to Jesus, it still has significant meaning. Probably, it is not a title that refers specifically to the "virginal conception / birth" but rather, to Jesus as the coming Messiah, again, the "new" Ruler. In other words, at Christmastime, during Advent, when we use the phrase "Son of God" it is probably more correct for us to use it in terms of focusing on the "coming" or "arrival" of the Messiah and not necesarrily on the notion that He was "virgin born". It would have resounded in the ears of hte first believers as a type of subversive political mantra too: You don't have to submit to evil authorities, follow Me, I am your King.

All I am suggesting here is that when we use the title applied to Jesus by the first Christians, we use it to reflect on Jesus' advent, not necesarrily the way that advent happened. I realize it may seem like I'm splitting hairs here because reflecting on His advent leads to reflecting on His conception. However, many times the great theological truth of His arrival or coming simply gets overshadowed by how it happened. So, I am simply contending that this holiday season, we focus not only on the "how" but also, and maybe even moreso, on the "why" and "who" of Christmas. I am also suggesting that we do some socio-religio-political reflection; let us consider how Jesus affects and penetrates all of these spheres of our lives today. Also, think about how being a Christian during this season may cause you to be subversive to all sorts of evil and oppressive "empires"...even your own! But most of all, make sure you giev Jesus the praise and honor that is due to Him, the Son of God, the Messiah, our King. Merry Christmas!!!

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