Jesus in the gospels is often referred to as the ‘Son of God.’ These days Christians take this to mean that god had a literal son, but the historical Jesus would have understood the term completely differently.
The historical Jesus was a Jew. And in the context of the Jewish scriptures the title ‘Son of God’ specifically refers to three things:
- Israel and its people
- heavenly beings
- and the kings of Israel
Outside of the Old Testament, any Jew who remained faithful to the law of Moses and who revered Yahweh above all else could in fact be referred to as a ‘Son of God.’ This interpretation is confirmed in other Jewish writing, for example Jesus Ben Sira (writing c. 175 ce) calls on his people to care for others and in return “god shall call you son, and shall have mercy on you.” (Hosea 11:1)
When you think about the term in its Jewish context then it’s quite plausible that the historical Jesus would have been labelled as a ‘son of god.’ Jesus was a often hailed as a Rabbi and in his famous Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew he talks about the importance of the Jewish law.
The term experienced an evolution of sorts when it was taken out of its Jewish context. As the new religion spread throughout the Roman Empire new converts (former pagans) interpreted the term according to their own cultural context. To the pagan mind there was nothing inherently wrong in thinking of a man as a divine son of god.
Julius Caesar (100-44 bce) for example was officially declared to be divine by the Senate, and his heir Augustus (64 bce-14 ce) produced coins for propaganda purposes inscribed with the words ‘if father is divine, so is the son.’ Romans were encouraged to worship him as such.
In my book The Christ Conundrum I argue that the historical Jesus was a Jew. Therefore Jesus would have found the Christian interpretation of the title to be completely blasphemous. The Jewish religion, then and now, prohibits humans from claiming divinity.