Sonship of God and Blasphemy

 

All four Evangelists agree that Jesus’ claim to the sonship of God was considered blasphemous by the Jewish authorities (Matt. 26:63-65; Luke 22:70-71; John 10:32-36, 5:16-18):

But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” (John 19:7)

The rending of one’s garment is a Jewish legal requirement for hearing the name of God blasphemed directly or for hearing the blasphemy from the person who heard it first (Sanh. 60a).

One serious historical problem with these passages is that the title “son of God” was not considered to be blasphemous in Judaism (Theissen & Merz, 1999: 464; Vermes, 2005: 29, 101-103). It was not an act of blasphemy or a religious crime to claim to be a son of God. This proclamation could not have been considered a capital offence. This title is used in the Old Testament itself for various people, as we saw in Chapter 3. Pronouncing the four-letter divine name YHVH or speaking disrespectfully about God is blasphemous. This is an instance of pronouncing and abusing the sacrosanct Tetragram from the time of Moses:

Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be clear to them. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.” (Lev. 24:10-16)

According to Vermes (2005: 101), by the start of the 1st century CE blasphemy became specifically linked to pronouncing the divine name YHVH. Rabbinic literature categorically states that “the blasphemer is punished only if he utters [the divine] name” (Sanh. 55b, 56a).

Interestingly, John tells us that Jesus did indeed contest the accusation of blasphemy, although not on the basis of the fact that was known to all that the claim to sonship of God was not blasphemous, but by pointing out that the Jewish scripture used the term “gods” itself for people:

Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came — and Scripture cannot be broken — do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10:32-36)

Jesus argues that as the term “gods” is used figuratively in the scripture and hence does not break the law, the title “son of God” is similarly metaphorical and cannot be considered blasphemous.

The Old Testament referent in question seems to be Psalms 82:7, which appears to call some gods and sons of God:

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” (Ps. 82:1-7)

The Evangelists mistakenly believed that the Jews considered the claim to sonship of God blasphemous. Accordingly, when objecting to the Jewish accusation, Jesus is also seen unaware of the non-historicity of this claim, so he is made to use a different argument to defend himself. In other words, the Gospel authors attributed their later and different understanding of the Jewish concept of “son of God” as referring to divinity to the Jews in Jesus’ time. This is an instance of anachronism.