For John, Jesus existed and was divine from eternity, which is what made him a special son of God. The author of Hebrews (1:2) states that God created the world through Jesus, which also implies that Jesus is eternal. But Paul and the Synoptists favoured different versions of an alternative doctrine that came to be known as “adoptionism.” This doctrine was widespread in the first three centuries of Christianity before its opponents succeeded in suppressing it and turning it into a heresy. It states that Jesus was adopted at some point by God as his special son.
Naturally, Christian theologians who believe that Jesus was always divine reject adoptionism. One argument they make is that there is no passage in the New Testament suggesting that Jesus became at some point God’s son (e.g. Witmer, 1998: 50). The fact is that there are passages each of which can only mean that Jesus became God’s son, i.e. his special son, at a specific point. It is also true that Paul and the Synoptists do not say that Jesus was eternal. Furthermore, they make statements that clearly disagree with the view that John promoted.
Although Paul believed that Jesus was a human incarnation of God, he also believed that Jesus became the son of God by virtue of his resurrection:
Concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 1:3-4)
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phi. 2:5-11)
In another passage that Acts attributes to Paul, the apostle is quoted as saying: “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’” (Acts 13:32-33). Here also God’s special fatherhood of Jesus is said to have happened after he was raised. Paul is quoting from the Book of Psalms in which David says that when God made him king He told him: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7).
Paul’s passages above talk about Jesus being a son of God but not necessarily a unique or only son. But since Paul believed that Jesus was already a human incarnation of God (Rom. 9:5, 1:3; 1 Cor. 15.47), he must have meant that the crucifixion and resurrection made Jesus a special son of God.
Mark, whose Gospel was written at least two decades after Paul’s letters, identifies a different transformation point that made Jesus the special son of God: his baptism. After being baptized by John and as he was coming out of the water, Jesus saw “the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” He then heard a voice from heaven say: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11).
As Mark’s Gospel starts with Jesus’ encounter with John, there is no earlier event that signifies Jesus’ special status as God’s only son.
Mark mentions another event in which Jesus’ special status as the son of God is stressed, which is Jesus’ transfiguration:
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. (Mark 9:2-8)
It is speculative to suggest that the transfiguration represents another level of exaltation of Jesus’ status, because the voice from the cloud did not add anything new to the words of the heavenly voice after the baptism.
Luke, who in Acts (10:37-38) links God’s anointment of Jesus with the Holy Spirit to his baptism, reproduces in his Gospel almost exactly Mark’s account of what happened after Jesus’ baptism. He changes Mark’s account slightly, making the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus while he was praying, not as he was coming out of the water (Luke 3:21-22).
There is an interesting textual variation in one early Greek and several later Latin manuscripts of Luke. Most manuscripts copy Mark in stating that after Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven said: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Yet the other manuscripts have instead this variant of the text: “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” Bart Ehrman (2007: 158-160), a leading authority on early Christianity, argues that this is what Luke originally wrote and that the text was later changed by copies who did not believe that Jesus became God’s son at baptism. The alternative text is clearly more precise in pinpointing the inauguration of Jesus as God’s special son to his baptism.
Unlike Mark, Luke has the story of the virginal conception, in which he tells us that Gabriel told Mary that her son Jesus “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32), and that he “will be called holy — the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Gabriel’s words may be taken to mean that Jesus was the special son of God from the time of his conception, but a more plausible reading is that Luke meant that the angel was mainly conveying future news, and the realization of the special descriptions of Jesus happened after his baptism.
Matthew’s nativity story makes Jesus special from the time he was miraculously conceived. This Evangelist states that Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18), and that the child she conceived “is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). This surely makes Jesus a special son of God. But it probably also elevates him to divinity in Matthew’s eyes. Quoting a prophecy of Isaiah (7:14), he states that the fruit of this miraculous, virginal conception will be called “Emmanuel,” which he translates as “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). But in this prophecy, which Matthew quotes here completely out of context (Fatoohi, 2007: 106-107), the name Emmanuel was that of an ordinary, human child whose name stressed God’s imminent help in destroying Judea’s enemies. This child was not divine. Nevertheless, the way Matthew used Isaiah’s prophecy suggests that he believed the child Jesus to be divine. This is in line with his claim that the wise men who came to visit the new born Jesus “worshipped him” (Matt. 2:11). It should be noted, however, that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life does not contain any of John’s extravagant claims about Jesus’ divine attributes. In Matthew’s out-of-context application of the Old Testament passage “out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt. 2:15) to Jesus (Fatoohi, 2007: 202), the latter is already a special son of God.
Matthew (3:17) introduces a small change to Mark’s story of the baptism of Jesus, making the heavenly voice speak about Jesus rather than to him: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The Evangelist (17:1-5) also reproduces Mark’s account of the transfiguration which, as pointed out above, does not seem to be particularly significant in stressing Jesus’ special status, as this had been established earlier. While the baptism story means that Matthew believed that some kind of elevation to Jesus’ status happened then, earlier details in his Gospel clearly shows that he considered Jesus to have been special from birth.
To sum up, Paul thought that Jesus became the son of God after his resurrection, Mark believed that this happened after Jesus’ baptism, and Matthew reckoned that it happened as early as the time of the conception of Jesus. Luke may have shared Matthew’s view, but he is more likely to have adopted Mark’s belief. The fundamentally different John believed that Jesus was the special son of God from eternity, although this should not surprise us, as he went as far as deifying Jesus and making him and God almost one.
Theissen and Merz (1999: 554-555) suggest that Jesus became the only son of God after the Easter experience. This is clear in the case of Paul. Whether the Evangelists, having accepted that Jesus was the son of God, simply reworked when this transformation happened, is difficult to tell.
Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John have different views about when Jesus became the son of God and the nature of this sonship. In fact, even within the same book it is possible to find passages that are so different as to paint a discrepant picture of this relationship and what the author really wanted to say, raising questions about whether he himself had a clear idea about these elusive theological issues.