Perhaps no part of the Injil (Gospel) arouses as much controversy and discussion as the title ‘Son of God’ which is used of the Prophet Isa al Masih (PBUH) repeatedly through the Injil (Gospel). The use of this term in the Injil (Gospel) is probably the main reason why many suspect that the Injil has been corrupted. I look at the issue of the corruption of the Injil from the Qur’an (here), the sunnah (here), as well as scientific textual criticism (here). The overwhelming conclusion from this evidence is that the Injil (Gospel) is not corrupted. But then what do we make of this term ‘Son of God’ that appears in the Injil?
Sometimes just hearing a term, without trying to understand its meaning, can lead to an incorrect conclusion. For example, many of my friends here in the West, react strongly and emotionally against the term ‘Jihad’ that appears so much in the media. They have been led to believe this term means ‘a crazy fighter’, ‘killing innocent people’, or some similar idea. In fact, those who take the time to understand the term will learn that it means ‘struggle’ or ‘effort’ and this can be a struggle against a wide variety of forces. Jihad can be a personal struggle with sin and temptation. However, its widespread use in the media focusing only on the one theme of ‘killing’ and ‘fighting’ has given rise to a distorted understanding. It would be wiser for them to understand the range of meanings. We should not fall into the same error with the term ‘Son of God’. In this article we will look at this term, understanding where it comes from, what it means, and what it does not mean. At the very least we will then be in an informed position with which to respond to this term and to the Injil (Gospel).
Where does ‘Son of God’ come from?
Many will be totally surprised to learn that the term ‘Son of God’ is a title and that it does not originate in the Injil (Gospel) at all. The writers of the gospel did not invent or start the term. Neither was it invented by Christians. We know this because it was first used in the Zabur, long before the disciples of Isa al Masih (PBUH) or Christians were alive, in the part inspired by the prophet Dawud (David – PBUH) around 1000 BC. Let us see where it first occurs.
2 The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed (= Messiah = Christ), saying,
3 “Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.”
4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
5 He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
6 “I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”
7 I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
8 Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You will break them with a rod of iron;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
10 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction, (Psalm 2)
We see here that there is a discourse between ‘the LORD’ and ‘his anointed’. In verse 7 we see that ‘the LORD’ (ie God/Allah) speaks and says to the Anointed that ‘… you are my Son; today I have become your father…’ This is repeated in verse 12 where it admonishes us to ‘Kiss his Son…’. As you can see, since God is speaking and calling him ‘my son’ this is where the title ‘Son of God’ originated. To whom is this title ‘Son’ given to? It is to ‘his anointed’. In other words, the title ‘Son’ is used interchangeably with the ‘anointed’ through the passage. We saw that Anointed =Messiah = Masih= Christ, and this Psalm is also where the title ‘Messiah’ originated. In other words the title ‘Son of God’ has its origins in the exact same passage where the term ‘Masih’ or ‘Christ’ has its origins – in the inspired writings of the Zabur written 1000 years before the arrival of the prophet Isa al Masih (PBUH).
Knowing this, allows us to understand the charges laid against Isa at his trial. Below is how the Jewish leaders questioned him at his trial.
Jesus Titles: The Logical Alternatives
66 At dawn the elders of the people met together. These included the chief priests and the teachers of the law. Jesus was led to them. 67 “If you are the Christ,” they said, “tell us.”
Jesus answered, “If I tell you, you will not believe me. 68 And if I asked you, you would not answer. 69 But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”
70 They all asked, “Are you the Son of God then?”
He replied, “You are right in saying that I am.”
71 Then they said, “Why do we need any more witnesses? We have heard it from his own lips.” (Luke 22:66-71)
You will notice that the leaders first ask Jesus if he is ‘the Christ’ (v. 67). If I ask someone ‘Are you X?’ it means that I have the idea of X already in my mind. I am just trying to connect X with the person I am talking to. In the same way, the fact that the Jewish leaders say to Jesus ‘Are you the Christ?’ means that they had the concept of ‘Christ’ already in their mind. Their question was about associating the title of ‘Christ’ (or Masih) with the person of Isa. But then they re-phrase the question a few sentences later to ‘Are you the Son of God then?’ They are treating the titles ‘Christ’ and ‘Son of God’ as equivalent and interchangeable. These titles were two sides of the same coin. (Isa does reply in-between with ‘son of man’. This is another title coming from a passage in the book of Daniel which we cannot deal with here since we are focused on ‘son of God’). Where did the Jewish leaders get the idea of the equivalence of ‘Christ’ and ‘Son of God’? They got it from reading Psalm 2 – inspired one thousand years prior to Jesus’ coming. To put it another way, it was and is logically possible for Jesus to not be the ‘Son of God’ if he was also not the ‘Christ’. This was the position that the Jewish leaders took as we see above.
It is also logically possible for Isa/Jesus to be both the ‘Christ and ‘the Son of God’. We see this in how Peter, a leading disciple of Isa (PBUH) answers when asked. It is written in the Gospel
13 [Jesus] asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 16:13-17)
Peter combines the title “Messiah” with ‘Son of God’ naturally, because it was so established when both titles originated in the Psalms (Zabur). Jesus accepts this as a revelation from God to Peter. Jesus is ‘Messiah’ and therefore is also ‘Son of God’.
But it is impossible, self-contradictory even, for Jesus to be ‘the Christ’ but not be the ‘Son of God’ because the two terms have the same source and mean the same thing. That would be the same as saying that a certain shape is a ‘circle’ but it is not ‘round’. A shape can be a square and thus not be a circle nor be round. But if something is a circle then it is also round. Roundness is part of what it means to be a circle, and to say that a certain shape is a circle but is not round is to be incoherent, or to misunderstand what a ‘circle’ and ‘roundness’ mean. It is the same with ‘Christ’ and ‘son of God’. Jesus is both ‘Messiah’ and ‘Son of God’ (the assertion of Peter) or he is neither (the view of the Jewish leaders of that day); but he cannot be one and not the other.
What does ‘Son of God’ mean?
So what does the title mean? A clue appears in how the New Testament introduces the person of Joseph, one of the earliest disciples (not the Joseph of Pharaoh) and how it uses ‘son of…’. It says
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:36-37)
You will see that the nickname ‘Barnabas’ means ‘son of encouragement’. Is the writer saying that his literal father’s name was ‘Encouragement’ and this is the reason he is called ‘son of encouragement’? Of course not! ‘Encouragement’ is an abstract concept which is difficult to define but is easy to understand by seeing it lived out in an encouraging person. In this case, by looking at the life and person of Joseph someone could ‘see’ encouragement in action and thus understand what ‘encouragement’ means. In this way Joseph is the ‘son of encouragement’. He represented ‘encouragement’ in a living way.
“No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). Therefore, it is hard for us to really understand the character and nature of God. What we need is to see God represented in a living way, but that is impossible since ‘God is Spirit’ and thus cannot be seen. The Gospel thus summarizes and explains the significance of the life and person of Jesus along this line of thinking by using both the title ‘Word of God’ and ‘Son of God’
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…
16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, (John 1:14-18)
In other words, how do we know the grace and truth of God? We see it lived out in the real flesh-and-blood life of Jesus (PBUH). The disciples could understand the ‘grace and truth’ of God by seeing it in Jesus. The Law, with its commands, could not give us that visual example.
The Son … coming directly from God
Another use of the term ‘son of God’ also helps us to understand better what it means in regard to Isa/Jesus (PBUH). The Gospel of Luke lists the genealogy (father to son) of Jesus going right back to Adam. We pick up the genealogy at the very end where it says
38 … the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God. (Luke 3:38)
We see here that Adam is called ‘the son of God’. Why? Because Adam had no human father; he came directly from God. Jesus also had no human father; he was born of a virgin. As it says above in the Gospel of John he directly ‘came from the Father’.
A ‘son of …’ example from the Qur’an
The Qur’an uses the expression ‘son of …’ in a similar way as the Injil. Consider the following ayah
They ask thee what they should spend (In charity). Say: Whatever ye spend that is good, is for parents and kindred and orphans and those in want and for wayfarers. And whatever ye do that is good, -God knoweth it well. (Surat al-Baqarah 2:215)
The word ‘wayfarers’ (or ‘travellers’) is literally written as ‘sons of the road’ in the original arabic (‘ibni sabil’ or ابن السبيل). Why? Because interpreters and translators have understood that the phrase does not literally referring to ‘sons’ of the road, but that it is an expression to denote a travellers – those who are strongly connected to and dependent on the road.
What ‘Son of God’ does not mean
It is the same with the Bible when it uses the term ‘son of God’. Nowhere in the Taurat, Zabur or Injil does the term ‘Son of God’ mean that God had sexual relations with a woman and had a literal and physical son as a result. This understanding was common in ancient Greek polytheism where gods had ‘wives’. But nowhere in the Bible (al kitab) is this even hinted at. Certainly this would be impossible since it explicitly says in Isaiah and in the Gospel that Jesus was born of a virgin – thus no relations.
We saw here that the Prophet Isaiah around 750 BC had prophesied that one day in his future a Sign directly from the LORD would come
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
By definition a son from a virgin would have no human father. We saw here that the angel Gabriel (Jibril) had declared to Mary that this would happen because ‘the power of the Most High will overshadow you (Mary)’. This would not come about by unholy relations between God and Mary – that would indeed by blasphemy (shirk). No, this son would be a ‘holy one’ in a very unique way, proceeding directly from God without human plan or effort. He would proceed directly from God as words proceed directly from us. In this sense the Messiah was the Son of God as well as the Word of God.