Discussion of how this expression is used in the Old and New Testaments
Son of God. IN THE OLD TESTAMENT.—The title "son of God" is frequent in the Old Testament. The word "son" was employed among the Semites to signify not only filiation, but other close connection or intimate relationship. Thus, "a son of strength" was a hero, a warrior, "son of wickedness" a wicked man, "sons of pride" wild beasts, "son of possession" a possessor, "son of pledging" a hostage, "son of lightning" a swift bird, "son of death" one doomed to death, "son of a bow" an arrow, "son of Belial" a wicked man, "sons of prophets" disciples of prophets, etc. The title "son of God" was applied in the Old Testament to persons having any special relationship with God. Angels, just and pious men, the descendants of Seth, were called "sons of God" (Job, i, 6; ii, 1; Ps. lxxxviii, 7; Wisd., ii, 13; etc.). In a similar manner it was given to Israelites (Deut., xiv, 1); and of Israel, as a nation, we read: "And thou shalt say to him: Thus saith the Lord: Israel is my son, my firstborn. I have said to thee: Let my son go, that he may serve me" (Ex., iv, 22 sq.). The leaders of the people, kings, princes, judges, as holding authority from God, were called sons of God. The theocratic king as lieutenant of God, and especially when he was providentially selected to be a type of the Messiah, was honored with the title "son of God". But the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Elect of God, was par excellence called the Son of God (Pa. ii, 7). Even Wellhausen admits that Ps. ii is Messianic (see Hast., "Dict. of the Bible", IV, 571). The prophecies regarding the Messiah became clearer as time went on, and the result is ably summed up by Sanday (ibid.): "The Scriptures of which we have been speaking mark so many different contributions to the total result, but the result, when it is attained, has the completeness of an organic whole. A Figure was created—projected as it were upon the clouds which was invested with all the attributes of a person. And the minds of men were turned towards it in an attitude of expectation. It makes no matter that the lines of the Figure are drawn from different originals. They meet at last in a single portraiture. And we should never have known how perfectly they meet if we had not the New Testament picture to compare with that of the Old Testament. The most literal fulfillment of prediction would not be more conclusive proof that all the course of the world and all the threads of history are in one guiding Hand." The Messiah besides being the Son of God was to be called Emmanuel (God with us), Wonderful, Counselor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, Prince of Peace (Is., viii, 8; ix, 6) (see Messiah).
IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.—The title "the Son of God" is frequently applied to Jesus Christ in the Gospels and Epistles. In the latter it is everywhere employed as a short formula for expressing His Divinity (Sanday); and this usage throws light on the meaning to be attached to it in many passages of the Gospels. The angel announced: "He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High ... the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (Luke, i, 32, 35). Nathaniel, at his first meeting, called Him the Son of God (John, i, 49). The devils called Him by the same name, the Jews ironically, and the Apostles after He quelled the storm. In all these cases its meaning was equivalent to the Messiah, at least. But much more is implied in the confession of St. Peter, the testimony of the Father, and the words of Jesus Christ.
Confession of St. Peter.—We read in Matt., xvi, 15, 16: "Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven." The parallel passages have: "Thou art the Christ" (Mark, viii, 29), "The Christ of God" (Luke, ix, 20). There can be no doubt that St. Matthew gives the original form of the expression, and that St. Mark and St. Luke in giving "the Christ" (the Messiah), instead, used it in the sense in which they understood it when they wrote, viz. as equivalent to "the incarnate Son of God" (see Rose, VI). Sanday, writing of St. Peter's confession, says: "the context clearly proves that Matthew had before him some further tradition, possibly that of the Logia, but in any case a tradition that has the look of being original" (Hastings, "Dict. of the Bible"). As Rose well points out, in the minds of the Evangelists Jesus Christ was the Messiah because He was the Son of God, and not the Son of God because He was the Messiah.
Testimony of the Father.—At the Baptism.—"And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to him: and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him. And behold a voice from heaven, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt., iii, 16, 17). "And there came a voice from heaven: Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased" (Mark, i, 11; Luke, iii, 22).
At the Transfiguration.—"And lo, a voice out of the cloud, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him" (Matt., xvii, 5; Mark, ix, 6; Luke, ix, 35). Though Rose admits that the words spoken at the Baptism need not necessarily mean more than what was suggested by the Old Testament, viz. Son of God is equal to the Messiah, still, as the same words were used on both occasions, it is likely they had the same meaning in both cases. The Transfiguration took place within a week after St. Peter's confession, and the words were used in the meaning in which the three disciples would then understand them; and at the Baptism it is probable that only Christ, and perhaps the Baptist, heard them, so that it is not necessary to interpret them according to the current opinions of the crowd. Even so cautious a critic as the Anglican Professor Sanday writes on these passages: "And if, on the occasions in question, the Spirit of God did intimate prophetically to chosen witnesses, more or fewer, a revelation couched partly in the language of the ancient Scriptures, it would by no means follow that the meaning of the revelation was limited to the meaning of the older Scriptures. On the contrary, it would be likely enough that the old words would be charged with new meaning—that, indeed the revelation ... would yet be in substance a new revelation ....And we may assume that to His (Christ's) mind the announcement `Thou art my Son' meant not only all that it ever meant to the most enlightened seers of the past, but, yet more, all that the response of His own heart told Him that it meant in the present.... But it is possible, and we should be justified in supposing—not by way of dogmatic assertion but by way of pious belief—in view of the later history and the progress of subsequent revelation, that the words were intended to suggest a new truth, not hitherto made known, viz. that the Son was Son not only in the sense of the Messianic King, or of an Ideal People, but that the idea of sonship was fulfilled in Him in a way yet more mysterious and yet more essential; in other words, that He was Son, not merely in prophetic revelation, but in actual transcendent fact before the foundation of the world" (Hastings, "Dict. of the Bible").
Testimony of Jesus Christ.—(I) The Synoptics.—The key to this is contained in His words, after the Resurrection: "I ascend to my Father and to your Father" (John, xx, 17). He always spoke of my Father, never of our Father. He said to the disciples: "Thus then shall you pray: Our Father", etc. He everywhere draws the clearest possible distinction between the way in which God was His Father and in which He was the Father of all creatures. His expressions clearly prove that He claimed to be of the same nature with God; and His claims to Divine Sonship are contained very clearly in the Synoptic Gospels, though not as frequently as in St. John.
"Did you not know, that I must be about my father's business?" (Luke, ii, 49); "Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have not we prophesied in thy name, and cast out devils in thy name, and done many miracles in thy name? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me you, that work iniquity" (Matt., vii, 21-23). "Everyone therefore that shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven" (Matt., x, 32). "At that time Jesus answered and said: I confess to thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones. Yea, Father; for so hath it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered to me by my Father. And no one knoweth the Son, but the Father: neither doth any one know the Father, but the Son, and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal him. Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you" (Matt., xi, 25-30; Luke, x, 21, 22). In the parable of the wicked husbandmen the son is distinguished from all other messengers: "Therefore having yet one son, most dear to him; he also sent him unto them last of all, saying: They will reverence my son. But the husbandmen said one to another: This is the heir; come let us kill him" (Mark, xii, 6). Compare Matt., xxii, 2, "The kingdom of heaven is likened to a king, who made a marriage for his son." In Matt., xvii, 25, He states that as Son of God He is free from the temple tax. "David therefore himself calleth him Lord, and whence is he then his son?" (Mark, xii, 37). He is Lord of the angels. He shall come "in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty. And he shall send his angels" (Matt., xxiv, 30, 31). He confessed before Caiphas that he was the Son of the blessed God (Mark, xiv, 61-2). "Going therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost ... and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world" (Matt., xxviii, 19, 20).
The claims of Jesus Christ, as set forth in the Synoptic Gospels, are so great that Salmon is justified in writing (Introd. to New Test., p. 197): "We deny that they [Christ's utterances in the Fourth Gospel] are at all inconsistent with what is attributed to Him in the Synoptic Gospels. On the contrary, the dignity of our Savior's person, and the duty of adhering to Him, are as strongly stated in the discourses which St. Matthew puts into His mouth as in any later Gospel.... The Synoptic Evangelists all agree in representing Jesus as persisting in this claim [of Supreme Judge] to the end, and finally incurring condemnation for blasphemy from the high-priest and the Jewish Council. . It follows that the claims which the Synoptic Gospels represent our Lord as making for Himself are so high ... that, if we accept the Synoptic Gospels as truly representing the character of our Lord's language about Himself, we certainly have no right to reject St. John's account, on the score that he puts too exalted language about Himself into the mouth of our Lord."
St. John's Gospel.—It will not be necessary to give more than a few passages from St. John's Gospel. "My Father worketh until now; and I work. For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things which he himself doth: and greater works than these will he shew him, that you may wonder. For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and giveth life: so the Son also giveth life to whom he will. For neither doth the Father judge any man, but hath given' all judgment to the Son. That all may honor the Son, as they honor the Father" (v, 17, 20-23). "And this is the will of my Father that sent me: that everyone who seeth the Son, and believeth in him, may have life everlasting, and I will raise him up in the last day" (vi, 40). "Father, the hour is come, glorify thy Son, that thy Son may glorify thee....And now glorify thou me, O Father, with thyself, with the glory which I had, before the world was, with thee" (xvii, 1, 5).
St. Paul.—St. Paul in the Epistles, which were written much earlier than most of our Gospels, clearly teaches the Divinity of Jesus Christ, and that He was the true Son of God; and it is important to remember that his enemies the Judaizers never dared to attack this teaching, a fact which proves that they could not find the smallest semblance of a discrepancy between his doctrines on this point and that of the other Apostles.
Son of Man.—In the Old Testament "son of man" is always translated in the Septuaginst without the article as Greek: uios anthropou. It is employed as a poetical synonym for man, or for the ideal man, e.g. "God is not as a man, that he should lie, nor as a son of man, that he should be changed" (Num., xxiii, 19). "Blessed is the man that doth this and the son of man that shall lay hold on this" (Is., lvi, 2). "Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand: and upon the son of man whom thou hast confirmed for thyself" (Ps. lxxix, 18). The Prophet Ezechiel is addressed by God as "son of man" more than ninety times, e.g. "Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak to thee" (Ezech., ii, 1). This usage is confined to Ezechiel except one passage in Daniel, where Gabriel said: "Understand, O son of man, for in the time of the end the vision shall be fulfilled" (Dan., viii, 17).
In the great vision of Daniel, after the appearance of the four beasts, we read: "I beheld therefore in the vision of the night, and lo, one like a son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and he came even to the Ancient of days: and they presented him before him. And he gave him power, and glory, and a kingdom: and all peoples, tribes, and tongues shall serve him: his power is an everlasting power that shall not be taken away: and his kingdom shall not be destroyed" (vii, 13 sq.). The person who appears here as son of man is interpreted by many non-Catholics as representing the Messianic kingdom, but there is nothing to prevent the passage from being taken to represent not only the Messianic kingdom, but par excellence the Messianic king. In the explanation, verse 17, the four beasts are "four kings" R.V., not "four kingdoms" as translated by D. V., though they appear to signify four kingdoms as well, for the characteristics of oriental kingdoms were identified with the characters of their kings. So when it is said in verse 18: "But the saints of the most high God shall take the kingdom: and they shall possess the kingdom for ever and ever", the king is no more excluded here than in the case of the four beasts. The "son of man" here was early interpreted of the Messiah, in the Book of Henoch, where the expression is used almost as a Messianic title, though there is a good deal in Drummond's argument that even here it was not used as a Messianic title notwithstanding the fact that it was understood of the Messiah. It has to be added that in the time of Christ it was not very widely, if at all, known as a Messianic title.
The employment of the expression in the Gospels is very remarkable. It is used to designate Jesus Christ no fewer than eighty-one times—thirty times in St. Matthew, fourteen times in St. Mark, twenty-five times in St. Luke, and twelve times in St. John. Contrary to what obtains in the Septuagint, it appears everywhere with the article, as o uios tou anthropou. Greek scholars are agreed that the correct translation of this is "the son of man", not "the son of the man". The possible ambiguity may be one of the reasons why it is seldom or never found in the early Greek Fathers as a title for Christ. But the most remarkable thing connected with "the Son of Man" is that it is found only in the mouth of Christ. It is never employed by the disciples or Evangelists, nor by the early Christian writers. It is found once only in Acts, where St. Stephen exclaims: "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God" (vii, 55). The whole incident proves that it was a well-known expression of Christ's. Though the saying was so frequently employed by Christ, the disciples preferred some more honorific title and we do not find it at all in St. Paul nor in the other Epistles. St. Paul perhaps uses something like an equivalent when he calls Christ the second or last Adam. The writers of the Epistles, moreover, probably wished to avoid the Greek ambiguity just alluded to.
The expression is Christ's, in spite of the futile attempts of some German Rationalists and others to show that He could not have used it. It was not invented by the writers of the Gospels to whom it did not appear to be a favorite title, as they never use it of Christ themselves. It was not derived by them from what is asserted was a false interpretation of Daniel, because it appears in the early portions of the public ministry where there is no reference to Daniel. The objection that Christ could not have used it in Aramaic because the only similar expression was bar-nasha, which then meant only "man", bar having by that time lost its meaning of "son", is not of much weight. Only little is known of the Aramaic spoken in Palestine in the time of Christ; and as Drummond points out special meaning could be given to the word by the emphasis with which it was pronounced, even if bar-nasha had lost its primary meaning in Palestine, which is not at all proved. As the same writer shows, there were other expressions in Aramaic which Christ could have employed for the purpose, and Sanday suggests that He may have occasionally spoken in Greek.
The early Fathers were of the opinion that the expression was used out of humility and to show Christ's human nature, and this is very probable considering the early rise of Docetism. This is also the opinion of Cornelius a Lapide. Others, such as Knabenbauer, think that He adopted a title which would not give umbrage to His enemies, and which, as time went on, was capable of being applied so as to cover His Messianic claims—to include everything that had been foretold of the representative man, the second Adam, the suffering servant of Jehovah, the Messianic king.