‘Son of God’ is a title used for Jesus in the New Testament and in the early Church. In the Old Testament, this phrase was used to describe the King of Israel, but in the Gospels it highlights Jesus’ unique relationship with God and for the evangelists it is the preeminent title for Jesus. Mark brings his Gospel to a climax with the centurion’s confession at the foot of the cross that ‘Surely this man was the Son of God’ (15:39). Key events in the New Testament (for example Jesus’ baptism, the transfiguration and miracles including the Resurrection) emphasise him as the Son of God.
To call Jesus the Son of God is not to suggest that Jesus was somehow related to God, but that Jesus is God. It was not enough to say that Jesus was like God in some of the things that he did and said, or that he became like God in his own nature — or, in the Greek of the time, that he was homoiousios (of a like nature or substance). Jesus had done what only God can do: he had brought people from wrong to right (from sin to salvation) and from death to a new life beyond death. So, people felt, he could not have done that unless he was of the same nature or substance (homoousios) as God; the Nicene Creed therefore
continues, ‘… begotten, not made, of one being (homoousios) with the Father; through him all things
It was not enough for the New Testament writers to present Jesus as a teacher of wisdom, or a liberator of the people. He had achieved what only God had the power to do. Christians believe in a ‘perfect conjunction’ of Jesus’ two natures, as termed a ‘hypostatic union’ by the early Church. This idea is dealt with in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of incarnation. For Christians today, being the Son of God is central to Jesus’ authority and role.
The resurrection of Jesus could be regarded as evidence of this unique relationship with God; if his death on the cross had marked the end of his life as a teacher then perhaps the notion that he was the divine Son of God may never have been considered, but of all the events in the gospel accounts, ‘the Easter mystery throws a new and final light on the whole story of Jesus and his mission’ (O’Collins).
Paul’s conviction was that ‘if Christ be not risen, then your faith is in vain’ (1 Cor 15:17). For Paul, if Jesus was not resurrected then all preaching would be in vain, sins would not be washed clean, and at death all would perish. A Christian faith without resurrection is impossible for Paul. Of course, if Jesus did overcome death to rise again (and Paul claims to be amongst those who witnessed this) then this would offer perhaps the most conclusive evidence of Jesus as the divine Son of God. Wolfhart Pannenberg argues that as Jesus’ resurrection is uniquely a sign of God’s completion and perfection of creation at the end of time, then it ‘visibly and unambiguously’ reveals him as the Son of God.
Paul clearly seems to use the appearances — to Peter (Cephas), the Twelve (interestingly, since Judas would be dead by then), to ‘more than 500 brothers and sisters’, to James, to ‘all the apostles’, and ‘last of all… to me’ — to prove the Resurrection. Rudolph Bultmann claimed that this was a fatal step that leads to the further attempt to historicise it in the gospels, and ultimately in the highly imaginative accounts of the apocryphal gospels. For Bultmann, to ask whether Jesus really did resurrect is to miss the real meaning of the resurrection. He claimed that the ‘real meaning of the resurrection message was not that an incredible event took place on Easter Sunday, but the cross is permanently available to us in the church’s preaching as the saving act of God’. Martin Dibelius observed that even the most sceptical historians acknowledge that something happened, but we cannot know the precise nature of this event, even though the New Testament writers believed it to be unambiguous.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection three times, and after the Transfiguration he warns the disciples to ‘tell no one until the Son of Man should have risen from the dead’ (Mark 9:9). None of the predictions attempts to explain how Jesus’s resurrection will be accomplished. The evangelists were not concerned with the mechanics of God’s miraculous activity, but rather with the reality of it, and the gospel accounts of the Resurrection do not attempt a description or analysis of what happened. The Resurrection is not narrated, but proclaimed. Although all four accounts are quite distinctive, enabling the evangelists to make use of the narrative to emphasise key themes that have run throughout their gospels, there are also significant links between them. Not all the gospel accounts can be said, strictly speaking, to include a resurrection appearance and in the Marcan account the news that Jesus had been raised from the dead is not immediately believed by the disciples. The appearances of Jesus in Matthew and in John 21 appear to be of a figure that is of a more mystical and spiritual nature than in the other accounts where, for example, Thomas is invited to touch him, or where he eats broiled fish.
The various accounts of the scene at the empty tomb on the first Easter morning are so full of inconsistencies that it is easy for sceptics to deride them. The writer of the John gospel describes Mary Magdalen arriving at the tomb alone, discovering the tomb to be empty and imparting the news to Peter and an unnamed ‘other disciple, the one Jesus loved’ (John 20: 2), generally identified as John. The Matthew author relates that Mary Magdalen was accompanied by ‘Mary the mother of James and Joseph’. Mark adds a further companion, a woman called Salome, referred to in the Thomas gospel. Luke, who knows nothing of any Salome, speaks only of one ‘Joanna’ (presumably royal treasurer Chuza’s wife — see p. 87) together with other women who go off to tell the disciples what they have seen, though according to Mark, the women, ‘frightened out of their wits… said nothing to a soul, for they were afraid’ (Mark 16: 8).
The resurrection accounts cannot prove the divinity of Jesus as Son of God because if resurrection does not happen today, then we can be close to certain that it did not happen for Jesus, and we should not be expected to accept the testimony of others (those who claimed to witness the risen Christ). However, the account in John’s gospel includes a commendation for those who believe in the resurrection without having first-hand experience of it. This is crucially important as Christians take it on trust that the resurrection is the deciding event which gives them authority to proclaim the truth that Christ is the Son of God. It is also considered as an event that is beyond enquiry; the significance of the Resurrection is not found by trying to explain some extraordinary event from the Bible, and perhaps hence why the gospel writers did not concern themselves with the matter of ‘how’ he rose, but only with the proclamation that he did! Resurrection is fundamental to the Christian belief in a Trinitarian God: in the same way that God raised Jesus from the dead, so shall he raise all people (1 Cor 6:14) and salvation is dependent on believing that Jesus was resurrected: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Belief in the resurrection is an important, perhaps even crucial, call to faith that goes beyond any simple historical enquiry for factual events.
Author: A Meredith