Interlude: Savior and Son of God

Since, contrary to my best intentions, I’ve been reading secondary sources on Jesus and Christianity, I’ve run across a number of discussions on various topics. Many of these discussions deal with how Jesus fit into the context of the Jewish/Judean/Judaic milieu of the First Century CE. These are very important discussions, and very worthwhile. As someone with, I hope, an historian’s point-of-view, seeing Jesus in context is enormously important. To assess his career, it is of great help to see how he was the same as, and how he was different from, others of his time and background.

However, I started a book on Gnostic Philosophy. It’s a fairly general book, an overview taking us from Zororastrianism all the way to modern times. As such, it doesn’t delve deeply. Sometimes, that’s good. What it did was to refresh things that I am familiar with (at least) from the study and long-term reading of Greek and Roman history. From what I can see, most NT scholars, and Biblical scholars, and Historical Jesus questers come from a background of religious studies in some way,  shape, or form. They’ve studied scripture, or theology, or both. This is great, in that it provides an expert background for the discussion of the Bible/OT/NT. They know their text, inside and out, backwards and forward.

What they miss, unfortunately, is the bigger background. Judea and Galilee weren’t the world. There had been a Greek dynasty–whether Pt0lemaic or Seleucid–in Judea for three hundred years until it gave way to Roman dominion about 60 years before the transition to the Common Era. And the Romans were, largely by that point, the continuation of the Greek dynasties. Sure, Galilee was a backwater; but it wasn’t a vacuum. It wasn’t hermetically sealed. Herod the Great was a Hellenizer; there were Graeco-Roman influences throughout the region. In fact, Judea/Judaism were sort of a chip of wood tossed about on a great Graec0-Roman sea. Remember: the Romans called the Mediterranean Sea “Mare Nostra”. “Our Sea”. That give you a sense of the bigger cultural background into which Jesus was born.

Now, I realize that Classicists have long since assumed they held the intellectual high ground of the Ancient Mediterranean world; and that they often turned up their noses at anything that wasn’t Classically grounded. That attitude was wrong; but let’s not–in that great phrase of Classical scholarship–throw the baby out with the bathwater. No, Greek culture did not always penetrate into the hinterlands, areas outside the “poleis” like Tiberias, or Caeserea Philippi, or Antioch (after Antiochos, one of Alexander’s successors). But it was out there. Jesus went to Tyre and Sidon; they weren’t that far from Caphernaum. The Decapolis, the Ten Towns, ran hard up against Caphernaum and Bethsaida and many of the other towns where Jesus is said to have preached. Greek culture was there.

When I first started reading about Hellenistic culture and history, the history of the period after Alexander, when Greek culture and language spread east to India, and south to Egypt, I noticed something. There were a number of ways that Christianity and Stoicism were very similar. And my callow younger self developed a theory that a young Jesus ran into a Stoic philosopher and sort of picked up on the idea of a universal brotherhood, and so Jesus incorporated the idea into his world-view and his outlook.

Look, here’s the thing: Jesus was different. There was something out of the ordinary about him. That’s why we’re talking about him, and not John the Baptist. By normalizing Jesus into his Jewish background, we risk losing what was different about him. After all, why Jesus?

There are two terms that crop up in the NT that some of the scholars have a hard time explaining fully based on their Jewish context. From the title of this post, I’ll bet you can guess what they are: Savior, and Son of God.

“Savior” is not a Jewish word; nor is it a Jewish concept. It’s Greek. Several of the Seleucid kings, and at least one of the Ptolemaic kings incorporated the word “Σωτηρ”/Soter = Savior as part of their official title. Paul then uses the term for Jesus in Philippians 3.20. It occurs several other times in the NT. But the point is, the term was used first and most often as an honorific for Hellenistic kings. It’s possible that it became incorporated into the proto-Christian vocabulary as part of the political baggage of the concept of Messiah. That Paul used it indicates it was in some currency in the generation after Jesus’ death. That it did not become integrated until Luke and John

The second term is “Son of God.” Again, vast amounts of ink have been spilled trying to figure out what this term meant to a Jew of the 1 century CE. So this appears to be a highly debatable point. However, it was a completely ordinary, fully understandable concept to anyone with a Graeco-Roman cultural background. It’s so highly integrated there that its use would have been completely unremarkable. And yet it seems something of an unusual (radical?) notion for Jews. So maybe, rather than look for the meaning of this in the Jewish heritage, we should consider a pagan genesis? And recall, several times in Galatians Paul used the term “God the Father”, which implies that we are all children of God. Was this term used in the OT? Unfortunately, my research, to this point, was not able to turn up anything useful.

And, btw–From “Son of God” it’s a very short step to “Our Father”. There may be reason to believe that some of these Greek concepts had penetrated into the Jewish mindset. Perhaps Jesus’ contribution to the development may have been to incorporate them more forcefully. And perhaps this is why he, and not John the Baptist, became popular with the Gentiles.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on February 9, 2013, in epistles, General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Special topic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Everything in Judaism from the Maccabees and Daniel to Ecclesiastes became tainted with Hellenistic ideas, that’s for sure. On the other hand, some Canaanite religions had an afterlife similar to Homeric ideas, Egyptian, or Mesopotamian ones. Syria and Canaan developed ideas of souls inhabiting stones, with the carryover to rough standing stones in Judaism (such as in the Transfiguration). In Death Sea Scrolls texts, a Son of God seems to be a righteous person. But overall, you are right that this fits Greco-Roman ideas more than orthodox Judaism. The passage about “being born again”, which is in John, I believe, is in a discussion with a person with a Greek name, about a subject which is only relevant in Greek idiomatic language. This may be a later insertion, though, or the fact its from John may make it too distant to be relevant.

  2. The concept of the afterlife, even in Greek thought, was in flux. Pythagoras had talked about the transmigration of souls, and Plato sort of incorporated this idea and refined/changed it somewhat. I think we would need to know more about some of the mystery religions in order to understand more fully how the idea was developing. To the best of my knowledge, what became the Christian concept was a novelty. And I’ve always suspected that this was one of the reasons that the religion became so popular. The afterlife provided a lot of appeal.

    The conversation in John 3 that you mention was between Jesus and Nicodemus. Yes, the name is Greek, but by this point I don’t think that is particularly relevant. He was a member of the Council, so he was likely born and raised in the Jewish faith. There is a lot of discussion about where different parts of the NT were written, and this matters because it has a bearing on whether the Jews would have read the OT in Hebrew, or in translation in the Septuagint. Reading it in the latter introduced a lot of Greek concepts, purely by accident. The most famous is the use of the Greek term “parthenos”, or “maiden”, rather than the Hebrew which merely means ‘young girl’ without the connotation of “virgin”. I haven’t gotten to John yet, so I’m not very well versed on the whats and the wherefors with that gospel. One may hope I’ll have more to say when I get there.

    And yes, I don’t have a lot of faith in the historicity of anything in John. He is writing theology, as is evident from the very opening sentence.

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