Messianic motifs: "Son of"

Messiah (mâšîah, "the anointed one"): Jewish religious concept, a future savior who will, in some sense, come to restore Israel. Both the nature of the Messiah and the restoration were matters of debate.

 Literary motifs: the "son of"-titles

Up til now, we have read texts that mention explicitly the Messiah or quote Balaam's prophecy. In the meanwhile, some other literary motifs were introduced. They will now be treated. 

In this part of the present article, we will focus on the "son of"-titles of the Messiah. Other titles, to be discussed in the next part, include:

We must, however, be cauteous. Many expressions are used to describe the Messiah, but we can not always be certain that a fragment that uses an expression refers to the Messiah. He is often called "shoot" and "branch", but a damaged, fragmentary text that uses these expressions may as well be dealing with horticulture. That caution is needed, can be illustrated by a text like the Sibylline oracles, a collection of oracles that contains many messianic motifs and alludes to the restauration of Israel, but does nowhere mention a Messiah.

Son of David

"Son of David" is, together with the reference to the prophecy of Balaam, the most common messianic motif. Jesus of Nazareth and Simon ben Kosiba, who were probably no descendants of the legendary king, were called "son of David". It was, therefore, a honorary title that had little to do with family ties.

It should be noted that in the first century of the common era, there were still people who were (or claimed to be) descendants of David. In 1971/1972, a cave was discovered in Jerusalem that served as an ossuary for "the house of David". The implication of this discovery is that texts mentioning a "son of David", may simply refer to members of the former royal family and not to the Messiah. (The discovery of this osuary also opens the possibility that Jesus and Simon were real descendants of David.)

Being the son of David, it was natural that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. Indeed, we read in John 7.42 that  the prophecy of Micah (above) was interpreted in this way, and the narratives about Jesus' birth in Bethlehem as told by Matthew 2.1 and Luke 2.4 belong to the most famous stories of mankind. It is therefore often maintained that the Christmas-stories were written because the Jews believed that the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem. This seems to be incorrect, however. To the best of the knowledge of the present author, there is not one single Jewish text that mentions this belief. The only two references available can be found in Aramaic translations of Micah, which date from the second century CE or even later.note

Shoot, root, and branch

The "shoot" and "branch" (or "root") are mentioned for the first time in Isaiah 11.1 (quoted above), where we can read that "a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit". This line and line 6 were accepted as messianic, as can be seen in the Aramaic adaptation:

And a king shall come forth from the sons of Jesse, and the Messiah shall be exalted from the sons of his sons.

In the days of the Messiah of Israel shall peace increase in the land, and the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling togetherm and a little suckling child will lead them.note

This translation must antedate the ideas of the author of 4 Ezra, who thought that the Messiah's appearance was a mere prelude to the apocalyptic end of history. Since 4 Ezra can be dated in 100 CE, the messianic interpretation of the "shoot" can be dated in the first century CE.

An earlier, similar interpretation can be found in one of the Dead Sea-scrolls, a commentary on Isaiah from the last quarter of the first century BCE.

The interpretation of the matter concerns the branch of David, who will appear at the end of days to save Israel and to exterminate his enemies. And God will sustain him with a mighty spirit [...] And God will give him a throne of glory, a holy crown.note

4Q285 uses the same image and is as old as 4Q161. Earlier is the Testament of Judah, which was written during the Maccabaean revolt. In the first line, "Judah" alludes to Balaam's prophecy, Maleachi 4.2 and Joel 2.28.

And after this there shall arise for you a star from Jacob in peace. And a man shall arise from my posterity like the sun of righteousness, walking with sons of men in gladness and righteousness, and in him will be found no sin. And the heavens will be opened upon him to pour out the spirit as a blessing of the holy Father. And he will pour out the spirit of grace on you. And you shall be sons in truth, and you will walk in his first and final decrees. This is the shoot of God most high, this is the fountain for the life of all humanity. Then he will illumine the scepter of my kingdom, and from your root will arise the shoot, and through it will arise the rod of righteousness for the nations, to judge and to save all that call on the Lord.note

There are even older examples of allusions to Isaiah 11: Jeremiah 23.5 (above) and Zechariah 3.8 (above) and 6.12 (above). The texts from Zechariah date from the years after the Babylonian exile and the prophecy of Jeremiah may be written at the same time, or may be even older.

A final remark should be made about the title Nazoraios or Nazarenos that was given to Jesus in the gospels, which were written in Greek. This may mean that Jesus was a nazir, someone who had taken a special vow. However, it is linguistically impossible to change the second syllable -zir- into -zor- or -zar-. A better explanation is that it is a rendering of netzer, "root".

Son of God

The title "son of God" is best known as one of the titles of Jesus of Nazareth. It was not an uncommon title in Jewish literature. As we have seen above, it was used in Psalm 2 to describe the king: "You are My son, today I have become your father". The expression is also used several times for Joseph (Joseph and Aseneth; this is a romance from the first century BCE or CE). Consequently, the discovery of a fragment of parchment in the fourth cave of Qumran mentioning the son of God was not a big surprise, although a surprising non-messianic interpretation is possible.

[...] When great fear settled upon him, he fell down before thr throne. Then he said to the king: "Live, o king, forever! You are vexed, and changed is the complexion of your face; depressed is your gaze. But you shall rule over everything forever! And your deed will be great. Yet distress shall come upon the earth; there will be war among the peoples and great carnage in the provinces, which the bands of the king of Assyria will cause. And Egypt will be with them. But your son shall be great upon the earth, and all peoples shall make peace with him, and they shall all serve him. For he shall be called "son of the great God", and by his name he shall be named. He shall be hailed "son of God" and they shall call him "son of the most high".

For some years they shall rule upon the earth and shall trample everything under foot; people shall trample upon people; province upon province, until there arises the people of God, and everyone rests from the sword. Then his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all his ways shall be in truth. He shall judge the land with truth, and everyone shall make peace. The sword will cease from the land, and all the provinces shall pay him homage. The great God, by his might, shall make war for him. Peoples He shall put in his hand; and all of them He shall cast before him. His dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and all of the territories of the earth shall be his."note

Much has been made of this text, perhaps too much. It should be stressed that the word Messiah is not used, and that no mention is made of a common messianic expressions like "prince", "shoot", "branch" or "son of David". The only real argument for a messianic interpretation is the fact that Jesus was also called "son of God", and this may have been a late invention (go here for christology).

In fact, there is an easier interpretation of this fragment: it refers to the Roman emperor Augustus (27 BCE - 14 CE). The Romans considered him to be the son of the divine Julius Caesar ("he shall be hailed "son of God""), and came to power after the Parthians ("the bands of the king of Assyria") had caused "war among the peoples and great carnage", and after the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII had waged war against the Romans. Augustus is known to have been kind towards the Jews, and it is possible that the author of 4Q246 sympathized with his reign of peace.

In conclusion, we can state that the Psalms offer proof that "son of God" was a possible title for the Messiah, but that evidence is lacking that this text was indeed used.

Son of man

This title became popular with the apocalyptic book of Daniel 7, which was written between 165 and 160. Having told about the rise and fall the Babylonian, Median and Achaemenid empires, the author describes how the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes persecutes the Jews. In true apocalyptic fashion, he is represented as "a horn with human eyes and a mouth speaking boastful things".

As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
    I looked then because of the sound of the boastful words which the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was slain, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.
    I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the ancient of days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.note               

Who is this person like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven and ruling after Antiochus? He can not be identified, but one thing is certain: the author of Daniel was not thinking of the Messiah. Had this been the case, he would have used expressions like "son of David", "the branch" or "prince".

Nonetheless, the text was already understood in messianic sense in the Book of similitudes, one of the parts of the First book of Enoch, written two or three generations after the composition of Daniel at the beginning of the first century BCE (quote). In the Gospel of Mark, we encounter a similar identification of the Messiah and the son of man in the story of Jesus' trial before Caiaphas.

The high-priest asked him, "Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed?"
    Jesus replied, "I am. And you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the Power, coming with the clouds of heaven."note

Many later Christian texts have accepted this identification. In the second century, rabbi Aqiba had the same idea. The following fragment discusses Daniel 7.9.

Thrones were placed - what is there to say? One throne for Him and one for [the son of] David, even as has been taught: "One was for Him and one was for David" - the words of rabbi Aqiba.
    Rabbi Yose said to him: "Aqiba, how long will you profane God? Rather, one throne is for justice and one for mercy."
    Did he accept this answer from him, or did he not accept it? Come and hear what has been taught: "One throne for justice and one for mercy" - from now on, the words of rabbi Aqiba.
   Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said to him: "Aqiba, what do you have to do with the interpretations of narratives? You'd better occupy yourself with purity laws. It is: one as a throne and one as a footstool: a throne as a seat and a footstool for support of His feet."note

From this text it is clear that rabbi Aqiba was criticized because he had given the Messiah a throne equal to that of God, something that the other teachers were not willing to accept. The idea that the Messiah was to sit next to God may not have become the common Jewish interpretation, but it is obvious that no one challenged that the son of man was the Messiah.