The “Son of God” text (4Q246)

One of the most often-discussed documents from Qumran (that is, from the Dead Sea Scrolls), in relation to New Testament studies, is the so-called “Son of God text” (4Q246). This Aramaic text survives only as a fragment, so it is impossible to tell just how large the work was or exactly what it contained; besides this, only one of the two columns (II) is intact, the other (I) is itself fragmentary, and has to be reconstructed if one is to fill out the narrative (square brackets in the text cited below indicate proposed reconstructions, braces indicate explanatory glosses, parentheses fill out the text for easier reading). 4Q246 is usually understood to be an apocalyptic work, and classed with other “Pseudo-Daniel” texts from Qumran—that is, works either involving Daniel or otherwise produced in the manner and style of the book of Daniel. As indicated, Column 1 is highly fragmentary (the beginning of each line is lost), but the situation seems to be as follows:

A king is troubled by a vision he has experienced, and a seer approaches the throne and offers to provide an interpretation similar to that of the vision in Daniel 7 (7:15-18ff): great distress upon the earth, with nations fighting each other…

7 [Then shall arise a king, and he shall be] great upon the earth.
8 [All peoples sh]all make [peace with him]; they shall all serve
9 [him. Son of the gr]eat [king] he shall be called, and by his name he shall be designated
Reconstruction & translation from Fitzmyer (1993/2000) and Zimmerman (1998) [see below]

Here is a translation of Column II:

1 Son of God he will be hailed, and Son of the Most High they will call him. Like the flashes {i.e. comets}
2 that you saw, thus their kingdom will be: (for) years they will reign over
3 the earth and will trample all. (One) people will trample on (another) people and (one) province on (another) province,
4 (blank space) until the people of God stands (up) {i.e. rises} and all (people) rest from the sword. (blank space)
5 His kingdom (is/will be) an eternal kingdom and all his paths in truth/justice. He will jud[ge]
6 the earth in truth/justice and all (people) will make peace. The sword will be finished {i.e. will cease} from the earth,
7 and every province will do homage to him. The great God is his strength.
8 He will make war for him, people He will give in(to) his hand, and all of them
9 He will cast (down) in front of him. His rule (is/will be) an eternal rule, and all the abysses
[of the earth will not prevail against it]

There are two related points of interpretation which have been hotly debated:

  1. Is the ruler of I.9/II.1-2 a positive (Messianic) figure or negative (i.e. an anti-Messiah)?
  2. Do the key third-person singular verbal forms and suffixes of II.5-9 refer to the “Son of God” (the ruler) or the “People of God”. If the latter, then conventional English would render with “it” rather than “he/him”. The answer to this question largely depends on the answer to the first.

A straightforward reading of the text, in sequence, would suggest a negative figure, for II.2b-3 follows with similar warfare and oppression as that described in I.4-6. However, the overall tone and structure of the surviving passage suggests that two portions should be read in parallel:

Kings and people rise up and oppress one another (I.4-5),
(culminating?) with the rule of Assyria [and Egypt] (I.6)

A(nother) king will arise—”Son of God” etc
(a) who will be called…Great
(b) people will [make peace] and serve him

like the comets in the (king’s) vision (II.1b-2a)
Peoples/provinces will rise up and trample each other (II.2b-3)

The “People of God” will arise
(a) the kingdom will be “great”/everlasting
(b) all will make peace and pay homage

(a) The Great God is his/its strength
(b) He will make war, etc against the people
The everlasting rule (of God)

Scholars have found very little Jewish evidence (particularly in the pre-Christian period) for titles such as “Son of God” or “Son of the Most High” being used of enemy kings (such as Alexander Balas, Antiochus IV, Roman emperors, etc [cf. Jos. War II.184]), whereas the anointed (Davidic) king is already referred to as God’s “son” in the Old Testament (Psalm 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14). It is in early Christianity, with the development of the “antichrist” concept (partly in reaction to the Roman Imperial cult), that divine names and honors are shown being appropriated or claimed falsely by evil/satanic figures (cf. 2 Thess 2:3-4; Rev 13, 17; and esp. Didache 16:4). Most likely, a ‘Messianic’, divinely favored (or appointed) figure is meant in I.9-II.2ff. The correlation between “Son of God” and “People of God” may be drawing specifically upon the parallel in Daniel 7, where one “like a Son of Man” comes to receive an everlasting rule and kingdom (7:13-14) and the “people of the Most High” receive the sovereignty and kingdom of God (7:27). By the mid-late 1st century A.D., “Son of God” and “Son of Man” are both titles which come to be applied to heavenly Messiah-figures of the end-time who will judge/defeat the nations and restore/deliver Israel (as in the Similitudes of Enoch [chs. 37-71], 4 Ezra [Esdras] 13, etc., and the Synoptic Gospels).

Most fascinating with regard to the Gospels, is the fact that in just this short fragment of 4Q246, one sees three (or four) phrases which closely match those in the Annunciation scene of the Lukan Infancy narrative (Luke 1:26-38). The heavenly Messenger Gabriel is sent by God to the young girl (virgin [parqe/no$]) Mary, to announce that she is about to become pregnant (sullh/nyh| e)n gastri/ [“receive together in the womb”]), and will bring forth a son, and “you will call his name Yeshua [Jesus]” (note the parallel to Isa 7:14 here and in 1:28b “the Lord is with you”). Then follows the promise (and prophecy) of verses 32-33:

“This (child) will be great and will be called Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father, and he will be king upon the house of Jacob into the Ages, and of his kingdom there will not be an end.”

Following Mary’s question (v. 34), the Messenger answers again with verse 35:

“(The) holy Breath [i.e. Spirit] will come upon you, and (the) power of the Highest will shade upon [i.e. overshadow] you, therefore the (child) coming to be (born) will be called holy: (the) Son of God.”

Note: some would translated the last phrase “the holy (child) coming to be (born) will be called (the) Son of God” or “the (child) coming to be (born) will be holy, (and will be) called (the) Son of God“.

The four key phrases in 1:32, 35 are indicated by italics above. One may compare them side by side with 4Q246:

aura lu hwhl br[ ] “[he will be] great upon the earth” (I.7)
rmaty la yd hlb “Son of God he will be hailed” (II.1)
hnwrqy /wylu rbw “and Son of the Highest he will be called”
<lu twklm htwklm “his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom” (II.5)
ou!to$ e&stai me/ga$ “this (one) will be great” (Luke 1:32)
klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou= “he will be called | Son of God”
kai\ ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai “and Son of the Highest he will be called” (1:35)
kai\ th=$ basilei/a$ au)tou= ou)k e&stai te/lo$ “and of his kingdom there will not be an end” (1:33)

The parallels are remarkable, too close it would seem to be mere coincidence, and yet it is unlikely that Luke borrowed from this text. In any event, if we take the narrative at face value, the words are spoken by the heavenly Messenger. How is it that the angel’s announcement should have wording so much like that found in an otherwise unknown little bit of text from Qumran? The angel (and/or the Gospel writer) would seem to be drawing upon Messianic hopes and beliefs which were common and widespread in first-century Palestine, using that very language and imagery to announce the birth and coming of a new Anointed king, who will fulfill the promises God made to his people centuries before, promises reflected even in this snippet of text we call 4Q246: “his kingdom will be an eternal kingdom…. his rule will be an everlasting rule…” (II.5, 9).

Since the full publication of 4Q246 some two decades ago, a fair number of studies on it have been produced. Among those I have consulted, or have on hand, the following are good, detailed but very readable treatments:

  • J. A. Fitzmyer, “The ‘Son of God’ Document from Qumran” in Biblica 74 (1993), pp. 153-74; reprinted, with a second article, in The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins (2000), pp. 41-62.
  • J. Zimmerman, “Observations on 4Q246 – The ‘Son of God'” in Qumran-Messianism: Studies on the Messianic Expectations in the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. by J. H. Charlesworth, H. Lichtenberger, and G. S. Oegema (1998), pp. 175-190.
  • J. J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star (1995), pp. 154-72.

Special Textual Note on John 1:18

This note is supplemental to the current Saturday Series study on John 1:18. There I mentioned the possibility that the main variant readings—monogen¢s theos (“only [born] God”) vs. monogen¢s huios (“only [born] Son”)—could have been the result of a scribal mistake, an accident. At first glance, this might seem unlikely. Yet, even if you do not read Greek, I suspect you may have already noticed the general similarity of form between the nouns qeo$ (theos, “God”) and ui(o$ (huios, “Son”). It is not out of the question that a careless scribe might copy one in place of the other, especially if he has the terminology (and Christology) of Jn 1:1-18 in mind (esp. verse 1).

This becomes more likely when one considers the special scribal practice of using abbreviations to render the word qeo$ (theos), the name Ihsou=$ (I¢sous, “Jesus”), along with “divine names” and titles such as kurio$ (kyrios, “Lord”), ui(o$ (huios, “Son”), xristo$ (christos, “Anointed One / Christ”), and the like. This was typically done by shortening the word to include only the first and last letter, and marking it with a horizontal line or ‘bar’ over the top. For example, in the uncial manuscripts (i.e. those written in “capital” Greek letters) where this practice was used, the word kurio$ (kyrios, “Lord”) in capitals is KURIOS, which, in the uncial lettering looks like kurios. When it is abbreviated using the “sacred names” (nomina sacra) scribal technique, it becomes  +k+s.

Now, using this same technique, in the manuscripts, in a verse such as John 1:18, qeo$ (theos, “God”) and ui(o$ (huios, “Son”) would look like  +q+s and  +u+s, respectively. While this technique protected the divine names/titles from being confused with other common words, it resulted in no small amount of scribal confusion between the different abbreviations themselves. Differences between names and titles—such as between “Christ/Christos” (+c+s) and “Lord/Kyrios” (+k+s)—appear quite frequently in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament. Thus there is the distinct possibility that the change between “God” and “Son” (or vice versa) in Jn 1:18 could be the result of a copyists’ error, and may represent a primitive corruption at that level.

Saturday Series: John 1:18 (continued)

Last week I looked at John 1:18, and the three textual variants (or variant readings) in the verse: monogen¢s theos, monogen¢s huios, and monogen¢s . A consideration of these different readings is essential for a correct understanding of this key verse, which is the climactic declaration of the Prologue of John, 1:1-18. But which reading is most likely to be the original? We can probably eliminate monogen¢s alone as a candidate. While attractive as an explanation for the rise of the other two readings, the lack of manuscript support makes it difficult to accept as original. This would leave the readings which include theos (“God”) or huios (“Son”). As I indicated last week, there is strong evidence for each of these.

In textual criticism, there are two aspects which must be considered: (1) the external evidence for a reading, and (2) the internal evidence. By “external evidence” is meant the actual documents in which the particular reading appears (especially the earliest Greek manuscripts). By “internal evidence” we mean all of the various factors which make a particular reading more or less likely to be original. There are three main factors to be considered: (a) transcriptional probability (that is, the tendencies of copyists), (b) the overall style of the author, and (c) the context of the particular passage. The external evidence for these two readings is fairly evenly divided:

  • monogen¢s huios (“only Son“) is read by the majority of manuscripts and versions, etc, spanning a wide (geographic) range by the 3rd century A.D., and including several of the major (early) manuscripts.
  • monogen¢s theos (“only God [born?]”) is the reading of some the “earliest and best” Greek manuscripts, including the Bodmer Papyri (66 and 75).

So, we turn to the three main kinds of internal evidence:

a. Transcriptional probability. When considering the tendencies of copyists, the question must be asked whether a change from one form of the text to another—i.e. from “God” to “Son” or vice versa—occurred by accident or was intentional. For those interested, I have posted a special note discussing the possibility of an accidental change. However, if the change was conscious and/or intentional, we must ask in which direction this most likely occurred. Here, too, the evidence is divided:

  • On the one hand, copyists were more likely to “correct” the text from the rare/difficult reading to one which is more familiar or easier to understand. Here, the choice is obvious: monogen¢s huios (i.e. “only son”) is by far the more natural and straightforward expression, while monogen¢s theos (“only [born?] God”) is quite unusual and rather difficult to interpret.
  • On the other hand, Christian scribes were always much more likely to alter the text to present a more exalted view of Christ, rather than the other way around. From this standpoint, a change from “Son” to “God” is more probable than from “God” to “Son”.

b. The Author’s style and usage. The word monogen¢s, “only (one born)” occurs three other times in the Gospel of John; twice in the discourse of chapter 3:

  • “For God loved the world this (way): so (that) he (even) gave his only Son…” (Jn 3:16)
  • “…the one not trusting has already been judged, (in) that [i.e. because] he has not trusted in the name of the only Son of God” (3:18)

In these two references, monogen¢s is used together with huios (“son”), in order to refer to Jesus as the “only Son” of God (i.e. God’s only Son). The other occurrence also comes from the Prologue (1:14):

“And the Word [Logos] came to be flesh and put down a tent [i.e. dwelt] among us, and we looked/gazed (upon) his splendor—(the) splendor as of (the) only (born Son) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth”

Here monogen¢s is used alone, as a kind of substantive—”the only (one)”, “the only (son)”. The reference to “a father” (or “the Father”), would seem to indicate that the word “Son” is implied in context. If there were better manuscript support for monogen¢s alone in verse 18 (see above), it might be confirmed by this usage in v. 14.

We should also note 1 John 4:9, similar in thought and wording to Jn 3:16, which uses huios (“son”) with monogen¢s. Elsewhere in the New Testament, monogen¢s likewise occurs with “son” (or “daughter”)—Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38.

From this standpoint, the internal evidence would overwhelmingly favor monogen¢s huios (“only Son”) in 1:18.

c. The context of Jn 1:1-18. Finally, we must consider carefully the context of the Prologue as a whole. Its basic theme is theological and Christological—identifying Jesus as the eternal, pre-existent Word (Logos) of God (v. 1) who comes to be flesh (v. 14), that is to say, he is born as a human being. The basic structure of the Prologue may be outlined as follows:

  • Vv. 1-4—Christ as the divine, eternal Word and Light; the symmetry of this section may summarized:
    • The Word (v. 1)
      —the life-giving creative power [of God] (vv. 2-3)
    • The Light (v. 4)
  • Vv. 9-13—The Light comes into the World, among his own (people)
  • Vv. 14-17—The Word comes to be (born) as flesh (a human being), dwelling among his people
  • V. 18—Christ as the only Son who reveals the Father

Verses 2-17 certainly describe a process—of revelation (and incarnation)—which becomes increasingly more specific. This is indicated by the distinctive use of three verbs:

  • The divine Word/Light is (eimi [verb of being])—vv. 1-4
  • He comes (erchomai) into the world—vv. 9-13
  • He comes to be [born] (ginomai) as a human being—vv. 14-17
    (Note the same three verbs used in sequence in vv. 15, 30)

The word monogen¢s is first used in v. 14, which clearly refers to Christ (the Word) coming to be born (as a human being). But what is the precise sense of monogen¢s here? There would seem to be two options:

  1. The emphasis is on God being born, i.e. as a Son. This would assume that the fundamental etymology of monogen¢s—as the only one (who has) come to be (born)—is in view.
  2. What is emphasized is Jesus as the only/unique (Son) of God. This is the more natural/common meaning of monogen¢s.

The second is to be preferred. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as “the Son”, in relation to the Father. It is an essential relationship, which is not necessarily determined by his time on earth (as a human being). We can fairly assume that the same meaning of monogen¢s is in view in verse 18. However, first consider the way verses 14-17 are framed (note the words in italics):

  • “The Word came to be flesh…and we looked upon his splendor [i.e. like Moses looked upon God], the splendor as of an only (Son) of the Father, full of favor and truth” (v. 14)
  • “…we have received out of his fullness…for the Law was given through Moses [i.e. who looked upon God’s splendor], but favor and truth came to be through Jesus Christ” (v. 17)

This is a powerful dual-statement regarding how the glory and truth of God have been manifest (revealed) in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. So now we come to the concluding declaration of verse 18, which I take to be parallel with verses 1-4. I we may discern a certain kind of relationship with verse 1 in particular:

  • “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with [literally, toward] God, and the Word was God” (v. 1)
  • “…the only [Son/God]—the one being in [literally, into] the lap of the Father—that (one) brought him out to us” (v. 18)

The first portion of verse 18 (“No one has ever seen God”) connects immediately back to vv. 16-17 and the motifs of Moses and the possibility of seeing/beholding the glory of God. The remainder of v. 18 may be intended to mirror v. 1; I suggest the possible parallels:

  • The Word was in the beginning (with God)
    —The Word was facing/looking toward God
    ——The Word was God
    ——The Only Son (of God), i.e. the reflection of the Father
    —The Son is facing[?] into the lap of the Father (i.e. essential Sonship)
  • The Son brings out (reveals) the Father to us.

There is no way to decide with absolute certainty, but, all factors considered, I would give a slight edge to monogen¢s huios (“Only Son“) as the original reading of verse 18. It is possible that monogen¢s theos (“Only God“) may have been introduced as an attempt to explain (ho) monogen¢s huios in context, much like the conflated reading ho monogen¢s huios theos (“God [who is] the Only Son”). However, one cannot be dogmatic about such things. Indeed, I suggest it is important to keep both readings in mind when you study this extraordinary passage. It is almost as if the declaration in verse 18 is too momentous and powerful to be contained by a single form of the text. The Gospel (and Prologue) of John expresses clearly that Jesus is both God and the Son (of God). Can these two truths ever really be separated from one another?

I would ask that you continue to study and meditate upon this passage, and at the same time, begin to consider the next verse—also from the first chapter of John—which we will be studying in this Series. It is the declaration by the Baptist in Jn 1:34, and, again, an important variant reading is involved:

  • “and I have seen and have given witness that this (man) is…”
    • “…the Son of God” (ho huios tou theou)
    • “…the Elect/Chosen (One) of God” (ho eklektos tou theou)

I recommend you continue reading carefully, from the Prologue all the way through to 1:34… and I will see you next Saturday.