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.

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