Birth of the Son of God: Romans 1:3-4

Continuing with the Christmas season theme of “The Birth of the Son of God”, the last articles in this series looked at Jesus as the “Son of God” within the context of early Christian preaching (i.e., the sermon-speeches in the book of Acts)—in Acts 2:29-36 and 13:26-41. Today I will examine Romans 1:3-4, often considered by scholars to be part of an early creed or hymn adapted and included by Paul within his greeting.

Romans 1:3-4

The opening and greeting (Epistolary Prescript [praescriptio]) of Romans 1:1-7 is actually a single sentence in Greek, framed by verses 1 and 7—”Paul…. to the (one)s in Rome…”—and the core of which is built upon the concluding words of verse 1: “the good message [i.e. Gospel] of God”. The syntax of vv. 2-6 may be outlined as follows:

“the good message of God”—

  • which [o^] He gave as a message [i.e. announced/promised] before(hand) through his Foretellers in (the) holy Writings (v. 2)
  • about [peri\] His Son [tou= ui(ou= au)tou=] (v. 3)
    • the (one) coming to be [tou= genome/nou] out of the seed of David (v. 3)
      —according to the flesh
    • the (one) marked (out) [tou= o(risqe/nto$] (as) Son of God [ui(ou= qeou=] in power (v. 4)
      —according to (the) spirit of holiness out of the standing-up [i.e. resurrection] of the dead
    • Yeshua (the) Anointed [xristou=] our Lord [tou= kuri/ou] (vv. 4-5)
      • through whom [di’ ou!]
        • we have received… (v. 5)
          • in [e)n] all the nations
          • in/among [e)n] whom (v. 6)
        • you also are called
      • of Yeshua (the) Anointed

Verses 3-6 represent the Christological kerygmatic statement that “fills” the epistolary prescript, in two portions:

  • vv. 3-4 are about Christ proper (i.e. the person of Christ)
  • vv. 5-6 are about believers in Christ (the result of his work)

Verses 3-4—this verse pair is made up of two participial phrases:

  • “the one coming to be” [tou= genome/nou] (v. 3)
    • “out of the seed of David” [e)k spe/rmato$ Daui\d]
    • “according to (the) flesh” [kata\ sa/rka]
  • “the one marked (out)” [tou= o(risqe/nto$] (v. 4)
    • “(as) Son of God in power” [ui(ou= qeou= e)n duna/mei]
    • “according to (the) spirit of holiness” [kata\ pneu=ma a(giwsu/nh$]
      • “out of (the) standing-up [i.e. resurrection] of the dead” [e)c a)nasta/sew$ nekrw=n]

The poetic parallelism is clear, with the possible exception of the last phrase. Let us look at each verse in detail.

Romans 1:3

First, it should be noted that manuscripts 51 61* 441 and later Byzantine MSS, read gennwme/nou (gennœménou) instead of genome/nou (genoménou), also reflected in some versional witnesses (Syriac and Old Latin MSS). The reading gennwme/nou, from genna/w (“come to be [born]”) rather than cognate gi/nomai (“come to be”), would more specifically emphasize Jesus’ birth, as mentioned in my discussion of genna/w/gi/nomai in prior notes. That such a reading could be seen as indicating the reality of Jesus’ human birth, can be seen from the arguments by Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ §22) and Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.22.1) against their “gnostic” opponents. However, genome/nou is certainly the original reading. Occasionally, traditional-conservative scholars have cited the use of gi/nomai (instead of genna/w) here as evidence for Paul’s belief in the virgin birth, but this reads far too much into the text.

In terms of the reality of Jesus’ birth, this is already indicated with the phrase kata\ sa/rka (“according to [the] flesh”)—an expression normally used by Paul in a different theological/anthropological sense (part of a dualistic contrast between “flesh” and “spirit”), cf. Rom 8:4-9, 12-13; Gal 3:2-3; 5:16-19; 1 Cor 5:5; Phil 3:3. Here, it is used in an ‘ordinary’, conventional sense—of Jesus’ human nature, growth and upbringing, his ethnic/social background, etc—comparable to that in Rom 4:1; 9:3, 5. For similar early use of “flesh” (sa/rc) in this respect, applied to Christ, see 1 Pet 3:18, and the ‘credal/hymnic fragment’ in 1 Tim 3:16.

The phrase “out of the seed of David” (e)k spe/rmato$ Daui\d) is somewhat more problematic. That Jesus was a (real) descendant of David is evidenced by the Matthean/Lukan genealogies (Matt 1:1-17 [v. 6]; Luke 3:23-38 [v. 31]), as well as Acts 2:30; Luke 1:32, 69; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 5:5; 22:16, and may implied in Mark 12:35-37 par; John 7:42. Within the Infancy narratives, Joseph certainly is designated as a descendant of David (Luke 1:27; 2:4; Matt 1:20), and this is presumably how the genealogies are to be understood—i.e., Joseph as legal (but not biological) parent of Jesus. Here too, in Romans, “out of the seed of David, according to the flesh” could be viewed in this same legal/metaphorical sense, except that a comparison with Gal 4:4 suggests otherwise:

“coming to be [geno/menou] out of the seed of David [e)k spe/rmato$ Daui\d]” (Rom 1:3)
“coming to be [geno/menon] out of a woman [e)k gunaiko/$]” (Gal 4:4)

Did Paul (and/or the tradition he inherited) understand Mary as being of Davidic descent? It is hard to be certain, since he never actually mentions Mary anywhere in his letters, nor the birth of Jesus specifically apart from these two references. Of course, Mary as a descendant of David came to be a common-place belief in the early Church, attested already in the early 2nd century by Ignatius (Ephesians 18:2) and the so-called Proto-Gospel (Protevangelium) of James (§10). However, there is no indication of this in the New Testament itself; indeed, what little evidence we have (Luke 1:5) suggests descent from the tribe of Levi rather than from Judah. Traditional-conservative commentators have often sought to harmonize the (partially) discordant genealogies of Matt 1 and Lk 3 with the theory that they record the genealogies of Joseph and Mary, respectively; but this is flatly contradicted by the text itself—both genealogies are for Joseph (Matt 1:16; Lk 3:23), despite the apparent discrepancies.

The title “Son of David” is used of Jesus in numerous places in the Gospels—Mk 10:47-48 par; 12:35-37 par; Matt 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 21:9, 15. This title is used in conjunction with “Lord” (ku/rio$) in Matt 15:22; 20:30-31, and has a clear Messianic connection in Mark 12:35-37 par; Matt 12:23; 21:9 [par Mk 11:10].

What about Paul’s own understanding of Jesus as God’s Son? There is a strong likelihood that Rom 1:3 indicates something akin to the orthodox view of Jesus’ divine pre-existence. While this is not absolutely certain, such a general belief is expressed elsewhere in his writings (cf. Phil 2:6-7; Col 1:15ff). In examining Paul’s use of ui(o/$ (“son”) in relation to Jesus, these references can be divided more or less into three categories:

  1. Of a general relationship with God the Father—1 Cor 1:9; 2 Cor 1:19; Rom 1:9; 8:29
  2. Indicating his post-resurrection position and status in heaven (cf. Acts 13:33ff)—1 Thess 1:10; 1 Cor 15:28; Gal 1:16?; also Col 1:13
  3. Indicating divine status/nature in (or prior to) his death—Gal 2:20; Rom 5:10; 8:32

Galatians 4:4 is a close parallel to Rom 1:3 (cf. also Rom 8:3) which I have discussed in considerable detail in other notes and articles (see the recent note).

Romans 1:4

The verb o(ri/zw has the basic meaning “mark out, mark off”, as of a limit, boundary, etc., and is often used in the sense of “determine, designate, appoint” and so forth. An early kerygmatic (Christological) signficance here is indicated by its use in:

  • Acts 2:23—referring to the role of Jesus’ death in God’s (predetermined) plan
  • Acts 10:42; 17:31—Christ is designated or appointed as eschatological/heavenly Judge

There are two principal ways the verb can be understood in Rom 1:4—Jesus is “marked out / appointed” as Son of God, either:

  1. By divine foreknowledge, prior to his death; as previously discussed, early Christians could speak of Jesus as God’s “Son” in terms of: (a) divine pre-existence, (b) birth, or (c) at his baptism
  2. Through his death and resurrection—i.e., by means of, or as a result of

The first view is more amenable to orthodoxy, as suggested by the common Latin rendering praedestinatus (instead of destinatus), which would seem to assume Greek proorisqe/nto$ (from proori/zw, “mark out [i.e. determine/appoint] beforehand”). This reading is not found in any manuscript, but it is used or mentioned by several Church Fathers—Eusebius, Against Marcellus 1:2; Epiphanius Panarion 54.6 (cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 234-5). The use of o(ri/zw in Acts 2:23 might otherwise confirm this meaning as well.

However, the overall context of Rom 1:3-4, as well as a comparison with the early Gospel preaching in Acts 2 and 13, etc (see the previous notes), strongly suggests option #2—that it is through his death and resurrection that Jesus is designated/appointed as “Son of God”. This would seem to be indicated by the qualifying phrase “in power” (e)n duna/mei) as well. There are two ways that “power” (du/nami$) is used in the preaching of Acts and in Paul’s letters: (a) of miraculous deeds, and (b) specifically in reference to the Spirit. These of course are related. Even though Jesus’ miracles during his ministry are referred to as “power” (Acts 10:38), it is in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ that God’s power is most prominently made manifest. The connection between the Spirit and the power of God is certainly clear (see esp. Luke 1:35; 4:14; Acts 1:8; 8:19; 10:38; Rom 15:13, 19; 1 Cor 2:4, etc), and it is in his exalted position (at the right hand of God) that Jesus has this power (Acts 2:33; Mark 14:62 par), receiving the Spirit from the Father. In both Luke-Acts and the Gospel of John, we find the idea of the raised/exalted Christ sending the Spirit (from the Father) to his disciples. There may be a parallel to the specific phrase “in power” (e)n duna/mei) in the ‘credal fragment’ of 1 Tim 3:16, where Jesus is said to have ascended “in glory” (e)n do/ch|).

There is some difficulty surrounding the expression “spirit of holiness” (pneu=ma a(giwsu/nh$). In his letters, Paul nearly always uses pneu=ma in reference to the the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God/Christ); that fact, plus the connection between “spirit” and “power” (cf. above) might lead one to assume that this is what is meant here as well. However, this is by no means certain. His very use of the particular expression “spirit of holiness” may be intended to draw a distinction with the more common “Holy Spirit”. As I mentioned above, pneu=ma is juxtaposed with sa/rc (“flesh”), but not in the typical Pauline sense; again this, in part, may be why Paul qualifies pneu=ma with a(giwsu/nh$ (“of holiness”). Is this meant to indicate the way in which Jesus is “appointed” Son of God—in terms of God’s holiness?

Interestingly, “holy” and “holiness” are only rarely used of Jesus specifically in the New Testament, being limited primarily to the earlier strands of Christian preaching—i.e. the appellation “Holy (One)”, using both a%gio$ and o%sio$, Acts 2:27; 3:14, and note Lk 1:35; cf. also Acts 4:27, 30; 13:34-35. In his letters, Paul almost never uses “holy/holiness” of Jesus (1 Cor 7:34 is close), though he certainly sees a close connection between Christ and the Holy Spirit, viewing the Spirit, to a large extent, as the abiding presence of Christ in and among believers. Holiness, of course, is often seen as a characteristic and attribute of God, but even this association is relatively rare in Paul’s writings. Somewhat surprisingly, the noun a(giwsu/nh (“holiness”) only appears 3 times in the New Testament, the other two occurrences also being from Paul’s letters:

  • 1 Thess 3:13—prayer/exhortation to establish the hearts of believers to be “blameless in holiness” before God at the (eschatological) appearance of Jesus
  • 2 Cor 7:1—believers are urged to cleanse themselves, “completing holiness in the fear of God”; here too we find a similar juxtaposition of “flesh” and “spirit”

Perhaps the best way to understand the expression in context is as the (personal) holiness of Jesus which is manifest by God in the resurrection—or, viewed another way, as the holiness of God being manifest in the person of Christ. This may be similar to the idea of the “righteousness of God” being manifest in his person (1 Cor 1:30; cf. Rom 1:17; 3:21ff, etc).

It is possible that the reference to the resurrection in Rom 1:4 should not be limited simply to Jesus’ own resurrection—there may be an association with the wider idea of resurrection, such as we see expressed by Paul in 1 Cor 15:20, 23, where Jesus, by his resurrection, is the “firstfruits” of the harvest, i.e., those who will be raised again to life at the end-time. Notably, Paul describes this in terms of sonship in Rom 8:23, 29 (cf. Gal 4:5). Even more significant for our Christmas season theme is the further image of birth within this same context—Jesus is the “firstborn” (prwto/toko$) out of the dead (Col 1:18; cf. Rev 1:5), and, as such, the “firstborn” of “many brothers” (Rom 8:28; cf. also Heb 1:6; 12:23). Once again we see a powerful statement of two-fold birth: Christ as the Son of God and believers as the “sons of God”.

References here marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, Romans (Anchor Bible [AB] volume 33, 1993).

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