Birth of the Son of God: Acts 13:26-41

In the previous note, I looked at Acts 2:29-36 (the last section of Peter’s Pentecost sermon) from the standpoint of the earliest Christian view of Jesus—focusing on the Christological statement in verse 36 and citation of Psalm 110:1 in vv. 34-35. Today, I turn to another major sermon-speech in Acts: that by Paul in Acts 13:16-41. As I have discussed earlier, in my series of articles on the Speeches in the book of Acts, these sermon-speeches by Peter and Paul are remarkably similar in many respects, both in terms of structure and content. Verses 26-41 form the major Christological/kerygmatic section of the speech, parallel to 2:29-36; similarly, this section contains a principal Scripture passage from the Psalms, Ps 2:7, parallel to Ps 110:1—both of which represent key “Messianic” prophecies applied to Jesus.

Acts 13:26-41

Here there is a similar identification of Jesus as Savior and (Messianic) descendant of David in verse 23:

“of this (man)’s [i.e. David’s] seed [tou/toua)po\ tou= spe/rmato$]… a Savior, Yeshua [swth=ra  )Ihsou=n]”

Verse 26 emphasizes again the Gospel as the message of salvation (“the account/word of salvation”, o( lo/go$ th=$ swthri/a$). The centrality of the resurrection is also clear, in vv. 30ff, but also (perhaps) within verse 23:

“of this (man)’s seed, God, according to (His) announcement/promise, led/brought (forth) to Yisrael a Savior Yeshua”

There are two elements which are italicized above:

  • kata\ e)paggeli/an (“according to [his] announcement/promise”)—which should be understood according to three aspects in early Christian thought:
    • God’s promise(s) to Abraham and “the Fathers”, i.e. to Israel—the covenant, including the promised land
    • The (Messianic) promise of salvation/restoration—realized in the person and work of Jesus
    • The Holy Spirit specifically as the “promise of God” (cf. Acts 1:4; 2:33; Gal 3:14)
    • —all three aspects come together in Acts 2:39; 13:32; Rom 1:2; Gal 3:14ff, etc
  • h&gagen tw=|  )Israh/l (“he led/brought [forth] to Israel”)—this primarily refers to the appearance of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry; however, a number of manuscripts read h&geiren (“he raised”) instead of h&gagen, perhaps influenced by the presence of this verb in v. 22.

In verse 32, the promise of God (to the Fathers) is connected more specifically to the resurrection, as indicated by the Scripture citations which follow, beginning with Psalm 2:7:

“…that God has fulfilled this to us [their] offspring, making Yeshua stand up (again) [i.e. raising Jesus], even as it has been written in the second Psalm: ‘You are my Son, I have caused you to be (born) this day'” (v. 33)

The chain of references helps to illustrate how the speaker/author understood Ps 2:7:

  • “Son” of God (“My Son”)
    —Davidic heir (v. 34, Isa 55:3)
    —Holy One (of God) (v. 35, Ps 16:10)—connection with David (the Psalmist)

There is a similar associative matrix in Acts 2:29-36 (drawing upon the earlier citation of Ps 16:8-11 in vv. 25-28):

  • “Lord” (ku/rio$)—connection with YHWH, God the Father (vv. 25, 34, Ps 16:8; 110:1)
    —Descendent/offspring of David (v. 30)
    —Holy One (of God) (v. 27, Ps 16:10)

With the use of Ps 2:7 in Acts 13:32ff, there is evidence of a transition having taken place between:

  1. The original context of Psalm 2, and
  2. Its application to Jesus as an exalted/divine figure

Originally, the 2nd Psalm referred to the (human) king as God’s “son” in a symbolic or ritual sense, the setting of the Psalm (as with Ps 110) being the coronation/inauguration/enthronement of the (new) king. Israel shared this basic idea as part of the thought-world of the Ancient Near East, where exalted/divine imagery and epithets were frequently applied to rulers; at times, kings were thought to achieve a divine status, at least after death. Only in the royal theology of Egypt do we find anything like Divine Sonship ascribed to rulers in the metaphysical sense. Certainly in ancient Israel, this “sonship” was only symbolic, tied to the idea of God’s covenantal protection of the ruler; even so, reference to it in Scripture is rare, limited mainly to several key passages—especially Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7:8-16. In the latter passage, the context is a promise (by God) regarding the Davidic line and kingdom, which we also see expressed in Psalm 89. These two elements—the king as God’s “son” and promise of kingship for David’s descendents—coalesced into a “royal Messiah” concept, such as we find coming into prominence within Jewish tradition and literature in the 2nd-1st centuries B.C. Jeremiah 33:14-26 is the main prophetic passage which influenced the idea. There is no special comment on Psalm 2:7 in the surviving texts from Qumran, but 4QFlorilegium(174) does provide a Messianic interpretation of 2 Sam 7:10-14 (cf. lines 10-13). Acts 13:33 is probably the oldest surviving “Messianic” use of Psalm 2:7, with the possible exception of the variant reading at Luke 3:22 (cf. below).

Orthodox Christians may be accustomed to reading Ps 2:7 in terms of Jesus’ pre-existent Deity, and this does seem to be assumed in Hebrews, where Ps 2:7 is cited (along with 2 Sam 7:14 and Ps 110:1) in Heb 1:5ff and 5:5f. However, in the early Gospel preaching recorded in the book of Acts, the context is clearly that of Jesus’ resurrection. After the resurrection, Jesus is exalted and made to sit at the right hand of God the Father (YHWH) in heaven—this is the setting for the citation of Ps 2:7 in Acts 13:33 (as well as of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:34-35). Almost certainly, then, the focal point of the conceptual transition regarding Ps 2:7 (cf. above) was not a belief in Jesus’ pre-existent deity, but rather his resurrection and exaltation. Only subsequently, as the result of further thought and (progressive) revelation, was this Christological connection widened. Interestingly, if Ps 2:7 is applied to the resurrection in Acts 13:33, and (it would seem) to Jesus’ divine pre-existence in Hebrews, there is a kind of ‘intermediate’ application—to Jesus’ baptism—attested in certain manuscripts and textual witnesses for Luke 3:22 [D a b c d ff2 etc and a number of Church Fathers], where, instead of the generally accepted reading—

su\ ei@ o( ui(o/$ mou o( a)gaphto/$ e)n soi\ eu)do/khsa
“You are my Son the (be)loved (one) [i.e. my beloved Son], I think good in [i.e. think well of, take delight in] you”

the voice from Heaven quotes Ps 2:7:

ui(o\$ mou ei@ su e)gw\ sh/meron gege/nnhka/ se
“You are my son, I have caused you to be (born) today”

In such a context, the implication might be that Jesus “becomes” God’s Son during the baptism (with the descent of the Spirit upon him). Whatever the origins of the variants in this verse, it clearly demonstrates that early Christians were beginning to apply Ps 2:7—along with the idea of Jesus as the “Son of God”—outside of the traditional Messianic (Davidic) setting. However, as I have indicated in these notes, the early preaching preserved in Acts 2 and 13 still maintains a vital connection with the earlier setting, emphasizing Jesus as a descendant of David (“son of David”). This will be explored further in the next article of ths series.

I have consistently translated the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) in the transitive/causative sense as “caused to be (born)”. It hardly need be said that the precise, technical meaning in context differs slightly depending on whether the subject is male or female. In conventional English expression (and from a biological standpoint), only the female (mother) bears and gives birth, while the male (father) contributes toward conception. Older English had a convenient verb for rendering genna/w from the male standpoint—”to beget“—but, unfortunately, this no longer part of the regular vocabulary. Instead, we have to use inaccurate and awkward phrasing such as “become (the) father”, etc. It is indeed tempting to translate Psalm 2:7 along the lines of the old KJV (“…this day I have begotten thee”), still maintained in translations like the ESV (“…today I have begotten you”); however, I have tried to keep my (glossed) translations excessively literal, preserving, as far as possible, the fundamental meaning and etymology of each word.

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