Jesus as the Son of God: His Human Birth
In the previous notes, we saw how the earliest Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God was related directly to his resurrection (and exaltation to heaven), as the moment when he was “born” as God’s Son (cf. Acts 13:33, citing Psalm 2:7; cp. Heb 5:5). With the development of the early Gospel tradition, Christians were able to give expression to the growing awareness that Jesus must have been God’s Son even before the resurrection—that is, all during the period of his earthly ministry, beginning with his baptism (Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22 par, again drawing upon Psalm 2:7). It followed naturally that this belief would be extended to the entire period of Jesus’ earthly life, beginning with his physical/biological birth as a human being. The tradition of the supernatural (virginal) conception, recorded clearly enough in the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives (Matt 1-2, Luke 1-2), effectively testifies to Jesus’ character as the Son of God. The Infancy narratives, while drawing on earlier historical traditions, etc, were almost certainly the last portion of the Gospel narrative to be developed. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the birth of Jesus is scarcely mentioned at all anywhere else in the New Testament. There are two allusions in Paul’s letters, both of which are earlier in time than the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and their Infancy narratives).
The clearest Pauline reference is in Galatians 4:4:
“…but when the fullness of time came, God set (forth) out from (Himself) [i.e. sent out] His Son, coming to be out of a woman, coming to be under (the) Law”
“…the (one) coming to be out of (the) seed of David according to (the) flesh”
The participial phrase “coming to be out of the seed of David” is generally equivalent with “coming to be out of a woman”. In some manuscripts (and ancient versions) of both passages, it is the participle gennw/menon (from genna/w) instead of geno/menon (from gi/nomai). The verbs gi/nomai and genna/w are related, and both essentially mean “come to be, become”; each can also mean specifically “come to be born“, but this is more commonly denoted by genna/w rather than gi/nomai. The participle gennw/menon thus may be intended to make more clear that it is the birth of Jesus (a real human birth) that is being referenced.
Both in Rom 1:3 and here in Gal 4:4, Paul’s wording suggests that Jesus was God’s Son prior to his birth. Even if Rom 1:3-4 represents an older Christological formula adopted by Paul (as many commentators think), the opening words of v. 3, leading into the formula, likely are Paul’s own: “about His Son…”. In Galatians 4:4, the theological orientation is more clearly expressed: “God sent out His Son…”; a more literal rendering of the verb e)cape/steilen would be “set (forth) out from”, i.e. out from Himself, or out from where He is. At the very least, this suggests a heavenly origin for Jesus as God’s Son, much as we see in the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2:6-11. The same sort of wording occurs in Romans 8:3:
“For the (thing that it was) without power for the Law (to do), in which it was without strength through the flesh, God (did by) sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and, about [i.e. regarding] sin, He brought down judgment on sin in the flesh.”
A different verb is used—the more common pe/mpw (“send”)—but the idea is essentially the same: God sent His Son to be born as a human being. If we combine the key phrasing of Rom 1:3, Gal 4:4, and Rom 8:3 together, it results in a snapshot of Pauline theology (and Christology):
- “coming to be out of the seed of David” (Rom 1:3)—Jesus as the Messiah
- “coming to be out of a woman” (Gal 4:4)—the human birth of Jesus
- “coming to be under the Law” (Gal 4:4)—joining with humankind under bondage to the Law
- “…in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3)—sharing in humankind’s bondage under the power of sin
The last point is potentially problematic for orthodox Christology; Paul was no doubt aware of this (in his own way), and he states he matter carefully (compare with 2 Cor 5:21). His emphasis is not on Jesus’ relation to sin as a human being, but on the fact that, as a result of his life and work on earth (as a human being), the ruling power of sin in the flesh is condemned. The verb katakri/nw literally means “bring down judgment” or “judge against”, a legal term indicating the passing of a sentence against crime, etc, including the idea of punishment and of rendering a person unable to pursue evil. The influence of sin in the “flesh” is not entirely removed for human beings (believers), but its ruling power is ended.
Galatians 4:4ff and Romans 8:3ff also share the important theme that Jesus’ Sonship, and his saving work as a human being, is the basis for the sonship of believers—our own identity as sons/children of God. In particular, Rom 8:12-17 is very close in thought to Gal 4:4-7; this will be touched on further in an upcoming note in this Christmas series.
The many similarities in subject matter and thought, between Galatians and Romans, suggests that they were written at roughly the same time, perhaps no more than a few years apart—according to the best estimates, during a period c. 54-58 A.D. Indeed, these allusions to Jesus’ birth would seem to derive from an earlier time than that of the Infancy narratives (c. 70-80?). To judge from the surviving material, there was little interest in the details of Jesus’ birth in the earliest period (c. 30-60 A.D.); indeed, his human birth and childhood does not appear to have been part of the early Gospel preaching at all (compared with his baptism, ministry, death and resurrection). This is also confirmed by the way the Gospel narratives themselves developed, with no Infancy narrative in either the core Synoptic Tradition (as represented by Mark) or the Johannine.
Eventually, however, historical and literary traditions regarding Jesus’ birth were included as part of the Gospel. By at least 80 A.D. (if not earlier) the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives had been composed. The major differences between these narratives, along with the fact that they share certain core (historical) traditions, suggests that a period of development in the tradition was involved, spanning a number of years (c. 50-70 A.D.?). It is also worth noting that nearly all of the themes from the earlier Gospel tradition are present, in some form, in the Infancy narratives, including the fundamental belief in Jesus as the Son of God. It is important to consider how this is expressed in the Matthean and Lukan narratives; this we will do in the next daily note.