Saturday, 7 May 2011

Titles of Jesus in the New Testament

Contrary to popular belief, ‘Messiah’ (or, in Greek, ‘Christ’) was neither the only nor the most important title given to Jesus by the early church.

Here are some titles found in four of our earliest sets of material on Jesus: Q, the traditions collected in Mark's gospel, the early Passion Narrative which was incorporated into the gospels, and the letters of St Paul.

GMark traditionsQPassion NarrativePaul
Son of GodSon of GodSon of GodSon of God
Son of ManSon of Man
Son of David
King of the Jews

It seems that three titles had particular importance in the early church - ‘Son of God’, ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Messiah’. The most important of these was ‘Son of God’. The only titles which can confidently be assumed to go back to Jesus’ lifetime, however, are ‘Messiah’, ‘Son of David’, ‘prophet’ and ‘King of the Jews’.

Son of God

In the Old Testament, the phrase ‘Son of God’ is applied on a few occasions to the Israelites collectively and to their king. There is also evidence that a pious individual could be described in pre-Christian Judaism as a son of God. In general, however, the use of ‘Son of God’ as an honorific title in pre-Jesus Jewish literature is extremely rare. The early Christians may well have devised the title themselves.

It is unlikely that Jesus referred to himself as the Son of God, or even that the title was applied to him in his lifetime - in the gospel narratives, the title is used only in passages which are probably not historical, and is employed by angels, demons and God rather than by Jesus himself or his followers. On the other hand, Jesus did have a deep devotion to God as his father, and the parable of the tenant farmers seems to suggest that he saw himself as being (in some sense) God’s son.

It is worth noting that Jesus’ practice of invoking God as his personal father was almost unprecedented in the Jewish tradition, and represented an important innovation. (The Jews had for a long time regarded God as the father of the whole of Israel, but he was hardly ever conceived as having a paternal relationship with individual Jews.) Some years ago, the German scholar Joachim Jeremias suggested that Jesus’ word for God as father, ’abba, was an intimate term like ‘Daddy’. This may be true, but Jeremias’ theory has been hotly disputed by other scholars. There does not seem to be enough evidence to decide the question one way or the other.

Son of Man

‘The son of man’ was a phrase in Hebrew and Aramaic which occurs a number of times in the Old Testament. It meant simply ‘a human being’, or, in some cases, ‘I’ (i.e. ‘this man here’). Jesus seems to have used the term in both of these senses, and it stuck in the minds of his followers.

Some early Christians, particularly those who were not native Aramaic speakers, apparently began to wonder why Jesus had used such a curious expression. The answer which they found transformed the meaning of ‘son of man’ within Christian discourse and turned it into a title with strong messianic overtones.

Jewish thought around the time of Jesus was given to speculating on what would happen at the end of the world. A number of texts were written, which still survive, telling of the tribulations that would come in the end times and of the last judgement with which God would close history. In some of the scenarios which these texts posit, a mysterious heavenly figure called the ‘Son of Man’ features prominently. Though it had never been suggested that the Son of Man would become incarnate as a human being, it quickly came to be thought that Jesus had identified himself as this figure.


It is often said that the Jews of Jesus’ time were expecting a ‘political’ Messiah who would free them from Roman rule. This may be essentially true: at any rate, the idea was firmly established in Jewish thought that the Messiah would be more than simply a spiritual teacher or super-prophet.

For centuries, the Jews had looked forward to enjoying a future age of peace and prosperity under the rule of a righteous king from the royal dynasty of David - the Messiah. The essential attribute of the Messiah was that he should reign over Israel as her monarch: indeed, the term (which means ‘anointed one’) was originally synonymous with ‘king’. It would have been natural for Jesus’ fellow Jews to see the political deliverance of the chosen people from the rule of gentiles as an integral part of the Messiah’s mission, a necessary preliminary to the establishment of his righteous rule.

The evidence suggests that Jesus himself avoided using the title ‘Messiah’, though it seems, plausibly enough, to have been applied to him both by his followers and by his enemies. On the other hand, a careful examination of his words and deeds does suggest that he saw himself as occupying a central position in the coming Kingdom of Heaven - he would be, so to speak, the King (under God) of the Kingdom. To this extent, it made sense for the early church to latch onto the ‘Messiah’ title and use it as a means of defining Jesus’ identity.

The title of Messiah cannot be shown to have been applied to any figure other than Jesus between 150 BC and 100 AD.

Son of David

It is not known whether Jesus really was a biological descendant of King David, but the evidence suggests that he was believed by his contemporaries to be of Davidic lineage.


It is inherently likely that the people whom Jesus encountered thought of him as a prophet - the category of the prophet was a familiar one to the ancient Jews, and ‘prophet’ was a convenient label to apply to a charismatic religious leader who stood outside the official priestly hierarchy but seemed to be on a mission from God. There is positive evidence on this point, too: indeed, some people even regarded Jesus as a reincarnation of Elijah or one of the other great prophets of the past. Jesus himself seems to have indirectly applied the term ‘prophet’ to himself on a couple of occasions, but he did not use it to define his identity or the nature of his ministry.

The fact is that Jesus did not fit the profile of a prophet. Ben Witherington has drawn attention to a series of differences between his ministry and that of the Israelite prophets. The prophets never claimed that the eschatological Kingdom of Heaven was imminent or had arrived. Nor did they, in the great majority of cases, heal the sick or take disciples. Also, Jesus’ modes of speech were alien to the prophetic tradition - unlike the prophets, he characteristically spoke in short aphorisms and parables, and he never used the key prophetic phrase "Thus says Yahweh".

King of the Jews

As intimated above, ‘Messiah’ and ‘King of the Jews’ would have been widely regarded as equivalent terms. There is no reason to doubt the historicity of the Passion Narrative’s reports that Jesus was accused of claiming to be the ‘King of the Jews’ and executed on that basis. 

A final word

We may close this short post by recalling the great Jesus scholar E.P. Sanders’ judgement that ‘the study of titles does not tell us what Jesus thought of himself’ because ‘we have better information’:
Jesus thought that the twelve disciples represented the tribes of Israel, but also that they would judge them. Jesus was clearly above the disciples; a person who is above the judges of Israel is very high indeed. We also know that he considered his mission as being of absolutely paramount importance, and he thought that how people responded to his message was more important than other important duties. He thought that God was about to bring in his kingdom, and that he, Jesus, was God’s last emissary. He thought therefore that he was in some sense ‘king’. He rode into Jerusalem on an ass, recalling a prophecy about the king riding on an ass, and he was executed for claiming to be ‘king of the Jews’…. There was no title in the history of Judaism that fully communicated all this, and Jesus seems to have been quite reluctant to adopt a title for himself. I think that even ‘king’ is not precisely correct, since Jesus regarded God as king. My own favourite term for his conception of himself is ‘viceroy’. God was king, but Jesus represented him and would represent him in the coming kingdom.  (The Historical Figure of Jesus, 248)

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