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Jesus “Only” Adopted to be the Son of God?

Here’s a post from six years ago involving an important matter that I completely changed my mind about.   I know some scholars (not to name names) will never change their views about something, come hell or high water.  They probably don’t think they should be seen to waffle.  I don’t mind waffles.  Especially on a nice Sunday morning like this.

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I used to think – for years and years I thought this – that being adopted was a lower kind of sonship.  Jesus was “only” the adopted Son of God, not the “real” Son of God.  But I came to realize this was fundamentally a mistake and an extremely important one.   To say Jesus was the adopted Son of God was to say HUGE things about him, virtually INCONCEIVABLE things.   It was not a “lowly” view of Jesus.  Here’s how I explain it in my book How Jesus Became God.

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Part of what has convinced me that this [adoptionistic] understanding of Christ should not be shunted aside as a rather inferior view involves new research on what it meant to be “adopted” as a son in the Roman empire, which was the context, of course, within which these views of Christ were formulated.   Today we may think that an adopted child is not a parent’s “real” child, and in some circles, unfortunately, that is taken to mean that the child does not “really” belong to the parent.  Many of us do not think this is a useful, loving, or helpful view, but there it is: some people have it.  So too when thinking about God and his Son.  If Jesus is “only” adopted, then he’s not “really” the Son of God, but he just happens to have been granted a more exalted status than the rest of us.

A study of adoption in Roman society shows hat this view is highly problematic and, in fact, probably wrong.   A significant recent book by …

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Papias. How Do We Know His Context? Guest post by Stephen Carlson

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  April 7, 2019

    Yay! as Dad of two kids – who adopted lucky me! – I wholeheartedly endorse this post!
    It never occurred to me before: Me n Jesus!! Adopted! Lucky! Saved!

  2. Robert
    Robert  April 7, 2019

    Surely Peppard and Kunst and others are right about this kind of adoption to a position of great power and authority being a very exalted view. And surely Raymond Brown has correctly traced the progressively earlier time of exaltation in the Synoptic gospels. But now that you accept angelmorphic, incarnation,
    and instrument of creation christologies in Paul and pre-Pauline formulae, how do you explain the relatively low christologies of the later synoptic gospels? Do you merely think that different christologies developed at differing rates at different times in different places. This seems to be the answer you offer in How Jesus Became God:

    “The reality is … views of Jesus did not develop along a straight line in every part of early Christianity and at the same rate. Different Christians in different churches in different regions had different views of Jesus, almost from the get-go. … It is not a question of ‘higher’ or ‘lower’. The Synoptics simply accept a Christological view that is different” from Paul’s. They hold to exaltation Christologies, and Paul holds to an incarnation Christology.”

    Can we say anything more? Could it be, for example, that the gospel-making process represents a larger process of Pauline Christianity progressively baptizing and preserving oral traditions circulating in the more Jewish Christian communities, traditions in danger of being lost after the destruction of Jerusalem? Matthew and Luke take the exaltation christology as far as possible with a virgin birth and John represents a more complete of synthesis.

    I know we do not know. But surely you have some suspicions, some hunches or pet theories that you would like to bestow upon us. Or you can just accept my preceding paragraph as the best guess yet!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2019

      My view is that Pauline Christianity looms very, very large in our thinking about earliest Christainity, as a force that penetrated most places, but that the historical reality is very different, that it actually loomed rather small at the time, and was not influencing everything else.

      • Robert
        Robert  April 8, 2019

        Bart: “My view is that Pauline Christianity looms very, very large in our thinking about earliest Christainity, as a force that penetrated most places, but that the historical reality is very different, that it actually loomed rather small at the time, and was not influencing everything else.”

        Surely you would you not want to claim that Paul and the author of the prologue to the gospel of John independently came up with their ideas of incarnation and instrument of creation christologies. Do you think that ‘John’ was only influenced by the same pre-Pauline ideas that independently influenced Paul?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 9, 2019

          I absolutely don’t think the author of the prologue of John was influenced by Paul. Their views of incarnation are very different indeed. My view is that there were currents of thought in the earliest Christian tradition that they were both influenced by, and contributed to.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 9, 2019

          I absolutely don’t think that the author of the prologue of John was directly influenced by Paul. Their conceptions do have overlap, but are very different. My sense is that there were streams of thinking in the earliest Christian tradition that they were both influenced by and contributed to.

          • Robert
            Robert  April 9, 2019

            Do you think ‘John’ was a gentile, influenced in general by Paul’s invention of gentile Christianity?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 10, 2019

            Yes, I think he was probably a gentile. And yes, he was related to Paul, in general, the way I’m relate to Adam, in general. 🙂

          • Robert
            Robert  April 10, 2019

            Bart: “Yes, I think he was probably a gentile. And yes, he was related to Paul, in general, the way I’m relate to Adam, in general.”

            Indeed John and Paul shared as much in common with each other as they shared with Adam and with you, but in addition to that they also believed in the Christ as a preexisting instrument of creation. That is not shared by you, nor by Adam as far as I know.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 12, 2019

            Well if you were a different kind of Christian, you would know that Adam *did* think this!

          • Robert
            Robert  April 12, 2019

            Bart: “Well if you were a different kind of Christian, you would know that Adam *did* think this [that the Christ was a pre-existing instrument of creation]!”

            OK, I’m game, what kind of Christian are you referring to? Are you just referring to fundamentalists who believe in Adam and Eve? Or are you perhaps thinking of some obscure second-century sect with a very specific Adamic christology?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 13, 2019

            No, just an obscure twenty-first century sect like the kind I belonged to when I was 19! The “britches” God provided Adam and Eve required the sacrifice of an animal and that was a pre-figuration of God’s sacrifice of his Son, destined to come later as the permanent solution to the sin those two had just committed. Love it!

  3. Avatar
    godspell  April 7, 2019

    I would strongly agree in the case of Greek-speaking Jews and gentiles who were part of the larger Roman world, but would this be true as well of the more insular Jewish culture Jesus and most of his followers came from? The Jewish idea of kingship tends to be more along the lines of heredity, not adoption. Adoption was certainly a concept they had, but it was less well-developed.

    Mark and the other gospel authors were Greek speakers, and yet we see that it’s after the pagan influence on Christianity strengthens that the original adoptionist idea is discarded in favor of Jesus having been divinely sired by Jehovah. (A pagan concept, we all understand.)

    If Jesus was going to be a mortal man raised up to be the earthly King of the Jews, then adoption by God is workable, and perhaps preferable. But if he’s going to be a semi-divine being, or God himself, then he has to be of divine ancestry. That is how pagans tended to see it. And even Roman Emperors would claim some kind of divine ancestry, though figures from their mythology.

    As you have made clear in How Jesus Became God, the line between human and divine was extremely porous and ill-defined in the Greco-Roman world. In the Jewish world, this was much less the case, though certainly there are intimations of divine ancestry in the way Adam and Eve and their immediate descendants lived on for centuries.

    But because they were strict monotheists, it was harder for Jews to make that leap than pagans.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2019

      I argue in my book that in fact it was a prominent part of the Jewish view, in particular because the King of Israel was “adopted” by God to be his son in the Old Testament. And lots of Jews understood that humans could be or become divine. Seems weird to us, but it’s well documented.

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      • Avatar
        godspell  April 8, 2019

        The earliest Christology we have is Paul’s, where he seems to indicate Jesus is a pre-existent divine being subordinate to God–in effect, an angel. Paul is unusual among the first Christian leaders in that he probably never saw Jesus in the flesh, and certainly never knew him as a person.

        When do you think the adoptionist Christology began, and with whom? 1 Peter refers to him as chosen by God, and that certainly is not a position unique to Mark, but are there any sources prior to Mark that take that position?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 9, 2019

          I would say we have earlier Christologies attested in the New Testament; I discuss “pre-literary” traditions (from both Paul and Acts, e.g.) that embody older views, in my book How Jesus Became God.

  4. epicurus
    epicurus  April 7, 2019

    While I don’t believe there was a virgin birth, I wonder if this gives some credence to the view I’ve heard some apologists use that Matthew and Luke can trace Jesus through Joseph’s line back to David – because Joseph would have adopted Jesus if Jesus had no earthly father, and in the Roman world that made it legit?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2019

      I don’t know of instances of men legally adopting children born out of wedlock to the women they took as wives…

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      • Rick
        Rick  April 8, 2019

        Does the name we have for Jesus “of Notzri/Nazereth” rather than Ben or Bar Joseph have any bearing on that? Seems evidence to me Joseph did not accept him. Certainly the identifiers were needed to distinguish which Jesus was which unless Nazereth was so small he was the only one?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 9, 2019

          It’s not clear what it means, other than the fact that the earliest story tellers knew he came from Nazareth but did not know his patrilineage.

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 8, 2019

      A genealogy, however spurious and symbolic, is still predicated on the notion of blood kinship.

      The real puzzle is why use Joseph at all, since any connection he had to the House of David would have been dubious at best, and Mary would be just as likely to come from that line. Modern Jews use a matrilineal line of descent to determine who is Jewish or not. You’re Jewish if your mother was, but not if only your father was. (Unless you convert.)

      The rules of heritage (as opposed to genetic heredity) are always going to be somewhat arbitrary and capricious.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 8, 2019

        To follow up belatedly–we should remember that the only purpose of the genealogies, the nativity stories, the baptism stories (which are quite certainly based on Jesus having been baptized by John, but that doesn’t mean any of them are fully accurate reports of that event), and everything else relating to Jesus’ life before his ministry began, was crafted with a mind to convincing Jews he was the Messiah. None of them worked very well (there was a small percentage of the Jewish population who were receptive, probably because they were dissatisfied with Judaism as then practiced), and it’s not surprising that when one tack failed, somebody would come up with another. Which would also fail. And over time, they accumulated, like geologic layers, and that’s why reading the New Testament is so confusing at times. 😉

  5. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  April 7, 2019

    Dear Dr Ehrman,
    I’m glad you have posted on this topic because adoptionism is a theology that recently, I think I have come to feel most comfortable with! Philosophically, I just can’t see how ‘the fullness of the Godhead can bodily’ can ‘dwell within my Lord’ in his earthly body. Adoptionism seems to sit comfortably with Peter’s early sermons in Acts eg Act 2:36: Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ (if indeed that is what Peter preached). In some ways, it gets around a lot of the problems with Jesus’s immanent apocalpticism, his failure to perform ‘mircales’ in certain places, his apparently Jewish exclusivism and other aspects of his clear humanity recorded in the Gospels. I find adoptionism much easier to accept than the 4th Gospel author’s pre-existent Logos idea and it also fits with the idea that we can all be adopted after a similar fashion. Nevertheless, the 4th Gospel author’s Logos idea could be seen as applying to all of us, since if you take a theist view, then we are all from the creator so, in a pantheisitic sense, we were all there with God at the begnning and we all were God – I know I’m getting a bit gnostic here 🙂 ! The other big questions that this topic raises for me are what we actually mean by the terms Son of God, God, gods, divine and indeed, the term worship.

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 7, 2019

    If this is the case, why did later Christologies go over to a Virgin Birth?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2019

      They took an extremely high view of Christ and worked to make it even higher!

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      • Avatar
        AstaKask  April 8, 2019

        But is it higher? Wasn’t the argument that “an adopted son in the Roman world was given a greater, higher status than a child who was a son by birth”. If so, aren’t they going down by making Jesus the biological (?) son of God?

        As a side note, I think of “high Christology” as “Christology you can accept only if you’re high.”

        • Bart
          Bart  April 9, 2019

          Not in their view, no. If Jesus is *literally* God’s son, that opens up a whole range of possibilities that otherwise don’t exist (e.g., pre-existence before birth).

  7. Avatar
    Pegill7  April 7, 2019

    Why then do the bishops at Nicaea insist that there was never a time when Jesus the Son did not exist? Did Jesus also inherit his Father’s eternal existence? Seems that the author of the Gospel of John thought so.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2019

      Because they no longer accepted an adoptinist view. If you’re interested in all this (including John’s views) see my book How Jesus Became God, where I talk about it all.

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  8. Avatar
    dennislk1  April 8, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    It is nice to know you can waffle, otherwise you might one day be toast. But while I prefer your waffles to the “Orange” juice flowing on Twitter, nonetheless I find my mind drifting from Roman influence on early Christian metaphors of Jesus to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch on Tuesday.

    But concerning “as the Son of God he was the sole heir to all that was God’s”, may I now tweet: “Dr. Bart Ehrman has proclaimed that God is dead and Jesus is now God of the Universe!”?

    Please pass the syrup …

    Dennis Keister

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2019

      Ah, that’s the thing about tweets. People can and do tweet the most incredible things before breakfast!!

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  9. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 12, 2019

    The idea of merit is a key point to me. The adoptionist view sees Jesus as having earned sonship through conscious effort while the “begottenist” view [did I just coin a word?] sees him as the son of God by nature. I take Bart’s point about adoption in the Roman empire, but more important for me how Christians of both Christologies saw it. I suppose that adoptionists didn’t argue that an adopted son is any better than a begotten son. Rather they simply believed that Jesus was more human than their “orthodox” brethren did.

  10. Avatar
    roycecil  April 20, 2019

    Well , to be a persuasive argument do we have :

    1. Any material evidence from the Roman time that families of some standings always “adopted” to pass their wealth down the generations ? And any material evidence from 1 century writings that argues that “adopted” sons have a greater stature than “begotten” sons ?

    2. It is definitely true that Augustus was an adopted son of Julius Caesar : Is that the rule or exception ? In other words : Did the rulers always adopted children to pass their “rulership” along ?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2019

      No, they did not *always* adopt. They sometimes did. I’m not sure what you mean by material evidence. Do you mean archaeological? No, I’m not sure what kind of archaeological evidence there could be. If you’re really interested, the definitive and convincing study, with a marshaling of the evidence from Roman antiquity, is in Michael Peppard, The Son of God in the Roman World.

      • Avatar
        roycecil  April 21, 2019

        I meant any written materials from the 1 century AD that claims that adopted children is held in higher stature than begotten children. Thanks for the pointer to Michael Peppard. I’d try and find a copy to read ..

        • Avatar
          roycecil  April 21, 2019

          What is “sometimes” ? 10% or less? If it is a small percentage how can an argument be made for the esteem in which adopted children are held ?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 22, 2019

            I’d suggest you read the book! The reason for adopting a son for inheritance was to give that person higher status than your own son.

  11. Avatar
    mdevans7324  April 23, 2019

    You may have touched on this in “How Jesus became God”, but I wondered if you would comment on how the Roman’s tendency to make emperors divine put pressure on early Church doctrine to do the same for Jesus? The gospels account of Jesus (with the exception of John) lead me to think Jesus would have thought the idea absurd.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2019

      I wouldn’t say it was pressure; I’d say that it was a competition (i.e., they didn’t feel constrained to do it but rather eager to do it)

  12. Avatar
    dcbennett56  April 26, 2019

    But doesn’t the old testament understanding of an adopted Son of God go back to the kings of Israel and so predate the Roman period? That kings of Israel where considered to be adopted by God at their coronation when they were also anointed with oil. Isn’t a King of Israel also a Son of God and a Messiah and wouldn’t the Jewish Christian adoptionists have understood Jesus to be the promised descendant of King David, the new King, Son of God and Messiah? To the gentile converts of course Son of God meant something different.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2019

      Yes indeed. I have a long discussion of this in my book How Jesus Became God.

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