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The Jewish King as God

A chunk from my chapter 2, a finding that surprised me very much once I made it (surprising I didn’t discover it earlier — like 30 years ago….)


The son of a human is human, just as the son of a dog is a dog and the son of a cat is a cat.  And so what is the son of God?   As it turns out, to the surprise of many casual readers of the Bible, there are passages where the king of Israel, widely called the son of God (e.g. 2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:7), is actually referred to as divine, as god.

The Yale Hebrew Bible scholar John Collins points out that this notion ultimately appears to derive from Egyptian ways of thinking about their king, the Pharaoh, as a divine being.   Even in Egypt, where the king was God, it did not mean that the king was on a par with the great gods, any more than the Roman emperor was thought to be on a par with Jupiter or Mars.  But he was a god.   In Egyptian and Roman circles, there were levels of divinity.  And so too, as we have seen, in Jewish circles.  And so it is that we find highly exalted terms used of the king of Israel, terms that may surprise readers who – based on the kind of thinking that developed in the fourth Christian century — think that there is an unbridgeable chasm between God and humans.  Nonetheless, here it is, in the Bible itself, the king is called both Lord and God.

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The Divine Realm in Antiquity
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  1. Avatar
    kmazurek  March 20, 2013

    I thought the second word of Psalms 110:1 was “adoni,” rather than “Adonai”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 20, 2013

      Yes, that’s right. What’s the difference do you think?

      • Avatar
        SteveLig  March 21, 2013

        I generally understood adoni to mean a superior who is not God. Adonai, on the other hand, I thought referred exclusively to God. There are many occurrences but I have not looked at them all. Being a monotheist in my Christian days, this was standard fare for arguments against the trinity.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2013

          Of course in the Hebrew original there was no way to distinguish between ADONI and ADONAI. No vowels!!

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  March 25, 2013

            So who came up with the two different ‘versions’ of ADN then and why?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  March 25, 2013

            The Masoretes, who added the vowels in the early middle ages, probably to differentiate between God as Lord and humans as lords.

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  March 26, 2013

            Ok, thank you.

      • Avatar
        kmazurek  March 21, 2013

        I always thought that “adoni” was human “lord”, a non-diety, like with Abraham, or how in English we call kings of England “my Lord”; while “Adonai” refers to a Deity, and ONLY to a Deity. On a separate note, would you say that the ancients considered “God” as more of an office, title, or position, which YHVH filled?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2013

          Of course, in Hebrew ADN has no vowels and so is both Adoni and Adonai. On God, I don’t think they had a separate category in the way you’re expressing it, if I’m understanding the question correctly.

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        Jacobus  March 21, 2013

        ” ‘adoni(y) ” is almost exclusively used for a slave-master relationship and definitely not used in the Hebrew Bible as a common term that refers to “God”. Interestingly enough the Septuagint (Psalm 109) uses “kurios” for both YHWH and ” ‘adoni(y) “.in verse 1. Prof Ehrman, have you considered the Ugaritic Keret story as an example of the king being seen as divine? (Ugarit had more or less the same pantheon as the Canaanites).

        King Keret (or Kirtu/a) becomes ill because he didn’t keep his promise to the goddess Asherah (or Athiratu) of Tyre. This promise he made during a military campaign against the city state of Udmu. On clay tablet 16 (the Keret story is found in tablets 14-16) the following lament is found by his son, Elcha (or ‘Ilcha’u) (my translation) :

        “Like a dog we enter your house,
        like a cur at the entrance of your inner-room.
        Are you, Father, like the mortals that die?
        or your inner-room for the mourner that entered,
        [reserved for] the lament of a woman, exulted Father?

        The mountain of Baal will bemoan you, Father;
        Zaphon, the sacred dwelling.
        The sacred dwelling grumbles;
        the complete dwelling.

        Is Keret also the son of God (‘El/ ‘Ilu),
        the descendant of the Merciful and Holy [One]?”

        He (Keret’s son) went in to his father.
        He cried and gnashed [his teeth].
        He rouse his voice crying.

        In your life we delighted ourselves, our Father!
        In your immortality we were delighted!

        Like a dog we enter your house;
        like a cur at the entrance of your inner-room.
        Are you, Father, like the mortals that die?
        or your inner-room for the mourner that entered,
        [reserved for] the lament of a woman, exulted Father?

        How can [a person] say: Keret is the son of God (‘El / ‘Ilu);
        the descendant of the Merciful and Holy [One]?

        Or do the gods die?
        Will the descendant of the Merciful [One] not live?”

        Text can be found in “Keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit” (M Dietrich, O Loretz & J Samartin, 1976) and an English text and translation in “Canaanite Myths and Legends” (JCL Gibson, 1978) although the translation might not the the best. Another English translation can be found in “The Context of Scripture: Canonical compositions from the Biblical world” (WW Hallo (ed), 1997).

        It has become clear the last few years that at least Israelite Folk Religion(s) wasn’t so monotheistic as one would suppose. The possible Canaanite influence on the Israelite religion – though mostly condemned – is clearly attested in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. A polemic against the idea of divine kingship might be lying behind the condemnation of Saul as king in the Deuteronomistic History. (Sorry for this long comment.)

  2. Avatar
    stephena  March 20, 2013

    Well… okay. Color me unconvinced. Sure, some were called “gods” in the OT, and even some were called “Sons of God” (but not LITERALLY sharing the flesh of God, as a human child would, obviously. This was SYMBOLIC.)

    Kings were thought (from Ancient Israel right up through the Middle Ages, and even through Louis XVI) to SHARE in the divinity of God in the sense that they were God ordained. But surely you’re not saying that ancient Jews believed that their kings partook in the Divine Attributes of God (omniscience, omnipresence, etc) in the same way that the Paganized Christians of the fourth century sitting around the table in Nicea thought about Christ, are you? I think we’re going a little too far to prove that Jesus was/is God here, aren’t we? There’s literally no justification for the idea that Jesus was considered God (or God-like) by his followers or any Jewish person of the early 1st century.

  3. Avatar
    Helwys12  March 20, 2013

    Would you say Paul’s christology fits this paradigm?

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    hwl  March 21, 2013

    Isaiah 9 is often read out in churches during Christmas services. It fits so well with early Christian beliefs about Jesus. How did biblical scholars traditionally interpret the passage – did they acknowledge the passage is declaring this messianic king is divine? Is “Everlasting Father” an honorific address, or does it express a theological belief the king is literally everlasting?
    The Jewish Study Bible (by the Jewish Publication Society) generally has more historically accurate rendering of the Hebrew bible, uses this translation:
    “And authority has settled on his shoulders.
    He has been named ‘The Might God is planning grace
    The Eternal Father, a peaceful ruler'”
    There is less of the divine connotations here. Do you think the Jewish Study Bible is mistranslating in order to suit a theological agenda, namely modern Judaism does not accept any being other than Yahweh is divine?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2013

      Wow. Interesting translation. I’m not sure *where* they’re getting that from, but yes, I would suppose it would be to keep the king from being called God. I think most scholars see the language as metaphorical.

  5. Avatar
    Pat Ferguson  March 21, 2013

    Keeping in mind the various possible applications of אדן or אדון (‘âdôn) listed in BDB for Strong’s H113, all I can say is . . . . . WOW! Talk about timing! I just today posted a note to my Facebook page explaining, in part, that: “Psalm 110:1 is one of those many places in Scripture where it is either stated or implied that Jesus is neither the son of–or the messiah sent from–Jehovah.”

    Man, I GOTTA get your upcoming book for my Metzger-Ehrman collection! 😀

  6. Avatar
    PaulH  March 21, 2013

    Great stuff. My fiance and I are heading to D.C. this weekend. Already have tickets to hear your lecture at The Smithsonian. Can’t wait!

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 21, 2013

    Your ideas and reviews are always interesting. I certainly can see that ancient people might have called their leaders “gods” and might have seen them as being lesser divinities than other gods and that this might have influenced their view of Jesus. I have to say, however, that what the Old Testament writers you quote were actually saying is still just not really that clear to me so I am grateful for your guidance. What these Old Testament authors are saying is a lot clearer to you than it is to me. Why would God “inspire” writing that is so hard to understand?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2013

      Good question. Maybe to keep us on our toes? 🙂 (Of course, in my view he didn’t….)

  8. Avatar
    RichardToothman  March 21, 2013

    I always thouhgt that the reference in isaiah was to the coming messiah or Christ himself and not the king at that time period.

  9. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  March 21, 2013

    This causes me to recall that the very ancient Israelites were not “monothiests” in the sense of believing in the existence of only one god. The oldest Hebrew scriptures are replete with references to gods other than YHWH. For those israelites, YHWH was the God of israel but that didn’t mean that others didn’ t have their gods, or that no other god existed. Your comments also remind me that there very well may be a connection between the monothestic sun-god “heresy” of certain Egyptian pharohs, particularly Amenhophis IV Anknaton, and Jewish monotheism. Those Egyptians who acknowledged the sun god Ra as the only “true” god nevertheless also considered the Pharoah to be a living god. Could any of this carried over into early Jewish theology ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2013

      Yes, there were plenty of henotheists among the Jews. But some by the time of Jesus were monotheists as well. But that still allowed for other divnities, oddly enough.

  10. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  March 22, 2013

    Fascinating insights again. Looking forward to the book!

  11. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  March 22, 2013

    Bart, will you also comment on the use of ‘son (or sons) of God’ in the Old Testament in your new book?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2013


      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  March 23, 2013

        Great! Personally I’m also fascinated by the word ‘elohim’ itself and its different uses and meanings … Which I guess you’ll also address in your book then. Really looking forward to it.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 22, 2013

    I have read all of your Christology blogs and, for me, so far, there are four main issues as follows:
    1. What factors influenced the author of the first chapter of the Gospel of John to describe Jesus as being God from the beginning of time? Was this author the member of some sort of pre-Marcionite group having a high Christology or maybe some other group strongly influenced by Paul?
    2. Why don’t the authors of the three other Gospels describe Jesus as being God? Were they members of some sort of Ebionite group having a lower Christology?
    3. Why does the Gospel of John also suggest a lower Christology in John !4:28 (“The Father is greater than I”) and John 5:30 (“I can do nothing on my own authority ….,”) after earlier in the Gospel having contended that Jesus is/was God from the beginning of time? Does this mean that the Gospel of John was written by more than one author? I think the answer is probably “Yes.”
    4. The first chapter of the Gospel of John is beautifully written. Is this beauty of language apparent in the Greek or is it the product of some gifted translators? I took New Testament Greek in college, but do not have the expertise to answer this question.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 22, 2013

      Well, most of the questions are too complex for a brief reply here. But to #4 I can say: yes! On the others, if you want to see a reasonably full answer, you might look at the chapter on John in my textbook, The New Tesatment: A Historical Introduction…. There I map out the socio-historical answers (to all three quesitons) that scholars typically give today.

  13. Avatar
    Scott F  March 22, 2013

    An funny thing is that Christians would use these passages to argue Jesus’ pre-existence while Mythicists would deploy them in support of his non-existence.

  14. Avatar
    tooronga  March 23, 2013

    G Vermes in his “Jesus the Jew” has an interesting chapter on the various meanings of “the son of God” phrase, in the Old Testament heritage, post-biblical Judaism and also in the Hellenistic world. It appears to have become capitalised to the “Son of God” at somestage during the translations of the New Testament. I wonder when and by whom?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 24, 2013

      so do I!

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  March 25, 2013

        Does that matter much though? Isn’t ‘the’, or the difference between ‘a’ son of god and ‘the’ son of god, the more important part? The latter seems to suggest exclusivity (only one son).

        On a side note: isn’t that whole ‘ONLY son’ aspect not actually simply an artificial limitation to make this son look more precious? God, being the Creator of Everything, could have as many sons (or even incarnate) as often as he wished, no?

  15. Avatar
    CalifiorniaPuma  March 23, 2013

    I whipped out my old Ryrie Study Bible (from my other-worldly days, when I “witnessed” and “walked with the Lord”), and found that the author notes for both Psalm 45 and Isaiah 9 claim reference to Jesus Christ. It does acknowledge that the king is addressed as God in Psalm 45:6, but dismisses this as “royal hyperbole.” Actually, looking at all of these Ryrie notes, it is astonishing to realize just how much Jesus got around in the Old Testament…

  16. Avatar
    JR  January 29, 2017

    I know it is an old post but this question is bugging me. If psalm 110 is about the king (adoni) why is it said to be a psalm of David? Why would David talk about ‘my lord’? Wouldn’t he say ‘The Lord said to me?’ Or the Lord said to the Lord.. but not ‘my’ lord??

    P.s. I know David didn’t write it but whoever wrote it was speaking as David.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 29, 2017

      Yes, that’s right. It was later *attributed* to David, even though the attribution doesn’t make sense. (Same too with others, for example, most famously, the 23rd Psalm, where the author says he would like to dwell in the temple of God forever. In David’s time there *was* no temple!)

  17. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  July 24, 2018

    I wanted to refresh my memory about what you said the terms “son of God” and Psalm110 meant so I found this post. I am a little confused about the words “Elohim” and “El.” I thought Elohim was used Genesis to describe God Almighty not a human god, lord, or messiah which seems to be what you’re saying here?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 26, 2018

      Elohim is the plural of El, the word for God. Even though it is technically plural, it gets used as a singular. Humans are also sometimes referred to with the term, presumably because in some sense they are God-like. Thus Samuel who comes up from the grave at the behest of a medium in 1 Samuel 28.

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