Jesus as “The Son of the Living God”

MATTHEW’S GOSPEL is UNIQUE among the canonical Gospels in using the epithet “living God.”‘ The first occurrence of the epithet is found in Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:16b) and the second comes later in Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin (26:63). My primary interest is in the former occurrence, since it presents a unique and rich christological formulation in which Peter confesses Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s confession in Matt 16:16 is widely recognized as pivotal in Matthew’s narrative, as it is immediately and directly affirmed by Jesus himself in 16:17, “And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you.”

The prevailing tendency in commentaries has been to view “the Son of the living God” as a variant of the more widely used “Son of God”; this approach presupposes that the epithet “living God” in 16:16b is incidental, having little or no substantive function in Peter’s confession. The participle “living” is viewed as a mere stylistic element that gives the confession more solemnity. Other interpreters offer sundry comments on the epithet “living God” and its biblical background, but they say little if anything about the function and significance of the whole formulation in 16:16b. Interpreters thus remain largely at a loss as to how to interpret Peter’s confession of Jesus’ sonship. A comment of Leopold Sabourin some years ago on Matt 16:16 summarizes the current state of affairs: “it is not easy to determine what the words ‘Son of the living God’ signify in the mouth of Peter.”

Basic questions about the significance and function of Peter’s confession of Jesus’ sonship therefore remain to be addressed. For example, is there a special significance in associating Jesus’ sonship with the living God? How is “the Son of the living God” distinctive in comparison to the more common title Son of God? In addition, is there any biblical or Jewish background useful for illuminating the confession of sonship?

Specifically, my thesis is that “the Son of the living God” constitutes a biblical allusion to Hos 2:1 LXX and its formulation “sons of the living God.” The latter designates God’s promise of a renewed future Israel, a promise that was remembered and reinterpreted in a variety of texts from the second Temple period. Meaing as Jesus claimed he came to find the lost sheep of Israel, those that responded to the call of jesus were the “sons of the living God”, who would renew the way of the life given to them by God.

Another distinctive Matthean accent is noticeable in 16:14, which presents the disciples’ response to Jesus’ question. In contrast to Mark 8:28, the disciples’ response in Matt 16:14 mentions four prophetic figures: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The mention of “Jeremiah” is unique to Matthew, and its significance remains elusive. In this statment the were Prophets is used in general, and then specific Prophets are mentioned…meaning John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah, what did they have in common? They were all prophets…they were all sons of the living God as used in Hos 2:1 LXX. What is special about the reference to Hos 2:1 LXX? And is there a link between the reference between Hos 2:1 LXX and the prophets Peter mentioned? Yes, this particular section in Hosea gives prophecy about a people what God will chose to restore the Godlyness in Israel.

The key to interpreting “the Son of the living God” in Matt 16:16b lies in its biblical background in a parallel formulation of Hos 2:1 LXX, “sons of the living God.” The Matthean formulation “the Son of the living God” is modeled on the Hosean formulation, which is the basis for several reinterpretations attested in Jewish and early Christian writings, for example, 3 Mace 6:26 and Jub. 1:25. Taken against this biblical and Jewish background, Peter’s confession can be viewed as a transformation of Hos 2:1 LXX, formulated in a unified expression, rather than as a redacted confession in which the title Son of God was expanded through the addition of the participle “living” (although the latter cannot be definitely ruled out).

What is the evidence supporting this claim that the Hosean “sons of the living God” has influenced the formulation of the confession of sonship in Matt 16:16b? Initially there is the patent linguistic similarity between the two formulations: a term for sonship (singular or plural) qualified by a genitive phrase, “of the living God.” Surprisingly few commentators acknowledge this similarity in their remarks on Matt 16:16, but the ones who do are worth noting. Joachim Gnilka observes that Peter’s confession is influenced by OT language, noting that “this formulation is presumably stamped by Hosea.”21 Also, H. Edward Everding observes that “the title ‘Son of the living God’ is formally parallel to ‘sons of the living God’ addressed to Israel (Hos 2:1 [1:10]).”

Matthew quotes Hosea in three specific cases, each of which is unique to Matthew within the Synoptic tradition. The words of Hos 6:6 LXX are cited twice. In Matt 9:13, Jesus says, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice'”; and Matt 12:7 reads, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” In both cases, the language of Hos 6:6 is quoted without an introductory formula and without identification of the prophetic source. This absence of explicit introductory formulas suggests that the evangelist could assume his audience’s familiarity with the Hosean source.

There is additional evidence supporting the claim that Matt 16:16b constitutes an allusion to Hos 2:1 LXX. The Hosean formulation “sons of the living God” was a scriptural prophecy of considerable interest among Jews of the second Temple period, as well as Christians. Familiarity with the Hosean formulation “sons of the living God” in this period is amply attested in several Jewish texts and one NT text as well, Rom 9:26. Jews and Christians found the Hosean oracle to be useful in describing their identity as God’s people, enabling them to express their unique covenantal relationship to the living God of Israel with a traditional biblical expression. In the second Temple period, Hos 2:1 LXX was reinterpreted and adapted by both Jews and Christians in defining their identity in continuity with the heritage of Israel.

Before pursuing these Jewish and early Christian adaptations of Hos 2:1 LXX, it will be instructive to examine the verse in its original biblical setting. Hosea 2:1 functions as an oracle of future salvation following a sequence of judgment pronouncements made in Hos 1:2-9 LXX/MT. The oracle declares God’s intent to reverse judgment with a promise of future restoration:

The formulation “sons of the living God” functions to reverse the pronouncement “You are not my people,” pointing to a future time when the living God would restore Israel to the covenantal status of “my people.” Hosea 2:1 envisions a future time in which the living God will restore Israel as “sons of the living God,” the latter being synonymous with the covenantal term “my people.”

Jews of the second Temple period found in this expression from Hosea a prophecy that had relevance to their present identity as God’s people. They reinterpreted the oracle and applied it in the light of new historical circumstances. This reinterpretation is seen in four specific texts ranging from the second century B.C.E. to the first century C.E.: Jub. 1:25 (“And I shall be a father to them, and they will be sons to me. And they will all be called sons of the living God”); 3 Mace 6:28 (“Release the sons of the all-conquering living God of heaven who from the time of our ancestors until now has conferred upon our estate an impregnable stability with glory”); Esth 8:12q LXX (“We, however, find that the Jews … are sons of the living God, most high, most great, who has directed the kingdom for us . . .”); Jos. Asen. 19:8 (“And Joseph said to Aseneth, ‘Blessed are you by the Most high God, and blessed is your name forever… and your walls are adamantine walls of life, because the sons of the living God will dwell in your city of refuge'”).25 There is also the early Christian case of Rom 9:26, in which Paul quotes Hos 2:1 verbatim.

These adaptations of Hos 2:1 LXX offer a useful interpretive context within which to understand Peter’s confession of Jesus’ sonship in Matt 16:16b. First, they indicate the availability of and interest in Hosea’s “sons of the living God” among Jews and Christians during the second Temple period. second, each of the examples uses the expression “sons of the living God” in an “ecclesial” sense, designating the community of God’s elect, which enjoys a close covenantal relationship with the living God. Although the expression is not used in exactly the same way in each of the examples, in each case the phrase does carry the association of God’s covenantal people in some aspect, either as the existing Diaspora Jewish community or as a future community of the restored Israel. That future community were those who accepted Jesus as renewer of Jewish faith in One True God, and renewed thier covanent with God.

So the phrase “son of the living God”… Matthew is heir to Jewish traditions in which the living God is the creator who has power over life and death and is the source and giver of life, for example, Bel and the Dragon 5 Th; 1 Enoch 5:1; and also the tradition behind Acts 14:15.31 The living God gives life not only in the biological sense but also in the fuller sense of creating and sustaining a covenantal people, Israel, God’s son. In the Hebrew Bible and the LXX, the epithet “living God” sometimes designates a God who is active in the history of Israel, a God who rescues his people from their enemies and frees them from Egyptian tyranny, as in Deut 4:33-34; 5:26; Josh 3:10; 2 Kgs 19:4, 16; Hos 2:1; etc.

So Jesus came, as a chosen elect, a prophet, to create a Jewish community representative of God’s will on earth. As the living God raises Jesus, vindicating him from his enemies, so too will the living God “raise up” a future Israel through the agency of the risen Son. Such a notion is implicit already in the theme of sonship itself, in which the Son is unified with the Father in purpose and does the Father’s will.34 I suggest, then, that Jesus’ role as Son in Matt 16:16b marks him as the agent of divine life giving, which has as its goal the renewal of Israel, in fulfillment of Hos 2:1 LXX. Also its interesting that this phrase used in reference to Jesus, as God is living, and would have kept Jesus from Dying (as Muslims believe).

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