God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Is God’s Son The Son of God?

Another great question from the About page:

I have a question about Matthew 27:54. The centurion and the rest of the detachment set to guard Jesus’ body cried out and said “truly he was the Son of God!” — or is that really what they said?

Since it lacks the articles in Greek, and Latin doesn’t have articles, is it possible that they really said “truly he was the son of a god!”?

It’s a simple question with a complex answer.

There are two parts to understanding the issue.

The first is how Greek conveys possessives like “God’s.” In Greek, a possessor is marked by the genitive case, similar to the apostrophe “s” in English. So “God” in Greek is theos and “God’s” is theou. This same genitive also plays the role that “of God” does in English. Similarly “Paul” is paulos and “of Paul” and “Paul’s” is paulou.

At first glance, this seems to be Greek 101, but there a very important nuances that hide in the details. To get a sense of them, we can look just at English, and note that there are three expression that look like they should mean the same thing but do not: “Paul’s,” “of Paul,” and “of Paul’s.” Moving to less religiously charged words helps, so we can better compare:


  • I am a friend of Bill. / I am a vice-president of the company.
  • I am the friend of Bill. / I am the vice-president of the company.

  • I am a friend of Bill’s. / I am a vice-president of the company’s.
  • I am the friend of Bill’s. / I am the vice-president of the company’s.
  • I am Bill’s friend. / I am the company’s vice-president.

Some of these sentences are ungrammatical in English (“I am a VP of the company’s”) and some are odd (“I am the friend of Bill”). Proper names work differently that common nouns, which is why “friend of Bill’s” is so much better than “vice-president of the company’s.” Importantly, some of these phrases imply “the”: “I’m the company’s VP” most naturally means that the company has only one VP. In short, we see a lot of complexity, and subtle nuance related to (1) nouns vs. proper names; and (2) definite vs. indefinite readings.

The second part to understanding Matthew 27:54 is even more complex. “God” in Greek is either theos (“god”) or o theos (“the god”). In John 1:1, for example, the word was with o theos but the word was theos.

My guess is that the two ways of saying “God” convey different nuances, but I’ve yet to see a convincing analysis of the pattern, even though there are lots of partial explanations. Until we understand the pattern, though, I think it will be almost impossible to know how the two phrases for God interact with the genitive.

It’s perfectly reasonable to think that “[a] son of god” means “one son (among many) of one god (among many),” but that’s just based on our English grammar. The syntactically parallel “[a] son of Moses” is only likely — again based on English grammar — to mean “one son (among many) of (the one and only) Moses.” Yet the English “Moses’ son” might mean “(the one any only) son of (the one and only Moses),” even though the Greek would be the same in the last two cases.

We also have the word order to deal with. In Matthew 27:54 (along with 14:33), we find theou uios, instead of the more common reverse order.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think we can conclude that the Greek means what “a son of a god” would in English. So your interpretation is certainly possible, but I don’t think it’s more (or less) likely than the more common “Son of God.” (I also think that theou uios would have sounded very different in Greek than o uios tou theou [e.g., Matthew 26:63], with two determiners and a different word order — and as a guess, the word order adds more than it seems.)

I do think that we’re missing something important here, and Matthew 27:54 is a valuable clue.

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December 13, 2009 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. Thank you so much! Let me reiterate that my question was specifically referring to what the soldiers were admitting, and I’d certainly not try to impose “a son of God” meaning on other such texts.

    I was reading a work by N.T. Wright since asking this, and he mentions that the emperors of Rome often were called divine. Now, I already knew this. What I didn’t know is that it was their sons who declared it posthumously, and thus often called themselves “son of god.” This opens up a new angle: how does Matthew 27:54 interact with how Romans used the title for the imperator? [I’m not going to ask you to look THAT up!]

    With regards to 26:63, I got confused by you writing theo when I expect theou. As far as I know, the dative of possession doesn’t occur in the Greek NT with regard to this expression. If it did, that would open up a huge can of worms, since theo (dative) uios would be all the more likely to be indefinite.

    Thanks again, Joel!

    Comment by Gary Simmons | December 14, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks, Gary, for pointing out the typo, now fixed. (I’m curious how many other people noticed that I typed “theo” instead of “theou.” I think in my mind, I know that the genitive has four letters, which is exactly how many “theo” has — so it looks good to me.)

      As to the broader context of what the soldiers meant, I think the Greek grammar is only part of the story, but I at least wanted to elaborate as best I could on that part.

      Comment by Joel H. | December 14, 2009 | Reply

  2. ISTM that, absent the article, we should not presume a monotheistic declaration on the part of a Roman.

    The word being brought forward might suggest emphasis: “this man, of a *god,* is certainly a son.”

    The Roman guard is not particularly expected to either be prophesying or full of knowledge, only of more faith than those “f(*)$ Jews” (as Mel Gibson likes to call them, and represent them in cinema).

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 17, 2009 | Reply


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