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Eternal generation and the Semitic use of "son"

Many advocates of eternal generation reason that apart from some sort of "generation" of which the Logos was a partaker from eternity past, there is no meaningful sense in which he could be described as a "Son." Yet in light of the overwhelming variety of senses in which the word "son" is used in Scripture, this is quite a hasty conclusion to draw. So Moses Stuart, in Letter 6 of his "Letters on the Eternal Generation of the Son":

It is sufficiently plain, that the great body of those, who have admitted the doctrine of eternal generation, have been more or less moved to do it, on account of the appellation Son of God, which is in a special sense given to Christ by the sacred writers. Our first inquiry, then, is into the nature of Oriental or Shemitish usage, in regard to the term Son. When we have obtained general views of this usage, we may descend to particular investigations with much more advantage(Stuart).

What sort of usage does Stuart find in the Bible of the word "Son"?:

The word Son was a favorite one among the Hebrews; and was employed by them, to designate a great variety of relations. The son of any thing, according to oriental idiom, may be either what is closely connected with it, dependent on it, like it, the consequences oef it, worthy of it, etc. But this view of thte subject must be explained, by actual examples from the Scriptures. The following I have selected from the Old and New Testaments.

The son of eight days, i.e. the child that is eight days old; the son of one hundred years, i.e., the person who is one hundred years of age; the son of a year, i.e. a yearling; the son of my sorrow, i.e. one who has caused me distress; the son of my right hand, i.e. one who will assist or be a help to me; son of old age, i.e. begotten in old age; son of valour, i.e. bold, brave; son of Belial, lit. son of good-for-nothing, i.e. a worthless man; son of wickedness, i.e. wicked; son of a murder, i.e., a murderous person; son of my vows, i.e. son that answers to my vows; son of death, i.e. one who deserves death; son of perdition, i.e. one who deserves perdition; son of smiting, i.e. one who deserves stripes; son of Gehenna, i.e. one who deserve sGehenna; son of consolation, i.e. one fitted to administer consolation; son of thunder, i.e. a man of powerful, energetic eloquence or strength'; sone of peace, i.e. a peaceable man;' son of the morning, i.e. morning star; sons of the burning coal, i.e. sparks of fire' sone of the bow, i.e. an arrow;' son of the threshing floor, i.e. grain; son of oil, i.e. fat' son of the house, i.e. domestic or slave' son of man, i.e. man, as it is usually applied;' but perhaps in a sense somewhat diverse, in several respects, as applied to the Saviour.

Such is the wide extent of relation, similarity, connection, etc. which the term son is employed to designate in the Hebrew, and in the Hebrew idiom of the New Testament;' a latitude far greater than is given to it in the Occidental languages' and which no one, who is not conversant with the Hebrew, can scarcely estimate in an adequate manner(Stuart)

Stuart notes that these usages occur in the original Hebrew and would oftentimes be unintelligible if translated literally, and unless they were paraphrased. He notes that the Syriac version, whose idiom is very similar to that of the Hebrew spoken during the time of Jesus, likewise uses such language:

Nor are the Hebrew of the Jewish Scriptures and Hebrew-Greek of the New Testament, the only languages which exhibit this latitude of construction in respect to the word son. The same idiom runs through all the Shemitish languages. In the Syriac Version of the Scriptures, made, as is most probable, not long after the death of the Apostles, and in a language which approximates nearest of all to the vernacular dialect of the Jews in our Saviour's time, the word in question is used in a still greater latittude. The following instances are collected from this Version.

A son of trade...or one of the same trade, fellow workman; son of a great family, i.e. a nobleman; son of my yoke, i.e. my companion; son of my foster-fathers, associate in education or pupilage; son of flesh, i.e. a relative; son of adultery, i.e. a person of illegitimate birth; son of his day, i.e. a contemporary; son of his hour, i.e. forthwith, immediately; son of the neck, i.e. a collet; sons of inheritance, i.e. heirs; sons of the place, i.e. dwelling together; sons of the city, i.e. fellow citizens; sons of the tribe, i.e. members of the same tribe; sons of the people, i.e. Genties; sons of the company, i.e. fellow travellers; sons of my years, i.e. my equals in age; sons of the nobles, i.e. free-men; sons of Crete, i.e. Cretans; sons of idols, i.e. idolaters(Stuart)

These are the idiomatic usages of the word "son" connected with the Syriac version. We count 18 difference usages in the Syriac version. This is slightly less than the approximately 24 usages in the original text of the Bible. It ought to be clear, at this point, that due to the variety of significance taken on by the word "son", it will not be adequate merely to insist that because the word 'son" is predicated of Christ, it must refer to generation of some form, and namely, a highly counterintuitive generation from eternity past. Indeed, Stuart points out that there were other idioms not used in the Bible that nonetheless were used in Syriac:

the son of secrecy, i.e. privy counsellor; son of the oaks, i.e. of noble progeny; the eson of similitude, i.e. msot like; son of heresy, i.e. a heretic; son of nature, i.e. of the same nature; a son of two portions, i.e. one who receives a double portion of inheritance; son of the leopards, i.e. Bacchus; son of dividing, i.e. one who divides the inheritance with another; son of the month, i.e. of the same month; son of the year, i.e. a cotemporary; son of opinion, i.e. one holding the same sentiments(Stuart)

Likewise, the Arabic language, similar as it is to both Hebrew and Syriac, is noted to have many such instances as well:

In the Arabic language, the idiom in question is still more striking; because we have the language in much fuller extent than either the Syriac or the Hebrew. Here we find, besides many of the idioms already quoted, sons of the land, i.e. strangers; son of familiarity, i.e. intimate friend; son of moonshine, i.e. a night resplendent with moon-beams; son of the night, i.e. a dark night; son of misfortune, i.e. in trouble; son of the days, i.e. unfortunate; son of destroying, i.e. warlike; son of freedom, i.e. innocent; son of the way, i.e. a traveller; son of the sun, i.e. Aurora, or morning light; son of the clouds, i.e. rain, also, coolness; son of time, i.e. a day and a night; son of the night, i.e. the moon; son of the day, i.e. a day.

These are only a part of the instances which occur, of the idiomatic use of the word son in Arabic. More might be easily added; but I deem it unnecessary(Stuart).

Stuart's point is that the use of "son" in the Semitic languages is "very vague, indefinite and extensive"(Stuart). Its usage is quite broad and "every kind of relation or resemblance whether real or imaginary, every kind of connexion, is characterised by calling it the son of that thing to which it stands thus related, or with which it is connected"(Stuart). He notes how different this is from the Western languages to which we are accustomed. Such expressions are utterly foreign to us Westerners. He presses the point near the end of this letter that we as Westerners will be naturally tempted to understand the language of "sonship" in a literal manner when it is quite possible that this is not at all what the original writers intended. Although their language was Greek, of course, Stuart notes that as Jews their idiom was nonetheless Hebrew, and these manners of expression carried over from the Hebrew Old Testament to the Greek New Testament.

It will be remembered, however, that when we investigate the meaning of the phrase Son of God, in the Scriptures, we are investigating the usus loquendi of a Shemitish dialect. This will of course be conceded, in regard to the phrase in the Old Testament; and I may add, t hat all critics are now agreed, that although the words of the New Testament are Greek, the idiom is Hebrew(Stuart).

Stuart, Moses. "Letters on the Eternal Generation of the Son." Andover. 1822.

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