Historically, many rulers have assumed titles such as son of God, son of a god or son of heaven.
The term "son of God" is sometimes used in the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible to refer to those with special relationships with God. In the Old Testament, angels, just and pious men, and the kings of Israel are all called "sons of God." In the New Testament, Adam, and, most notably, Jesus Christ are called "son of God," while followers of Jesus are called, "sons of God."
In the New Testament, "Son of God" is applied to Jesus on many occasions. Jesus is declared to be the Son of God on two separate occasions by a voice speaking from Heaven. Jesus is also explicitly and implicitly described as the Son of God by himself and by various individuals who appear in the New Testament. As applied to Jesus, the term is a reference to his role as the Messiah, the King chosen by God. The contexts and ways in which Jesus' title, Son of God, means something more than or other than Messiah remain the subject of ongoing scholarly study and discussion.
The term "Son of God" should not be confused with the term "God the Son" (Greek: Θεός ὁ υἱός), the second Person of the Trinity in Christian theology. The doctrine of the Trinity identifies Jesus as God the Son, identical in essence but distinct in person with regard to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit (the first and third Persons of the Trinity). Nontrinitarian Christians accept the application to Jesus of the term "Son of God", which is found in the New Testament, but not the term "God the Son", which is not found there.
Throughout history, emperors and rulers ranging from the Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1000 BC) in China to Alexander the Great (c. 360 BC) to the Emperor of Japan (c. 600 AD) have assumed titles that reflect a filial relationship with deities.
The title "Son of Heaven" i.e. 天子 (from 天 meaning sky/heaven/god and 子 meaning child) was first used in the Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1000 BC). It is mentioned in the Shijing book of songs, and reflected the Zhou belief that as Son of Heaven (and as its delegate) the Emperor of China was responsible for the well being of the whole world by the Mandate of Heaven. This title may also be translated as "son of God" given that the word Ten or Tien in Chinese may either mean sky or god. The Emperor of Japan was also called the Son of Heaven (天子 tenshi) starting in the early 7th century.
Among the Steppe Peoples, there was also a widespread use of "Son of God/Son of Heaven" for instance, in the Third Century B.C., the ruler was called Chanyü and similar titles were used as late as the 13th Century by Genghis Khan.
Examples of kings being considered the son of god are found throughout the Ancient Near East. Egypt in particular developed a long lasting tradition. Egyptian pharaohs are known to have been referred to as the son of a particular god and their begetting in some cases is even given in sexually explicit detail. Egyptian pharaohs did not have full parity with their divine fathers but rather were subordinate.:36 Nevertheless, in the first four dynasties, the pharaoh was considered to be the embodiment of a god. Thus, Egypt was ruled by direct theocracy, wherein "God himself is recognized as the head" of the state. During the later Amarna Period, Akhenaten reduced the Pharaoh's role to one of coregent, where the Pharaoh and God ruled as father and son. Akhenaten also took on the role of the priest of god, eliminating representation on his behalf by others. Later still, the closest Egypt came to the Jewish variant of theocracy was during the reign of Herihor. He took on the role of ruler not as a god but rather as a high-priest and king.
Jewish kings are also known to have been referred to as "son of the LORD".:150 The Jewish variant of theocracy can be thought of as a representative theocracy where the king is viewed as God’s surrogate on earth. Jewish kings thus, had less of a direct connection to god than pharaohs. Unlike pharaohs, Jewish kings rarely acted as priests, nor were prayers addressed directly to them. Rather, prayers concerning the king are addressed directly to god.:36–38 The Jewish philosopher Philo is known to have likened God to a supreme king, rather than likening Jewish kings to gods.
Based on the Bible, several kings of Damascus took the title son of Hadad. From the archaeological record a stela erected by Bar-Rakib for his father Panammuwa II contains similar language. The son of Panammuwa II a king of Sam'al referred to himself as a son of Rakib.:26–27 Rakib-El is a god who appears in Phoenician and Aramaic inscriptions. Panammuwa II died unexpectedly while in Damascus. However, his son the king Bar-Rakib was not a native of Damascus but rather the ruler of Sam'al it is unknown if other rules of Sam'al used similar language.
In Greek mythology, Heracles (son of Zeus) and many other figures were considered to be sons of gods through union with mortal women. From around 360 BC onwards Alexander the Great may have implied he was a demigod by using the title "Son of Ammon–Zeus".
In 42 BC, Julius Caesar was formally deified as "the divine Julius" (divus Iulius) after his assassination. His adopted son, Octavian (better known as Augustus, a title given to him 15 years later, in 27 BC) thus became known as divi Iuli filius (son of the divine Julius) or simply divi filius (son of the god). As a daring and unprecedented move, Augustus used this title to advance his political position in the Second Triumvirate, finally overcoming all rivals for power within the Roman state.
The word applied to Julius Caesar as deified was divus, not the distinct word deus. Thus Augustus called himself Divi filius, and not Dei filius. The line between been god and god-like was at times less than clear to the population at large, and Augustus seems to have been aware of the necessity of keeping the ambiguity. As a purely semantic mechanism, and to maintain ambiguity, the court of Augustus sustained the concept that any worship given to an emperor was paid to the "position of emperor" rather than the person of the emperor. However, the subtle semantic distinction was lost outside Rome, where Augustus began to be worshiped as a deity. The inscription DF thus came to be used for Augustus, at times unclear which meaning was intended. The assumption of the title Divi filius by Augustus meshed with a larger campaign by him to exercise the power of his image. Official portraits of Augustus made even towards the end of his life continued to portray him as a handsome youth, implying that miraculously, he never aged. Given that few people had ever seen the emperor, these images sent a distinct message.
Later, Tiberius (emperor from 14–37 AD) came to be accepted as the son of divus Augustus and Hadrian as the son of divus Trajan. By the end of the 1st century, the emperor Domitian was being called dominus et deus (i.e. master and god).
Although references to "sons of God", "son of God" and "son of the LORD" are occasionally found in Jewish literature, they never refer to physical descent from God. There are two instances where Jewish kings are figuratively referred to as a god.:150 The king is likened to the supreme king God. These terms are often used in the general sense in which the Jewish people were referred to as "children of the LORD your God".
When used by the rabbis, the term referred to Israel or to human beings in general, and not as a reference to the Jewish mashiach. In Judaism the term mashiach has a broader meaning and usage and can refer to a wide range of people and objects, not necessarily related to the Jewish eschaton.
Gabriel's Revelation, also called the Vision of Gabriel or the Jeselsohn Stone, is a three-foot-tall (one metre) stone tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew text written in ink, containing a collection of short prophecies written in the first person and dated to the late 1st century BC. It is a tablet described as a "Dead Sea scroll in stone".
The text seems to talk about a messianic figure from Ephraim who broke evil before righteousness by three days.:43–44 Later the text talks about a “prince of princes" a leader of Israel who was killed by the evil king and not properly buried.:44 The evil king was then miraculously defeated.:45 The text seems to refer to Jeremiah Chapter 31.:43 The choice of Ephraim as the lineage of the messianic figure described in the text seems to draw on passages in Jeremiah, Zechariah and Hosea. This leader was referred to as a son of God.:43–44, 48–49
The text seems to be based on a Jewish revolt recorded by Josephus dating from 4 BC.:45–46 Based on its dating the text seems to refer to Simon of Peraea, one of the three leaders of this revolt.:47
In 11Q13 Melchizedek is referred to as god the divine judge. Melchizedek in the bible was the king of Salem. At least some in the Qumran community seemed to think that at the end of days Melchizedek would reign as their king. The passage is based on Psalm 82.
In both Joseph and Aseneth and the related text The Story of Asenath, Joseph is referred to as the son of God.:158–159 In the Prayer of Joseph both Jacob and the angel are referred to as angels and the sons of God.:157
In Christianity, the title Son of God refers to the status of Jesus as the divine son of God the Father. It derives from several uses in the New Testament and early Christian theology. The terms "son of God" and "son of the LORD" are found in several passages of the Old Testament as well, but generally do not refer to Jesus or the Trinity directly.
In Islam, Īsā ibn Maryam (Arabic: عيسى بن مريم, lit. 'Jesus, son of Mary'), or Jesus, is understood to be the penultimate prophet and messenger of God (Allah) and al-Masih, the Arabic term for Messiah (Christ), sent to guide the Children of Israel (banī isrā'īl in Arabic) with a new revelation, the al-Injīl (Arabic for "the gospel"). As in Christianity, Jesus had no earthly father, but is instead seen as born through the breathing of the "Spirit of God" on Mary.
In the writings of the Bahá'í Faith, the term "Son of God" is applied to Jesus, but does not indicate a literal physical relationship between Jesus and God, but is symbolic and is used to indicate the very strong spiritual relationship between Jesus and God and the source of his authority. Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Bahá'í Faith in the first half of the 20th century, also noted that the term does not indicate that the station of Jesus is superior to other prophets and messengers that Bahá'ís name Manifestations of God, including Buddha, Muhammad and Baha'u'llah among others. Shoghi Effendi notes that, since all Manifestations of God share the same intimate relationship with God and reflect the same light, the term Sonship can in a sense be attributable to all the Manifestations.
The tablet, probably found near the Dead Sea in Jordan according to some scholars who have studied it, is a rare example of a stone with ink writings from that era — in essence, a Dead Sea Scroll on stone.