"The Son of God," or "A son of the gods" (Daniel 3:25)?

By Doug Kutilek

[Reprinted from “As I See It,” vol. 3, no. 11, November 2000]


One verse that has been repeatedly summoned into service by those who hold to the “King James Only” position as proof positive that modern English versions are in reality perversions is Daniel 3:25.  In the KJV, the fourth man in the furnace is identified as “the Son of God” (or, “sonne of God,” as spelled in the original 1611 edition).  In contrast, the American Standard Version of 1901 identifies him as “a son of the gods.”  The New American Standard Version and the New International Version agree with the ASV here (the New King James Bible follows the KJV in the text, but has the ASV rendering in the margin). 

The accusation made against the rendering in the ASV et al. is that they have removed a clear reference to the second person of the Trinity and have substituted for it a flabby, vague reference to a mere son of the (pagan) gods, thereby debasing this proof text of the pre-incarnate existence of Christ, as well as his Deity.  (This all assumes that the fourth man in the furnace was a theophany, an interpretation rather more generally assumed than proved). 

Rather than ‘dogmatize peremptorily,’ I prefer to ask, “But what are the facts in the case?  Have the ASV et al. mistranslated the original text, and thereby fallen into error, or did in fact the KJV mistranslate the passage, and the ASV set it right in English?”  We shall seek to answer this question intelligently, rather than be carried away with judgment-blinding prejudice and unsupported presupposition.

 This particular verse in Daniel, along with the whole section 2:4b-7:28 is in the Aramaic language, rather than in Hebrew like most of the rest of the Old Testament.  Aramaic (also sometimes called Chaldee and Syriac) and Hebrew are sister Semitic languages (the family also includes Arabic, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Ethiopic, Phoenecian and a few even more obscure tongues).  As a result, Aramaic and Hebrew have a number of related words and also have similar, but not identical, grammar.  One of their differences is crucial at this point.

 In the Aramaic original of Daniel 3:25, the phrase represented in English by “the Son of God/a son of the gods” is bar-elahin.  Bar is a singular noun, meaning “son” and is commonly found in the New Testament, for example, in proper names: Barnabas, Barabbas, Bar-Jonah, etc., literally meaning “the son of X.”  Its equivalent in Hebrew is ben, as in Benjamin, Ben-Hur, and Ben Gurion.  Bar is here in the construct state, meaning it is grammatically joined to the word that follows it, and therefore means “son of.”  So far, no problem.

 Elahin is a masculine plural noun, denoting “gods”; the singular form is elah, or, with the definite article attached, elaha.  The Arabic equivalent in allah.  The Hebrew equivalent of elahin is elohim.  But just here, usage in Hebrew and in Aramaic diverge.  In Hebrew, though plural in form, the word elohim is the usual word for God (as in Genesis 1:1 and thousands of other places).  Less commonly, it (that is the plural form) is also used of false gods (plural), and of human civil authorities.  There is in Hebrew a singular counterpart to elohim, namely eloah, but it is comparatively rare in the OT, occurring just 57 times, with all but 15 of these being in Job, which displays numerous dialectic and linguistic peculiarities.  Nearly all the rest are in poetic parts of the OT, or in passages influenced by Aramaic.

 When we examine the Aramaic portion of the OT (besides Daniel 2:4b-7:28, Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26 and Jeremiah 10:11 are also in Aramaic), we discover that there is a clear distinction between the use of the plural form elahin and the singular elaha.  When the true God is spoken of, the singular elaha is invariably used (the singular is also used of false gods when referred to individually, as in Daniel 3:14; 4:5; etc.).  The plural form elahin is used only of false gods, especially in the phrase, “the spirit of the holy gods” (4:5; 4:6; 5:11; etc.), words spoken by pagan polytheists from their perspective.  The use of the plural form with reference to the one true God does not occur in the Aramaic portion of the OT.  It must also be noted that the phrase bar-elahin in Daniel 3:25 does not have the definite article in the original Aramaic; that would be bar-elahayya.

 Taken together, these facts--namely, that elahin is plural, and has no definite article here--combine to show that to translate bar-elahin as “the Son of God” is to overtranslate the words, indeed to mistranslate them.  The precise, literal English equivalent of bar-elahin is “a son of the gods,” as the ASV, NASB and NIV have it.  It should not surprise us to find a pagan king who acknowledged and worshipped many gods speaking of the appearance of a supernatural person as “a son of the gods.”  Nebuchadnezzar was yet a pagan (he had just erected an idol of gold and compelled his subjects to worship it).  In Daniel 3:28, the king refers once again to the fourth man in the furnace, this time by the designation “angel,” which suggests that the two terms, “angel” and “a son of the gods,” were synonymous designations.

 Let us consider briefly how this phrase was handled in pre-KJV translations.

 There exist two major pre-Christian Greek versions of Daniel (several others exist only in fragmentary quotes), that of the Septuagint (now preserved in only two manuscripts and a Syriac version; it was early on abandoned by the Christians in favor of the other Greek version).  The other is ascribed to Theodotion, though it precedes his time by at least 2 centuries (it is this version which is found in virtually all extant manuscripts of the “Septuagint”).

 The Septuagint, apparently under the influence of v. 28, translates bar-elahin as aggelou theou, which in English could be either “an angel/messenger of God,” or “an angel of a god,” (the Greek here has no definite article, and since the Greek language lacks an indefinite article, whether to supply it or leave it out in translation is a matter of interpretation and English style).  Theodotion reads huio theou, which would correspond to either “a son of God,” or “a son of a god.”  In both Greek versions, the Aramaic plural noun elahin is translated as though it were a singular.

There is no Jewish Aramaic Targum of Daniel (or of Ezra) since the book was originally in part in Aramaic already.  There is however an ancient Syriac version of Daniel (translating the Aramaic of Daniel into Syriac would be roughly equivalent to “translating” Shakespeare’s early 17th century British English in “Hamlet” into late 20th century American English.  It is rather more “up-dating” than translating).  The Syriac version simply reproduces the bar-elahin of the original.

 The Latin Vulgate of Jerome (ca. 400 A.D.) was the dominant Bible translation in all of Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages.  All the vernacular versions made there during the Middle Ages were made from it (including Wycliffe’s English version), and all the Reformation-era versions including and especially the KJV show the unmistakable influence of the Vulgate on every page.  Jerome reads in Daniel 3:25 “filio Dei” which, due to Latin’s complete absence of articles definite and indefinite, might be understood as either “a son of God” or “the son of God.”  [Whether Jerome had a mastery of Aramaic (as he had of Hebrew and Greek) is an open question, as far as I know.  I’ve never seen any reference to his knowing Aramaic.]  Because of the pervasive influence of the Vulgate on the KJV, it is not unlikely that the KJV’s “the Son of God” translation was a mimicking of the Vulgate’s rendering. 

Besides the Vulgate, Jerome also wrote a commentary on Daniel  which appeared some years before his Vulgate translation.  His remarks cast some light on his understanding of the passage before us, and so we reproduce it here (following Gleason Archer’s English translation)--

 “As for the appearance of the fourth man, which he asserts to be like that of a son of God, either we must take him to be an angel, as the Septuagint has rendered it, or indeed, as the majority think, the Lord our Savior.  Yet I do not know how an ungodly king could have merited a vision of the Son of God.  For that reasoning one should follow Symmachus [a 2nd century A.D. Ebionite who made a revised translation of the Septuagint], who has thus interpreted it: ‘But the appearance of the fourth is like unto the sons,’ not unto the sons of God but unto gods themselves.  We are to think of angels here, who after all are very frequently called gods as well as sons of God. . . . But as for its typical significance, this angel or son of God foreshadows our Lord Jesus Christ, who descended into the furnace of hell, . . . .”

 Advancing to the Reformation era, we find that Martin Luther’s German translation of the words is “ein Son der Goetter,” that is, “a son of the gods,” corresponding precisely to the English ASV, etc.

 John Calvin commented on v. 25: “the son of a god.  No doubt God here sent one of his angels, to support by his presence the minds of his saints, lest they should faint . . . . A single angel was sent to these three men; Nebuchadnezzar calls him a son of God; not because he thought him to be Christ, but according to the common opinion among all people, that angels are sons of God, since a certain divinty is resplendent in them; and hence they call angels generally sons of God.  According to this usual custom, Nebuchadnezzar says, the fourth man is like a son of a god.  For he could not recognize the only-begotten Son of God, since, as we have already seen, he was blinded by so many depraved errors.”

 It merits noting that Scripture itself refers to angels as sons of God in Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; and also, so I think, Genesis 6:2, 4.

 Of English versions antedating the KJV, the one most closely followed by the KJV is the Geneva Bible of 1560.  At Daniel 3:25, we find “the sonne of God.”  The KJV, apparently, merely reproduced the Geneva Bible unaltered.  The Geneva Bible here has a significant marginal note: “For the Angels were called the sonnes of God, because of their excellencies; therefore the King called this Angel, whome God sent to comfort his in these great torments, the sonne of God.”  These remarks clearly indicate that they did not consider the fourth man to be a theophany/Christophany.  Their opinion here as commonly elsewhere, is in harmony with the published opinion of Calvin.

 As long ago as the first quarter of the 19th century, Methodist commentator Adam Clarke addressed the issue of how Daniel 3:25 should be translated.   After quoting the KJV, he remarks: “A most improper translation.  What notion could this idolatrous king have of the Lord Jesus Christ? For so the place is understood by thousands.  Bar-elahin signifies a son of the gods, that is, a Divine person or angel; and so the king calls him in ver. 28: “God hath sent his ANGEL, and delivered his servants.”  And though even from this some still contend that it was the Angel of the covenant, yet the Babylonish king knew just as much of the one as he did of the other.  No other ministration was necessary; a single angel from heaven was quite sufficient to answer the purpose, as that which stopped the mouths of the lions when Daniel was cast into their den.”

I myself have long assumed--without prior detailed investigation--that Daniel 3:25 was a theophany, even while acknowledging the superior accuracy of the ASV over the KJV at this point.  However, upon closer consideration, I must now agree with our friend the Methodist.  It was an unnamed angel, a created being and not the Creator Himself, who appeared in the fiery furnace, just as it was an angel and not God Himself who appeared in the den of lions with Daniel (in the 6th chapter of Daniel, there is little dispute about this matter).

 Let us hear the end of the matter: the ASV, NASB, NIV and NKJB margin give a literal English translation of the inerrant Aramaic original.  Their interpretation of the text exactly corresponds with that of Luther some 400-plus years earlier.  It is certainly not some new “higher critical” attack on the Scriptures.  Rather, it is a precisely accurate English rendering of the original, and thereby acknowledges and honors the infallible nature and absolute authority of the inspired original text.  The KJV merely reproduced the reading of its great predecessor, the Geneva Bible, which in turn precisely followed the Latin Vulgate, which in its turn literally followed the Greek translation of Theodotion.  While precedent for the KJV’s translation can therefore be cited, nevertheless, the ASV et al., are squarely based on the ultimate and sole infallible authority, the Scriptures as originally written.  That settles the matter for the individual who genuinely accepts that authority.

 As for who the fourth man in the furnace was: while the view that it was a theophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of the Second Person of the Trinity is the prevailing view (no doubt in part due to the incorrect renderings of Theodotion, Jerome, the Geneva Bible, and the KJV), that it was a created angel has been long-held by devout and doctrinally orthodox scholars, from Calvin to the Geneva Puritans to Adam Clarke, and no doubt many others before and after them.  One’s interpretation of this passage is certainly not a test of orthodoxy.  And rather than being a reason for condemnation, the translation “a son of the gods” as found in the aforementioned English versions is a mark in their favor, rather than a cause for reviling them.