|The Divine Claims of Jesus: "Son of Man"|
[A Title in Disfavor] [Sources of the Title] [Seated at the Right Hand of God] [Not Found Outside Gospels; Not Used in Judaism at the Time] [Is It Just "I"?] [Did Jesus Not Mean Himself?] [Third Person References] [Corporate Reference] [Views of Son of Man in the Gospels] [Critical and Analytical Views: Representative Samples and Replies]
Three studies on other topics lay the groundwork for this essay:
It is clear that these three issues are seriously intertwined with what Jesus was "on about" when he used the Son of Man (hereafter SOM) title, and yet it is in just these very areas that most commentators on the subject are least informed or most misguided.
In the case of the first issue, the commentators (whether liberal or conservative) are hung up either on a late date for Daniel and an assumption that it predicts nothing past the Maccabean period, or else on the problem of trying to interpret the "this generation" passages of the Olivet Discourse under a dispensational paradigm.
In the case of the second, commentators are simply, and shockingly, completely misinformed.
On the third, it is simply not always noted.
None of this makes it easy to figure out the key SOM passages, but once we do put Daniel at its right date, and once we know about the ANE background, the pieces fall into place remarkably easily: This is one of Jesus' most clear claims to divinity.
Sources for the "Son of Man"
Most commentators start their journey on the SOM with Daniel 7. Sometimes, they look into the ANE to find comparable pagan divine figures, but somehow and some way, if we are to believe an entirely neutral source, they have missed the most relevant key of all.
It was as a result of my research on Zoroaster that I found the most important data, which comes from Ernest Herzfeld's Zoroaster and His World. [835-840] Herzfeld notes the uses of phrases containing "son of..." in the ancient world and what purpose they served. The phrase as used in Daniel is bar enash.
The combination bar enash and its parallels in Old Babylonian carry the meaning of an heir or successor to royalty, or of a free man of the highest class. A "man" here is not just any man, but as we might say, "THE MAN" as in royalty. Herzfeld notes an example of this usage in the Code of Hammurabi.
Daniel was written at a time when this phrase had a specific and known meaning. In the context of Daniel 7:13, in which the one "like a son of man" comes to the Ancient of Days (Almighty God) and is given dominion of the sort that God possesses, the significance of Jesus' "son of man" usage cannot be overstated. It is functionally equivalent to saying that the one like a son of man is rightful heir and successor to the divine throne. "Son of man" is essentially the same as "Son of God" in this context.
It is therefore clear that if Jesus is using the phrase consistent with its original meaning, it is a powerful and clear claim to deity. But before we take that further, let's look at some Jewish parallels that might substantiate the case.
From the Jewish apocryphal Book of 1 Enoch, in a section referred to as the Similitudes (Chapters 37-71), we find a description of the Son of Man as one who was given that name before time itself; one who would become a light to the Gentiles, will be worshipped throughout the earth, and will "dethrone kings and crush the teeth of sinners." [Chars.JesJud, 40, 48]
In 1 Enoch 48 specifically, the terms "Son of Man," "Messiah" and "Elect One" are used interchangeably, indicating that in the mind of that author, they meant the same thing. [With.JQ, 214] The Similitudes may be later than Jesus, but they would serve to demonstrate the existence of a personal concept of the "Son of Man" at the time of Jesus or shortly thereafter, albeit not in a titular form.
However, the matter is complicated by the fact that this part of 1 Enoch is only available in a late, Ethiopic translation, and as such this material cannot be used decisively for any argument.
Relevant also is material from the book of 4 Ezra, written late in the first century. Here there are also obvious allusions to the character of Daniel 7 as a Messiah - although the words "son of man" are not used. [Todt.SOM, 24; Hare.SOM; Case.SOM, 124]
Later interpretations, by rabbis and Christian commentators, of Daniel 7 are relevant, but varied. [see Case.SOM] Some saw the figure as corporate Israel and some saw it as Messianic. Little suggests that SOM was considered a title.
A considerable factor in Jesus' words is his comment that the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of God. This is far more significant than our phrase, "right-hand man" would suggest. In a study of the matter in Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism, [203ff] Darrell Bock discusses parallels in Jewish texts and offers these conclusions:
In short, Jesus thereby claims the prerogatives of God with the combined honor of being seated at the right hand of God, and therefore asserts his divine identity.
As an added note for fans of eschatology, it is a good idea to check passages in the NT which refer to Jesus at God's right hand. By our eschatological view, Jesus' "seating" corresponded with events of 70 AD (see more here). In this light it is noteworthy that Jesus in Acts 7 is still standing at God's right hand (not yet seated). Other passages (like Eph. 1:20 and Heb. 12:2) speak of Jesus being set at God's right hand, though whether seated, or standing in place, is not specified.
We will consider these matters now in the context of individual scholars' analyses, and the arguments often used to "defuse" or affirm the power of the SOM title.
Objection #1: SOM is found only in the Gospels. It was a late invention of the church.
Crossan [Cross.MedP, 109, 141; see also Case.SOM, 209] uses this argument, though others actually argue that the presence of this title in the Gospels serves to indicate that it guarantees that it was genuinely from Jesus. It ignores the obvious fact pointed out by Goulder [Hick.MyG, 52; see also Full.FNC, 65] that the churches ministered to by Paul, being mostly Greek and non-Jewish, would have no frame of reference for the title as it came from the Jewish Scriptures.
Further, Paul and other writers in the NT, even when writing to Jews, had little proper occasion to refer to Jesus' role as Son of Man, with the exception of the Book of Revelation, where Jesus is portending that role.
Objection #2: SOM was never used as a Messianic title in the time of Jesus.
This point is rife with discussion. The options and pathways break down like this. Either:
The former assertion is tied in to the provenance, date and authenticity of the Enoch material. If it preceded the NT era, then there was definitely a SOM titular usage of a Messianic figure available for Jesus to take advantage of. If it postdates the NT era, then they may or may not have been such a title around for Jesus to hang his hat on.
One can find the full range of views here, and ideology is not a factor. E. P. Sanders believes that the Similitudes in the Book of 1 Enoch "show the work of Christian revisers." [ibid., 248] He provides no direct evidence or explanation for this view, other than that the Similitudes were not found among the books at Qumran.
Fuller [Full.FNC, 36-9] rejects the argument that the 1 Enoch Similitudes are late, for they lack "the distinctively Christian differentia, viz., the identification with Jesus of Nazareth in his ministry and in his passion"; however, he does argue that there have been some Christian interpolations in the text.
Jeremias [Jerem.NTT, 269] remarks upon the "complete absence of Christian features" in 1 Enoch, although he does acknowledge that not finding the Similitudes at Qumran argues against a date for them as early as the rest of 1 Enoch.
This leaves our second option -- and there is no reason why Jesus could not have taken up the phrase as a title of his own making based on Daniel 7. But does this mean he expected his audience to "get the drift"? Jewish familiarity with their own Scriptures was a point of pride, and the creative use of Scriptural tradition as a source of honor, suggests that this would be the case.
On the other hand, some say that SOM was intentionally vague and for good reasons. O'Neill supposed that perhaps, in line with Jewish thinking that the Messiah would not reveal Himself, the Son of Man title could be used in a roundabout way to proclaim His identity as Messiah.
In relation to this, I have previously cited social reasons why Jesus had to be circumspect in His proclamations of divinity:
First, the term "Messiah" was a loaded one. As shown in the Gospels, some who concluded that Jesus was the Messiah wanted to make Him a king by force. This would have been contrary to Jesus' salvific mission, so Jesus naturally had to use the title circumspectly, as he used "Son of Man."
It should be noted that although Jesus' salvific mission required revealing his divinity at some point in his mission, the agonistic tenor of the ancient world disdained the practice of making extreme, public proclamations, about one's own status or identity. Such proclamations, outside of one's own circle, would result in hostile, sometimes violent reactions.
Thus open revelation of Jesus' divinity would be a substantial obstacle, with the risk of bloodshed and chaos, to say nothing of that making such an audacious claim of honor (see more here) had its own obstacles.
Second, according to Jewish apocryphal texts (and in line with the honor strictures of the day), including the Psalms of Solomon and 4 Ezra, only God could declare who the Messiah was. By this line of thinking, "Any self-designation only proves that the proclaimer cannot be the Messiah." [Chars.DSS, 142] Thus, Jesus' relative silence on the issue "may well be an implicit indication that he thought of himself as the Messiah." (ibid.) (See also O'Neill, [ONi.WhoD, 48-53]: "The Messiah had to remain hidden and could not say who he was.")
Naturally, whether we take it to be an actual event of history or not, this explains the significance of the voice from heaven declaring Jesus' divinity after His baptism. Jesus would never, by the honor strictures of this day, be eligible to reveal himself as divine to a wider public audience; it would have to come first from an outside source: In order to make his salvific mission most successful, would have to work with, a constraint of history.
Indeed, such open self-proclamation would have been seen as dishonorable, and taken as a strike against Jesus' divine identity.
Such are the arguments, and by themselves they have some relevance, and though it is the view I have held before, after further consideration, I no longer consider it likely that Jesus was using SOM specifically to keep things under wraps.
For one thing, Jesus was not at all hesitant to publicly identify himself with Wisdom, as we have noted above -- an even bolder and more clear claim than that to be SOM. He was also not hesitant to speak of himself taking God's prerogative in forgiving sins or in altering laws.
Finally, in spite of other arguments to the contrary (see below) the phrase behind SOM, bar enash, would have been unique and easily identifiable -- it is found in the OT only in Daniel 7, and in Ps. 144:3, where it is not filled with any sort of content.
I therefore conclude, now, that there is no reason to think that Jesus was being secretive in his use of the SOM title (though after the fashion of honor in his day, he used it roundaboutly of himself, as in the third person). I would further say that it makes no real difference whether there was such a title known in Judaism or not -- there is no indication (again despite arguments below) that SOM as a phrase would be identified with anything but the divine figure of Daniel 7.
Objection #3: It's Only a Self-Referent
This is the most popular and most-used argument for defusing the SOM title as something special. The argument takes two forms:
Neither of these views withstands scrutiny. Too many sayings of Jesus clearly cannot have this meaning (see below) and it is just piling one presumptive argument on another to "slice and dice" the different SOM sayings into categories of "this one was said by Jesus, this one wasn't".
The date of Vermes' data, as noted, is far too late and it also tends to rely on passages which refer to "a son of man" rather than "the son of man".
Casey's response to Fitzmeyer is merely to assert that "there is sufficient evidence"  for use of the phrase thusly before Jesus, but he gives absolutely no documentation or evidence to back this up, other than the begged interpretation of the NT evidence. It is telling enough that he sees fit to cite a paucity of surviving sources that would support this view.
As the data stands, Daniel's phrase (bar enash) is found nowhere else in the OT, other than Ps. 144:3, which is the Hebrew version (bar enash is Chaldean) and where, spoken by David, it also likely means an heir to royalty. In any event, without the late 2nd and 3rd century evidence, there is no recourse for Casey's argument that Jesus' hearers, on hearing the SOM phrase, would in no way connect it to the SOM in Daniel 7 because that is the only place, other than Ps. 144, they could get it from in the OT.
Objection #4: Jesus Didn't Mean Himself This is an odd one, since it stands in direct opposition to Vermes "circumlocution" argument. One has to wonder how such opposing views can crop up and be taken seriously.
The position is held to varying degrees. Sanders [Sand.HistF, 246] agrees that "Jesus used (the name); sometimes he used it of himself; he expected the Son of Man to come from heaven, but it is not certain that he identified himself as that future Son of Man." Sanders goes on to argue that the more explicit claims of Jesus are later interpolations. Sanders almost, but not quite, gets it in his earlier book: "I must confess that I have no answer to the question of precisely how Jesus saw the relationship between himself, the Son of man, and the Father. In some passages it is Jesus' kingdom, in others God's, in others, apparently, the Son of man's." [Sand.JesJud, 308]
The solution is obvious -- all three are ontologically the same person. Moreover, in line with the ANE usage, the kingdom is God's, and Jesus, the Son of Man, is the heir.
Crossan [Cross.MedP, 109, 141] offers a more serious version of this argument, following his Jesus Seminar colleagues in stating that, while Jesus may have used the words to refer to himself in the sense of "a human being" (as in Ezekiel), the use of it as a reference to a divine figure was put in Jesus' mouth by His followers. [See also Cross.RevB, 50; Schnack.BC, 56]
A similar idea is proposed by Burton Mack, who believes that the "innocent use" of the title by Daniel, merely intended to say that the heavenly figure looked like a human being, was twisted and misunderstood, and the use of the term by Jesus was also not intended to reference Daniel's apocalyptic figure. [Mack.Q, 160-1] In simple terms: places where SOM means something harmless are genuine; places where SOM means some possibly divine figure were added by the church later on.
Needless to say, like many arguments of the Jesus Seminar, this supposition is based on the questionable reading of multiple layers of tradition into the Gospels and presumes a social theory of Christian development through which the evidence is manipulated and interpreted. One cannot come to such conclusions by taking the text "as it stands" -- the only way there is any hard evidence it existed.
Objection #5: Third Person Distance This argument, which is often intertwined with these others, asks why Jesus so often referred to Himself in the third person if He wanted to apply the various divine titles and claims to Himself. Albert Schweitzer, for example, took the third-person references to indicate that Jesus was speaking of someone other than Himself.
However, this is an unnecessary conclusion. God sometimes spoke of Himself in the third person in the Old Testament -- read for example Ex. 20:7 ("...for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless..."), 20:8 and 20:12. The usage of the third person in these and the New Testament passages is an indication of a particular role that God and Jesus will fulfill when taking a particular action.
For example, when using the "Son of Man" title, Jesus sometimes said things like, "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man shall be ashamed of him at the day of judgment." This refers to a future time when Jesus will fulfill a specific duty in His role as the Son of Man. Or, as Fuller says [Full.FNC, 123]:
The distinction between Jesus and the coming Son of Man corresponds to the distinction between the kingdom as it is breaking through in Jesus and its final consummation. Jesus could not identify himself with the coming Son of Man, since that figure was to come at the End on the clouds of heaven.
While Fuller does not regard all of the Son of Man references as genuine, and while we do not agree (see essay on the Olivet Discourse linked above) that "the End" is in mind, he has here hit the nail on the head. Because it was a future role for Himself, Jesus could not always properly call Himself the Son of Man in as direct a manner as He would when fulfilling the role; and thus at times, He seemed to be referring to a figure other than Himself.
Or, as Jeremias puts it, there is "a distinction not between two different figures, but between (Jesus') present and the future state of exaltation...his is not yet the Son of man, but he will be exalted to be the Son of man." [Jerem.NTT, 276]
Nor would it make sense to include the title in confessional creeds (especially when more general, overarching terms like "Lord" and "Messiah" were easier to spread around, especially to the Gentile converts with no Daniel 7 background). Thus, while Jesus does refer to Himself by this title quite clearly, as we will see, there were times when it had to be used with the context of a future role in mind.
But the ultimate rebuttal against this option is that which we have noted in the linked essay above: The "third person" references satisfy two ancient requirements of honor, and of not claiming too much honor for one's self.
Objection #6: SOM Corporation A final objection is that Daniel's SOM figure is a corporate symbol for the saints and not an individual. Casey [Case.SOM] argues that the Danielic "son of man" was merely a symbol of the Saints of the Most High found in the same chapter, and that therefore, the "son of man" can in no sense be identified with an individual. [see also Dunn.CM, 74] Two points stand against this.
First, there would be nothing arguable against Jesus lifting the description from Daniel and re-applying it as a title for Himself. As Cullman also notes, in Judaism representation could easily become identity, [Cull.CNT, 140] so there would have been no conceptual problem with Jesus using the symbol in an individualistic way. Of course, one may also as well see in this a parallel to the doctrine of the body of Christ.
Second, even in Daniel there is an example of this sort of representation, as Nebuchadnezzar is identified with the full kingdom of Babylon as the golden head of the statue (2:38).
Casey is aware of this possibility, but argues that Daniel itself shows no such awareness (30), which, if true, is of no moment since we would respond that Jesus himself made the connection. However, he concludes of such an idea (207):
It is perhaps too much to claim that this makes (son of man) completely impossible as an Aramaic title...Nevertheless, this does not enhance its usefulness; it is a strange item to extract from Daniel 7:13, and its use as a title should have caused difficulties for Jesus' hearers, difficulties of which there is in fact no trace in the synoptic tradition.
This sort of argument is representative of Casey's tactics as a whole. As noted, even without the possible 1 Enoch evidence, there is no reason why Jesus' hearers could not have had the intelligence to figure this one out. Moreover, that there was no confusion recorded in the Gospels (which are high-context documents written directly to Christians who already knew whatever details were involved) over the title just as well means that the use of it was perfectly understood by Jesus' hearers.
But even if there was confusion on that particular point, why should the evangelists have recorded confused comments from the crowds? (Although, see the reaction of the crowds in John 12:34!) Moreover, is it not clear in the Gospels that many people (including the disciples) had difficulty understanding Jesus' mission on certain points?
Bruce, likewise, observes that if there was no antecedent for the use of "Son of Man," Jesus was free to "fill it with whatever meaning he chose - representative man, righteous sufferer, obedient servant of God, or the one foreordained to be invested with universal authority." [Bruc.JLS, 66]
Son of Man, Son of God: Some Positive Arguments Not all scholars, not even all on the liberal/moderate side, are so confident that SOM can be done away with as of no moment. Fuller [Full.FNC, 36-9] for example refers to the argument that Daniel's son of man is a type of corporate figure for Israel, but believes that both with that figure and those of the symbolic beasts of Daniel, there is some individual king or personal representative that is represented. (This is again clearly the case with Nebuchadnezzar as head of the gold statue.) He describes the Son of Man in Daniel as "the transcendental agent of redemption in Jewish apocalyptic" and "a pre-existent divine being," "hidden in the presence of God from before all Creation" and "revered at the End." This Son of Man delivers the elect from persecution, judges kings and rulers who do the persecuting and "presides as a ruler in glory over the elect as a redeemed community in eternity."
What of the Gospel evidences themselves? Citing all 80+ incidences of this term would take up an inordinate amount of space; the reader is referred to these passages in which Jesus refers to Himself as "the Son of Man" (again, using only the Synoptics). These passages are chosen because they represent places where, only by stretching their meaning and context to the breaking point, can it be said that Jesus was not referring to himself when He spoke of the Son of Man:
Matt. 8:19-20 And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus saith unto him, the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
Casey, in his book on Aramaic sources of Mark, argues that Jesus here speaks of "human beings" and not himself. This is incorrect as the class of not having a place to lay one's head is not a characteristic of human beings as a whole, and the response is made to a person asking to follow Jesus on his ministry effort -- which was an "on the road, on the run" affair.
Moreover, it is an oddity that Casey on the one hand claims that extracting SOM from Daniel 7 in the way we suppose is "strange" and yet has Jesus speaking in a convoluted fashion about "a human being" -- as a representative of a group.
Matt. 9:6 But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house.(Mark 2:10)
Here again Casey opts for the "human being" approach -- but once again, this is hardly a characteristic of the race as a whole. There is again also no reason why SOM had to be attended by Danielic references in order to clearly be referring to the Danielic figure.
Matt. 11:19 The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.
Mark 8:38 Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
In this instance Casey allows that there is a clear allusion to the Daniel 7 tradition. However, he turns at once to another objection in the collection and puts it off as the work of the early church -- based on a presumed schema of theological development.
Luke 12:8 Also I say unto you, whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God...
In addition, there are passages where Jesus referred to "the Son of Man" as undergoing some tribulation which was fulfilled in his own crucifixion - prophecies of His death that Flusser refers to as "defensive use" of the Son of Man title [Youn.JesJT, 249]: Matt. 12:40; 17:9-12; 20:18; Mark 8:31, 9:9, 12, 31; 10:33; 14:21-2, 41; Luke 9:22; 9:44; 18:31. That this does not in any sense (as Casey argues, and which we will grant for the sake of argument) relate to Daniel 7 is of no relevance.
Other passages are just a little easier to stretch, using a little grammatical gymnastics. However, if Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man in the above passages, then logically - and outside of any suggested Jesus Seminaresque textual layering conspiracy that may be invented - we have excellent grounds for assuming that in the other 60+ passages, Jesus was referring to Himself also. Taken together, these 80+ passages are indisputable evidence that Jesus proclaimed His divine identity through the title "Son of Man."
We now offer, alphabetically by name, a summary and evaluation of the presentations of various writers (positive and negative) on the SOM issue. We would remind the reader that none of these writers shows any awareness of the points made by Herzfeld about the use of SOM in terms of an heir to royalty.
Maurice Casey -- Constant Qualification: Casey's Son of Man: The Interpretation and Influence of Daniel 7. In not all areas is Casey so heavy-handed, and many of his arguments against other interpretations are valid, but he clearly operates under the weight of certain false presumptions as well.
Douglas Hare: The Son of Man Tradition Hare issues a number of needed correctives to Casey and Vermes, which we have also made use of, notably the point against intentional alteration of Aramaic "a son of man" to Greek "the son of man" being "entirely conjectural" and not able to be assumed in advance [24-5] and the supposed presence of SOM as a generic term in the time of and prior to Jesus.
Hare notes [22n] that there is no evidence at all of such usage earlier than the Bar Kochba revolt. Hare is most helpful in arguing that Jesus uses SOM regularly as a self-referent, but does also opt at times to attribute sayings to the church or to NT writers' redaction.
Overall Hare concludes -- rightly -- that most SOM references do not contribute to a case for Jesus' divinity at all. We agree, for it is the background of the phrase from Daniel and the ANE that does this, and makes it equal to "Son of God." In other places Jesus uses it as a self-referent to describe a certain action like judgment, and these implicitly suggest divinity. Once those are established, apart from slice or dice games, the rest fall into place behind them.
Geza Vermes We have already noted Vermes' thesis and the general reply above. To this we may add that Vermes also tries to justify his stance by saying since we don't have first-century Aramaic documents, it is fair to use later ones as a guide.