JESUS, The SON of MAN by James Kiefer 4998 Battery Lane Bethesda, MD 20814 Spring, 1990 Wh
JESUS, The SON of MAN
4998 Battery Lane
Bethesda, MD 20814
What did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be? Who did he think he was?
Let us ask, not what the Church said about him, or his disciples,
but what he said of himself.
In this essay, I concern myself with only one thing that he said.
He called himself the Son of Man.
The term occurs in sayings attributed to him in all four Gospels.
But that is not all. Many Bible scholars (though not all) believe
that of the three Synoptic Gospels Mark was written first, and
that Matthew and Luke both borrowed material from Mark, and also
from another document, now lost, which they call Q. In addition,
they sometimes postulate an earlier source available only to Mat-
thew, called M, and another, available only to Luke, called L. Now
when we read through the Gospels, we find that sayings of Jesus in
which he calls himself the Son of Man are found in the material
common to Matthew and Luke but missing from Mark, as well as in
the material peculiar to Matthew and the material peculiar to
Luke. We may say, then, that we have not only the testimony of the
four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but also that of
the three proto-evangelists, M, Q, and L.
It may be conjectured that "The Son of Man" was not a title that
Jesus gave to himself, but one that his followers invented for him
after his death, a title that the early Church bestowed upon him,
and eventually put into his mouth when it attributed various say-
ings to him.
But if so, then we might expect to find the early Church calling
him by this title, and we do not. Outside of the Gospels, the
phrase occurs only twice in the New Testament. Stephen, about to
be stoned to death as the first Christian martyr, looks up and
says, "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at
the right hand of God." (Acts 7:56) And again, John the Revelator,
on the island of Patmos, writes, "I saw...one like a son of
man...and his face was like the sun shining in full strength; and
when I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead." (Rev 1:13; see
These two passages aside, the New Testament outside the Gospels
does not refer to Jesus as the Son of Man. And when we turn to the
post-Scriptural writings of the early church, the silence is com-
plete. (Universal negatives like that are dangerous -- if anyone
knows of an exception, please let me know.) It is difficult (for
me at least) to avoid the conclusion that the early church did not
invent and did not follow the practice of applying this title to
Jesus, but that the application as found in the Gospels is his
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Given that he used the title, what did he mean by it? Some persons
have suggested that he wished to make it clear that he was simply
an ordinary man like everyone else, just a simple Galilean peasant
with nothing supernatural about him. Others have suggested that it
was a common euphemism for the person speaking, as some persons
today will say "Yours truly" rather than "I" or "me" when the use
of the pronoun would be obtrusive. But in fact we find that in New
Testament times the phrase had a quite different significance.
It occurs in two books of the Old Testament. In Ezekiel, it is a
form in which God addresses the prophet, as if God were to say,
"Mortal, listen to My words." (It is to be noted that in Hebrew
usage, "The Son of Man" would be understood as a more elegant or
formal way of saying "The Man" (see Psalm 8:4), and this transla-
tion would perhaps better convey the sense of the Hebrew.) But in
Daniel 7:1-18 there is described a vision in which one like a son
of man comes upon the clouds of heaven, appears before the Throne
of God, and receives an everlasting dominion. In the context of
Daniel's vision, where four great beasts have appeared, represent-
ing four great heathen empires, it is probable that the son of man
represents the reign of the people of God after the empires have
crumbled. However, the image of the Son of Man continues to be
found in Jewish apocryphal and apocalyptic literature, as for
example in the Similitudes of Enoch. Possibly these references are
inspired by the account in Daniel; more probably Daniel was draw-
ing on an already popular symbolic imagery.
Either way, by the time of Jesus the apocalyptic language about
the Son of Man is part of Jewish thought, and cannot have been
unfamiliar to Jesus and his hearers.
Sigmund Mowinckel discusses in detail the references to the Son of
Man in Jewish writings of the period in his book HE WHO COMETH.
The reader who wishes to examine the question in depth is referred
to Mowinckel's book, but I here reproduce his final summary list
(from pages 429-431):
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1) He is divine by nature, arrayed in the glory of the deity, in
appearance like that of the angels. In some circles he may also
have been called "Son of the Most High God."
2) He is a heavenly being, who dwells on high with the Lord of
Spirits, where the elect righteous ones have their dwellings.
3) He is not merely an apotheosized man, who has been taken up
to heaven, like Enoch or Elijah, or who has become one with the
deity in mystic cultic experiences, like the king-god of the
ancient east. He has always belonged to the heavenly plane.
4) In spite of this he is called "the Man" (the Son of Man), the
typical man, the prototype of mankind. Thus, he is a divine
being in human form, a "Man" with a divine nature.
5) It seems that he is in some way connected with creation. It
is strongly emphasized that he came into existence before the
creation of the world, and in order to fulfil God's purpose for
creation; and he will in the end be lord over creation.
6) He is in some way connected with the conception of paradise,
and was at one time thought of as king of paradise,
7) The name "the Man" seems to have implied that he was the
ideal pattern of mankind (see 4). He is called "the Righteous
One" and "the Elect One", which seems to show that he was, or at
one time had been, regarded as the prototype of the righteous
8) As such, he is even now the head of a heavenly community of
the departed of earlier times, the translated patriarchs and
godly men, the righteous elect, who surround him in heaven, and
have their dwellings with the Lord of Spirits.
9) It seems, too, that at one stage, at least, of the history of
the idea, there was a mystic connection between the Son of Man
and the spirits of the righteous departed, so that they were
thought of as identical with him in some way
10) His most characteristic qualities are wisdom and understand-
11) His connection with the last times is much clearer than it
was at first. He is an eschatological figure, and will be the
instrument in the re-establishment of creation's original state
of perfection, which is the content of eschatology.
12) He is connected with the dualistic view of the world and of
history, with the conception of this eon and the coming eon, and
with the cosmic and universal eschatology, not with the national
Messianic hope. He came into being, and has been chosen and pre-
served, for the final conflict against Satan and the evil pow-
ers, over which he will be victorious.
13) He is now hidden with the Lord of Spirits; but one day he
will be revealed, when "the hour of his day" has come. Then he
will take his seat on his, or God's, throne of glory.
14) He will come with the clouds of heaven; but it is also said
that he will rise up from the sea.
15) He seems to have had some connection with the resurrection.
16) He is judge of the world, who, at his coming, will judge the
living and the dead.
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At this point, the reader will see that it is no accident that the
only New Testament references to the Son of Man outside the Gos-
pels are references to a heavenly judge.
(NOTE: for the arguments of those who maintain that Jesus intended
no special claim by the use of this term, see JESUS THE JEW, by
Gaza Vermes, and, in the JOURNAL OF THEOLOGICAL STUDIES, the arti-
cle "Exit the Apocalyptic Son of Man" and the reply, "Re-enter the
Apocalyptic Son of Man.")
That Jesus' listeners clearly understood the claim implicit in his
usage is evidenced by the words of Rabbi Abbahu in the Jerusalem
Talmud: "If a man says, 'I am God', he is a liar; if he says, 'I
am the Son of Man', he will come to an end that he will rue; if he
says, 'I will ascend into heaven', will it not be that he will
have spoken and not be able to perform?" (Jer. Ta'anith 2,1)
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Two points may be noted about the use of the term, "Son of Man."
First, that the term was capable of being understood, as in Psalm
8 or as in Ezekiel, to mean simply an ordinary man. It is clear
both from the Gospels and from the Talmud as just quoted that the
more daring interpretation was not lost on Jesus' hearers, but the
use of the term could not in itself sustain a charge of blasphemy.
In legal terms, it was not actionable. And many of the exchanges
between Jesus and the Sanhedrinists as recorded in the Gospels
illustrate his refusal to make things easy for them by giving them
a legal case against him before he was ready.
Second, it will be objected that the claim to be the Son of Man
is, at its highest, short of a claim to be God. Granted. Jesus, in
calling himself the Son of Man, did not thereby make a full reve-
lation of what orthodox Christians believe to be his true nature.
But it is not clear what language or imagery familiar to his Jew-
ish hearers would have been a better first approximation to a full
revelation. The title he chose identifies him both as one arrayed
in the glory of the deity, and as the prototype of perfect human-
ity -- as our brother, and as one who existed before the creation,
one through whom we were created. Surely this is enough for a
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