Publications: Articles - Theology
Jesus Christ – The Centre Of Our Faith:
The Scriptural Image of Christ (Son of Man)
It has long been recognised that the title 'Son of Man' is one of the principal Christological titles employed in the New Testament Scriptures. Appearing in all four Gospels, the expression 'Son of Man' [o uios tou anthropou] represented one of Jesus' most frequently used self-depictions. In fact it never became a way for other people to refer to Jesus but was used only by Jesus to refer to Himself and His work. Unlike the titles 'Son of God', 'Messiah' and 'Lord' which were incorporated in the Church's doctrinal statements, the phrase 'Son of Man' remained a self-designation of Jesus. Interestingly, this appellation is not encountered in the entire Pauline corpus or in other epistles but only occurs in the Gospel traditions (in fact more than eighty times ) and only twice outside – once in Acts 7:56 and twice in Revelation, 1:13 ; 14:14 . Even though the sense of the term must have been understood by those who heard it in Jesus' times since there is no explanation of its meaning in the Gospels, today its usage must be examined since it is not readily clear and has in fact been misinterpreted.
Unfortunately today the phrase 'Son of Man' has been grossly misunderstood by modern scholarship who argue that, in reference to Jesus, it simply highlighted the humanity of Christ and nothing more. In fact in its attempt to question the traditional Christology of the Church throughout the centuries which affirmed both the human and divine natures of Christ, for over four centuries now biblical criticism has strongly challenged the contention that the title 'Son of Man' may suggest the divinity as well as the humanity of Jesus. And so, it is argued, the expression was simply a generic way that any human being could refer to himself. That is to say, many biblical scholars fail to recognize that when Jesus used this term, in the same way that the Old Testament Scriptures did, He did so in order to betray His divine attributes and not only His human.
It is important therefore that this title be properly delineated and understood otherwise we may run the risk of believing, like those modern scholars that Jesus saw Himself merely as a human being without any divine self-understanding. And in order to discover meaning of the title 'Son of Man', its origins from the Old Testament Scriptures will be looked at since this was the way that Jesus understood this title when He incorporated it for Himself. Appearing for the first time in Jewish apocalyptic literature, it came to signify a type of redeemer figure who would appear at the end of time. The following examination of the term will thereby affirm our contention that this title 'Son of Man' denoted more than a merely human self-appellation.
The Son of Man in the Old Testament – Books of Daniel and Ezekiel
The four most significant sources from Jewish literature which shed light on the meaning of Son of Man are found in the Old Testament books of Daniel and Ezekiel and also in the Book of Similitudes and 4 Enoch, two first century AD Jewish apocalyptic writings. In all four works the title 'Son of Man' was understood as a reference to a 'super-human' figure whose primary function centred around a final judgement and salvation. Even from this one can easily see the reasons which prompted Jesus to use this title in order to express His own intentions and divine mission. Firstly looking at the book of Daniel we see here a description of the prophet Daniel's vision which is focused on 'one like a Son of Man' upon whom wasbestowed all earthly power and glory by the Ancient of Days.
From this passage alone we come to see that the 'Son of Man' is no mere mortal:
"As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a Son of Man (bar Enosh in Aramaic) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed" (Dan 7:13-14).
In this passage the vision of the heavenly figure, who appeared as a Son of Man receiving power which is explicitly described as 'everlasting', hints not only to the similarity of this figure to human beings but also to a dissimilarity in so far as the Son of Man is depicted as a messianic figure, that is an agent of judgement and salvation.
The other main Old Testament work where the term 'Son of Man' is used is in the book of Ezekiel. Here, as in Daniel, the one called 'Son of Man' is a herald of judgement whose pronouncements are of eschatological significance (i.e. important as they relate to the end times). In the book of Ezekiel however it is clear that the title 'Son of Man' is employed as a form of address on the part of God to the mortal prophet. Yet it is precisely in Ezekiel that the role of the prophet is delineated in rather super-human terms and thus Ezekiel, as the 'Son of Man' is understood to occupy an intermediary position between the human and divine in so far as he mediated the judgements of God to the world. It is in this sense that the formula 'Son of Man' must be seen as something other than merely human.
Subsequent Jewish writings began to give fuller descriptions of this manlike figure of Daniel not only interpreting him in messianic categories but stating that he was pre-existent and divine. Two such works dating from the first century AD were: 1) The Book of Similitudes which formed part of the pseudoepigrahic work of 1 Enoch (ch 37-71) and 2) 4 Ezra 13 which scholars argue was written approximately 100AD.
One such example clearly outlining how the book of Daniel was interpreted in relation to the 'Son of Man' sayings within the Book of Similitudes is the following:
"and the Son of Man whom you have seen shall put down the kings and the mighty from their seats…(46.4) And at that hour the Son of Man was named in the presence of the Lord of Spirits, And his name before the Head of Days. Yea, before the sun and the signs were created, before the stars of the heaven were made, his name was named before the Lord of Spirits… (48.2) And all the elect shall stand before him on that day. And all the kings and the mighty and exalted ones those that rule the earth shall fall before him on their faces and worship and set their hope upon that Son of Man and petition him and supplicate for mercy at his hands… (62.7)."
From the above passage it can clearly be seen that the Son of Man was believed to be the 'Messiah' who was pre-existent and given prerogatives which traditionally belonged to God alone. Clearly, in using this title for Himself Jesus saw Himself as fulfilling the Scriptures in that He was the One about whom Daniel had spoken and upon whom later Jewish literature further elaborated. It is against such a background that Jesus would have used the 'Son of Man' terminology which is recorded in the New Testament.
The 'Son of Man' in the New Testament
Putting aside the whole scholarly debate which is centred on examining whether the 'Son of Man' sayings found in the Gospels were actually said by Jesus (the so called ipsissima verba of the historical Jesus) or if they were added subsequently by the early Church since this would in effect suggest large scale alterations (retrojections) of the Biblical texts on the part of the early Christian community which seems highly improbable, we will now consider the usage of the 'Son of Man' sayings in the Gospels. Firstly, it is clear that the expression 'Son of Man' is used in similar ways in all four Gospels. Having affirmed the similarity in connotations, one can conclude that there are at least three different ways in which the term is used in the Synoptic Gospels. The three distinct groups refer to [a] Jesus during His earthly life as the Son of Man, [b] predictions of Jesus' death and resurrection as the Son of Man, [c] the future coming of the Son of Man and the vindication of His sufferings and authority as judge.
A survey of the group of passages referring to Jesus as the Son of Man during His earthly ministry reveal an authority of Jesus which was beyond the human. In fact it extended not only to His dominion over the Sabbath but referred also to His power to forgive sins. In the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) the ascription of such authority remained the divine prerogatives of Jawheh (God). In using the title 'Son of Man' when referring to these divine functions and others, such as judging, creating and saving, Jesus was affirming His divine-human self-understanding. In healing the paralytic and thereby claiming the ability to heal and save, Jesus realized that the Pharisees were questioning His authority and so He said:
"Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the paralytic — “Stand up, take your bed and go to your home” (Mt 9:4-6).
Furthermore Jesus revealed even His authority even over the Sabbath when He pronounced that the Sabbath was made for humanity:
“The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28).
Such authority not only to forgive sins but also over the Sabbath which Jesus claimed for Himself as the 'Son of Man' would normally belong to God alone in the Scriptures or One whom God would send to the world with the same authority as God. This goes to show that the phrase 'Son of Man' betrayed a self-understanding on Jesus' part as the One sent by God who had come to fulfil the Old Testament Scriptures.
During His trial, Jesus spoke to the High Priests and to the Sanhedrin of the impending death of the Son of Man in a series of predictions emphasising that this was to happen so as to fulfil what was written in the Scriptures:
"Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again…. (Mk 8:31) … “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles" (Mk 10:33).
Whilst these two biblical passages make it clear that as the Son of Man, Jesus had to suffer, they also betray that He would be victorious over death, thereby betraying His divine attributes as One able to conquer death by death. This second use of the title 'Son of Man' by Jesus clearly showed a divine element in His understanding of the expression.
The third meaning associated with the Son of Man sayings has to do with Jesus as the final judge at the Second Coming. The most striking passage illustrating the connection between the expression 'Son of Man' and the theme of judgement is found in the gospel according to Luke which describes Jesus speaking to His disciples that one amongst them would betray Him:
"For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this" (Lk 22:22-23).
Other biblical references relating to the future coming of Jesus in judgement as the Son of Man "in clouds and with great power and glory" to assemble His scattered people and to reject those who were ashamed of Him are the following two biblical verses:
"Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” …. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory" (Mk 8:38; 13:26).
These passages are clearly reminiscent of the Danielic tradition which described the One who would descend from the clouds 'like a Son of Man' in order to judge the world and then be given everlasting power and dominion in the Kingdom of Heaven. As the Son of Man, the Scriptures claim that Jesus would confront all nations, both Jews and Gentiles in order to judge them, bestowing eternal life upon the righteous and consigning the accursed to eternal punishment. One could therefore easily conclude that Jesus used of the title 'Son of Man' in order to describe His unique person and mission, having in mind the figure prophesied by Daniel who would come as God's agent to gather and judge His people. Clearly such an understanding goes contrary to the contention put forward by modern scholarship which understands this title purely as a description of Jesus' human self-understanding.
In using the term 'Son of Man' it has been shown that Jesus did in fact refer to Himself in this way being fully aware of the way the term was used in the Scriptures. Since the Scriptural Christ was interpreted as the One who came to fulfil the Old Testament, truly divine with the same divinity as His Father, it is not unreasonable to postulate that the title 'Son of Man' represented something more than a purely human category. In fact, knowing the Scriptures (that is the Old Testament) Jesus would have been familiar with Daniel 7 and therefore used this phrase to teach the people that it was He who was the 'human-like' figure that Daniel had foretold and which 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra had identified as the Messiah, God's Son, the Elect One. The title betrayed the divine aspect of His person and work and this was precisely the reason why Jesus appropriated the title 'Son of Man' for Himself. Besides contextually speaking, such an interpretation of 'Son of Man' betraying Christ's divinity fits in with the occasion of the writings of the New Testament, whose authors had to explain and justify not the fact that Jesus was a man, as this was taken for granted, but the position that He was also God. Therefore the title 'Son of Man' is best understood as an authentic reference to the divinity of Jesus over and against His humanity since it is clearly attributed with transcendent features far surpassing any purely human features.
The only exception to this is found in John 12:34 where it is the people in this case who use this title in speaking to Jesus so as to ask Him to whom Jesus was referring: " The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”" (Jn 12:34).
The term occurs 69 times in the Synoptic Gospels and 13 times in the Gospel according to St John
“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.
Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!
Wellhausen observed that "Jesus uses [the expression] not esoterically at all, not merely in front of his disciples, yet no one finds it strange and requires an explanation. All let it pass without being astonished, even the quarrelsome Pharisees… who were not accustomed to accept something unintelligible." (cited in G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew (London: SCM Press, 1986), 161).
1. The only exception to this is found in John 12:34 where it is the people in this case who use this title in speaking to Jesus so as to ask Him to whom Jesus was referring: " The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”" (Jn 12:34).
2. The term occurs 69 times in the Synoptic Gospels and 13 times in the Gospel according to St John
3. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
4. and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.
5. Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!
6. Wellhausen observed that "Jesus uses [the expression] not esoterically at all, not merely in front of his disciples, yet no one finds it strange and requires an explanation. All let it pass without being astonished, even the quarrelsome Pharisees… who were not accustomed to accept something unintelligible." (cited in G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew (London: SCM Press, 1986), 161).
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College