One of the questions on one of my quals is going to be on the Son of Man issue. Basically, throughout the Gospels the phrase “Son of Man” keeps cropping up. Jesus is the only person who uses the phrase (except for one place in Acts and one in Revelation), and for the most part he seems to be referring to himself. What does it mean? Where does it come from?
Dear reader, welcome to the swamp that is New Testament studies.
Everyone has written on the Son of Man, starting with Justin Martyr (early 2nd century CE). He and the other Usual Suspects of ante-Nicene Christian theology (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, etc.) all took their turn hashing through it. It went fallow for a few centuries, but when biblical studies really picked up again in the early modern period (thanks, printing press!), people started thinking about the Son of Man again. In 19th and 20th century scholarship it was among the Big Deals, but it’s dropped off quite a bit in the 21st century, possibly because it’s an impossible swamp.
Early on, Christian writers identified several places in the Jewish scriptures that use the phrase “son of man.” Now, in Semitic languages, like Hebrew (ben adam) and Aramaic (bar enash or bar nasha), the phrase is just the way you say “person.” So, when Daniel 7 refers to cbar enash, literally “one like a son of man,” it just means “the one that looks like a human being [but isn’t].” When God addresses the prophet in the first chapter of Ezekiel as ben adam, the NRSV translates it, “Mortal.”
This fact has led some commentators (ancient and modern) to suspect that in the Gospels Jesus is just referring to himself in the third person, i.e., “yours truly,” or that the phrase is meant to emphasize his humanity. But this requires one of two things to be true: either the phrase has to date back to Jesus himself (in other words, at least some of those sayings have to be authentic), or the Gospel authors must be using the phrase in its Hebrew sense.
We don’t know what Jesus said. If you hold to some reconstruction of Q you can trace back some of the Gospel tradition to about the 60s, and there are a few things in Paul (40s and 50s) that probably go back to Jesus, like the teaching on divorce and the Last Supper. And, honestly, it would be strange if the tradition preserved NOTHING that Jesus actually said. But we don’t have anything from eyewitnesses (except maybe in John, but that’s another thing), so it’s really difficult to say for sure what goes back that far. Also, there’s nothing in Paul to hint that he knew “Son of Man” as a title for Jesus, and Paul is not only the earliest surviving Christian author we have, but he was also on reasonable speaking terms with Peter and James. If “Son of Man” as a title was something that Jesus used of himself, that would seem to be a pretty important piece of christology, it’s a little weird that Paul doesn’t mention it. He disagrees with the Jerusalem church on a lot of things, but it’s hard to imagine him knowingly disagreeing with Jesus.
What about the Gospel authors? Mark seems to be bilingual–he uses several Aramaic terms–but at least some of his audience is not (he immediately translates all of them), and none of the Aramaic he uses is a version of “son of man.” Matthew is the most “Jewish” of the Gospels in many ways, but “Jewish” doesn’t necessarily mean “fluent in Aramaic.” Anyway, for the most part Matthew seems to get the phrase from Mark or Q (more on that in a different post). It’s unlikely Luke’s author knew any Hebrew or Aramaic worth mentioning, and he also gets his Son of Man language from Mark and/or Q.
At any rate, we know as surely as we can know anything in this field that the version of the Jewish scriptures that the Gospel authors were familiar with was the Septuagint, which is in Greek. And all that stuff I said up there about what “son of man” means in Semitic languages? In Greek it’s meaningless. If you want to say “a person,” you just say anthropos. So, doubling back to Irenaeus and others, when they read hos huios anthropou in Daniel, they didn’t read “[heavenly] thing that looks like a dude.” They interpreted the phrase through its usage in the Gospels and decided that it must refer to Jesus, who is the Son of Man that they were familiar with. This retro-Christianization of Jewish texts, especially prophetic texts, was (is) pretty common, and I’ll address it in other posts.
Next up: Human Son of Man versus Apocalyptic Son of Man