In the Gospels Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man” in both a present and a future sense. So, for example, in Matthew 8:20 he says, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” But in Matthew 24:44 he says, “The Son of Man will come at an hour when you least expect.” This is consistent in all three of the synoptic Gospels: the Son of Man is here now and he is coming in the future.
Interpreters deal with this in two different ways, broadly, and each way has its own subcategories. First is the “human” interpretation. This is the camp that reads the phrase “son of man” either as a circumlocution (“yours truly”) or as a title that somehow contrasts “Son of God.” For ancient interpreters in the “human” camp, this is an element of developing orthodoxy and what would eventually be trinitarianism. In other words, the title “Son of Man” deliberately emphasizes Jesus’s humanity as opposed to his divinity.
Irenaeus saw the title as a solid way to refute the doctrines of the Gnostic teachers against whom he wrote his magnum opus. In his reading, Jesus’s humanity is crucial to salvation, because if he was only divine he could not suffer, and his suffering and death are what allowed him to be a sacrifice for sin. Gnostics held that Jesus wasn’t human at all, or that Jesus was human but the Christ only possessed him, and abandoned him before the crucifixion. The Gnostic texts that Irenaeus refutes interpret “Son of Man” (ho huios tou anthropou) through their own cosmology, which includes the divine figure Anthropos, the primal, divine human who (in some texts) provides the image in which physical, mortal human beings are made. For educated people in the post-Platonic world, “divine” necessarily means “without a physical body,” so much of early Christian theological development is about dealing with the problem of an embodied god.
Other ancient theologians, like Ignatius of Antioch, read “Son of Man” literally, like the Gnostics, but unlike the Gnostics they assumed the “man” (really, “person”–anthropos refers to a person, but not necessarily a male person) was a historical figure from whom Jesus was descended. So Ignatius equates “Son of Man” with “descendant of David.” Others assume Mary is the anthropos. Either way, this approach, like that of Irenaeus, reads the title as a declaration of Jesus’s humanity, which is important, again, because in the strain of Christianity that won, salvation is only attainable through Christ’s passion and death.
Some modern scholars also hold to the “human” interpretation, some as a circumlocution because of the Semitic language issues I mentioned in my last post. Other theories say that the title refers to Jesus as a “lowly” human being, or (going completely the other direction) the “ideal” human being, or even the goal of human history.
The other major interpretation is the “apocalyptic” one. In the third century Tertullian interpreted the title based on the fact that its first appearance in the Gospel of Mark is in chapter 2, when Jesus heals someone to demonstrate his authority to forgive sins. Tertullian remembered the phrase from Daniel 7, and decided that Jesus used it in this instance because he expected his opponents to recognize it from Daniel, as well, and he was declaring that he has the authority to forgive sins because he is the judge that will come at the end of the world who has authority from God to decide between the righteous and the sinners.
Modern scholars have sometimes supported this view with the fact that the phrase appears in 1 Enoch describing a figure similar to the one in Daniel. That position is very heavily debated, though, because that particular section doesn’t appear in all manuscripts of 1 Enoch, or in the earliest ones. Some scholars think the section is late, and might be showing the influence of Christianity, rather than vice versa. Without 1 Enoch, there is no evidence that the Son of Man was a character in Jewish apocalyptic writings or eschatological expectations. It isn’t a title for the Messiah, and it doesn’t appear in an apocalyptic sense in the Dead Sea Scrolls (except, of course, for Daniel).
Part 3 will outline Dennis MacDonald’s theory.