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Enoch & the “Son of Man”

December 12, 2012

In catching up on articles in journals, I came across Daniel Boyarin, “How Enoch Can Teach Us about Jesus,” Early Christianity 2 (2011): 51-76, and am provoked to commenting on it.  Essentially, Boyarin contends that in the “Similitudes” (or “Parables) of 1 Enoch we see reflected “the development of ‘The One Like a Son of Man’ of Daniel 7 [vv. 13-14] from a simile into a title” [specifically in 1 Enoch 71:14], and that “All the elements of Christology are essentially in place then in the Parables [of 1 Enoch],” “a pre-existent heavenly figure, identified as well with Wisdom, who is the Son of Man” (74).

Given that Boyarin takes 25 pages to lay out his case, I can’t attempt a full engagement in a blog-posting (I’m sure readers are relieved to know!).  I will confine myself to a few observations that give some indication of why I find his discussion unsatisfactory.

First, contrary to Boyarin, the Greek expression that appears some 80 times in the NT translated “the Son of Man” is not used as a christological title.  No one ever ascribes it to Jesus.  No one ever asks him if he claims to be it or accuses him of doing so.  And outside the Gospels (and one singular instance in Acts 7:56) the expression never functions as a confession of faith about Jesus.  Contrast this with the way that “Messiah/Christ” or “Son of God” functions in the Gospels and elsewhere in the NT.  As I’ve shown in a recent study, more correctly, the expression functions linguistically simply as a way of referring to Jesus (and always as a self-reference by Jesus), but doesn’t itself ascribe anything other than participation in the human race.  The sentences in which the expression is used ascribe things, but not the expression itself.  (See L. W. Hurtado, “Summary and Concluding Observations,” in ‘Who is This Son of Man’?  The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus, eds. L. W. Hurtado and P. L. Owen [London:  T&T Clark, 2011], 159-77.)

Second, there is no evidence of “the Son of Man” used as a title of a redeemer-figure in 2nd temple Jewish texts/traditions.  The expression in Daniel 7:13-14 isn’t a title but simply “one like a son of man,” i.e., a figure that looks like a human.  Even in 1 Enoch we don’t have evidence of a fixed title.  English translations often give that impression, but the Ethiopic (and all we have is the Ethiopic, unfortunately) uses three distinguishable expressions, indicating that the Ethiopic translators didn’t think they were dealing with a fixed title, and suggesting that the Greek (or possibly Aramaic or Syriac) that they translated didn’t have a fixed expression either.  Given his focus on 1 Enoch, Boyarin would have been advised to study the Ethiopic evidence more closely and not (apparently) build a case so readily on English translations of the text.  (See now especially, Darrell D. Hannah, “The Elect Son of Man of the Parables of Enoch,” in ‘Who is This Son of Man’?, pp. 130-58, for an excellent and in-depth treatment of relevant matters.)

Third, in the reception-history of Daniel 7, there is no evidence that the figure described as “one like a son of man” was ever referred to as “the Son of Man”.  Here, I can commend Maurice Casey, Son of Man: The Interpretation and Influence of Daniel 7 (London: SPCK, 1979), who shows that the figure was sometimes seen as a messianic figure but the title “The Son of Man” isn’t found.

Fourth, although there are a few instances in the Gospels where the expression “the Son of Man” is used in sentences that clearly allude to Daniel 7:13-14 (esp. Mark 14:62; 13:26 and parallels), in many (most?) other cases where the expression is used in the Gospels there is no clear allusion to Daniel.  So, it’s not so clear that the expression derives from some midrashic influence of the Daniel passage.

Finally, as I’ve indicated repeatedly over about 25 years now, in fact the most significant innovation in the way Jesus was treated in earliest Christian circles wasn’t acclaiming him as Messiah or whatever, but was comprised in the programmatic way that he functioned in their devotional life/practice.  I’ve repeatedly itemized the specifics of that practice, and it would be nice if other scholars who engage relevant questions either showed me wrong or acknowledged the evidence.  It won’t do simply to ignore it or assert that it doesn’t matter.

In short, the figure in 1 Enoch referred to as “the/my Elect One” and “the/my Righteous One” (and these do seem to function as titles for the figure) is a remarkable instance of ancient Jewish messianic speculation, and illustrates the diversity and midrashic creativity of ancient Jewish circles.  But 1 Enoch doesn’t actually give us the secret to earliest Jesus-devotion, and doesn’t actually show us “all the elements of Christology” already in place there.  It is possible to assert otherwise, but not on an adequately informed basis. 

(I’ve uploaded a pre-publication version of my essay referred to above, and it can be accessed in the “Selected Essays” tab of this site.)

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  1. Mark A. Matson permalink

    You argue: “Fourth, although there are a few instances in the Gospels where the expression “the Son of Man” is used in sentences that clearly allude to Daniel 7:13-14 (esp. Mark 14:62; 13:26 and parallels), in many (most?) other cases where the expression is used in the Gospels there is no clear allusion to Daniel. So, it’s not so clear that the expression derives from some midrashic influence of the Daniel passage.”

    But it strikes me that at least in Mark these passages are critical ones, and help define the use of the term in other places (e.g, Mk 8:31, linked to 8:38; Mark 9:31, Mark 10:33). That is, there is a literary pattern in which these uses interpret one another. The threefold use of “son of man” by Jesus as predictions of his death are linked directly in 8:38 to what is a Daniel 7 pattern. And that is then picked up again (and expanded) in Mark 13:26 (which you cite), and then reaffirmed in Mk 14:62. Seen narratively, these references don’t stand alone — there is a network of intertextual references.

    I am not sure the degree to which there might have been some existing strand of Jewish speculation about Daniel 7 (that is one of Boyarin’s points in his various articles, that Daniel 7 was influential on a number of other texts). But it would seem in Mark,, at least, there is more here than you want to grant.

    • Mark: Thanks for your comments, to which I’ll attempt a brief response. There are two issues that I think need to be kept distinct: (1) Was the expression “the son of man” recognized/used already and referring to an eschatological figure such as we have in Dan 7:13-14? (2) Is the expression used in sentences in the Gospels that make strong claims about the one referred to in the expression?
      The answer to the first question, in my view, is “no”. The expression itself “the son of man” wasn’t used already, and there is no indication that it was treated as recognized in the scenes where Jesus uses it as a self-reference.
      As for the second question (to which your comment pertains more directly), there certainly was a strand of speculation about eschatological salvation in ancient Jewish tradition in which Dan 7:13-14 was one influence (as reflected, inter alia, in the Similitudes, and the texts I mentioned in Mark/parallels). So, the two alternatives often defended are either that Dan 7 is the font from which all Jesus’ statements about “the son of man” originate and to which they somehow allude (I don’t think so); or, the expression “the son of man” originated and functioned as Jesus’ self-referential idiom and was retained in the Jesus-sayings-tradition as such.
      In some cases, Jesus is portrayed as using the expression in statements that appear to allude to the Dan 7 passage and make claims about his own eschatological role/significance. What “more” do we need? And, more importantly, what “more” seems demanded by the Markan text?

  2. Mark Erickson permalink

    I’m with you on this one. But… “I propose, instead, that the expression simply reflected Jesus’ sense that he had a particular, even unique, vocation in God’s redemptive purposes. That is, I suggest that Jesus saw himself as having a special role and mission, and that he used the expression for ‘the son of man’ self-referentially to express this conviction.”

    That’s an historical claim, true. The evidence would seem, however, to be either lacking or confessionally based.

    • No, Mark. I’ve laid out the evidence that requires historical inference/explanation: We have a novel expression used in the Gospels, solely on Jesus’ lips, not taken up in (or deriving from) earliest confessional claims, and not paralleled in contemporary Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic usage. It makes no confessional claim; it simply is used as Jesus’ favored self-designation in the Gospels. The most economic explanation is that it reflects his own “idiolect”. Nothing confessional about that. And the exceptional nature of the evidence is there. There are other explanations, but in the article I show why I think them inadequate. Your own one-sentence attempt at a put-down is sad.

  3. Michael permalink

    Dr. Hurtado
    Can you comment on the doubly articular translation of the phrase in its movement from Aramaic to Greek?


    • In my essay (uploaded in pre-publication form), I propose that the most economical solution to the “Son of Man” usage in the Gospels and its peculiar syntactical form is that it is a rather direct translation of an Aramaic expression, “bar enasha” (which would = “the son of man”), i.e., the singular emphatic form would well be rendered into Greek with the double-articular form that we find in the Gospels.

      • Michael permalink

        Both read it and directed fellow students to it. Thank you.

  4. Deane permalink

    I agree, of course, that there is no titular sense to “son of man” in Daniel or 1 Enoch. Boyarin’s position seems to reflect a position that was popular from the late 19thC to about the 1960s without adding any substantial new defence for it and passing over certain objections to it which have since been raised.

    Yet do you agree that, within the Similitudes, the otherwise generic phrase “son of man” is associated specifically with its formulation in Daniel 7 (Similitudes 46.1-4) and that it gains a specific or peculiar association with the person of Enoch and his heavenly counterpart the eschatological judge, because the term is used repeatedly of him/them? That is, in the Similitudes, has an otherwise generic term for ‘person’ gathered a specific connotation of the divine intermediary responsible for the eschatological judgement?

    And is it at least plausible that Jesus was familiar with the Similitudes (dating it earlier, perhaps to ca 20 BC, although only tentatively) and that Jesus counted the work as scripture?

    • Deane: No question that in the Similitudes the eschatological “Elect One” (which is actually the most frequent designation of the figure) is linked in a couple of texts with Dan 7 . . . and in other texts with messianic OT passages (e.g. 1 Enoch 48 cf. Isa. 45; 49). But, as indicated already, 1 Enoch does not show the formation of a title, “The son of man”. Indeed, not even “the otherwise generic phrase”. There are three different ways that the figure is designated a human in the Ethiopic, indicating no one of them is a “title” or fixed way of designating him.
      As to whether Jesus knew the Similitudes, that’s impossible to know, but I see no hint of it.

  5. Dr Hurtado,

    It would interesting to know whether the phrase “son of man” is ever used outside Jewish and Christian religious texts to indicate “participation in the human race”?

    • Dear Scott: Read my essay! I’ve searched (using the TLG) all of ancient Greek literature and the expression “ho huios tou antropou” isn’t found . . . at all, except in the Gospels and texts that cite them. “Son of man” and “sons of men/man” (i.e., without the article) likewise isn’t found in Greek except in translations of Jewish texts and texts influenced by these texts (e.g., the NT). “Son/sons of man/men” is a Semitic expression (used in Hebrew and Aramaic, and perhaps in other Semitic languages) to designate human(s). It’s the definite article on the expression in the Gospels that makes it so unusual.

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