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More on “son of man”: The Nickelsburg/VanderKam Commentary

December 17, 2012

One of the major (in size and importance) publishing events of this year is the second volume in the commentary on 1 Enoch in the Hermeneia Commentary series:  George W. E. Nickelsburg & James C. VanderKam, 1 Enoch 2:  A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch Chapters 37-82 (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 2012).  (The first volume in this commentary on 1 Enoch covered chaps. 1-36 and 81-108.) 

And, especially for NT studies, one of the valuable features of this detailed and impressive new work is an excursus, “The Chosen One of Rightousness and Faith–Also the Righteous One, the Son of Man, and the Anointed One” (pp. 113-23).  As Nickelsburg observes (who handles the section of 1 Enoch where the figure in question is mentioned, the “Parables” or “Similitudes”, chaps. 37-71), the alleged “echoes” in the use of the expression “the son of man” in the NT Gospels comprise the major reason that 1 Enoch “has attracted so much attention” over many years.

The first part of the excusus, thus, engages the linguistic data, fully noting that there are in fact three distinguishable Ethiopic expressions that are so frequently translated into English as “the Son of Man.”  Despite this, Nickelsburg still opines that these are likely “translation variants for a single Greek expression” (p. 115).  I have to say that this seems no more reasonable than the assumption that the varying Ethiopic reflects varying expressions in the Greek text translated. 

Indeed, I wonder if the need to try to find some sort of “origin” or “background” for the remarkable use of the expression “the son of man” (ο υιος του ανθρωπου) in the NT Gospels exerts an insufficiently acknowledged disposition to posit such a view as that taken by Nickelsburg (and, to be fair, some others as well).  Why else commence the excursus with these putative “son of man” expressions, when the more frequent and fixed (and arguably more important) expression for the eschatological figure in the Similutides is “the Chosen/Elect One”(used 16 times, and clearly as a fixed title)?  And why else, even though Nickelsburg notes that there is no fixed expression for “son of man” in the Similitudes, render all the expressions in question as “Son of Man” (i.e., the capitalization suggesting more of a fixity of title than seems to be warranted in the Ethiopic)?

Nickelsburg seems to me on more solid ground in judging that the Similitudes reflect an interesting combination of biblical/Jewish traditions/themes of Davidic king, Servant of YHWH, heavenly Wisdom, and the human-like figure of Daniel 7:13-14.  That is, the Similtudes reflect a fascinating creativity in ancient hopes of eschatological deliverance/deliverer. 

One of the sobering facts about 1 Enoch is the manuscript basis for any study of it, and particularly any study of the Similitudes.  As Nickelsburg noted in the earlier volume of the commentary (1 Enoch 1, p. 16), “a thousand years separate the fourth-to sixth-century translation of 1 enoch from our earliest extant MSS. of the translation.”  Of 49 manuscripts he lists, only six are from the 16th century or earlier, none earlier than the 15th century, and only six others to the 17th century.  (Can you imagine what people would make of things if the only NT manuscripts we had were so late, and if NT texts were extant only in some equivalent translation??)  That is, 1 Enoch was transmitted in the Ethiopian Church for a 1000 years and more (and treated as scripture), before it came to the attention of modern scholars.  For some parts (excluding the Similitudes), we have portions in Greek, and fragments in Aramaic.  But, in the main, we are dependant on the Ethiopic.  We can be most grateful that it was thus peserved, but we probably also need to be cautious and conscientious in using the text (and Nickelsburg and VanderKam exhibit these qualities).

For my part, it seems more likely that there was no fixed expression, certainly no “title” equivalent to “the Son of Man” in the Greek or Aramaic base from which our extant 1 Enoch was translated.  So, with respect, I think it unwise to refer to a “Son of Man” (with caps), preferring instead that we render the various Ethiopic expressions more literally and with less concern to try to line up 1 Enoch with the expression used in the Gospels.

Likewise, as I’ve contended earlier, a careful analysis of the Greek expression used in the Gospels leads me to the conclusion that it is not really used there as a title.  There is no indication that it elicits any recognition or disputation about Jesus’ self-referential use of the expression.  So, e.g., in Mark 8:27-30, Jesus’ command is not “to keep silent about Jesus’ identity as the Son of Man,” but about his messianic identity, and in Mark 14:61-62 the question posed is whether Jesus claims to be “the Christ, the son of God,” and Jesus’ reply is not a disclosure of some “secret identity” as “Son of Man”  (cf. Adela Yarbro Collins, “The Secret Son of Man in the Parables of Enoch and the Gospel of mark:  A Response to Leslie Walck,” in Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man:  Revisitng the Book of Parables, ed. Gabriele Boccaccini, Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2007, 341). 

There is, I submit, no real basis for claims that “son of man” carried any inherent honorific claim/content in 2nd-temple Jewish tradition.  I further suggest that the major reason that some scholars have assumed otherwise (and it is an assumption) is the misguided notion that a historical explanation of something requires one to show its derivation from some previous usage of it.  But, just occasionally, history indicates innovation, development of something new or distinguishable. 

Historical analysis and explanation must, above all, respect the evidence, and there is no evidence that in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic or other languages of the first-century CE there was a fixed expression equivalent to “the Son of Man” that can account for the usage of this expression in the Gospels.  So, the soundest historical conclusion to draw is that it appears to reflect a linguistic innovation stemming either from some linguistic usage by Jesus or from the early circles of Christians.  I think the former much more likely.  But in any case, it’s not really accounted for by 1 Enoch or any other text from the historical context in which the Gospels were written.

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16 Comments
  1. I’m thinking of something you wrote in another place to the affect that Jesus’ use of the term indicated that he thought of himself as having a role in bringing in the kingdom of God.

    When I read that, I thought, “Surely calling himself the Son of Man meant more than just that he — had a role — in this.” (And you may have meant more than I took you to mean.)

    The impression made on my mind — not only in the content of Jesus’ statements, but also in this fascinating, third-person self-reference — is that Jesus is claiming that he will — single-handedly — bring in God’s kingdom and that his hearers are invited to participate in it, but only by faith in him.

    Your work on the linguistic implications of “the Son of Man” and the fact that it was not a messianic title found in the literature of the time have shaped my own understanding greatly.

    But I get the impression — rightly or wrongly — that you understate what Jesus meant by creating and emphasizing this innovative way of identifying himself.

    • Bobby: You write and proceed, if I may say so, somewhat “maximally” or “doxologically” (perhaps mixing a bit a devotional with a historical inquiry). In my own scholarly work I’ve sought to proceed on premises that do not require any particular confessional/devotional stance. I also try to avoid exceeding the clear warrants of the evidence. What is available to us is the body of Jesus-sayings in the Gospels. We don’t have direct access to the mind of Jesus and what he intended. We can hazard some guesses based on the evidence. But my main point in the linguistic study of the “son of man” expression has been how to go about handling the linguistic data. One would have to study the specific sentences in which Jesus refers to himself to try to estimate what kind of claims he was expressing. I don’t think that the expression “the son of man” in itself is terribly specific as to “what Jesus meant”.

      • I am saying, as you have said, that it seems clear, historically, that Jesus used “the Son of Man” as a third-person self-reference. (The authors of the Gospel preserved a faithful tradition in this case.)

        It also seems clear that he was calling the attention of his Jewish hearers to what was said about “sons of men” and “men” in the Hebrew Bible and was presenting himself as the ideal of those references, in a covenantal-eschatalogical context.

        It would have been impossible for a first-century Jew — who was familiar with the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms — to hear a prophet and rabbi like Jesus speak of himself as — the — Son of Man, without seeking an explanation in the familiar, “sons of men” and “men” references in the Scriptures, and without concluding that the speaker considered himself to be the summation and representation of all Israel — and all mankind — because all were incorporated into God’s ultimate purpose.

        Jesus’ use of the expression implied that he intended for this ideal to apply to himself alone — whatever else he may or may not have said about himself when using the expression.

        It is helpful, however — in further verifying Jesus’ meaning — to read specific statements that indicate he, as the Son of Man, was acting with an absolute authority in everything he did.

        Historically, it seems to me, the probability is too high to leave room for any other explanation, besides the above.

        I may be wrong, but I am attempting to think objectively about what evidence I find in the Bible and other sources. And I would have reached these same conclusions if I were agnostic, a Jew or personally devoted to any other religious position.

      • Bobby, I don’t know what basis we have for your claim that “it would have been impossible for a first-century Jew” to take the self-reference, “the son of man”, in any other way than what you posit. In the Gospel scenes where Jesus is pictured as using the expression there is no indication that his hearers made the sort of sweeping connections you posit. Indeed, in John 12:34, the Jewish crowd is pictured as completely baffled at what the expression connotes.
        I think, in short, that you read into the expression far more than anyone did in the ancient settings.

      • So reading critically, you grant that John 12:34 indicates there was at least one exchange, in the ancient settings, in which Jesus is challenged on his use of the phrase, “the Son of Man” because the phrase had a “baffling” affect. This, I think, indicates the kind of impact Jesus’ expression must have had.

        Calling himself the Son of Man, in an unprecedented way, must have been curious to Jesus’ sympathetic hearers, at a minimum, and baffling to duller minds. But it was not an expression that could simply be dismissed or minimized, especially since he seems to have used it often and in the context of messianic and fulfillment declarations.

        And apparently at least the authors of the Gospels — and their sources — saw enough of significance in the title to faithfully record that Jesus used it often and attached great meaning to it, in the context of prophetic expectations.

        In the Gospels, Jesus is rightfully called the Son of God — in the full context of what “God” means in the Hebrew Scriptures. But he also called the Son of Man — in the full context of what “man” means in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is apparently both the apostolic point of view and the view of the church fathers.

        What baffled others, eventually led faithful Christians to ponder and appreciate in what sense Jesus is the Son of Man.

      • Booby: Once again, I have to note that you’re proceeding (too quickly and too simply) from the literary texts (Gospels) to historical events. The question of whether GJohn in the text I cited (John 12:34) is reporting an actual exchange is separate from my point: In the Gospels (whatever Jesus did or didn’t say), “the son of man” functions simply as Jesus’ characteristic self-designation. It is NOT a title: As I’ve said repeatedly, a “title” is something recognized by others, so that claiming/using the title communicates some recognized status. “The son of man” is not used (in this form) in 2nd temple Jewish texts, and is not a recognized/known title. My point is that this is reflected in the scene in John 12:34, where the crowd is pictured as baffled at what the expression designates.
        Your other comments are your own Christian testimony, surely to be respected, but my posting was confined to the linguistic issues and the historical question about “the son of man” as an expression.
        I think we’ve now had repeatedly your take on the things you’re interested in triggered by my post. So, let’s let this line drop.

  2. blop2008 permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    I think that this is the crux of our discussion here:

    ” If, on some occasions, the sentences in which the expression is used may allude to Daniel 7:13-14, then it is the sentence signifying the allusion, not the expression itself.”

    This is what you have to stress. It is the context in which the word is used that gives it that possible connotation, and scholars disagree in on that meaning (besides other technicalities). So, some students/scholars do not pay much attention to this very point, and contend otherwise.

    • Yes. I’ve repeatedly tried to stress a basic principle of linguistics: Sentences are the primary semantic unit, not “lexemes” (a.k.a. “words). In the case of an expression such as “son of man”, any attributes other than the obvious one (member of the human race) are communicated in the sentence, not the expression. So, e.g., a saying such as Mark 2:10 doesn’t take its force/meaning from the expression “the son of man” (as if this connoted some figure with such authority inherent in the expression), but from the sentence which makes a claim about the figure in question (here, obviously, Jesus). I’m continually puzzled that students and scholars who spend lives trying to understand texts don’t feel obliged to learn anything about linguistics.

  3. I don’t know if I am understanding you correctly (I am not a scholar, but a non-academic student), but Maurice Casey in Jesus of Nazareth draws a similar conclusion on the basis of the Aramaic language. If I understand him correctly, he argues that in the Aramaic, “son of man” is always an expression with a “general level of meaning” but implicitly applying to a particular person – perhaps a modern equivalent might be “What does somebody have to do to get service around here?”, where the “somebody” is grammatically a general term, but in the idiom it clearly means the person who is complaining.

    Casey then argues that any use of the term “Son of Man” as a title could not have come from Jesus. I don’t know enough to be sure, but I feel it may be doubtful to go from the general use to disallowing a more specific use, but it does lead to a similar conclusion to yours.

    May I say I always enjoy your blog and really appreciate your taking the time to share your insights. Thanks.

    • Unklee (again, how about using our names??): I do agree with Prof. Casey that “son(s) of man/men” (i.e., without the definite article or equivalent) in Hebrew and in Aramaic (and in translations of these expressions) is a Semitic idiom for “human being”. Also, in some sentences it can be used with a specific reference, along the lines you portray. Where we differ is that he contends that the indefinite Aramaic form, “bar enosh, and the definite form, bar enasha (the latter roughly equivalent to use of the definite article in Hebrew), were both widely used and interchangeably. He further contends that in the translation of Jesus’ sayings, his use of the definite form was woodenly rendered into the Greek “ho huios tou anthropou, thereby introducing a greater sense of specificity than intended in the Aramaic form.
      As I show in my concluding essay in the volume co-edited by me and Paul Owen, Who is this Son of Man? (the pre-publication version posted under the “Selected Essays” tab on my blog site), however, there is no evidence that in first-century Aramaic the indefinite and definite forms were used interchangeably. Indeed, I can find no usage of the definite singular form at all.
      So, my own proposal is that Jesus himself coined this definite-singular form as his own distinctive self-reference expression, and that the Greek accurately reflects it. I.e., Jesus likely intended by this unusual form to signal his sense of distinctive calling and mission, as “the/this man”.

  4. John Markley permalink

    Prof. Hurtado,
    Thank you for the comments about this. They are helpful. As you know, 4 Ezra is another text that figures significantly into “son of man” discussions, and I think this may corroborate your points about whether “son of man” had become a title by the time of Jesus and the Gospels.

    Most relevant for the discussion is ch. 13, where Ezra sees the man from the sea. The title, “son of man,” is never used of this figure. Instead, the messianic figure is referred to as “something like the figure of a man” and “that man” (13:3; trans. Stone, 4 Ezra [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990]). Based on a preceding reference to Daniel’s vision of four beasts/kingdoms in 4 Ezra 12:10-11 (cf. Dan 7:1-12), it seems certain that the vision of the man from the sea in 4 Ezra 13 elaborates on the “son of man” from Dan 7:13-14. It is noteworthy that this figure is not referred to as “son of man” since Dan 7 is clearly in view. I think this supports the thesis that “son of man” was probably not a widely recognized messianic title. If it was, we can only guess why it was avoided in 4 Ezra 13.

    Even so, 4 Ezra 13 (and the Similitudes) may furnish evidence for the common vocabulary of messianic descriptions in visionary literature on the 2nd Temple period and afterwards. That is, in visionary depictions of a messiah following Daniel, it was common, and even important, to distinguish God’s messiah as having a human likeness, specifically for the purpose of contrasting God’s kingdom with the beastly kingdoms of the nations. In other words, “son of man” was not necessarily a title, but in keeping with Dan 7, those who produced later visionary literature were equally concerned with highlighting the human likeness of the messiah, and they did so with similar terminology, not with “son of man” as a title.

    However, it seems to me that Mark 13:26 (and probably 8:38-9:1) at least comes close to using “son of man” as a title. At a minimum, “son of man” in Mark 13:26 appears to function as shorthand for “that human figure through whom God’s kingdom is established over-against the beastly kingdoms in Dan 7,” since Daniel’s visions are in view, as Mark 13:14 indicates. What am I missing here that makes you want to interpret “son of man” in Mark 13:26 as something other than a title for the messianic figure of Dan 7:13-14?

    -John Markley

    • John,
      In order for something to be a “title”, it typically has to be something recognized as such, and used sufficiently frequently to indicate that it is a part of the linguistic usage of a given speech-community. There is no evidence of the usage of “the son of man” as a title, either in Jewish tradition or in first-century Christian texts. And the pattern of usage in the Gospels is, I contend, simply the standard self-referential expression on Jesus’ lips. So, I take Mark 13:26 & 14:62 as further examples of this: I.e., Jesus is pictured as referring to his own future eschatological role and vindication.

  5. Hasn’t Jesus created a messianic title when he calls himself the Son of Man? The fact that he speaks of himself in the third person calls attention to this unique expression.

    And he seems to have packed into this conception of himself a variety of Old Testament expressions and expectations that, in Jesus’ time, were applied to a messianic figure in an age of fulfillment.

    So if I understand you, the Son of Man was not a messianic title prior to Jesus. You make a good case for this.

    But couldn’t it be argued that “the Son of Man” was a messianic title to Jesus himself — that called attention to his role as the one who fulfills Israel’s hope and completes the eternal purpose of God?

    • Bobby,
      Again, a “title” is something recognized by a given group. The expression “the son of man” isn’t that. It’s a (somewhat veiled) self-designation that may hint at a sense of particularity, the man/human. There is no basis for thinking that it signalled in itself any recognized messianic status/role. If, on some occasions, the sentences in which the expression is used may allude to Daniel 7:13-14, then it is the sentence signifying the allusion, not the expression itself. (I’m trying to urge greater linguishtic precision in scholarly analysis of such matters.)

      • Surely Jesus — speaking in the third person — intended to call attention to his use of this unprecedented term as applying to himself and himself alone. So that what is true — in God’s eternal purpose — for sons of men in a general sense applies to him in a unique and representative sense.

        Wouldn’t his Jewish hearers be forced to ponder the assertion that Jesus is “the Son of Man?” And wouldn’t they begin thinking of scriptures where its near equivalents (“son of man” and “man”) were used? Wouldn’t their thoughts turn especially to passages that had covenantal or eschatalogical implications? And — as the full implications sat in — wouldn’t those who did not sympathize be offended at what they would regard as Jesus’ audacity? Wouldn’t they brand it “blasphemy?”

        I’m not thinking that — in itself — “the Son of Man” signified a recognized messianic role, but that Jesus’ use of the term did send this signal. In this way he asserted his position in relation to all people in general and the covenant people of God in particular — as the one who carries God’s decrees and covenant promises to completion.

      • Bobby: Not simply the use of the (unusual-in-form) expression, but, more importantly, the sentences in which things were explicitly affirmed about this “son of man”. The sort of statements that we find on Jesus’ lips in the Gospels would have been offensive in the audacity expressed.

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