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“The Son of Man”: Some Linguistic Observations

March 10, 2011

Yesterday I mentioned the publication of the multi-author book I’ve co-edited with Paul Owen Who is This Son of Man?   In the volume my own contribution is the final essay, “Summary and Concluding Observations”, and in this posting I highlight briefly some of what I posit there.  I’ll have to ask those who wish to probe further, or argue with me to read my essay and consider the evidence and argumentation presented there.

First, in keeping with the nature of the other contributions to this volume, I focus on the specific Greek expression translated “the Son of Man” (ο υιος του ανθρωπου) and its possible Semitic precedents.  In the NT it is used frequently in the Gospels, almost entirely in sayings ascribed to Jesus, and only once elsewhere (Acts 7:56).  In light of the extant evidence of relevant Greeek, Hebrew and Aramaic texts it looks like this singular-definite form of the expression was “unusual, perhaps even peculiar”.  There is no instance of the equivalent articular-singular form in Hebrew or definite form in Aramaic in any relevant texts known to me (i.e., from first-century Palestine/Judea).  Nor do we find any use of this Greek articular-singular expression in the ocean of Greek texts listed in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, except for those either translated from Semitic texts (e.g., LXX) or influenced by or referring to these translated texts (e.g., NT, Philo, etc.).

To cut to conclusions, I posit the following:

1)  “The Son of Man” in the Gospels wasn’t an early Christian christological title.  It didn’t in itself carry any particular connotative force (beyond the particularizing force of the article) or serve the function of a christological title.  Instead, it functions linguistically as a self-referential device ascribed to Jesus.  It is a feature of Jesus’ distinctive speech-habits, his “voice” or “idiolect”.

2)  The most economical and cogent explanation for this is that Jesus likely did use the expression as a distinctive self-referential device.  Jesus’ use of the expression likely reflected a conviction that he had a special mission/role in the coming of the Kingdom of God.  That is, the particularizing force of the Aramaic definite form (e.g., bar enasha) or the Hebrew articular form (e.g., ben ha-adam, forms which I emphasize seem to have been quite unusual) would have been evident to native users of the languages, Jesus referring to himself, thus, as something like “the/this man”.  (I demur, thus, from the suggestions of some others, e.g., Darrell Bock’s essay in this same volume, that Jesus coined the term specifically as a reference to the “one like a son of man” figure in Daniel 7:13-14).

3) The diversity of sayings in the Gospels in which the expression is used shows that the expression “the Son of Man” does not in itself make a specific claim, but it is the sentences in which it is used that characterize him and various make claims about him.

The other essays in this volume comprise some important contributions, reflecting expertise in linguistic matters and a variety of texts.

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22 Comments
  1. Eric permalink

    My Hebrew is spotty, but why do you give ben ha-adam as the Hebrew equivalent? To my ear that’s “son of the man”, which is a great phrase but not the one we want. Why not ha-ben adam or even ha-ben enosh?

    • We don’t have “ha ben adam/enosh” because that’s not how Hebrew syntax works. So, e.g., “the sons of man/men” = “beney ha-adam/enosh”.

      • Eric permalink

        Right. So, say we’re trying to talk about the king’s horse. Sus ha-melech can mean either “the king’s horse” (the particular horse of a particular king) or “a king’s horse” (any horse of a particular king).

        Might this mean that a hypothetical Aramaic original was more ambiguous than the Greek we render as “the son of man”?

      • No. The articular form of the construction “ben ha-adam” = “The son of Man”. “Ben adam” = “(a) son of man”.
        In Aramaic, a final aleph on a singular noun makes it “emphatic”, typically giving a particularizing force similar to the definite article in Hebrew. So, the Aramaic “absolute” singular = “bar enosh”, and the “emphatic” singular would typically = “bar enasha”.

  2. Dr. Hurtado,

    Thanks for bringing a taste of your work on this subject to many of us who lack ready access to the print publications.

  3. Nabeel permalink

    Dr. Hurtado, this is my first time posting on your blog and I am deeply indebted to you for your work on Christology. I plan on studying Son of Man Christology in my doctoral studies, after I finish my MA at Duke.

    I am excited to see that Shepherd and Owen are among the contributors in this volume. Their analysis of Bar Enasha was rather compelling. Specifically, they state that “the Aramaic expression for ‘son of man’ as a means of idiomatic self-reference is not attested” before or around the time of Jesus. Are you suggesting that Jesus invented this “distinctive self-referential device”? If so, would it not make sense that he was doing so in light of Daniel? Or do you perhaps break from the conclusions of Owen and Shepherd? If so, why?

    • I support the Owen/Shepherd case about the Aramaic background, and in the new volume each of them contributes further some compelling analysis of the Aramaic data and the arguments of Maurice Casey.

      I think Owen leans strongly toward the view (presented also in the volume by Bock) that Jesus coined “the son of man” expression as an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14, effectively linking himself with the figure of that scene. That’s a defensible view. But I think it’s equally plausible that Jesus coined the expression simply to reflect his sense of special calling, taking a familiar Semitic expression “a son of man” and making what seems to be a distinctively particularizing form, the definite-singular. There are in fact several biblical texts that might have helped prompt the expression in addition to Daniel 7, such as Psa 8:4; 80:18 (LXX 79:18).

      • Nabeel permalink

        Please correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that the Jewish context of Jesus’ era is one which was fascinated by the Daniel and the Son of Man. Dale Allison has said “Daniel was, around the turn of the era, a very popular book, a sort of best seller.” Regarding the Similitudes, Charlesworth and many others from the Third Enoch Seminar argued for a 1st century BC date, further bolstering a popular conception of a Son of Man.

        If these arguments hold any weight, then Jesus did not speak in a Son of Man vacuum, as it were. He spoke in a context that already ascribed eschatological, messianic meaning to the term “Son of Man”. For Jesus to have coined this very term “to reflect his sense of special calling” entirely apart from a Danielic understanding seems to disregard the early 1st century context of Jesus’ upbringing and ministry, does it not?

      • Some clarifications necessary here. Yes, Daniel was a known (perhaps popular) text in Jesus’ time. Yes, Dan 7 seems to have been known and the scene there read with great interest.
        But, there is no example of the use of the expression “the son of man” to refer to the figure in Dan 7 in Jewish texts of that time. There is no evidence of “the son of man” used with “eschatological, messianic meaning”. The figure was sometimes taken as a messianic figure, but “the son of man” isn’t evidenced as a title for this figure or at all. Actually, one of the important studies on the matter is Maurice Casey, Son of Man: The Interpretation and Influence of Daniel 7 (London: SPCK, 1979).

      • Nabeel permalink

        Do you not consider the Son of Man in the Similitudes/Parables of Enoch to be evidence of an eschatological, messianic Son of Man? Or do you conclude against the consensus of the Third Enoch Seminar, that it was written after the turn of the era?

      • The date of the the Similitudes isn’t the issue. The questions we’re discussing is whether in Aramaic or Greek texts of the time of Jesus the expression “the Son of Man” was used as a fixed/recognizable title for the figure of Dan 7:13-14. The Similitudes are extant in Ethiopic only, and although English translations provide several occurrences of “Son of Man” in fact there are three distinguishable Ethiopic expressions behind these translations: I.e., no fixed title, even in Ethiopic.
        For most recent discussion of the Similitudes/Parables of Enoch on this matter, see the essay by Darrell Hannah, “The Elect Son of Man of the _Parables of Enoch,” in our new volume: Who is This Son of Man, pp. 130-58.

      • Nabeel permalink

        Very interesting – I was unaware of these Ethiopic considerations. I look forward to reading Hannah’s article. Thank you very much for your time and work, Dr. Hurtado.

  4. Siang permalink

    The observation is interesting. So what about ‘the son of man’ as a self-given appellation in contrast to the title “the Son of God”.

    • I’ve abbreviated your comment, Siang, to focus on what I take is your key question. Two observations: (1) in the Jesus-tradition in the Gospels “the son of man” is typically Jesus’ self-referential device, but is not used by others, whether for him or for anyone else; (2) “son of God” on the other hand, functions more to reflect a christological claim (whether made by others or, as esp. in GJohn by Jesus). I don’t myself think that the two expressions arose in relation to each other, and it’s interesting that though “son of God” is echoed in various NT texts, “the son of man” isn’t found essentially outside of the Jesus-tradition in the Gospels.

  5. Wieland Willker permalink

    Hmm …
    If it doesn’t mean much, but is nevertheless peculiar, it is improbable that the term is an invention of his disciples.
    And it is interesting, then, that the term was retained in the Greek Gospels. At some stage the Aramaic term was translated into Greek. And it was considered important enough to retain it.

    • Yes, and yes. I agree that it’s improbable as an early christian invention, for there is no evidence of “the son of man” as a confessional title, or even a matter of controversy, unlike, e.g., “Christ/Messiah” or “Son of God”.
      And, yes, if the expression began with Jesus and in Aramaic, then at some point it was translated into Greek, just as his sayings were. My proposal is that the expression was retained (in Greek form) because it was known as the distinctive self-reference that Jesus had used. It gave his sayings a certain air of verisimilitude or “Jesus sound”.

  6. Wieland Willker permalink

    So you say that it does not have a particular meaning? It just had to sound a bit peculiar or mysterious?
    If that would be the case there would have been a lot of discussion among his disciples and his audience about this title. But this is not the case. They seem to know what it means.

    • No. Not mysterious. The evidence (evidence!) suggests that the articular/definite-singular form of the expression was not used, for some reason, certainly not common. But it was simply the definite form of a quite common expression in Semitic languages, “son/sons of man”. So, I propose that the definite singular form would have seemed an unusual expression. So, yes, in a sense, Jesus’ contemporaries “know what it means”, which is simply something like “the/this particular man”. The expression doesn’t “mean” much. That’s my point. It’s the sentences in which it’s used that “mean” or assert something.

  7. Thank you for this. I’ll be interested to read the chapter in full. What do you make of those passages in which Daniel 7 is combined with a Son of Man saying in the gospels? Do you differ from Casey here?

    • I take the allusions to Dan 7 in the Gospels to reflect either a “post-Easter” stance (i.e., the sayings created by the early church and put into Jesus’ mouth), or authentic sayings of Jesus. If the latter, they would mean that Dan 7 was one of the biblical texts that Jesus drew upon in shaping his sense of his own calling. In my own essay, however, I didn’t focus on these sayings but rather on the origins of the curious expression “the son of man” itself.

  8. Wieland Willker permalink

    “Jesus’ use of the expression likely reflected a conviction that he had a special mission/role in the coming of the Kingdom of God.”

    Why does “the man” reflect this?
    The obvious question is why did he choose this self referent? There must be some meaning to this; otherwise it would be just silly.
    And then we are back at Daniel etc.

    • Let’s suppose (for reasons provided in my essay) that the Aramaic behind “the son of man” was the definite-singular form (e.g., bar enasha), and that the definite form carried a particularizing force (“the/this man”). But if this expression was unusual, perhaps even sounding a bit peculiar (as the evidence warrants thinking), it wouldn’t have caried any recognized reference. It would simply have had the particularizing connotation. I suggest that Jesus may have coined the expression to signal his sense of particular mission/significance. But it was his sayings and actions that made more explicit what that mission was. It doesn’t seem “silly” to me.

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