“The Son of Man”: Some Linguistic Observations
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.