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“Exit the Apocalyptic Son of Man”

November 14, 2011

I returned from a short trip to Oslo on Sunday, taking part there in an interesting research project on “Prayer and Early Christian Identity,” led by Karl Olav Sandnes and Reidar Hvalvik.  During a meal one of the participants asked me if I’d known of Ragnar Leivestad, and I recalled vividly the impact of his important article, “Exit the Apocalyptic Son of Man” (New Testament Studies 18 [1971], 243-67). 

Leivestad published his article at a point when most scholars still thought that the expression “the Son of Man” was a pre-Christian fixed title designating a heavenly redeemer figure in Jewish apocalyptic thought.  Essentially, Leivestad brilliantly (and rather forcefully) pointed out that the whole thing rested on sand and illusion.  It was one of those “the Emperor has no clothes” events, and it marked a “tipping point” when scholars were forced to re-examine cherished views, views on which quite a lot had been built.

The problem, you see, was (and remains) that, well, there isn’t actually any single (not one single) instance of “the Son of Man” used as a clear, fixed title in any Jewish apocalyptic text!  As Leivestad noted, the closest that you get is the varied expressions in the “Similtudes” of Ethiopic Enoch (1 Enoch), where you clearly have a human-like figure who plays a messianic type role and does seem to have a rather exalted status.  But, as he also noted, this figure is not designated by a fixed title, “the Son of Man”.  Instead, several different Ethiopic expressions are used.  This suggests that in the Greek or Aramaic form of the text from which the Ethiopic was translated there was, in turn, no fixed expression used as a title either.

Geza Vermes’ important essay, “The Use of Bar Nasha/Bar Nash in Jewish Aramaic,” in An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, by Matthew Black (3rd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 310-30, was another significant contribution. Vermes showed that “son of man” (Aramaic Bar enash or Bar nash) was used simply to designate a human being (as the Hebrew equivalent is used the OT).  His further contention that the emphatic form, bar (e)nasha, was used in first-century Aramaic simply to designate oneself, unfortunately still lacks any actual examples in relevant texts. 

But these essays by Vermes and Leivestad were among the earliest harbingers of a sea-change in scholarly opinion, and they deserve to be acknowledged.  Vermes’ work is probably more well known today.  So, I offer this tribute to Leivestad for his penetrating article that exposed a serious fallacy in preceding scholarly opinion.

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