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