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“The Son of Man”: An Obsolete Phantom

October 13, 2017

In recent comments, some have pointed to scholars who have posited that when Jesus used the expression “the son of man” he was referring to some other, future figure, not himself.  This is a view that once was quite widely shared, and so will be found frequently in older commentaries and studies, and may still be found from scholars who haven’t kept abreast of analysis of the evidence over the last several decades.

The reason that it no longer has the same appeal is that this view rested on the accompanying and likewise once widely-held assumption that “the Son of Man” was a well-known title for an eschatological redeemer figure, a heavenly being who supposedly was expected widely in second-temple Jewish tradition.  So, on this assumption, when Jesus spoke of “the son of man,” he obviously couldn’t have been referring to himself as an earthly/mortal man.  Indeed, so the assumption went, when he used the expression everyone then would have recognized that he was referring to this supposed other/future figure, for (to reiterate the crucial assumption) “the Son of Man” was supposedly a well-known appelative for this heavenly redeemer being.

But at least from the 1970s onward, it has become increasingly widely granted that, in fact, there is no evidence for the supposed use of “the son of man” as a fixed title for any figure in second-temple Jewish tradition.[1]  There are texts that describe a heavenly being who will come and lead God’s people in triumph, such as the Melchizedek figure in the Qumran text, 11QMelchizedek.  But he’s called “Melchizedek,” not “the son of man”!  And it appears that some expected the archangel Michael to serve in this role, but he too isn’t ever referred to by the title “the Son of Man.”  As for the messianic figure of the Parables of 1 Enoch, I’ve repeatedly reminded readers that there too we don’t actually have “the son of man” as a fixed title for this figure (e.g., here).  (The English translations all too typically mislead readers by rendering several Ethiopic expressions used in the Parables by this one fixed translation.)

So, “the Son of Man” wasn’t actually a familiar title for a well-known eschatological redeemer being/figure in second-temple Judaism.[2]  And so when Jesus used the expression he can’t have been referring to a figure using a title that people would have readily recognized as designating some other, future eschatological redeemer.  You see?  The crucial basis for taking Jesus’ use of the expression as referring to some other figure was washed away.  So the consequent structure built on that basis cannot continue to stand.

We are left, thus, with what is rather clearly how the Evangelists read and intended the expression:  a peculiar self-designation idiom used in the Gospels only by Jesus (some 80x).  A “son of man” is, of course, an idiomatic way of designating a human being in ancient Semitic languages (Hebrew & Aramaic), and “sons of man” the plural equivalent.  But the particularizing forms in Greek (ο υιος του ανθρωπου), or Aramaic (בר אנשא), or Hebrew (בנ האדם) are hard to find.  So “the son of man” seems to have been something of a linguistic innovation, and would have had the sense of “the/this son of man” (in particular).  All of the Gospel sayings where Jesus is portrayed using the expression are easily read as sentences where he simply refers to himself, making this or that statement about himself under this peculiar phrase.  There is neither need nor (more importantly) any evidential basis for taking the expression as referring to some other/future figure.  The expression “the son of man” itself simply has this particularizing force, isn’t a title, and didn’t carry any automatic referential force. It is the sentences in which it is used that make any statement about “the son of man,” and in each case the statement says something about Jesus.

[1] Among early and crucial studies were Geza Vermes, “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; Ragnar Leivestad, “Exit the Apocalyptic Son of Man,” New Testament Studies 18 (1971): 243-67.  On the various linguistic issues and texts, see now the multi-author volume, Larry W. Hurtado and Paul L. Owen (eds.), ‘Who Is This Son of Man?’  The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus (London: T&T Clark, 2011).  I note in particular my own concluding essay.  The pre-publication form is available on this blog site here.

[2] Cf. John J. Collins, “The Son of man in First-Century Judaism,” New Testament Studies  38(1992): 448-66, who argues that there, though “the Son of Man” was not a fixed title there was a “concept” associated with the figure of Daniel 7:13-14.  Quite possibly so.  But the crucial point is that Jesus’ use of “the son of man” didn’t reflect some supposedly recognized title.  A crucial early study of how the Daniel 7 figure was treated in ancient Jewish tradition is Maurice Casey, Son of Man: The Interpretation and Influence of Daniel 7 (London: SPCK, 1979).


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  1. Paul permalink

    Interesing issue. Sorts of illeisms like this are sometimes used as a way to detach one’s self from a situation personally to, for example, defray credit or blame, speak “factually” about a situation in which one may have a vested interest, portray one’s self as a vehicle for something or someone else, etc. It is fairly common with athletes when justifying a decision to sign a contract for another team (e.g., “LeBron’s gonna do what’s best for LeBron” or whatever) and with politicians as well (e.g., “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”; Trump does it quite often as well). I’ve always thought the shift from third person to first person in Mark 14 has always been an interesting one in this regard.

  2. This topic is interesting to me for many reasons, but it mostly sticks out to me because last year I had to write an essay dealing with the “Kingdom of God” in some way, so I wrote about Inaugurated Eschatology in the Gospel of John. One of the ideas I used to support my main point was of pre-Christian expectations of the Messiah, with “the Son of Man” being one of the phrases I mentioned, citing John 12:33-34 and Sabino Chialà’s “The Son of Man: The Evolution of an Expression,” in Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man: Revisiting the Book of Parables, ed. Gabriele Boccaccini (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007). Have you read that book? ….

    As I think I stated in an earlier post, I’m a novice in these matters, so I thank you in advance for the kindness in your reply.

    • Thomas: The crowd’s response portrayed in John 12:34 is one of puzzlement: “We know about Messiah, but what is this “son of man”??” They don’t recognize the expression, in contrast to “Messiah,” a term they do recognize.
      I repeat (and I echo the findings of others): There is no evidence that “the son of man” was a known and fixed title in 2nd temple Jewish tradition.
      The treatment of the expression in the Gospel manuscripts (as a nomen sacrum) obviously reflects early Christian reverence for the expression as a designation for Jesus.

  3. John Mitrosky permalink

    When it comes to Jesus as an apocalyptic thinker theory, even if we throw out both Daniel and the Parables of Enoch as unknown to Jesus, and conclude he was not apocalyptic, I still think we are on shaky ground.

    • John: I have no idea how you got the notion that I was portraying Jesus as “not apocalyptic”. Your comment is completely wide of the mark. My point in the posting is that the expression “the son of man” is not a known/fixed title in 2nd temple Judaism, and so Jesus couldn’t likely have been referring to any such supposedly well-known figure by this expression. Instead, he referred to himself. But of course he saw himself as the key eschatological figure in God’s programme!

  4. I have heard it could also mean “the true human”, but I cannot remember who said this.

  5. Dr. Hurtado,

    The recent Common English Bible, in its effort to make the phrase ‘son of man’ more intelligible to modern readers, translates it as ‘the human one,’ and I’ve seen this rendering defended by a few scholars. Do you feel this conveys Jesus’ meaning in using this self-reference (I’ve never felt it does). And if not, what did he mean by using it? Was it just a circumlocution for, “me?”

    • “The human one” isn’t a bad rendering of ο υιος του ανθρωπου. It seems that Jesus framed the expression himself, and it was what in socio-linguistics is called an “idiolect” (an expression coined by one person and used solely by that person). It is likely that he used the phrase to express his own sense of having a unique mission/call.

  6. Dr. Hurtado,

    Is there any way of knowing how widely read Enoch and 4th Ezra was?

    If these were widely read it, then we may be able to agree that “the son of man” could be a reference to an eschatological redeemer that Jews from the 2nd temple period and Jesus referring that figure to himself. But if they were not widely read, of which I tend to agree, then one cannot make some thing mean which it never was intended to mean. This is basic exegesis. As you have pointed out numerous times.

    I agree that “the son of man” was a translation, or an attempted one, of which ever phrase was Jesus used in his native tongue.

    • 4th Ezra is commonly judged to date from later than the time of Jesus, and survives only in Latin translation. As for the Parables of 1 Enoch, I reiterate (!!!) that it has several Ethiopic expressions, not a fixed form or title equivalent to “the son of man”. So, neither text can account for the expression in the Gospels.

    • I need to clarify my last paragraph. I was referring to the gospel use of the son of man and trying to say that, since it is odd Greek, that perhaps they were trying a translation of what ever they were translating, bar enash or Ben Adam, since it was Jesus’ way of referring to himself as you and many have mentioned.

      I was not referring to Enoch at all.

      So how widely read was Enoch, does any one really know for certain?

      Sorry for any confusion I may have caused in my reply.

      • “1 Enoch” is a composite book formed from several components, each of which was composed separately and originally circulated separately. Some parts are much older than others and these may have been more widely read. There is apparently a quotation from 1 Enoch 1:9 in the NT writing, Jude (1:14).

  7. Timothy Joseph permalink

    Dr. H.,
    Again, reading through the Gospels confirms that Jesus uses the ‘Son of Man’ designation as you describe, about himself.
    So, I wonder how you would explain Jesus’ use of this designation in Matt 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21? The language is clearly speaking of a future event, even an eschatological one where the Son of Man, Jesus, is returning from heaven in power and glory. Especially when you have previously made it clear that Jesus did not view himself in these same Gospels as Divine. Is this established Messianic expectation language?


    • The texts that you cite, Timothy, all picture “the son of man” returning in glory to execute God’s redemptive programme. They are impressive but aren’t an explicit declaration of divinity.

  8. John Mitrosky permalink

    I agree with you that it is a “linguistic innovation” Larry — a brilliant insight! The sense of wonder question associated with this is: “Who’s linguistic innovation?”

    • John: I’ve indicated reason for thinking that it was Jesus’ “idiolect” (in socio-linguistic terms). See my essay in the multi-author volume I helped to edit (footnotes to my blog posting).

  9. And of course, 90+ times in the book of Ezekiel—referring to the prophet himself

    • Not quite. The linguistic form in Ezekiel is the vocative “son of man”, not the particularizing form equivalent to the Greek ο υιος του αντθρωπου.

      • Robert G permalink

        Could one say that the vocative is particularizing at least in the sense that it is addressed directly to a singular individual?

      • Not really, Robert. The address in Ezekiel is simply, “You, Oh mortal”.

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