Why did Jesus Call Himself the "Son of Man"?

by Lois Tverberg

One of the questions that has perplexed Bible scholars most is why Jesus refers to himself as the "Son of Man". Outside of Jesus' own words about himself in the gospels, the description occurs only four other times in the New Testament. Some liberal theologians have argued that it is such an inexplicable title that it must have been added by the early church, although early church documents do not use this description of Jesus either. Last weekend, the En-Gedi directors attended the Society for Biblical Literature meeting in Denver, Colorado and heard an outstanding talk on this topic by Dr. Steven Notley, an expert on the first century Jewish context of Jesus and the gospels. He suggested an answer from the Jewish cultural background that addresses questions that have bothered Christians for hundreds of years. I wanted to share that here.


In the gospels, there are more than 80 places where Jesus refers to himself in the third person as the "Son of Man". In most of those places, he is associating it with one of two prophecies concerning himself; either that the Son of Man will suffer and be killed, (Mt. 17:12, Mk 8:31, 9:12, Lk 9:22) or that the Son of Man will come again in glory and final judgement. (Mt. 16:27, 25:31; Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26, 21:27). Often the two images are linked, and in only a very few places he doesn't use "son of man" that way.

Over the course of history, people have suggested many explanations for the phrase "son of man", such as the idea that it is a way to speak of himself humbly, as a simple human being, or that he is describing himself as a representative human, or the perfect human being. This doesn't explain why Jesus is constantly linking the term both with his own suffering and return as final judge. Most have also missed the fact that there was a rabbinic understanding of this term that was one of the most powerful messianic references known, according to David Flusser, and explained much of his mission on earth.

Son of Man Representing Humanity in General

Let's look more closely at the term Son of Man in Jesus' culture and scriptures: In Hebrew it is "ben adam". Ben means son, adam means man or human. It can also be the proper name of the first human, Adam, whose name was "human"! So ben adam can mean "son of a human" or it could mean "son of Adam".

In many places in the Old Testament, ben adam is used poetically to talk about humanity, as in Psalm 8:4 "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" Here and elsewhere it is used in poetic parallelisms to describe humans in general. Jesus may have been using that sense when he says in Mark 2:27 "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the son of man is lord even of the Sabbath." Jesus means that since God gave the Sabbath to humans so that they could rest, they should not serve it, but it should serve humanity instead. Notice that in this case, he isn't using it to describe his suffering or future glory.

Son of Man as Future King Coming in Glory

Along with the ordinary usage of Son of Man in the Old Testament, there is one very prominent messianic usage of Son of Man that is in Daniel 7:13 -14, which says:

"In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

This vision describes a being that is human in appearance, but somehow far more than human. The glory and worship that he is given fit in perfectly with what Jesus described as his own coming power and glory. It is also the background of the only references in the New Testament outside the gospels to the Son of Man:

- In Acts 7:56 Stephen, about to be stoned to death, looks up and says, "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."

- Revelation 1:13-14 says, "And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire." (See also Rev 14:14)

So, the passage in Daniel predicting the Son of Man coming in glory is central to what Jesus says about his own future, and is a prominent image in the New Testament to describe the glorified Christ on the throne in heaven. This explains Jesus' usage of the term as prophetic toward his return as judge at the end of time, and also shows that he didn't regard himself only as a humble human being, but as the predicted messiah who would have a kingdom without end.

In itself, it is amazing that Jesus would continually use such a powerful messianic image to describe himself. But, an even more intriguing question is, why does Jesus also link the Son of Man to his suffering and death? That is was what Dr. Notley addressed that added even more insight into Jesus' words.

Son of Man as Innocent Victim

First, consider the rabbinic conversation that was going on at the time: Only a few hundred years before Jesus, during the rule of the Greeks over Judea, the emperor Antiochus was intent on forcing the Greek culture on the Jews and causing them to abandon the laws of their covenant with God. They killed any babies that were circumcised, and tortured and killed their parents as well. They murdered anyone who was caught studying the Torah. This was very difficult for the Jews to understand theologically, because before they had been attacked by enemies when they lapsed into idolatry, but now, for the first time they were killed if they were faithful to God.

The rabbis began to ask the question, how will a just God deal with the deaths of the innocent victims? How can God bring justice to all the righteous people who had been killed because they refused to forsake him?

They looked back to their scriptures and saw the first victim of murder in the Bible, Abel. He was murdered by his brother Cain because God accepted his worship because he was more righteous than Cain (Genesis 4:4-8, 1 John 3:12). (Notice that Abel is the Son of Adam, or ben adam. ) In the story of Cain and Abel, it says literally in Hebrew that "The voice of your brother's "bloods" (plural) cries out to God from the ground". They rabbis imaginatively suggested that not only did Abel's blood cry out to God, but all the blood of the righteous that would have come from him cried out for justice to God from the earth. (This is also the origin of the famous Jewish proverb that says that "To murder one person is like murdering a whole world, and to save the life of one person is to save a whole world" - see Schindler's List.)

So, Abel became the forerunner and representative of all the righteous people that had been killed for being faithful. This thought is suggested in Matt. 23:35: "And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar."

The Jews also looked at another passage about the shedding of blood which said: "And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." (Genesis 9:5b-6) They noted in this passage that a human being was also supposed to bring justice if a life was taken. So, how would God bring justice to Abel, the son of Adam that had been killed? By bringing another "son of Adam" who would be the judge. In some stories that circulated, they even merged these two into one person:

And Abraham said, "My lord Prince [Michael], who is this wondrous judge? And the Prince said, Most holy Abraham, do you see this terrifying man who is sitting on the throne? He is the son of the first man Adam, and is called Abel, and he was killed by the wicked Cain. He sits here to judge every creature, examining both righteous and sinners, because God has said, It is not I who judge you, but by man shall every man be judged. For all men have their origin from the first man; and so by his son they are first judged here. [From the Testament of Abraham, non-canonical Jewish literature from about the time of Christ.]

This story suggests that the messiah they expected to come in glory to judge had to be a human, and also was the righteous victim of murder himself. It appears that the reason God gives Jesus authority to judge all mankind is precisely because he has walked on earth as a human, and suffered and died as a righteous man!

Besides providing an intriguing insight to a discussion that has been unresolved for thousands of years, this understanding of "Son of Man" also links together two paradoxical things we have known about the messiah - that he would suffer and die, as in Isaiah 53, but yet he would be a victorious king who would judge, as in Daniel 7. This has been a problem for many Jews, and some even postulate that two messiahs would need to come - one to suffer, and one to reign. But this figure of the Son of Man would first die as a righteous man, but then would be resurrected to glory, and be given authority to judge.

While Dr. Notley's idea is only a hypothesis, and I may not have represented it accurately or completely here, it is fascinating that Jesus could link, extract, and create multidimensional meanings with such a "simple" phrase to teach us so much about himself. I think Dr. Notley has given us a unique key to unlock some very rich truth.


 ©2001 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All rights reserved. This article is copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

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