did Jesus Call Himself the "Son of Man"?
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
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
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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