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Son of Man


This title is of special interest because it was the one more particularly employed in the New Testament to designate Jesus and His mission. The import it had in His teaching is to be determined by the associations it already had in His day and the new content with which He endowed it. Accordingly, this article will investigate the Old Testament background of the term, its use in Jewish apocryphal writings, and its use in the New Testament.

Old Testament Background. The phrase "son of man" is a literal rendering of the Hebrew ben ādām (Aramaic, bar 'ĕnāš; Greek, υς νθρώπου), an expression that more exactly means "a man," or "a human individual" (see adam). It is not the common expression for man, but is used especially in poetic parallelism with more usual words for "man" (e.g., Nm 23.19; Is 51.12;56.2; Ps 8.5). The prophet Ezekiel is addressed frequently (more than 90 times) by this title by God, a usage intended to accentuate his human state before the majesty of God.

The most important Old Testament occurrence of this expression is found in Dn 7.13. The interpretation of the apocalyptic vision of Daniel ch. 7 as it now stands is fairly clear (see daniel, book of). The four beasts who come up from the sea (7.17) represent the succession of world empires. While the judgment passed upon them represents the negative element of God's saving intervention, the positive element is seen in the establishment of God's rule, the messianic kingdom (see messianism), represented by the investiture of "one like a son of man" with dominion, glory, and kingship. The human figure represents a collectivity, "the holy ones of the Most High" (7.18, 27); just as the beasts were apt for symbolizing the pagan empires, so a human figure was apt for symbolizing God's kingdom. However, just as in this vision the four beasts can be understood, almost indifferently, to represent kings (7.17) or kingdoms (7.23), so also the human figure could symbolize the individual who rules and represents the kingdom of God. The figure in this vision is hardly to be identified with the Davidic Messiah, for he is a celestial being rather than a mortal; the clouds of heaven "on" or "with" (Aramaic 'im ) which he comes are commonly the vehicle of Yahweh and an element of divine theophanies. A. Feuillet, J. Coppens, and others have emphasized the fact the apocalyptic expectation looked for a kingdom established from above rather than a resurgence of the Davidic line.

There are some who think that the Son of Man did not appear for the first time in Dn 7.13, but was wellknown in earlier, non-Israelite speculation; the human figure in this vision, according to these authors, would not need to be interpreted strictly within the framework of this chapter. Those who suggest such a prehistory (e.g.,E. Sjöberg, S. Mowinckel) think especially of Iranian, Chaldean, and Gnostic myths of a primordial man (Anthropos, Gayomart), a cosmological and eschatological figure, the archetype of all men, who will come as a redeemer of men on the last day. Some non-Israelite prehistory of the Son of Man cannot be ruled out, but neither has it been proved. Most scholars hold that the structure of Daniel ch. 7 and standard Biblical imagery explain the appearance of the human figure, which, it is to be noted, is referred to in a rather indeterminate way: "one like a son of man." Even if a new creation motif may be seen here (the raging sea, animals placed under dominion of a human figure with divine characteristicscf. Gn 1.2, 2628), the imagery and thought is still that drawn from the Bible.

Apocryphal Works. The Book of Enoch also, in the section called Parables or Similitudes (ch. 3771), speaks of a celestial man who is closely connected with the establishment of God's kingdom. There are, however, difficult problems of original language, time of composition, and textual transmission of this book [see canon, bibli cal].

In the Parables of Enoch (possibly 1st century b.c.) the Son of Man clearly emerges as an individual rather than as a symbol for a collectivity, as the Danielic figure was, although intimately united to the elect community. He is preexistent (48.23), will appear at the end of the world (62.45) to sit upon the throne of God (51.3) and exercise judgment (62.1). He is identified with the Messiah (48.10; 52.2) and in many passages is referred to as "the Elect One."

The question arises as to whether the Son of Man of Enoch can be explained simply as an evolution from the figure in Daniel, or whether non-Biblical ideas have entered in. Again there is a division of opinion. Mowinckel believes that the Son of Man in Enoch, where he is clearly an individual, goes back directly to the Anthropos myth, while Daniel's figure, a symbol for a collectivity, is a reinterpretation of the same myth. Thus the Enoch figure would not depend on that of Daniel, but both would depend on earlier tradition. Against this is the fact that the figure in Enoch does not have the nature of an archetype at all; while he is clearly an eschatological figure, there is nothing to connect him with the beginning except his preexistence. P. Grelot and others, therefore, accept Daniel ch. 7 as the point of departure for Enoch's Son of Man, while conceding that there has been a great deal of advance. The Parables of Enoch demonstrate very clearly that there existed in some circles of Judaism, probably before the time of Jesus, belief in a transcendent Messiah who could be referred to by the title Son of Man.

The same concept appears in 4 Ezra, in which "as it were the form of a man" rises from the sea and travels with the clouds of heaven (13.3), destroys the wicked with his breath (13.1011, 27), and gathers together the lost ten tribes (13.1213, 3942). Like the Son of Man in Enoch, he has been kept by God for many ages to deliver creation (13.26) and is identified with the Messiah (cf. 13.32, 37, 52 with 7.28), who is referred to as God's Son. This apocalypse, probably composed near the end of the 1st Christian century, neither influenced the composition of the Gospels nor was influenced by them. Yet it does bear further witness to speculation concerning the Son of Man in Jewish circles near the time of Christ.

In the New Testament. It is most likely that the Christian community did not invent the title Son of Man and apply it to Jesus, but that He applied it to Himself, a title He preferred above all others and used almost exclusively. The title is found, for all practical purposes, in the mouth of Jesus alone. The rare exceptions are hardly true exceptions: in Jn 12.34 the crowd is quoting Him, and in Acts 7.56 Stephen sees the words of Christ in Mk 14.62 fulfilled; see also Rv 1.13 and 14.14. The usage is found in all strata of the Gospel tradition: Mark, the common source of Matthew and Luke, the materials proper to Matthew and Luke, respectively, and John (see synop tic gospels).

It is clear from the discussion above that Son of Man was considered a messianic title in at least some circles. (For Jewish interpretation of the Danielic figure in a messianic sense during the rabbinic period, see texts given in Strack-Billerbeck on Mt 8.20.) Yet there are many who doubt that this usage was widely spread; no example of it has been found at Qumran, for instance. It is also true that while Jesus avoided the title Messiah (see mark, gos pel according to), He freely used Son of Man. Part of the explanation probably lies in the nationalistic overtones the title Messiah had acquired in popular expectations and in political overtones that would have been a threat to His mission.

Jesus never mechanically adopted earlier traditions, but always transformed them to conform to His own original conception of His mission. Thus it is necessary to seek the meaning the term Son of Man took on in the light of His teaching and ministry. Scholars often distinguish various classes of Son of Man sayings: those in which the title refers to the glory and power of Jesus, hidden during His earthly ministry, but to be revealed at His Parousia (e.g., Mk 2.10; 8.38; 13.2627; 14.62; Mt 10.23; 16.27;19.28; 25.31); those in which the title recalls the humble circumstances of His ministry (e.g., Mt 8.20; 11.19); and those which refer to suffering and death (e.g., Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33). The first series builds in part upon the figure of Dn 7.13 (glory, power, clouds of heaven), but also goes beyond it (the Son of Man sits upon the throne of glory and judges), perhaps building upon the usage the Son of Man in Enoch. The second series of texts finds no parallels in earlier literature mentioning the Son of Man; however, the basic expression was apt for expressing the condition of human weakness (cf. its use in Ezekiel) in which the Savior had come, as well as the suffering He would endure in the absolute obedience by which He redeemed mankind. In the third series, Jesus brought a whole new content to the term Son of Man by applying to Himself under this rubric what had been said of the Servant of the Lord (see suffering servant, songs of). At the Last Supper He said, "The Son of Man indeed goes his way, as it is written of him" (Mk 14.21, and see9.11); the Scripture referred to is almost certainly Is 53.112 (cf. also 1 Cor 15.13; see Mk 10.45). The sayings that combine predictions of the Passion [see passion of christ, i (in the bible)] and the Resurrection likewise find their natural source in the Servant of the Lord oracles. In thus combining two currents of thought under one title, the New Testament immeasurably enriched both: the Servant of the Lord, who by His obedient suffering and death would redeem Israel and all the world, was also the Son of Man who would one day be revealed in glory as God's Son and judge of all men. Both Old Testament figures find their fullest and most natural explanation as corporate personalities and so illustrate well the relationship of the faithful to Jesus: by incorporation into Christ the believer shares in that absolute obedience to the will of God which destroys sin and enables him to share in the glory of the second coming.

In the fourth Gospel also, Passion and glorification are both referred to in Son of Man passages, but here the tendency is to unite the two concepts more strictly, even to the extent of seeing the Passion already the beginning of Christ's glorification. This is done especially by the play on words in which "to be lifted up" (Jn 3.14; 8.28;12.23, 34) signifies both His being raised up in crucifixion and His exaltation in one and the same act (see john, gospel according to st.). St. John also puts a certain emphasis on Our Lord's preexistence in heaven (3.13;6.63; 17.5; cf. 1.12); while this is a necessary corollary of faith in His divinity, it is possible that the formulation owes something to the teaching of Enoch. [see jesus christ (in the bible).]

While the evangelists place all these "Son of Man" sayings in the mouth of Jesus, there is little doubt that the faith of the early Church developed the nucleus of sayings attributed to Jesus and enriched them with new insights from Christian faith. The degree to which this has been done is impossible to determine.

St. Paul does not use the term Son of Man, but he does speak of Jesus as "the Man" (the actual meaning of the longer phrase) in Rom 5.1221, and as the "last Adam" in 1 Cor 15.4549, in such a way as to link up with the Jewish speculation on Adam that was closely akin to and possibly dependent on myths concerning primordial man. Paul, however, clearly distinguishes and separates the figures (the first earthly, the second heavenly) that non-Christian thought had tended to identify. See further, O. Cullmann in bibliography.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 227079. s. e. johnson, g. a. buttrick, ed., The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 4:413420. e. sjÖberg, Der Menschensohn im äthiopischen Henochbuch (Lund 1946). j. coppens and l. dequeker, Le Fils de l'homme et les Saints du Très-Haut en Daniel VII, dans les Apocryphes et dans le Nouveau Testament (2d ed. Paris 1961), with ample bibliog. o. cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, tr. s. c. guthrie and c. a. m. hall (Philadelphia 1959) 137192. s. o. mowinckel, He That Cometh, tr. g. w. anderson (Nashville 1956) 346450. c. h. dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, England 1953) 241249. p. grelot, "Le Messie dans les Apocryphes de l'Ancien Testament," La Venue du Messie, ed., e. massaux et al. (Bruges 1962) 1950. a. j. b. higgins, "Son of Man-Forschung since The Teaching of Jesus," New Testament Essays; Studies in Memory of T. W. Manson, 18931958, ed. a. j. b. higgins (Manchester 1959) 119135. a. feuillet, "Le Fils de l'homme de Daniel et la tradition biblique," Revue Biblique 60 (Paris 1892) 170202, 321346. t. w. manson, "The Son of Man in Daniel, Enoch, and the Gospels," The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 32 (Manchester 194950) 171193. v. taylor, "The Son of Man Sayings Relating to the Parousia," Expository Times 58 (Edinburgh 194647) 1215. d. r. burkett, The Son of Man Debate: A History and Evaluation 107 (Cambridge and New York 1999). g. w. e. nickelsburg, "Son of Man," Anchor Bible Dictionary 6:137150. j. a. fitzmyer, "Some Implications of the New Henoch Literature from Qumran," Theological Studies 38 (1977) 22145.

[j. jensen]

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