The Son of Man by Benjamin E. Reynolds

Anyone who reads the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John will likely notice the phrase “the Son of Man.” What may not be immediately apparent about the phrase is that Jesus is the only person who speaks the phrase. While Jesus’s disciples and others call him “Rabbi” or “Messiah” (Mark 9:5; Mark 8:29), Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man.” Many interpreters of the Bible have puzzled over what the phrase means and what Jesus or the gospel authors intended by its use.

Who or what is “the Son of Man”?

Asking who or what is “the Son of Man” is nothing new. For instance, the crowd in the Gospel of John asks Jesus “Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:34). The answer to that question is more complicated than it might seem. The Greek phrase used in all four gospels (and Acts 7:56) is ho huis tou anthrōpou, which is typically translated as “the Son of Man.” Most interpreters think that this Greek phrase translates an Aramaic phrase like bar nash, which may be translated as “a son of man.” At their basic level, the Aramaic and Greek phrases are references to humanity. Someone who is a “son of man” is a human being. Throughout Israel’s Scriptures, similar phrases are used to speak of human beings (e.g., Gen 11:5; Deut 32:8; Ps 8:4; Eccl 1:13). The plural phrase “sons of men/man” is one of the most common uses, and God calls Ezekiel a “son of man” over ninety times (e.g., Ezek 2:1). Yet, nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures do we have an example of “son of man” used as a self-reference or with the definite article “the” as in Jesus’s phrase “the Son of Man.”

What did Jesus mean by calling himself “the Son of Man”?

Since Jesus’s use of the phrase “the Son of Man” is distinctive, understanding what he meant by the phrase can be baffling. Interpreters have suggested numerous explanations throughout the centuries, as Delbert Burkett and Mogens Müller helpfully describe, yet the two most common views explain Jesus’s use of the phrase either as a particular idiom (the idiomatic view) or as an allusion to the “one like a son of man” in Dan 7 (the Danielic view). Those who hold to the idiomatic view argue that Jesus primarily used the phrase “the Son of Man” as a self-reference and that the idiom has no inherent meaning of its own. Thus, when Jesus used the phrase, he could have substituted the first person pronoun “I” (Matt 8:20), or Jesus was speaking about what is common to humanity (Mark 2:28). The idiomatic view easily explains how one gospel writer could use “the Son of Man” while another used “I” (compare Mark 8:31 with Matt 16:21). According to proponents of the idiomatic view, Jesus used the phrase to deflect claims about himself or to associate himself with humanity.

On the other hand, those who hold to the Danielic view understand that Jesus used the phrase to associate himself with the “one like a son of man” in Dan 7:13-14. In a vision, Daniel sees “one like a son of man” coming with the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of Days, and this human-like figure is given authority, glory, and a kingdom. The three Jewish apocalypses known to interpret this passage all present the son of man figure as a royal or messianic figure who will judge the wicked and redeem the righteous (see Parables of Enoch 46-48, Parables of Enoch 62; 4Ezra 13; and 2Bar 29-30; 2Bar 70-74). This Jewish apocalyptic interpretation suggests that Jesus used the phrase to identify himself as the “one like a son of man” from Daniel, that is, “the Son of Man.” When Jesus speaks to his disciples in Mark’s eschatological discourse, Jesus makes an explicit connection to Dan 7:13 with the use of Danielic language, namely, “coming with the clouds of heaven with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26; also Mark 14:62). According to proponents of the Danielic view, Jesus made veiled messianic claims when he called himself “the Son of Man.”

Both views have been the predominant view at one time or another during the last century, but because of increased study of Jewish apocalypses (i.e., 1Enoch, 4Ezra, 2Baruch) and Second Temple Judaism more generally, the Danielic view appears more plausible than the idiomatic view. Jesus most likely referred to himself with the distinctive phrase “the Son of Man” to associate himself vaguely with the Danielic figure.

Benjamin E. Reynolds, "The Son of Man", n.p. [cited 27 Sep 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/main-articles/son-of-man

Contributors

Reynolds-Benjamin

Benjamin E. Reynolds
Professor of New Testament, Tyndale University

Benjamin E. Reynolds is Professor of New Testament at Tyndale University in Toronto, Canada. He is author of John among the Apocalypses: Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the “Apocalyptic” Gospel (Oxford University Press, 2020), The Apocalyptic Son of Man in the Gospel of John (Mohr Siebeck, 2008), and editor of The Son of Man Problem: Critical Readings (T&T Clark, 2018).

“The Son of Man,” a phrase used as a designation of Jesus in the gospels, originated in the Hebrew Bible and early Jewish tradition.

Did you know…?

  • The gospels record Jesus referring to himself as “the Son of Man” on over eighty occasions.
  • Jesus uses language similar to Dan 7:13-14 in Mark 13:26; Mark 14:62 (and parallels), and also in John 5:27.
  • Paul never uses the idiom “the Son of Man” or “son of man” to speak of Jesus.
  • Rev 1:13 and Rev 14:14 both describe a figure using allusions to the “one like a son of man” in Dan 7:13 but not “the Son of Man.”
  • Early Jewish interpretations of Daniel’s “one like a son of man” in 1Enoch, 4Ezra, and 2Baruch portray the figure as messiah, preexistent, Isaiah’s servant of the Lord, judge of the wicked, and redeemer of the righteous.
  • There is no evidence that early followers of Jesus called Jesus “the Son of Man” or worshipped him as the Son of Man.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Mark 9:5

5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Mark 8:29

29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

John 12:34

34The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son o ... View more

Acts 7:56

56“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

Gen 11:5

5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.

Deut 32:8

8When the Most High apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;

Ps 8:4

4what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Eccl 1:13

13 I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to humans to be busy with.

Ezek 2:1

1 He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you.

Concerned with the future final events of the world.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Dan 7

Visions of the Four Beasts
1In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the ... View more

Matt 8:20

20And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Mark 2:28

28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Mark 8:31

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the ch ... View more

Matt 16:21

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests an ... View more

Dan 7:13-14

13 As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him ... View more

Dan 7:13

13As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.

Mark 13:26

26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.

Mark 14:62

62Jesus said, “I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’ ”

Indirect references to another idea or document.

Dan 7:13-14

13 As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him ... View more

Mark 13:26

26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.

Mark 14:62

62Jesus said, “I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’ ”

John 5:27

27 and he has given him authority to execute judgment because he is the Son of Man.

Rev 1:13

13and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.

Rev 14:14

Reaping the Earth's Harvest
14Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, ... View more

Dan 7:13

13As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.

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