Son of Man, Jesus’ use thereof

Wed, 18/05/2011 - 11:29

The “Son of Man” motif is central to Jesus’ self-understanding and of critical importance for a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament. As J.D.G. Dunn says:

After ‘the kingdom of God/heaven’ there is no phrase so common in the Jesus tradition as ‘the son of man’. Its importance within the Jesus tradition, and possibly as a key to that tradition, therefore, can hardly be exaggerated. More to the immediate point, it seems to be the nearest thing in the Jesus tradition to a self chosen self-designation.1

The history of interpretation is exceedingly, and probably unnecessarily, complex. I suggest that three patterns of usage are relevant for understanding what Jesus meant when he referred to himself as “the son of man”.

1. A semitic idiom of self-reference

The expression is a common semitic idiom for a “person” and may serve as a form of self-designation (“a person like me”)—Psalm 8:4 is a classic example: “what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” But this does not account for the frequency of the expression on Jesus’ lips or its narrative development in his teaching.

2. Ezekiel as the “Son of Man” who prophesies judgment against Israel

The expression is found with this idiomatic sense in Ezekiel, where it accrues, however, quite distinctive prophetic overtones. Ezekiel is commonly addressed by God as “son of man” in ways that prefigure the stories about Jesus: Ezekiel is the “son of man” who acts out judgment against Jerusalem (Ezek. 4:1-7), who dwells “in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see, but see not, who have ears to hear, but hear not” (12:2), who propounds riddles and speaks allegories to the house of Israel (17:2), who prophesies to the “spirit” or “breath” which gives life to the dry bones of the whole house of Israel (37:9-14). This may go a long way towards explaining Jesus’ predilection for this form of self-reference.2

3. Daniel’s “Son of Man” coming with the clouds of heaven

The expression readily invokes Daniel’s vision in the night of a figure “like a son of man”, who comes with the clouds of heaven to the throne of the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:14; cf. Matt. 24:30; 26:64; and parallels; Rev. 1:7). I maintain that this vision and its apocalyptic framing in Daniel provide a core prophetic narrative paradigm by which Jesus accounts for the events that are about to impact Israel.

Daniel’s figure in human form—this is all that the phrase means here—coming on the clouds of heaven is intended to contrast with the four misshapen beasts that emerge from the sea: human figure associated with the clouds of heaven, horrible beastly figures associated with the chaos of the sea (Dan. 7:3-8). The beasts represent a sequence of destructive earthly kingdoms or empires (7:17-18, 23-26). The human figure represents that part of Israel which remains faithful to the covenant during the crisis provoked by the attempt made by Antiochus Epiphanes—the “little horn” on the head of the fourth beast—to suppress Jewish worship and identity (7:25, 27; cf. 11:29-35). The central point of the vision is that when the beasts are judged, the “son of man” figure will be given kingdom and authority, to the effect that righteous Israel will not only be vindicated for its obedience to YHWH but will come to rule over the nations. This is essentially a political vision regarding the future status of Israel vis-à-vis the surrounding pagan nations.

Jesus deliberately takes this symbolic narrative and reapplies it, not simply to himself—though he is clearly at the centre of it—but to the whole political-religious situation facing first century Israel. He uses it as an interpretive grid in order to make sense of his own role and of the experience of his disciples in the impending crisis of judgment and restoration. The apocalyptic narrative suggests that the outcome will be the destruction of apostate Israel, the vindication of the persecuted churches of believers, and the public or “political” elevation of this righteous people amongst the nations, which will have to acknowledge the sovereignty of Israel’s God.

So Jesus as “Son of Man” embodies or represents a community that will suffer in the course of an impending political-religious crisis but will be vindicated and will receive a kingdom which will in some form result in the nations serving the God of Israel. This is the same kingdom that the God of heaven will set up “in the days of those kings”, which will “break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end” (Dan. 2:44). In other words, the coming kingdom of God, which will be given to the Son of Man community, will put an end to the pagan empires that dominated the ancient world from Babylon through to Rome (though Daniel’s series presumably culminates in the Greek empire that spawned Antiochus).


At the heart of Jesus’ self-reference as “Son of Man”, therefore, is the following narrative or argument.

1. First century Israel faces a crisis analogous to the crisis faced by Israel in the second century BC. It is not exactly the same as the earlier crisis—in fact, it is a much more serious one, and much more is at stake.

2. As a “Son of Man” like Ezekiel Jesus bears dramatic, riddling prophetic witness to both the judgment and the restoration of Israel. This seems to me an overlooked but really quite potent aspect of Jesus’ self-reference as “Son of Man”.

3. Like the community of the “saints of the Most High” (Dan. 7:18-22), Jesus will suffer rather than side with apostate Israel; he will spearhead a faithful alternative; he will embody the ideal of obedient Israel; he will establish a narrow and difficult path leading to the life of the age to come for the people of God.

4. In his death and resurrection, however, he will also anticipate the inevitable experience of the new community of faithful Israel that he has formed around himself. Others have been called to take up their cross and follow the “Son of Man” down the narrow and difficult path leading to life (Matt. 16:24-28). They do so with the assurance that within a generation they will be publicly vindicated for their hazardous trust in this crucified Messiah.

5. The final outcome of this very Jewish apocalyptic narrative—prefigured in Daniel—is that the suffering, persecuted, faithful “saints of the Most High” will receive a kingdom that will break the pagan nations, that will bring an end to pagan empire. As things turned out, this was to be the progressive conversion of Rome following the victory of Constantine over Maxentius. The people of God went on to become a “great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Dan. 2:35). Or to use Jesus’ equally political metaphor, a great tree in which the birds of the air build their nests (Matt. 13:32; Mk. 4:32; Lk. 13:19).

On Amazon: 
Image of The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church

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Andrew Perriman
Wipf & Stock Pub (2012), Paperback, 282 pages, $31.00


This new thread keys into a discussion Andrew and I were having here, which seems to have been aborted!

There are two main issues which I raised, in connection with the son of man passage in Daniel, and which I think inevitably place the association with Jesus in a wider context than the limited 1st century apocalyptic narrative which Andrew is promoting.

The first relates to the most striking feature of the Daniel 7 prophecies, the symbolism of ferocious beasts, representing the pagan nations, contrasting with a 'son of man', representing an individual/corporate person/people (see the discussion on the other thread). The pagan nations represent degraded humanity (as Paul also vividly sketches in Romans 1:18-32), the inevitable result of turning from worship of the true God to idols. The son of man represents true humanity - the phrase meaning a bit more than 'one like myself', but also 'the man himself', 'the very essence of man', or even 'mere man'. Jesus tellingly took up the phrase to describe himself, and at least one of its meanings keys into this wider framework of reference. But where was 'true humanity' to be found? Not, in the first place, in man, but in God - man and woman being created “in the image of God”. Jesus, as son of man, as the true contrast with degraded, pagan humanity and failed Israel, came to restore that image, in himself and his people. He brought man in the image of God, as God, to man, as man.

The second striking feature of Daniel 7, and other parts of Daniel (I mentioned Daniel 2), is that, like the son of man passage and the phrase itself, they have a meaning and fulfilment which is not contained within the 2nd century BC setting, with the oppression of Israel by Antiochus IV as the context. The transfer of authority and power to the son of man, and the worldwide worship of him, as described in Daniel 7:13, did not take place in the 2nd century BC, or at any time BC. If we take the son of man as an individual person (see the discussion), this person neither emerged at that time, nor was he glorified by being taken into the presence of the Ancient of Days. (Jesus associates the individual aspect of the personality of the Son of Man with himself).

Likewise, neither was “the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven” handed over to the saints - 7:27 as “an everlasting kingdom” at that time. Indeed, it's arguable that that still has to happen, or is still in the process of happening, but it's possible to see how the prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus, through whom it was to happen. These events were not analogy, as in Andrew's framework, but prophecy waiting to be fulfilled. Daniel 2 also describes events which were waiting to be fulfilled at the time of Jesus - notably the rock which destroyed the statue of pagan empires and became a mountain which filled the whole earth.

The main issue here is that Daniel does not describe a prophetic vision limited exclusively to local historical events, and neither does Daniel's extended prophetic vision fit completely or analogously within Andrew's limited 1st century apocalyptic narrative drama. The wider story is in view in the echoes of Daniel transferred to and fulfilled in the gospels, especially in the ambiguity over Jesus himself, which is resolved only if he were both God and man. The gospels of course do encourage this resolution, and the letters make it explicit. Jesus was the originator of the old creation, as he also is of the new - Colossians 1:15-19.

I personally think the son of man references in Ezekiel, where a different phrase is used, are not echoed by Daniel or Jesus, and it is misleading to bring them into the discussion.

The pagan nations represent degraded humanity…

Where on earth do you get that idea from? Certainly not Daniel. The passage says nothing more than that the beasts represent pagan kingdoms. That’s what Israel had to deal with. That’s what apocalyptic literature is about, and the New Testament is no different.

The transfer of authority and power to the son of man, and the worldwide worship of him, as described in Daniel 7:13, did not take place in the 2nd century BC, or at any time BC.

Please read the post again. I never said that this was the case. The prophecy is of a time when the people of God will break the power of the pagan nations and of Greece/Rome in particular and establish a worldwide kingdom. Historically speaking that happened when Rome converted to Christianity.

I personally think the son of man references in Ezekiel, where a different phrase is used…

How is it different, other than that it’s in the vocative in Ezekiel (huie anthrōpou in the LXX)—and of course, Daniel is in Aramaic rather than Hebrew?

Andrew - you need to pause, take a deep breath, make yourself a cup of tea, sit down and take stock.

The pagan nations represent degraded humanity…

Actually I meant the beasts represent degraded humanity, as contrasted with the son of man representing true humanity. This is a fairly well acknowledged interpretation, and arises from sensitivity to the choice of metaphors in each case. Why did Daniel decide to choose a man, a son of man in particular, to contrast with, and emerge victorious over, wild beasts?

The particular choice of the 'son of man' metaphor in contrast to the wild beasts metaphor raises these questions. It's a matter of literary sensitivity - which needs to be considered before taking the metaphors as mere cyphers to be decoded. Before the decoding is done, the choice of imagery needs to be appreciated.

I personally think the son of man references in Ezekiel, where a different phrase is used…

In Daniel, the Hebrew is bar enasha, in Ezekiel it is ben adam. Word choice aside, I don't personally think Ezekiel's son of man has any link with Daniel Or Jesus.

I may have missed what you said about a future fulfilment of Daniel. It seemed to me that the word you were using repeatedly about Jesus in relation to Daniel was analogy.

I don't think it is credible that Daniel's prediction, either in 7:13 or 7:27, was fulfilled when Rome converted from paganism to Christianity - but OK, if that's what you are arguing, I'm sorry I missed the point.

I don't find it credible, because Daniel is presenting the prophecy in the context of a wider story ahout the restoration of humanity and creation within which the biblical texts are arranged. I think it is false to say that the politics of the Roman Empire in its adoption of Christianity as the state faith had a direct bearing on this story, since the character of the Empire essentially remained the same under its new faith - it was just as bestial in character as the paganism it replaced. That's the whole point of the Daniel prophecies - to get us to look at character rather than the labels of political systems.

I think you are seriously missing the point about Daniel's use of the term son of man, and how the wider picture of a restored humanity was being fulfilled in Jesus - beyond the restoration of Israel.

It's disappointing that you don't wish to engage with the serious points I was making, both on this post and the previous one which apparently was too long for you to read.

Actually I meant the beasts represent degraded humanity, as contrasted with the son of man representing true humanity.

Well acknowledged or not, I don’t see how this interpretation fits what Daniel actually writes. The beasts do not represent “degraded humanity”. They represent kingdoms. The angel says, “These four great beasts are four kings who shall rise out of the earth” (Dan. 7:17). He does not say, “These four great beasts are instances of degraded humanity.” Daniel 8-11 is about what these kings did in history.

Of course, those kingdoms are examples of degraded humanity—you were closer the first time; and it may be that he regarded the community of the saints of the Most High as more human or more humane than the pagan kingdoms. But the vision is about what happens to kingdoms and empires, not what happens to humans in a general sense. I would rather give priority to what is actually in the text than to what later interpreters would like to find in the text.

In Daniel, the Hebrew is bar enasha, in Ezekiel it is ben adam. Word choice aside, I don’t personally think Ezekiel’s son of man has any link with Daniel Or Jesus.

In Daniel the Aramaic is bar enasha. You would expect a different language to have different vocabulary. The Greek is the same in both Ezekiel and Daniel. That aside, you’re free to disagree regarding Ezekiel’s “son of man”.

I don’t find it credible, because Daniel is presenting the prophecy in the context of a wider story ahout the restoration of humanity and creation within which the biblical texts are arranged.

This is simply not the case. Daniel presents the prophecy in the context of a story about the clash of kingdoms, nations, empires. Where does he speak of the “restoration of humanity and creation”? The whole book from beginning to end is about the clash between Israel and pagan empires. As long as we disagree about the basic frame of reference of Daniel—is it political-religious or universal?—it’s going to be very difficult to engage with the points that you were making.

Well acknowledged or not, I don’t see how this interpretation fits what Daniel actually writes. The beasts do not represent “degraded humanity”. They represent kingdoms.

Well, it is what Daniel writes: wild beasts versus a human figure. It doesn't matter whether later intrepreters have said this or not. The broader question is, what characterised the pagan empires, and what characterised the people of God?

It's also notable that in Daniel 2, the pagan empires are represented by a statue - which reflects (a) idolatry and (b) self-idolatry of pagan rulers. The image is one of distorted humanity - man making himself into a god.

There is a larger story running through the smaller story in Daniel. Daniel was more aware of this than you are. The description of the human figure in Daniel 7:13 as the son of man doubly emphasises the humanity of the figure. The son of man entering the presence of the Ancient of Days is pregnant with meaning - some of which I have suggested, but there is much more.

When Jesus describes himself as the son of man, all of these overtones add substance to the meaning of who he was and what he came to do.

There is very much more to Daniel than you would think - and the conversation we have already had about the son of man (7:13 - human or divine figure?) reflects the depth and complexity of the prophecy. It is not simply about what happens to kingdoms and empires.

Yes, we do disagree about the frame of reference of Daniel here. There is a broader frame of reference which takes in the whole biblical story - including Jesus himself. I'm interested in exploring different frames of reference - including your own. But as my post on the other thread was showing, there are some extraordinary contortions that your frame of reference gets into when you ask some basic questions of it!

In this case, the frame of reference in Daniel is entirely legitimate. Daniel is making a comment on the nature of pagan kingdoms, their characteristics. He does this through the imagery he has chosen. The imagery is not an abstract cypher language, which merely requires decoding. The imagery in itself is commenting on the subjects it describes - before it has been decoded.

Ben Adam, Bar Enasha - I don't see the connection between Ezekiel's son of man and Daniel or Jesus. The one is addressing the prophet Ezekiel, the others (a) a son of man figure who is not Daniel, (b) Jesus as the fulfilment of that figure.

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