Son of Man: title, self-reference, or narrative?

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I’m a little mystified by Larry Hurtado’s argument about “the son of man” as an “Obsolete Phantom”.

He is taking issue with the now rather dated view that when Jesus spoke of “the son of man”, he was referring to someone other than himself, namely a heavenly, eschatological redeemer figure bearing the title “the Son of Man”, familiar to a sufficient number of apocalyptically minded first century Jews for him not to have to explain whom he was talking about.

The reason this idea is now out of fashion is that since the 1970s it has become apparent that there is no evidence for the ‘supposed use of “the son of man” as a fixed title for any figure in second-temple Jewish tradition’.

There are heavenly beings in Jewish apocalyptic writings, but none of them is called “the Son of Man”; and although we appear to have a “son of man” figure in the parables of 1 Enoch, English translations fail to reflect the variety of Ethiopic expressions rendered “son of man” in the English translations.

Hurtado concludes that Jesus could not have been referring to a known heavenly redeemer figure other than himself since such a figure did not exist. What’s the alternative? Well, normally in Hebrew and Aramaic “son of man” simply means “human being”. It appears, then, that the writers of the Gospels understood “the son of man” as an idiomatic type of self-reference. “All of the Gospel sayings where Jesus is portrayed using the expression are easily read as sentences where he simply refers to himself, making this or that statement about himself under this peculiar phrase.” For example, when Jesus says, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20), he only really means “I have nowhere to lay my head”.

So there is no evidence for the the old view that Jesus was referring to a future heavenly figure other than himself, and we have a solid alternative interpretation available: even taking into account the odd “particularizing force” of Jesus’ use of the expression with the definite article, the various statements simply say something about Jesus.

This is all right and proper as far as it goes, and perhaps there was no reason to take it any further in the post. But there is still the question of why Jesus repeatedly and characteristically referred to himself in this “peculiar” indirect fashion. The usage is exceptional, and it needs more than a narrow linguistic explanation.

Hurtado notes in a comment that Ezekiel is frequently addressed as “son of man” (huie anthrōpou). The usage is different from what we find in the Gospels—Jesus is not writing down messages from God introduced with the formula “And he said to me, Son of man…”.

But to suggest that in Ezekiel the expression simply means “You, O mortal” fails to register the fact that the peculiar idiom not only distinguishes Ezekiel’s prophetic style but also encapsulates his identity as an imaginative prophet sent to the “house of Israel, those who are embittering me—who embittered me, they and their fathers, to this very day” (Ezek. 2:3).

The formal linguistic difference does not, in my view, preclude the possibility that the no less imaginative prophet Jesus used the particularising expression somewhat as an oblique reference to Ezekiel’s distinctive self-identification. In any case, we have to allow for the likelihood that the pattern of usage, and not merely the linguistic idiom, is significant.

This is where Daniel 7 becomes relevant.

In a footnote Hurtado mentions Collins’ view that although “the son of man” is not a title, ‘there was a “concept” associated with the figure of Daniel 7:13-14’. “Concept” is better than “title”, but the “son of man” figure in Daniel 7:13-27 is not a static, free-standing idea; he is part of the wider political-religious narrative of Daniel 7-12.

In the early second century BC the Jews had come under intense pressure from the forces of Hellenism—supremely in the form of the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes—to abandon the covenant with YHWH and adopt the beliefs, values and practices of the Greeks.

Unsurprisingly, the Jews were torn between loyalty to the ancestral traditions and compromise for the sake of modernisation and self-preservation. Those who refused to apostatise were persecuted—the “saints of the Most High”—but the assurance is given that at the climax to this crisis the tables would be turned: the pagan empire would be destroyed and the suffering saints would be vindicated and given the kingdom.

To my mind, therefore, the best reading of Daniel 7:13-14 is that the “one like a son of man” is a symbolic representation(more or less analogous to the four beasts as representations of pagan empires) of that part of Israel that would remain faithful to the covenant and would be granted government of the nations: “And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:14).

So I suggest that Jesus’ self-designation as “the son of man” is allusive and evocative, not merely idiomatic. It holds together a prophetic self-understanding like Ezekiel’s and the quite precise narrative force of Daniel 7:13-14.

On the one hand, he is the prophet sent with a distinctive voice and purpose to recalcitrant Israel after long ages of embitterment—cf. the parable of the wicked tenants. On the other, he identifies himself with that part of Israel which is obedient to YHWH during a period of eschatological crisis and which will be eventually be vindicated. The Son who is sent to the vineyard of Israel will be rejected and killed by the apostate leaders of the people but will be brought before the throne of the Ancient of Days and will be given the kingdom.

“The Son of Man” is a shorthand way for Jesus to tell a story about himself.

any thoughts on the “minority” translation of Ezekiel 43:3

“And it was according to the appearance of the vision which I saw, even according to the vision that I saw when I came to destroy the city;”

that the prophet himself (or the prophet’s word?) is causative in the destruction on the city?


It’s odd, but in the absence of a narrative elsewhere in the book that supports and explains the “when I came” reading, it seems likely that it’s a simple error. I certainly don’t think it has any bearing on Jesus’ use of “the son of man”. The Septuagint has the first person but a different purpose for the coming: “And the appearance that I saw was like the appearance that I saw when I was entering to anoint the city….” For those who are interested:

Although MT bĕbōʾı̂, “when I came,” is supported by LXX and Syr., since Ezekiel had no part in the destruction of Jerusalem, the final yod is probably an error for waw, viz., bĕbōʾô, “when he came” (thus several Hebrew mss., Theodotion, Vulg.). Alternatively, MT may preserve a miswritten abbreviation, bbʾ y[hwh], “when Yahweh came” (Galling in Fohrer-Galling, Ezechiel, p. 241). Targ. bʾtnbywty, “when I prophesied,” offers a different solution. (Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48, 590).

You wrote: ‘In the early second century AD the Jews had come under intense pressure from the forces of Hellenism…’ Did you not mean BC?

peter wilkinson | Fri, 10/27/2017 - 23:21 | Permalink

What seems to be key for you is ‘the son of man’ not being a unique redesignation of the phrase by Jesus to himself and his mission as an individual (he alone was the truly faithful Israelite), but as an identification with faithful Israel (who already existed, and whom he would steward through the troubled times ahead). Would it be fair to say this is where you part company from the historic faith?

@peter wilkinson:

No. I would say that Jesus personally identified with the “one like a son of man” in Daniel’s vision and interpreted his mission in light of that narrative. But I also think that he reckoned with the corporate dimension to the narrative. His followers would also have to take up their own crosses, suffer in the same way. But they would be vindicated and rewarded when the Son of Man was revealed in his glory, and would reign with him throughout the coming ages. In that sense, Jesus as Son of Man is the /forerunner/ of the “Son of Man” community—roughly the same idea as Paul’s statement about Jesus being the firstborn among many brothers (Rom. 8:29) and the description of Jesus as “originator and perfecter of our faith” in Hebrews 12:2.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks for the clarification. I had not put together your two views of ‘the son of man’, though put like this, it’s reasonably clear that you have more or less consistently held both.

For what it’s worth, I think a ‘historic faith’ version of what you describe is that the ‘son of man’ is primarily and exclusively Jesus himself, but that his followers and those who believe in him are included in his suffering and vindication (his death and resurrection). The Daniel prophecy is ambiguous about its personal/corporate meaning, the somewhat personal dream description and the corporate interpretation. This is an ambiguity that Jesus seems to uniquely resolve.

Also, I suggest a ‘historic faith’ understanding of the call to suffering of those who would follow/believe in Jesus is that the power of the gospel on earth is particularly (for them) and universally (for everyone in all times) expressed through those who suffer for it. As Jesus, so his followers, including Paul, but not just limited to that generation. This is how 2 Corinthians, for instance, would be understood as universally applicable through the particular example of Paul’s sufferings as an apostle.

I question whether the two dimensions of ‘the son of man’ which you describe really fit together adequately in your version of things, but I could be wrong.

Richard Worden… | Tue, 11/07/2017 - 06:00 | Permalink

Hurtado does say that The Son of Man was not a fixed title but he also says that Jesus used the saying as referring to himself. So, Larry Hurtado’s argument about “the son of man” as an “Obsolete Phantom” was merely referring to the previously prominent idea that it was a commonly understood “fixed title” that is now obsolete. In other words, you are actually agreeing with him and there is no need to be mystified. Or did I miss your point?

@Richard Worden…:

It’s quite possible that I have missed the point. Still, what mystified me was not Hurtado’s argument in itself, as far as it goes. I agree that “Son of Man” was not a title and was not used by Jesus as a title for someone else. But I’m surprised that he appears to think that his alternative interpretation (“a peculiar self-designation idiom”) is a sufficient explanation of Jesus’ distinctive, habitual and resonant use of the expression.

The “particularizing force” (“the Son of Man”) is not dependent on reference to another figure. But it also is not fully explained by reference to the sentence in which it is used. I think that the expression must have evoked particular Old Testament narratives—certainly Daniel 7, but also perhaps Ezekiel’s vocation as “Son of Man”.