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Who is Daniel’s son of man?

Who is the “one like a son of man” who comes with the clouds of heaven to be presented before the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:13? Collins calls it “perhaps the most celebrated question in all the apocalyptic literature”.1

As far as modern scholarship goes, three interpretations are generally considered: 1) a symbolic figure standing for righteous Jews or for Israel; 2) an angel, probably Michael; and 3) an individual human such as the messiah, or even, if we keep the historical context in view, Judas Maccabeus. It has sometimes been claimed that the “one like a son of man” is a hypostatized manifestation of God like Wisdom in Proverbs 8 or equivalent to the “likeness with a human appearance” in Ezekiel 1:26. But the narrative does not easily allow an identification of the inferior son of man figure, who receives dominion, with the Ancient of Days, who judges empires.

Later traditions came to regard the “one like a son of man” as a distinct individual agent—a heavenly judge who would vindicate the righteous (Similitudes of Enoch), or as a warrior messiah (4 Ezra); and of course, Jesus closely associated himself with the vision. But here I am interested in how the text as we have it was originally meant to be understood, given what we know of the historical setting. These are my reasons for preferring the symbolic-corporate interpretation.

Thrones are set up on earth

The visionary events described in Daniel 7:2-14 take place on earth, not in heaven. The beasts emerge from the sea and wreak havoc on the land. Daniel is still looking at this scene when thrones are put in place (where they were not before), the Ancient of Days takes his seat, and the heavenly court sits in judgment. The thrones have wheels—this is a mobile court. The fourth beast is killed in front of the throne and its body destroyed by fire that issues from the throne of God.

The first three mythical beasts are “like” real animals (“like a lion”, “like a bear”, “like a leopard”), but modified for allegorical purposes. The fourth and most destructive beast is “different from all the beasts that were before it”; it is not “like” something. The visionary focus is on the ten horns and in particular the “little horn” that arises among them. Then Daniel sees “one like a son of man”, a figure in the form of a human rather than of a beast. The human-like figure lacks allegorical embellishment, which may be part of its meaning, but it appears to exist on the same symbolic plane.

In Psalm 80 a boar—a destructive beast—from the forest has ravaged the vineyard of Israel, so the Psalmist calls on God to “let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself” (Ps. 80:17). This “son” / “son of man” is either Israel or Israel’s king or both. It’s a limited but perhaps suggestive parallel for the interpretation of Daniel 7.

Coming with the clouds of heaven

The “one like a son of man” comes with the “clouds of heaven”, which could readily be taken to mean that he resides in heaven. However, the beasts came from the sea but are later interpreted as “four kings who shall arise out of the earth” (Dan. 7:17). So there seems no difficulty in supposing that the “one like a son of man”, while coming from heaven rather than from the chaotic sea, symbolically represents an earthly people. The difference is that this is the people of God. It is too much to infer from this ground-based vision that Daniel is seeing two distinct divine beings.

The boast of the king of Babylon that he will “ascend above the heights of the clouds” and make himself like the Most High” (Is. 14:14) may provide an interesting perspective here. The arrogant little horn Antiochus boasts in similar terms (Dan. 7:8, 23; 11:36). The message of the “clouds of heaven” would then be that it is not the self-promoting and blasphemous pagan king who gets the God-given kingdom in the end but the the loyal Jews whom he has sought violently to suppress.

This sort of reading opens up a significant gap between Daniel and the traditional understanding of the New Testament material.

The “one like a son of man” comes to the Ancient of Days and “they caused him to approach” (haphel). The verbal form and the apparent ushering by divine attendants perhaps makes more sense if the “one like a son of man” is a human rather than angelic figure.

Some scholars have argued that the “one like a son of man” is the Davidic messiah, who takes a second throne alongside the Ancient of Days. But the conventional markers of a Davidic messiah are missing in Daniel, and no messiah appears in the later narratives. The “anointed” leader and the “anointed one” who is “cut off and shall have nothing” are perhaps Zerubbabel or Joshua and the high priest Onias III (Dan. 9:25-26); they do not possess a kingdom. The plural “thrones” probably implies more than two; they are occupied by the heavenly court.

Michael, is that you?

When Daniel asks the angel the meaning of the visions, he is directly told that the “four beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth”, but “the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever, for ever and ever” (7:15-18). The “one like a son of man” is not directly interpreted as the “saints of the Most High”, but since in the vision he is “given dominion and glory and a kingdom”, this would seem to be the obvious inference. If the “one like a son of man” is meant to be an angelic prince, it is remarkable that such an exalted figure is not mentioned here.

Admittedly, angels in Daniel are said to have human form: “the appearance of a mighty one” (Dan. 8:15); “the appearance of a man” (Dan. 10:18); “the likeness of the sons of man” (Dan. 10:16); or they are simply referred to as a “man” (Dan. 9:21; 10:5; 12:6, 7). But the terminology is different, and given the presence of angels in human form in the later chapters, we might wonder why no narrative or thematic correspondence is found with the vision of Daniel 7.

The “one like a son of man” is given dominion, etc., after the fourth beast has been destroyed. He is not a combatant. Michael is the “great prince” who has charge of Israel during the course of the conflict with Greece and who fights on behalf of Israel (Dan. 10:13, 20-21; 12:1). Murphy argues that the angelic interpretation is confirmed by the War Scroll: God “will raise up Michael in the midst of the gods, and the realm of Israel in the midst of all flesh”.2 But here too Michael has authority before the great conflict; he is not vindicated or rewarded after it: “He will send eternal support to the company of His redeemed by the power of the majestic angel of the authority of Michael” (1QM 17:6).

The people of the saints of the Most High

There is the further question of the identity of the “saints (qaddishei) of the Most High”. It is sometimes argued that the “saints” are not Israel but heavenly beings, which would lend weight to the view that the “one like a son of man” is likewise a heavenly figure, a leader of angels.

In Daniel “holy ones” (qaddishin) or “watchers” appear to Nebuchadnezzar in a dream or pass judgment on him, “to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men” (Dan. 4:13, 17, 23). These are angelic figures, acting on behalf of and with the authority of God. It seems out of the question that they are meant to be regarded as the same “saints” who are warred against and worn down by Antiochus, who receive and possess the kingdom, and to whom will be given “the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven” (Dan. 7:27). On the contrary, the “holy ones” of chapter four affirm that God gives authority to men.

Later it is said that a Greek king will “destroy mighty men and the people (ʿam) who are the saints (qedoshim)” (Dan. 8:24). This is Antiochus again. In this telling of the story he will rise up against the “Prince of princes” (God? Michael? cf. 8:11; 10:21; 12:1), but he will be broken “by no human hand”. This looks like a good reason to think that the “saints” in Daniel 7 are the people of Israel.

The wider evidence of the Old Testament is divided: “he loved his people, all his holy ones were in his hand” (Deut. 33:3); in the Psalms the “holy ones” may be Israel (Ps. 16:3; 34:9) or heavenly beings in the council of God (Ps. 89:5, 7).

Why does this matter?

Two dogmatic assumptions colour Christian understanding of the “coming on the clouds of heaven” texts in the New Testament. The first is the expectation that Jesus will come as the Son of Man to bring the curtain down on world history. The second is the view that the heavenly dimension to the Son of Man imagery points to a high christology according to which Jesus shares in the divine identity. It is then taken for granted that these two beliefs are present in Daniel 7. We read backwards from theology to Jesus to Daniel.

It is quite clear, however, that Daniel 7 presupposes a specific second century BC context—the persecution of conservative Jews by Antiochus IV. If we put our dogmatic assumptions aside for a moment and read the passage historically, what we have is a symbolic account of the victory of righteous Israel over Hellenistic imperialism (and entailed in that, over unrighteous Israel).

This sort of reading, however, opens up a significant gap between Daniel and the traditional understanding of the New Testament material. Theology pulls the New Testament in one direction. History pulls it in another.

My argument is that we should wrest the New Testament from the grip of dogmatic tradition and let history determine the meaning of the “Son of Man” language that is applied to Jesus. This may mean, of course, that we also need to reckon with the development of the motif in first century Jewish apocalyptic. But the basic outcome would be to allow the historical meaning of Daniel 7 to inform the interpretation of the New Testament passages. We should read forwards, from Daniel to Jesus, and then if necessary revise our theological constructs.

  • 1. J.J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination (1998), 101.
  • 2. F.J. Murphy, Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World (2012), 83.

Comments

Regarding Antiochus rising up against the ‘prince of the host’ (8.11), ‘prince of princes’ (8.25), and ‘prince of the covenant’ (11.22), I’ve understood that to be a reference to Onias III, parallel to the ‘anointed’ being cut off in chapter 9. This would keep the focus on the historical persecution of ‘the saints of the Most High’ by Antiochus, and shows each vision building on the previous ones.

The “anointed one” (9:26) and the “prince of the covenant (11:22) appear to be the high priest Onias III, who was deposed in 175 BC and killed in 170 BC. The “Prince of the host” and “Prince of princes” (8:11, 25) are less certainly references to Onias, though the case has been made. Alternatively, Michael or God may be intended. “He shall even rise up against the Prince of princes” (8:25) looks quite like “He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods” (11:36). But neither of these alternatives would detract from the historical interpretation.

This post so closely follows my comment and subsequent discussion on the previous post and thread that I thought a further contribution, if not an acknowledgment, was called for.

I’m not sure the only way of reading the ‘son of man’ prophecy is by reading forwards, in the way you suggest it. Jesus takes for himself the name and identity of Daniel’s son of man figure and its fulfilment in some clear references in the gospels. Since much in the Daniel prophecy is left unexplained as well as unfulfilled, (as becomes evident from the variety of interpretations to which your post alludes), we are also justified in interpreting the prophecy by reading backwards from Jesus, in the light of a more complete understanding which he provided in its fulfilment.

An obvious initial observation to make is that significant parts of the prophecy were not fulfilled in the 2nd century BC, or at any time up to the coming of Jesus. There was continuing interest in the prophecy after the 2nd century events to which it mostly refers, and the hope continued that the as yet unfulfilled parts of the prophecy would be fulfilled.

The next observation is that when Jesus adopted for himself the ‘son of man’ name and its yet to be fulfilled prophetic significance, he was doing so as an individual, and highlighting the individual character and meaning of the ‘son of man’ figure in Daniel.

A third observation is that whatever the extent of the beneficiaries of Jesus’s ministry, all agree it was for a corporate people beyond himself. So while in Daniel 7:13-14 it is the individual character of the son of man which seems to be prominent (for reasons which I will also argue in a fourth observation), in Daniel 7:27a the beneficiaries of the granting of authority, glory, power and dominion in 7:14 are the saints, who will exercise that power.

A fourth observation is that just as Jesus is believed by most, if not all, to be a unique person combining humanity and divinity, so too the son of man figure in Daniel 7 can be understood to reflect divine qualities, and those not simply by virtue of delegation. Not only does the son of man come ‘with the clouds of heaven’ (which may equally as well imply divinity as not), but he is given the right to rule and be served or worshipped in an everlasting kingdom, which in Daniel 7:27b is also described as the kingdom and worship or service of the Most High.

The fifth observation is that In Daniel 7:14 and Daniel 7:27, the unique word p̱lḥ, to serve or to worship, is used of both God the Most High (7:27), and the ‘son of man’ figure (7:14). It might be (and has been) argued that this simply reflects the service of YHWH delegated to the son of man, but throughout Daniel, p̱lḥ is used uniquely of God (on the eight occasions that it appears), and appears nowhere else in the OT, as far as I am aware. In other words, the weight of its usage encourages us to think of the son of man being more than simply a human figure.

With Jesus as the interpretive key, it is not difficult to see the significance of the prophecy, and its fulfilment. Jesus himself was uniquely given the right to rule at the Father’s right hand (Acts 2:24, 33), and as part of the godhead, if the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is taken as evidence. The prediction of power given to ‘the saints, the people of the Most High’ in the Daniel prophecy finds its fulfilment in the church, whichever way you view the fulfilment. It also awaits complete fulfilment. The ‘son of man’ language in Daniel reflects and sits well with the language of Psalm 110:1 in Acts 2:33-35, extending to the corporate body of people on whose behalf Jesus was acting, such as in Ephesians 1:20-23.

In summary: the son of man prophecy in Daniel is obscure, yet sufficiently clear to provide hope for a future reversal in the fortunes of Israel in a startling if unexplained way. With the coming of Jesus, the fulfilment of the prophecy in himself was not at first obvious either to Israel or his followers. It became obvious in the events which followed his resurrection, in the outworking of Acts and the commentary of the epistles.

Peter, the article is only about Daniel’s “son of man” figure, and I simply argue that we should interpret Jesus’ use of the phrase in light of the historical meaning of the Old Testament text rather than in the light of later dogmatic tradition. Obviously, Jesus may have developed or altered the historical meaning—that is another matter.

There is no question that Daniel is asserting something unique about the “one like a son of man”. God gives to this figure, which I take to stand for righteous Israel, a kingdom that will last throughout the ages—in sharp contrast to the succession of beast-like kingdoms, which are either disempowered or destroyed. It is a rule that mirrors God’s own rule over the nations. In this respect, the passage makes the same point as Daniel 2:44:

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. (Dan. 2:44)

There is no heavenly figure involved here. The vision has to do simply with the exalted status of Israel amongst the nations.

There is nothing in Daniel 7 which points to the “one like a son of man” having a divine status other than that which he acquires in receiving the authority of God to rule on YHWH’s behalf over the nations. The passage gives a clear reason why the “one like a son of man” is served by the nations: it is because he is given something which he did not have before, that is, dominion and glory and a kingdom (7:14). It is not even said that the “son of man” figure sits on one of the thrones.

Yes! What Peter said.

We would be at a loss to have certainty of the “Son of Man” references PRIOR to Jesus’ coming. But his embracing of the term for himself combined with the multiple aspects of prophecy linked to direct fulfillment in Christ are persuasive to confirm the identity of the “Son of Man” referent. It is actually NOT fully dependent on the prophet to supply all meaning in interpreting prophetic literature (i.e. interpreting only in a forward direction). We are not left to our own devices when the New Testament offers clear resolution and fulfillment. The same Spirit who set up a “joke” later reveals the “punchline”. The historical era of mis-understanding and awaiting clarity of fulfillment is the inter-testamental time. Once revelation clarifies fulfillment, we can then appropriately look backwards with enlightened eyes to the setup. In this way, prophetic interpretation is rightly bi-directional.

My response was also only about the son of man figure - and limiting that largely to 7:13-14 and 7:27, though the rest of the passage is important.

I’m not just (or even at all) arguing from later dogmatic tradition, but also for an interpretation which takes into account the self-conscious fulfilment of the ‘son of man’ prophecy and his identity by Jesus, and what that looked like. I think the idea of interpreting forward instead of backward, and as it were setting the two approaches against each, other is misleading, especially where the prophecy is non-literal, allusive, and highly symbolic.

Where there is lack of clear detail in the original prophecy, and a great deal of allusive symbolism, there has to be conversation backwards as well as forwards, particularly where the prophecy is said to be fulfilled by the later figure.

In the case of Jesus, the details of the prophecy make a great deal of sense if taking into account a divine/human status. In my opinion, given the unusual detail and wording of the prophecy (again I’m focusing on 7:13-14, 27 in particular, but not excluding the intervening explanatory verses), I think the verses almost compel us to take the broader view into consideration.

Your reference to Daniel 2 is interesting. It does not prove your point, and in fact, considering the connections between Jesus and the ‘rock’ metaphor, there is further reason to connect the prophetic vision with Jesus himself, personally and individually. It’s also a supernatural rock - “not made by human hands”, which casts doubt on the association with Israel. The connection with Jesus becomes more compelling as the prophecy remained unfulfilled up to the time of his coming, but was in its own way spectacularly fulfilled thereafter, and not at all in the way Israel envisaged or wanted or approved of. This fulfilment also entailed the involvement of a corporate body, not Israel, but the church. Israel, of course, is not mentioned in the prophecies, either in 2 or 7. In 7, it’s “the saints, the people of the Most High”.

Your final paragraph illustrates disagreement, but doesn’t prove anything. I am arguing that the fulfilled son of man prophecy in Jesus does have a bearing on the interpretation of the verses in Daniel 7 (reading backwards). I hoped to have demonstrated that in my reply. There is sufficient material, to my mind, in the verses to suggest that the son of man figure was also divine (and also fully taking into account the kingdom being given to him, which I have also addressed on the previous thread). I have alluded to all these things in my post, both here and on the previous thread.

My supposed dogmatic tradition is a reading of the gospels and the New Testament on a historically reconstructed basis. Because of what it says about ‘the son of man’, the New Testament (not a ‘dogmatic position’) then interprets Daniel, and the ‘son of man’ figure especially. We simply disagree.

The rock in Daniel is not made by human hands because it is a kingdom set up by the God of heaven. That is what Daniel says; it is not a person. The suggested association with Jesus is just fanciful—the only person called a “rock” in the Gospels is Peter.

But the kingdom/rock still entails the existence of a people; it replaces the existing kingdoms; and it will not be “left to another people”. In effect, as in Daniel 7, it is a kingdom given to God’s faithful people.

And it mystifies me that you persistently ignore the central point of Daniel 7, which is that kingdom is given to the “one like a son of man”. That critical, unambiguous and irreducible detail is exactly taken over into the New Testament: the right to exercise God’s own authority is given to Jesus as the Son of Man who is seated at the right hand of God. That’s the key way in which, it seems to me, reading forwards reshapes our understanding of Jesus.

We are clearly not connecting with each other at all in these exchanges (so what’s new?). However, I can’t let your unfounded assertions pass by unnoticed.

The rock in Daniel’s prophecy is not simply to be identified in an unqualified way with the kingdom which God will set up on the earth. The rock in Daniel becomes “a mountain that filled the whole earth”. The mountain is identified with the kingdom, not in the first place the rock. The rock becomes a mountain, but is not in itself the mountain. That much the prophecy makes clear. The rock is left unidentified in the prophecy.

You say incorrectly that the only reference to ‘the rock’ in the gospels is Jesus’ association of the rock with Peter. That may be the only use of the Greek words petros/petra, but there are other passages which create allusions to the rock of Daniel 2, in the gospels and letters.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke have Jesus quote Psalm 118:22, “the stone (lithos) the builders rejected”, with Luke adding the commentary: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed” - Luke 20:18. Luke seems to be adding to Psalm 18:22 the thought of Daniel 2:44-45.

Just to be clear, in the latter, Daniel says: “It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands - a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay and the gold to pieces”.

It could be added that until the time of Jesus, this prediction had not occurred in its fuller kingdom sense, and was awaiting fulfilment with great interest by the many who engaged in what we know to have been widespread interest in Daniel.

Even in the association of Peter with “the rock” in the gospels, there is a twist in the tail, which I’m sure you are well aware of. Jesus plays on the two words: Peter - petros, and rock - petra. Some commentators, especially those who want to dispute the Roman Catholic dogma of Peter being inaugurated here as the first Pope, argue that “this rock”, on which Jesus says he will be build his church, is not Peter, petros, the “little rock”, but Jesus himself, the big rock - petra.

Either way, Jesus is not simply saying that Peter is a rock which will be the church’s foundation, and the play on words has to be factored into the explanation. The rock here is being associated in some way with Jesus.

Romans 9:32-33 combines Isaiah 8:14 and Isaiah 28:16, which refer to “a stone” and a “rock” (8:14) and “a stone” (28:16). Both are taken in Romans 9 to refer to Jesus. In Romans 9:32, Israel’s pursuit of righteousness by law not faith creates the collision with “the stumbling stone”.The object of that faith which caused the stumbling was Jesus himself.

In 1 Peter 2:4-8 all three rock/stone passages are brought together (Isaiah 28:16, Psalm 118:2, and Isaiah 8:14), and can also be regarded as filling out in more detail how the Daniel rock, in its future and unfulfilled prophetic sense, worked. All three rock/stone passages refer to Jesus.

In 1 Corinthians 10:4, Jesus is the rock which accompanies the Israelites in the desert.

As regards your final paragraph, I repeat what I said in the post on the previous thread:

The argument about the son of man being ‘given’ the kingdom is actually a non-argument. For instance, no-one who believes that Jesus is divine (ie the majority Christian view) questions that he was given the right to rule by God the Father, being raised from the dead by God the Father, and exalted to the Father’s ‘right hand’ (which is a metaphor, not a literal position).

It also needs hardly to be said that this is not a dogma dreamed up in the light of later Greek theology, which you seem to take as a given, but a historically reconstructed view of the earliest Christian belief taken from the NT itself.

Perhaps the most significant underlying issue in these exchanges is my criticism of your methodology, that scripture can be entirely understod by ‘reading forward’ from earlier passages, without ‘reading backward’ in the light of sometimes very different ways in which scripture was fulfilled.

The nub of my crticism is the process in which hypothetical reconstructions become assured dogma, whilst contrary reconstructions are themselves dismissed as ‘traditional dogma’. The major illustration of my criticism is Jesus himself, not in any perceived dogma that may have developed about him, but that he did not conform to anyone’s scriptural understanding at the time of fulfilled messianic prophecy. Jesus himself had to show the disciples how to ‘read backwards’ - Luke 24:27, Acts 3b.

I think instead of batting verses back and forth, it might be more worthwile addressing this issue. But not for a while. I’m leaving the Mediterranean heat of SE England for a week’s holiday in the cold and wet NW. Which is proof positive that I never learn from previous experience. Perhaps nobody ever does.

Again, regarding the Rock/Stone references in the NT: what Peter said!

Regarding the Identity of “the Son of man”, you write, “Daniel is asserting something unique about the “one like a son of man”. God gives to this figure, which I take to stand for righteous Israel…”

The reference to “one like a son of man” is unique - and is also clearly regarding a singular individual (i.e. not a group reference - ruling out “righteous Israel” as a group). I don’t think you have provided a persuasive argument to overcome this. The references to the “saints of the most high” as recipients and beneficiaries of this kingdom – THIS is what relates to God’s people. The terminology itself allows this to be an expansive category (i.e. the current Jewish saints, and then later all the saints of God who are part of God’s kingdom via the Son of Man – in other words the church of God of people of all nations – believing Jews and Gentiles).

There are interpretative difficulties with Daniel, but these two arenas are basic and foundational. The fact that your interpretive schema is novel regarding these fairly clear identities should perhaps give you pause. It seems there is an a priori reason why you want the identification of “the son of man” to be the people group of the nation of Israel that is beyond (or prior to) the scope of Daniel’s prophecies here. Does your larger historical interpretive schema require “one like a son of man” to NOT be a prophecy fulfilled by Jesus? If so, why? And if not, then why the odd push?

Reading backwards? Do you think the prophets were reading backwards? Do you think Jesus himself was reading backwards when he quoted from the Old Testament books?

Let those who have ears to hear and eyes to see that the only backwards thing is this article, which tries unsuccessfully to equate Son of Man with anything less than who Jesus Christ claimed he was again and again.

Is there really such a problem with saying that Daniel applied the symbolism of a son of man figure to one historical context, but Jesus saw the potential of reapplying it, to even greater effect, in another context? That seems to me to be an excellent of doing justice to both history and to christology.

When Matthew applies Isaiah 40:3 to John the Baptist, he knows full well that in its original context the verse had reference to the return from exile.

When Paul says that “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed”, he does not mean that the exodus was merely a prophecy of salvation through Jesus. If he had said at any point, “Christ our Son of Man has been vindicated”, that would have got it about right.