Daniel’s Son of Man is not the Messiah—he’s just a very naughty symbol*

Read time: 6 minutes

I argued a few weeks back that the “son of man” figure in Daniel 7:13-14 is not an individual messiah or an angel or divine hypostasis (i.e., a manifestation of some aspect of the godhead) but symbolically represents that part of Israel which remained faithful to the covenant, at great cost, during the crisis provoked by Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ brutal attempt to eradicate Jewish religion.

Craig has objected, however, that the reference to “one like a son of man” is unique, that he is clearly a “singular individual”, and that I have not “provided a persuasive argument to overcome this”. He further maintains that “saints of the Most High” defines an expansive category that includes not only the “current Jewish saints” but everyone who would be part of God’s kingdom—“in other words the church of God of people of all nations”. Finally he asks whether my novel “historical interpretive schema” does not in fact oblige me to argue that Daniel’s prophecy was not fulfilled by Jesus. I want to address these criticisms.

1. With all respect and with appreciation for the push-back, Craig’s argument looks to me like a straightforward case of retrofitting a loose Christian perspective on the Old Testament text. Both the details of the interpretation and the historical context are ignored. It’s not very helpful to dismiss the argument as unpersuasive without giving reasons; and not to take account of the historical context is bad exegesis and should be discouraged.

2. Later Jewish tradition came to understand the “Son of Man” as an individual who acts on behalf of righteous Israel: “And at that hour that Son of Man was named in the presence of the Lord of Spirits…. He shall be a staff to the righteous whereon to stay themselves and not fall…” (1 En. 48:2–4). But in Daniel’s lengthy analysis of the crisis facing Israel in the early second century B.C., the only figure who acts on behalf of Israel, apart from God himself, is the angel Michael (12:1; cf. 10:13, 21).

Daniel’s “son of man” figure does not do anything once he has appeared; he does not go on to act as a messianic judge or redeemer; he does not save Israel at this time of extreme eschatological crisis. Rather the meaning of the visionary drama is that the “son of man” figure is vindicated or rewarded because of something that has already happened, and we must assume that this is explained in the passage. He passively receives “dominion and glory and a kingdom”, with the effect that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him”. In this crucial respect Daniel’s “one like a son of man” is very different from Enoch’s Son of Man.

3. Having seen the “son of man” figure coming to the Ancient of Days, Daniel seeks an “interpretation of the things” from one of the angelic attendants. He is told:

These four great 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 forever, forever and ever. (Dan. 7:17–18)

The rest of the passage elaborates upon this explanation. Although kings of the pagan nations are explicitly mentioned, including the arrogant little horn that is Antiochus, nothing is said about a Jewish king. Daniel has no knowledge of a Davidic messiah. The only explanation provided by the text is that the “one like a son of man” symbolises the “saints of the Most High” in the same way that the beasts symbolise four kingdoms. It is explicitly stated that judgment is given for the saints of the Most High, over whom Antiochus had prevailed, and the saints possess the kingdom (Dan. 7:21-22; cf. 27). I gave my reasons in the previous piece for thinking that the “saints” are Israel, not angels.

If Daniel spoke elsewhere of a king who would lead the people through this crisis, we might think that the “son of man” figure stood both for the individual and the community, but there was no king to be persecuted and vindicated. The “anointed one” who is “cut off” is the high priest (Dan. 9:26). In this story there is no Jewish counterpart to Alexander the Great or Antiochus Epiphanes; and it would surely be extraordinary for the angel not to mention a king of Israel here if one were in view.

Rewriting history to suit later outlooks and prejudices is what evil authoritarian states do.

Greg Beale tries to make a case for both a corporate and an individual interpretation in his A New Testament Biblical Theology, 192-93. His argument that the identification of the beasts as both kingdoms and kings points in this direction fails for the reasons just given. I addressed the view that one who comes “with the clouds of heaven” must be a heavenly individual in the previous post. The four beasts come from the sea but they are still earthly kingdoms; the “one like a son of man” comes with the clouds of heaven (not from heaven) but is still an earthly people.

4. The “saints of the Most High” who receive the kingdom from the Ancient of Days in Daniel’s vision cannot include the later church of Jews and Gentiles. The narrative simply does not allow that inference. Later generations would benefit from the event described in this passage, and if we trace the storyline through Jesus, we may acknowledge that this includes the church as an international community. But it is only the particular historical community that is persecuted by Antiochus and vindicated for its loyalty to the covenant.

5. Whether or not my interpretive schema is novel, the particular historical reading of Daniel 7-12 certainly is not. The dominant scholarly interpretations are the corporate one and the angelic one, with the former probably outweighing the latter—at least, that’s my impression.

6. I do not accept that the historical reading of Daniel undermines Jesus’ application of the vision to himself. If we read it as a simple prophecy “fulfilled” in Jesus—a prediction by Daniel regarding Jesus the Messiah—then, of course, we have problems. But my assumption would be that Jesus as a first century Jew, who knew the scriptures, understood very well the historical meaning of the text, and that he exploited the historical meaning for his own purposes. There is no “fulfilment” language attached to the Son of Man sayings in the Gospels. But by identifying himself with Daniel’s “one like son of man” Jesus 1) affirms his conviction that he will likewise be vindicated for his faithfulness unto death and will receive kingdom and glory; and 2) establishes a prophetic basis for including his followers in this new story of suffering and vindication (cf. Mk. 8:31-9:1). In this way we lose nothing of the prophetic force of the sayings and we preserve historical integrity.

7. I do not think, therefore, that we have to resort to the sort of lazy, face-saving argument that Craig (I don’t mean this personally) proposed in an earlier comment—that Jesus supplied the true meaning of the prophecy. That simply reinforces the old unhistorical, theologically motivated devaluation of the Old Testament as mis-understanding and ignorance awaiting new revelation. Jesus’ reapplication of the symbolic narrative does not change the meaning of the original text any more than Enoch’s apocalyptic development does.

In fact, I would argue quite the reverse—that the historical reading of Daniel gives us the true meaning of Jesus’ appropriation of the story to account for the impending eschatological crisis faced by first century Israel. As I’ve said many times, this is how history works: it goes forwards, not backwards. Rewriting history to suit later outlooks and prejudices is what evil authoritarian states do.

* See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plZRe1kPWZw

Darren Doane | Fri, 08/19/2016 - 16:58 | Permalink


Curious what prophecies in Luke 24:44 you think Jesus is discussing/revealing.


Andrew Perriman | Fri, 08/19/2016 - 17:12 | Permalink

In reply to by Darren Doane

@Darren Doane:

It wouldn’t surprise me if Daniel 7:13-27 came up in the course of that conversation, but how exactly he interpreted the passage or brought out the relevance of the narrative is another matter. According to Hosea it is Israel that is (metaphorically) raised up on the third day following punishment: “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (Hos. 6:2), but Jesus applies it to the Christ (Lk. 24:6). He appears to be weaving his own story into the Old Testament story about Israel. Matthew does the same thing when he applies Hosea 11:1-2 to Jesus’ journey from Egypt: “Out of Egypt I called my son….”

Charles | Tue, 08/23/2016 - 15:58 | Permalink

Well written, your line “old… theologically motivated devaluation of the OT texts” has been a trait, if we’re honest, since the early “Church Fathers.” Their suspicions and prejudice of Jews are well documented. Even the term “Old” as in “Old Testament” is unhelpful and serves to create a certain superiority in the mindset of any Christian initiate. This day and age is looking for integrity and honesty, if anything, and if the Church can’t offer this about its sacred texts, no wonder the rest of the world scoffs.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 09/06/2016 - 11:05 | Permalink

I’m just curious to know, if the proposed ” historical interpretive schema” (to use Craig’s words) is followed through, how and when the saints came to “receive the kingdom and possess it forever and ever” — 7:18 (also 7:21, 27). When did this occur, and where, according to your interpretation do we see it today, following the equally proposed demise of Christendom, when these things were said to have been fulfilled historically?

@peter wilkinson:

Strictly within the historical frame of Daniel 7-12 the reference would have to be to the Hasmoneans.

The Hasmonean kingdom had its shortcomings and didn’t last forever, so the apocalyptic narrative is picked up by Jesus and his followers and reapplied in the first century context. Jesus and his suffering followers (including, as it turned out, the suffering churches of Jews and Gentiles in the pagan world) inherited the kingdom as the individual/corporate “one like a son of man”.

With respect to Israel this “happened” with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. With respect to the pagan nations it “happened” with the conversion of the empire.

The concrete political expression of that kingdom as Christendom no longer exists, and we are having to find ways to extend the story into the post-Christendom era. But we still confess that God’s Son rules at his right hand in heaven, with the martyrs alongside him (we tend to disregard this element, but from the biblical perspective it’s a matter of considerable importance), for the sake of the continuing life and witness of God’s people in the world (cf. Eph. 1:20-22).

Bible Drew | Mon, 07/06/2020 - 15:12 | Permalink

You may have posted on this and I can’t find it, but do you have any thoughts or insights about Daniel 9:27 where it’s poured out on the Desolator or the Desolate?