Like a Son of Man

The Ancient of Days. 1794.  Watercolor by William Blake.

The Ancient of Days. 1794. Watercolor by William Blake.    Based on the “like a son of man” passage in Daniel 7.    In the Old Testament, Daniel is the master of apocalyptic imagery, which means using words as pictures to “reveal” or “uncover” that which is hidden.

Jesus talks about being the “Son of Man” eighty-one times in the New Testament. The term is Jesus’ favorite designation for Himself in the Gospels. So, what is the deal with this “Son of Man” stuff anyway?

Son of Man = Messiah = Divinity of Christ“. For years, I merely assumed this to be true, simply out of reflex of being a Christian. But if it is true, why is it true?  I never really thought about it that much. Recently, our  small group Bible study has been looking at the Gospel of Luke, and every now and then there are puzzled looks whenever Jesus speaks of this Son of Man. As I observe everyone scrambling to read their study bible notes, I know that I am not alone in my why question.

A number of critics complain that Christians read way, way too much into this phrase. The Son of Man as the Messiah?  Mmmm. How so?   Furthermore, the Bible never explicitly equates Son of Man with “divinity”. Are followers of Jesus getting ahead of the Bible when asserting the messianic, divine meaning of Son of Man? Can a believer in Christ reasonably defend such a claim?

Interestingly enough, if you search the entire New Testament outside of the Gospels and Stephen’s last statement before being stoned to death (Acts 7:56) , Jesus is never, ever referred to as being Son of Man. Paul never uses the term in his letters. Furthermore, no one in the Gospels calls Jesus Son of Man, except that the people do ask Him about it in John 12:34. Jesus is the only one to use the phrase. I mean, is this not rather odd?

So, Who is This Son of Man?

A big key to understanding Son of Man is found in Mark 13, in part of what scholars call the Little Apocalypse:

But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (Mark 13:24-26)

The student of the Old Testament will recognize this as pointing back to Daniel 7:

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14 NIV).

Generally speaking, son of man simply means a “human being”. But in approaching the Ancient of Days, who is God, this one like a son of man is invested by God with things like authority, worship, and dominion. This is really peculiar, isn’t it?   How is it that this one like a human being is attributed with characteristics typically reserved for God alone?   However, many scholars of ancient Judaism urge caution at this point.   There is very little evidence of one like a son of man as being equated with God, much less as the Messiah,  in pre-Christian Judaism  in the period when Daniel was written.  After all, all Jews know that there is only one God and all human beings are subject to Him.

The message of Daniel is important because the prophetic context for the book is set within ancient Babylon, where the people of Israel had been sent off into exile. Daniel’s radical message is that the currently marginalized Israel will be vindicated in the future. The Jews have been beat up pretty badly but the day is coming when their sufferings will be over. The Jews have hope now since God intends to fully restore Israel and defeat all of Israel’s enemies. One like a son of man is tied to fulfilling this hope.

When we get to the Gospels, there is a dramatic shift in the usage of son of man.   In Daniel, the indefinite article is used, but Jesus uses it with the definite article.   For Jesus,  “the”  Son of Man now assumes the form of a title.

What makes the Son of Man subject even more challenging is all of the peculiar images associated with Son of Man in both Daniel and the sayings of Jesus, such as a darkened sun, falling stars, and clouds of heaven. The technical term Bible scholars use for this type of language is apocalyptic, which is something we will look at in another Veracity blog post. The main idea suggested here is that Jesus is using this loaded term “the” Son of Man partly in a generic way.  But partly also He uses it to reveal something about Himself, His mission, and the restoration of Israel that has remained hidden from the people until that present time in first century Palestine.  Yes, Jesus is a human being, but there is definitely more to the story … a whole lot more!

Are you scratching your head a little bit? That’s OK. Bible scholars of all stripes have been debating the topic of Son of Man for centuries. If there is a consensus about Son of Man it is that this enigmatic phrase gets your attention. Jesus never simply jumps out and says, “Hey, yall! I am the Messiah and the Second Person of the Godhead. Get it?” No, instead He uses this veiled language to keep people guessing as to who He really is. As the bystanders and followers of Jesus watch Him heal the sick, forgive sins, and talk about his impending death, they are drawn into the mystery of His story. As you look for Son of Man in the Gospels yourself and ask God to reveal Himself, you will be drawn into that mystery, too.

Some of you are probably thinking, “Now wait just a minute! Clarke, you have a lot of things going on here. Christians do believe that Jesus as ‘Son of Man’ is also the Messiah, along with being the Second Divine Person within the Godhead.  Assuming that this all fits together somehow, how then do you get from ‘Son of Man’ to ‘Messiah’, much less to the Triune God?” That is a great question. I am glad you asked. I have hinted at the answer already, but stay tuned for more Veracity blog posts in the future to explore these issues in greater depth.

Additional Resources:

The Common English Bible (CEB) is a fairly new English translation that substitutes the phrase “Son of Man” with “Human One”.   Explore the controversy behind this translation decision here.

Do you want a quick “deep dive” into the “Son of Man”?  Mark Goodacre is a British New Testament scholar teaching at Duke University.   Goodacre does not have an evangelical theology as best as I can tell, being more of a moderate on the theological spectrum.    But he has a podcast that covers New Testament issues from a historical perspective that a number of evangelicals find helpful.  Here is an 11-minute survey of issues surrounding “Son of Man” in the Bible:

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

8 responses to “Like a Son of Man

  • Lou Leffler

    Even though Jesus is of divine conception, He born of “man”. That’s a simple man’s thinking.

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    • Clarke Morledge

      Great point, Lou. The Virgin Birth demonstrates the core Christian belief that Jesus shares both a divine nature (via the Holy Spirit conception) and a human nature (via Mary’s womb).

      Thanks for commenting.

      Clarke

      Like

  • Jon Gleason

    Hello, Clarke. I think there’s a strong parallel between Daniel 7 and John 5:27 which is instructive. But perhaps that’s covered in the podcast or you’ll be addressing it later.

    This grabbed my attention:
    “There is very little evidence of one like a son of man as being equated with God, much less as the Messiah, in Judaism prior to the time of Christ when Daniel was written.”

    Are you meaning to say that Daniel was written in the time of Christ?

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  • Clarke Morledge

    That sentence of mine was poorly written. I reworded it in the post.

    The point I was trying to make is that prior to the time of Jesus, there is no Jewish interpretation that would affirm Daniel’s “son of man” as an exalted divine figure. Such an idea clashed against their monotheism. However, when we get to the first century A.D., the story changes. The meaning of Daniel’s “son of man” began to slowly unfold.

    Many skeptics argue that Christians invented the “son of man” as a divine, messianic figure, reading things back into the Old Testament that were never there. However, this argument stands open to the counter-charge of reading into the evidence a prejudice against Christianity appropriating an existing, evolving understanding of Daniel’s apocalyptic text within Judaism itself during the first century A.D.

    The Daniel 7 and John 5:27 connection is another excellent example. I had not noticed that before. This Daniel “son of man” idea is all over the Gospels!

    Thanks, Jon, for your contribution! Good stuff!

    Clarke

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  • John Paine

    Very interesting post. It’s particularly important to appreciate what Jesus said about himself (our friends at Day of Discovery did a video on this exact topic recently). Mark Goodacre’s podcast was spot on, particularly the last two-and-a-half minutes. The use of ‘Messiah’ and “Son of Man” by Jesus in Mark 14:61-62 is definitive in equating these terms in the person of Jesus. It’s also interesting to think about Jesus speaking Aramaic to Hebrews who recorded his words in Greek.

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  • Jon Gleason

    Thanks, Clarke, good clarification.

    I’ll add one other thought. I read somewhere (Edersheim, maybe? or maybe one of my seminary profs said it) that Rabbinic Judaism saw “son of man” in Daniel as Messianic but not divine. They did not necessarily see the Messiah as being the Son of God (thus the point of Christ’s questioning them in Matt. 22:41-46). He was the Son of David to them, not the Son of God.

    So perhaps they saw “Son of Man” not as divine, but they did see it as Messianic.

    I don’t know where I read it, and can’t vouch for its accuracy. But I find it an interesting thought along these lines.

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    • Clarke Morledge

      Jon, that’s correct from the research that I have seen, namely James Dunn’s, Christology in the Making.

      Dunn argues that there is very little evidence of a messianic interpretation of Daniel 7 in Jewish circles until the era of Jesus. Prior to that, messiahship was generally understood to be in terms of Davidic sonship. Things were different by the first century.

      Daniel 7 was never thought to be that of an exalted divine figure, though some of the language points in that direction. On the other hand, Jesus pulled in a variety of themes that eventually led the early Christians to worship Him as God Incarnate.

      My point is that while critics are correct to expose pious attempts to read messianic divinity back into Daniel 7 originally as reading too much into the texts, it would be equally wrong to say that the early Christian movement simply made all of this up. It all goes all the way back to Jesus and the first century Jewish context where He was moving in during the time of His ministry.

      Clarke

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  • Jon Gleason

    Thanks, Clarke. I think I misread something you said earlier, but it’s penetrated my skull now. 🙂

    Like

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