One major group of Son of Man sayings are eschatological—they refer to the coming of the Son of Man at the end-time, in connection with God’s (final) Judgment upon the world. Early Christians, along with most believers today, understood these sayings as referring to the future return of Jesus. However, viewed in this light, the sayings would have made little or no sense to people in Jesus’ own time. Even his close disciples could scarcely grasp the idea of his death and resurrection, prior to their occurrence; in this context, reference to his future return would have been unintelligible. Some critical commentators would treat such sayings as creations of the Church which have been projected back and set on Jesus’ lips. I find this to be most unlikely, given the apparent authenticity of the Son of Man sayings (on objective grounds), as discussed previously.
More plausible is the critical theory that, at the historical level, Jesus, in these sayings, is not referring to himself, but to a separate heavenly/divine figure called “the Son of Man”, inspired by Daniel 7:13 (and subsequent tradition). A close examination of the eschatological sayings (cf. below) shows, I think, that this view is possible; however, there are still serious problems with it. In what is arguably the best-established tradition (Mk 14:62 par, discussed below), Jesus is clearly identifying himself with this heavenly/divine figure. The same may be said for any number of the other eschatological sayings.
The “Son of Man” figure in these sayings is clearly derived from the being “like a son of man” (vn`a$ rb^K=, k§»ar °§n¹š) in Dan 7:13. While the book of Daniel was immensely influential on Jewish thought and belief in the first centuries B.C.-A.D., reference to this passage (and the “Son of Man” figure) is surprisingly absent from the Qumran texts, and other writings of the period. There is really only one contemporary parallel to the eschatological usage by Jesus: the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), often dated by scholars to the time of Jesus and the early Gospel tradition (early-mid 1st cent. A.D.). Equally inspired by Daniel, the Similitudes depict a heavenly figure, called by the title “Son of Man” (among other titles), who will function both as divinely-appointed Redeemer and Judge. There are definite parallels to the figure-type with whom Jesus identifies himself in the Gospels. For more on this subject, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with the supplemental note on Dan 7:13.
There are three eschatological Son of Man sayings in the core Synoptic tradition—Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 par—the last two of which are closely connected and relate to the Passion narrative. Each of these will be discussed in turn.
“For whoever would feel shame (because) of me and my [words] in this adulterous and sinful (period of) coming-to-be [i.e. generation], even (so) the Son of Man will feel shame (because) of him when He should come in the splendor of His Father with the holy Messengers”
This saying follows the first Passion prediction by Jesus (v. 31), and is part of a short block of teaching on the theme of discipleship (8:34-9:1). We see how it is conceivable that Jesus might be referring to a heavenly being separate from himself. However, the parallelism within the saying, together with Jesus’ frequent use of the expression “son of man” as a self-reference, makes this somewhat unlikely here. At any rate, it is clear that the “Son of Man” plays a role in the Judgment, as a witness, it would seem, for or against the human being. The basis of the Judgment, and the Son of Man’s witness, is the reaction of the person to Jesus and his words. The verb e)paisxunomai essentially means “bring shame [ai)sxunomai] upon [e)pi] (oneself)”, but sometimes in the sense of experiencing or feeling shame (within oneself) because of someone or something. The person—that is, the one who is supposed to be a disciple—who feels shame because of Jesus, will suffer a similar (reciprocal) fate in the time of Judgment.
- Instead of phrase “in the splendor of his Father”, Luke reads “in his splendor and (that of) the Father”, emphasizing the Son of Man’s own glory, which he has together with the Father. This formulation could indicate a slight Christological adaptation.
- In the following (concluding) verse (27), Luke’s version generalizes the saying somewhat. Mark reads “…will not taste death until they should see the kingdom of God having come in power”. Luke omits the qualification “…having come in power”, softening the eschatological emphasis.
Matthew has a rather different Son of Man saying at this point (Matt 16:27); it may stem from a separate tradition, or it may simply represent a generalization of the saying in Mk 8:38 par—regarding the role of the Son of Man in the Judgment.
In addition, we find a saying similar to the Synoptic version in the so-called “Q” material—in Matt 10:32-33 and Lk 12:8-9. Quite possibly, the Synoptic and “Q” versions each stem from a single historical tradition. The Q saying is more extensive and preserves a clearer sense of the Judgment scene:
“Every one who should give account as one [i.e. acknowledge/confess] on (behalf of) me in front of men, even (so) the Son of Man will give account as one on (behalf of) him in front of the Messengers of God. And the one refusing to speak (on behalf of) [i.e. who denies/disavows] me, he will not be given (any) speech (on his behalf) [i.e. will be denied/disavowed] in the sight of the Messengers of God” (Lk 12:8-9)
Here it is not a question of feeling shame, but of publicly affirming (or refusing to affirm) faith in Jesus. The would-be disciple’s behavior and attitude “in front of” other people will be reciprocated “in front of” the heavenly tribunal at the end-time.
This saying is part of the collection of eschatological teaching by Jesus which is set as taking place, in Jerusalem, in the days prior to his death. It is presented as a sermon (or discourse) given on a specific occasion, but it is more likely that the arrangement is traditional and thematic, based on the common eschatological theme(s). This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that Matthew includes eschatological sayings (“Q” material) which occur in Luke at an entirely different location (17:20-37). The saying in Mk 13:26, occurs at a climactic (central) point in the “discourse”, covering verses 24-27. It is preceded by a quotation/adaptation of Scripture (Isa 13:10; 34:4) which vividly depicts the heavenly phenomena which will occur at the end-time (vv. 24-25). This marks the sudden appearance of the Son of Man:
“And then they will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man, coming in (the) clouds with much power and splendor” (v. 26)
The expression “coming in/with the clouds (of heaven)” clearly derives from the ancient theophanous motif associated with “the one like a son of man” in Dan 7:13. The Judgment setting of vv. 24-27 is certain, though it must be inferred somewhat in this particular verse. It is the role of the Son of Man in the act of saving/redeeming the Elect people of God which is emphasized in v. 27:
“And then he will set forth the (heavenly) Messengers and they will bring together upon (one place) (all) his (people who are) gathered out [i.e. chosen] (from) out of the four winds, from the (furthest) tip of the earth until the (furthest) tip of heaven.”
- A separate(?) Son of Man saying in v. 30a, which seems to allude to Zech 12:10 (cf. Jn 19:37; Rev 1:7); if so, it introduces the context of Jesus’ impending suffering which is absent from the tradition in Mk 13:24-27 par.
- v. 30b fills out the expression “…clouds of heaven” (cf. Dan 7:13)
- v. 31a adds the phrase “with a great trumpet”
- in v. 31b, the spatial/geographic image for the gathering of the Elect is more straightforward than in Mk 13:27
The corresponding section in Luke (21:25-28) differs considerably, and may reflect an interpretive development of the Synoptic tradition. Note:
- The detail of the Isaian passages cited in Mk 13:24-25 is summarized briefly in v. 25a & 26b
- The reaction of humankind to the heavenly phenomena is included/inserted in vv. 25b-26a
- In place of Mk 13:27 par, it would seem that Luke has included a separate saying of Jesus (v. 28), which more clearly brings out the idea of the coming redemption/deliverance of God’s people (i.e. believers)
The actual Son of Man saying in 21:27, however, follows the Synoptic/Markan version closely—another indication of its established/fixed position within the Tradition.
Even better established is the saying in Mark 14:62, which, if we accept as authentic and derived from Jesus’ actual words (on objective grounds), must have exerted a profound influence on every other eschatological reference to the Son of Man in the earliest Christian tradition. This is seen clearly enough from the way that the death of Stephen is narrated in the book of Acts, where the visionary scene in 7:55-56 obviously relates back to the Synoptic tradition of Mk 14:62 par. The setting of this saying—Jesus’ appearance before the Jerusalem Council (Sanhedrin)—will be discussed in the next part of this series, on the Passion Narrative. Here it is enough to look at the saying itself in its immediate context. It is presented as Jesus’ response to a question by the Council (the High Priest in Mark/Matthew):
“Are you the Anointed (One), the Son of the ‘Blessed’ (One)?” (Mk 14:61)
Matthew’s version of this question (26:63) has added Christological resonance, in the way that it closely echoes the confession of Peter in 16:16. Jesus’ initial response to this question differs significantly in all three Gospels, but the declaration involving the Son of Man is generally fixed in the tradition. Mark’s version (v. 62) is:
“you will look with (open) eyes at the Son of Man, sitting out of the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven!”
The context makes clear that Jesus is identifying himself with the heavenly Son of Man figure (from Dan 7:13 etc); nowhere else in the Gospel tradition is this so readily apparent. However one may interpret the other eschatological Son of Man sayings, there is no mistaking the self-identification of Jesus here. It is also the clearest reference to the exaltation of Jesus, in the way that it blends the reference to Dan 7:13 together with Psalm 110:1. The image of the exalted Jesus in heaven at the right hand of God the Father, so prevalent in early Christian tradition (Mk 16:19; Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3, 13; 1 Pet 3:22, etc), is prefigured here.
Again, it should be pointed out that, despite the numerous differences in how the Sanhedrin scene is narrated in the Synoptics, this particular Son of Man tradition is extremely well-established and fixed. Matthew and Luke (Matt 26:64; Lk 22:69) follow it closely, each including one small temporal phrase at the start—”from now (on)…”—which serves to contrast the current situation with that of the (future) end-time. Now Jesus is being judged under the power/authority of a human council, but from this point on (i.e. after his death and resurrection), the exalted Christ (the Son of Man) will be seated in the ultimate position of authority and judgment, at God’s right hand. We have seen how there is often a motif of reciprocity or reversal-of-fortune in the Son of Man sayings which deal with the Judgment—a person’s fate in the end-time Judgment will mirror his/her attitude and behavior on earth. Just as the Council is judging Jesus, so too will they be judged.
It is possible that Luke’s version of the saying is meant to objectify Jesus’ exaltation. Instead of “you will look with (open) eyes [i.e. see, gaze] at the Son of Man…”, the Lukan version reads simply “the Son of Man will be…”. It is no longer a question of something people will see, but of an objective reality which transcends one’s perception. People will see the Son of Man in glory at God’s right hand because that is where he will be after the resurrection.
The remainder of the Son of Man sayings in Matthew and Luke (from the “Q” material, etc) will be discussed in the next note.