“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Synoptic Sayings (Mark, pt 3)

The Literary Setting of the Passion Predictions

The three Passion-predictions (see the discussion in Parts 1 and 2) provide a framework for the opening section of the second half of the Gospel narrative (the Judean/Jerusalem period). This opening section is centered on the journey of Jesus to Jesus to Jerusalem (covered by chapter 10 of Mark). The Passion-predictions are rather evenly divided within the section, marking the beginning, middle, and end. The second prediction marks the mid-point of the section, dividing it into two distinct parts. We may outline this as follows:

    • First Passion-Prediction (and the disciples’ reaction)—8:30-32
    • PART 1 (Preparation: Teaching the Disciples):
      • Teaching/sayings on Discipleship, with an eschatological theme (8:33-9:1)
      • The Transfiguration: Revelation to the Disciples (9:2-8)
      • Teaching the Disciples, with an eschatological theme (9:9-13)
      • Exorcism miracle episode, in the context of teaching the Disciples (9:14-29)
    • Second Passion-Prediction (and disciples’ reaction)—9:30-32
    • PART 2 (The Journey to Jerusalem):
      • Teaching his disciples: theme of ‘entering the Kingdom of God’ (9:33-50)
      • Teaching the crowds: focus on a discussion with Pharisees on a point of Law (10:1-12)
      • Teaching his disciples: theme of ‘entering the Kingdom of God’ (10:13-31)
    • Third Passion-Prediction (and disciples’ reaction)—10:32-34

The first part of this section centers on Jesus’ teaching his close disciples, in a manner that we may say is in preparation for the journey to Jerusalem. The Transfiguration episode effectively brings his Galilean ministry period to a close, and marks an end to his primary Messianic role during this period—as an Anointed Prophet, fulfilling the type-patterns of Moses and Elijah. Following this episode, Jesus once again alludes to his coming suffering and death (9:9-13). All of the teaching in this section has a strong eschatological emphasis, indicating quite clearly that his death and resurrection also has a profound eschatological significance (something many Christians today are unable or unwilling to recognize).

At verse 30, the narrative transitions into the second Passion-prediction, with an echo of Jesus’ earlier prohibition on revealing his identity as the Messiah (8:30):

“And from that (place), going out, they traveled along through the Galîl, and he did not wish that anyone should know (it)…”

Here, however, the sense of prohibition is rather different. Jesus simply wishes to avoid the crowds, keeping his presence hidden from the surrounding populace while he travels (south) through Galilee. The reason for avoiding any crowds is made clear in the opening words of verse 31:

“…for he taught his learners [i.e. disciples]”

Again, this echoes the context of the first Passion-prediction (“And he began to teach them…”). The teaching he was doing with his (close) disciples was of such importance, that Jesus wished to avoid attracting crowds around him that might distract from his work. And what is the subject, the focus of this teaching? It is the message of his coming suffering and death in Jerusalem. That the Passion-prediction fundamentally represents the substance of his teaching here is indicated by the wording of v. 31a:

“for he taught his learners [i.e. disciples] and said to them…”

What Jesus “said to them” is the Passion-prediction proper. As noted above, the statement of the prediction can be divided into two parts. The first predicts Jesus’ betrayal (an aspect of his Passion not specified in the first prediction), while the second restates the message of his coming death and resurrection.

The Other Son of Man Sayings

With this narrative framework in mind, we can examine the remaining “son of man” references in the Synoptic narrative, particularly those which are woven around the Passion-predictions that frame the narrative.

Mark 8:38

The first saying to be considered occurs in the first block of teaching (8:33-9:1) in the First Part (see the outline above). This block of material can be summarized as: Teaching/sayings on Discipleship, with an eschatological theme. There are at least three distinct traditions that comprise this unit: (i) verse 34b, (ii) verses 35-37, and (iii) verse 38. The last of these gives to the section a decided eschatological emphasis:

“For whoever would be ashamed over me and my words, in this adulterous and sinful genea/, the son of man also will be ashamed over him, when he should come in the splendor of his Father, (along) with the holy Messengers.”

It is understandable why some commentators have suggested that, originally in this saying (as well as several others), the “Son of man” was a heavenly being (cf. Dan 7:13-14) separate and distinct from Jesus himself. And, indeed, this saying is rather problematic (as an authentic saying by Jesus) if “son of man” is intended as a self-reference. Early Christians would have had no difficulty in understanding such a saying, in hindsight, as referring to the impending future return to earth of the exalted Christ. However, this point of reference would, it seems, have made little sense to Jesus’ disciples during the time of his ministry indicated by the position of this saying in the Gospel narrative.

The theory that Jesus was referring to someone else by the expression “the son of man” is undercut by the parallel saying in Matt 10:32-33:

“(So) then, everyone who will give account as one* with me in front of men, I also will give account as one with him in front of my Father th(at is) in [the] heavens.”
* The verb o(mologe/w, rendered more conventionally, agree with, acknowledge, affirm, confess (i.e., in agreement with others).

This saying is part of the “Q” material shared with Luke; the Lukan version (12:8-9), however, appears to conflate the “Q” and Markan versions, even though Luke also preserves the Synoptic/Markan saying separately (in 9:26). Verse 8 represents the “Q” version:

“Every one who would give account as one with me in front of men, also the son of man will give account as one with him in front of the Messengers of God”

A strong argument can be made that the Markan and “Q” sayings represent variations of a single tradition—and that argument becomes stronger if the Lukan formulation of the “Q” saying, using the expression “the son of man”, is the more original form. The parallelism of “me” / “son of man” suggests that the expression, again, is being used principally, if not exclusively, by Jesus as a self-reference. The Matthean version of the “Q” saying would tend to confirm this point.

What of the apparent inconcinnity (incongruity) of Jesus referring to his future coming in this way, at this point in the Gospel narrative? The problem may be resolved, to some extent, if Jesus was originally referring, not to a future return, but to his exaltation, after his death and resurrection. In his exalted position, he would be able to speak, before God the Father, regarding those who claimed to be his disciples. If they felt shame over him, or refused to acknowledge him publicly (“before men”), then he, too, would feel shame over them, and refuse to acknowledge them publicly (before God and the heavenly beings) as his disciples. A heavenly Judgment-scene is certainly intended.

There are additional such eschatological “son of man” references in Matthew and Luke (from the “Q” tradition, and otherwise), but this is the only one in the Synoptic/Markan narrative (apart from the key references in 13:26 and 14:62).

Mark 9:9, 12

There are two further “son of man” references in 9:9-13, a section with a similar emphasis as 8:33-9:1—viz., Jesus teaching the Disciples, with an eschatological theme (9:9-13). This unit follows immediately after the Transfiguration scene (9:2-8). The narrator indicates that Jesus warned his disciples not to reveal anything of what they had seen (v. 9), even as he did after Peter’s confession (8:30); this implies that the Transfiguration was a manifestation of Jesus’ Messianic identity (spec. a Messianic Prophet, fulfilling the type-figures of Elijah and Moses). The statement in verse 9 essentially repeats and summarizes the Passion-prediction of 8:31. Again, Jesus’ impending suffering and death (as “son of man”) is in marked contrast to the Messianic glory which was revealed about him in the Transfiguration.

The second “son of man” reference, in verse 12, is perhaps the closest example we have, in the Synoptic narrative, of the expression being used specifically as a reference to the Messiah. It occurs in the context of an eschatological question posed by the disciples, regarding the appearance of “Elijah” prior to the end of the Age: “(Why is it) that the writers say that ‘it is necessary (for) ‘Eliyyah to come first’?” (v. 11). Almost certainly, the tradition derived from Malachi 4:5-6, in the eschatological context of 3:1ff and 4:1ff, is in view. On this end-time figure of ‘Elijah’, as a Messianic Prophet, see Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. In the Transfiguration scene, and elsewhere in the early Gospel Tradition, Jesus is identified as this figure; and, yet, there is another line of early Christian tradition that clearly identifies John the Baptist as the ‘Elijah to come’. The Synoptic Gospels attest to both lines of tradition, with the identification of John as ‘Elijah’ being somewhat more prominent (cf. the allusion in v. 13).

More significance for our study here is the formulation of the “son of man” saying in verse 12. Jesus responds to the disciples, as he often does, by redirecting their question. Without denying the traditional eschatological belief expressed by their question, he positions it in a different way:

“‘Eliyyah, (hav)ing come first, will (indeed) set down all (thing)s from (what they were before) [i.e. restore them], and (yet) how is it (then) written about the son of man, that he should suffer many (thing)s and be made out as nothing?”

The expression “the son of man”, in the phrase “written about the son of man”, seems to be more or less equivalent to “the Anointed (one)” (i.e., the Messiah). However, the apparent equivalence may be misleading. Jesus’ wording may simply assume, as his disciples now realize, that he is the Messiah—the Divine Messenger of the end-time, who will usher in the Kingdom of God. The saying can be understood quite well if “the son of man” is, again, primarily regarded as a self-reference by Jesus; to paraphrase— “how is it then written about me, as the Messiah, that I should suffer many things…?”

In any case, as with the Passion predictions, it is Jesus’ human suffering that is being emphasized, in association with the expression “son of man”. He continues to teach his disciples, preparing them for the suffering that he is to endure in Jerusalem.

Mark 10:45

The same emphasis can be found in the “son of man” saying in Mark 10:45, occurring at the conclusion of an episode (vv. 35-45) set toward the end of the journey to Jerusalem (and after the third Passion-prediction [vv. 33-34]). Jesus’ teaching in verses 42-45, which may originally have circulated as separate sayings, stresses the need for humility and self-sacrifice among his disciples. They are to follow his own example, in this regard. Here the use of “the son of man” in verse 45 clearly functions as a self-reference:

“For even the son of man did not come to be served, but (rather) to serve, and to give himself as (the means of) loosing (from bondage), in exchange for many.”

In the narrative context, this saying certainly alludes, again, to Jesus’ impending suffering (and death) in Jerusalem. The phrase “to give himself…in exchange for many” indicates an act of self-sacrifice, as we also see in the wording of Jesus at the Last Supper (14:24 par). It is the first time in the Gospel narrative that Jesus’ death is described in salvific terms—referred to as a lu/tron, that is, the means of loosing (i.e., freeing, vb lu/w) someone from bondage. Jesus gives himself, sacrificially, “in exchange” for many others, in order to set them free.

Mark 14:21, 41

Finally, though they occur at a later point in the narrative—in the heart of the Passion narrative—the “son of man” references in Mark 14:21 and 41 obviously serve, for Jesus, as a self-reference, but one that is closely associated with his suffering and death. In a sense, these two references serve to frame the narrative of Jesus’ suffering (passion) prior to his arrest. The betrayal of Jesus, alluded to (by the verb paradi/dwmi) in the second and third Passion predictions, is the focus here, emphasized most dramatically in verse 21:

“(On the one hand, it is) that the son of man goes under just as it has been written about him; and (yet,) for that man, through whom the son of man is given along [paradi/dotai], (it would be) fine for him, that man, if he had not come to be (born)!”

As in 9:12 (see above), Jesus’ suffering is described as something foretold (prophesied) in the Scriptures. Following his agony in Gethsemane (vv. 32-41), the time of his betrayal finally comes, the moment that sets in motion the process leading to his death. The wording Jesus used to announce this, in verse 41, indicates that it is a moment of eschatological significance:

“It holds off (no longer)—the hour has come! See, the son of man is given into the hands of sinful (men)!”

This climactic declaration brings to fulfillment the “son of man” statements by Jesus dealing with the idea of his suffering (and death) as a “son of man”. As I have discussed, this usage likely alludes to the poetic tradition whereby the expression connotes the weakness and mortality of the human condition. At the same time, Jesus clearly is using it as a self reference: “this son man” —namely, himself.

In the fourth (and last) part of this article on the Synoptic (Markan) sayings, we will look at a seemingly quite different context for the expression “the son of man” —namely, the sayings in 13:26 and 14:62 par, with their reference to the exalted/heavenly figure of Daniel 7:13-14.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *