There is nearly unanimous agreement among scholars that the expression “the Son of Man” ([o(] ui(o\$ [tou=] a)nqrw/pou) in the Gospels, derives from its use (originally in Aramaic) by Jesus himself. All but a handful of the 80+ occurrences of “Son of Man” are from Jesus’ own words in the Gospels. By contrast, the expression only appears four times elsewhere in the New Testament, and only once as a title for Jesus (Acts 7:55-56, which is a reflection of Gospel tradition [Lk 22:69 par]). It is equally rare in the earliest extra-canonical Christian writings, the so-called Apostolic Fathers (c. 90-160 A.D.)—Ignatius, Ephesians 20:2; Epistle of Barnabas 12:10. In both of these passages “son of man” is understood in something like its generic sense (“human being”) to emphasize the human nature of Jesus—Ignatius stresses Jesus’ dual-nature (“…the [son] of Man and son of God”), while ‘Barnabas’, on the other hand, stresses that Jesus was not simply a human being (“see again Jesus: not son of man, but [rather] son of God”). We find “Son of Man” a bit more frequently in subsequent writings of the early Church, but usually in the context of commenting on, or attempting to explain, the use of the expression in the Gospels (or in Daniel 7). The most noteworthy occurrences in the 2nd century, are in the apologetic works of Justin Martyr—Dialogue with Trypho §§31, 32, 76, 79, 100, 126; and the First Apology §51.
All of this to say that the expression is found so frequently in the sayings of Jesus, and then virtually disappears from early Christian tradition—this makes the authenticity of its use in the sayings secure. However, when it comes to the eschatological Son of Man sayings by Jesus, where he appears to identify himself as a divine/heavenly figure who will appear at the end-time Judgment, critical scholars tend to be a bit more cautious and skeptical. The authenticity of these sayings (as we have them in the Gospels) has been questioned, generally on the basis of two factors:
- They have been “Christianized” to varying degrees—that is to say, a number of the sayings have been tied in contextually to believers’ faith in, and confession of, Jesus (e.g. Luke 6:22; 9:26 [Mk 8:38]; 12:8). For critical scholars, this indicates that, at the very least, the sayings have been colored or modified in light of early Christian belief and practice.
- Jesus never specifically identifies himself as the “Son of Man”—this only occurs once in the Gospel tradition (in Matthew’s version of the first Passion prediction, Matt 16:21), and may be attributed to the author/narrator rather than Jesus. According to the view of a number of commentators, in the eschatological sayings, Jesus is referring to a separate divine/heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”, cf. Dan 7:13-14ff; 1 Enoch 37-71), and not to himself. In early Christian tradition, references to this figure were then interpreted as referring to Jesus and his end-time (second) coming, as we see in Matt 24:3.
With regard to the first point, the extent of the “Christianization” of these sayings certainly can be debated. If we consider the core sayings in the Synoptic tradition—Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 and parallels—there is really very little evidence for this. The saying in Mark 8:34 has a more obvious “Christian” context, but, since the sayings in 8:34-9:1 have likely been appended together as part of the earliest Tradition, and need not have been uttered by Jesus in sequence on a single occasion, it is questionable whether one should equate it with the (original) context of v. 38. The same may be said for the narrative framework of chapter 13 (the Olivet or “Eschatological” Discourse), which is best understood as a collection of sayings, which may have been uttered by Jesus on different occasions, combined together on the basis of a common theme and subject—i.e. eschatological teaching and sayings by Jesus. Verses 9-13 are a prophecy of the persecution early believers will experience, and the “false Messiahs (or Christs)” in vv. 21-22 are connected with people claiming to be Christ (i.e. Jesus) in v. 6; however, only Matthew’s version of this discourse specifically connects the coming of the Son of Man (Mk 13:26 par) with the future/second coming of Jesus (Matt 24:3). In none of the Synoptics is the Son of Man saying itself modified or glossed, nor do we see any sign of this in Mark 14:62 par.
It is interesting to consider that Luke’s Gospel, apparently written for a wider Greco-Roman (Gentile) audience, and which occasionally translates or simplifies elements of the Gospel tradition into more conventional Greek language, never does this with the Son of Man sayings, even though the expression “the Son of Man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou), as Jesus uses it, would have sounded strange indeed to Greeks unfamiliar with the Semitic idiom. Luke has considerably more eschatological sayings than Mark—in addition to the three core Synoptic sayings (cf. above), there are those in Lk 12:40; 17:22, 24, 26, 30; 18:8; 21:36 (and cf. the parallels in Matt 24:27, 37, 39, 44). Not once, however, does the author narrate or explain the saying in such a way as to clarify that the coming of the Son of Man means the coming of Jesus himself. While early Christians may have assumed or understood this automatically, some in Luke’s intended audience likely would not have. That the Son of Man sayings were left ‘unexplained’ indicates that they were so deeply rooted and fixed in the Gospel tradition, the author simply could not alter them.
This brings us to the second point—that in these Son of Man sayings Jesus originally was not referring to himself, but a separate heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”). There are several problems with this view:
(a) There is little, if any, formal difference between the eschatological Son of Man sayings and those elsewhere in the Gospel tradition (i.e. Mark 2:10, 28 par; Luke 7:34; 9:58 par, etc), in which it is generally admitted that Jesus is referring to himself, perhaps using “son of man” idiomatically as a substitute for the pronoun “I”. Even in the context of the Passion, and the predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par) which critical scholars might regard as ex eventu prophecies produced by early Christians, there is little doubt that “the Son of Man” refers to Jesus himself. It is natural to assume that the eschatological sayings also are meant as a self-reference. If there was any intended distinction between the usage in these sayings, it has become completely confused in the Gospel tradition. In fact, there is some indication that Jesus’ use of the expression actually was confusing to some in his audience, if we accept the detail recorded in John 12:34.
(b) There is no clear evidence that the expectation of an end-time figure called “the Son of Man” was widespread or common at the time of Jesus; indeed, the situation is quite the opposite. As I indicated in Part 10, there is only one surviving document, likely contemporary with (or prior) to the time of Jesus, which describes a specific divine/heavenly being called “the Son of Man”—the so-called Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71). This “Son of Man”, also identified as “the Righteous One”, “the Elect/Chosen One” and also “the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah), will serve as Judge over the nations at the end-time. This figure, like the “Son of Man” in Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62, is clearly inspired by, and derived from, Daniel 7; however, the Similitudes do not specifically emphasize his glorious appearance on earth at the end-time. There is little reason to think that Jesus was referring to common and popular image, though educated and devout Jews certainly would have recognized an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14. Turning again to John 12:34, we see that Jesus’ audience seems to understand “the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah/Christ), presumably in terms of an end-time Davidic Ruler (cf. Parts 6–8), but they are noticeably less clear about the Son of Man (“…who is this ‘Son of Man’?”).
(c) If we combine the arguments of (a&b), along with the fact that there is little sign that any of the eschatological Son of Man sayings has been altered or glossed for the sake of clarity or as part of a Christological interpretation (cf. above), then there appears to be little reason to treat those sayings differently from Jesus’ use of the expression “the Son of Man” elsewhere. Even in the textual transmission, there is surprisingly little evidence for substantive variant readings involving the expression “Son of Man” (i.e., using a more familiar title “Lord”, “Christ”, “Son of God”, or even the pronoun “I”), one notable example being found in John 9:35 (“Son of Man” vs “Son of God”).
If, then, we accept the general authenticity of the Son of Man sayings by Jesus, and that they have been preserved with very little modification or alteration, it becomes necessary to step back and consider how the eschatological sayings fit within the overall use of the expression. I have already discussed this in prior notes and articles, but I will summarize the points here:
- As a Hebrew/Aramaic idiom, the expression “son of man” simply refers to a human being or to the human condition. The poetic and formal usage in the Old Testament typically is related to the idea of human limitation (or weakness) and mortality, especially compared with the divine/heavenly nature of God and his Messengers (Angels).
- Subsequently in Hebrew and Aramaic, this generic sense of the expression—i.e., a(ny) human being—merged into the specific use of the idiom as a self-reference, a substitute or circumlocution for the pronouns “I” or “you”. However, it is still debated whether, or to what extent, it was commonly used this way in the time of Jesus.
- In many of the sayings, Jesus appears to use “son of man” as a self-reference, but in terms of his identity as a human being. Within the Synoptic tradition, see especially, Mark 2:10, 28 par; Luke 9:58 par.
- This identification with human beings (and the human condition) also has a distinct soteriological emphasis in a number of sayings, both in the Synoptics and John—cf. Mark 10:45 par; Luke 19:10; John 3:13; 9:35.
- He also identifies specifically with human weakness, suffering and death, expressed in the Gospel tradition in the context of his Passion (suffering/death) and subsequent resurrection—esp. the Passion predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34 par), also Mark 9:9, 12; 14:21, 41 par; Matt 12:40; 26:2; Lk 22:48; 24:7, and cf. in the Gospel of John (Jn 3:14; 6:27, 33; 12:23, 34; 13:31).
- Finally, he identifies himself with the “one like a son of man” (i.e. resembling a human being) in Daniel 7:13-14, as a divine/heavenly figure who will appear as God’s representative at the end-time Judgment—Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 par, etc. Jesus draws on tradition and imagery (from Daniel 7) similar to that found in the Similitudes of Enoch (probably contemporary with Jesus’ time). In the Gospel and early Christian tradition, this Son of Man reference blends together with the idea of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God in heaven (Mark 14:62 par; Acts 7:55-56 etc). This exaltation motif is expressed somewhat differently in the Gospel of John, as a return, stepping (back) up into heaven to be with the Father—Jn 3:13; 6:27-52; 12:23; 13:31.