In an earlier post, I countered the frequent contention that Jesus claimed to be the ‘son of God.’ The titles of ‘son of God’ and ‘messiah’ (or Christ) were similar references to a military conqueror and ruler. The human Jesus refused that role. He also never spoke of himself as the divine logos (log’-ohs). These were all titles created by others for him. According to the gospels, the only ‘title’ he used for himself was ‘the son of man.’ No one else calls Jesus by this term. It was an image he apparently claimed for himself, but which the church has generally dropped in favor of ‘son of God.’ However, where the phrase ‘son of man’ is used in the gospel accounts, modern English translators often capitalize it as ‘Son of Man’ to ensure that we will understand the use of the term in a very specific context—as a reference to a seemingly supernatural figure found in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. In Daniel’s dream, this figure comes before God on the clouds of heaven and is given dominion over a never-ending empire on earth. The Son of Man fits nicely with the exalted image of Jesus in that other apocalyptic New Testament book—Revelation. But the phrase ‘son of man’ has other connotations in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Ezekiel proposes a very different meaning for the idiom.
For a better understanding of this term, it is helpful to look at Walter Wink’s groundbreaking book, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man (2002). Wink explains that in much of the Hebrew Bible the term ‘son of man’ or ben ‘adam (bane aw-dawm’) was used to describe humanity in general or a specific human being—conveying the connotation of ordinary human mortality and weakness. (The Hebrew word ‘adam’ (aw-dawm’) can be translated as either ‘man or ‘Adam’ depending on the context.) Similar to the Hebrew idiom ‘son of wickedness,’ which refers to a wicked man, the phrase ‘son of man’ simply means ‘a human being.’ Many scholars insist that when Jesus used the term, he meant he was just one of the boys, a regular fellow. Of course, the phrase comes across as very male-oriented, and it is. Wink suggests that if we prefer, we can translate it as ‘child of the human’ or ‘the human one.’ When rendering ben ‘adam in English, translators sometimes use ‘human being,’ ‘mere man,’ or ‘O mortal’ as substitutions. We see this usage frequently in translations of the book of Ezekiel in the Hebrew Bible, where Yahweh employs the term to refer to the prophet Ezekiel, to whom Yahweh appears in a bizarre vision. There are 107 occurrences of ben ‘adam in the Hebrew Bible, 93 of which are found in the book of Ezekiel.
As the book begins, Ezekiel—a Hebrew priest living in exile in Babylon between the years 593 to 571 BCE—describes a vision he has while lying on the bank of a river in the Babylonian marshlands. He sees four fantastic human-like creatures, each with four faces (human, lion, ox and eagle) and four wings, and each standing beside a wheel within a wheel. Their wings touch, forming a circle. In their midst are flaming coals which issue forth lightning and the sound of thunder. Above their heads is a crystal dome. It soon becomes apparent that this incredibly complex image is a war chariot that serves as a throne for Yahweh. For Ezekiel, it is clearly an indescribable sight. Everything he depicts is a qualified approximation.
And there came a voice from above the dome over their heads; when they stopped, they let down their wings.
And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like the appearance of a man [in Hebrew, adam]. Upwards from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all round; and downwards from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendor all round. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all round. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Yahweh.
(Ezekiel 1: 25-2:1)
In this vision, Yahweh appears to Ezekiel as a kind of glorified human being. As we said in the previous chapter, many images of ancient gods are anthropomorphic—described with human form or attributes. The first chapter of Genesis implies human attributes to God when Elohim (el-o-heem′)—a plural Semitic term meaning ‘the gods’ (sometimes interpreted as a singular ‘god’)—creates humans (male and female) in Elohim’s image. It is unclear whether that means a physical resemblance between Elohim and humanity, or whether it describes some other common characteristic. In spite of the story in Genesis, the opposite appears to be true throughout human history. Humans have consistently created God in their image. In any event, it does not matter who created whom; the results are the same. Humans are the image of God, and God is the image of humanity. Accordingly, Ezekiel envisions God with human-like qualities, albeit a lot bigger and flashier. The invisible, mysterious, ineffable God is revealed to be an awful lot like us.
As Wink says about Ezekiel’s dream, “This is the revelation: God seems to be, as it were, human.” If God is revealed in human-like form, then does God represent something we may begin to approach rather than something that lies completely beyond our nature? Is divinity really found in that which is fully human?
What does it mean to say that God is revealed as human? Why does God turn a human-like face to Ezekiel? Perhaps because becoming human is the task God has set for human beings. And human beings have only a vague idea what it means to be human… We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can dream of what a more humane existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Ezekiel’s vision intimates that only God is, as it were, really Human, and since we are made in God’s image and likeness, we are capable of becoming more truly human ourselves. Even if we do not as yet know what true humanity is, we already know what inhumanity is.
(The Human Being, 26)
According to Wink, God represents what it means to be truly human. By this logic, our goal is not to aspire to what we are not (divine) but rather to become what we truly are (human). We are not on a quest to become perfect, but to become ourselves, to be fully human. Therefore, if God appears to be human, then does the phrase ‘son of man’ or ‘child of the human one’ indicate someone who models this kind of full, authentic humanity?
Before we consider that, let us look at the other key precursor to ‘son of man’ in the gospels, which comes from the apocalyptic book of Daniel. This account takes place in an historical period four hundred years later than Ezekiel, sometime around 167 BCE. It is no longer the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar who oppresses the Hebrew people; it is now Antiochus Epiphanes IV (an-tee′-ohk-ohs ep-if-an-ace′), the king of the Seleucid (sih′-loo-cid) Empire centered in Syria. The title ‘epiphanes’ (ep-if-an-ace’) was shorthand for theos epiphanes (theh’-ohs ep-if-an-ace’), or ‘God manifest.’ Some of his contemporaries referred to him as epimanes (ep-ip-an-ace’), or the ‘mad one.’ To consolidate his Hellenistic empire and strengthen his hold over the region of Jewish Palestine, Antiochus (an-tee′-ohk-ohs) outlawed Hebrew religious rites and traditions kept by observant Jews and ordered the worship of Zeus as the supreme god. The Jewish people were being forced at the point of a sword to convert to paganism. It was a time of severe crisis that led to widespread martyrdom and the Maccabean revolt.
Instead of Ezekiel’s vision experienced while lying by a river in Babylon, the author of the book of Daniel has a series of dreams while sleeping in his bed. Later, in poetic form, the writer describes his unconscious images: a succession of four oppressive empires—first Babylonian, then Persian and Greek, and finally Seleucid—each represented as a terrible beast. Then follows a vision of “one like a son of man” coming on clouds of heaven before the throne of God—called by Daniel, “the Ancient One”—to receive universal and everlasting dominion on earth.
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a son of man [ben ‘adam]
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
Although some biblical scholars and theologians suggest this points to the second coming of Jesus, the verses that follow explain that the ‘son of man’ is not a supernatural or divine individual, but rather the people of the nation of Israel.
The kingship and dominion
and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High;
their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey them.
In Daniel’s poetic dream, the divine ruler in heaven gives these people everlasting dominion over the earth below. Wink concludes that this dream suggests that…
…in a political context where Jews are being forcibly converted to paganism, Daniel is reaffirming his faith that God intends to replace the bestiality of the conquest states with a more humane arrangement: nations will be ruled by human principles and humane leaders rather than by predatory empires that had so long held sway.
(The Human Being, 53)
In Ezekiel, the ‘son of man’ is a reference to a mortal like any of us. In Daniel, it refers to a community who create a just and humane society. So, the question becomes, how was the term used by Jesus when he referred to himself? And perhaps more importantly, how has it been misused by the gospel writers and early Christian theologians?
the gospel ‘son of man’ sayings
There are 81 instances of the ‘son of man’ sayings in the four gospels, although many of these are parallel repetitions. Wink contends—as Marcus Borg has suggested— that some sayings of Jesus in the gospels are pre-Easter and others are post-Easter, meaning that some derive from the historic Jesus and others derive from the later church. Jesus spoke in Aramaic. He would have used the phrase bar enash (bar en-awsh’) to refer to himself as the ‘son of man.’ The Greek New Testament texts use the phrase ho huios tou anthropou (ho hwee-os′ too anth′-roh-poh-oo), literally ‘the son of the man’ with the second definitive article included.
The ‘son of man’ sayings fall into three categories. The first are proverbs about the role and authority of the son of man in Jesus’ Galilean context. The second group describes the passion of the son of man—his suffering and death in Jerusalem. The third collection points to a future return of the son of man on the clouds of heaven. The first group may have been uttered by the historical Jesus, while the second and third groups most likely stem from writers of the early church looking back at the passion in retrospect and looking forward to an imminent return of Jesus as a judge and ruler over Israel.
sayings group 1
The enigma is why Jesus might have used this third-person reference to himself, if he did. He was certainly capable of referring to himself as “I” as is evident in these three gospel parallels.
Who do people say that I am? (Mark)
Who do the crowds say that I am? (Luke)
Who do the people say that the son of man is? (Matthew)
This indicates that sometimes the usage is dependent on the gospel writer. In each of the above queries, the response of the disciples is “one of the prophets.” So if Jesus did use this term, perhaps it was to compare his role to other prophetic figures like Ezekiel, Elijah, and John the Baptizer. It can also be understood to refer to the prophetic community he was gathering around him.
(Matthew 8:20 and Luke 9:58)
Both Jesus and John the Baptizer, as well as all of their disciples, had left their homes to become itinerant preachers, some in the Judean wilderness and others in the villages of Galilee.
Unlike John’s movement, the Jesus movement was not ascetic. Jesus and his cohorts did not regularly fast as a spiritual discipline. Inclusive meal fellowship was a central part of his movement, and the celebratory wedding banquet was one of his metaphors for the kingdom of God. At a banquet, there is plenty for everyone.
(Mark 2: 28; Matthew 12:8; Luke 6:5)
The followers of Jesus were frequently criticized for violation restrictive sabbath regulations. Their open defiance was an implied criticism of a moralistic region that had divided the world into sacred and profane categories. The Jesus movement practiced compassionate action unrestricted by religious rules.
(Mark 2:10; Matthew 9:6; Luke 5:24)
Forgiveness of sins was a key element of the John and Jesus movements. Jesus taught his followers to forgive each other generously and without limit. He announced forgiveness to others freely. To those he encountered, Jesus never said, “I forgive you all your sins;” he simply said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus did not claim to be a broker of forgiveness on behalf of God as the priesthood of the Jerusalem temple system asserted. He believed that forgiveness was a freely given gift from God accessible to all. And he believed that the power to forgive others was a profoundly human trait.
This saying is reported in the context of Jesus’ encounter with the wealthy Zacchaeus, a chief tax-collector, who was challenged by the Jesus movement to change his whole way of thinking and living. He had been lost in acquisitiveness, leading him to use his position to defraud others. The followers of Jesus reflected another way of being in the world, reversing conventional values from self-centered greed to openhanded sharing.
Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to liberate many.
Jesus taught the importance of servanthood as part of his movement, and he emphasized that to follow him, one must be willing to suffer and die to liberate people from cultural, political, and economic, and even religious domination.
sayings group 2
Beyond this kind of self-deferential usage, seventeen of the ‘son of man’ passages in the gospels have to do with the impending passion of Jesus. As they march toward a final confrontation with the powers in Jerusalem, Jesus foretells what is to happen: the ‘son of man’ will encounter contempt, rejection, and suffering. These are expected consequences whenever anyone, especially a prophet, challenges invested power, and so they do not require unusual insight. Jesus indicated that this treatment was something that had happened to previous prophets in the Hebrew Bible and more recently, to John the Baptizer.
But I tell you that Elijah [referring to John the Baptizer] has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the son of man is about to suffer at their hands.
In his reference to what had been written about the ‘son of man,’ Jesus was most likely referring to the prophet Ezekiel, who after seeing God in human form, was given a mission with the clear expectation that his message would not be well received. In the second and third chapters of Ezekiel, we glimpse the fate that awaits Ezekiel by carrying Yahweh’s message to his society.
[Yahweh] said to me: son of man… I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. Because they are stubborn and obstinate children. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says Yahweh.’ Whether they listen or not, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you sit among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a tribe of rebels. You shall speak my words to them, whether they listen or not, for they are a rebellious house… But the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they will not listen to me; because all the house of Israel is hard hearted and obstinate.
(Ezekiel 2:1 – 3:11)
The rest of the book of Ezekiel is an account of the son of man’s (Ezekiel’s) prophecies, his sufferings, and his endurance of social contempt.
Although Jesus anticipated his own rejection and suffering because of his radical message and actions, he wanted to prepare his followers for the same consequence if they followed him in resistance to the domination system.
These sayings do not require prescient knowledge. Stirring up the status quo and speaking truth to power are not popular activities. However, some ‘son of man’ sayings include more specific details of the eventual passion account—like being betrayed by a colleague, handed over to authorities for trial, executed by crucifixion, and finally, being raised from the dead. If Jesus was truly human, we can assume that these were not actual predictions made by Jesus, but were later attributed to him by the gospel writers decades after the events of Holy Week transpired.
(Mark 8:31 and Luke 9:22; Matthew 16:21 uses ‘he’ instead of ‘son of man’)
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.
(Mark 10:33-34 and Luke 18:31-33)
If my math is correct, Jesus spent two nights and one day in the grave, but the historic formula of three days and nights corresponds to the account of the prophet Jonah. (Jonah 1:17)
sayings group 3
The third group of sayings deals with an event in the future—a second coming of the Son of Man, in which Jesus is now identified with the supernatural, semi-divine figure in the book of Daniel.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Other future-oriented sayings declare the unpredictability of the timing of his return and the suddenness of his appearance. They emphasize watchfulness, readiness, and attention to duty.
But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
The apocalyptic followers of Jesus imagined that he would one day return as a triumphant warrior king—a real messiah, a royal conqueror. The mythology of the victorious Christ developed into a militaristic image of Jesus descending from the clouds in splendor and might to defeat the powers of the present age and to put all nations under his control. They believed that Christ’s kingdom would become the greatest empire in history and would last for a thousand years.
The returning Son of Man who arrives on the clouds of heaven accompanied by a band of angels and sits in judgment of humanity fits nicely with the church’s apocalyptic visions for Jesus. To put these sayings on the lips of Jesus seems to me to be travesty, but orthodox Christian belief has me far outweighed.
Jesus and God
Jesus was not God. But Jesus had a relationship with God that was extraordinary. Jesus went beyond a simple belief in God, to live a life completely based on a powerful trust in God’s love and compassion. Contrary to sound common sense, Jesus trusted that God’s abiding concern for the poor and God’s passion for the least among us would someday triumph over the injustice of the world. Against all reasonable odds, Jesus trusted that the power of love and non-violent resistance would ultimately overcome entrenched evil and brutality. In opposition to conventional wisdom, Jesus trusted that human kindness and generosity would eventually transform the status quo of selfishness, greed and apathy. This kind of radical trust seems truly mad given the realities of a world beset by evil and suffering. It invites one to be an open target for the contempt and dismissal of intimidating political, economic and religious powers. And it inevitably calls one to become a willing martyr in the ongoing struggle to overturn the unjust systems of the world.
Jesus trusted that the radical change of the reign of God would not come about easily. It would require dedication, risk, and suffering. Jesus never promised that the transformation of the social, political, and economic systems of domination would occur overnight. He never proclaimed that a sudden cosmic event would magically change the world in the twinkling of an eye. Neither did he promise that he or his followers would live to see the change he envisioned. Instead, Jesus trusted that a life of compassion and service in a suffering world would make a progressively small difference, one person at a time, one act at a time, just like the action of a tiny mustard seed in a well-tended garden, or a bit of yeast in a large batch of dough. In everything he did and said, Jesus trusted that God would provide the courage and strength to help his followers muddle through the overwhelming odds stacked against the lives of humble people, trapped in poverty and condemned as social outcasts. Jesus trusted that the spirit of God would empower and encourage a powerless people to prevail over oppressive social systems that were created to serve the narrow interests of a privileged few. Jesus calls us to that task. He calls us to that journey. He calls us to that life.