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Son of Man

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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The only instance in the NT outside the Gospel records of a direct reference to Jesus as ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου occurs in the speech of Stephen before the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 7:56). Assuming its genuineness, it is significant that the expression is used by a Hellenistic Jew recently converted to Christianity. Even on the assumption that the speech is largely the composition of the author of Acts, the same significance attaches to its employment here. Not only is it evidence that the gospel tradition was, in the main, correct as to its use by Jesus of Himself, but it shows how early the consciousness of the Church awoke to the claims which the designation involves. The strange hesitation of primitive Christianity in using this title proves the sturdinèss of the growth and development of independent thought within the Church of the Apostolic Age. The rage of Stephen’s audience, on hearing the words of the speaker, is accounted for only on the supposition that ‘the Son of man’ was recognized as the Jesus whom they had so recently done to death, and who now is described as occupying the transcendent position, and discharging the functions, of Messiah. The great and final synthesis-the Suffering Servant and the Eternal Judge-had received its justification in the alleged exaltation of the Crucified to the right hand of God. Now, no less than in the days of His humiliation, His sympathies were active for the despised and the suffering. It is, perhaps, too much to say that ‘He is revealed to the eyes of His first martyr, that Christians may learn that that which is begun in weakness shall be completed in eternal majesty’ (B. F. Westcott, The Speaker’s Commentary, ‘St. John and the Acts,’ London, 1880, p. 35), but St. Luke’s use of the term in this connexion shows how profoundly its implicates had affected the Christology of the primitive Church (note the word ἑστῶτα; cf. ἐκάθισεν, Mark 16:19, and κάθου, Psalms 110:1).

The absence of the phrase ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου from the general body of NT writings cannot, therefore, be explained as entirely due to a reverent or superstitious disinclination to use a title which Jesus had appropriated to Himself. If the details of the martyrdom of James the Just given by Hegesippus and quoted by Eusebius be accepted, we have the designation used of the glorified Jesus Messiah. On being asked concerning Jesus who was crucified, he answered in a loud voice, ‘Why do ye ask me about Jesus the Son of Man? He is now sitting in the heavens, on the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come on the clouds of heaven’ (Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) ii. 23). According to Jerome, the Gospel according to the Hebrews stated that Jesus had revealed Himself to James after His resurrection as ‘the Son of man’ (‘filius hominis’ [Vir. Ill. 2]), and we may conjecture that the expression in Hegesippus is a reminiscence of that event. It may be readily accepted that the words of James the Just are ‘of the nature of a quotation.’ It is not, however, so easy to see why the same should be said of ‘the use of the phrase by the martyr Stephen in the Acts and the martyr James the Just in Eusebius and by the angels in Luke after the Resurrection’ (E. A. Abbott, The Son of Man, Cambridge, 1910 [3317]; cf. note on [3317a]). The vision of Stephen gives a wider and deeper significance to the Messianic activities of the ascended Jesus. ‘The Son of man’ stands on the right hand of God ready to express His feelings of love and sympathy with the sons of the race to which He belongs.

There are two passages in the NT where the words ὅμοιον υἱὸν ἀνθρώπου are found (Revelation 1:13; Revelation 14:14) both in descriptive accounts of the Seer’s visions. Quite obviously the references are to Jesus as the glorified Messiah (see, on the other hand, H. Lietzmann, Der Menschensohn, Tübingen, 1896, p. 56), and evidently are allusions to the apocalyptic language of Daniel (7:13). According to G. Dalman, the origin of the expression is to be discovered not in Daniel 7:13 but in 10:5f. (The Words of Jesus, Edinburgh, 1902, p. 251). The peculiar phraseology of the NT apocalyptist shows that, although he may have known and even been thinking of Jesus’ self-designation, his eschatological doctrine had its roots in the soil of Judaistic transcendentalism, moving in a plane higher than that of grammatical construction (cf. ὅμοιοι χαλκολιβάνῳ, 1:15, etc.), and that we cannot equate his expression with the θεωρῶτὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου of Stephen (see H. B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John 2, London, 1907, p. 15). The use of ὅμοιος as an adverb in both passages may have been due to the translation he was accustomed to use, but in any case the above conclusion is not affected (ὅμοιος υἱός = ὡς υἱός).

There seems, indeed, no reason to doubt that this designation was well known to the writers and teachers of the apostolic period in spite of non-usage. We need not stay to inquire into the ultimate origin of the idea underlying the term or whether it is to be traced to the Persian doctrine of the Primal Man (see C. Clemen, Primitive Christianity and its Non-Jewish Sources, Edinburgh, 1912, p. 150 ff.). The expression has become native to Palestinian thought and was a terminus technicus of Jewish eschatological speculation. The use of the 8th Psalm by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:27 and his discussion as to the relative appearances in time of the ‘earthy’ (χοϊκός) and the ‘heavenly’ (ἐπουράνιος) man suggest his acquaintance with the term ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. The same may be said of the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Jesus’ superiority in rank to the angelic beings, notwithstanding the fact that He is υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου, is insisted on. The author of the Epistle to the Ephesians not only quotes this Psalm (πάντα ὑπέταζεν, Ephesians 1:22), but does so as if its highest application is discovered in the eternal exaltation of Jesus (ὑπεράνω πάσης ἀρχῆς, κτλ.) ‘the Lord,’ and in His session (καθίσας) at the right hand of God in the heavenly regions (ἐν δεξιᾷ αὐτοῦ ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοις; see J. Moffatt’s translation in The Historical New Testament2, Edinburgh, 1901, p. 232; cf. the use of the Danielic visions in 2 Esdras 13:3 ff.).

Widely different reasons are given by scholars to explain the absence of the term ‘the Son of man’ in the writers of the apostolic period. All the Greek-speaking leaders of Christian thought from Ignatius and Justin Martyr to Chrysostom agree in teaching that the title has a special reference to the human nature of Jesus, the human side in His descent. So also do Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, and Ambrose. For them its importance and significance were mainly dogmatic and theological, less suitable for the exigencies of practical instruction and life. For whatever reason, it did not then, and it never has, become a popular designation of Jesus by the Church (see Dict. of Christ and the Gospels ii. 664a).

J. R. Willis.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Son of Man'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​s/son-of-man.html. 1906-1918.
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