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Son of Man, the
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
( ὁ ὑιὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ,
1. Use in the New Testament: Self-Designation of Jesus
2. Questions as to Meaning
1. The Phrase in the Old Testament
2. "Son of Man" in Daniel 7
3. Expressive of Messianic Idea
4. Post-canonical Literature: Book of Enoch
1. Consciousness of Being the Messiah
2. Half Concealed, Yet Half Revealed His Secret
3. Expressive of Identification with Men in Sympathy, Fortunes and Destiny
4. Speculations (Lietzmann, Wellhausen, etc.) on Aramaic Meaning: These Rejected (Dalman, etc.)
1. Use in New Testament: Self-Designation of Jesus:
This is the favorite self-designation of Jesus in the Gospels. In Matthew it occurs over 30 times, in Mark 15 times, in Luke 25 times, and in John a dozen times. It is always in the mouth of Jesus Himself that it occurs, except once, when the bystanders ask what He means by the title ( John 12:34 ). Outside the Gospels, it occurs only once in Acts, in Stephen's speech (Acts 7:56 ), and twice in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 1:13; Revelation 14:14 ).
2. Questions as to Meaning:
At first sight it appears so apt a term for the human element in our Lord's person, the divine element being similarly denoted by "the Son of God," that this was supposed to be its meaning, as it still is by the common man at the present day. As long as it was assumed that the meaning could be elicited by merely looking at the words as they stand and guessing what they must signify, this was substantially the view of all, although this common conception went in two directions - some noting especially the loftier and more ideal elements in the conception, while others emphasized what was lowly and painful in the human lot; and both could appeal to texts in support of their view. Thus, the view "that Christ by this phrase represented Himself as the head, the type, the ideal of the race" (Stanton, The Jewish and the Christian Messiah ), could appeal to such a saying as, "The Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath" ( Mark 2:28 ); while the humbler view could quote such a saying as, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the heaven have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20 ).
The more scientific investigation of the phrase began, however, when it was inquired, first, what the source was from which Jesus derived this title, and, secondly, why He made use of it.
I. Source of the Title.
1. The Phrase in the Old Testament
That the phrase was not one of Jesus' own invention is manifest, because it occurs often in the Old Testament.
Thus, in Psalm 8:4 it is used as an equivalent for "man" in the parallel lines,
"What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
And the son of man, that thou visitest him ?"
This passage has sometimes been regarded as the source whence Jesus borrowed the title; and for this a good deal might be said, the psalm being an incomparable exposition both of the lowliness and the loftiness of human nature. But there is another passage in the Psalms from which it is far from incredible that it may have been derived: in Psalm 80:17 occur the words,
"Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand,
Upon the son of man whom thou maddest strong for thyself."
This is an appeal, in an age of national decline, for the raising up of a hero to redeem Israel; and it might well have kindled the spark of Messianic consciousness in the heart of the youthful Jesus.
There is a book of the Old Testament in which the phrase "the son of man" occurs no fewer than 90 times. This is the Book of Ezekiel, where it is always applied to the prophet himself and designates his prophetic mission. In the words of Nosgen ( Christus der Menschenund Gotlessohn ): "It expresses the contrast between what Ezekiel is in himself and what God will make out of him, and to make his mission appear to him not as his own, but as the work of God, and thus to lift him up, whenever the flesh threatens to faint and fail." Thus there was one before Jesus of Nazareth who bore the title, at least in certain moments of his life; and, after Ezekiel, there arose another Hebrew prophet who has put on record that he was addressed from the same high quarter in the same terms; for, in Daniel 8:17 , it is written, "So he came near where I stood; and when he came, I was affrighted, and fell upon my face: but he said unto me, Understand, O son of man" - words then following intended to raise the spirit of the trembling servant of God. By Weizsacker and others the suggestion has been made that Jesus may have borrowed the term from Ezekiel and Daniel to express His consciousness of belonging to the same prophetic line.
2. "Son of Man" in Daniel 7
There is, however, in the same Book of Daniel another occurrence of the phrase, in a totally different sense, to which the attention of science is more and more being drawn. In Daniel 7:3 ff, in one of the apocalyptic visions common to this prophet, four beasts are seen coming out of the sea - the first a lion with eagle's wings, the second a bear, the third a fourheaded leopard, and the fourth a terrible monster with ten heads. These beasts bear rule over the earth; but at last the kingdom is taken away from them and given to a fifth ruler, who is thus described, "I saw in the night-visions, and, behold, there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man, and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed" ( Daniel 7:13 , Daniel 7:14 ). Compare with these words from Dan the words of Jesus to the high priest during His trial, "Henceforth ye shall see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matthew 26:64 ), and the echo of the Old Testament words cannot be mistaken. Equally distinct is it in the great discourse in Matthew 24:30 , "Then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory."
3. Expressive of Messianic Idea:
The use of this self-designation by Jesus is especially frequent and striking in passages referring to His future coming to judgment, in which there is necessarily a certain resemblance to the apocalyptic scene in Daniel. In such utterances the Messianic consciousness of Jesus is most emphatically expressed; and the passage in Daniel is also obviously Messianic. In another considerable series of passages in which this phrase is used by Jesus, the references are to His sufferings and death; but the assumption which explains these also most easily is that they are Messianic too; Jesus is speaking of the fortunes to which He must submit on account of His vocation. Even the more dignified passages, expressive of ideality, are best explained in the same way. In short, every passage where the phrase occurs is best understood from this point of view, whereas, from any other point of view, not a few appear awkward and out of place. How little, for example, does the idea that the phrase is expressive of lowliness or of brotherhood with suffering humanity accord with the opening of the judgment-scene in Matthew 25:31 , "But when the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the angels with him, then shall he sit on the throne of his glory"!
4. Post-Canonical Literature: Book of Enoch:
The son of man, or rather "one like unto a son of man" mentioned in Daniel, is primarily the Hebrew people, as is expressly noted in the prophecy itself; but Jesus must have looked upon Himself as the representative of the people of God, in the same way as, in the Old Testament generally, the reigning sovereign was regarded as the representative of the nation. But the question has been raised whether this transference of the title from a collective body to an individual may have been mediated for Him through postcanonical religious literature or the prevalence among the people of ideas generated through this literature. In the Book of Enoch there occur numerous references to the son of man, which bear a remarkable resemblance to some of the sayings of Jesus. The date usually assigned to this production is some 200 years BC; and, if these passages in it actually existed as early as this, the book would almost require to be included in the canonical Scriptures, though for other reasons it is far from worthy of any such honor. The whole structure of the Book of Enoch is so loose and confused that it must always have invited interpolation; and interpolations in it are recognized as numerous. The probability, therefore, is that the passages referring to the son of man are of later date and of Christian origin.
II. Why Jesus Made Use of the Title.
The conclusion that this title expresses, not the personal qualities of Jesus as a man, but His functions as Messiah, may be disappointing; but there is a way of recovering what seems to have been lost; because we must now inquire for what reasons He made use of this term.
1. Consciousness of Being the Messiah:
The first reason, of course, is, that in Daniel it expressed Messiahship, and that Jesus was conscions of being the Messiah. In the Old Testament He was wont all His days to read His own history. He ranged over all the sacred books and found in them references to His own person and work. With divinatory glance He pierced into the secrets of Scripture and brought forth from the least as well as the best-known portions of the ancient oracles meanings which are now palpable to all readers of the Bible, but which He was the first to discover. From the passage in Daniel, or from some other passage of the Old Testament in which the phrase "the son of man" occurs, a hint flashed out upon Him, as He read or heard; and the suggestion grew in His brooding mind, until it rounded itself into the fit and satisfying expression for one side of His self-consciousness.
2. Half Concealed, yet Half Revealed His Secret:
Another reason why He fixed upon this as His favorite self-designation may have been that it half concealed as well as half revealed His secret. Of the direct names for the Messiah He was usually shy, no doubt chiefly because His contemporaries were not prepared for an open declaration of Himself in this character; but at all stages of His ministry He called Himself the Son of man without hesitation. The inference seems to be, that, while the phrase expressed much to Himself, and must have meant more and more for those immediately associated with Him, it did not convey a Messianic claim to the public ear. With this accords well the perplexity once manifested by those listening to Him, when they asked, "Who is this Son of man?" (John 12:34 ); as it also explains the question of Jesus to the Twelve at Caesarea Philippi, "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" or, as it is in the margin, "that I the Son of man am?" (Matthew 16:13 ). That He was the Son of man did not evidently mean for all that He claimed to be the Messiah.
3. Expressive of Identification with Men in Sympathy, Fortunes and Destiny:
But when we try to realize for what reasons Jesus may have picked this name out from all which presented themselves to Him in His intimate and loving survey of the Old Testament, it is difficult to resist the belief that a third and the principal reason was because it gave expression to His sense of connection with all men in sympathy, fortunes and destiny. He felt Himself to be identified with all as their brother, their fellow-sufferer, their representative and champion; and, in some respects, the deepest word He ever spake was, "For the Son of man also came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45 parallel).
4. Speculations (Lietzmann, Wellhausen, Etc.) on Aramaic Meaning: These
Rejected (Dalman, etc.):
In 1896, Hans Lietzmann, a young German scholar, startled the learned World with a speculation on the "Son of man." Making the assumption that Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus, he contended that Jesus could not have applied to Himself the Messianic title, because there is nothing corresponding with it in Aramaic. The only term approximating to it is
See the books on New Testament Theology by Weiss, Beyschlag, Holtzmann, Feine, Schlatter, Weinel, Stevens, Sheldon; and on the Teaching of Jesus by Wentit, Bruce, Dalman; Abbott, The Son of Man , 1910; very full bibliography in Stalker, The Teaching of Jesus concerning Himself .
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Son of Man, the'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​isb/​s/son-of-man-the.html. 1915.