“Son of Man” in the Gospels: A Faculty Discussion

I’m not sure what the artist, Rene Magritte, means by this painting he titled “Son of Man”, but it seems to match the use of the phrase in the gospels

Editor’s Note: Larry Hurtado, A NT scholar at the University of Edinburgh, posted on his blog a summary of a new book on the phrase “Son of Man.”  I sent this link around to the Exegetical and Systematic faculties at Concordia. I’m posting here, with permission, the e-mail discussion.

I checked the LSB 3-year lectionary; surprisingly, only five of twenty-eight occurrences of “son of man” in Matthew are found in Series A readings. So, I guess if you only preach on Matthew and don’t read or teach it, you can ignore this post.

5 aft. Pent. July 17: Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43 (twice)

10 aft. Pent. Aug 21: Matt. 16:13-20 (huge issue here)

11 aft. Pent. Aug 28: Matt. 16:21-28 (twice)

Last Sunday Nov 20: Matt. 25:31-46


I’m forwarding you a link to a brief summary of an article by Larry Hurtado on the phrase “Son of Man” in the gospels. Essentially, he concludes that “Son of Man” in not a Christological title in the gospels. I know that systematics courses on Christology often deal with Christological titles — this will provide you with recent biblical scholarship on the issue.

I do agree, in general, with Hurtado here. The one passage that seems to run counter to this claim is Mark 14:62//Matt 26:64//Luke 22:69, where the allusion is to Daniel 7. Still, Hurtado’s argument might hold, since he claims that the passages in which the phrase “Son of Man” occurs do make Christological claims — however, it is the content of the claim made, not the phrase “Son of Man” that is decisive. So I guess we should stop capitalizing “son of man” (ala Ezekiel).

This does raise some interesting interpretive issues: Do we use “Scripture interprets Scripture,” take our interpretation of one passage in Daniel, and apply that to every occurrence in the gospels (but not, of course, Ezekiel and elsewhere)? Or, does “Scripture interprets Scripture” work on a macro scale, so that individual words and phrase may be used differently in different places, but the overall thrust of the Scriptures is coherent? In the second approach, it is the linguistic milieu which becomes more decisive than “Scripture interprets Scripture.”

Jeff Kloha

I read the summary to which Jeff K. directed us.  I tend to agree with Hurtado as well—it is the larger context that communicates Christological import, not the phrase “the son of man” itself.

Jeff G.

I’ll weigh in on this since I’ve taught Daniel quite a bit.

The phrase in Daniel 7 simply means:  “I Daniel had a vision from God.  I saw a beast that looked like a lion with eagle wings, the second looked like a bear raised on one side, the third looked like a leopard with four wings and four heads, the fourth looked like, well, it didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before, a terrible beast.

Then I saw a figure in my vision that looked “like a son of man” coming on the clouds to the Ancient of Days.

In this context the preposition “like” simply means “the figure looked like this in my vision.”  The expression itself simply means “not an animal but a human, a son of man.”  The expression does mean something, not “Messiah” per se but simply human.  The expression in Ezekiel is used to call Ezekiel “human creature” here as distinct from God.  Also in Psalm 8 = “human.”

So at the very least with this expression Jesus is referring to his own human nature, not divine nature.  He is labeling himself “a member of the human race.”

One of the distinctive features in the Gospels is the definite article “the son of man.”  What do you make of that?

The NT evidence is varied.  We should not adopt the method of illegitimate totality transfer.  Certainly in Rev 1:13 the expression directly points to Dan 7:13.  But that does not necessarilty mean everywhere.

Good discussion.

Paul Raabe

Thanks for the info, Jeff.  A couple of points:

1. This is actually about two decades old.  Jack Kingsbury has been huge on the notion that Son of Man is not a title in the Gospels–for many years now–principally because no one reacts in the narrative to Jesus’s claims.  When he says that the son of man is Lord, even of the sabbath, no one says, “What!  You are the son of man?  How dare you?”  Paul is right in his Ezekiel and Psalm observations.

2. Charlie Moule, back in the late 60s/early 70s on the fact, which he said is not so often noticed, that the definite article is used in the gospels, but not in Dan. 7.  He contended that this was much more important than most thought.  And, if we see Jesus as Israel reduced to one, we can also see him as humanity reduced to one, too.

Both of these are key to the discussion.  I will not be taking SoM as a title in the Mark commentary, largely because of the Kingsbury argument.

Jim Voelz


Jim —

Kingsbury gave a presentation to the faculty maybe four years ago on exactly this topic, as you now call to my mind. And, I recall that he got some pushback, likely from systematics grad students.

Just a jab.

So, Jim, your point re the use of the article is that it designates Jesus as “the human par excellence”?

Jeff Kloha


Two things to throw in:

First, I am looking at my notes from the course on Daniel that I took with Paul (more than a decade ago). In the notes I see that Paul referenced the explanation of the vision to suggest that “one like a son of man” in the vision (Daniel 7:13) seems to match up with “the saints” in the explanation (Daniel 7:18, 22). “One like a son of man” receives authority in the vision; “the saints” receive authority in the explanation of the vision. This character in the vision represents the saints.

So is it Jesus as “humanity reduced to one” or “the saints/the people of God reduced to one” (or neither)?

Second, Hurtado says that the phrase has the sense of “the/this man.”  So is this how he would translate? “Who do people say that this man [indicating himself] is?” Then later to the high priest, “You will see this man coming with the clouds.” Joel Okamoto mentioned that this reminded him of Bob Dole using “Bob Dole” in place of the first person pronoun:  “Well, Bob Dole wouldn’t raise your taxes.”

Dave Lewis


Thanks!  Regarding the first point, yes, this is exactly it.  The saints match up to one like a son of man in Daniel.  Jesus is “the” son of man, so he is the saints reduced to one, too; he is the people of God.  This is just like the “son of God” use in the OT, where the expression is used corporately of Israel in Exodus, and then Jesus is THE Son of God in the NT.  Both expressions are sort of hermeneutical anticipation in that a figure of speech (metaphor with son of God and personification with son of man) becomes literal in Christ.  Paul’s interpretation was exactly the Charlie Moule interpretation of Dan. 7.  CM was convinced that no one needed recourse to pseudepigraphical literature to understand the NT usage.  Again, the use of the definite article is key.

Jim Voelz

This has been an interesting discussion.

The use of Psalm 8 within the Christological presentation in Hebrews 1-2 also follows the pattern which Paul/David/Jim have outlined.  Psalm 8 marvels at the care and status which God has bestowed upon humanity (and “the son of man,” as a parallel expression).  Hebrews 2 claims that this Psalm finds its fulfillment (or fullness) in the God’s exaltation of the man Jesus Christ, following His suffering.  Jesus is The Man/Son of Man crowned with glory and honor, under whose feet God has put all things (2:5-9).  After establishing this, the focus extends to Jesus’ “brothers” and “children” whom He is “bringing to glory.”  In Jesus, THE Son of Man, we are brought/restored into our true, glorious, God-bestowed humanity, sharing the Son of Man’s dominion over all things, especially in the new creation.

Since the focus in Hebrews 2 does seem to be on authority in the new creation (2:5), one answer to David’s question “is it Jesus as ‘humanity reduced to one’ or ‘the saints/people of God reduced to one’?” might be both.  The humanity which will share in new/true human dominion over the new creation is redeemed humanity, the people of God, the saints.  Hebrews 2:11: Both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one [Father]; for which reason He [Jesus] is not ashamed to call them brothers.

That is not to say that Jesus’ hearers would have glimpsed any hint of this in His pre-resurrection use of the expression “son of man.”  If on Jesus’ lips the expression has the sense “the/this man,” would we say that pre-resurrection/exaltation the words ring as “THIS man” (as David translates below)?  Now post-resurrection/exaltation, we can hear the words as “THE Son of Man” = “humanity/new humanity reduced to one”?  One could argue that the sheer oddness of the phrase invites this second and more full understanding.  While Jesus’ hearers in the Gospels may have had no other option than to hear “the son of man” as “this man,” it seems to me that a certain sense of strangeness still lingers around the expression in the Gospel texts, a strangeness which prompts the question, “Why does Jesus keep referring to Himself in this odd way?”  (He could, after all, have simply said “I” or even “the/this man” (o anthrwpos, o anthrwpos outos, or just outos). And no one else in the NT uses this expression “son of man” as a self-reference.)  Post-resurrection/exaltation, Daniel, Hebrews, Psalm 8, etc. help us to answer the question.

This last paragraph raises another interesting question: Who is the “original audience” for Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels?  The crowds/disciples gathered around the pre-resurrection Jesus, or the post-Easter believers to whom the evangelists are writing?  I suppose we consider both.

Tom Egger


I’m aware of Moule’s article, and also of the interplay/tension in Daniel 7 between the single figure and the corporate one.

What I am not aware of is how the bald phrase itself, in Greek (or for that matter, I guess, in Aramaic) could function in such a sophisticated fashion.  I suspect (but that’s all we can do) is that the Lord chose the phrase, both in order to refer to himself in a noteworthy and non-titular (that is, non-front-loaded-with-meaning) way as well as to pave the way for places where he does invoke the context and meaning of the figure in Daniel 7.  So, I guess I would be willing to say that “the son of man” is consistent with or compatible with the corporate singularity Christology.  But unlike “Son of God,” which is pretty clearly put to use by Matthew, for instance, in a “reduced to one” hermeneutic, I don’t see much evidence that “the son of man” ever is.

Jeff Gibbs






11 responses to ““Son of Man” in the Gospels: A Faculty Discussion”

  1. Marc E. Avatar
    Marc E.

    I have nothing to add to the discussion, as usual. I just wanted to say that being privy to such discussion is awesome and it is great to know that you all do things like this. Keep it up and keep us in the loop!

  2. Steve Newton Avatar
    Steve Newton

    I agree with Marc! Thanks for sharing the discussion.

  3. Andrew Johnson Avatar
    Andrew Johnson

    Thank you to the Faculty for this discussion. I hope to get my hands on the book soon, so that I can being to react to its scholarship in comparison to the theology taught at Concordia and to that expressed in this post.

    While I nothing of substance to add, I am intrigued at the interplay of Hebrew/Aramaic and its Greek counter-part. My question of this discussion is that while, primarily(perhaps exclusively) when used in Christ’s personal vocabulary of Aramaic, ben enasha[υιος του ανθρωπου] does not serve explicitly as a Christological title, could it have gained this function in its retention and translation into its Greek form?

    Also, Dr. Voelz, could you post the title and or link of the Kingsbury article?

  4. Jim Voelz Avatar
    Jim Voelz

    For all who may be wondering about the Kingsbury reference I made in the faculty discussion, his views are clearly stated in his books on the gospels, including Conflict in Mark, published by Fortress. My specific observations, though, come from talking with him and from the presentation he gave to the Concordia Seminary faculty several years ago, referred to by Jeff Kloha in the discussion. Regarding C F D Moule’s views, I am reflecting his actual lecture hall presentations at Cambridge University in the early 70s. I talked to him years later about the topic, and found that he had not changed his views.

  5. John Rhoads Avatar
    John Rhoads

    It seems that no systematicians rose to this conversation, so I hope you don’t mind if I add a comment from a systematician’s perspective. Systematic theology has traditionally understood Jesus’ self-reference “Son of Man” in just the way discussed in this conversation. A brief look at Chemnitz or Pieper on the genera of Biblical references to the hypostatic union will confirm that they assume this to be a reference to his human nature.

    So, Jeff K, my recollection from Seminary is that the move to see “Son of Man” as an ironic appeal to his divine nature through Dan 7 came from the exegetical, Biblical Theology, side, not from systamaticians.

  6. Jeff Kloha Avatar
    Jeff Kloha

    I’m sure the systematicians appreciate the defense, but we’re talking about two different things here, John. Chemnitz and Pieper weren’t worried about Aramaic, Messianic expectations in the Second Temple period, or, presciently, the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    Whatever the systematicians did with it, the point under discussion is whether “Son of Man” means *anything*. So, for example, in Matt 16:4, Jesus asks first, “Who do people say that the son of Man is?” [capitalized as “Son of Man” in all English translations, unhelpfully]. Then, in 16:6 he asks the identical question of the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Apparently, “son of man” and “I” mean the same thing. And then Peter’s response, in Matthew, is “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” It would seem to be nonsense if Jesus asks, to paraphrase, “who do people say that I am with reference to my human nature?” if the proper response is “Son of the living God.” If “son of man” is a reference to his human nature, it is no more (and maybe less) than a statement like, “I thirst.” or “Jesus wept,” or, post-resurrection even, eating breakfast.

    We do have “Beautiful Savior” in our hymnals, where Jesus is lauded as “Son of God and Son of Man,” as if they are two different titles. Lex orandi, lex credendi?

    1. John Rhoads Avatar
      John Rhoads

      Thanks Jeff. But, I don’t think we are talking about different things. Not a single post in the discussion raised issues of “Aramaic, Messianic expectations in the Second Temple period, or … the Dead Sea Scrolls” (albeit the DSS reflect Second Temple Judaism) apart from the meaning of “the son of man” in the Gospels. Chemnitz and Pieper were concerned, as is systematic theology, about the meaning of this expression in the Gospels.

      In the link provided, Hurtado focused on the expression as “self-referential”–the only aspect you highlight in your response to my post–but also as denoting “this man,” and this second aspect was the focus of most of the discussion. When you took you “jab” at systematics grad students, you went on to respond to Jim by asking whether Kingsbury’s point was that the designation suggested Jesus was “the human par excellence.” Paul Raabe summarized his contribution by saying, “So at the very least with this expression Jesus is referring to his own human nature, not divine nature. He is labeling himself ‘a member of the human race.’” The whole point of my post was that when Chemnitz and Pieper refer to texts which include the expression, ”son of man,” they understand it the same way. Now, if you didn’t want a contribution from systematic theology, I’m not sure why its solicitation was mentioned.

      Apparently, your misunderstanding of how my post was consistent with those previous arose from a faulty Christology. In response to my reference to Chemnitz and Pieper, you glossed the words of Jesus as “who do people say that I am with reference to my human nature.” This gloss reflects a Nestorian Christology, especially when the response “Son of the living God” is construed as nonsense.

  7. Nathan Esala Avatar

    Great discussion. For what its worth, a lot of local language translations in Ghana have used, ‘I child of humanity’ to translate the phrase. Some capitalize it, some do not.

  8. Ben Squires Avatar
    Ben Squires

    Any thoughts on what Jesus means in the Gospel reading for this next Sunday, John 9, where he asked the formerly-blind-from-birth-man whether he believes in the Son of Man? It seems to be a very pointed question, and Kingsbury’s “this man” doesn’t seem to fit the context.

    1. David Lewis Avatar
      David Lewis

      I think the words are still self-referential in John 9:35 (as they are earlier in John 3:13). In the context of the narrative of John 9, the man born blind knows that Jesus of Nazareth is the one who healed him, but he did not see Jesus when they met the first time (as he was still blind). So it should not be obvious that when Jesus finds this man in 9:35 that the man recognizes that this guy who is talking to him right now is Jesus of Nazareth, the same man who healed him. Yes, he addresses Jesus as “kurie/lord,” but so does the Samaritan woman in John 4:11; here the “lord” probably has more the sense of “sir” and it does not necessarily prove anything.

      And so, it could be that this formerly blind man knows these two things: “Jesus of Nazareth is the man who healed me of my blindness” and “Jesus of Nazareth refers to himself as ‘the son of man.’” The second point may be debateable, but John’s Gospel has already established this self-referential use of the “title” and it is also likely that both the author and the intended audience of John’s Gospel knew about the use of “the son of man” to refer to Jesus.

      And so when Jesus asks the question (“Do you believe in the son of man?”), the sense could be “Do you believe in Jesus of Nazareth, the guy who healed you and whom the authorities–the very people who just excommunicated you because of this man–are rejecting?”

      The man’s response simply indicates that he does not recognize that the man who is talking to him right now is this guy, Jesus–why?–because this is the first time he has ever seen him. For the formerly blind man finally to recognize Jesus, both by sight and by faith, he needs Jesus’ self-revelation, which Jesus then gives him and which leads to the man’s confession in 9:38.

      I am not certain what significance the “title” would have in John 9:35 in addition to its use as reference to Jesus. Again, my understanding is both that the man does not initially recognize Jesus as the one who healed him when Jesus finds him and that the author and intended audience of John’s Gospel know that Jesus used to refer to himself as “the son of man” (even if this Gospel doesn’t use this self-designation for Jesus as often as Mark or Matthew do).

      I don’t see any necessary link between Jesus’ initial question and other concerns. Jesus does go on to talk of judgment in 9:39-41, but this is after his dialogue with the man and does not necessarily suggest that “son of man” in 9:25 is linked to Daniel 7.

      Any other thoughts?

  9. Andrew Northrop Avatar
    Andrew Northrop

    Some have said here that Kingsbury bases his assumptions regarding Son of Man (yes, I will use capitalization) upon the absence of any negative reaction to the phrase as a title. It is my understanding that exousia is an important concept particularly in Matthew . I would assert that Jesus uses Son of Man as a Christological title in Matthew 9:6 when he links the “authority” to forgive sins to his identity as Son of Man. One can not avoid a lengthy discussion of the hypostatic union in this context. When Jesus says, “But that ye may know that the Son of Man has authority (exousia-delegated authority, power and right to act)”, he is speaking to scribes who rejected Jesus’ Messianic anointing and authority. How does one differentiate opposition as a reaction to the One who forgives sins from the One who identifies Himself “The Son of Man”? [capitals intentional]. — Andy Northrop

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