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