Jesus and the “Son of Man” in the Gospels by Bruce Chilton

Who is the “son of man”? And who is the “one like a son of man”? And who is “the Son of Man” (in capital letters)? What’s the difference in meaning from one phrase to the other? And how do these terms apply to Jesus?

Until quite recently, it was widely agreed that the Gospels referred to Jesus as the Son of Man simply to identify him as the Messiah. Today, however, some scholars vigorously deny that Jesus used the phrase to make any theological claim about himself at all. Instead, they say, the phrase simply refers to any human being, one person among others.

The battle is on between those who see the phrase as messianic—the Son of Man—and those who see the phrase as general—the son of man.

General readers and specialists alike can ask the same question that a crowd asks in John 12:34, “Who is this Son of Man?” There is no dearth of literature on the subject.

Actually, the disagreement is even more complicated than I have just suggested, because the son of man sometimes refers not just to Jesus but also to another heavenly being at the right hand of God. For simplicity’s sake, we might note three general designations within the literature of Israel and the early Church: (1) the generic son of man, an ordinary human being; (2) the angelic one like a son of man; and (3) the messianic Son of Man.

The question is, Which of these designations is on Jesus’ mind when he speaks of the son of man in the Gospels?

In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Jesus is the only person who uses the phrase. Indeed, he uses the phrase more often than any other (including “Son of God” and “Messiah”) to explain who he is.

This perhaps explains why the scholarly debate has been so heated. For the issue raises questions at the core of Christian faith: whether Jesus saw himself as an exceptional figure or as just one example of humanity at large.

Did he use the term generically, referring to his human nature; or angelically, to explain his access to the divine; or messianically, to claim that he was the Son of God?

Three kinds of sayings in the Synoptic Gospels associate Jesus with the son of man. Note that I said associate; this does not necessarily mean that Jesus in every instance says that he is the Son of Man.

One group of references in the Synoptic Gospels relates to the way people treat the son of man—typically, without respect. Although he suffers, he will be vindicated.

A second group speaks of the son of man’s authority—for example, to forgive sins. With these references, we should classify sayings that insist upon the Son of Man’s divine mission.

The third group refers to the Son of Man’s triumphant arrival as eschatological redeemer, to sit in judgment at the end of all things.

All this shows that “son of man” has a very wide range of meanings. Moreover, the term could easily mean different things at different times. Jesus’ sayings as we have them in the Gospels were generated within the Jesus movement—sometime between that movement’s beginnings in Galilee and the production of the Gospels by Greco-Roman congregations. During that period of the middle-late first century C.E., the term’s meanings developed and changed.

Use of “son of man” as a generic term is widespread, not only in contemporaneous Aramaic sources, but much earlier in the Hebrew Bible as well. Consider, for example, these verses from Psalm 8:4: “What is man that you are mindful of him, / and the son of man that you have regard for him?” The psalmist obviously includes himself in the category of human beings for whom God’s care comes as a miracle. The psalmist is not talking about himself alone, however, but of people in general.

There can be no doubt that Jesus, too, used this common Aramaic idiom, the son of man, in its usual, generic sense—for example in Matthew 8:20//Luke 9:58 (see also the parallel Gospel of Thomas saying 86): “The foxes have holes, and the birds of heaven nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” In context, the saying applies not simply to Jesus but also to the homeless disciples, and it carries with it a resonant sympathy for all homeless people. The “son of man” here cannot mean “me, myself, I, and no one else.” Others are included with the speaker, as in Psalm 8:4.

A passage in the Book of Daniel provides background for a significantly different usage of the phrase “son of man” in the New Testament. The Book of Daniel (written around 164 B.C.E.) is unlike any other book of the Hebrew Bible in its combination of apocalyptic visions, belief in resurrection, and angelic interpreters. Daniel 7:13–14 provides the bedrock for understanding the angelic use of the Son of Man concept. In this passage, “one like a son of man” is clearly the agent of final judgment. This being is not human, yet is like a human, like a son of man:

I [Daniel] watched in visions of the night, and behold, with clouds of heaven one like a son of man was coming and he approached the Ancient of Days [God], and they [the angels in the divine court] presented him before him. And to him [the one like a son of man] was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

Here an angelic figure is said to be “like a son of man,” in the sense of “like a human being.” In fact, some recent translations of the Bible, such as the New Revised Standard Version and the New Jewish Publication Society translation, render the phrase “like a human being” instead of “like a son of man.” In short, the agent of final judgment is an angelic being in the heavenly court but is like a human being; some human quality is ascribed to the figure to whom an everlasting dominion is given.

This visionary passage forms the literary heart of the Book of Daniel. The kingdoms of the lion, the bear, the leopard and the beast of the terrible horns are all to fall (Daniel 7:1–12). The probable reference is to the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires, followed by the multiple “horns” of Alexander the Great and his successors. The one like a son of man, Israel’s heavenly counterpart of the beasts, is alone to receive a kingdom that will stand forever.

After receiving his vision, Daniel seeks interpretation from one of the angels in the heavenly court, who are constantly at the ready to serve the Ancient of Days. This angel is one of the several who have just presented the one like a son of man at the divine throne, and he is therefore in an ideal position to know the significance of the vision. Daniel is told that the four beasts are four kings, and that when the one like a son of man is presented to the Ancient of Days, “the saints [or holy ones] of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever” (Daniel 7:17–18).

In this vision, the angels of the previous kingdoms are beasts. The angel of the final kingdom, however, is “one like a son of man.” This angelic figure in the heavenly court is to be the guarantor of the rule of the saints, or holy ones, of the Most High.

The final chapter of Daniel refers explicitly to the resurrection, the clearest reference in the Hebrew Bible. When the archangel Michael arises from his place in the heavenly court, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake” (Daniel 12:1–2). In the Book of Daniel, taken as a whole, the “one like a son of man”5 is clearly identified as being like Michael, the messianic and angelic redeemer of Israel.

The concept of the son of man as used in Daniel was certainly in the air when Jesus used the term and a fortiori when the New Testament was composed. This is less clear with respect to the reference to the Son of Man in the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal work whose date of composition is a matter of dispute. Parts of the book have been reliably dated as early as Daniel—Aramaic fragments of Enoch from the second century B.C.E. have been identified among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Indeed, the origins of the book are much earlier. But the Qumran fragments do not include any passages referring to the Son of Man; those parts of the book, some scholars say, might have been added later.

Like Daniel, Enoch contains apocalyptic visions and describes a Son of Man. For some in the early Church, the Book of Enoch was probably considered scripture; it is quoted, for example, in the New Testament letter of Jude (Jude 14–15). The Son of Man in Enoch refers to a prominent figure in the heavenly court who holds a privileged position near the throne of God. As Enoch describes in one of his visions:

At that place, I saw the one to whom belongs the time before time [the Lord of the Spirits]. And his head was white like wool, and there was before him another individual, whose face was like that of a human being. His countenance was full of grace like that of one among the holy angels. And I asked the one—from among the angels—who was going with me…“Who is this…?” And he answered me and said to me, “This is the Son of Man to whom belongs righteousness, and with whom righteousness dwells. And he will open all the hidden storerooms; for the Lord of the Spirits has chosen him, and he is destined to be victorious before the Lord of Spirits in eternal uprightness. This Son of Man whom you have seen is the one who will remove the kings and the mighty ones from their comfortable seats and the strong ones from their thrones.”

Enoch 46:1–4

The imagery in this passage from Enoch develops what we have already seen in Daniel. Another reference to the Son of Man influenced by Daniel, in the Book of Revelation (sometimes called the Apocalypse), is obviously post-Easter—that is, it conveys the glory of Jesus in the light of faith in his resurrection. John, the supposed author of Revelation, sees one like a Son of Man in a vision of utmost clarity:

I saw…one like a Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire…When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever.”

Revelation 1:12–18

This description is clearly a way of depicting Jesus after his resurrection by speaking of his heavenly status in terms borrowed from Daniel 7 (and perhaps Enoch). But that does not tell us much about how Jesus himself used the phrase.

Nevertheless, the evidence of Daniel, Enoch and Revelation demonstrates that some people thought God’s final judgment would be accomplished through one like a son of man. Enoch shows that this figure may simply have been called the Son of Man. Just such a figure of final judgment is meant when Jesus warns his hearers in the following well-known saying from Mark 8:38 (and its close parallel in Luke 9:26): “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him, when he comes in his father’s glory with his holy angels.”

Here Jesus himself is using the image of the Son of Man in much the same way as Daniel and Enoch. The Son of Man, he says, will finally and definitively insist upon the truth of Jesus’ teaching.

But it is also important to emphasize that Jesus is here differentiating himself from the Son of Man. This is even clearer in the different form of the saying preserved in Luke 12:8–9: “Every one who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God.”

This saying of Jesus is quite early. It was probably part of the early collection of Jesus’ sayings known as Qd (the parallel but different form in Matthew is preserved in Matthew 10:32–33). Similarly, the saying in Mark 8:38 derives from a source derived from Peter that, like Q, circulated around the year 35 C.E. In short, the saying is attested in the three Synoptic Gospels, as well as in sources that take us back to within a few years of the crucifixion.

The great German theologian Rudolf Bultmann insightfully noted that not only does Jesus refer to himself and to the Son of Man as distinct figures, but that the Son of Man provides divine confirmation of Jesus’ own teaching (as in Daniel, where the Son of Man will establish God’s approval of Israel). When Jesus refers to the Son of Man in this way, he is thinking not simply of himself, but mainly of the figure in the heavenly court as described principally in Daniel. Jesus says insistently that the Son of Man, the angelic figure, will vindicate Jesus’ own teaching.

If this is so clearly Jesus’ understanding of the Son of Man, why is there any doubt about Jesus’ meaning? And how did the variant meanings of the suffering, authoritative and triumphant—in short, the messianic—Son of Man develop?

Are we again faced with the old dilemma that has haunted the discussion for so long? The angelic (not to say the messianic) meaning leaves the generic references unexplained. Equally unsatisfactory is the solution that reduces the generic sayings to banal truisms while dismissing all the messianic sayings as Christian inventions. If one of these solutions, or one of their many variations, corresponded with the chronological evolution of the traditions within the Gospels, that would lend it some support. But both the generic and the angelic usages are early. Moreover, both lose currency after the period of the New Testament.

It is time to consider a new solution to the problem: Simply put, Jesus was smart enough to use the phrase in both ways (as generic and as angelic), but scholars have not yet figured out how to put the two together.

For most critical scholars, Jesus was a rational teacher who wished to convey a single, prosaic meaning. The current debate is between “conservatives,” who want to see the Son of Man as only messianic, and “liberals,” who want to see him as only generic. In fact, both groups adhere to the 19th-century liberal presupposition of rationality as the primary motivation in human affairs. Their disagreement is a sideshow, compared with the basic question: If we make the liberal assumption that he was rational by our standards, can we understand Jesus at all? The sayings concerning the Son of Man answer that question clearly and unequivocally: We simply cannot understand them if we assume Jesus’ meaning was prosaic.

The passage in John 12:34, where the crowd expresses its exasperation (and perhaps ours), actually points to the need to see Jesus’ usage as more than prosaic. When Jesus speaks of the exaltation of the Son of Man, the crowd replies impatiently: “We have heard from the law that the Messiah lives forever, and how do you say that the Son of Man must be exalted? Who is this, the Son of Man?” (John 12:34). The crowd understands both terms, “Messiah” and “Son of Man,” and for that reason it is baffled by the notion of a messianic Son of Man.

This passage in John’s gospel shows us what is difficult to grasp about the Son of Man, and how to get over our confusion: The crowd assumes, as do liberal critics, that the Son of Man must be either generic or messianic, whereas Jesus uses the phrase multidimensionally. He operates in the realm of poetry, not of prose.

Jesus was a master of the parable, the comparison (matla’ in Aramaic). Analogical, or comparative, speech was his particular strength; he could portray the kingdom of God in terms of a growing seed (Matthew 13:31–32//Mark 4:30–32//Luke 13:18–19), a woman making bread (Matthew 13:33//Luke 13:20–21) or a merchant out to close an attractive deal (Matthew 13:45–46).

The point of his parables was that you could understand the kingdom in terms of such realities and that such ordinary activities found their true meanings in the reality of the kingdom. One of Jesus’ characteristic activities was to participate in communal meals, and those meals were themselves enacted parables: celebrations of the festivity of the kingdom of God. Basic human activities, for Jesus, were intimately connected with the ultimate kingdom of God; that was the theme of his ministry. He defined the purity of Israel in terms of people’s readiness to respond to the opportunities of the kingdom.

If we appreciate that Jesus genuinely related his own activity and the activities of those around him to the kingdom of God, then we are in a position to appreciate his sayings concerning the Son of Man. Who can have insight into the ways of the divine king seated upon his heavenly throne?

To anyone who took Daniel 7 seriously as a depiction of that throne, the answer would be that the angelic Son of Man of that vision provides access to the mystery of the divine kingship. When Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was celebrated by his ministry, he claimed to have an insight into the ways of heaven. That insight, Jesus went on to claim, will be warranted by the Son of Man in heaven, “when he comes in his father’s glory with his holy angels” (Mark 8:38). He and the Son of Man together were the agents of God’s final intervention in human affairs.

But Jesus does not speak only of himself when he refers to the Son of Man. Because Jesus, an earthly son of man, saw himself as paired with Daniel’s heavenly Son of Man, there is a sliding scale of reference. Sometimes Jesus thinks more of the one; at other times, more of the other. This combined, poetic usage is Jesus’ own invention: the Son of Man as human and heavenly.

Sometimes Jesus refers more to himself as the son of man, as when he complains that he and others have no place to lodge, while foxes and birds do. At other times, when he thinks of the final judgment in which the Son of Man is to be the agent, he refers more to the majesty of Daniel’s vision. But at every point the two references illuminate one another, because the Son of Man was for Jesus both human and heavenly. The reality of the kingdom is attested in heaven and on earth, in both cases by the Son of Man.

When Jesus is permitted to cease being a rational teacher of reasonable truth, and to become the paradoxical, poetic rabbi he more truly was, his message becomes clearer. His teaching is more challenging when it is so understood. Though it may be unbelievable to many people, it is nonetheless clearer within its historical context. Jesus asserted that God was acting as king, and he implicitly claimed that he alone knew how. His teaching and his activities were designed to make his announcement concerning the kingdom as public as possible. That desire to publicize the kingdom is what caused Jesus to send his disciples out in his name, the one aspect of his ministry that seems to make him unlike other rabbis of his period.

Jesus’ references to the Son of Man make explicit what his preaching about the kingdom of God always implied. He claimed that he, a person like any other (a barenasha, “the son of man” in Aramaic), enjoyed access to the heavenly court through the angelic figure who was like a person (kebarenasha). The Son of Man of Daniel 7 confirms the words of the son of man who spoke to his disciples. Jesus’ claim was not that he was identical to the Son of Man but that he was intimate with the Son of Man. It was a claim that was no more and no less audacious than his assertion that the kingdom of God had arrived with his ministry.

The Jesus of history is not what the old liberalism would desire, a skilled interpreter of timeless truth; he is, rather, a demanding poet, seized by a prophetic vision that overcomes him and those around him with its power.

The two themes, the kingdom of God and the Son of Man, imply one another. The kingdom is the public theme of Jesus’ ministry, what was spoken of openly and fully to anyone who would hear. The Son of Man was the esoteric theme, the explanation of how Jesus could know what he did, directed at those who responded to the message of the kingdom. Many rabbis spoke of the visionary reality of God’s throne, which they usually referred to as the “chariot,” in the manner of the first chapter of Ezekiel. The vision of Daniel 7 is in part inspired by that passage in Ezekiel, which even speaks of “something that seemed like a human form” seated on the throne (Ezekiel 1:26). Jesus claimed that access to the heavenly Son of Man gave him, as human son of man, his knowledge of the throne of God.

Jesus offered his contemporaries new insight into God as king, on the basis that Jesus’ teaching concerning the kingdom would be confirmed by the Son of Man in heaven. That special relationship between Jesus and the Son of Man permeates Jesus’ teaching and accounts for the large number of sayings concerning the Son of Man in the Gospels.

Of course, the insight into heaven that Jesus taught was not just a repetition of what any rabbi might have taught. His teaching about the kingdom of God and the Son of Man was distinctive. He explained why he knew about such matters, while other rabbis did not (Matthew 11:27//Luke 10:22): “Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father, and nobody is familiar with the Son except the Father, and nobody is familiar with the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” This “Son” knows about the kingdom of God and is especially associated with the Son of Man who is installed beside the throne of God. This “Son” is uniquely related to God on the basis of what the Father reveals to him: He is the Son of God by virtue of that revelation. Jesus’ claim to divine Sonship is part and parcel of his teaching concerning the kingdom of God and the Son of Man.

Jesus’ death grievously disappointed the hopes of those who responded to his message of the kingdom. But for some of them, the disappointment proved to be momentary. The resurrection produced a conviction among the disciples that Jesus was alive and had been vindicated by God. He had been exalted to the heavenly throne of which he had spoken.

An early authority who was crucial in the development of that conviction was James, Jesus’ brother. He was a key witness of the risen Jesus, according to the testimony of Paul, the earliest writer to speak of Jesus’ resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:7). The New Testament itself does not record an appearance to James, but the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews does. There Jesus assures his brother that “the Son of Man has been raised from among those who sleep.” The authority of James, it seems, was a key force in the complete identification between Jesus and the figure from Daniel 7 after the resurrection.

Once that identification was made, it was natural for Jesus’ own sayings to be recast to refer consistently to his own authority, to his own treatment and suffering, to his own vindication. But his original, parabolic speech still shines through the texts as they have been received.

So who is this Son of Man? “The Son of Man” was Jesus’ way of talking about himself as a person who had access to the very throne of God, the place of another, angelic person. Jesus took a classic passage from the Bible (Daniel 7), blended it with an Aramaic idiom of his time and related himself to the result. That was his characteristic manner of dealing with scripture.

Jesus was not known for simply citing texts or commenting upon them, but for reshaping them in light of the kingdom. Originally, he developed an intriguing juxtaposition between, on the one hand, his own humanity, his own shared being as a son of man, and on the other hand, the heavenly person who sat beside God’s throne.

Woven together with faith in Jesus’ resurrection, the fabric of the Gospels presents Jesus himself as that heavenly figure, the messianic agent of final vindication, the Son of Man.