Scholars have been arguing about the exact meaning of “son of Man.” One modern scholar described the failure of scholars to reach any major consensus as “one of the great embarrassments for modern historical scholarship” (Dunn, 2003, 725). More specifically, some have maintained that it was a pre-Christian Jewish title that denoted the eschatological figure of the Messiah and this is how they understand Jesus’ repeated use of the term. The majority of scholars reject this view. Those who take “son of Man” to be a Jewish designation for the Messiah cite three main textual sources in support of their theory: 1 Enoch 37-71, 4 Ezra 13, and Daniel 7:13.
1 Enoch ascribes itself to the 7th patriarch in Genesis, but it is considered as a pseudo-epigraphical work whose author is unknown. Its complete version survives in an Ethiopic translation which is believed to have been made as late as the 6th century CE, but its earliest extant manuscript comes from as late as the 16th century. The book is a conglomeration of a number of works of different origins, and it has been rated by some scholars as one of the hundred worst books (Campbell, 1947: 148). The chapters that interest us here are 37-71 — the Parables or Similitudes. They talk about an eschatological figure who is described as “the righteous one,” “the elect one,” and “the Messiah.” He is linked to Jesus because he is also called “the son of man.” Nevertheless, the Parables cannot be proved to be pre-Christian. In fact, many scholars believe that it was written by Christians, probably around the end of the 1st century or in the 2nd, so it does not reflect pre-Christian Jewish beliefs (Longenecker, 1969: 152-153; Sanders, 1995: 246, 308).
The second source, 4 Ezra 13, survives in a number of translations of the Greek version. The latter and its Semitic source have both been lost. This source does not actually use the term “son of man,” but talks about an eschatological man who comes from the sea and with the clouds of heaven. He destroys the multitudes that start a war against him. Like 1 Enoch 37-71, this book is also believed to have been written late in the 1st century (Longenecker, 1969: 153).
Unlike the first two sources, the Old Testament Book of Daniel is certainly pre-Christian. This is how Prophet Daniel describes what he saw in one of his visionary dreams:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a 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. (Dan. 7:13-14)
The son of man in this passage has been taken to signify an eschatological individual, giving the term a titular function. It was interpreted as a reference to the Messiah. I find this interpretation of Daniel’s “son of man” misguided. First, this is the only instance of its 96 appearances in the Old Testament where the term is claimed to be used as a title and to have messianic eschatological connotations. Second, this expression appears again in the next chapter in Daniel in an angel’s speech to the prophet where it simply means “human” or “mortal” (Dan. 8:17). Third, Daniel 7:13 does not actually describe the heavenly figure as “a son of man.” To the contrary, by describing him as being “like a son of man” the author is pointing out that he is not a son of man (Campbell, 1947: 148). Daniel meant that although the supernatural figure he saw looked like a son of man, he knew that he was not. That figure was not a human being, so he could not have been the Messiah.
So there is no textual evidence on the existence of the concept of the “son of man” as an apocalyptic figure in pre-Christian Jewish thought. The expression “son of man” does not appear as a title in Daniel, the Parables, or 4 Ezra 13 (Bock, 1991: 111; Campbell, 1947; Longenecker, 1969, 1975). This is how the Christian professor Frederick Bruce puts it:
“[T]he Son of man” was not a current title, whether for the Messiah or for any other eschatological figure. When Jewish thinkers devised a title for the figure who is brought to the Ancient of Days, it was not the Son of man but Anani (the “cloud-man”). There does not appear to have been any existing concept of “the Son of man” which Jesus could have taken over and used either to identify himself or to denote a being distinct from himself. (Bruce, 1982: 60)
Researchers who insist that “son of man” existed as a title in pre-Christian Judaism have had to assume that the three texts above use “son of man” as a title and then conclude that the existence of this titular use means that the expression must have been established before Jesus (e.g. Horbury, 1985). This is actually more of a clever wording of the assumption than an argument based on evidence.
The term “Messiah” is applied in the Old Testament to historical not future figures. Furthermore, in its 39 occurrences in the Old Testament, the title “Messiah” is applied to a number of different individuals who occupied three different positions: king, priest, and prophet. To quote from my book The Mystery of the Messiah:
Scholars believe that after the overthrowing of the last Davidic ruler of Judea, Zedekiah, by Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BCE, the concept of “anointed king” started to be understood to mean “the Messiah” — the final Jewish king who would free them from foreign control, re-establish the Jewish kingdom, and return to Israel its lost glory (Vermes, 2000: 177). The Jews started to give more attention to the figure of a Messiah particularly after the fall of the Maccabean dynasty (165-63 BCE), coming under Roman rule, and the usurping of Judea by Herod the Great (40-4 BCE) and his family who were backed by the heathen Romans. This waiting for the Messiah grew stronger in the years leading to the two Jewish revolts against the Romans in 66-70 and 132-135 CE. The several salvational Davidic figures started to be seen as one eschatological saviour: “The Messiah.” The prominence of the Messiah in the Jewish faith grew to the extent that the influential Jewish theologian and philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) made the belief in the Messiah and waiting for his coming the 12th of his 13 principles of Jewish faith. (Fatoohi, 2009: 11)
However, I have also pointed out a number of serious flaws in this explanation of the development of the concept of one salvational, eschatological Messiah. Relying on the fact that the Qur’an talks about one Messiah only and considering related historical facts about this term, I have concluded the following:
The unique Qur’anic Messiah leads me to conclude that the concept of the Messiah is of divine origin, having been inspired to prophets who were sent to the people of Israel. But human intervention distorted this concept over the centuries. Influenced by their troubled history, national aspirations, and misunderstanding of what it meant to be God’s chosen people, Jewish theologians and writers developed a Jewish-centric image of the Messiah. This image was held by those who later became the first Christians, but after accepting that Jesus was the Messiah they had to redraw some of its details to reflect the history of Jesus. The image of the Messiah in Christian writings is based on what the Christians believed Jesus actually did and said, combined with some expectations about the future, so it differs from the portrait of the Jewish Messiah. The Qur’anic Messiah differs from the Jewish and Christian Messiahs, being presented as a highly elevated prophet of God. The Qur’an has preserved the concept of this unique Messiah as it was originally revealed to Israelite prophets, in contrast to the changed versions found in Jewish and Christian sources. (Fatoohi, 2009: 14)
The New Testament, which was written in that turbulent period of Jewish history, must have been influenced by that atmosphere. Indeed, there are passages that have clearly been modelled on Daniel 7:13, showing the son of man coming with or on the clouds from heaven (also Mark 13:26; Matt. 26:64; Luke 21:27):
And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven. (Mark 14:62)
Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matt. 24:30)
Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. (Rev. 14:14)
Note Revelation’s use of Daniel’s expression “like a son of man.”
There are other appearances of the term “son of man” in the Gospels that may be taken to reflect the Evangelists’ association of this term with the Messiah. For instance, these passages present the “son of man” as a victorious heavenly End-time figure who commands the angels (also Matt. 16:27, 25:31; Luke 9:26, 12:8):
For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:38)
The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers. (Matt. 13:41)
Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. (John 1:51)
The son of man is also associated with the forgiving of sins and healing (e.g. Matt. 9:6; Luke 5:24):
“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he said to the paralytic — “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:10-12)
John applies many of the attributes of his special son of God to the son of man. The son of man came from God and returned to Him: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). He also has Jesus say to his disciples: “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (John 6:62). The son of man has authority to judge, and believing in him gives eternal life (also John 6:27):
For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. (John 5:26-27).
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:14-16)
If the Gospel authors or their sources did mean at times to use “son of man” as a title for the Messiah, which is far from clear, then I think that would have been the result of the combination of the fact that Jesus used this term frequently to refer to himself, the Evangelists’ belief that Jesus was the Messiah, and their influence by a certain interpretation of Daniel 7:13. What is clear, however, is that most of the time the expression did not have any Messianic function, as it was not a Jewish designation for the Messiah. In explaining the titular, religious use of the expression “son of man” in the Gospel of John, Vermes notes the following about the religious use of this phrase in Jewish literature:
From the completion of the Book of Daniel in the 160s BC to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 there is no attestation in extant Jewish literature of the use of “son of Man” as describing a religious function. However, in the decades following the first Jewish war against Rome which ended in AD 70, that is during the period of the composition of the Gospels, we possess independent literary evidence in which such a man-like figure is portrayed as a heavenly Messiah (4 Ezra 13), or a superterrestrial final Judge (Parables of Enoch, or 1 Enoch 37-71). (Vermes, 2000: 39)
There are other facts and arguments that support our earlier conclusion, which Vermes confirms, that there is no evidence that the expression “son of man” was a recognized title for the Messiah before Jesus. First, neither before nor after Jesus did the term “son of man” ever gain popularity as a designation for the Messiah, despite the fact that Jesus applies it to himself in the Gospels over 80 times and more explicitly and directly than any other title, including “Christ.” It is almost completely absent in the New Testament outside the Gospels, appearing only four times (Acts 7:56; Heb. 2:6; Rev. 1:13, 14:14. It is never used by Paul. Furthermore, its possible use as a title for an eschatological figure remained limited to a very small number of sources, including the two instances in Revelations.
Second, the term “son of God” appears 82 times in 79 passages in the Gospels, excluding Matthew 18:11 which is dropped from some more recent translations of the New Testament because it is missing from the most reliable early Greek manuscripts. Significantly, unlike the title “son of God” which occurs on the lips of a number of different people and spiritual beings, almost all occurrences of “son of man” in the Gospels are found in Jesus’ sayings. The only exception is John 12:34, but even here people mention it in the context of asking Jesus about what he meant by saying that the “son of man” would be lifted up. Had “son of man” been an established title before Jesus we would have seen it in the Gospels used by people to refer to Jesus, not only used by him.
Third, hearing this expression did not have any unusual effect on people. Had it been a special title of some prominence, let alone an epithet of the Messiah, it would have invoked certain reactions. Nothing of the sort is reported.