Jesus’ Use of the Term “Son of Man”


But is it possible that it was Jesus who introduced “son of man” as a special title? The answer is no, because there is no indication anywhere in the Gospels that people needed Jesus to explain to them the term “son of man.” At no point were Jesus’ listeners puzzled by the expression or unable to understand it. Had Jesus introduced the expression as a special appellation he would have needed to explain it to people whenever he used it or they would have asked him about it.

So what was the meaning of “son of man” which was clear enough to not require an explanation by Jesus or be queried by people? This is what Vermes — who shares the scholarly consensus that Jesus’ main language was Aramaic, like the Jews of Palestine — has to say:

Outside the New Testament, “son of man” is most commonly employed in the Aramaic language by Jews either as a noun (“a man/the man”), or as the indefinite pronoun (“one/someone”), but neither of these usages is applicable to the Synoptic Gospels. Furthermore, in the Galilean dialect of Aramaic spoken by Jesus, “son of man” sometimes appears in a monologue or dialogue as a circumlocutional reference to the speaker himself. It is not unlike the English figure of speech, “yours truly,” used in place of “I.” For example, “Who is the author of this splendid piece?” or “Who is responsible for this horror?” may produce the modest or shamefaced reply, “Yours truly.” The purpose of such a periphrastic style was to camouflage something fatal dreaded by the speaker or something that would sound boastful if directly asserted. So one would say in Aramaic, the son of man is going to die, or the son of man is about to become king, rather than I will die, or I will be proclaimed king. (Vermes, 2000: 38-39)

Vermes notes that, unlike the Synoptics, which use “son of man” for “I,” John combines this circumlocutional use with a titular one. This should not surprise us, as John is far more focused on theology than the Synoptic Gospels. John was also developed later than the other Gospels and is thus more distant from Jesus, so we can safely conclude that Jesus used the expression “son of man” in the sense of “I.” Also, as this term was not connected to any particular imagery in the minds of Jesus’ audiences, they must have simply taken it to mean “I,” i.e. as a reference to Jesus himself.

This is one example in which Jesus clearly uses “son of man” for the personal pronoun “I” in the same passage:

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)

Matthew’s wording of a passage that is found also in Mark and Luke is particularly instructive of how the Evangelists understood “son of man”:

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27)

Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Luke 9:18)

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matt. 16:13)

Matthew replaced the “I” in Mark with “son of man,” whereas Luke retained the original. Here is another example where the term “Son of Man” in Luke appears as “I” in Matthew:

So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 10:32)

Everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God. (Luke 12:8)

These examples show that the Evangelists treated the expression “son of man” as a circumlocution for “I” (compare also Mark 8:38, Matt. 10:33, and Luke 9:26; Mark 10:45, Matt. 20:28, and Luke 22:27).

Theissen and Merz would object to this conclusion, pointing out that the association of the expression “son of man” with Jesus could not have been derived from everyday language only. They ask: “Why should an expression which in principle everyone could use and which could mean anyone be so closely associated with Jesus that it was retained even after Easter, when for Christians Jesus had already long since been more than a man?” They argue that Jesus must have persistently used the everyday term to turn it into a title for himself, with one possible reason being Jesus’ attempt to counteract specific expectations that were being associated with him:

Jesus must have used the everyday expression emphatically so that it could become his “title” — say by using it to correct excessive expectations; other people might expect miracles of him, other people might hope that he was the stronger one expected since John the Baptist, others might throng after him — but as a correction of such expectations he emphasized his human status as “son of man” (Mark 2:10; Matt. 11:18, 8:20). So among other things the expression became a christological title because Jesus opposed it to christological expectations and thus made it a mysterious honorific title first for his followers. In the Gospel texts after they have been subjected to redaction, this corrective function of the term “Son of Man” can still be detected: Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, but Jesus answers by prophesying the suffering of the Son of Man (Mark 8:29). Jesus is asked about his messiahship before the Sanhedrin, but replies with a saying about the Son of Man (14:61.) (Theissen & Merz, 1999: 550)

I completely agree that it must have been Jesus who used the expression “son of man,” and I also accept that Jesus did so in order to countervail excessive beliefs about him. I do not agree, however, that the target of his action was Christological or miracle expectations:

(1) The phrase “son of man” does nothing other than emphasize the human nature of Jesus, as Theissen and Merz note, yet the Messiah was expected to be a human being anyway, albeit with special authority and powers. Those powers were not linked to any superhuman origin, so they could not be offset by reminding people that the Christ was human.

(2) Jesus did proclaim to be the Messiah, but he set the right expectations by stressing what his messiahship meant. In the simplest terms, it was a call for people to obey God. He clearly and robustly rejected any attempt by people to assign to his messianic role any political function, as in his rebuke to his testers to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17; Matt. 22:21; Luke 20:25).

(3) The expectations of miracles from him could not have been the target of his persistent use of the expression “son of man,” because he did perform miracles!

The expression “son of man,” which emphasized Jesus’ human nature, could have had only one target to counteract: claims or expectations of Jesus’ divinity. By frequently using this phrase periphrastically, Jesus stressed his human nature and rejected claims about his divinity that had either already started to circulate or, more likely, he expected to appear at some point after him. As has been pointed out, this expression “could not be understood in the Greek world otherwise than as referring simply to the humanity of Jesus.” Furthermore, the early Church fathers saw in this title a reference to the human nature of Jesus’ descent. So “from the Apostolic Fathers to the present, the title has come to be regarded in the dogmatic theology of the Church as but the converse of the title Son of God. But in the early Church it was not so” (Longenecker, 1969: 157). So even those who recognized and promoted Jesus’ divinity accepted that the title “son of man” denoted his humanity. One such modern Christian theologian notes that this title “obviously speaks of [Jesus’] humanity and His identity with humankind” (Witmer, 1998: 51).

The tension between the terms “son of man” and “son of God” may be seen in Matthew’s adaptation of one of Mark’s passages:

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:27-29)

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:13-16)

Significantly, Matthew’s replacement of “I” with the expression “Son of Man” is followed by the addition of the epithet “Son of the living God.” This suggests that the author was aware of what “Son of Man” meant to people so he went out of his way to stress Jesus’ sonship of God also.

The relentless attempts to change Jesus’ status from man to God after he had gone, which succeeded in the end, fully justified every action that Jesus took to stress his human nature. The determination to promote Jesus’ divinity was so strong that, ironically, the refutative expression “son of man” was itself used, as in John, to ascribe divine attributes to Jesus! The circumlocutional expression “son of man” was turned into a title and used at times exactly like the epithet “son of God” which was applied to Jesus in a special way. Jesus would not have replaced the term “God” in “son of God” with “man” to coin a new appellation just to use both titles interchangeably!

Of course, not all “son of man” sayings are authentic. Probably many of them were made up and others were changed to convey whatever messages the Evangelists wanted to pass to their readers. For instance, I do not believe that Jesus talked about coming back to this world after departing it, be it on the clouds or in any other way. I have discussed the subject of Jesus’ second coming elsewhere (Fatoohi, 2007: 467-491). Also, any use of “son of man” other than periphrastically to confirm his human nature and deny having any divine attributes is inauthentic.

There are a number of reasons that make me believe that Jesus did indeed use the expression “son of man.” First, it is used exclusively by him. Second, it appears in many of his reported sayings. Third, it did not play an important or prominent role in the development of Christian thought, so there is no reason to believe that it was introduced after him to serve a particular theological function. Fourth, it is particularly suitable for averting and rejecting his deification. In his rebuttal of the suggestion that all “son of man” sayings are inauthentic, one scholar has rightly pointed out that this view makes incomprehensible “why the early Church should have created the title for Jesus, never to use it except on his own lips as a self-designation in the Gospels” (Kazen, 2007: 163).

Given that Jesus frequently called himself the “son of man” to pre-empt and reject any attempt to ascribe divine attributes to him, how likely is it that he could have referred to God as his father, thus calling himself indirectly “son of God”? Since at the time of Jesus the Jewish concept of “sonship of God” had no divine connotation, it may be argued that Jesus could have called God his father. But the counter, and probably stronger, argument is that given that Jesus realized that he was going to be deified, which is why he repeatedly referred to himself as the “son of man,” he would have recognized that a claim to sonship of God might be misunderstood or abused by others to suggest he was divine, so it is unlikely that he called God his father. Interestingly, while all instances of “son of man” occur in Jesus’ sayings, the title “son of God” is applied to Jesus only by others in the Synoptics; only John, who was particularly interested in promoting a certain theology and used history as a tool in this endeavour, puts it on Jesus’ lips (e.g. John 10:36)!

I should finally mention that my conclusions above clearly refute the suggestion of some Muslim scholars that “son of man” was a title that Jesus used for Prophet Muhammad (Dawud, 1994: 223-263).


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