Titles of Jesus: Jesus the Son of Man – Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

July 18, 2012

John 3:14-21, is an unusual passage in that John does not rely on either a parable or a story. In this passage, Jesus tells us, for the first of three times in John’s gospel, that the Son of Man must be lifted up.

The major titles the New Testament applies to Jesus are as follows: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Word, Son of God, and God. Far from being a mere litany of honorifics, these titles actually refer to different aspects of his work and identity. The Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann, from whom Oakes has drawn this list, has grouped the various titles into four rubrics: (1) the earthly work of Jesus, (2) the future work of Jesus, (3) His present work, and finally to (4) His pre-existence. In this third selection we will look at the title Jesus the Son of Man which with the previous post, Jesus the Messiah, completes the rubric of Jesus’ future work.


Jesus the Son of Man
With two exceptions the title “Son of Man” is never used by others in the New Testament to designate Jesus, only by Jesus himself. Except for those two instances (Acts 7:56; Rev. 1:13), [The first occurs on the lips of Stephen just before his death by stoning, and the other is from John the Divine (the author of Revelation); both passages are actually but allusions to Daniel 7:13 and thus not confessions of faith by either Stephen or John the Divine but are silent quotations drawn from Daniel's vision, discussed below.] the term is exclusively Jesus’ own self-designation.

We are thus faced with a paradox that is almost the mirror-image of the paradox of the title Messiah: whereas Jesus acknowledged his identity as Messiah only in the most exceptional of circumstances and otherwise deflected its ready and too-easy use by his followers, even as the New Testament makes “Christ” (meaning “Messiah”) the most frequently cited title for him, so here, in contrast, Jesus regularly referred to himself as Son of Man, but the early Christians almost never so designated him by that title: Jesus largely deflects the title “Christ” while the church calls him that constantly; but the term he uses of himself most of all, “Son of Man,” almost never appears on the lips of Christians as a confessional term.

Complicating the issue even further, the term Son of Man encompasses a wide range of semantic implications. In some contexts the term could mean only a polite way for a male speaker of Aramaic to say “I” (the way some authors write their autobiographies in the third person, to avoid sounding egotistical by using the first person pronoun too often). Thus when Jesus says “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” this could be merely a periphrastic way of saying “I have nowhere to lay my head.”

Another common usage in Aramaic is the generic one, to refer to the human race at large, the way speakers of English will say “man must eat.” [This contemporary usage is less common now because of the critique of feminist grammarians; but the generic use of "man" to refer to all human beings is deeply embedded in the structure of English ("man" comes from the same Indo-European root as "mental" and functions in the way sapiens does in the description of our species as Homo sapiens) and is still common enough that the generic use highlights the same for the Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek usage.]

Thus when Jesus says, “Man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath was meant for man, for the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28), that could mean (although the verse is hotly disputed among exegetes) that Jesus is referring in the second half of the sentence not to himself but to man in general.

It is of course the third meaning that counts for Christology. Here “Son of Man” becomes a genuinely theological title, for when used in this sense it refers to that eschatological figure from heaven who will come as God’s celestial designate to inaugurate the end of the world and to bring about the final reign of God in a definitive kingdom, where evil will no longer hold sway and where God will reign utterly unopposed by either earthly powers or by evil supernal principalities. Now why did so generic a term as “Son of Man” (which in some contexts, as we have seen, can refer to humanity at large) come to be associated with so vivid a scenario as the end of the world? The answer simply is: because of an accident of apocalyptic literature.

Readers in our civilization who encounter apocalyptic literature for the first time enter upon a world filled with phantasmagoric imagery, lurid depictions of the end-times, bizarre vocabulary — in short, a world utterly removed from the quotidian display of journalism and the historical sobriety of the typical “just the facts” narrative of modernity. But everything about the apocalyptic genre makes sense when the reader sees the situation that gave birth to that literature: a fusion of extreme tribulation with irrepressible hope.

Consider the worldview of the Jews in the centuries after the Babylonian exile: at all times they knew that history was in God’s control and under the sway of his all-seeing providence, so much so that even the unsuspecting Persian king Cyrus was prompted to “let God’s people go” without even having a glimmer of a notion of that God’s existence. But then again, neither did Alexander the Great have any inkling that he was acting out in history according to God’s set purposes; he conquered the later Persian kings, the very heirs of the same king Cyrus whom Isaiah had called “Messiah” (Isaiah 45:1). Nor did Alexander’s Seleucid successors have any idea that they were operating out of the laws of providence set forth ahead of time by the God of the Jews; nor did the Roman conquerors, all of whom were oppressors of God’s chosen ones. But for the strictly monotheistic and prophecy-saturated Jews this oppression, too, had to have taken place under God’s suzerainty and by his direction. Why? What could be the answer to this reason-bewildering and soul-confusing cry? If God chose — anointed even! — Cyrus to liberate God’s chosen people, why did God allow the Romans to conquer the Promised Land?

Previously, the answer had been that God was punishing the people for their sins, and to some extent that answer still held sway; but the pattern of sin, repentance, restoration of land, sin again, loss of land, repentance, restoration of land, and so on, was starting to lose its prophetic force (not least because of the absence of further prophecy). Something about the current situation under the Romans was pushing the explanation of God’s purposes to new extremes.

For one thing, the lesson that the Jews had to be strictly faithful to the Mosaic Law, both written and oral, had sunk in with large tracts of the population (later called “Pharisees”), who took obedience to the Law with great seriousness and religious devotion. For another, oppression under the Romans assumed a harshness not previously known, especially because of its taxation system, which allowed licensed “tax farmers” (the hated “tax collectors” of the New Testament) to squeeze as much money out of the Jews as they could for their own use provided they turned in the required amount to the Roman treasury on time. So a new answer had to be given.

Clearly God was deliberately letting evil run its course. Like a latent cancer, evil would be allowed to gestate until it would burst forth in full bloom; and then God, like a wise surgeon, could intervene and cut out the canker and restore creation to its originally intended splendor, but only after evil had fully manifested itself. And for that task, as he had done with many of his other works, God would send one of his celestial delegates, that is, one of his angels. Such a scene we find depicted in the Book of Daniel, where we read how the outcome of the end of history will take place:

I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came out of the sea, different from one another… [These four beasts represent the empires of the Babylonians, Persians, Seleucids, and Romans, respectively] And as I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days [meaning God] took his seat…. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand [angels] stood before him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened…. I saw in the night a vision, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came before the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him 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.
(Daniel 7:2-14)

Notice that in this translation (RSV) the term “son of man” is not capitalized. Granted, the distinction between capital and small letters did not enter Western orthography until the eighth century A.D.; still the translators chose wisely, for here the term “son of man” is not yet a title, but merely the typical Aramaic indication for a human being, or rather in this passage, for someone like a son of man, meaning one who amidst the heavenly court has taken on human appearance. But this clearly is no angel chosen at random, but some more significant being; for his task will entail that, upon its completion, he will be given “everlasting dominion” so that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.”

For that reason, the expression that Daniel used to mean solely the human form or appearance of this divine agent came to take on the connotations of a specific title for that expected figure. It came to be, so to speak, “capitalized” (in the mind, if not in the manuscripts). “Son of Man,” in other words, came to designate a specific figure who would come from heaven to “set things right,’ to give God’s final verdict upon the course of world history, to put an end to this seemingly endless series of bestial empires, and to give final definition to God’s intentions when he created the world in the first place.

Jesus’ awareness of this connotation of the title “Son of Man” is made most evident when he speaks specifically of the Son of Man “coming on the clouds” (as in Mark 14:62, as we have already seen), a clear allusion to this passage in the book of Daniel. Many commentators, especially those of skeptical bent, hold that, insofar as these passages represent the authentic words of the historical Jesus, Jesus is referring to someone else whom he too is expecting. The trouble (apart from the plausibility or implausibility of the exegesis involved) is that when Jesus speaks of the Son of Man in contexts where he is clearly not using the term generically but is being specifically theological, for the most part he describes the Son of Man in terms that Isaiah uses to describe the Suffering Servant.

We see this most clearly in the very passage where Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ and where Jesus then admonishes him and the rest of the Twelve not to divulge such dangerous news: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly” (Mark 8:31-32a). No Messianic secret here at least: for here Jesus openly describes the Son of Man not in his exultant role but in his suffering on behalf of the people. [That Jesus’ audience would have understood that eschatological connection is a point made by Craig Evans: “Interpreters of Daniel 7 in late antiquity almost always understood the `son of man’ figure as referring to an individual, often to the Messiah (as in the Gospels, 1Enoch, and 4 Ezra).” [Craig A. Evans, "Jesus' Self-Designation `The Son of Man,"' in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity]

Again we are forced to ask why. Why did Jesus not use Isaiah’s language of the Suffering Servant when he spoke thus? Why use Son-of-Man language when he is intent on describing not his exaltation, the end of the world, or receiving dominion, but instead his humiliation and fated execution? Clearly, the association of suffering with the Son of Man meant that Jesus was linking his suffering with the definitive inauguration of God’s kingdom, something that not even the Suffering Servant Songs had done (that is, for Isaiah the Suffering Servant suffered on behalf of the people, but in an atoning way, and not necessarily to provoke the end of history). In other words, by speaking this way Jesus is signaling his acceptance of a divine vocation, one, moreover, that will transform God’s relationship to history in a definitive way: Jesus’ suffering and the end of the world are in some mysterious way linked.

Moreover, by using Son of Man as the title to express Jesus’ suffering, the stress is put on Jesus’ own control over his destiny, a feature of Christology that is strongly present in John but is also implied in the Synoptic use of Son of Man, as Heinz Todt rightly sees:

How is Jesus seen when in his suffering he is designated as Son of Man? He is not seen as the one who is utterly devoid of power; … instead he is always seen as the one who is marvelously aware of his course beforehand. … The one in whom the sovereignty is inherent accepts his rejection by and deliverance to men…. His authority on earth is confirmed by his resurrection power.
H. E. Todt, The Son of Man in the Synoptic Tradition, trans. Dorothea M. Barton (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,1965), pp. 220-21.

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