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Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University

 
ἐλεύσανται ἡμέραι
ὅτε ἐπιθυμήσατε
μίαν τῶν ἡμερῶν τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἰδεῖν
καὶ οὐκ ὄψεσθε

The days will come
  when you will want 
to see one of the days of the son of man
and you will not see.
-- Luke 17:22

 

 

While some sayings using the Greek idiom ὁ υἱος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ("son of man") have been the focus of repeated evaluation by the Jesus seminar, no vote has yet been registered for Luke 17:22 (SP 233). The saying is not multiply attested and is widely regarded as an editorial insertion between the repeated "Look, here!" and "Look, there!" of 17:21 and 23./1/  Luke 17:20-21 deals with key themes in Mark: Pharisees demanding signs (Mark 8:11) and the timing of the kingdom of God (Mark 9:1). Luke 17:23-30 picks up Q material about the time of "the son of man" which Matthew (24:26-39) dovetails with Mark's little apocalypse (Matt 24:15-25//Mark 13:14-23)./2/

If Luke 17:22 is merely an editorial link between material drawn from two identifiable sources, there is little reason to consider it as a separate saying that may be traced to Jesus. But a closer look reveals that it ill fits the notch into which it has been inserted. And the logical gaps are large enough to argue that Luke is here utilizing a pre-formed logion that can be traced ultimately to Jesus.

 

 

Logic of disappearance

Scholars have regularly interpreted Luke 17:22 as referring to the the son of man's parousia./3/  But the key word here is "interpreted". The Greek word παρουσία is not found here nor, for that matter, anywhere else in Luke. To read a sentence recorded by one author in terms of a concept developed only in the works of other minds is a subtle for of eisegesis that risks confusing the logic of the text in question and missing its meaning. The subject coming in this sentence is not "the son of man" but "days." Therefore, what it impending in this saying is not the appearance of a person but the passage of time.

The "coming" of v. 22 is one of only two verbal links to the preceding Lukan context and neither is exact: v. 20 focuses on the expected "coming" (ἔρχεται) of the kingdom of God and v. 21 warns not to look elsewhere to see (ἰδοὺ) what is already present. But such links mask the fact that relation of subjects, movement and modifiers in these sayings is not parallel. In v. 20 someone asks when the kingdom will come. In v. 22 there is neither question nor suggestion of the son of man's arrival or epiphany. What is "coming" is days when he will not be seen (ἰδεῖν). Instead of making an appearance, in the coming days the son of man will be discovered to be absent./4/

In reading connected sayings whose logic is discontinuous, one must not draw inferences from the evangelist's context, especially if one of those sayings is transitional, as Luke 17:22 seems to be. Luke is not the only evangelist to link sayings about the coming of the son of man and kingdom of God./5/  But no saying covers the coming of both together./6/  Luke knows sayings about the son of man "coming"./7/  Thus, his decision not to mention his arrival here must be deliberate. The question is whether his choice of words is his own or that of a source.

Source? 

After some consideration the International Q Project decided not to include Luke 17:22 in its published critical text of Q. Yet the editors of this edition recognized that the question of this verse's source still remains unresolved./8/ In fact, today--more than half a century after Tödt confidently dismissed 17:22 as one of Luke's "own formulations"--there is no general agreement that this saying (or something like it) did not initiate Q's eschatological discourse./9/ Several scholars have concluded that 17:22 is at least a variant of a saying that must have stood at this point in Q./10/  Many others still tend to treat it among the cluster of Q son of man sayings in Luke 17 without crediting it to Lukan redaction./11/  Those who include 17:22 in the eschatological discourse concluding the sayings source claim Matthew dropped the first (and last?) of Q's string of son of man sayings (17:22,24,26, and perhaps 28-30) in folding them into Mark's little apocalypse. Those who don't include it, argue that Luke created it as an editorial seam to introduce Q material. The lack of a Matthean parallel sways many cautious scholars to accept the latter option./12/ Yet, quite apart from the question of whether Luke 17:22 can be traced to Q, it can be shown that it is not a characteristic Lukan construction.

Context 

Luke's understanding of Q's son of man sayings is evident by the way in which he has framed them. On the one hand, he introduces them with the question of the coming of the kingdom of God (17:20-21). On the other, he concludes them (17:28-30) by comparing the "day" of the son of man's apocalypse to the destruction of Sodom in the "days of Lot."/13/  While the kingdom may sneak in silently, Luke certainly doesn't think the son of man will. He will appear with fireworks. All this is just as uniquely in Luke as 17:22. The question here is not whether the Lot saying stood in Q or Luke invented it, but rather what its inclusion here says about Luke’s view of the "day" or "days" of the son of man. The latter’s appearance is as sudden and cataclysmic as anything in Mark or Matthew. It could cost your life (17:32).

Whether Q's eschatological discourse included the destruction of Sodom or only Noah's flood (17:26-27), it is clear that Luke's use of the son of man's "day" or "days" comes from the wording of his source. If Q had mentioned παρουσία, then Luke--the most Greek of gospel writers-- has systematically replaced it with a more common Semitic idiom. It is more likely that reference to the son of man's παρουσία in Matt 24 is a uniquely Matthean hybrid, adapting the language of Hellenistic Jewish eschatology to interpret Q sayings with a Semitic subject./14/  Thus, at the very least the vocabulary of Luke 17:22 is that of Q.

Yet, the perspective of Luke 17:22 is hardly derived from the following Q sayings. In the latter the "day" or "days" of the son of man is a blinding revelation, consuming all but the few alert enough to escape. In the former it is something one cannot find even if one seeks it. The days of Noah (17:26) or Lot (17:28) are times that only the self-righteous would want to see. And only the foolhardy might miss them.

Clumsy editing? 

It is generally assumed that Luke 17:22 refers to the eschaton./15/ But again any eschatological connotation has to be read in from what follows. Such inferences are justified, however, only if 17:22 was originally formulated as part of the logia complex in which it currently stands. If, on the contrary, this complex is a compilation of originally independent sayings that has been edited by more than one mind--as most scholars assume--then each element needs to be analyzed as a discrete statement on its own terms. 

Noting the discontinuity between Luke 17:22 and following sayings regarding expectation of seeing the son of man in the future, some scholars have suggested that Luke introduced this saying to stress the eschaton's delay, as a warning against fanatical expectations that the apocalypse envisioned in Q was imminent./16/  But if so, he could have made this clearer! Why, then, did he bother to copy and emphasize not only Q's eschatological discourse but also Mark's little apocalypse (Luke 21)?/17/  In both Jesus gives instructions for dealing with cosmic emergency. To introduce a warning with a notice that "days will come" when it will not be needed is counter-productive./18/

To suggest that Luke rehearsed these eschatological passages simply because, as a meticulous scholar, he felt obliged to quote his sources verbatim and in full, is hardly cogent. For his handling of Mark shows his readiness to delete, revise and rearrange material in a written source to make it fit his view of history. Moreover, he proves repeatedly that he can create polished logical transitions. If so elsewhere, why not here? There must be a better explanation of this verse than to claim that Luke suddenly became a clumsy editor./19/

Non-Lukan logic 

Contextual analysis reveals Luke 17:22 to be an isolated saying that must be evaluated as a self-contained aphorism. Textual and methodological observations show it cannot be dismissed a priori as Luke's creation:

  • Style: As an awkward transition whose relation to the surrounding material is based on verbal catchwords rather than sequential logic, 17:22 is not typically Lukan. Catchword, thematic and structural parallels are common devices in Q to join sayings with different origins and logic. At other points Luke has discontinuous sequences of proverbial wisdom and cryptic comments. But unless there are obvious Lukan elements, he is generally conceded to be compiling rather than inventing.
  • Motifs: 17:22 contains no wording that is peculiar to Luke. On the contrary, almost every word is found in the appended sayings, which can be traced to Q. Yet 17:22 does not echo either their detail or their viewpoint, making it a poor example of editorial mimicry. As a proven master of detail and logic, Luke can be expected to compose a clearer and closer copy of the Q son of man sayings than this.
  • Location:  17:22 neither introduces nor develops the speech in which it stands but, rather, complicates its message by making a prediction at odds with what comes before and after. First the disciples are told not to look for what is here (17:21), then that what they look for will not be found anywhere (17:22), then that it will be visible everywhere, even to those who don't seek it (17:24). One expects such dizzying reversals of the gospel of Thomas but not Luke.

 

 

The Ticking Clock 

The lack of eschatological detail in Luke 17:22 is important to note. But more basic for locating the historical horizons of both speaker and audience are the internal temporal references. The saying begins and ends with a reference to "days"; but these are not identical.

The fact that the first "days" are future ("will come") starts the clock ticking. The formula echoes Hebrew prophetic threats or promises, but none with an overt eschatological date./20/ Rather, the focus is on a future era when the predicted conditions will finally come to pass. Things will change. Here there are no spatial markers to identify the time of transformation; there is only the movable temporal indicator that as time passes a second set of "days", those of the son of man, will not be seen.

The strict logic of this progression necessitates locating the son of man in the audience's present rather than the future. The condition for the disappearance of his days is the passing of time./21/ There is no hint that they or he cannot be seen now. Far from being an eschatological persona whose presence is approaching, this son of man is a historical presence whose time is running out./22/

As structured this saying speaks not of eschatological hope but of future regret./23/ There is no claim that those addressed want to see the son of man now, but they are told that sometime in the future they will. It is not a person who is the subject of this coming but the audience's desire. And they are told that this will be frustrated. They will want to see what they no longer can.

Time sharing

A detail that is generally ignored or misunderstood is that the predicted longing will be for "one of the days."/24/  This is no way to refer to a cosmic end-time! Eschatology has one temporal focus, the punctiliar climax ("that day" or, in the NT, "hour"), beyond which is only eternity./25/  Events that precede that moment may be expressed in terms of duration ("those days"), but always as an undivided whole.

"Days" is not an eschatological word, but the standard Semitic way of referring to any era: past, present, or future. Their extent is determined by the subject in apposition, which is often a particular human person./26/  So, "days of the son of man" implies his historical presence. And to tell people that they will long for just one of them without qualification is to say that his presence, the time shared with him, is what they will miss.

Conceptual background 

For Semites, God's time is "everlasting"; but human time is measured in terms of "days." Moreover, it is axiomatic among Semitic sages that a human's days are limited./27/  One comes, one goes; only one thing is certain: no human will stay forever. To be human is to have a temporary presence.

While awareness that human existence is fleeting sometimes gave individual Semitic sages an acute attack of existential Angst (e.g., Job), they generally expressed their awareness of temporality in objective generic terms. It is not just "my" days that are few, but those of humanity (adam, enosh) in general.  And so it is not a unique "son of man" whose days disappear; disappearance is an unavoidable fact of human existence./28/ By definition, there will come a day when the days of any "son (or daughter) of man" will not be seen. Thus, Luke 17:22 fits better into the world-view of Semitic wisdom than Jewish Christian eschatology. From this vantage point it is an aphorism of universal existential significance.

Jesus’ usage 

The very universality of this aphorism makes it imperative to trace it to the proper speaker. Any Semite might speak of human existence in terms of "the son of man."/29/  But, in the gospels this idiom is found only on the lips of Jesus. This is probably because Greek-speaking Christians regarded it as a barbarism but, out of respect for Jesus, translated it rather literally whenever it occurred in sayings ascribed to him./30/  For there simply is no textual evidence that the awkward Greek construction ὁ υἱος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου--literally, "the son of the human"--was ever used or understood as a christological title in early Christian circles./31/ Rather, it is regularly used in Jesus sayings as his idiosyncratic form of self-reference and interpreted by patristic writers as referring to his humanity.

Thus, Luke 17:22 deserves more serious consideration as a genuine Jesus logion than most son of man sayings, since recent research favors the conclusion that Jesus' own use of this idiom was probably more generic and existential than eschatological./32/  The Jesus Seminar's voting on son of man sayings supported this trend./33/   Luke 17:22 is, in fact, an even better example of the simultaneous generic and existential connotations of the "son of man" idiom by Semitic sages than either of the sayings of Jesus that Seminar Fellows concluded should be printed pink (Mark 2:27-28 par; Matt 8:20//Luke 9:58//Thom 86).

Criteria 

If the characterization of Jesus as a sage is taken seriously, there is no reason to think he could not be the source of a piece Semitic wisdom like Luke 17:22. There are really only two obstacles to showing that he probably was:

  1. Limited attestation: among extant sources, only Luke credits this saying to Jesus;
  2. Lack of dissimilarity: in vocabulary and worldview this saying is such standard Jewish wisdom that anyone could have said it.

The combination of these two criteria justifies some caution in tracing Luke 17:22 to Jesus. Single attestation by itself would pose no problem, if the logion reflected Jesus’ penchant for turning traditional wisdom on its head. For there are several demonstrably genuine Jesus sayings that can be traced to only one written source, and some the most prominent (notably, the parables of the good Samaritan, prodigal son and unjust steward) are now found only in Luke. But their authenticity is granted precisely because they are so unlike the outlook of anyone else at the time. Conversely, even a multiply attested Jesus saying becomes questionable, if it is indistinct from things that others in that period were saying. So reservations about the pedigree of Luke 17:22 must depend ultimately on its apparent lack of distinctiveness.

Yet, this lack of distinctiveness is more apparent than real. Despite the fact that sapiential observations tend to sound alike, the voices of individual sages may be distinguished if one considers not only characteristic speech patterns but dramatic spaces. After all, how clearly you hear a speaker depends upon the path of the sound.

Luke 17:22 may seem to be a standard piece of Jewish wisdom, but it comes to us, not from a compendium of Judean proverbs, but from the most obviously Gentile scribe among early Christian writers. We have already noted that this verse is not a typically Lukan construction./34/ So the questions that face us are: where did Luke get if from and why did he ascribe it to Jesus when other more Judaic gospel writers did not? Which is more likely: that Luke introduced a Semitic common place or that Matthew and others dropped it?

Generalization? 

Just as Luke 17:22 is probably not a free creation by the evangelist, neither is it a general proverb that might have freely circulated in Jewish Christian circles. Nor is it formally a meditation on the passing of human days. While the speaker has the world of such Semitic wisdom behind him, before him is an audience who is being alerted to time limits on its association with "the son of man."

The use of this idiom here is generic but not general. It makes no more sense to tell people that some day they will miss the time constraints on human existence than to tell them that someday (but not now) they will miss time with one who has yet to appear on the stage of history. The logical space between audience and "son of man" requires that he be seen here as a particular person. The only question is whether this reference to a son of man whose presence will be missed originated as a statement about a third party or about the speaker himself.

Third party prediction?

As elsewhere, the idiom "the son of man" (ὁ υἱος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου) sounds so objective that several scholars have interpreted such sayings as statements about someone other than the speaker. If the idiom points to Jesus, the saying is taken as a statement by somebody else; conversely, if Jesus is regarded as the speaker, the idiom is read as a pointer to a third party./35/  While such interpretations may make sense of parousia pronouncements, neither option is plausible in the case of Luke 17:22, where the horizons are historical rather than eschatological, and the days of this son of man are not coming but going.

Luke 17:22 is obviously not a Jesus pronouncement about someone else. The only historical person other than Jesus whose imminent disappearance he himself might plausibly have predicted is John the Baptist. But John is clearly not the missing person of Luke 17:22. While Luke transmits the Q passage where Jesus identifies John as "the greatest born of woman" (Luke 7:28//Matt 11:11), in almost the next breath he echoes Q’s radical distinction between John and "the son of man" (Luke 7:33-34//Matt 11:18-19). Nobody who used the son of man designation to contrast two figures so sharply is apt to turn around and confuse them.

Nor was any of Jesus’ followers in a position to announce his impending disappearance. True, long after the crucifixion Mark and John reported that Jesus predicted his own demise in son of man sayings that were not understood until after the fact./36/  The details of such statements are easily recognized as inventions of Christian story-tellers to reassure readers that their vanquished hero was fully aware---and thus master---of his own destiny. For accurate premonitions of catastrophe can transform even the greatest tragedy into a personal triumph, as clairvoyants from Jeremiah to Jean Dixon have demonstrated. Thus, the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion is diminished by gospel assurances that he knew exactly what was going to happen (even if his disciples did not) and confronted death with a triumphant, or at least stoic, spirit.

Luke 17:22, however, is categorically different from both the well-informed predictions ex eventu typical of Mark and the optimistic cryptic euphemisms for crucifixion that one finds in John. Here the speaker neither tells what is to happen to the son of man nor offers a theologized explanation. The audience is left simply with a disturbingly vague reminder that someday someone will be missing in action. This is not the sort of statement that any fan of Jesus is apt to have fabricated to honor him. For the only thing the speaker is sure of is that this human being is not going to outlive his comrades.

Subjective reflection

While Luke 17:22 makes little sense in reference to a third party, it makes perfectly good sense as Jesus’ reflection on his own temporal limits. Anyone can tell somebody, "Some day you're going to miss me!," and many, in fact, do. Such a statement requires no special psychic powers, just a realistic awareness that the speaker is not exempt from the constraints that time imposes on the general human condition. The very ordinariness of this observation makes it more likely that Luke 17:22 is a genuine Jesus saying rather than a sentiment that a later Christian author (Luke or the editor of Q) placed on Jesus’ lips.

Editorial nonsense

Even though the logical gaps in the context show that Luke did not fabricate this saying, he may have mended it by replacing a first person pronoun with "the son of man" as in 6:22 (cf. Matt 5:11). Those who resist accepting the possibility that Jesus could use "son of man" as a circumlocution for the first person pronoun automatically favor this option. Jesus admittedly used "son of man"; but, they claim, it was the community of his followers who narrowed its usage to a personal nickname for their leader. The evangelists (and probably others) demonstrably created son of man sayings and revised others to include this idiom. So if Luke makes Jesus speak of himself as the son of man elsewhere (at least in 22:48) what is to prevent that from being the case here?

But this makes editorial nonsense! Without "son of man" Luke's only reason for inserting it before Q's eschatological discourse is its reference to "days". But then he surely would have noticed that the subjects' days are portrayed here as slipping inexorably into the past, to join those of Noah and Lot (17:26,28). For him the "day" (sing.!) of the son of man is future emphatic (17:30). If he edits Q by inserting an allusion to the Markan theme of the son of man's suffering (17:25) to clarify for the reader that the historically uncertain "day" of the son of man in 17:24 is to occur after the crucifixion, then why did he not also change "days" to "day" here and eliminate the "not see" as well? Elsewhere he makes Jesus tell his audience to prepare to stand in the son of man's presence (21:36). They would surely see and spend time with him then!

Oral logic

The only way to account for the wording of this saying on the lips of Luke's Jesus is that it came to Luke as a Jesus saying in its present wording. Either it stood in Q or he got it from an anonymous oral source.

A case can be made for its presence as the original incipit of Q’s so-called "eschatological discourse" (Luke 17:23-37//Matt 24:26-28,37-41). For its key terms ("days" and "son of man") provide the motifs that link the central sayings of Q’s aphoristic cluster (Luke 17:24,26,30). Moreover, without it, this Q discourse begins with an unintelligible warning (Luke 17:23):

And they'll tell you                                         [καὶ ἐροῦσιν ὑμῖν:
"Look, there!" or "Look, here!"                        Ἰδοὺ ἐκεῖ, ἰδοὺ ὠδε
Don't rush off! Don't pursue!                          μὴ ἀπέλθητε μηδὲ διώξητε]

Unlike a similar sentence in the Markan apocalypse (Mark 13:21) which has the Messiah as the subject sighted, the quest that launches this Q cluster is strangely unfocused despite the fact that its logic requires an identifiable antecedent. Moreover, the logic of Luke 17:23 is identical with that of 17:22.  At some unspecified point in the future what is sought will not be found anywhere.  The implied subject could not have been either the kingdom of God (which Luke 17:20-21 just declared to be already present "within you") or some future day of  the son of man (which Luke 17:24 claims will be visible from horizon to horizon).  Thus, it is the disappearing days of the son of man in Luke 17:22 that provides the best logical grounds for calling off the search in 17:23.

Whether Luke 17:22 was in Q or not, it would have to be either a genuine Jesus saying or an oracle by a Christian prophet. But Christian prophets spoke for a son of man who addressed his followers on earth from heaven. While they understood themselves to share common time, the post-crucifixion community was painfully aware that it was now separated from the son of man by a vast space. This situation gave rise to the the parousia hope. Yet we have already seen that Luke 17:22 is an anti-parousia saying. The son of man's "presence" here is fading and there is no hope that it will come again!

Having rejected all other options, we are left with only one possible conclusion. After the crucifixion the only reason why anyone would claim that Jesus said "there will come days" when you will miss time with "the son of man" is that he actually said this before the crucifixion. From that Friday afternoon he was already missed; and after Sunday morning (or thereabouts) his followers were confident of seeing him again, if not here then in heaven.

 

 

Luke 17:22 is commended as a genuine Jesus saying on the basis of all objective criteria except multiple attestation.

  • Environment: Both terminology and world-view are totally Semitic. The speaker addresses his audience as a Jewish sage telling supporters who take his presence for granted that he too is mortal. Time will pass and you will miss me! Now is not forever.
  • Distinctiveness Both the wording and perspective are not like anything found elsewhere in early Christian tradition./37/ (a) The sense of this melancholic aphorism is totally out of place in Luke, or Q for that matter. Scholars who note the difficulties try to remove them by emendations and explanations that create more problems than they solve. The internal logic of this saying explains why it got placed where it did and does not appear elsewhere. It was axiomatic among Jewish and Christian scribes that the best way to take the sting out of a hard saying is to follow it up with sayings that are easier to accept. And early Christians, including Luke, found an eschatological Jesus much more comforting than a mortal one. The attempt to bury this son of man saying here proves that it was not a scribal invention. (b) There is a distant parallel between this Lukan son of man saying and those in Mark about his suffering (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34) and in John about his exaltation (3:14, 12:34). All portray Jesus as predicting his departure. So in the broadest sense one can say that this tradition is multiply attested after all. But there is no similarity in anything else. The Jesus of Mark and John is (almost) omniscient, so he can dispassionately predict his own demise. The speaker in this saying is painfully aware of a certain but unknown end to his existence, so he can speak of it in only the most generic sense. In Mark and John Jesus gives his disciples hints that death is not the end, so there is nothing to be afraid of. The son of man in Mark will be "seen" again; in John, "glorified" before the world. Both reflect post-crucifixion perspectives. But if the speaker in this saying is aware of a happy ending, he doesn't tell. Neither resurrection appearances nor parousia hopes have left their imprint on the logic of Luke 17:22. And that more than anything locates its composition as pre-Easter.
  • Coherence: Apart from the fact that the speaker of this saying is a Jewish sage who speaks of his own existence in terms of a generic "son of man" the initial impression is that Luke 17:22 has little in common with genuine Jesus sayings. But closer examination reveals that this is not the case. "Foxes have holes" (Luke 9:58//Matt 8:20) also expresses the insecurity of the son of man's existence. And all but a few fellows of the Jesus seminar agreed that this saying either came from Jesus or reflected his outlook on life./38/

Finally, while the language of this saying may sound morbid its logical implications are not. To tell your friends that they will miss you only in the future is not meant to dampen their spirits now. On the contrary, it's a call to make the most of your time together. The time to weep is not now! The speaker is saying: "Hey, I'm only human! Like yours, my days are not many. So let's enjoy them while we can. Tomorrow will be too late!" Thus, it is fully compatible with a son of man who was called "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 7:34//Matt 11:19).

Wisdom of this kind is not un-Jewish, though there are Christians who think so. It is vindicated by the words of another radical sage who was seen as a spokesman--and even ruler--of God's kingdom:

Here is what I see as good: For a man to eat and drink
and enjoy all the fruits of his work under the sun
during the few days of life which God gives him...
For he will not think about the days of his life
because God keeps him busy with joy in his heart.

For neither sage nor fool has a permanent remembrance
since in the days to come all will have been long forgotten."/39/

The traditional reason for rejecting Luke 17:22 as a genuine word of Jesus is contextual confusion with eschatological son of man sayings. I humbly request those who regard Jesus as a radical Jewish sage who viewed God's kingdom as present and himself as completely human: Please re-view!

Recommended vote: red

 

 

Time stamp

Those who assume that Jesus derived the son of man idiom from Jewish apocalyptic are inclined to consider Luke 17:22 a later scribal construct precisely because it does not fit well with parousia predictions. Recent research on the son of man concept, however,  has undermined whatever scholarly consensus used to exist regarding the eschatological matrix of this idiom within early first-century Judaism./40/ Yet, ironically, scholars who now view Jesus as a radical Jewish sage--who viewed God's kingdom as present and himself as completely human--continue to discount this saying due to its contextual confusion with the ostensibly eschatological son of man sayings appended to it.

Thus, while the apocalyptic son of man may have finally exited from the horizons of the historical Jesus, he continues to cast a long shadow over scholarly reconstructions of the origins of the Jesus tradition.  It should now be clear, however, that within post-crucifixion communities that developed collections of Jesus sayings "the son of man" was always understood to be the historical Jesus whose days were indeed missed.

Contrary to common wisdom, this particular son of man was not totally forgotten. Yet any recollection of his words was inevitably stamped by the passage of time. The context within which a particular saying was recalled was bound to determine the perspective within which it was then interpreted.

Hermeneutical mutation

Though the internal temporal logic of Luke 17:22 indicated that this saying was most likely forged in a  pre-crucifixion contest, as Jesus' warning of his own imminent disappearance, it obviously was recalled again long afterwards.  Time did pass.  The days of this son of man did disappear. And, just as Jesus had predicted, some of those who remembered him did in fact long to see at least one of those days they had spent with him again.

The very fact that Jesus' prediction soon came to pass guaranteed that at least some of his followers would recall it.  Yet, so strong was their desire to relive the days spent with him that those who were haunted by his prediction ("...and you will not see") could not let this be the last word.  For, as the gospels well attest, the oral recollection of Jesus' words was always governed by the rule of preventive censorship./41/ Hope, against hope, led someone who recalled this aphorism to append other son on man sayings that would lessen the sting of Jesus' disappearance.  Rather than let him sink into oblivion, the resulting catena became the basis of a conviction that his present absence was not final.

The key to this mutation of meaning is to be found in the wording of the first clause of Luke 17:22 itself. "The days will come..." is naturally understood to the future by whoever hears it spoken.  In the logical structure of his aphorism, these words introduce a prediction of something that has yet to occur in the experience of those who are addressed.  One has to consciously distance oneself from the intended audience and assume the neutral stance of an inquirer into past historical events in order to understand these words as referring to something that has already happened to others at some point in the past.  There is ample evidence throughout the New Testament, however, that early Christians did not generally think of Jesus like modern critical historians.  On the contrary, much like those Christians today who still take biblical prophecies at face value as referring to future events, the first generations of those who recalled Jesus tended to interpret his words as referring to their own situation, both current and future./42/ For them Jesus was not a figure of the past but a living Lord who still spoke to their present experience./43/

Catalyst and missing link

But if "the days" referred to in the first clause of this aphorism could be understood to refer to future events long after Jesus had uttered them, then it would be just one small leap of logic to interpret the same words in the second clause as referring to the future as well. If modern critical scholars can persistently misinterpret Luke 17:22 as an eschatological prediction, it is not difficult to envision less sophisticated first-century Christians, who took any Jesus saying more personally, as coming to the same conclusion. Then it would take just another small adjustment to convert the dire final clause ("...and you will not see") into a more acceptable optimistic conclusion.  By appending other sayings that were more readily interpreted as envisioning "the days of the son of man" as referring to his future appearance, the person who compiled the sayings catena in Luke 17 prevented the coming days predicted in 17:22 from being interpreted as reason to lament. If "one of the days" of this son of man was not able to be seen now, eventually "the day" would come when the son of man would be seen from horizon to horizon (17:24).

While, admittedly, any attempt to reconstruct the tradition history behind the formation of Luke 17:22-30 and its source(s) is necessarily speculative, it is arguably more plausible to view 17:22 as the oral catalyst that generated this particular sayings complex than as an awkward scribal preface to the preformed apocalypse that Luke derived from Q.  For elsewhere in Q "the son of man" is represented as a very mundane human individual rather than as an apocalyptic figure of cosmic stature./44/ He was presented as a "sign" to "this generation" just as Jonah was to the men of Ninevah in his own day./45/  The strict logic of this analogy requires that  "the son of man" be understood here as a historical contemporary of the audience addressed, just as in 17:22.

Other Q sayings, however, clearly envision the son of man as a figure who is currently absent, whose unknown "hour" or "day" of arrival is obviously still future for those addressed./46/ Thus, if Luke 17:22 was not in Q, this sayings collection contained two sets of son of man aphorisms whose subjects, though identically named, are totally unrelated in both time and space. Without 17:22, Q would have contained no clear connection between the present and the future "son of man," for it had nothing parallel to the Markan predictions of the son of man's death and resurrection./47/

Luke 17:22, however, provides the perfect missing link to fill the temporal and spatial gap in the logic of the Q son of man sayings. For it affirms the inevitable disappearance of this son of man's presence, while simultaneously shifting focus to future days, when whoever recalls him will  long to see him again.  In point of fact, many did.

 

/1/ Bultmann: "it is possible that Luke 17:22...is a formulation by Luke (or some earlier editor), meant to serve as an introduction to the following eschatological discourse" (History of the Synoptic Tradition 130). Those less tentative: Tödt Son of Man in the Synoptic Tradition 51, Conzelmann Theology of St. Luke 105, Ellis Gospel of Luke 211, Boring Sayings of the Risen Jesus 174, Lindars Jesus Son of Man 94.

/2/ Luke 21:5-36 follows Mark 13 without the Q sayings in Matt 24.

/3/ E.g., Manson Sayings of Jesus 142, Higgins Son of Man in the Teaching of Jesus 56, Vermes Jesus the Jew 185 n. 83; Lindars Son of Man 94, Piper Wisdom in the Q Tradition 139. As reference to the son of man's own future "coming" if not explicitly parousia: Boring Sayings of the Risen Jesus 241; Jeremias NT Theology 1, 163; Tödt Son of Man in the Synoptic Tradition 105, Perrin Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus 196, Colpe "ὁ υἱος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου",451.

/4/ Leivestad: "...v. 22 is an isolated logion, which has been placed (by Luke) in an unsuitable setting. The saying may be authentic. But then its original meaning can only be to prepare the disciples for a future time of distress. Such afflictions are to come, that they will desire to see again one, if not more than one, of the days when the Son of man was in their midst... They will look back upon the days of the Son of man and wish that they might once more have him among them. Such a wish cannot be fulfilled" ("Exit the Apocalyptic Son of Man," 261). Leivestad’s analysis of this verse has been generally overlooked by later scholars.

/5/ Mark 8:38-9:1, Matt 19:23-28.

/6/ See Perrin Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus 187.

/7/ Luke 12:40 (Q), 21:27 (Mark) and 18:8 (probably Lukan). All use ἔρχομαι not παρουσία.

/8/ Critical Edition of Q, 500. The apparatus clearly distinguishes Luke 17:22 from verses in Matthew and Luke "that can on face value be excluded from Q with sufficient clarity that a detailed examination is not necessary, which are hence passed over in silence" (lxxx). Yet the only discussion the editors record on this verse is the question: "Is Luke 17:22 in Q?"

/9/ See Tödt, Son of Man in the Synoptic Tradition, 105.

/10/ E.g., Crossan, In Fragments, 178, 203, 345; Allison, Jesus Tradition in Q, 26-27. See Kloppenborg, Q Parallels, 192 for a roster of other references.

/11/ Koester (Ancient Christian Gospels, 149) notes the current general trend to omit 17:22 from Q, but still lists it at the head of this cluster of Q sayings, since parallel logical constructions in Thom 38:2 and John 8:21 "demonstrate that this is indeed a variant of an older saying" (149 n1). While Hare (Son of Man Tradition, 64-67) deliberately avoids "the thorny problem of which segments of this discourse derive from the source common to Matthew and Luke," he lists 17:22 as the first of this complex of sayings and interprets it in the light of the following Q sayings. Recent commentators who also do not expressly credit 17:22 to Luke's editing of this complex of son of man sayings include Johnson (Luke, 264), Culpepper (NIB 9, 331), Tannehill (Luke, 260), and Franklin (OBC, 949-50).

/12/ E.g., Fitzmyer (Luke, 1164) and Kloppenborg (Formation of Q, 154-55). See Kloppenborg, 192 for a roster of others.

/13/ See Kloppenborg, Q Parallels 192-4 for reasons to trace Luke 17:28-30 to Q and references to scholars for and against.

/14/ Παρουσία occurs in the gospels only here in Matthew's version of three Q sayings. It appears frequently in 1 and 2 Thessalonians but only once elsewhere in an eschatological sense in Paul (1 Cor 15:23). Otherwise, Paul uses it like other Greek writers as reference to the physical presence of any living person, himself included! Its eschatological usage is found in 2 Peter (1:16, 3:4,12) and even James (5:7-8). 1 John 2:28 is the only use by a Greek Christian whose access to traditional Jewish eschatology is not clear.

/15/ E.g., Todt: "Jesus here predicts a future situation of the disciples unlike the situation implied in Luke 21:28 and 21:31; they will not be able to recognize at that time the nearness of God's reign.  They will watch in vain for the parousia, for participation in the messianic reign" (Son of Man in the Synoptic Tradition, 105). Johnson: "The tension between 'desire to see' and 'will not see' makes it clear that the disciples have a period to wait between the initiation of the kingdom and its full realization at the 'revelation of the Son of Man' (17:30)" (Luke, 264).

/16/ E.g., Gilmour, IDB 8, 301. Less explicitly: Tödt, Son of Man, 105; Kloppenborg, Formation of Q, 166; Goulder, New Paradigm, 651.

/17/ There is general consensus that at least Luke 17:32 ("Remember Lot's wife!") is Lukan redaction. And Luke not only keeps Mark's claim that the preceding predictions---including the coming of the son of man (21:27)---will occur before the end of "this generation" (21:32), but he appends his own unique warning to watch and pray that you are prepared "to stand before the son of man" (21:36).

/18/ The difficulty of interpreting the wording of Luke 17:22 within its current context has been noted by several scholars: e.g., Lindars: "Moreover, the phrase 'one of the days of the son of man' is so strange that it suggests Luke had difficulty integrating the material" (Jesus Son of Man, 94); Goulder: "The rather clumsy phrase 'one of the days of...' arises from Luke's introduction of 'Days will come...'" (New Paradigm, 651); Franklin: "The use of the plural 'days' here is strange...and this suggests that the plural may have no special significance' (OBC, 949f).

/19/ Contra Lindars (Jesus Son of Man 94), Bultmann (History of the Synoptic Tradition 130) and Goulder (New Paradigm, 651).

/20/ See Amos 4:2, 8:11, 9:13; Isa 39:6; Jer 9:25, 16:14, 19:6, 31:31. Jer 23:5 is the closest to being "eschatological"; but its temporal setting is immediately historicized by 23:7.

/21/ A point recognized by Leivestad ("Exit," 261; see n. 4 above) but generally overlooked by those who take "the days of the son of man" here as a future referent, either pointing to the endtime--e.g., Bultmann (Synoptic Tradition, ),Tödt (Son of Man, 105), Goulder (New Paradigm, 651), Hare (Son of Man Tradition, 66)--or to the prior interim--e.g., Bovon (Luke the Theologian, 65), Culpepper (NIB 9, 331), Johnson (Gospel of Luke, 264).

/22/ So, Tannehill: "Jesus and the disciples will be separated (cf. 5:35), which will cause them to "long to see one of the days of the Son of man" (Luke, 260).

/23/ See Koester's suggestion of parallel constructions in Thom 38:2 and John 8:21 (Ancient Christian Gospels, 149 n1), neither of which have an eschatological focus, much less an apocalyptic resolution.

/24/ Those who note it but find it odd and in need of correction include: Manson (Sayings of Jesus 142), Higgins (Son of Man in the Teaching of Jesus 56), Lindars (Jesus Son of Man 94-95), Goulder (New Paradigm, 651), and Franklin ("Luke," 649). Fitzmyer reviews and rejects a number of "farfetched" explanations, but concludes: "It is not at all clear" what Luke means by "this difficult expression" (Gospel According to Luke 1168-69). In critiquing the Bultmannian dichotomy of present vs. future sayings, Collins asks: "In a post-Easter context does this saying [Luke 17:22] look back to Jesus as the earthly Son of Man whose absence is now mourned, like the saying in 5:35...? Or does it look forward to the revelation of the heavenly Son of Man 'in the days of the Son of Man'?" (Cosmology and Eschatology, 144)--questions that are left unanswered. 

/25/ See Amos 5:20, 8:9; Isa 2:12, 4:2, 11:10, 27:12-13; Jer 25:33, 30:7-9; Zech 14; Mal 3:2, 4:1; and Matt 25:13; Mark 13:32; Luke 12:40; 1 John 2:18; Rev 3:3, 14:15.

/26/ E.g., Luke 17:26,28. Cf. Gen 5, 9:29, 26:1,15,18; Josh 24:31; Judg 5:6, 8:28; 1 Sam 7:13, 14:52; 2 Sam 21:1.

/27/ See Gen 6:3, Exod 23:26; but especially Job 7:1-6,16, 8:8-9, 9:25, 10:20, 14:1-2; Eccl 2:3, 5:17-20.

/28/ E.g., Ps 103:15-16: "A man (enosh), like grass his days; like a flower of the field he flourishes./ As wind (ruach) passes over him, he is not, and his place does not know him again"; Ps 144:3-4: "Yahweh, what is man (adam) that you notice him, a son of man (ben adam) that you consider him? / A man is like a vapor, his days like a passing shadow" [my own translations from the Hebrew].

/29/ In Hebrew the idiom is always anarthous. In Aramaic the intensive form of the noun enash--i.e., enasha (with the final functioning as a definite article or weak demonstrative): 'the/this man"--was used to refer to a particular human. See my 1988 Jesus Seminar paper "To Judge the Son of Man" (Forum 7,3-4:211-219).

/30/ See Lindars Jesus Son of Man 25-26; Hare, Son of Man Tradition, 259.

/31/ Pace Burkett (Son of Man Debate, 122-123). See Hare, Son of Man Tradition, 29-45; Smith, Forum 7,3-4:211-213.

/32/ There is general agreement between Vermes (Jesus the Jew 162-186), Lindars (Jesus Son of Man 1-28), Casey ("General, Generic and Indefinite" 36-53), Hare (Son of Man Tradition, 257-259), myself and others. Differences are over nuances and detail.

/33/ The response to general questions was:
        (a) Jesus used "son of man" in a generic sense: agree 67.7%
        (b) Jesus used "son of man" of an apocalyptic figure: disagree 67.7%
        (c) No "son of man" saying goes back to Jesus: disagree 65.5%
Only two son of man sayings got enough support to be printed pink:
        (a) Luke 9:58//Matt 8:20 ("foxes have holes") and
        (b) Mark 2:27-28 ("lord of the sabbath").
Both have generic reference and application to Jesus personally.

/34/ See "Non-Lukan logic" above.

/35/ E.g. Bultmann claimed that Jesus "points ahead to the Son of Man as another than himself" (Theology of the NT 1, 9). Perrin, on the contrary, argued that "Jesus could not have spoken of the coming of the Son of man, either in reference to himself or in reference to an eschatological figure other than himself" and concluded that all Son of man sayings were "products of the early Church" (Rediscovering 198).

/36/ Mark 8:31-33, 9:9f &31f; John 12:23, 34.

/37/ The logic of Thom 38:2 and John 8:21 is close but the vocabulary is not. Both sayings present Jesus as using the first person singular pronoun--"me"--rather than "the son of man" idiom and neither employs the Semitic idiom for temporal presence "days of...."

/38/ On its third consideration in Toronto it received the following vote spread: 56.3% red, 21.9% pink, 9.4% gray and 12.5% black. Of all Q sayings it ranked 9th highest in red votes and 11th over all.

/39/ Qoheleth 5:17,19 and 2:16 (translation from the Hebrew is mine).

/40/ So Hare: "By the time Bultmann wrote his History, he could treat the identification of the phrase [ὁ υἱος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου] as an apocalyptic title as axiomatic. This is no longer possible. The challenges that have been presented to the original history-of-religions investigation are too impressive to be dismissed (Son of Man Tradition, 10). After reviewing the history of the apocalyptic son of man hypothesis and analyzing references so-named in Jewish texts, Burkett concludes: "Probably the majority of scholars have come to agree that no unified 'Son of Man" title or concept existed in pre-Christian Judaism (Son of Man Debate, 121).

/41/ "If a message is alien to an audience, or a matter of indifference, or socially unacceptable, it will not be continued in the form in which it was spoken. It will either have to be altered, adjusted to prevailing expectations, or eliminated altogether.  This fundamental fact of preventive censorship has not been taken into account by a scholarship whose prime focus was (and is) on linear growth patterns" (Kelber, Oral and Written Gospel, 28-29).

/42/ E.g., Mark 9:1, 13:9-16,37; Matt 5:11-12//Luke 6:22-23; 1 Thess 4:15-18.

/43/ "The sayings in Q were neither conceived as words of the past, pre-resurrectional Jesus nor strictly speaking as words of the risen Lord.  In the oral, prophetic mode of Q the power of speech united the earthly and future Son of man into the present efficacious one" (Kelber, Oral and Written Gospel, 203).

/44/ See Matt 8:20//Luke 9:58; Matt 11:18-19//Luke 7:33-35

/45/ Luke 11:29-30//Matt 12:39-40. Luke's wording here is generally conceded to be closer to Q.

/46/ Matt 23:43-44//Luke 12:39-40; Matt 24:37-39//Luke 17:26-28.

/47/ The analogy to Jonah's three day "burial" in Matt 12:40 is uniquely Matthean and generally recognized as a hermeneutical revision of the wording originally in Q (= Luke 11:30), while the passion prediction in Luke 17:25 is probably a Lukan interpolation in this Q catena.

 

 

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  • This paper was first presented on 19 October 1990 to the session of the Jesus Seminar at Xavier U, Cincinnati OH. The updated expanded version presented above was published in FORUM n.s. 7,1 (2004) 97-115.

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