Mahlon H Smith,
more than a century of deliberation scholars have sought consensus on
the question of the origin and significance of the words "the son
of man" in the sayings of Jesus. But the jury is still out.
Researchers in this case have taken
more care to gather every piece of evidence and review it from all
conceivable perspectives than in any NT investigation outside the
parables. But we are still far from unanimous in seeing how the whole puzzle fits together.
While individuals have significantly shifted their views
(notably, N. Perrin and B. Lindars), the reconstructions suggested at
the beginning of this century are still championed, though with more
sophistication and variation in detail./1/
for now the nuances that distinguish one scholar's opinion from those
of others with whom one basically agrees, the primary interpretations
of the origin of "the son of man" that still find advocates
Jesus, under the influence of Jewish apocalyptic (particularly Dan
7:13-14), predicted the appearance of an exalted anthropoid who
would play a decisive role in the ultimate cosmic order. Only later was Jesus himself identified as the subject of
these sayings. And this, in turn, enabled "the son of man" to be made the
subject of sayings describing Jesus' own earthly life. Hence, only a few sayings envisioning "the son of
man" as yet to come reflect Jesus' own usage./2/
Jesus used an everyday Semitic generic idiom for a human being in
statements relating to his own situation. Only as these sayings were translated into Greek was this
indefinite aspect lost to view and "the son of man"
understood as an exclusive designation of Jesus. Post-crucifixion convictions that Jesus fulfilled scripture
led to his identification as the subject of Dan 7:13-14 and the
formation of sayings predicting his reappearance in apocalyptic
terms. Hence, only a few sayings representing "the son of man" as present
reflect Jesus' own usage./3/
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, not his own reign or that of
some other agent of divine judgment. The post-crucifixion community of Jesus' followers first
proclaimed his exaltation in terms of Ps 110:1. Among Hellenists, this came to be linked in midrashic logic
first with Ps 8:4-6 and then Dan 7:13-14. Thus, the identification of Jesus as "the son of
man" is a rather late apologetic development unrelated to any
element of Jesus' message. Hence,
no "son of man" saying reflects Jesus' own usage./4/
(a) and (c) differ regarding Jesus' responsibility for initiating the
"son of man" trajectory, but agree in seeing Dan 7:13-14 as
the root of this logia tradition and in setting sayings about the
subject's earthly activity and fate in the branches. Likewise, options (b) and (c) differ regarding the authenticity
and relative dating of references to the current status of "the
son of man," but agree in tracing statements about his
eschatological role to a source other than Jesus. From a purely quantitative perspective, the publishing
pendulum is presently swinging in the direction of those who deny that
Jesus clothed "the son of man" in apocalyptic dress. Yet publishing activity is only one gauge of the status of
current scholarship. There are still enough who see Jesus' message as having a consistently
eschatological focus that the apocalyptic son of man refuses to give
up the ghost. Every time someone declares him to be either a fabrication of the early church or
a figment of the modern academic imagination, someone else rises to
claim that he played a vital role in the mind of Jesus./5/
So the debate continues.
0.3. Gaps and Leaps
reason that the "son of man" problem has resisted swift and
easy solution is not so much the volume and complexity of the material
as the lack of decisive evidence supporting assumptions basic to the
various hypotheses. There
are points at which each of the suggested explanations of the data
depend on claims of circumstantial possibility rather than concrete
connections that all are able to see. While one may readily notice the aporia in a rival's
argument, it is much more difficult to recognize aspects of one's own
perspective that result from a logical leap unsupported by clear and
incontestable facts. For
the human mind tends to reinforce the bridges it has itself projected
between promontories reality has isolated. Often a particular reconstruction strikes one as more cogent
than others because of a predecessor's skill in spanning the void
rather than a critical examination of the tensile strength of the
elements with which he (or she) has chosen to build. So before jumping to conclusions about any "son of
man" saying's relation to the thought of Jesus, it would be
prudent to call attention to hidden holes in the presentation of the
evidence, lest unexamined assumptions lead us to the wrong verdict.
the case of "the son of man," appearance and silence have
led to allegations that have assumed an aura of facticity simply
because of their frequent repetition. As such impressions are open to conflicting interpretations,
however, it is dangerous to make them the basis for deciding the fate
of the subject.
1.1. The alleged absence of "the son of man" in Jewish
reaction to overblown and insufficiently critical modern discussions
of the origin and influence of "the son of man myth" in
early Judaism has led to the opposite extreme of emphatic denials that
any such speculation existed among first century Jews. But failure to prove existence is not to prove
is true that neither in Daniel nor his later Jewish interpreters was
"son of man" used as the name or title of a specific person. But the fact that the authors of 1 Enoch 46-71 and 4 Ezra 13
independently sought to identify and explain the role of the man-like
figure in Daniel's vision does indicate that interest in this passage
was not limited to Christian evangelists Yet, there is still no proof that these ostensibly novel
revelations were in circulation prior to 70 CE. References to "that son of man" in 1 Enoch clearly
introduce a single scribe's exegetical reflections on a specific text
(Dan 7:13) and, therefore, cannot be cited as evidence of general
practice./7/ The so-called "two powers controversy" at the
beginning of the next century is evidence of a widespread Jewish
interest in biblical texts that portrayed an exalted man-like figure
as exercising dominion over the whole cosmos./8/
But there the term
"son of man" did not figure even in speculation based on Dan
7. The targum of Ps 8 twice identifies the agent to whom God entrusts the cosmic order as
"the son of man."/9/
But it is not clear that this
represents anything more than a generic ideal. R. Abbahu's ironic (late 3rd century) warning, "if someone
tells you 'I am ben adam (“son of Man”),' he will regret
his end" (yTa'an 2.1), does presuppose some current (Jewish?)
speculation in which "son of man" was an epithet that one
might claim for oneself. Yet, none of this evidence of Jewish speculation shows that either in
Jesus' day or later "the son of man" was used in oral
statements to designate a person other than oneself.
1.2. The alleged role of Dan 7:13 as source of "the son of
scholars generally recognize that in Jewish apocalypses "son of
man" (without articles) is meant to describe rather than name the
figure envisioned in an eschatological context, proponents of options
(a) and (c) insist that Dan 7:13 is the source, not only of Greek
references to ὁ υἵος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου
(“the son of the man” with
two articles), but of the use of this designation for the subject of
sayings with no clear link to the material in Daniel. The reasoning runs: the Danielic "son of man" was
first identified with Jesus, so eventually anything about Jesus could
be predicated of "the son of man." This is more an
intellectual residue from old theories of the Jewish son of man myth
than the product of a critical examination of the Christian sources.
To be sure, the dependence of the author of
Mark 13:26 and
Daniel's description of one "like a son of man" must not be
minimized. But the only instance of imagery in other "son of man" sayings that can
be traced to a possible indirect influence of Daniel is the
association of this subject with a parousia motif in:
a secondary qualifying phrase in
Mark 8:38c and parallels;
(2) a non-descriptive call for
eschatological preparedness in Q (Matt 24:44 //Luke 12:40);
(3) Matthew's version of other Q sayings (Matt 24:27,37,39)
and a logion that he alone records (Matt 10:23)./10/
one must certainly recognize an influence of Daniel on Mark and
probably on Matthew. But unless one is prepared to defend Matthew as a more
literal reporter of Q than Luke, the case for the influence of Dan
7:13 on "son of man" sayings earlier than Mark must be made
to rest on Luke 12:40. One finds here,
however, a non-Danielic emphasis on the "unexpected hour" of
the coming---a theme attested elsewhere in NT passages that refer
neither to Daniel nor to "the son of man."/11/
In fact, apart from this epithet, Luke 12:40 is closer to
general eschatological expectation of the coming of "the
Lord" than to Dan 7.
Clearly at some point Dan 7:13 was drawn into Christian messianic
exegesis. But without firm support from Q, the claim that this was the ultimate source of
the awkward Greek technical term, is weakened. And it is all but undermined when proponents of this
explanation claim that the
eschatological "son of man" predictions of Q rather than
those of Mark are original!/12/
Moreover, the fact that early Greek
Christian writers regularly used υἵος ἀνθρώπου
(without any article) in citing Dan 7:13, even when identifying
this figure with Jesus, calls in question the claim that the emphatic
designation, "the son of man" (with two articles in
Greek) originated in references to this text./13/
1.3. The alleged use of "the son of man" as a christological
more than a century scholars have considered "Son of Man" to
be a (messianic) title, whether as an ideal with which Jesus himself
identified or as a label pinned on him by others. Its prominence in the logia tradition has been attributed, on
the one hand, to Jesus' own use of the term to counter popular Jewish
"son of David" messianism or, on the other, to the urgent
apocalyptic eschatology of the primitive Christian church. It has long been presented as the original christology of
Jewish Christianity and is still widely viewed as the sole title used
to refer to Jesus in the Hellenistic Q community./14/
Even some scholars who have denied a titular use of this idiom
among non-Christian Jews seem compelled to regard it as a title in at
least some NT logia./15/
(a) This opinion is based on three impressions:
the two Greek articles focus the nouns on a specific figure;
(2) many of the sayings describe the subject so designated as
functioning in an official capacity;
(3) the subject of the sayings is presented objectively in the third
person and so seems to be distinct from the speaker.
is these impressions that provide the primary support for options (a)
and (c). If a saying is traced to Jesus, then it seems he was referring to someone other than
himself. If the details
of the saying obviously describe Jesus, then it seems to have been
spoken by someone else. The problem is that neither of these conclusions is supported by
external evidence. As the
failure to find a Jewish reference to "the son of man" as an
apocalyptic title makes the claim that Jesus used it this way
questionable, so the absence of
ὁ υἵος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου
(with two articles) in Hellenistic christological formulas from Paul through
the apostolic fathers renders suspect the theory that early Christians
used this phrase to affirm their faith in Jesus. Its limitation to Jesus' speech in the gospels, where attested
titles are regularly invoked both by other characters and by the
narrator, weakens the claim that this term served as a title at any
stage in its development./16/
True, the report of Stephen's dying vision (Acts 7:56) has been
regarded as a key witness to or even source of the titular use of this
term in the confessional activity of the Jerusalem church./17/
is debatable whether this sole canonical record of the Greek definite
"son of man" formula outside the sayings of Jesus can bear
the test of historical reliability. Though Luke is rightly regarded as a cautious historian, he is
also an apologist who demonstrably does not shrink from revising the
wording of even written sources to serve his own theology of history. If he regularly corrects Mark's version of Jesus' logia and
reports speeches for Paul that are out of sync with the logic of the
apostle's own letters, how is it certain that his report of the first
martyr's last words is anything more than a literary echo of
predictions of such visions attributed elsewhere in the tradition to
quote of Hegesippus' account of James' last words is clearly of this
order./19/ Apart from these hagiographic legends there is no written
record of "the son of man" ever being used by either Aramaic
or Greek speaking Christians as a third person designation for Jesus
or anyone else. And
accounts of a gnostic hypostasis named "Son of Man" are
unrelated to the synoptic logia tradition./20/
(c) It is often noted that none of the apostolic fathers---neither
pseudo-Barnabas nor Ignatius nor Justin Martyr---, authors who had
some familiarity with the thought of Palestinian Jewish Christianity,
regarded "son of man" as an apocalyptic title but, instead,
regularly took the term as a claim of Jesus' generic humanity./21/
were taught that this indicates how soon the "original"
titular sense of this term was lost to view. But is it not, rather, an indication that "son of
man" was never originally used as a title? If there is no evidence of a titular use in Jewish sources; if
there is no confirmed instance of a titular use in our records of
early Christian communities; if in the gospels it is used only by Jesus in statements that usually
point to the speaker himself, where is there clear evidence that
"son of man" was ever regarded as a title at any stage in
the development of the NT "son of man" trajectory? There are a few sayings where the focus of the
formula is not so clearly reflexive./22/
But it is not certain
that such fuzziness comes from the fact that Jesus was indicating a
figure other than himself. Neither
the evangelists nor anyone else before the rise of the historical
quest took these sayings to be other than self-references by Jesus. Thus, the idea that "the son of man" originated and
circulated as a christological title has no firm material support. Rather, the titular use of this term---like "the son of
man myth" of which it is an essential part---is a modern academic
The alleged Greek misunderstanding of Jesus' use of "the son
evangelists clearly understood "the son of man" to be Jesus'
own characteristic term for saying something about himself. This alone is able to account for the care of Greek-speaking
Christians to use it only to present logia ascribed to Jesus. And ultimately this points to a basis in Jesus' own patterns of
speech. Every language
gives speakers the option of describing themselves objectively through
the use of circumlocutions. In
such cases the term selected has some reflection on the author of the
statement, though not everyone will always perceive this. Some circumlocutions are less obvious than others because they
do not focus exclusively on the speaker. Thus, the real question is not whether the Greek-speaking
church was correct in thinking that Jesus intended reference to himself in speaking of
"the son of man" but, rather, whether the sayings in which
this subject seems to indicate Jesus alone employed the idiom
as he would have used it.
Generalization?: It is generally agreed that technical use of the otherwise unprecedented Greek epithet in Jesus' sayings
originates in the awkward translation of an underlying Semitic idiom, probably Aramaic
[bar (e)naš (a)]. The absolute form of this expression (without the final alef)
is attested as subject of generalizations intended to apply to any
(male?) human person and, in a more abstract indefinite sense, in
statements where the subject could be any individual without discrimination. In either
case, assuming the speaker is human, the author of the statement is
meant to be covered by what is predicated, but not to the exclusion of
others. Thus, it has been suggested that only those sayings that can
be interpreted or reconstructed to apply to persons other than Jesus
can be considered genuine. There
are, however, several problems with this approach.
A statement is not necessarily general just because its subject is
about particular individuals may identify the subject by a common name
without intending to infer that the predicate applies to any other
member of that species. In
reporting an accident one may say "A man is dead," implying
that only one human has died. Aramaic,
like most ancient languages lacks an indefinite article; so such a
thought would be phrased: "Man (is) dead!" As in all
languages, generalizations intended to apply indiscriminately to
several persons normally use the plural "men", which in
Aramaic is בני
(2)Examples of the absolute singular
in pre-Targumic Aramaic are too rare and scattered to say definitively
just how common the idiom was in Jesus' world and what range of uses
it may have had there. To
date, linguists have been able to cull only five examples from
texts ranging over more than eight centuries of Aramaic usage
in greater Syria (including Israel)!/23/
Although the documentation of Aramaic itself during this period is admittedly slim, the
are proportionately small and not illustrative of everyday discourse in first century
Galilee./24/ There is only
one properly secular example of indefinite usage, and that is in a
formal treaty proclamation from northern Syria seven hundred years
before Jesus! Otherwise,
the idiom is found once in Jewish scripture to describe the appearance
of a figure envisioned as a unique individual (Dan 7:13) and
three times in commentaries found at Qumran. In two of these (11QtgJob and 26.3) it translates the equally
rare Hebrew בן אדם
[ben adam] in poetic assessments of the human
condition (Job 25:6 and 35:8). While
these appear applicable to any member of the human species, in context
they are part of pointed criticism of one man: Job.
statements were hardly formulated as generalizations or with the
subject left indefinite. This means that in three out of the five cases where we have
evidence of the use of
prior to the composition of the NT, the idiom is used to relate the particular
person in view to the generic idea of what it means to be human
rather than to say anything about other persons of the same genus.
(3) It is improbable that the absolute form,
[bar (e)naš], whatever its range of
meanings, is the point of origin of the sayings tradition attributed to Jesus.
[Bar (e)naš] regularly was translated
literally into Greek, by Jews and Christians alike, as
("son of man" without any article) or
simply as ("human" again, without an article). Thus, it is the regular use of
the two definite articles in the evangelists' awkward neologism,
ὁ υἵος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου,
that needs to be explained. And the explanation proposed by some Aramaic scholars are not altogether
(i) Though Aramaic lacks a separate article, in pre-Christian
usage the emphatic suffix (alef) functions much as the article does in
Hebrew or Greek to give the noun a more definite focus than the absolute
form. In the rabbinic dialect of third-fourth century Galilee, however,
this distinction had broken down, so that the emphatic form was used in
general statements where the subject was not defined as a particular
individual. Some have
claimed that this process was already underway in the first century, so
that sometimes Jesus may have used
[bar naša], since later Galilean
Jews and Christians regularly dropped initial alefs---in sayings that
were meant to apply generally to any human./25/
This hypothesis sounds
plausible; but as there is no data on the use of this Aramaic idiom by
first century Galileans it is unverifiable./26/
And it becomes tenuous
when it is recognized to rest on two questionable assumptions: (a) that
languages develop at a uniform rate within a given region, and (b) that
Jesus' speech is in direct line with that of tannaitic scribes. This theory presupposes that scholars two centuries after Jesus,
who did not follow his teaching, preserved his usage and meaning better
than the bilingual students of his thought who translated his sayings
into Greek within decades of his death. If Jesus had used the emphatic
[bar enaša] in a general sense,
without intending to define the person, there would have been no need to
create a new Greek idiom using two definite articles, as this would
certainly be seen to obscure the original meaning, even by those who
admittedly did not speak the best Greek. For the diarthous neologism,
ὁ υἵος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου,
to be synthesized for translation purposes there must have been at least
one Aramaic saying that was already understood to refer to a definite
subject. But this contradicts the claim that the emphatic
[bar enaša] had already lost any
ability to identify or define a particular individual. And this, in turn, calls into question the validity of ascribing
to Jesus only those sayings which generally apply to persons other than himself.
(ii) The uniformity of the double article in the Greek version of
"son of man" sayings in all strands of the tradition is hard
to explain without presupposing that a core of authentic sayings
regularly employed the emphatic
[bar naša], which makes it seem
less likely that an indefinite or general sense was intended. Such
uniformity has been credited to a secondary harmonization of the
sources./27/ But this is not supported by either manuscript evidence or
the redaction history of the tradition. The only evangelist to preserve an anarthous "son of
man" is John (5:28), even though he obviously interprets the saying
as describing Jesus' role exclusively! On the other hand, the only place where the diarthous idiom
"the son of the man" is taken in a general sense is Matthew's
secondary comment (9:8) on a passage drawn from Mark
Unless one is prepared to argue for the priority of the first
gospel, here the tradition displays a tendency of at least one later
writer to generalize a reference that in the original pericope clearly focused exclusively on Jesus.
And there is no manuscript evidence to show that any "son of
man" saying in Mark or Q ever had an anarthous subject. So there is no pattern of originally anarthous general statements
being particularized by translators adding articles to limit their
application to Jesus.
(b) Circumlocution?: The simplest explanation of the
presence of "the son of man" at every level of every
independent source in sayings where Jesus speaks of himself is that
ὁ υἵος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου
was invented as a literal translation of a term that was generally
understood to focus on a particular "son of man," who was
recognized as none other than the speaker. Presuming an Aramaic substratum, the sayings being translated probably had
[bar enaša], rather than the less
definite בר אנש
[bar enaš], as their subject. Like the
article in Greek, the emphatic alef suffix in Aramaic traditionally functioned as a weak demonstrative.
So both idioms would have been taken by native speakers to
mean something like "this (son of) man," i.e., the man in
question. Here the subject is identified as human without implying that
his particular predicament is shared by others of that species.
(1) Absence of direct evidence:
Demonstration that בר נשא
[bar naša] was used in the first
century by Aramaic speakers to refer to themselves is difficult. There are no recorded instances of the emphatic ending in uses of
this idiom prior to the third century CE, when distinction between the
emphatic and absolute forms of Aramaic nouns in general was no longer
strictly observed. Moreover, only a few of the instances where
[bar naša] may be taken to refer
to the speaker actually have the final alef./28/
And even these have been read as general statements. The
claim by G. Vermes that in certain situations "son of man"
functioned merely as a substitute for "I" might explain
variant versions of the same NT logion./29/
But the Aramaic evidence he
cites does not demonstrate this beyond dispute. Likewise, B. Lindars' suggestion that the Aramaic emphatic suffix
grammatically paralleled the Hebrew generic article---so that "the
(son of) man" meant "a man in my position"---appears to
rest more on his exegesis of NT than Jewish texts./30/
Thus, both interpretations of the linguistic
data have been challenged by other competent Aramaicists./31/
critiques show only that hypotheses based on nuances of the limited
Aramaic evidence remain unproven and perhaps forever unproveable. They do not show that a person who spoke of "the son of
man" in statements that are apparently self-referential had anyone in mind other than himself.
(2) Circumstantial clues: In all the furor over the
current philological phase of the "son of man" debate a few
things have been lost to view. While
none of these guarantee that Jesus used
[bar naša] as a self-designation,
taken together they make this explanation of the origin of "the son
of man" in the sayings of Jesus more probable than others.
(i) There is ample evidence in the extant Greek versions
of Jesus' logia that statements about "the son of man" were
taken in the first century as self-references by the speaker. Whether the individual logia are correctly ascribed to Jesus or
not, ὁ υἵος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου
itself was virtually restricted to reflexive
statements. So, unless one has decided a priori that this
represents a misinterpretation of Jesus' usage, there should be little
difficulty in tracing the origin of "the son of man" to his
own use of this idiom in speaking of himself.
(ii) The names one chooses to identify oneself are used quite
differently than those invoked to indicate others. When a person makes a statement about "birds," it may
be taken to apply indifferently to any avian within his range of
knowledge. Not so with
names for the human being, for here the presumption of direct knowledge
may lead one to say things about "man" on the basis of
personal image alone. Everyday
logic, though scientifically and syllogistically suspect, runs: if I am
human, then what is true about me is true about the human being. While much of what a person learns about being human comes first
from observing others, once one accepts the name as one's own, one can
say things about "man" without consideration of others.
(iii) It is easy to distinguish oneself from others who bear the
same name by using an appropriate demonstrative. Thus, if I said something about "this author" or even
"the author," it should be evident to readers that I meant to
speak only about myself---unless, of course, I happened to be reviewing the work of another writer. Likewise, statements about "the (son of) man" would
readily be recognized as reflecting upon the speaker, unless the context
made it clear that someone else was intended.
(iv) There is no evidence that the emphatic had already lost its
demonstrative force in first-century Aramaic./32/
Thus, the subject
designated "the son of man" would be readily recognized
as a definite figure. While
there was always an implicit reference to the idea of generic man, the
emphatic ending clearly pointed to the particular individual in view. The survival of this twofold reference in even later Aramaic is
evident from two of the texts cited by Vermes and Lindars./33/
In one (yKet
35a) Judah ha Nasi gives instructions that he be buried in a
single sheet, since the condition of
[bar naša] (emphatic) at his
demise does not mirror that of his return. Appended to this
logion, however, is a (traditional?) tannaitic aphorism to the contrary:
[bar nas] (absolute) comes as he goes.
Rabbi's burial request was memorable because it contradicted the norm.
[bar naša] whose resurrected
appearance is claimed to differ from that of his corpse is not just any
man but rather the prince who asked not to be distinguished in death
from paupers. Similarly, Simeon ben Yohai was recalled (yBer 3b) to have claimed that he
would have asked God to make two mouths for
[bar naša]---one for reciting
Torah and one for eating---, if he had been on Mount Sinai
when the Torah was revealed to Israel. This curious request makes sense only if the speaker envisioned
himself as filling Moses' shoes and not as just another man among those
who heard the original proclamation of the covenant. Any man might eat as he listened, but the human need to ingest
orally limits the one called to act as God's mouthpiece. In both of these cases
[bar naša] serves, on the one
hand, to identify the speaker as sharing the common human condition and,
on the other, to predicate of him circumstances that set him apart from
(v) In Jewish tradition names indicated roles performed by a
person rather than categories circumscribing a genus. While the Hebrew scriptures provided various names for the human
persona, in Aramaic
increasingly became the name that could represent all others./34/
Jews who depended primarily on scripture rehearsed in Aramaic, the role
assigned to the "son of man" was dramatically larger than in
the original Hebrew. These
scattered appearances in scenes portraying election, exaltation,
degradation and vindication, though hardly synthesized into a coherent
myth, presented a broad range of settings within which any pious Jew who
sought to play “the man" could improvise his own dialogue.
2.1. The question of criteria
extant evidence does not show that "the son of man" was
either a technical title derived from a single apocalyptic text (Dan
7:13f) or yet a common everyday term for anyman. Still, in the world of early Aramaic-speaking Judaism, the
idiom was used to render scriptural passages that spoke of the human being's paradoxical status
in the cosmos. And, while it is questionable whether other Jews generally used it as a
circumlocution, in Christian tradition it was remembered as Jesus'
typical form of self-reference. Since there is no provable precedent for Jesus' use of the
emphatic form, there is no way to establish exactly what he could
have meant by it. Nor is it at all certain that he had a single meaning in
mind. Thus, one cannot use a prior understanding of
the original sense of "the son of man" to judge the
authenticity of the logia in which this idiom appears. Nor are arbitrary categorizations on the basis of matter or
form ultimately reliable criteria. For one cannot know a priori just what Jesus thought
of himself or how he expressed it. That is not to say that each occurrence of "the son of
man" in the gospels has an equal claim to originality. It is just that the question of ascription needs to be
decided case by case on the basis of standards other than conceptual
consistency. Two principles that may help identify sayings that can reasonably be
traced to Jesus are dialectical difficulty and ambiguity. The less explicit the logion, the more likely it originated
in a pre-crucifixion context. And the more problematic its formulation from the perspective
of the post-resurrection community, the less likely it is to have
been produced by a mind other than that of Jesus.
2.2. Secondary scribal compositions (M & L):
fact that there was no reference to "the son of man" in
early Christian circles apart from citation of the sayings of Jesus
means that these logia could have been generated only by one of
three sources: Jesus himself, someone who posed as speaking for
Jesus (an apostle or prophet) and someone who wrote portraying Jesus
as speaking (an evangelist). Sayings originating at either the first (oral) or second (written) stages
removed from Jesus were efforts to mimic a pattern derived
ultimately from him. Such mimicry took three forms: (i) paraphrase and reinterpretation of
things Jesus had said about "the son of man," (ii)
insertion of this idiom into logia that did not originally mention
"the son of man," and (iii) new formulations that were
believed to reflect what
Jesus thought about himself quite apart from what he had said about
"the son of man." Sayings which are readily recognized as
scribal creations include:
(a) Passages in triple tradition where only one later evangelist
(Matthew or Luke) mentions "the son of man":
Luke 21:36 "Watch at all times, praying to be
strengthened to escape...and stand before the son of man."
(Mark 13:37//Matt 25:13 only give injunction "watch," though each describes eschatological crisis in preceding
interpolated words concerning "the son of man" (italics) are all
clearly the product of redaction, they cannot be cited as evidence
of Jesus' usage even if the underlying saying could be shown
to rest on authentic tradition. Therefore, in any red letter edition
of the gospels these lines should be printed black.
(b) Passages in double tradition where the version with "son of man" has signs of amplification by that
Luke 6:22 "Blessed are you when men hate you and exclude you
and revile you and cast our your name as evil on account of the son of man!"
(Matt 5:11 has "on my
account" and no mention of excommunication);
Matt 19:28 "In the new world, when the son of man shall
sit on his throne of glory, you who have followed me will also sit
on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel."
(Luke 22:28ff uses first person singular in referring to Jesus' kingdom and
does not mention "new world" or enthronement of son of man).
While it is possible that "the son of man" stood in
Q's version of each of these logia, in neither case is the argument
for its presence more probable than that for its absence. The final prepositional phrase in Luke 6:22 is probably no less
the result of redaction than the graphic description of the process of formal excommunication to which
it is directly linked. Similarly, Matt 19:28 is quite intelligible without the
temporal clause. The
vision of the son of man on the throne of glory is a recurrent
Matthean motif that may have been called to mind by a Q logion that
concerned only the enthronement of the twelve. Although cases can be made for the ascription of the underlying
logia to Jesus, the italicized words are probably interpretive
paraphrases, reflecting the thoughts of Christian scribes. Print: black.
(c) Passages in single tradition where "the son of man" is described in terms
characteristic of that evangelist:
Matt 10:23 "You will not be done with the towns of Israel
before the son of man comes."
(both the mission to Israel and the
parousia expectation are typically Matthean);
Matt 13:37 "He who sows good seed is the son of man...
13:41 The son of man will send his angels...."
(allegorical exegesis of uniquely Matthean parable of weeds;
only Matthew claims son of man has own angels);
Matt 24:30 "Then will appear the sign of the son of man in
and then all the tribes of earth will mourn..."
(midrash based on Dan 7:13 and Zech 12:10 prefaced to prediction of son of
man's parousia from Mark's little apocalypse; cf. Rev 1:7);
Matt 25:31 "When the son of man comes in his glory, and
all the angels with him,
then he will sit on his throne of glory."
(apocalyptic preface to the uniquely Matthean parable of the judgment);
Luke 18:8 "When the son of man comes, will he find faith
on earth?" (rhetorical question appended without logical link to
the uniquely Lukan parable of the unjust judge);
Luke 19:10 "For the son of man came to seek and to save
(aphoristic conclusion of the uniquely Lukan story of Zacchaeus).
Where passages have no parallel it is harder to determine
whether the evangelist is reproducing material as it came to him or
spinning it fresh from stock images. It is possible that Matt 10:23 and 24:30a reflect pre-literary
formulations by anonymous Christian prophets. But they
fit the first evangelist's style so well that there is no reason to
postulate an earlier source. Likewise,
Luke 18:8 is a homiletical flourish that could have been uttered by
any eschatologically oriented preacher. But it is like so many other
pious aphorisms that Luke appends to difficult parabolic stories that
there is no need to view it as an isolated logion with a history of
oral circulation. A case could be made, however, for Luke 19:10 as an authentic
dominical saying, if it had a parallel in some other gospel. But it is so easily read as a lesson abstracted from the
parables of the lost in Luke 15, that there is no way to prove that it
existed before Luke wrote it. Print:
2.3. The problem of paraphrase (Mark):
Mark has thirteen "son of man" sayings.
All are reproduced by Matthew with minor variations and Luke
has versions of all but three. Moreover,
the Markan logia which focus on predicting the demise of "the son
of man" and his coming in glory provide adequate models for
virtually all the
sayings unique to Matthew and Luke. It used to be assumed that at least some of Mark's "son of
man" sayings represented things that Jesus actually said. But critical examination has led scholars to see Mark's hand in
the formulation of each. If,
however, there is no pre-Markan basis for any of these sayings, then one is hard pressed to
explain where Mark got the idea of placing so many "son of
man" sayings on Jesus' lips. He certainly did not get it from Q, since he has only three
passages that resemble the Q "son of man" logia; and one of
these (Mark 3:28ff//Matt 12:32//Luke 12:10) he does not understand as
a statement about the “son of man"! Nor is it conceivable that he took his initial cue from Dan
7:13-14. That text did
have a formative influence on the three sayings that envision
"the son of man" coming in glory (8:38,
But, unlike Matthew, the center of Mark's interest in
"the son of man" is not his eschatological appearance as
cosmic ruler but the necessity of his prior betrayal, death and
resurrection. Eight of
his sayings spell out these themes in terms derived more from the
story of Jesus than fresh exegesis of any OT text. As there is no pre-Markan text that deals specifically with the
rejection and revival of a "son of man", Mark's inspiration
for making this idiom the subject of such sayings cannot be traced to
a source either outside or elsewhere within the Jesus tradition. The most likely explanation of Mark's persistent association of
this subject with such themes is that he was working from logia which already set "the son of man"
under the shadow of death. The problem is whether that pre-Markan core can be recovered or
has been totally obscured by the evangelist's embellishments.
(a) The passion-resurrection predictions:
Mark 8:31 "The son of man must suffer many things and be
rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes and be killed and
after three days rise again."
Mark 9:9 He charged them to tell no one what they had seen until
the son of man should have risen from the dead.
Mark 9:12 "How is it written of the son of man, that he should
suffer many things and be treated with contempt.
Mark 9:31 "The son of man will be given over into the hands of
men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed after three
days he will rise."
Mark 10:33 "The son of man will be given over to
the chief priests and scribes and they will condemn him to death and
deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him and spit on him
and scourge him and kill him; and after three days he will rise."
The details of these logia clearly reflect elements of both the
primitive kerygma (1 Cor 15:3-4) and the synoptic passion narrative.
So one cannot with confidence date the bulk of these sayings prior to
the crucifixion. Jesus'
opening words in Mark 9:31 (italics), however, have a reasonable claim
to authenticity. Quite
apart from the "son of man" sayings there is ample testimony
that Jesus predicted his betrayal (e.g.,
Mark 14:18, John 13:21, 1 Cor
11:23-26). Yet Mark had
no particular reason for making "the son
of man" the subject of such a prediction. Lindars recognizes that a statement which says simply that
"the man will be given up" (Aramaic: Ithmesar bar enaša)
is too brief to have circulated as an isolated logion, but he is
unduly pessimistic about
our ability to reconstruct the rest of the saying as it came to Mark./35/
There is enough ironic wisdom and ambiguity in the statement
that this (son of) man will be handed over to men to argue that
9:31b was not invented after the fact. For early Christians the fact that "the son of man"
was delivered into the hands of men was the cause of much guilt and
grief. For the author of
this statement there is an almost tranquil sense of ironic
inevitability, if not tragic justice.
As a human, this man's life is in the hands of other
persons (the Greek future tense comes from retrospective
interpretation of an original Aramaic indefinite). Who these may be is
unspecified; and this ambiguity points to authenticity. As the other passion predictions show Mark was concerned to
portray Jesus as having detailed foreknowledge of the events that
befell him. The absence
of Mark's kerygmatic appendix from Luke's parallel passage (9:44)
increases the probability that this saying circulated independent of
post-crucifixion clarifications. Print italics
(Mark 9:31b par and
Mark 10:33b par): red; all the rest: black.
Mark 14:21 "The son of man goes as it is written of
but woe to that man by whom the son of man is given up."
Mark 14:41 "The hour has come;
the son of man is given
up into the hands of sinners."
Both of these sayings are easily recognized as
expanded variations of the preceding logion. Mark 14:41c is close enough to
Mark 9:31b// Luke 9:44b to be
accepted as an approximate paraphrase. Mark 14:21b represents a transposition so that the focus is on
"that man" who delivers this man rather than those men to whom he is
delivered. Given the
tradition that Jesus said or did something at his last supper which
indicated his betrayer (Mark 14:18-21 par; John 13:21-26), it is not
impossible that this warning has an authentic basis. But the formal woe is so consistent with the church's post-crucifixion attitude
toward Judas that it is easily read as a Markan reformulation. The
logion to which it is appended, however, (14:21a) is not particularly
Markan. Its authenticity
is often challenged because the appeal to scripture sounds so much
like post-crucifixion apologetics. Thus, Lindars proposes that
Luke 22:22a with its vaguer
reference to predestination gives the more original wording./36/
Mark makes no reference here to a particular proof text nor is the
saying kerygmatic. The
reference is simply to the transitory nature of human life, a
sentiment expressed in hosts of OT passages. And the ambiguity of the euphemism "goes" might very
well stand behind the tradition that Jesus warned his disciples of his
departure in terms they did not understand at the time (Mark 9:31-32,
John 14:1-5). Moreover,
a logion that mentioned unspecified scripture as describing this man's
fate is more likely to be the inspiration for rather than the product
of Jesus' disciples' meticulous exegetical studies in the wake of his
crucifixion. Print Mark
14:21a par (boldface): red; 14:21b (italics): grey;
14:41b (italics): pink; other words: black.
(c) The servant:
Mark 10:45 "The son of man comes not to be served but
and to give his life as a ransom for many."
verse has been so consistently interpreted as an echo of Isa 53 that
it is difficult to see it alluding to anything else. But the first half says simply that man's proper role is to be
servant rather than lord, a theme consistent with OT descriptions of
man as servant of YHWH. Such a sentiment is more readily traced to
Jesus' lips than to followers who after the crucifixion proclaimed
that all flesh must bow in proclaiming Jesus as "Lord" (Acts
2:32-35, Phil 2:9-11). Also,
while it is hard to get the idea that a human is predestined to a life
of service from Isa 52-53, an emphatic claim that this man's mission
is to serve would easily, after his death, lead his followers to
discover similarities to deutero-Isaiah's suffering servant. Print Mark 10:45a (italics): red; 10:45b: black.
Mark 2:10 "That you may know that the son of man has
authority on earth to forgive sins...
I say to you rise, take up your pallet and go home."
Mark 2:27 "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the
so the son of man is lord even of the sabbath."
of these logia have been dismissed as Markan creations because they
focus on themes emphasized by the second evangelist: Jesus'
extraordinary authority (1:22,27;
forgiveness of sins (1:4;
3:28), disregard for sabbath
3:1-4), and the identification of Jesus as "lord"
saying is integral to the pericope in which Mark locates it./37/
the elevation of "the son of man" to a position of unrestricted power contrasts with those portions of the sayings
about human destiny that have a good claim to authenticity. Yet none of this indicates that it was Mark who first
formulated these statements about "the son of man" or that
they were proclamations by some anonymous post-crucifixion prophet. It
is historically certain that Jesus said and did things that were
considered controversial, if not blasphemous, by other first-century
Jews. The evidence that
his attitude towards sinners and sabbath regulations were points of
dispute is widespread in the tradition and may be accepted as reliable, regardless of the historicity
of the particular anecdotes. Given
the serious cultural implications of such charges, it may be presumed
that he had to defend his behavior. While the themes of forgiveness of sins and sabbath freedom
went through development in the early church, there is nothing
in the wording of Mark 2:10 or 28 that betrays a post-crucifixion viewpoint. And there are
elements intrinsic to these sayings that reflect the perspective of Jesus as a Jew rather than
that of those who glorified him.
(1) Mark 2:10 delimits the sphere of the son of man's authority
by specifying that it is "on earth."/38/
The implication of
this phrase is that no authority is claimed for the son of man
"in heaven." If this saying had been composed by someone who
saw the son of man as now enthroned at the right hand of God, one would
expect an unrestricted affirmation of his jurisdiction, either by the
insertion of a ("even on earth") or by the omission
of a territorial reference altogether. The presupposition of the statement as stands is not the
Christian kerygma's exaltation of one man chosen from among many but,
rather, the very Jewish conviction that God placed the Human in charge
of earthly affairs, while retaining cosmic dominion for himself (Gen
1:28). Although this idea has generic implications, the earthly
ruler is regularly
represented as an individual---as Adam or even ben Adam (Ps
8:4)---reflecting the character of the One in whose image he acts.
What distinguishes the viewpoint of the author of the gospel
logion from that of other first-century Jews is not the claim that
God-like authority on earth is assigned to "the son of man"
but, rather, that this includes authorization to forgive sins.
Still, it is distinctly Jewish to consider forgiveness an
attribute of God himself (Ex 34:7; Num 14:18; Ps 86:5, 99:8, 130:4; Dan 9:9).
For a Jew to utter a sentiment like that in Mark 2:10 it would
only require a conviction that the role of a (son of) man on earth so
mirrors that of his heavenly Creator that any characteristic
traditionally associated with the latter can be transferred to the
former. Such a
radicalization of Jewish convictions is better traced to Jesus than to
anyone in the post-crucifixion church. Mark's secondary insertion of
this logion into the account of the healing of the paralytic is not
evidence that he created it. Elsewhere
in the NT the authorization for other humans to forgive sins is traced
to Jesus as individual mediator rather than claimed as an innate prerogative of earthly man as
such./39/ So, his is the mind
most likely to have framed an argument based on the cosmic role of
(2) Mark 2:28 similarly radicalizes human authority in the
temporal sphere by claiming that it extends "even" to the
sabbath. This assertion
makes little sense in a community that saw fit to celebrate
resurrection on the first day rather than rest on the seventh.
One cannot be lord of what has been abolished. The claims that humanity's God-given dominion (Gen 1:28) is not
limited to what was created on the first six days, a thought that
might easily occur to a Jew who saw the son of man as surrogate lord
over all works of God's creation (Ps 8:6).
(3) The fact that both of these logia are easily explained as
radical applications of OT generic references further distinguishes
them from the perspectives of both early Christians and Jews other
than Jesus. Priests and scribes, who saw themselves as custodians of
the covenant, would
have perceived such claims on the lips of a layman as a challenge to
temple and torah, which had been eternally ordained by God.
Yet the followers of Jesus who eventually abrogated these
institutions did so, not on the basis of the role the Creator gave to
all of Adam's offspring, but by virtue of participation in the
messianic lordship bestowed on Jesus.
So the fact that here authority is claimed for a generically
named figure points to Jesus as author of these sayings.
Print italics (Mark 2:10b par and 2:28): red, the rest black.
(e) The vision:
Mark 14:62 "You will see the son of man seated at the
right hand of Power
and coming with the clouds of heaven."
Mark 13:26 "Then they will see the son of man coming in
clouds with great power and glory."
widely seen as clues to the source of "the son of man"
logia, these promises of apocalyptic visions are now generally
recognized by scholars with widely divergent views of the history of
this tradition to be products of post-crucifixion apologetic./40/
possibility that a first-century
Jew, who understood himself in terms of OT descriptions of the cosmic status of "the (son of) man," might take
Dan 7:13-14 as describing his personal vindication cannot be rejected
simply because it strikes twentieth-century exegetes as insane./41/
But these sayings speak of coming not to, but from heaven.
While there was a widespread tradition that Jesus promised his
disciples that he would return (Matt 24:44 //Luke 12:40; John
14:3,18,23,28; 1 Thess 4:15), it is only here that there is a clear
reference to Dan 7:13-14. Since
only in Mark and passages dependent on him does one find repeated allusions to
Daniel attributed to Jesus, there is no way to prove that these
sayings antedate the second gospel. If they are earlier, they are most easily read as
pronouncements by a Christian prophet speaking for his risen lord. Print both sayings: black.
(f) Q parallels:
Mark has three passages (3:28f,
38) related to
"son of man" sayings in Q. These versions should be treated together, since in each
instance Mark's wording reflects the evangelist's redaction.
2.4. Paradoxical perspectives (Q):
Bultmann, scholarly attention has generally focused on Q
as containing clues to the origin of "son of man." The
problem is that quite opposite conclusions can be drawn from or read
into the evidence. On the
one hand, Q has eschatological pronouncements that can be understood as heralding the appearance of a figure other than
Jesus. On the other, it
has the most patently autobiographical statements where "son of
man" appears to be little more than a periphrasis for the first
person singular pronoun. Moreover,
the apparent absence of any reference to the earthly fate of this figure leaves Q's
collection of logia strangely disjointed. For there is no point of transition between statements where
"the son of man" seems radically imminent and those where he
is already immanent. Thus,
the anonymous compilers of Q have been credited with making contributions to the development of
NT christology that are as contradictory as they are momentous. If Jesus saw "the son of man" as someone other than
himself, then Q is credited with being first to identify the speaker
with the one of whom he spoke.
on the other hand, Jesus spoke of his earthly experience in terms of
"the son of man," then Q was the first to turn this idiom
into a title by projecting it into prophetic references to his
reappearance. Or, if
Jesus did not say anything about "the son of man," then Q is
blamed for inventing this name. The question
raised by such divergent reconstructions is whether the theory is
based on the evidence or the evidence is being made to fit the theory.
(a) Embarrassing experience:
Matt 8:20 "Foxes
have holes and birds of the air nests
but the son of man has no place to lay his head."
Matt 11:19 "John comes neither eating nor drinking and you
say: He has a demon;
11:20 the son of
man comes eating and drinking
you say: Behold, a glutton and a drunk,
a friend of tax-collectors and sinners."
of these statements is likely to have been created in a
Matt 8:20//Luke 9:58 is the best attested "son of
man" saying, with not only the synoptics in verbatim agreement
but also a close parallel in GThom 86. There is neither kerygmatic content nor didactic moral.
"The son of man" here is neither an ideal figure nor a
generalization but a concrete person who at the moment of utterance is
without a bed. The saying
itself has neither apocalyptic imagery nor eschatological urgency.
In itself it is not programmatic but rather simply descriptive. While
Q takes it as a warning that a disciple of Jesus must be willing to be
homeless, it probably originated, not as teaching, but as Jesus'
striking comment on his own experience of an ironic inversion of the
traditional image of human superiority to the beasts. Such a remark does not refer to the human condition in general
but only the momentary predicament of a particular person whose
eventual fate remains unresolved./42/
(2) Likewise, in
Matt 11:20 "the son of man" is a
specific person contrasted with John, whom the predicates make clear
is Jesus. Luke's version
of this logion has minor hermeneutical clarifications, identifying
John as "the Baptist" and the food he abstained from as
bread and wine. Both the
implied equality of John and Jesus and the scurrilous slur against the
eating habits of the latter point towards authenticity.
Charges of demon possession and association with sinners
might have continued to haunt Jesus' followers after his death.
But there would have been no point in inventing a charge of
self-indulgence when he was no longer around, nor in repeating it
except to recall his response./43/
(3) Both of these sayings are reminders of embarrassing
situations that might well have been forgotten had not Jesus made them
the pretext for pronouncements that were both dramatic and ironic.
In each logion "the (son of) man" means simply
"this man." Print both sayings (Matt 8:20// Luke 9:58//GThom
86 and Matt 11:19//Luke 7:34 (except for editorial interpolations): red.
(b) Provocative pronouncement:
Mark 3:28 "All
sins will be forgiven the sons of men
and whatever blasphemies they utter; but
blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness
but is guilty of an eternal sin."
12.31 "Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but
the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven;
12:32 and whoever says a word against the son of man
will be forgiven;
but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not
either in this age or in the world to come."
Luke 12:10 "Every one who speaks a word against the son
of man will be forgiven;
but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven."
- GThom 44 "Whoever
blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven
and whoever blasphemes against the Son will be forgiven
but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven
either on earth or in heaven."
legal form of this saying has caused it to be dismissed as a
regulation created by the post-crucifixion church.
Yet this does not take into account the differences between the
versions. The only point
on which all four are agreed is that "blasphemy against the Holy
Spirit," an offense which remains unexplained, is inexcusable.
Mark interprets this as the sole exception to Jesus'
proclamation of a blanket amnesty covering every conceivable human
offense and quotes it as Jesus' rebuttal to opponents who claim he is
motivated by the prince of demons.
The link to the Beelzebul controversy, however, is purely
editorial as is evident from the fact that these pericopes appear
separately in Luke. Yet,
Luke's appending of this logion to one in which "the son of
man" serves as public defender is equally artificial. This
linkage, however, is indication that the form in which the third
evangelist received this saying concerned a singular "son of
man" who was
subject to rather than initiator of the slander. Lindars is probably
correct in attributing the different wordings given by the second and
third evangelists to variant translations of a single Aramaic saying./44/
But more than misreading of ambiguous grammar is involved
in Mark's version. For
Mark regularly understood "the son of man" to be Jesus'
unique self-designation. The
Q version of this logion, as reproduced by Luke, would absolve anyone
who slandered Jesus.
Mark 3:30, however, interprets the second half of this saying
as a condemnation of those who called Jesus a demoniac.
Thus, he had to find an interpretation of the first half that
did not make slander against "the son of man" a forgivable
offense. Matthew has
clearly inherited both the Markan and Q versions of this saying and as usual
simply reproduces both. By giving the Q form second, however, the first evangelist
allows "the son of man" in
12:32 to be read as an equivalent
of "men" in
12:31. Thus, for Matthew as for Mark, slander against mere humans is forgiveable while that against one who is filled with the Holy Spirit
is not. Thomas' interpretation is a secondary reflection of the Matthean form.
But its radically anti-trinitarian formula is valuable
testimony that the original intention of the saying was to
acquit anyone who attacked Jesus, not other men.
Luke, for his part, while reproducing Q's more difficult
wording, has sought to tone it down by appending it to a warning that
anyone who "denies" Jesus on earth will be subject to
rejection in heaven (Luke 12:9). The fact that all of the evangelists, except Thomas, are
uncomfortable enough with this saying that they try to tone it down is
a clear sign that it was not a regulation that was at home in the early church.
The only person who was in a position to issue a general
reprieve for those who attacked Jesus was Jesus himself.
Modern scholars should have little difficulty with this.
Doubts about the authenticity of this logion center, rather, on
that portion that early Christians had no trouble with: the unforgivability of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
This strikes many as inconsistent with Jesus' radical
acceptance of all kinds of sinners.
But there is no evidence that early Christians were any clearer
on how to apply the second part of the saying to a post-crucifixion
setting than they were on the first (cf. 1 Cor 12:3).
In a Jewish and early Christian context the Holy Spirit is not
so much the object of human speech as the initiator of it (e.g., Isa
61:1, 1QH 7,
Mark 13:11, 1 Cor 12:8). Thus, the second half of this logion is
perfectly compatible with the general
amnesty proclaimed in the first if one takes it not as a condemnation
of opponents but rather as a warning to followers not to respond to
slander with slander. Print
Luke 12:10 and parallel wording in the variants: red; all else:
(c) Threatened judgment:
Matt 10:32 "Everyone who acknowledges me before men,
I too will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven;
whoever denies me before men,
I too will deny before my Father who is in heaven."
Luke 12:8 "Everyone
who acknowledges me before men,
the son of man will acknowledge before the angels of God;
he who denies me before men will be denied before God."
Mark 8:38 “Whoever
is ashamed of me and of my words
in this adulterous and sinful generation,
of him will the son of man be ashamed,
when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
Matt 16:27 "The son of man is to come with his angels
in the glory of his Father,
and then he will repay every man for what he has done."
considered to be proof that Jesus distinguished "the son of
man" from himself Luke 12:8 and Mark 8:38 are now widely admitted
to be products of post-crucifixion crises in which Christians were
called upon to deny Jesus. In
defending the essential authenticity of these admonitions, Lindars argues that both versions go back to a
single Aramaic saying most faithfully represented by Luke 12:8.
But he admits that reconstruction of the original and the
history of oral transmission is largely a matter of
"guesswork."/45/ To project the hypothetical original back
into a pre-crucifixion context he has to claim further that the
implicit court setting was only meant to be a metaphor.
But the only reason he gives for avoiding a more "simple
interpretation" is his contention that the bar enaša idiom was
characteristic only of utterances of the earthly Jesus./46/
however, no reason why a Christian prophet, speaking for his risen
lord, could not have echoed idiosyncracies of authentic utterances in
addressing new logia to exhort and encourage a latter-day church.
In all the versions of these sayings "the son of man"
is understood to be with the angels in the presence of
God. Presumably that means he is now in heaven.
Luke 12:8//Matt 10:32-33 speak only of his role as advocate
before the throne of God.
8:38 and Matthew's derivative substitute, on the other hand, betray an
indirect influence of Dan 7:13 in bringing the divine judgment to
earth. It remains possible, of course, that behind all these sayings is a promise or
warning by Jesus that he would represent his followers before God.
But given their present wording, one cannot prove that these
variants go back to anything the earthly Jesus said. Print all black.
(d) Uncertain sign:
Mark 8:12 "Why
does this generation seek a sign?
In truth I tell you, no sign shall be given to this generation."
Matt 12:39 "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a
but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
12:40 For as
Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale,
will the son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of
Luke 11:29 "This generation is an evil generation; it
seeks a sign,
but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.
11:30 For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh,
so will the son of man be to this generation."
passages have a complex relationship. The fact that there is both a Q and a Markan version of the
rebuff to "the generation" that "seeks a sign" indicates its antiquity. And
it seems more probable that Mark has suppressed the mention of an
exception than that Q has invented one. It is also reasonably certain that this logion was followed in
Q by a warning that the men of Nineveh who repented at Jonah's
preaching would serve as witnesses against the present generation
(Matt 12:41//Luke 11:32). Given
the wide disparity between Matt 12:40 and Luke 11:30, however, it is
not clear whether Q contained any explanation of the sign of Jonah or not. The fact that both
Matthew and Luke parallel Jonah to "the son of man," who is
not otherwise mentioned in this context, makes it likely that some
such comparison stood in Q./47/
If so, Luke's version is more appropriate to the context.
But Luke 11:30 can equally well be read as applying to the
contemporaries of either Jesus or the Q preachers.
For both were regarded as unresponsive to the message of Jesus./48/
The use of a self-referential "son of man" idiom
does not prove that Jesus is the author of this statement but only
that the author posed as Jesus' mouthpiece.
The real problem with accepting the authenticity of the
parallel between Jesus and Jonah lies in proving that the historical
Jesus was as much a preacher of repentance and doom as Q makes him out to be. Print Luke 11:30 in grey, Matt
12:40 in black.
(e) Indefinite expectation:
Matt 24:44 "You also must be ready;
Luke 12:40 for the
son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect."
Q's clear identification of "the son of man" as Jesus, this
logion is easily read as a prophetic warning in which the risen lord
exhorts the post-crucifixion community to prepare for his coming.
Yet, the pervasiveness of an expectation of Jesus' imminent
return leaves open the possibility that this was based on something
that was said prior to the crucifixion.
Of all parousia pronouncements this has the best chance of authenticity. It is
closely tied to the parable of the thief (Matt 24:42-43//Luke 12:39)
which Paul regarded as common knowledge in the earliest of his letters (1 Thess 5:2-6). The
problem, however, is in the tense.
The indefinite present ("comes" or "is
coming") presupposes that from the speaker's perspective
"the son of man" is now somewhere else.
It is possible that Q's Greek renders an Aramaic imperfect
meant to refer to a future event.
If so, this statement may come from an open-ended promise by
Jesus facing arrest that his departure would not be permanent:
"this man (= I) will come (back to you) sometime" (compare
John 14:18). A vague
promise like this would explain not only the development of a parousia
expectation in the primitive community but the inspiration to place an
inverted reading of Dan
7:13 on the lips of Jesus (Mark 13:26 and
It is generally recognized that Daniel envisions the one who looks like a
bar enaš as coming to, rather than from, God.
Yet early Christians regularly understood this text as
predicting the reverse (Rev 1:7 and 1 Thess 4:15-16). The
standardization of such a misreading in so many strands of the
tradition is explained, if the primitive church remembered
Jesus to have promised to return by saying "the son of man will
come." Q's wording, however, so reflects the perspective of a
household awaiting the return of its absent head that it is improbable
that this prediction is a verbatim report of what Jesus actually said.
(f) Ambiguous time-frame:
Luke 17:22 "The
days are coming when you will want to see
one of the days of the son of man and you will not see it."
Luke 17:24 "As
flashing lightning lights up the sky from horizon to horizon,
so will be the son of man [in his day]."
Matt 24:27 "As
lightning comes from the east and shines to the west,
so will be the parousia of the son of man."
Matt 24:37 "As
the days of Noah, so will be the parousia of the son of man."
Luke 17:26 "As
it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the son of man."
Luke 17:28 "Likewise,
as it was in the days of Lot...
17:30 so it will
be on the day the son of man is revealed."
Matt 24:38 "For
as in those days...they did not know until the flood came,
24:39 so will be
the parousia of the son of man"
sayings are the lynchpins that have kept the theory that Jesus
expected a "son of man" other than himself rolling.
On the other hand, those who deny a pre-Christian "son of
man" expectation feel compelled to claim that they are
incompatible with the authentic use of the Aramaic idiom. It
is generally assumed that "the son of man" in these sayings
is understood to be not yet present.
But that impression is more the result of taking these verses
within the hermeneutical framework provided by Q and the evangelists
than of wording intrinsic to the Lukan version of the core logia.
parousia motif is recognizable as his own interpretive interpolation. The
original Q sayings focused only on "the day(s) of the son of
man." Clearly, both Q and Luke understood this phrase as
referring to a future cataclysmic manifestation of Jesus.
The probable basis for such an understanding is apologetic use
of OT prophecies of "the day of the Lord" (yom YHWH).
Since the Greek term
was used ambiguously in Hellenistic translations of the
OT to refer to God and the messianic king and, in the apostolic
mission, to Jesus, it is easy to understand how Greek-speaking
Christians would apply predictions traditionally associated with
YHWH's decisive intervention in history to expectations of the return
of Jesus. And as the Q
community knew Jesus referred to himself not as "Lord" but
as "the son of man," the substitution of the latter for the
former would be a prerequisite of
attributing such eschatological predictions to Jesus.
The primary flaw in such an explanation is that the idea of the
"day of the Lord" or even a single "day" of "the son of man" is
probably not the seed from which these sayings developed.
Luke 17:29-30 comes from the mind of the third evangelist
rather than Q. And the
phrase "in his day" is missing in several important manuscripts of
(2) The plural "days of the son of man" in
is probably a pre-Lukan formula, paralleling "the days of
Noah" (cf. Matt 24:37). This is most simply taken to mean "in his time." No
future reference is implied in the phrase itself or necessary to be
read into it to make sense out of this logion.
There is no intrinsic reason why Jesus could not have compared
his own pre-crucifixion era to the days of Noah.
Nor would the point of such a comparison necessarily be to
focus on cataclysmic destruction.
As in the reference to the sign of Jonah (Matt 12:39b//Luke
11:29b) the core logion leaves the point of parallel with the OT
figure deliberately enigmatic. Luke
17:27 is easily dismissed as a hermeneutical appendix to this saying
created by a commentator who was trying to make the primary reference
unambiguous. In Jewish
generation of Noah" was a standard metaphor for a sinful world
rather than the flood itself. Noah,
however, and those who were with him were the exceptions.
So, the original reason for mentioning Noah may have been to
make "the son of man" the focus of salvation rather than the
harbinger of destruction. Those
who stuck with him could expect to be saved whatever his
"days" may bring. This
was, after all, the meaning of the ark symbolism in the primitive
was anticipated "the son of man" must be seen as a figure already
on earth for the parallel with Noah to be exact. It is only in the
post-crucifixion era, when the subject was no longer physically
present, that this logion would be taken as a prediction of his
reappearance before an eschatological crisis. Print Luke 17:26 and Matt 24:37 red (except for the
latter's reference to the parousia); print the parousia
reference and Luke 17:28f and Matt 24:38ff black.
(3) The same
can be said of Luke
17:24. The explicit point of comparison between "the son of
man" and a lightning bolt is not the unexpected suddenness of the
appearance of the latter but rather its ability to pierce the darkness
and illuminate the horizons. Thus,
the reason for this analogy is to emphasize a man's ability to
enlighten the world (cf. John 1:9, 8:12; Matt 5:14a).
There is no hint of apocalyptic crisis in this saying at all./50/
It is simply a simile based on observation of a natural
phenomenon. If universal
illumination is the original focus of this logion, why did the author
choose lightning as his metaphor rather than daylight or some
celestial body? The
reason becomes clearer when one brings Luke 17:22 into focus.
Because there is
no Matthean parallel,
Luke 17:22 is often dismissed as a creation of the third evangelist.
But this ignores both the content of this logion and its
context. Luke, like Q,
clearly understood the following string of sayings as predictions of a
dramatic and unanticipated manifestation of the risen Jesus.
So it is odd that he prefaced such prophecies with a statement
warning his readers that they would not see "the son of
man." The notion of a delayed parousia is
insufficient to explain the wording of Luke 17:22, because here
there is no reference to "the day when the son of man is
revealed" (17:30) but, rather, only to his "days." As
in 17:26 this term is better interpreted as indicating a time when
"the son of man" is already present than the moment of his arrival. If
one disregards the following catena, Luke 7:22 is easily understood as
a warning by Jesus to his disciples that his time among them is coming
to an end. The days of
this man, like those of any human, are numbered.
Luke, however, has not understood the saying this way, which is a good sign that he did not create
The emphasis on the transiency of human life in Luke 17:22
helps to explain the imagery in 17:24.
A man's light is not like that of the sun or any celestial
body, because it shines with momentary brilliance and then is gone
(cf. John 12:35). Lightning is a most appropriate
metaphor for the character of the enlightenment provided by any
"son of man." Print Luke 17:22 and 24 red; print Matt
From the thirty-seven "son of man" sayings in the
gospels (not counting parallel variants), one can isolate eleven logia
whose perspective antedates that of the post-crucifixion kerygma and
eschatological expectations. Five of these are in Mark:
"The son of man has authority on earth to forgive sin."
"The son of man is lord even of the sabbath."
"The son of man came to serve, not to be served."
"The son of man goes as it is written of him."
"The son of man is to be given over into the hands of men.
(=Luke 9:44; echoes are also found embedded in Mark's
kerygmatic predictions in
The other six are from Q:
"Foxes have holes and birds of the air nests,
but the son of man has no place to lay his head."
(= Luke 9:58//GThom 86)
"John comes neither eating nor drinking,
and you say he has a demon;
11:19 the son of man comes eating and drinking,
and you say: Behold, a glutton and a drunk,
a friend of tax-collectors and sinners."
"The days are coming when you will want to see
one of the days of the son of man and you will not see it.
"As lightning lights up the sky from horizon to horizon,
so is the son of man [in his day]."
"As it was in the days of Noah,
so it will be in the days of the son of man."
"Everyone who speaks a word against the son of man will be forgiven;
but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven."
(//Matt 12:32; with paraphrased variants in Mark 8:38f,
Matt 12:31, GThom 44).
Both collections reveal similar reflections on the status of the
subject: his life is transient (iv, v, vi, viii, ix) and his
behavior controversial (i, ii, vii, xi) but appropriate to a
man of God (iii, x), thoughts reflecting the outlook of an
itinerant radical Jewish sage. Other sayings may be based on things
Jesus said. But their
present form has been so shaped by the perspective of the community of
the risen Jesus that they
cannot with confidence be cited as evidence of his views of "the son of man."
Of the eleven logia with a reasonable claim to authenticity, none
is directly dependent upon a particular OT text.
Yet eight (all of those in Mark and Luke 9:58, 17:22 and 17:24)
betray some reflection by the author on the paradoxical images of man's
cosmic status in Jewish scripture.
Gen 1, Ps 8, and various statements in the prophets and wisdom
literature about the transitory character of human existence may have
been in the back of the author's mind when he spoke about "the son
of man." Still, these eight sayings refer neither to "man in
general," nor to "any man in my position" but, rather,
are reflexive statements about the speaker's own experience "in the
position of man." The doubly definite "son of man" here
refers at once to the generic human condition and to the particular
experience of this man. In
only three sayings (Matt 11:18-19, 24:44b and Luke 17:26) has the
emphasis on circumstances peculiar to the speaker come so much to the
fore that the "son of man" idiom can be regarded as a virtual
circumlocution for the first person.
Yet even here the term is best translated as "this man"
rather than "I".
There are no provably authentic echoes of Dan 7:13 in the sayings
of Jesus. Yet the inspiration for seeing him as the subject of this text
may have come from something he said (cf. above 2.4e).
In fact, the authentic sayings in both Mark and Q provide a
sufficient basis for development of all the secondary accretions and formulations
regarding both the temporal difficulties and cosmic authority of
"the son of man." In the transition from the perspective of
Jesus to that of the post-crucifixion church there was no creation of a
new sphere of predication about "the son of man." Nor was the self-referential
idiom transformed into a title. Rather,
things that Jesus said about himself while physically present were
repeated and echoed when he was absent.
Thus, the words spoken by this son of man about his own life were
refocused and developed to illuminate the historical horizons of those
sons---and daughters---of Man whom he had left behind.
For summaries of recent scholarship see W. O. Walker, "Some Recent
Developments," 589-598 and J. R. Donahue, "Recent Studies on the
Origin of 'Son of Man' in the Gospels," 484-496.
See Bultmann, Theology of the NT 1, 29-32; Colpe, TDNT 8, 433-441; Tödt,
Son of Man in the Synoptic Tradition, 224-227;
Higgins, Son of Man in the Teaching of Jesus, 123-125;
A. Y. Collins, "Origin of the Designation of Jesus as 'Son of Man'," 4O2-403.
See Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 185-186; Lindars, Jesus Son of Man, 27-29;
Casey, "General, Generic and Indefinite," 36-49.
See Perrin, IDB Supplement, 833-835; Modern Pilgrimage in NT Christology, 58-66;
Walker, "Origin of the Son of Man Concept as Applied to Jesus," 487; "
Some Recent Developments," 595-606.
E.g., Leivestad, "Exit the Apocalyptic Son of Man," 244-246 and Lindars,
"Reenter the Apocalyptic Son of Man," 54,72. More recently, against:
Walker "Some Recent Developments," 585,589, 607; Lindars, Jesus
Son of Man, 3-8; and for: Horbury, "Messianic Associations,"
36,53; A. Y. Collins, "Origin of the Designation of Jesus," 403, 406.
So, Collins, "Origins," 404.
Compare 1 Enoch 46 and 62 with Dan 7:9-16,26-27.
A. Segal (Two Powers in Heaven, x-xi) suggests a relationship of the
rabbinic dispute to NT christological problems. P. S. Alexander
(in Charlesworth, OT Pseudepigrapha 1, 246-247) and C. Rowland (Open
Heaven 347-348, and "John 1:51, Jewish Apocalyptic and Targum," 498) also indicate points where
NT christology ties into the trajectory linking apocalyptic speculation to
later Jewish mystical exegesis.
See Moloney, "Reinterpretation," 660-661.
See Casey's meticulous review of possible echoes of Daniel 7:13 in the NT (Son of Man, 202-206).
E.g., Mark 13:32-37 par; 1 Thess 5:1-2; 2 Thess 2:1-3; Rev 3:3.
E.g., Collins, "Origin," 402-403; Walker, "Recent Developments," 607.
E.g., Rev 1:13, 14:4; and Justin Martyr, DialTryph 31.1, 32.1, 76.1, 100.3 and 126.1. The
next to last is particularly significant as Justin quotes Jesus as using two definite articles,
but follows with an anarthous "son of man" in his interpretation. See Borsch,
Christian and Gnostic Son of Man, 36-48.
E.g., Bousset, Kyrios Christos, 36-37, 49-54;
Bultmann, Theology of the NT 1, 33-52; Walker, "Recent Developments," 605-607.
E.g., Fitzmyer, "New Testament Title," 153-154; Walker, "Recent Developments," 585, 589;
Lindars, Jesus Son of Man, 27, 65-66; but Vermes denies that
"son of man" functioned as a title
even in the NT (Jesus the Jew, 185).
John 12:34 is no exception. The crowd here merely claims to echo Jesus' words and asks for
clarification: "how is it you say
ὁ υἵος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου must be lifted
up?' Who is this ' ὁ υἵος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου'?"
The Greek clearly represents Jesus' audience as being
confused by Jesus' terminology rather than seeking to discover the personal name of a messianic claimant.
See Walker, "Origin," 489-490.
Compare Mark 13:26 par and
14:62 par. Though
in both cases Luke departs from the Markan wording, it is virtually certain
that he knew the version of the logia recorded in the second gospel.
"Why do you ask me about the son of man?
He is sitting in heaven at the right hand of the great Power
and will come on the clouds of heaven" (Ecclesiastical History 2.23.13;
compare Mark 14:62). It is unclear at what level
'ὁ υἵος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου'
came into this report. But as a distant echo, the Greek is unreliable evidence of the vocabulary
of Jesus' brother or that of any other member of the Jerusalem church.
Borsch, Christian and Gnostic Son of Man, 111.
Most quotations by Greek heresiologists use the anarthous υἵος ἀνθρώπου.
The exceptions in Hippolytus' descriptions of the teachings of the
Peratae and Monoimus (Menahem) are obviously based on John or Paul.
The article in Coptic texts may reflect the influence of the Greek NT idiom on translation.
But these betray no direct dependence on the logia of any gospel (see
also, Christian and Gnostic, 59-110).
Barn 12:10; Ignatius Eph 20:2; Justin Dial 100.3.
Mark 8:38 par,
Luke 11:30 par,
17:24,26 par and
Sf III.16; Dan 7:13; 1QapGen 31.13; 11QtgJob 9.9 and 26.3; cf. Fitzmyer, Wandering Aramaean,
147-148; Casey, "General, Generic, and Indefinite," 22-23.
So, Fitzmyer, Wandering Aramaean, 147, 153;
Casey considers them "quite sufficient" ("General, Generic, and Indefinite," 22).
See Casey, "General, Generic and Indefinite," 31; but Fitzmyer argues that first-century evidence does not
prove that the emphatic state was no longer determinate (Wandering Aramaean, 154).
See Casey's admission ("General, Generic and Indefinite," 28).
Casey, "General, Generic and Indefinite," 32; Son of Man, 230-231.
Judah ha Nasi's burial request (yKet 35a) and two remarks by Simeon ben
Yohai (yBer 3b and ySheb 38d); see analysis in (iv) below.
Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 163, 181-182.
Lindars, Jesus Son of Man, 23; "Response," 35-38.
E.g., Fitzmyer, Wandering Aramaean, 154;
Bauckham, "Son of Man," 24ff;
Casey,Son of Man, 224-227; "General, Generic and Indefinite," 28-36.
So, Fitzmyer, Wandering Aramaean, 155.
Lindars, Jesus Son of Man, 31-32; Vermes, Jesus the Jew 165-166.
While targums are no guarantee of first-century oral translation of
particular verses, they do indicate something of the range of the
[bar (e)naš(a)] idiom. As a replacement for
[ben adam] (Ps 8:5, 80:18, 146:3; Job 25:6, 35:8) and
[ben enoš] (Ps 144:3) it was a natural choice.
But it was also used for אנוש
[enoš] (Ps 8:5; Job 25:6),
[geber] (Job 16:21),
[iš] (Exod 19:13; Deut 34:6), and especially
[adam] (Gen1:26f, 2:18, 8:21, 9:5; Deut 5:21, 20:19; Ps 144:4; Job 34:29).
See Fitzmyer, Wandering Aramaean, 151-152.
Lindars, Jesus Son of Man, 68, 74.
Lindars, Jesus Son of Man, 75-76.
John's version of healing of the paralytic focuses on the command to carry the pallet (5:8-12)
without relating it to Jesus' authority to forgive; and the debate over the
violation of sabbath restrictions by the disciples (not Jesus!)
is better resolved by the pronouncement in Mark 2:27 than by reference to
"the son of man."
The various locations of ἐν τῇ γῇ in the manuscripts indicate that
early scribes found this phrase problematic.
John 20:23; Matt 16:19,
18:18. See also Acts 2:38, 10:43, 13:38, Col 3:13, and Eph 4:32
where forgiveness is linked directly to Jesus' name and example.
E.g., Perrin, Rediscovering, 173-181; Lindars, Jesus Son of Man, 108-112;
Higgins, Teaching of Jesus, 77-80; Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 182-183;
J. Collins, Apocalyptic Imagination, 209-210.
E.g., Bultmann, NT Theology 1, 29-30; J. Knox, Death of Christ, 58.
For fuller discussion see Smith, "No Place for a Son of Man."
See also, Vaage, "Q1 and the Historical Jesus," 166-167.
See also Vaage, "Q1 and the Historical Jesus," 165-166; Cotter ("Children Sitting in the
Agora," 76-77) admits the historicity of the accusation, but declines to trace this saying to Jesus.
[These papers appeared after this essay was written].
See Lindars, Jesus Son of Man, 35-38. He reconstructs the original Aramaic as:
we-kol di yomar millah le-bar enasha, yishtebeq leh;
we-kol di yomar le-rucha de-qudsha, la yishtebeq leh.
Lindars, Jesus Son of Man, 51-53.
Lindars, Jesus Son of Man, 54-57.
So Tödt, Synoptic Tradition, 211-213.
But Perrin argues that this is an artificial link between two independent
dominical sayings produced at some unspecified point in
the "developing Christian exegetical tradition" (Rediscovering, 192-195).
Lindars suggests that Jonah was mentioned to point to the extraordinary popular response to Jesus'
preaching (Jesus Son of Man, 41). But see
Matt 11:16-24//Luke 7:31-35,
Notably, p75 (third century), codex Vaticanus (fourth century), and codex Cantabrigiensis (sixth
century) and early Latin and Coptic translations.
Perrin cites Bar 53:9 as evidence that lightning was "a
commonplace of apocalyptic" (Rediscovering, 196).
Lindars attributes the strangeness of this verse to Luke's “difficulty in integrating the
material" (Jesus Son of Man,
94). One could believe that of Mark or even Matthew, but hardly of Luke!
For full examination of this passage see M. H. Smith, "Missing
the Son of Man."
Bauckham, Richard, "The Son of Man: 'A Man in My Position' or
'Someone'?," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 23 (1985): 23-33.
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Borsch, Frederick H., The Son of Man in
Myth and History. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967.
____, The Christian and Gnostic Son of
Man. Studies in Biblical Theology 14. London: SCM Press, 1970.
Bousset, Wilhelm, Kyrios Christos.
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Bultmann, Rudolf, The History of the
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____, Theology of the New Testament.
Vol. 1. Trans. K. Grobel. New York: Charles Scrobner's Sons, 1951.
Casey, P. Maurice, Son of Man: The
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____, "The Jackals and the Son of Man (Matt 8.20//Luke 9.58),"
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____, "General, Generic and Indefinite:
The Use of the Term 'Son of Man' in Aramaic Sources and in the Teaching of Jesus,"
Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29 (1987): 21-56.
Charlesworth, James H., ed., The Old Testament
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