The Son of Man in the Gospels

The discussion of the Son of Man in Daniel and in the Book of Enoch sheds light on how Christ uses this title in the Gospels. In Daniel it might not be entirely clear whether the phrase refers to a people as a whole or to an individual. But in the Book of Enoch, it is clear that it refers to an individual who is the Messiah, and who has the role of coming to judge and to reward the good and punish the wicked.

In many places in the Gospels Christ speaks of the “Son of Man” in precisely this way. Thus for example in Matthew 13 he explains the parable of the weeds:

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

It is probably a mistake to understand “Son of Man” here as simply a roundabout way for Christ to refer to himself. Rather, the Son of Man, namely the one described in Daniel and Enoch, is the one appointed to carry out the judgement, and the parable of the weeds is about this judgement.

There are many other places in the Gospels which speak of the Son of Man in the same way, as for example at the end of Matthew 16, when Christ says, “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” The listeners will understand this to refer to the coming of the one appointed for judgement; they may or may not infer that Christ is speaking of himself.

Something related to this can be seen earlier in chapter 16:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Mark and Luke have “say that I am” in place of “say that the Son of Man is.” Presuming that they speak of the same episode, as it appears, Jesus could not have literally used both of these phrases. Either he said “Son of Man”, and the other Evangelists, recognizing that Christ is the Son of Man, choose the shorter phrase, or he said “I”, and Matthew replaces this with “Son of Man.”

I cannot prove this, and nothing in particular rests on it, but I would suggest that Matthew’s text is probably historically accurate here. While Mark 6 does suggest that some people identified Jesus in such a way, “The Son of Man, namely the one coming to judge, is Elijah,” seems a more plausible opinion for people to hold than “Jesus of Nazareth is Elijah.”

Christ seems to speak of the “Son of Man” in general in the third person, but also apparently with the implication that he himself is the Son of Man, and this practice is likely responsible for the fact that the Evangelists in this case take the two to be equivalent.

One problem of course is that in the text at the end of Matthew 16, Jesus seems to say something false about the time of the judgement. Something similar seems implied by Matthew 10:23, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

The Book of Enoch

The Book of Enoch, while not accepted in general as canonical, is accepted as such by Ethiopian Jews, as well as by some Orthodox churches. And whether considered as inspired or not, it was likely respected by the early Christians, as the book of Jude quotes from it, saying,

It was also about these that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “See, the Lord is coming with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all, and to convict everyone of all the deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”

This is a quotation from the end of the first chapter of the book of Enoch.

Chapter 46 describes a vision of Enoch:

46:1   At that place, I saw the One to whom belongs the time before time. And his head was white like wool, and there was with him another individual, whose face was like that of a human being. His countenance was full of splendor like that of one among the kodesh malakim.

46:2   And I asked the one -from among the malakim -who was going with me, and who had revealed to me all the secrets regarding the One who was born of human beings, “Who is this, and from whence is he who is going as the prototype of the Before -Time?”

46:3   And he answered me and said to me, “This is the Son of Man, to whom belongs righteousness, and with whom righteousness dwells. And He will open all the hidden storerooms; for YAHWEH of Hosts has chosen Him, and He is destined to be victorious before YAHWEH of Hosts in eternal uprightness.”

46:4   “This Son of Man whom you have seen is the One who would remove the kings and the mighty ones from their comfortable seats and the strong ones from their thrones. He shall loosen the reins of the strong and crush the teeth of the sinners.”

46:5   “He shall depose the kings from their thrones and kingdoms. For they do not extol and magnify HIM, and neither do they obey HIM, the source of their kingship.”

46:6   “The faces of the strong will be slapped and be filled with shame and gloom. Their dwelling places and their beds will be worms. They shall have no hope to rise from their beds, for they do not extol the NAME of YAHWEH of Hosts.”

46:7   “And they have become the judges of the stars of heaven; they raise their hands to reach YAHWEH the Most High while walking upon the earth and dwelling in her. They manifest all their deeds in oppression; all their deeds are oppression. Their power depends upon their wealth. And their devotion is to the gods which they have fashioned with their own hands. But they deny the NAME of YAHWEH of Hosts.”

46:8   “Yet they like to congregate in HIS houses and with the faithful ones who cling to YAHWEH of Hosts.

The Son of Man is the one “to whom belongs righteousness, and with whom righteousness dwells,” and the following verses indicate the he is the one who was chosen by God to execute justice.

The reason why the kings are deposed is that “they do not extol and magnify him, neither do they obey him, the source of their kingship.” The translator in this case seems to interpret this to refer to God, and thus capitalizes “him,” but the most obvious understanding of the pronoun would be that it refers to the Son of Man. Nonetheless, the fact that he is the source of their kingship might suggest that he is also God in fact, and this is also suggested by the fact that the text goes on to say, “They shall have no hope to rise from their beds, for they do not extol the name of Yahweh of hosts.” This at least suggests that not praising the Son of Man is the same as not praising God.

Chapter 47 describes why a judgment is necessary in the first place:

47:1   “In those days, the prayers of the righteous ascended into heaven, and the blood of the righteous from the earth before YAHWEH of Hosts.”

47:2   “There shall be days when all the kodesh ones who dwell in the heavens above shall dwell together. And with one voice, they shall supplicate and pray -magnifying, praising, and blessing the NAME of YAHWEH of Hosts -on behalf of the blood of the righteous ones which has been shed. Their prayers shall not stop from exhaustion before YAHWEH of Hosts -neither will they relax forever -until judgment is executed for them.”

47:3   In those days, I saw Him -the Antecedent of Time, while He was sitting upon the throne of his splendor, and the books of the living ones were open before Him. And all His power in heaven above and His escorts stood before Him.

47:4   The hearts of the kodesh ones are filled with joy, because the number of the righteous has been offered, the prayers of the righteous ones have been heard, and the blood of the righteous has been admitted before YAHWEH of Hosts.

Thus judgment is needed to correct the injustice done to the just by the wicked. Chapter 48 seems to describe the Son of Man as preexisting and as having a predestined role of carrying out the needed judgment:

48:1   Furthermore, in that place I saw the fountain of righteousness, which does not become depleted and is surrounded completely by numerous fountains of wisdom.

48:2   All the thirsty ones drink of the water and become filled with wisdom. Then their dwelling places become with the kodesh, righteous, and elect ones.

48:3   At that hour, that Son of Man was given a name, in the presence of YAHWEH of Hosts, the Before Time; even before the creation of the sun and the moon, before the creation of the stars, He was given a name in the presence of YAHWEH of Hosts.

48:4   He will become a staff for the righteous ones in order that they may lean on Him and not fall. He is the Light of the gentiles and He will become the hope of those who are sick in their hearts.

48:5   All those who dwell upon the earth shall fall and worship before Him; they shall magnify, bless, and sing the NAME of YAHWEH of Hosts.

48:6   For this purpose He became the Chosen One; He was concealed in the presence of YAHWEH of Hosts prior to the creation of the world, and for eternity.

48:7   And He has revealed the wisdom of YAHWEH of Hosts to the righteous and the kodesh ones, for He has preserved the portion of the righteous because they have hated and despised this world of oppression together with all its ways of life and its habits in the NAME of YAHWEH of Hosts; and because they will be saved in His Name and it is His good pleasure that they have life.

48:8   In those days, the kings of the earth and the mighty landowners shall be humiliated on account of the deeds of their hands. Therefore, on the day of their misery and weariness, they will not be able to save themselves.

48:9   I shall deliver them into the hands of MY elect ones like grass in the fire and like lead in the water, so they shall burn before the face of the kodesh ones and sink before their sight, and no place will be found for them.

48:10   On the day of their weariness, there shall be an obstacle on the earth and they shall fall on their faces; and they shall not rise up again, nor anyone be found who will take them with his hands and raise them up. For they have denied YAHWEH of Hosts and HIS Messiah. Blessed be the NAME of YAHWEH of Hosts!

While one might think that being concealed in the presence of God before the creation of the world might imply only the divine predestination, it would not be unreasonable to read this as implying an eternal preexistence of the Son of Man, even if not in the condition of a man. And it seems that “they will be saved in His Name,” and “it is His good pleasure that they have life,” also refer to the Son of Man. In fact, overall it seems that considered in itself, God would have the role of saving and giving life, and judging the wicked, but in practice God chooses to give these roles to the Son of Man.

Finally, at the end of the text, the Son of Man is identified as the Messiah.

 

Son of Man

Daniel 7 gives an account of a vision:

In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.

As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
    and an Ancient of Days took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
    and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
    and its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
    and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
    and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
    and the books were opened.

I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a son of man,
    coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient of Days
    and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
    and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
    that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
    that shall never be destroyed.

As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: “As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

Then I desired to know the truth concerning the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped what was left with its feet; and concerning the ten horns that were on its head, and concerning the other horn, which came up and to make room for which three of them fell out—the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke arrogantly, and that seemed greater than the others. As I looked, this horn made war with the holy ones and was prevailing over them, until the Ancient of Days came; then judgment was given for the holy ones of the Most High, and the time arrived when the holy ones gained possession of the kingdom.

This is what he said: “As for the fourth beast,

there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth
    that shall be different from all the other kingdoms;
it shall devour the whole earth,
    and trample it down, and break it to pieces.
As for the ten horns,
out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise,
    and another shall arise after them.
This one shall be different from the former ones,
    and shall put down three kings.
He shall speak words against the Most High,
    shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High,
    and shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law;
and they shall be given into his power
    for a time, two times, and half a time.
Then the court shall sit in judgment,
    and his dominion shall be taken away,
    to be consumed and totally destroyed.
The kingship and dominion
    and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
    shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High;
their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
    and all dominions shall serve and obey them.”

Here the account ends. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly terrified me, and my face turned pale; but I kept the matter in my mind.

The New Revised Standard Version uses “Ancient One” in place of “Ancient of Days”, and “one like a human being” in place of “one like a son of man”, while acknowledging in the footnotes that these are deliberate changes to the text, not translations. I have reverted these changes here.

It is sometimes said that the “one like a son of man” in Daniel’s vision is the Jewish people as a whole, since the explanation of the vision refers only to “holy ones of the Most High,” or “people of the holy ones of the Most High,” rather than to an individual. But in reality this is not entirely clear. The interpretation says that the four beasts are four kings, but then the fourth is interpreted as a kingdom out of which ten kings, represented by the ten horns, will arise. So the interpretation seems to pass rather freely between kings and kingdoms. In this sense, it is possible that the one like a son of man can represent either the people of the Most High, or their king, much like the beasts seem to represent both kings and kingdoms.