Son of man

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Front page of a 17th-century Hebrew Bible by Joseph Athias, now at Beth Hatefutsoth, Israel

"Son of man" is the translation of various Hebrew and Greek phrases used in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. It has diverse meanings, ranging from a normal human being to a prophesied eternal, divine ruler.

The Hebrew expression "son of man" (בן–אדם i.e. ben-'adam) appears one hundred and seven times in the Hebrew Bible.[1] This is the most common Hebrew construction for the singular but is used mostly in Ezekiel (93 times) and 14 times elsewhere.[2] In thirty two cases the phrase appears in intermediate plural form "sons of men", i.e. human beings.[1] As generally interpreted by Jews, it denotes humankind generally.

In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, "the son of man" is invariably used as "ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου" with a definite article. The use of the definite article in "the son of man" in the Christian gospels is novel, and before its use there, no records of its use in any of the surviving Greek documents of antiquity exist.[2] Geza Vermes has stated that "the Son of man" in the Christian gospels is unrelated to Hebrew Bible usages.[3]

In Christian usage, unlike the Son of God title, which has been an essential element of Christian creeds since the Apostolic age, the proclamation of "Jesus as the Son of man" has never been an article of faith in Christianity.[4] The interpretation of the use of "the Son of man" in the New Testament has remained challenging and after 150 years of debate no consensus on the issue has emerged among scholars.[5][6]


The Hebrew expression "son of man" (בן–אדם i.e. ben-'adam) appears one hundred and seven times in the Jewish Bible.[1] This is the most common Hebrew construction for the singular and appears 93 times in Ezekiel alone and 14 times elsewhere.[2] In thirty two cases the phrase appears in intermediate plural form "sons of men", i.e. human beings.[1]

In the Hebrew Bible, the first place one comes across the phrase son of man is in Book of Numbers 23:19:

In the Book of Job, we see son of man used a total of three times (all of which, interestingly enough, fall within poetic passages):

A scroll of the Book of Psalms

In the Book of Psalms we find the same classical forms employed in Numbers and Job, in which son of man is used in parallel with man to describe humanity as a whole.

The Book of Ezekiel is unique in the tradition of the Tanakh in that, as the story unfolds, the phrase son of man is used approximately 94 times by a divine being to refer to the author. Son of man here appears to be a title referring to the humanity of the author, much as the word "human" might be used in English. It is not a respectful appellation, but a humbling one (in some cases, an arguably abject one), and this use is a consistent pattern throughout Ezekiel.

In the Book of Daniel, parts of the text were originally written in Aramaic. This portion of the volume (7:13-14) deals with a vision attributed to the author about "the times of the end". In the context of Daniel passages, the use of son of man is more consistent with the concept of self-reflection. It has been argued that "there came with the clouds of the sky 'one like a son of man'" describes one "like a human being" or "one like [himself]." The passage in Daniel 7:13 occurs in Biblical Aramaic and it certainly implies a "human being." Many (Christian) interpretations have tried to read a messianic allusion into this verse, "but in all probability the reference is to an angel with a human appearance, perhaps Michael."[7]

As generally interpreted by Jews, "son of man" denotes mankind generally in contrast to deity, with special reference to their weakness and frailty (Job 25:6; Psalms 8:4; Psalms 144:3; Psalms 146:3; Isaiah 51:12, etc.).[7][8] And the term "ben adam" is but a formal substitute for the personal pronoun or maybe a title given to the prophet Ezekiel, probably to remind him of his human weakness.[7]

Post biblical literature[edit]

In post-biblical Jewish literature the most common use is similar to that of the English word "human." For example in 1QapGen. XXI.13: MT שיא (Gen. 13.16), it certainly connotes a "human being."

In the Book of Enoch, "Son of man" is found, but never in the original material. It occurs in the "Noachian interpolations (lx. 10, lxxi. 14), in which it has clearly no other meaning than "man," if, indeed, Charles' explanation ("Book of Enoch," p. 16), that the interpolator misused the term, as he does all other technical terms, is untenable. In that part of the Book of Enoch known as the "Similitudes" it is met with in the technical sense of a supernatural Messiah and judge of the world (xlvi. 2, xlviii. 2, lxx. 27); universal dominion and preexistence are predicated of him (xlviii. 2, lxvii. 6). He sits on God's throne (xlv. 3, li. 3), which is His own throne. Though Charles does not admit it, these passages betray Christian redaction and emendation."[7]

"Among Jews the term "son of man" was not used as the specific title of the Messiah. The New Testament expression ὅ ὑιὸς τοῦ ἀνθρόπου is a translation of the Aramaic "bar nasha," and as such could have been understood only as the substitute for a personal pronoun, or as emphasizing the human qualities of those to whom it is applied. That the term does not appear in any of the epistles ascribed to Paul is significant."[7]

"In the Gospels the title occurs eighty-one times. Most of the recent writers (among them being II. Lietzmann) have come to the conclusion that Jesus, speaking Aramaic, could never have designated himself as the "son of man" in a Messianic, mystic sense, because the Aramaic term never implied this meaning."[7]

In the Hebrew of Genesis 13:16, the word translated as בר אנוש (son of man) was איש (man).


The Son of man with a sword among the seven lampstands, in John's vision, from the Bamberg Apocalypse, 11th century.

In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, the term "the son of man" is invariably "ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου", which might be rendered more literally "the son of the human being".

The expression "the Son of Man" occurs 81 times in the four Canonical gospels, and is used only in the sayings of Jesus.[2] However, the use of the definite article in "the Son of Man" in the gospels is novel, and before its use there, there are no records of its use in any of the surviving Greek documents of antiquity.[2]

For centuries, the Christological perspective on Son of Man has been a natural counterpart to that of Son of God and just as Son of God affirms the divinity of Jesus, in many cases Son of man affirms his humanity.[9]

However, while the profession of Jesus as the Son of God has been an essential element of Christian creeds since the Apostolic age, such professions do not apply to Son of Man and the proclamation of Jesus as the Son of Man has never been an article of faith in Christianity.[4]

Although Son of Man is a distinct from Son of God, some gospel passages equate them in some cases, e.g. in Mark 14:61, during the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus when the high priest asked Jesus: "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed one?" Jesus responded "I am: and you shall see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.".[10][11]

James D. G. Dunn and separately Delbert Burkett state that the interpretation of the use of "the Son of Man" in the New Testament is a prime example of the limits of biblical interpretation in that after 150 years of debate no consensus on the issue has emerged.[5][6]

In Daniel 7:13-14 a vision is expressed and in the christological interpretation of the vision given later, this figure represents "the saints of the Most High" (Dan 7:16-18, 21-22, 25-27).[12] This may also have led to the idea of "'the son of man'," an eschatological Messianic figure, within sectarian Judaism.


The phrase "Son of Man" appears in the Book of Parables, the second section of the Ethiopic Book of Enoch (1 En. 37-71), a Second Temple Jewish text probably composed around the turn of the era.[13][page needed] Here the phrase is used in reference to an eschatological protagonist with heavenly attributions, who is also called “Righteous One,” “Chosen One,” and “Messiah”. This character was expected to preside over the final judgment, pronouncing the sentence against the unrighteous and the sinners (1 En. 61:8-9) and delivering them “to the angels for the punishment “ (1 En. 62:11). He was also supposed to be worshipped by the “kings and the mighty,” (1 En. 62:9), identified throughout the entire Book of Parables with the wicked, who would ask for his mercy during the eschatological judgment. The ending of the Book of Parables, which some scholars view as a later addition, claims that the "Son of Man" is Enoch himself.[14][page needed]

As no evidence of the Book of Parables resurfaced among the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jozef Milik suggested in 1976 that the document could be a later Christian text,[15][page needed] but this hypothesis is now rejected by most specialists.[16] The third meeting of the Enoch seminar at Camaldoli in 2005 was entirely devoted to academic discussion on the Messiah "Son of Man" in the Book of Parables of Enoch.[17][page needed]

The first known use of "The Son of Man" as a title in Jewish writings comes from the book of 1 Enoch and its use played a role in the early Christian understanding and use of the title.[18]

Letters of John of Dalyatha[edit]

This is further illustrated within the letters of John of Dalyatha, from the eighth century CE;[19] where the author is describing a vision:

John of Dalyatha Letters 49. 13

מן בתר הנא שוחלפא אתא בתרה שוחלפא אחרנא דלבשא לה לברנשא נורא מן פסת רגלה ושמדא למוחה דמא דחאר ברנשא הו בה לא חזא לפגרא מרכבא אן להד נורא דלביש

After this transformation, there follows another transformation in which fire clothes the son of man (ברנשא : [barnasha']) from the soles of his feet up to his brain, so that when the son of man (ברנשא : [barnasha']) looks at himself he does not see his composite body, but only the fire with which he is clothed.

According to Christian scholarship, the son of man figure within the Old Testament book of Daniel seems based on a Divine figure presented in the OT book of Ezekiel.[19][20]

Book of the Laws of the Countries[edit]

The Book of the Laws of the Countries is the oldest general discussion of mankind in the Aramaic language, dating from the late second to early third century CE;[21] and we can see that ברנשא bar nasha is used in a general form for humanity:

Bardaisan, The Book of the Laws of the Countries, p. 559, lines 11-14:

כינה דברנשא הנו דנתילד ונתרבא ודנקום באקמא ודנולד ודנקש כד אכל וכד שתא וכד דמך וכד מתתששעיר ודמות

This is the nature of the son of man (דברנשא : [debarnasha']), that he should be born and grow up and reach his peak and reproduce and grow old, while eating and drinking and sleeping and waking, and that he should die.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Q-Z by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Jan 31, 1995) ISBN 0802837840 page 574
  2. ^ a b c d e Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity by Larry W. Hurtado, ISBN 0-8028-3167-2 Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005 pages 290-293
  3. ^ Vermes, Geza, Jesus in his Jewish context. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 82. ISBN 0-8006-3623-6.
  4. ^ a b Jesus and the Son of Man by A J B Higgins 2002 ISBN 0-227-17221-3 pages 13-15
  5. ^ a b Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making by James D. G. Dunn (Jul 29, 2003) ISBN 0802839312 pages 724-725
  6. ^ a b The Son of Man Debate: A History and Evaluation by Delbert Royce Burkett (Jan 28, 2000) Cambridge Univ Press ISBN 0521663067 pages 3-5
  7. ^ a b c d e f "SON OF MAN". Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19 August 2013. 
  8. ^ Berger, David; Wyschogrod, Michael (1978). Jews and "Jewish Christianity". [New York]: KTAV Publ. House. p. 3. JESUS AND GOD. ISBN 0-87068-675-5. 
  9. ^ Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister E. McGrath 2010 ISBN 1-4443-3514-6 page 270
  10. ^ "The 'Son of Man'" as the Son of God by Seyoon Kim 1983 ISBN 3-16-144705-0 pages 2-3
  11. ^ Who is Jesus?: an introduction to Christology by Thomas P. Rausch 2003 ISBN 978-0-8146-5078-3 pages 132-133
  12. ^ [1] An introduction to the New Testament and the origins of Christianity, Delbert Royce Burkett
  13. ^ George W.E. Nickelsburg, Son of Man, ABD 6:137-50; Sabino Chiala`, Libro delle Parabole di Enoc (Brescia: Paideia 1997 ISBN 88-394-0555-0); David Suter, Tradition and Composition in the Parables of Enoch (Missoula Mont.: Scholars 1979).
  14. ^ James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseaudepigrapha and the New Testament (Cambridge 1985).
  15. ^ Jozef Milik, The Books of Enoch: Aramaic Fragments of Qumran Cave 4 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976); see also E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia 1977).
  16. ^ George W.E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam, The Book of Enoch: A New Translation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004); George W.E. Nickelsburg, 1 Enoch: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001).
  17. ^ Gabriele Boccaccini (ed.), Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man: Revisiting the Book of Parables (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
  18. ^ Charles, R. H. (2004). The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Volume Two: Pseudepigrapha. Apocryphile Press. p. 185. ISBN 978-0-9747623-7-1. 
  19. ^ a b Hansbury, Mary. The Letters of John of Dalyatha. Gorgias Press LLC. pp. vii. ISBN 978-1-59333-341-6. 
  20. ^ [Alan F.] (2004). Life after death: a history of the afterlife in the religions of the West. New York: Doubleday. p. 336. ISBN 978-0-385-42299-4. 
  21. ^ Lund, Jerome. The Book of the Laws of the Countries: A Dialogue on Free Will Versus Fate: A Key-Word-In-Context Concordance. Gorgias Press. pp. xi. ISBN 978-1-59333-374-4. 

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