The title ‘Son of Man’ is best known by most readers of the scriptures as the title which Christ most often applies to himself in all four of the Gospels, a rare thread running through all four with utter consistency. In fact, other than references to the Old Testament and a single instance in the Acts of the Apostles, this title occurs in the New Testament only as a form of self-reference by Christ. When Christ uses this term, however, he is drawing on an Old Testament tradition which was already by that time well-defined. Further, from this Old Testament tradition, the idea of a particular divine figure had formed within Second Temple Judaism, and many of Christ’s references are incontrovertibly to that figure. In order to understand who, by this title, Christ is claiming to be, we must answer the question asked of Christ by the crowds, “Who is this Son of Man?” (Jn 12:34).
The English translation of the title itself can be somewhat misleading. In many of its Old Testament uses, including its earliest, it is paired with the term ‘man’. In this pairing, however, two different Hebrew words are being translated as ‘man’. And so, Numbers 23:19 for example would better be translated, “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of Adam, that he should change his mind.” This title refers to one who is a son of Adam, not merely the son of a human father. The phrase “son of” is itself a Hebrew idiom. A son was seen to be the image of his father, and so to be the son of something or someone meant that a person’s character reflected that of which they are the son. So, for example, the name of the apostle ‘Bar-nabas’, or ‘Son of Encouragement’, the references to Judas and the antichrist as the ‘son of perdition’ (Jn 17:12, 2 Thess 2:3), and Christ’s rebuke that those opposing him were the sons of their father the devil, because they lie, and seek to murder him (Jn 8:44). The term ‘Son of Adam’ then does not only mean that a person is human, referring to them as a man or as a woman would denote that, but it refers to the possession of the trait which is characteristic to Adam.
Christian readers at least since St. Augustine have tended to see in Adam the archetypal sinner who passes sin on to his physical progeny. This, however, is not the way Adam was seen within the Second Temple Judaism which formed the background for the New Testament texts. Adam was seen rather as the one who brought death to the human race. He is not so much seen as the origin of human sin as the origin of human mortality. Yes, it was his sin which produced this effect, but the corruption in humanity was seen to be produced by the latter events of the book of Genesis, and as a result of death and mortality, rather than the reverse. Adam as source of mortality can be seen in New Testament texts such as John 8:44 cited above, in which the devil is described as having been a murderer at the beginning, and in the contrast made between Adam and Christ made by St. Paul in Romans 5:12-17. More importantly, when the title ‘Son of Adam’ is applied in the Old Testament, it is chiefly in the context of reminding a human of his mortality, weakness, and fragility, as in Job 25:6, Psalms 8:4, 144:3, 146:3, and Isaiah 51:12. ‘Son of Adam’ is also the title by which God consistently refers to the prophet Ezekiel, living as he does in exile.
The title is likewise used to refer to the prophet Daniel in exile (Dan 8:17), but it is in the book of Daniel that in addition to references to ‘sons of Adam’, there comes the figure who would become known as ‘the Son of Man’. In Daniel 7, Daniel receives a vision which predicts a succession of human empires which will dominate the known world in sequence. At the end of the sequence, Daniel beholds a scene of judgment, in which the God of Israel, the Ancient of Days sits enthroned in the divine council and passes judgment upon the wickedness of these empires, and all the nations of the world. As one product of that judgment, God takes away the authority (exousia in Greek) from these nations, but allows them to continue to exist for ‘a time’. It is then that Daniel sees one ‘like a son of Adam’ who comes up before the Ancient of Days riding upon a cloud, and to whom is given all of the authority which was taken away from the nations of the earth. This establishes for this person an eternal kingdom.
Daniel’s description of this person has two important parts. The first is obvious in Daniel’s description, this figure appears to him as ‘like a Son of Adam’, meaning he appears to Daniel to be a human person. The second factor is less obvious, and is contained within the image of this figure riding upon the clouds. Among ancient peoples, not only in the Ancient Near East but in the surrounding nations as well, riding upon the clouds of heaven was a representation of deity. Deities like Baal and Zeus rode upon the clouds of heaven. For obvious reasons, Israel reserved this language solely for their God, using it in texts such as Psalm 104:3-4, read in every Vespers service and Isaiah 19:1, to describe the power and glory of Yahweh, Israel’s God. This imagery being applied to the human figure seen by Daniel explains why Daniel would describe him as ‘like a son of Adam’ rather than just declaring him to be a man. This double depiction was not lost on the original Jewish readers of Daniel, who referred to this figure as ‘the Son of Man’. Second Temple Literature is filled with identifications of this figure, and how he came to be. As a divine figure, he was seen as a hypostasis of the God of Israel himself. Some traditions saw this figure as the Messiah to come who would be a divine figure (see for example 1 Enoch), others saw this figure as a divinized human from the past, such as Enoch or David himself.
It is a matter hotly debated by New Testament scholars as to how Christ is using the title ‘Son of Man’ to apply to himself in any given instance. There are, however, several instances which very clearly refer to this apocalyptic figure from the book of Daniel as developed in the religious tradition of Christ’s time. Christ makes clear reference to the Son of Man coming on the clouds in judgment at the end of time in Matthew 13:41, 24:30, 25:31 and Luke 21:27. Possibly the most clear instance however is in Mark 14 (and the parallel passage in Matthew 26:57-68). On trial before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, Jesus is asked directly if he is the Messiah (Mk 14:61). Likely, this question was asked, given the dearth of other evidence against him, so that Caiaphas could make the case that Jesus was a dangerous political dissident destined to bring down the wrath of the Romans. His response, however, goes further than the questioner had intended, in that Jesus not only answers with “I am”, but goes on to identify himself as the Son of Man who will come upon the clouds of heaven in judgment (v. 62). Caiaphas extreme response, tearing his clothes and saying that all in attendance had heard Jesus utter blasphemy (v. 63), shows not only that this is not the response he was expecting, but shows that the Son of Man was considered at this time to be a divine figure. Claiming to be the Messiah descended from David was not blasphemy, but claiming to be God was.
Christ’s identification of himself with ‘the Son of Man’ is important in both a general sense, and in particulars. As we have previously seen, the New Testament writers unambiguously identify the person of Jesus Christ with the second hypostasis of the God of Israel, described as the Angel of the Lord or the Word of the Lord. In this case, the identification of this figure as the Son of Man, it is Christ himself who identifies himself with that figure, in addition to the New Testament writers (as in Rev 1:13). In its particulars, however, while we have already seen a second divine person in bodily form in the Old Testament, this figure seen by Daniel is explicitly one like a ‘son of Adam’, meaning that this figure is both divine and human. Further, Daniel’s vision frames the mission of Christ, and even establishes the distinction between his first and second advents. The culmination of the mission of the Son of Man is that the authority (exousia) of the nations is taken away from them and given to him. Indeed, Christ announces before his ascension that this has indeed taken places when he says that “All authority (exousia) in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). While the nations, and in particular Rome, the last of Daniel’s beasts, will continue to exist ‘for a time’, as Daniel prophesied, these nations have been judged, and the kingdom of Jesus Christ has been established, which will endure forever. The mission of the apostles, which they bequeathed to the Church, will continue through this time, until Christ returns in the same way that he ascended, upon the clouds of heaven, to judge the living and the dead.