In our look into the divine claims of Jesus, we have argued for the authenticity of the claims by noting the allusions to the OT, the date of the claims, and the character of Jesus Himself in the trilemma. But everything we have argued thus far amounts to nothing if the major claims to divinity were completely misunderstood from the beginning. When Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man, what, exactly, does He mean?
Is it possible that the Jews misunderstood Jesus’ claims to divinity? Could He have been referring to something, or perhaps someone else entirely? The most well-known title Jesus gives Himself is “The Son of Man.” Arguments have arisen, most notably by scholars such as Bart Ehrman, that Jesus wasn’t actually referring to Himself when using the Son of Man title. These arguments deserve attention, but before we can address them, it would be helpful to glean some context from the title. Where did it come from and what does it even mean?
The most well-known use of the title by Jesus comes during His questioning at the Sanhedrin Trial following His arrest.
Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. (Matthew 26:64 bold mine)
This response by Jesus at the questioning of the high priest is found in all three Synoptic accounts. It is an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14 and Psalm 110:1, which say,
I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14 bold mine)
The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool. (Psalm 110:1)
(Some have attempted to refute the allusion to Daniel by arguing for a late date for the book. A refutation to this can be found in link 1 below). The phrase, Son of Man, as used in Hebrew, is ben adam, which means Human being or mortal. This phrase can be found in Psalm 8:4 or in Ezekial, where God refers to the prophet as “son of man” (2:1, 3, 8). On one hand, this emphasizes Jesus’ humanity and its fingerprints are all over the Gospel accounts (see Matthew 9:6-8 where the crowd stands in awe because they saw a mere man perform actions God alone had authority to do). But what about the usage in Daniel? Chapter 7 describes a distinctly royal figure who is enthroned with the Ancient of Days (YWHW), given all dominion, glory, and honour with Him, and worshipped alongside Him. Furthermore, this chapter is a major influence on the Jewish view of the Messiah and the role He was expected to fulfil. New Testament scholar, Michael Bird, notes that,
…..Daniel 7 is a vision report about four terrifying beasts, which consecutively arise out of the sea to ravage the earth, including poor old Israel. But then the beasts are stripped of their power, and Daniel narrates (vs. 13-14). The beasts symbolize the consecutive kingdoms of Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece (Dan 7:17). The “one like a son of man” is a multivalent symbol for God’s kingdom, God’s king, and God’s people. That is why the figure is closely connected with God’s reign (7:13 – 14); he is the heavenly counterpart to the beasts, which are explicitly designated as kings (7:8, 11, 17, 23 – 24), and the dominion given to the human figure is the same as that given to the people of Israel (7:18, 27).
Bird, Michael F.. How God Became Jesus (pp. 62-63). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
This passage will become important when we turn to the role Jesus came to fulfil at the close of our series. For our purposes here, the phrase used by Daniel in this passage is an Aramaic one that reads bar enash, which can be read either generically (“humanity”), in an indefinite sense (“a man”), or in a definite sense (“this man”). The context of our passage in Daniel, however, does call for a generic or indefinite reading of bar enash. It is clearly referring to a specific man, one of vast importance. In his research on the copy-cat theory on Zoroaster, Christian apologist J.P. Holding quotes from Ernst Herzfeld’s Zoroaster And His World. Ernst notes that in ancient Babylonian literature, the Aramaic phrase was always used to refer to an heir to royalty (p. 835-840. A link to the book can be found below). With this information in mind, Jesus’ response to the priest at the Sanhedrin trial couldn’t have been clearer. Jesus was making the claim that He was the rightful heir to God’s throne (Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power).
Let’s not brush over the significance of Jesus’ words here. Claiming that you would be seated at the right hand of God was an astounding claim. In Jewish thought, being seated by God (i.e. In His presence) was reserved for a few greatly significant people (i.e. Moses and David). However, being seated on the right hand meant that you would be sharing the highest honour with God and would be invested in His lordship. This is why the Pharisees responded with such rage and disbelief,
Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy. (Matthew 26:65).
Malina notes that,
This is considered “blasphemy,” a verbal outrage. Here the outrage is presumed to be addressed to God; hence the high priest tears his robes, symbolizing the tear in the boundaries surrounding his honor, a sign of a tear in the social fabric, hence a sign of “mourning” or protest against the presence of flagrant evil, worthy of death.
Bruce Malina;Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Kindle Locations 2692-2695). Kindle Edition.
It is no wonder that Jesus was the first to make such a claim! However, could Jesus have meant someone else? Skeptics do not hesitate to point out the places where Jesus uses the Son of Man title in the third-person. But if Jesus uses the title in explicitly self-referential ways elsewhere (Matt. 9:8-6, Luke 7:33 and 9:58) why would He suddenly be talking about someone else entirely? The places where Jesus uses the title in the third-person are referring to a future event, such as in Matt. 26:64. In these instances, Jesus is talking about a role He will fulfil as the Son of Man. If we believe that Jesus was talking about someone else in Mattew 26, who, may we ask, is this unknown person who receives all the honour and glory at God’s side? If the disciples get to judge the tribes of Israel (Luke 22:30) and the Son of Man gets his spot on God’s throne, what does poor Jesus get? A slice of cake for His good efforts? We aren’t given an answer, which is rather strange when each of the Gospels primarily focuses on Jesus’ ministry. Isn’t it far more likely that Jesus is the Son of Man?
What about the objection that the Son of Man title was a later invention by the church? If this were the case, wouldn’t we expect the church to use it more often? The title is used only four other times outside of the Gospels (Acts 7:56; Heb 2:6; Rev 1:13; 14:14). In Paul’s letters, he never uses the title even once, and for good reason. The churches he wrote to weren’t Jewish, so they wouldn’t have understood the meaning of the title.
The idea that the Son of Man title does not refer to Jesus is, at best, not evidentially supported and, at worst, absurd. Michael Bird sums it up beautifully,
Belief in the resurrection contributed to a Christology but did not create one from nothing. Belief in Jesus’ resurrection would not mean he was the Messiah, the Son of Man, or an angel. The two witnesses in Revelation 11 rise from the dead and ascend to heaven without garnering further attention or veneration. Herod’s view that John the Baptist had come back to life meant identifying him with Jesus, not with an angelic figure. In the Testament of Job, Job’s children are killed when their house falls on them, and their bodies are taken to heaven; but no one thereafter begins to imagine that they are divine or angelic. If one of the bandits crucified with Jesus were thought to have come back to life, would anyone have seriously thought that he was the Son of Man, the Son of God, the angel of the Lord, or even God Almighty? I seriously doubt it! The resurrection alone did not create a divine Christology. Easter faith did not turn Jesus into something other than what he was before. Jesus made extravagant claims about himself as to his authority, mission, and origin, and the resurrection was a divine affirmation that those claims were good. Viewed this way, the resurrection magnified rather than manufactured Jesus’ claims to a divine status. Viewed this way, the resurrection intensified rather than initiated belief in Jesus’ unique relationship with God. Viewed this way, the resurrection transposed rather than triggered recognition of Jesus as a divine figure.
Bird, Michael F.. How God Became Jesus (p. 66-67). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.