Son of man

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This article is about general religious issues. For Christian teachings, see Son of man (Christianity). For Jewish teachings, see Son of man (Judaism). For other usage, see Son of man (disambiguation).
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 Greek New Testament. In Judaism it refers to normal human beings. In Christianity it is a title given to man-god Jesus.

Hebrew Bible[edit]

The Hebrew expression "son of man" (בן–אדם, ben-'adam) appears 107 times in the Hebrew Bible.[1] The phrase is used mostly in Ezekiel (93 times), with only 14 occurrences elsewhere.[2] In most cases the phrase is used in the singular, but in 32 cases it appears in the intermediate plural form "sons of men".[1]

The first occurrence of the phrase in the Hebrew Bible is in the Book of Numbers 23:19. In the Book of Job, son of man is used three times (all of which, interestingly enough, fall within poetic passages). The Book of Psalms employs it as well, in the same forms as found in Numbers and Job. In these texts, son of man is used in parallel with man to describe humanity as a whole.

A scroll of the Book of Psalms

In the Book of Ezekiel the phrase son of man is used approximately 94 times and refers to an individual human being, i.e. Ezekiel himself. Son of man here appears to be an idiom highlighting the humanity of the author, much as the word "son" or "man" might be used separately in English. It is not a respectful appellation, but a humbling one, and this use is a consistent pattern throughout Ezekiel.

In the Book of Daniel, parts of the text occur in Aramaic, which appears to be the language of their original composition. One such passage, in chapter 7, deals with a vision attributed to the author about "the times of the end". In this vision "one like a son of man" appears to the narrator, "coming with the clouds of heaven" (7:13-14). It has been argued that "one like a son of man'" describes one "like a human being" or one like the narrator himself. Christian interpretations have understood this passage as a vision of the Messiah, whereas Jewish interpretations read it as referring to "an angel with a human appearance, perhaps Michael."[3]

Intertestamental literature[edit]

1 Enoch: Book of Parables[edit]

The first known use of "The Son of Man" as a definite title in pre-Christian writings comes from the book of 1 Enoch. This use may have played a role in the early Christian understanding and use of the term.[4]


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

In the Greek of the New Testament, the term "the son of man" is rendered "ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου", which might be translated more literally as "the son of the human being". This expression occurs 81 times in the four Canonical gospels, where it is used only in the sayings of Jesus.[2] The use of the definite article in "the Son of Man" is novel in the gospels, and prior to the gospels there is no record of its use in surviving intertestamental literature in Greek.[2]

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] For centuries, the Christological perspective on Son of Man has been predominant. This interpretation sees the phrase as a natural counterpart to the title Son of God. On this reading, just as Son of God affirms the divinity of Jesus, Son of man affirms his humanity.[7] 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.[8]

Although Son of Man is distinct from Son of God, some gospel passages do equate them, for example in Mark 14:61, during the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus, in which the high priest asks Jesus: "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus responds: "I am: and you shall see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.".[9][10]

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).[11] This may also have led to the idea of "'the son of man'," an eschatological Messianic figure, within sectarian Judaism.


Main article: Son of man (Judaism)

As a rule Jewish interpreters read the phrase "son of man" not as the specific title of the Messiah, but as denoting mankind generally, in contrast to deity - with special reference to the weakness and humility of human beings (Job 25:6; Psalms 8:4; Psalms 144:3; Psalms 146:3; Isaiah 51:12, etc.).[3][12] 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.[3]

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."[13]

Jewish interpreters have contested the Christian reading of the phrase. For instance Geza Vermes has stated that "the Son of man" in the Christian gospels is unrelated to Hebrew Bible usages.[14] According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, "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. 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."[3]

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;[15] 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.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Q-Z by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Jan 31, 1995) ISBN 0802837840 page 574
  2. ^ a b c 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. ^ a b c d "SON OF MAN". Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19 August 2013. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making by James D. G. Dunn (Jul 29, 2003) ISBN 0802839312 pages 724-725
  6. ^ 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. ^ Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister E. McGrath 2010 ISBN 1-4443-3514-6 page 270
  8. ^ Jesus and the Son of Man by A J B Higgins 2002 ISBN 0-227-17221-3 pages 13-15
  9. ^ "The 'Son of Man'" as the Son of God by Seyoon Kim 1983 ISBN 3-16-144705-0 pages 2-3
  10. ^ Who is Jesus?: an introduction to Christology by Thomas P. Rausch 2003 ISBN 978-0-8146-5078-3 pages 132-133
  11. ^ [1] An introduction to the New Testament and the origins of Christianity, Delbert Royce Burkett
  12. ^ Berger, David; Wyschogrod, Michael (1978). Jews and "Jewish Christianity". [New York]: KTAV Publ. House. p. 3. JESUS AND GOD. ISBN 0-87068-675-5. 
  13. ^ a b Maurice Casey (1999). Aramaic Sources of Mark's Gospel. Cambridge University Press. p. 112. Retrieved 6 July 2014. 
  14. ^ Vermes, Geza, Jesus in his Jewish context. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 82. ISBN 0-8006-3623-6.
  15. ^ 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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