Son of man
"Son of man" is a phrase used in the Hebrew Bible, various apocalyptic works of the intertestamental period, and in the Greek New Testament. In the indefinite form ("son of man", "one like a son of man") used in the Hebrew Bible and intertestamental literature it is a form of address, or contrasts human beings against God, or signifies an eschatological figure due to come at the end of history. The New Testament uses the earlier indefinite form while introducing a novel definite form, "the son of man."
The Hebrew expression "son of man" (בן–אדם, ben-'adam) appears 107 times in the Hebrew Bible, the majority (93 times) in the Book of Ezekiel. It is used in three main ways: as a form of address (Ezekiel); to contrast the lowly status of humanity against the permanence and exulted dignity of God and the angels (Book of Numbers 23:19, Psalm 8:4); and as a future eschatological figure whose coming will signal the end of history and the time of God's judgement (Daniel ch.7).
In the book of Daniel, chapter 7 tells of a vision given to the prophet Daniel in which four "beasts," representing pagan nations, oppress the people of Israel until judged by God. Daniel 7:13-14 describes how the "Ancient of Days" (God) gives dominion over the earth to "one like a son of man," who is later explained as standing for "the saints of the Most High" (7:18, 21-22) and "the people of the saints of the Most High" (7:27). The "saints" and "people of the saints" in turn probably stand for the people of Israel – the author is expressing the hope that God will take dominion over the world away from the beast-like "nations" and give it human-like Israel.
While Daniel's "son of man" probably did not stand for the Messiah, later apocryphal and deuterocanonical works such as the Similitudes of Enoch and 4 Ezra consistently gave it this interpretation. The Similitudes (1 Enoch 37-71) uses Daniel 7 to produce an unparalleled messianic Son of Man, pre-existent and hidden yet ultimately revealed, functioning as judge, vindicator of righteousness, and universal ruler. The Enochic messianic figure is an individual representing a group, (the Righteous One who represents the righteous, the Elect One representing the elect), but in 4 Ezra 13 (also called 2 Esdras) he becomes an individual man.
The New Testament features the indefinite "a son of man" in Hebrews 2:6 (citing psalm 8:4), and "one like a son of man" in Revelation 1:13 and 14:14 (referencing Daniel 7:13's "one like a son of man"). The four gospels introduce a new definite form, "ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου", translated "the son of mankind". It is awkward and ambiguous in Greek. In all four it is used only by Jesus (except once in the Gospel of John, when the crowd asks what Jesus means by it), and functions as an emphatic equivalent of the first-person pronoun, I/me/my. German theologian Rudolf Bultmann sees the phrase not as one genuinely used by Jesus but as one inserted by the early Church.
- The Son of Man, René Magritte painting, 1964
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