What did Jesus mean when he called himself the “Son of Man”?

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According to the canonical gospels, Jesus’ preferred self-designation is the “Son of Man”. But what exactly is the significance of this title? And can we be reasonably sure that Jesus used it to refer to himself?

To answer the latter question, it seems well attested that Jesus used the Son of Man title to refer to himself. It is multiply and independently attested. At least five independent sources put the Son of Man title on Jesus’ lips: Q (= Luke 17:23–24, 26–27, 30, 34–35, 37b), Mark, L, M, and John. Of these five, Q, Mark, L, and M are considered early (70 CE and earlier). According to scholar Ben Witherington:

“This phrase is found in all the source layers of the Gospels whether we think of distinctively Markan, Lukan, Matthean, or Johannine material, or even in the sayings source that Luke and Matthew seem to have both drawn upon. By the criteria of multiple attestations this phrase has the highest claims to have been spoken by Jesus of Himself and used frequently” (1).

Gary Habermas writes that “there is widespread agreement among recent critical scholars that at least some of the Gospels’ Son of Man sayings can be attributed only to Jesus” (2). According to scholar Daniel Bock, “If the criterion of multiple attestation means anything or has any useful purpose, then the idea that Jesus spoke of himself in these terms should not be doubted” (3).

What is some of the background context to this title? The Old Testament speaks in various ways of the “son of man”. It can, for example, be used as a general reference to human beings (Ps. 8:4) and it appears many times in Ezekiel to refer to the prophet (2:1, 3, 6, 8. etc.). It also appears in Daniel 7:13-14, with the major difference in it being a reference to a figure that comes on the clouds and approaches the Ancient of Days, being given glory, power, and an everlasting Kingdom.

In some first century Jewish thought, the Son of Man is a person given divine-like emphasis; for example, in the Similitudes of Enoch, the Son of Man exists before creation (46:2; 48:2-3;62:7), will be worshiped by all the people on Earth (48:5; 62:6, 9), be seated on a glorious throne (62:5; 69:29), a judger of sin (69:28). He is also said to be the Messiah (48:10; 52:4). In 4 Ezra 13:3, the Son of Man is a divine figure who flies with the clouds of heaven and destroys God’s enemies.

It seems then that the ideas concerning the Son of Man, such as his pre-existence and divine nature, were already familiar in the time of Jesus, which makes them important for appreciating Jesus’ use of the title in the gospels.

There is scholarly agreement that the Son of Man sayings fall into three categories: the Earthly ministry of Jesus; the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of Man; and the future coming of the Son of Man in exaltation and judgment. The last category is close to Daniel’s text in the Old Testament; in fact, Mark 13:26 and 14:62 appear to be partial citations of Daniel. Thus, we are to see Jesus’ use of the title in light of Daniel 7:13-14 of the Old Testament; according to Witherington, “the case for Daniel 7 lying in the background of a good many of the son of man sayings… is a strong one” (4)

Jesus applies the Son of Man title in affirmation of a being prophesied in Daniel 7 of the Old Testament. According to, Witherington explains that “This son of man figure is given power and authority over all peoples and he is said to be worshipped by all peoples. In addition it is said that his dominion or kingdom will be forever” (5).

Jesus’ applying the Son of Man title to himself meant that he considered himself to be more than just a man. He was convinced that he would judge the world on the last day, receive worship, and rule for eternity in heaven. It is perhaps this that explains why that at Jesus’ trial, where he applies the title to himself, the High Priest rips his garments and accuses Jesus of blasphemy (Mark 14:63; Matt. 26:65).

References

1. Witherington, Ben. 2016. Did Jesus Believe He Was the Son of Man? Available.

2. Habermas, Gary. 2003. The Risen Jesus & Future Hope. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 102.

3. Bock, Darrell. 2016. Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism: The Charge against Jesus in Mark 14:53-65. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 266.

4. Witherington, Ben. 2016. Ibid.

5. Witherington, Ben. 2016. Ibid.

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