Son of Man

Son of Man December 7, 2014

I’ve been wondering for some time whether extreme skepticism of the depiction of Jesus even in our earliest sources hasn’t gone too far. A number of scholars have been bringing the pendulum back the other way. Bart Ehrman, for instance, thinks that Jesus thought himself to be the Messiah. If we remove all such views and statements from the period prior to the crucifixion, it becomes well nigh impossible to explain how anyone came to view Jesus that way later.

There was some interesting discussion of the Son of Man sayings at the SBL session about Ehrman’s book. Ehrman has revived the view that Jesus spoke about a coming “son of man,” meaning by that another figure, someone other than himself.

It is easy to miss how very strange many of the son of man sayings would have sounded on the lips of Jesus. “Son of man” is an Aramaic idiom meaning “someone.” And so listen to some of these sayings rendered into equivalent English:

“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, someone will also be ashamed of them when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

“When someone comes, he will sit on his glorious throne…”

Some of them – very specific predictions about what would happen to Jesus in terms of arrest and execution – are easily set aside as later inventions. And some may work as generic statements applied to Jesus, such as: “For one goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom someone is betrayed!” Maurice Casey focuses on such sayings as examples of the use of generic, proverbial sayings with a particular application to oneself.

But what about the apocalyptic sayings? Is Ehrman right to see them as authentic but predictions about another figure? Are those scholars right who view them as inauthentic, reflecting the views of the post-Easter church?

It is time we brought the Similitudes of Enoch into the picture. Once dated to the first century AD, they are now thought to stem from the first century BC. Both Paul and Matthew, as well as John and others, show the influence of this work or at least the tradition it represents.

And so can we not triangulate onto Jesus by means of these otherwise divergent sources, and conclude that Jesus himself may have been influenced by them?

If so, then Jesus may well have talked about “one” who is to come – much as John the Baptist had before him, perhaps even borrowing from the Baptist. But does it not fit well that Jesus may have thought of himself as destined to play the role of that figure?

His words about twelve thrones, which Ehrman also highlighted, seem to leave no room for an additional figure of that sort. And so perhaps something like the Messianic secret motif actually can be traced back to Jesus. The earliest Christian view of Jesus, according to Ehrman, viewed him as installed as Messiah after the resurrection. Is there any reason not to conclude that Jesus himself envisaged God being the one to make him the Messiah when the time came, and being secretive until such time as that occurred?

And ought we to think that Jesus might have been familiar with Enochic ideas and applied them to himself? Why or why not?

If you’ve never read the Similitudes of Enoch, you can find them online in more than one place.


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  • Scott P.

    My tentative view is that Jesus did not necessarily think that he was the Messiah at first, but gradually developed that belief over the course of his ministry. It’s pretty clear that he started his ministry later in life, and that he did not think of himself as the Messiah at a very early age. His engagement with John the Baptist, although heavily edited by later authors who wanted to foreshadow his Messianic status, suggests he was drawn to apocalyptic preachers like John because of a desire to learn from them, not supplant them. I think that after drawing followers, and performing acts that said followers considered to be ‘miracles’, Jesus came to conclude that he probably was the Messiah after all, and began to act accordingly.

  • Do we know of any cases where someone who didn’t claim to be the Messiah was proclaimed as the Messiah by his followers? If so, I cannot imagine why Jesus’ followers couldn’t have do so, too.

    • The issue is less whether he himself proclaimed it – if he didn’t, then we have no way of knowing whether he thought it. But if he hadn’t been viewed in this way prior to his death, then he almost certainly would not have come to be thought of in this way subsequently. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is an obvious figure for comparison.

      If Jesus’ saying about the twelve sitting on twelve thrones is authentic – and the fact that it included Judas makes most scholars deem it authentic – then it seems unlikely that Jesus was predicting greatness for his followers but nothing for himself.

      • But if he hadn’t been viewed in this way prior to his death, then he almost certainly would not have come to be thought of in this way subsequently.

        I would think that visions of a dead man resurrected would be more than sufficient to radically change the views one had of him during his life.

        • Paul E.

          The psychology of the claimed revelations is fascinating. The visions/experiences of the early Christians must have had some sort of “content.” So what was the content, and where did it come from? It seems very likely, given the early Christians’ claims, that these visions/experiences had to do with a Messianic aspect of a risen Christ. How would that content have come about without a pre-death context? That’s a tough question, I think. What are your thoughts? Do you think there may have a theology of a pre-existent Jesus figure that became a revelatory being (due to Peter and his group “creating” it), and we may have lost all or most all the relevant background material? Something like that? And if so, how could that be a more likely scenario given our sources, even if it is a possible scenario?

          • In early first century Palestine, I suspect that there were any number of devout Jews praying for God to send a champion to liberate his people, and that many of these people swung from hope to despair each time the Romans crushed a potential challenger. I think that any one them would have the motivation and background to come up with the idea that It was part of God’s plan that the anointed one must suffer for the sins of his people before being vindicated.

            I do agree that it is quite plausible that the follower of a specific failed Messianic claimant would have come up with the idea. I simply cannot see any justification for claiming that it “almost certainly” happened that way. I would note that some people seemed to have the idea that Jesus only became the Christ upon his resurrection, which I think further reduces the degree of certainty we can have that Jesus was thought to be the Messiah during his life.

            Suppose for example that Jesus was the leader of a band of guerrillas who were bent on overthrowing the Romans by force a la Aslan’s Zealot. After he is captured and killed, one of his followers has a vision which he interprets theologically. That interpretation rather then who Jesus actually was determines what stories are invented and what stories are remembered. I am not saying that there cannot be authentic memories of Jesus preserved in the gospels, just that there is no way to determine that there are.

          • Paul E.

            I agree with you on the “almost certainly” comment – hard to be “almost certain” with respect to this stuff, I think. So that’s why we’ve got to fall back on more or less likely alternatives, I suppose. I wonder what kind of creative freedom-of-revelation would have been tolerated early on and how it would have been grounded absent in a person making or at least implying a claim? I think some have argued the gospels were written to control doctrine as a partial effort to control claims of revelation. So if there was a later concern about the scope of “allowable” revelation, what was the early scope and how was that scope determined, I wonder? Based on our sources, the context of a life of a specific individual seems more inherently likely to me than a text or set of texts, I guess (although texts could aid in the interpretation of visions). Does Carrier address this at all (I haven’t read him.)?

          • The fact that Paul can write all those letters without referring to things that Jesus said or did leads me to think that there were no real constraints on revelation claims. If there were constraints, I wouldn’t expect Paul to be able to assert his position on circumcision without addressing the fact that Jesus was an observant Jew. I think it is plausible that the gospels were written in part to reign in competing revelation claims.

            I haven’t read Carrier’s book and I’m not sure when I will get around to it.

          • Paul E.

            I’m not so sure. The circumcision issue was an exception, so I don’t think Jesus’ Jewishness would have had to have been addressed. Also, Paul had to get this part of his gospel “approved” by the Jerusalem group, so I think it likely there was some sort of constraint.

            I’m not sure when I will get around to Carrier’s book either. I think it’s a really interesting topic, but there’s so much to get to, so little time…

        • Radically reverse them? Sure. But would having a dream about someone who died lead one to view that person in a way that was incongruous with their life as they had lived it? That seems less likely. By way of example of what I envisage, we have a story about one of those who executed Al Hallaj having a dream in which he saw him welcomed into heaven, allegedly changing the person’s view of him. Do you have an example of a dream or vision leading someone to believe things about a person that had no connection to who that person had claimed or implied that he or she was?

          • I think that it is a long way from less likely that they would to almost certain that they wouldn’t. Moreover, Isn’t one of the themes of Mark that Jesus’ disciples don’t understand who he is during his life? Wouldn’t that be consistent with the belief arising from postmortem visions?

          • It is a theme that they do not understand that he needs to suffer, and that is indeed often felt to be an attempt to depict Jesus as aware of the fate he met before he met it.

            I would ask whether that doesn’t provide yet another piece of evidence that makes Jesus more likely to be historical, but I know that you refuse to view any evidence as adding to the probability in a significant way, and so I see no point in continuing to ask.

          • I think that I have seen Ehrman describe Mark’s theme as the disciples not understanding who Jesus was rather than not understanding why Jesus had to suffer, but I would have to go back and look at his discussion again.

            The problem is that you can are not content at “adding to the probability in a significant way.” You keep wanting to claim that the evidence makes your position “almost certain.”

          • No, the evidence makes the historicity of Jesus more probable than not, and that is what you have consistently disagreed with me about.

          • I am completely open to the possibility that the evidence makes a historical Jesus more likely than not. However, I don’t expect to be persuaded by someone who believes he can be almost certain about specific things that Jesus and did. I think that such a person badly overestimates the weight the evidence will bear and lacks a firm grasp of probabilistic thinking.

  • Michael Wilson

    I lean toward Scott’s position, that Jesus predicted a coming son of man but began to believe the crowds that acclaimed him as messiah. If his ridding into Jerusalem on a donkey was real then he may have performed it as a messianic gesture and perhaps a knowingly suicidal one.

    I wonder, since Daniel;s son of man is a symbol for the righteous, could Jesus have understood the son of man to be a corporate figure composed of his followers? It seens that Paul and John seem to envision the community as being one with the Christ. If Jesus had a simular belief then he could both believe that the son of man is another and him self.

  • I’m glad you have alerted readers to Waddell’s book. Some readers may be interested in a full length article on Waddell’s dating of the Parables/Similitudes of Enoch (compared with some other scholarly arguments) at “Dating the Parables of Enoch.

    Of course the primary difference between the Son of Man figure in the Similitudes is that there he is presiding judge only and not a suffering figure. Gospels also expand his “judge” role by drawing out the inference of that position and emphasizing his capacity to show mercy as well. A transvaluation, one might say.

  • Sean Garrigan

    Excellent review, James, thanks for sharing it, and for making us aware of Waddell’s book!

  • Mike K.

    I have to admit I am not sure how to factor in the Similitudes yet and need to read the specialists on the Enochic literature. The problem I have with Ehrman’s position is that I am not sure you can sweep away those present sayings where “son of man” is just a circumlocution that could be applied to humans in general but with particular reference to the speaker (e.g., foxes have holes and birds have nests but a/the son of man has nowhere to rest; the Sabbath was made for humans and therefore a/the son of man is lord of the Sabbath). Second, since “the Son of Man” was not a title in Daniel or 1 Enoch, how would anyone know that Jesus was referring to some other figure without further information? Rather, I would think Jesus started out using the expression as an ordinary self-reference that no one finds particularly strange and then perhaps began reflecting on Daniel or 1 Enoch about how a human-like figure is vindicated by God and plays a role in the future judgment. But I am also not sure if 1 Enoch influenced Mark or if all Mark needed was Daniel to speak about the son of man who suffers under the beasts before he is vindicated on the clouds, though I am open to the Similitude’s influence on Matthew’s image of the Son of Man on the throne of glory. My inclination is also to see intermediary traditions as in the air rather than Paul directly relying on 1 Enoch, but I have not yet read Waddell’s book and I would like to hear his argument about why Paul prefers “Lord” rather than “Son of Man” even when alluding to the Lord coming on the clouds. Where are you at in seeing the Similitude’s influence, James?

    • I’m thinking of this more from the standpoint of independent attestation, and not just what our earliest Gospel says. We find Enochic elements in Paul’s letters, as our earliest source, as well as in Matthew and in John. I don’t see the presence of anything explicitly Enochic in Mark, but Mark gives much less of Jesus’ teaching and it doesn’t seem to offer a portrait of Jesus’ understanding that excludes the influence of an Enochic tradition.

      Presumably if the apocalyptic sayings in Enoch, and in the Jesus tradition, go back to Aramaic, then we have to envisage the references being to “one” or “someone” who will come and sit on a glorious throne, a vague reference that seems to me to be strikingly reminiscent of John the Baptist’s talk of “one who is to come.” This vague talk would help us explain why some thought John was talking about himself while others thought he was predicting another, and the same happens with Jesus’ sayings.

  • Marcus

    Charlesworth goes as far as claiming a Galilean provenance for the Similitudes of Enoch in his essay in the book he co-edited with Bock on the PE. If that’s the case, then it seems very likely to me that Jesus was influenced by them. His case was very persuasive to this lay person.

  • Jaco van Zyl

    Bart Ehrman’s recent regression to a high early Christology is unfortunate. His views are similar to Dale Martin’s, who also thinks that Jesus thought of someone else as the Son of Man. Couldn’t help but remembering Ehrman writing about his conversations with his historian friend and recalling a discussion between apologist Mike Licona and Dale Martin in which Dale pretty much said what Ehrman later came to admit. I just find his theological arguments very reductionistic and devoid of the penetrating scholarship by great minds such as Dunn, Stuckenbruck, Casey and others. But I think he’s made up his mind…

  • John MacDonald

    Another interpretation of the Messianic Secret could be that Mark was modelling Jesus from Plato’s Impaled, Just man, and so Jesus had to avoid even the appearance of benefit from his just life, be it in money, honor, glory, or whatever. See my blog post here: