In order to answer a very specific question about how Matthew uses the phrase “son of man” for Jesus, I have had to discuss what the phrase generally means in the Gospel and whether it is a phrase that Jesus actually used. I am arguing that he did use it. That one of the ways he used it was to refer to the judge of the earth who was coming from heaven to destroy God’s enemies and set up a kingdom here (down here, on earth). And here is the big surprise. My argument is that when he talked about the future cosmic judge, he was *not* talking about himself.
In my last post I talked about the criterion of dissimilarity. Now I want to show how it relates to this specific problem/issue. Among the various sayings about the Son of Man on the lips of Jesus are some that would not have been put *on* his lips by his followers. (The ones where he is talking about himself obviously *could* have been put on his lips later, since his followers firmly believed he was the coming Son of Man.) These are the ones that speak of the Son of Man as judge of the earth. In these, Jesus gives no indication he is talking about himself. My view is that these are the ones he said. They would hot have been invented. In what follows I splice together a few paragraphs, with a bit of editing, that can be found in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.
Consider a saying I quoted earlier: Mark 8:38. “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of that one will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Now we know that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus himself was the Son of Man (cf. Rev. 1:13). For that reason, when Jesus talks about himself as the Son of Man in the Gospels – as he frequently does – there’s no way to know, in view of this criterion, whether that’s….
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…. there’s no way to know, in view of this criterion, whether that’s the way he actually talked or if that’s how Christians – who believed he was the Son of Man – “remembered” him talking. But in sayings like Mark 8:38, there is no indication that he is talking about himself. In fact, if you didn’t know in advance the Christian idea that Jesus was the Son of Man, there’d be no way you would infer it from this saying. On the contrary, just taking the saying on its own terms, Jesus appears to be referring to someone else. To paraphrase the saying: “whoever doesn’t pay attention to what I’m saying will be in big trouble when the Son of Man arrives.” That is, at the end of this age, the cosmic judge from heaven will punish those who reject Jesus’ message.
My point is that since Christians thought Jesus was the Son of Man, it seems unlikely that they would make up a saying in such a way as to leave it in question whether he was referring to himself. That means Jesus probably did say the words now found in Mark 8:38.
And so, we say in an earlier post that in multiply attested traditions Jesus did use the phrase to refer to a cosmic judge of the earth. And now it appears that he is referring to someone other than himself. Moreover, these are sayings that Christians themselves would not have been likely to invent, since Jesus’ later followers naturally assumed that he was the Son of Man. Thus these particular Son of Man sayings, at least, have a good chance of going back to Jesus on the grounds of dissimilarity. The same is not true of the other kinds of Son of Man sayings, since they presuppose that Jesus, like his later followers, did use the term to refer to himself. That is, they can’t be shown to have been said by Jesus on the grounds of dissimilarity.
Where did the idea come from, though, that a future cosmic judge of the earth would be called the Son of Man? Almost everyone agrees that the phrase, used in this apocalyptic way, ultimately comes from our oldest surviving apocalypse, the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. In a fascinating passage in Daniel 7, the prophet is shown the future course of history in one of those ghoulish nightmares that you’re glad was inflicted on someone else. He first sees a series of beasts arising out of the sea, one after the other. There are four beasts, each worse than the preceding. These trample the earth, wreak havoc, and devastate the people of God. But then, in contrast to these grotesquely formed beasts, Daniel sees “one like a son of man” coming from heaven on the clouds. Unlike the beastly ravagers of earth, this figure is human-like, humane. To him is given an eternal kingdom, the perpetual rule over the earth, with dominion, power, and praise forever, as the beasts are robbed of their power and done away with (Dan 7:2-14).
In an angelic interpretation of the dream, we’re told that the beasts represent kingdoms that will take over the earth and assert their oppressive control over its peoples. These evil powers will remain until the coming of the one like a son of man, who will bring destruction to the forces opposed to God but eternal dominion to God’s people (Dan 7:17-27).
When Jesus refers to the Son of Man, he appears to be alluding to this vision in Daniel 7. Like other apocalypticists from his time that we know about, Jesus maintained that there will be an actual cosmic judge sent from God to overthrow the forces of evil and bring in God’s good kingdom. Consider the following Jewish apocalyptic texts of the first century:
And they [the people of God] had great joy, and they blessed and praised and exalted because the name of that Son of Man had been revealed to them. And he sat on the throne of his glory, and the whole judgment was given to the Son of Man, and he will cause the sinners to pass away and be destroyed from the face of the earth. And those who led astray the world will be bound in chains, and will be shut up in the assembly‑place of their destruction, and all their works will pass away from the face of the earth. And from then on there will be nothing corruptible, for that Son of Man has appeared and has sat on the throne of his glory, and everything evil will pass away and go from before him. (1 Enoch 69)
As I kept looking the wind made something like the figure of a man come up out of the heart of the sea. And I saw that this man flew with the clouds of heaven; and everywhere he turned his face to look, everything under his gaze trembled…. After this I looked and saw that an innumerable multitude of people were gathered together from the four winds of heaven to make war against the man who came up out of the sea … When he saw the onrush of the approaching multitude, he neither lifted his hand nor held a spear, or any weapon of war; but I saw only how he sent forth from his mouth something like a stream of fire, and from his lips a flaming breath … [which] fell on the onrushing multitude that was prepared to fight, and burned up all of them, so that suddenly nothing was seen of the innumerable multitude but only the dust of ashes and the smell of smoke. (4 Ezra 13:1‑11).
And so my overarching view, which I argue for more fully in my book: one of the main points of Jesus’ preaching was that people needed to repent because the Son of Man was soon to arrive in judgment on the earth. It was to happen within Jesus’ own resurrection. And Jesus was not talking about himself.
I’ll continue from here, and eventually arrive at an answer to the question that started this thread.
Jesus appears to have shared this basic apocalyptic vision and called the coming judge the “Son of Man.” In his view, at the judgment that this one will bring, those who are at present oppressed will be vindicated, and those who are in power will be vanquished. This in fact is a general theme of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching: there is to be a major set of reversals when the kingdom comes. Those who are suffering now will be rewarded then; those who are in control now will be overthrown. And this coming reversal should affect how people live, and want to live, in the present.