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Who Is the Son of Man? From the Blog Readers’ Mailbag

I have received a rather difficult question from a blog member, involving how the Gospels understand and portray Christ in relationship to one another.

Here is the question – or series of tightly interrelated questions – followed by the beginnings of an answer.  This one’s gonna take several posts.



In Mark 8:27-28 Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” and they reply that different people think he is  “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets”  Jesus then follows up with the key question: “But who do you say that I am?” and Peter replies:  “You are the Christ.”

When Luke tells the story Luke keeps the verbal back and forth almost the same, although when Peter replies he is a bit more specific:  “The Christ of God.” (Was there another kind of Christ?!)

Matthew’s version is a bit different though.  Jesus ask, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  The disciples reply in much the same way (although in addition to John the Baptist and Elijah, they also say that some people think he is Jeremiah).  And Jesus replies again. “But who do you say that *I* am?”  And Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”  (And Matthew adds more at that point)

So, was Matthew having Jesus ask two different questions: who is the Son of Man, and who am I? Or is Matthew trying to have Jesus refer to himself in this passage as the Son of Man? In fact, is Matthew equating Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God as all the same person in this passage? Or is he differentiating between Jesus and the Son of Man? He obviously tweaked the passage for some purpose



Yup, this is a tricky one.  The passage as a whole is highly significant, especially in Mark’s Gospel.  It comes almost precisely half-way into the story, and it is the first time that anyone in the entire account appears to have any clue about who Jesus is.  And what happens next shows that Peter, who says that Jesus is the Christ (i.e., the messiah), has no idea what that actually means for Jesus.  It does not mean he will be the “anointed” (that’s the meaning of “Christ”) one who will rule as a king of Israel, for example by overthrowing the Roman domination.  It means he will be crucified.  Being executed by your enemies was just the *opposite* of what the messiah was to do.  Peter is understandably confused, but it’s Mark’s major point.  Jesus is certainly the messiah, but not the one anyone expected.

I may deal with all that at greater length in another post.  For now the question is: why did Matthew change Jesus’ question so that he began by asking who people say “the Son of Man” is, rather than who “I” am?  It seems on the surface that the answer is dead easy, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth.  This one is unusually complicated.  It has to do with what the phrase “Son of Man” means – in the Jewish world at the time, on the lips of Jesus, and in the Gospels.  Entire books – big books – have been written on this question, by people taking diametrically different views.  It’s a quagmire.

We won’t go deep into the swamp here, but I do want to explain a few things about “the Son of Man” before directly answering the question.  Here is …

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A Bit of a Shocker: Jesus and the Son of Man
Why Do Are So Many Textual Critics Evangelicals? Readers’ Mailbag.



  1. Lev
    Lev  August 9, 2020

    A couple of related questions:

    1. When do you date the Similitudes of Enoch (book of parables)? I ask as it features a cosmic son of man as a central character.

    2. If dated early, do you think Jesus was influenced more by the Similitudes or Daniel 7?

    Many thanks. Loving the blog at the moment – so many fab posts and really interesting discussions. I hope all is well with you and yours, Bart.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2020

      1. May be first century CE. They were not found among the bits of 1 Enoch in teh DSS. 2. Daniel 7;

  2. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  August 9, 2020

    I’m glad your are writing about this because “son of man” has always mystified me. It isn’t clear to me that Jesus would necessarily have used the phrase, simply because it seems so hard to determine how much of the real Jesus is preserved in the gospel Jesus. How much of the gospel Jesus is invention, including any words or phrases attributed to Jesus– in fact, especially words or phrases attributed to Jesus? I know you’ve explained the various criteria one can apply, but the process of sifting through the gospels and applying those criteria boggles my poor mind. I’m looking forward to the rest of this topic! Maybe I will finally understand!

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  August 9, 2020

    Doesn’t Daniel use it? Or am I jumping the punchline?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 10, 2020

      Yup. Yup.

    • Telling
      Telling  August 12, 2020

      Son of Man appears in the Old Testament. In every case it means “son of Adam” (and could be referring to anything from a worthless person to a prophet). But to my knowledge it is never used by a person referring to himself in third person. “When the son of man comes . . . ” why wouldn’t Jesus just say “When I come,” ?

      Christians created a new definition of “son of man” meaning explicitly Jesus speaking of himself in third person. Utter nonsense in my opinion. The term was added later by others for ideological reasons (political, that is).

  4. Avatar
    Poohbear  August 9, 2020

    Quote from Ehrman ” .., the historical Jesus, the actual man himself (not Jesus as portrayed in the later Gospels) ”

    Who is this “historical Jesus” if not in the New Testament? We have, what, seven authors who wrote of Him?

    The only other source for Jesus was the Old Testament. Here we read of The Redeemer who would come while the temple still stands; whose coming would be the end for Israel; whose birth would be a sign; the lowly man despised and rejected; healer of the sick and restorer for the blind; betrayed, imprisoned and wrongly judged; forsaken of God; disfigured upon the cross; resurrected; His New Covenant accepted of the Gentiles.

    This is history written before it happened.

    And history for the future – when He returns the Jews will mourn because their king is the lowly one they pierced.

  5. Avatar
    nicolausaldanha  August 9, 2020

    Is it at all possible that Jesus was asking
    because he was not sure himself what we was,
    what his role was, and wanted help figuring out?
    Or help making sure he was getting it right?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 10, 2020

      I’d say no, at least in the context of the Gospels, where he knows full well who he is. I don’t think the conversation is historical in any event, so I don’t think it can be used to ask about what Jesus’ own actual doubts were.

  6. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  August 9, 2020

    This man, this “Adam” seems to come along as a kind of “devine man” who seems to have a destination to restore the devine partnership we once had, before we fell and became “beasts”, like the stories in the Genisis (Torah), and the prophets seems (to me) to talk about.
    It wold not surprise me if the vacant throne in Daniel (7), intended for the humans (son of man) could be interpreted as/ was meant as “restoration” of the human soul with its devine origin.

    Looking at the mystical/esoteric Judaism who claim we fell from Adam Kadmon (just like the Gnostics, the original, or spiritual Adam),,through a few worlds/heavens, and down to “עשיה” Assiah, which is the physical world, the kingdom, or as some say, Asia. We still have our devine meeting places, seven in total as the Hindus claims (charcas), even Judaistic/Gnostics and in my spiritual understanding, the Revelation (the acsend of the soul) , with its 7 churches.

    Anyway it seems that within esoteric judaism/Christianity (Gnosism),,,this Adam,,or Son of Man (which God in Ezekiel called Ezekiel) is a kind of original human as Gnostics call Anthropos (Pigera Adamas), the spiritual Adam.

    At least “Son of Man” is used differently, Jesus to himself, God to Ezekiel, Daniel/Revelation as a symbolic figure on a throne beside God, etc.

    Who knows?

  7. Avatar
    veritas  August 9, 2020

    Bart, do you think Jesus was deliberate in speaking to his followers ? He considered himself the son of God , a deity which he carefully revealed to a few(Matt.16;20), knowing he would be crucified quicker if he told everyone. Yet, the son of man, was his self designation/preference, knowing he would be viewed as a human being rather than a king, was easier/safer to live with and is used more often than son of God, some eighty times in the N.T. Not until his trial did he reveals his true identity, Luke 23;3 NASB, ” It is as you say” as King of the Jews. So, Jesus, uses the phrase son of man appropriately as a double meaning. First, to indicate his human being status and second, to correlate Daniel 7; 13-14, which he must of known, the son of man would be an exalted heavenly figure. Wise use of words?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 10, 2020

      I think he did deliberately speak to his followers, yes, But I do not think that he considered himself to be a divine being. I explain why at length in my book How Jesus Became God

  8. Avatar
    brenmcg  August 9, 2020

    I think the placement of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi is supposed to highlight the fact the he confesses Jesus to be the true son of the living god, in contrast to Caesar’s false claim.

    This however only makes sense in Matthew’s gospel – Luke removing both the claim of sonship and the placement at Caesarea Philippi, Mark removing just the claim of sonship.

    The region of Caesarea Philippi also being associated with the greek god Pan – the only greek god to die. This is where Jesus first tells the disciples that he must suffer many things and be put to death.

  9. Avatar
    Eskil  August 9, 2020

    Why wouldn’t Son of Man simple mean son of Adam i.e. descendent of Adam?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 10, 2020

      It was certainly taken that way later, though that is not how it tends to get used in Jewish circles at the time.

  10. Avatar
    ddorner  August 9, 2020

    I’ve never understood how some people would think Jesus was John The Baptist. Didn’t everyone know Jesus was baptized by John? How could they possibly confuse the two?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 10, 2020

      I suppose that’s part of the point. Since they didn’t have our Gospels, no, these people apparently did not know that! They had just heard rumors about this fellow Jesus, not the full story.

  11. Avatar
    tom.hennell  August 10, 2020

    Very interesting Bart.

    Larry Hurtado states:

    “All of the Gospel sayings where Jesus is portrayed using the expression are easily read as sentences where he simply refers to himself, making this or that statement about himself under this peculiar phrase. There is neither need nor (more importantly) any evidential basis for taking the expression as referring to some other/future figure.”

    Do you agree with Larry here? Your argument; “there are lots of places in our tradition – independently attested all over the map — that Jesus himself does use the phrase in this way, as a title for a future cosmic judge from heaven.”, would seem to suggest not.

    But if the historical Jesus indeed aspired to be ‘a future cosmic judge from heaven’ – which I have taken to be a view of yours from other posts; then Jesus’s usage of ‘the Son of Man’ to refer to this figure could be no more than self-designation – hence essentially no different from his use of it in referring to his earthly ministry or forthcoming suffering.

    Again Larry Hurtado’s claim; the phrase ‘refers’; it never ‘characterizes’.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2020

      I completely disagree, in every way. Larry was personally very uncomfortable with the idea of an apocalyptic Jesus who believed in a cosmic judge coming from heaven who was someone other than himself.

  12. Avatar
    janmaru  August 10, 2020

    If Jesus felt like a fraud destined to be exposed then he’s in good company.
    As far as I see there’s nothing authentic around here.
    If Mark uses Jesus’s blushing as a literary device to impose his view on readers then be it.
    Mathew copies from Mark and starts the ignominious comedy of the “son of”. A few years later and a much greek-roman audience would suffice to a shift of meaning. For instance for prefix analogy.
    If later stories on “Pantera” started circulating and later were suppressed ’till Pope Benedict XVI’s final idea of Marian piety emerging, then a probable explanation is that He was simply a “sob”.

  13. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  August 10, 2020

    Just as problematic: how could ANYONE have thought that Jesus was John the Baptist?? Their lives overlapped! How would Jesus as John the Baptist fit into any coherent or plausible Judaic theology? Would the deceased John the Baptist possess Jesus, like a demon? Surely not! Something is screwy here.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2020

      We know that their lives overlapped because we have the Gospels. The people who thought they did not overlap did not have the Gospels!

      • Avatar
        RICHWEN90  August 13, 2020

        One presumes then that whoever saw Jesus and John the Baptist together would not call Jesus John the Baptist. The story of the baptism must not have traveled very well. Would the apostles have been aware of that encounter? Maybe not, unless Jesus told them about it, since it seems to have happened before Jesus picked his twelve. Brings up the question of what Jesus and the twelve talked about. Sharing stories and personal history the way ordinary people do? Was it all otherworldly? That makes it hard to imagine the relationship. Jesus and his disciples spent a lot of time together. NONE of it casual? Anybody ever tell a joke? Never any idle conversation? But if the apostles were aware of the time relationship, Jesus to John the Baptist, and heard people outside the group calling Jesus John the Baptist– how would they have heard that? Did they sometimes wander off outside the group? And how would Jesus not have know the answer to his own question? Didn’t he ever have a normal interaction with anyone outside his group? The dynamics of social interaction as portrayed in the gospels seem at least “stilted” if not entirely unlikely.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 14, 2020

          That’s right. The idea he might be John the Baptist were not those who knew they overlapped. They were outsiders who had just heard of them both.

  14. Avatar
    Emmu  August 10, 2020

    Hi Sir,
    An off topic question some pastors says “we can take a good thing and turn it into an ultimate thing, and then it becomes an idol”. Is there any type of verse in the bible or they just made up this lines.Please reply sir.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2020

      The statement may (or may not) be true, but it’s not in the Bible no.

      • Avatar
        Emmu  August 14, 2020

        Thanks for your reply Sir.Sir you mean that this lines are made up by their own they are not quoting from bible.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 14, 2020

          I don’t know the lines or who invented them but no, they are not in the Bible.

  15. Avatar
    Tempo1936  August 10, 2020

    Dr. Erhman could you do a blog on the story of “the rich man and Lazarus” (luke 16:18-32)?.
    In this story Jesus seems to tell us alot about the afterlife and heaven/hell. According to this story , the soul is being eternally tormented if you are evil or experiences wonderful things if you were poor in this life. The body experiences physical pain or joy after death. This can’t be after the resurrection on the last day since it is not occurring in the new kingdom but some mysterious place under the earth.

    In your new book, I think you argue, Jesus didn’t believe your soul continued after death but does come back to life with the resurrection of the body on earth
    The rich man and Lazarus story seems to confirm the gospel told weekly by fundamentalist. Many point to this story to confirm their theology. Was this story based on older Greek or Roman ideas of the afterlife?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 12, 2020

      I did several posts on it in October 2018 — do a word search for Lazarus and you’ll see.

  16. Avatar
    Shah  August 11, 2020

    The whole confusion about “The Son of Man” is because scholars and lay people do not realize that Jesus is using it for himself and for his return in someone else, or in other words, for his future reincarnation.
    The Messiah of Jews, Christians and Muslims is one soul who has been reincarnated in different times. When the Gospels raise this question, they only want to indicate that Jesus was expected to be the reincarnation of one of the dead prophets, at the same time, they point out the confusion about whom he was. Was he Elijah, Jeremiah or someone else? Well, he was reincarnation of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah.
    When Jesus point to His return as Muhammad, again he uses it to indicate that he will come back in another person, while he is the same Messiah (The Son of Man), he will not be the same Jesus.

  17. Avatar
    edmeyer  August 12, 2020

    I realize it is very difficult to determine with certainty a clear picture of the “historical Jesus” yet I am wondering what you think about his mental stability in light of what appears to be a belief that many of his followers would not die and be present for the coming of the “son of man?” His family reportedly had concerns about his actions in general.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2020

      I don’t think there is any evidence at all of mental instability. In 2000 years, if we’re around still, people will think most of us must have been *crazy* for thinking one thing or another that, to us, is just kind of common sense.

  18. Avatar
    AngeloB  August 17, 2020

    In Judaism, what is the difference between the Son of Man and the Messiah? Is there any difference?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 19, 2020

      There wasn’t a single view of eitehr one of them among ancient Jews. Roughly speaking, though, the Son of Man would have been a cosmic judge of the earth sent from heaven, and the Messiah would be the future king of Israel.

      • Avatar
        AngeloB  August 21, 2020

        A cosmic judge who isn’t God? Very interesting!

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