By the time I get through the Synoptic Gospels in my “Origins of Christianity” course, the students are yawning through “the same old stories.” It is thus inevitably a shocking experience when they encounter this very strange, “extra-terrestrial,” Gospel of John, at which point my students begin to identify with the disciples in the fourth Gospel: “We do not know what he talking about” (John 16:18).
The consensus of New Testament scholarship is to consistently juxtapose John against the other evangelists. We have differences in structure (nature and duration of the ministry) and the absence of major elements (no parables, no exorcisms, no nativity, no debate over the “Law,” no apocalyptic kingdom). John’s Jesus appears very “Greek” in his discourses. The later date of the Gospel (late first century C.E.), moreover, typically accounts for its “mature” Christology—i.e., the deification of Jesus. In addition, the work of R. Bultmann, C. H. Dodd, J. L. Martyn, Raymond Brown, among others, has long established the trend to read John in opposition to Judaism, citing what appears to be an embittered “Christian” Jew who was expelled from the synagogue for his high Christology. When John demonizes the opposition, we have the apt descriptor, “John writes-off ‘the Jews.’”
In the volume under review, J. Harold Ellens has focused on a set list of Jesus’ logia in the fourth Gospel, the “Son of Man” sayings, to offer a cogent argument for the conceptual and literary sources of these sayings. In doing so, he supports the more recent trend in New Testament studies to read John within “an intra-Judaism dialogue, as Christian concepts were formed through processes that took place within the apocalyptic eschatological Judaisms of the Second Temple period” (p. 4). John’s Jesus does not “write-off” Judaism per se, but instead remains “apocalyptic” in his outlook, relying upon the same texts as the Synoptics in order to identify Jesus as the eschatological “Son of Man.”
What/Who is the “Son of Man” in John? Ellens attempts to arrive at an answer by (1) comparing the identity of the Son of Man in John with the Synoptics; (2) analyzing the relationship between the Son of Man in John and other Second Temple Son of Man traditions; and (3) evaluating the nature of the Son of Man in John compared with other traditions of the Son of Man as Judge (p. 32). He disclaims any attempt to uncover “the historical Jesus,” nor is this a study of John’s Christology. He examines instead the literary and narrative structure of the logia in the received text; debates concerning redaction or social setting are not germane to his analysis.
The first chapter is a tour de force of the history of research on the Son of Man, from the “Ancient Pre-Critical Phase” through the Middle Ages to the “Modern Critical Phase, Parts I and II” (pp. 5–28). Pointing out the diminished importance of “apocalyptic” by the Church Fathers, he outlines the medieval continuation of Son of Man discussions on the humanity of Jesus (either lowly or ideal). His review of the modern period focuses on a determination of apocalyptic vs. non-apocalyptic Son of Man (and related teachings) in John. He eliminates Maurice Casey’s arguments that the Aramaic “son of man” is strictly human in all four gospels, and he agrees with Benjamin Reynolds (2008) for an “apocalyptic” reading of the logia in the fourth gospel (pp. 20–28).
Chapter 2 is a detailed examination of the thirteen Son of Man logia in John, with each saying subject to specific analysis: (1) the context, or placement, in the gospel; (2) the theological import of the logion; and (3) the meaning of the logion. Chapter 3 surveys the Son of Man in the Synoptics, followed by Chapter 4, a comparison of John and the Synoptics in light of Ezekiel, Daniel, The Parables of Enoch, and 4 Ezra. The final chapter is a Summary and Conclusion. However, caveat lector. In presenting his arguments, Ellens revisits those scholars in the “history of research” chapter, with the addition of New Testament exegetes, resulting in redundancy and, at times, some confusion. He also calls upon issues that have been debated by the Enoch Seminar in several conferences, which provides additional background material on the relationship between Daniel, 1 Enoch and Christian origins. I often found myself having to re-read sections in order to determine Ellens’ position in relation to other scholars; there is a definite need for a “scorecard.”
Ellens’ contribution to the Son of Man analysis is his claim that while all the evangelists appeal to the same data, John radically alters the Son of Man concepts of Second Temple Judaism (his emphasis). He points out that Daniel’s Son of Man never descends (he remains an “angelic” entity), and despite being named “Son of Man” in the Parables, Enoch is nevertheless a mortal. John’s equation of Son of Man with the divine logos (consistently argued in Ellens’ exegesis of the logia) results in a totally new concept—John’s Son of Man as logos originates in divinity, descends into flesh, and then ascends to his divine source, God.
This radical alteration also involves the topics of eschatological judgment, pre-existence, and universal salvation. In a complicated section on eschatological judgment (pp. 84-89), Ellens attempts to distinguish John’s Jesus from Daniel and Enoch (“I came not to judge the world, but to save it,” 12:47; “I judge no one, but even if I do judge, my judgment is true,” 8:15-16). He argues that while Jesus is inherently a judge, “his nature and role as savior eclipses his function as Eschatological Judge, in the sense of prosecutor” (p. 85, italics his). In other words, God has already judged the world; John’s Jesus simply carries out “his will.” But that is exactly how a “prosecutor” functions. Ellens claims that there is no pre-existence in either Daniel or Enoch, as the Son of Man only existed as an idea in God’s mind before creation, not as a physical entity (p. 160). He repeatedly refers to a complicated distinction on universal salvation, “because Daniel’s Son of Man only saves the righteous while the Johannine figure saves the world” (p. 155). I was not persuaded by these arguments, and Ellens’ reference to “God’s superlapsarian judgment” (p. 173) is both anachronistic and, I believe, well beyond the conceptual world of John’s audience (Jew or Gentile). Ellens’ concept of “universal salvation” belies the message of this gospel—anyone who does not believe in Jesus, albeit by their own choice, is not saved, but condemned (John 3:18).
The conclusions thicken in the last chapter: (1) The Synoptic gospels did not influence the Son of Man logia in John; the author was unaware of Mark, Matthew, and Luke-Acts; and (2) the fourth gospel “constitutes a vigorous apologia specifically to counter the claims of “Enochic Judaism” (p. 176). Ellens does not elaborate on “Enochic Judaism” (p. 156), which would be a controversial challenge. While claiming that his analysis is strictly narrative and literary, an apologia at the very least suggests a “social setting” if we have movements in opposition to one another.
But such broad conclusions should not diminish the strength of this book, which is its analysis of the Son of Man logia in John in relation to diverse eschatological concepts of the first century. This diversity is paralleled in the diverse responses to Jesus (messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, logos, and Davidic king), all of which are retained by John, and require some further elaboration. Ellens claims that John has “thrown down the gauntlet” against traditional eschatological understanding (p. 156), and I anticipate that Ellens’ gauntlet will be picked up in a lively discussion by scholars of both Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament.