This is a volume of essays edited by Larry Hurtado, professor emeritus of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at University of Edinburgh, and Paul Owen, associate professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Montreat College. The title, Who Is This Son of Man?, indicates what one is to expect, a collection of essays exploring the current state of the debate on the son of man in the NT. The opening sentence of the Preface by Owen reads: “The present volume seeks to advance scholarly discussion pertaining to the usage of the expression ho huios tou anthroopou (‘the son of man’) in the Greek gospels” (p. vii).
In chapter 1, Albert L. Lukaszewski has provided a critical review of scholarship on the Aramaic behind ho huios tou anthrōpou, from Tertullian to the present. Lukaszewski lays out several questions that persist today, even after a long history of attempts to make sense of the son-of-man expression.
Was ho huios tou anthroopou coined by the early Christians as a titular term? Or was it adopted from the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7, complete with apocalyptic and messianic trappings? Or was it adopted from the Hebrew of Ezekiel? Was it a common first-century idiom in either Judaea or Galilee? If so, was it a direct substitute for the third person, a more general substitute, or a circumlocution for the first person? For such a breadth of alternatives to arise from four Greek words is no less than astounding. Such a multitude of choice arises more from methodological issues than ambiguity in the sources, unfortunately (p. 13).
And this is essentially what the reader will conclude after reading most of the essays in this book. Methodological issues regarding how one reads the Aramaic and Greek evidence from the second century B.C.E. to the second century C.E. are problematic. After laying out his own methodological suggestion which takes us beyond disputes over lexemic generalizations regarding br (’)nsh(’), Lukaszewski concludes:
After proceeding through these steps, one is in a position to critically evaluate the phrase ho huios tou anthroopou against the wider linguistic milieu. If all options are exhausted and ho huios tou anthroopou resonates rightly with no known language, one must say that we cannot know more at the present time, pending further research into the syntax of the languages involved. Until the linguistic data has been mined to this extent, however, no further clarification seems possible with respect to a form, never mind definition, of an Aramaic Son of Man (pp. 26–27).
Fortunately, Lukaszewski’s pessimistic prognosis notwithstanding, the remainder of the essays in this volume do not disappoint in the way of offering a great deal of food for thought on a number of issues.
The next three chapters interact critically with the recent work of Maurice Casey on the son of man. In chapter 2, Owen attacks one of the central pillars of Casey’s argument, that the Aramaic language was virtually stable (unchanged) for roughly a millennia, including the NT period, an assumption on the part of Casey that is required due to the lack of evidence in Aramaic sources for the generic use of the emphatic singular, which is “nowhere attested in Aramaic texts predating or contemporary with the time of Jesus” (p. 29). Owen writes: “But the evidence that Casey then compiles in support of this observation amounts to an extended exercise in obfuscation, for they involve an appeal to examples that no scholar would think of contesting…. How any of these mundane linguistic notes advance the current discussion is difficult to understand” (p. 29). Owen is critical of Casey on several other grounds, including his selection of ‘authentic’ son-of-man sayings, the interpretation of Daniel 7 and its bearing on ho huios tou anthrōpou in the gospels, the memory of the early church, and speculative Aramaic reconstructions that are then used to measure the authenticity of son-of-man sayings.
David Shepherd continues the interaction with Maurice Casey in chapter 3. This essay is “a constructive attempt to extend the search for the singular emphatic form of br (’)nsh(’) in relevant phases of the Aramaic language” (p. 51). Shepherd is critical of Casey’s attempt to provide evidence of the singular emphatic in Aramaic texts later than the NT period, and his support for this attempt by the unsupportable assertion of the enduring stability of the Aramaic language through this period. Shepherd examines Targum Onkelos to the Torah and Targum Jonathan to the Prophets and concludes that the infrequent appearances of the singular emphatic do not support Casey’s claim that the singular emphatic form of br (’)nsh(’) must generically refer to “a man.” Shepherd examines other Middle Aramaic corpora, such as commercial transactions and personal correspondence (e.g., from Muraba’at and Nahal Hever and other locales). The absence of the singular emphatic of the expression in any of these texts leads Shepherd to conclude that the evidence “weighs heavily against the suggestion that the [singular emphatic] was a normal or ordinary way to refer to ‘a man’ as Casey suggests” (p. 59). Shepherd further concludes based on his examination of the Palestinian Talmud:
While few scholars these days argue that Jesus spoke Hebrew rather than Aramaic, the lack of this expression [the singular emphatic] in either Semitic language in the first centuries of the Common Era deprives Casey of any substantial basis for suggesting that the Greek was a mistranslation of such an expression. In the light of such a lack, the articular form of the Greek expression found on the lips of Jesus in the New Testament is best explained as a faith translation of his use of the singular emphatic br (’)nsh’ ‘the son of man’. Indeed if the Palestinian Talmud’s memory of the tannaitic period is to be trusted, it was in some measure the titular use of this expression which would ensure that it would remain as ‘extra-ordinary’ in the years after Jesus’ use of it, as it was before…” (p. 60).
In chapter 4, P.J. Williams furthers the debate with Casey by examining how definiteness is expressed in Aramaic. Williams states that his “focus will rather be on Aramaic stages of the sayings tradition and the transfer of sayings into Greek” (p. 61). After a rather lengthy critical disagreement with Casey’s methodology, Williams then turns to expressing definiteness in Aramaic. What is noteworthy is that Williams points out that there are a number of ways of expressing definiteness in Aramaic beyond what Casey has understood, one of which is the use of the nota accusativi (the direct object marker) as an expression of definiteness. This, according to Williams, contradicts “the limits of what is authentic” that have been set by Casey’s and Lindar’s “own understanding of the Aramaic idiom” (p. 73).
In chapter 5, Darrell Bock reexamines the use of Psalm 110.1 in Mark 12 and son-of-man imagery from Daniel 7 in the context of Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus. Bock argues that the use of Psalm 110 is authentic to Jesus and the emerging questions surrounding his identity when he was alive and does not necessarily only reflect the use of the early church in its presentation of Jesus and its context of confessing Jesus in the midst of dispute. In his examination of Daniel 7, Bock asks whether the son-of-man expression is a late, post-resurrection way of referring to Jesus rather than an expression that Jesus might have used with reference to himself. Bock states: “One can argue, looking at the flow of Jesus’ ministry as it appears in the Synoptics, that Jesus used the term ambiguously initially and drew out its force as he continued to use it, eventually associating it with Daniel 7” (p. 89). Bock then outlines in list form the synoptic references to the apocalyptic son of man, demonstrating that the sayings appear in Mark, Q, M, and L. “What the list clearly shows is that the apocalyptic Son of Man shows up in every level of the Synoptic Gospel tradition” (p. 91), indicating that the argument for a later, early-church development of the expression is much more difficult to demonstrate. This leads Bock to argue that Jesus’ self-understanding as the apocalyptic son of man was an assertion of royal messianic authority based on Daniel 7, an assertion that the religious authorities fully recognized as a threat to their own power, which set in motion the series of events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.
Benjamin Reynolds examines the use of the son-of-man idiom in the Gospel of John. He acknowledges at the outset that the son-of-man evidence in John is usually absent from the scholarly discussion, essentially because of the questions surrounding the historicity of John. Reynolds, however, argues that John “represents an early Christian understanding of Jesus’ use of the phrase ho huios tou anthroopou” (p. 102). Reynolds also points to the recent challenge to those who question the historicity of John, citing the work of P.N. Anderson, F. Just, and T. Thatcher, among others. Reynolds points out “three significant themes” of the son of man in John: the ascent and descent of the son of man, the lifting up of the son of man, and the glorification of the son of man. This is the traditional grid through which the Johannine son-of-man sayings have been read. Reynolds also examines what he calls “misfit” sayings that do not fit the traditional categories: the apocalyptic introduction of the son of man (John 1:51), the son of man and judgment (John 5:27), the sealing, eating, and drinking of the son of man (John 6:27, 53), and belief in the son of man (John 9:35). Reynolds argues that the idiom “son of man” is not used in John to emphasize Jesus’ humanity (pp. 120–21), that each “expression, ‘the Son (of God)’ and ‘the Son of Man’, presents a distinct Christological understanding of the person of Jesus in the Gospel of John” (pp. 121–22), and that “rather than ‘the Son of Man’ highlighting the humanity of Jesus or being synonymous with ‘the Son (of God)’, the expression draws attention to the heavenly nature of Jesus” (p. 122). After comparing the son-of-man traditions in John with the synoptics, Reynolds writes:
These similarities suggest that the Son of Man has a number of similar functions and characteristics in each of the Gospels. There are some clear differences between John and the Synoptic portrayals, but these differences tend to be differences of nuance or timing rather than contradictory features…. Although there are dissimilarities, the Son of Man in Matthew, Mark and Luke is more closely related to the Son of Man in John than is often noted (p. 127).
Reynolds then indicates as a way forward a comparative analysis of son-of-man traditions in the synoptics and John, suggesting that if the son-of-man sayings in John are based on the synoptics, then they must be understood as conveying an authentic expression of the son-of-man sayings, but of questionable historical value if interpreted by the Johannine community and hence of questionable relevance for the current son-of-man debate. If the son-of-man sayings in John are an expression of an independent stream of the tradition, “the Johannine sayings may carry their own weight against or in comparison with the Synoptic sayings in the Son of Man debate” (p. 128).
In chapter 7, Darrell D. Hannah examines the son-of-man evidence in the Parables of Enoch. He discusses the origin and significance of the Parables, where it fits in the literary corpus of 1 Enoch, the translation language of Ethiopic Ge‘ez (which presents its own interpretive difficulties), the fact that the Parables are not represented in the Aramaic fragments of Enoch from Qumran, the date of the Parables around the turn of the eras, that the document is the product of a sectarian group of Second Temple Judaism, and the difficulties arising from its composite structure.
Among the more compelling evidence presented by Hannah is his comparative study of the nomenclature. There are three distinct idioms in the Ethiopic text of the Parables all translated “son of man”: walda be’si (son of man), walda sab’ (son of humankind), and walda ‘egwāla ’emma-heyāw (son of the offspring of the mother of the living). “In the end, the three terms are in all likelihood nothing other than translation variants of the same Greek phrase, (ho) huios (tou) anthroopou, which in turn renders an Aramaic or Hebrew original” (pp. 137–41). This is particularly significant, since the variation of idiom for son of man in the Parables has raised the question of whether it is a title. Hannah’s evidence takes this aspect of the question (at least) off the table.
Hannah discusses the exegetical basis for the elect son of man in the Parables, indicating its widely recognized use of sources like Daniel 7 and Deutero-Isaiah. He then discusses the eschatological office and enthronement of the son of man, indicating the son of man’s role as eschatological judge. Preexistence of the son of man in the Parables is another issue discussed by Hannah, who comes down on the side of the son of man’s preexistence, even though this is disputed by some (e.g., James VanderKam). Hannah resolves the problem of the human Enoch being identified with the heavenly preexistent son of man figure (71.14) by arguing that 1 En. 70.3–71.17 “is best regarded as a later addition to the text of the Parables” (p. 154). If this section is an addition, it may be explained as a late first-century response to early church claims that Jesus was the messiah. Later Enoch literature (2 & 3 Enoch) support such a view. Everything preceding 70.3–71.17 makes sense without it, although VanderKam has argued that what precedes this ending can only be understood correctly with the ending intact.
One may quibble with one of the assertions made by Hannah, namely that the “worship” of the son of man figure in the Parables is not the same worship that is given to the Lord of Spirits. “The Parables’ figure functions as the eschatological judge, sits on the very throne of God and receives homage which approaches, but is not to be equated with, worship” (p. 130). I have demonstrated elsewhere that the same language that is used for worship of the Lord of Spirits is also used for worship of the son of man figure in the Parables. Hannah’s assertion that there must be a distinction between worship (of the Lord of Spirits) and homage (given to the son of man) in the Parables fits nicely with Hurtado’s understanding elsewhere that there was an explosive and unprecedented appearance of devotion to Jesus in the early church, which for some reason renders the evidence in the Parables less than it actually is and Jesus unique among the messiahs. While this is not a major point of Hannah’s discussion, it is something that should be included in the discussion of the son of man going forward since the distinction between worship and homage (that is too frequently and too casually made) has not been sufficiently demonstrated.
Larry Hurtado summarizes and comments on the essays in the concluding chapter. Hurtado discusses the Greek OT and the Hebrew and Aramaic it translates for the son-of-man idiom. Hurtado writes: “There is certainly no basis for thinking that the Semitic articular/definite forms were used somewhat interchangeably with the anarthrous/indefinite forms of the expression involved. Instead, the impression given is that the articular/definite singular expression, ‘the son of man’, would have been regarded as highly unusual, perhaps even peculiar” (p. 162). Hurtado then runs through the evidence in the NT, concluding
that the diversity of sentences/sayings in which ‘the son of man’ is used in the Gospels leads to the conclusion that in these texts the expression’s primary linguistic function is to refer, not to characterize. The expression refers to Jesus (and almost entirely in sentences where it is used as a self-designation), but does not in itself primarily make a claim about him, or generate any controversy, or associate him with prior/contextual religious expectations or beliefs” (p. 166, emphasis original).
Based in part on this conclusion, Hurtado rejects the titular nature of the son-of-man expression. For Hurtado, it is not the expression itself that contains meaning in itself. The meaning of the expression is given by the saying of Jesus in which the expression is found. No significance attached to a prior belief in a son of man has any bearing on its use by Jesus as this is recorded in the gospels.
This certainly fits the trope of a Jesus uniqueness among the messiahs, but it is not supported by the historical reality that ideas and beliefs develop out of previously held ideas and beliefs. Currently held ideas and beliefs may certainly not reflect with absolute precision what was previously held. And that’s precisely the point. These things grow and develop over time. When an idea that is so new and so controversial does appear, it is usually expressed in familiar terms, like Daniel 7 in the Parables of Enoch, perhaps to make it more acceptable. As Darrell Hannah indicated at the beginning of his essay: “The eschatological heavenly mediator of the Parables of Enoch, alternatively termed the Elect One (or Chosen One), the Righteous One, the Messiah and the (or that) son of man, is quite probably the most exalted heavenly mediator to be encountered in the Judaism of the Second Temple period apart, that is, from Jesus the Messiah of early Christianity” (p. 130). Hurtado surprisingly ignored Hannah. He did not mention Hannah’s essay in his summary conclusion. It seems to me that Hannah is onto something. The interchangeableness of the epithets for the messiah figure in the Parables must indicate that the son of man sobriquet is also a title. Casey’s insistence that ‘son of man’ is a general reference to humanity and Hurtado’s insistence that it is only a referential idiom are not supported by the evidence in the Parables. And if ‘son of man’ is used as a title for the messiah figure in the Parables, with not just referential but also denotative and connotative significance, then more detailed comparative studies of the son of man in the Parables and in the NT should be forthcoming in the discussion.
Who Is This Son of Man? is a valuable collection of essays that bring new evidence and new arguments to the son of man debate. These essays also provide clear suggestions for advancing the debate. Hurtado and Owen are to be commended for bringing this collection of essays to the table.