Messiah And Son Of Man In The Gospels (i)

In the Hidden Messiah series, we spoke at length about one of the most perplexing quandaries of the New Testament: while Christian readers of the Gospels keep calling Jesus the Messiah of Israel, He Himself continuously discouraged the use of the title ‘Messiah’  throughout the length of his public ministry. So far, however, we have not paid due attention to the title that Jesus applied to himself instead. While openly discouraging the use of the title ‘Messiah’, He repeatedly used the expression ‘Son of Man’ with reference to himself. We can see it very clearly, for instance, from this example:

 20 “But you,” he said to them, “who do you say I am?” Kefa answered, “The Mashiach of God!” 21 However, he, warning them, ordered them to tell this to no one, 22 adding, “The Son of Man has to endure much suffering and be rejected by the elders, the head cohanim and the Torah-teachers; and he has to be put to death; but on the third day, he has to be raised to life.”[1]

 

The Son of Man is the main title of Jesus in the Gospels (especially in Mark and Luke). What is remarkable though, is that the expression is never applied to Jesus by somebody else as a title or address; it is always placed by evangelists on His own lips. Would it not be logical to suppose that the message He wanted to articulate to His people was different from that of being ‘Messiah of Israel’ – otherwise why wouldn’t He just call Himself Messiah? Clearly, He preferred to express His mission in different terms – by the term ‘Son of Man’. Why?

 

It’s interesting that in traditional Christian interpretation, these words designate the human nature of Jesus.  For the vast majority of Christians, Jesus called himself Son of Man because He was not only fully divine, He was also fully human, and He wanted to articulate this message.  Many times, I have been surprised to discover that even those who do possess some knowledge of  First Century Judaism, still adhere to this opinion.  So, in this new series we will try to answer the question: what did Jesus mean and what did He allude to when He called himself “the Son of Man“?

 

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There is a common idea that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled almost all the messianic prophecies of TANACH and that it was only as a result of the blindness of Israel that the Jewish people did not recognize Him. There has been a growing recognition in recent years that this view of the matter is heavily influenced by Christian theology. When we begin to see the coming of Jesus and the birth of Christianity against the background of Jewish society at the beginning of the first century – when we begin to study the messianic expectations of the people of Israel and compare them with the ministry of the Nazarene – we begin to understand that it was by no means overwhelmingly easy for Jewish people to recognize and accept Him as Messiah.

 

First of all, the expression “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of heaven”, the focal point of Jesus’ preaching, is not to be found anywhere in the TANACH or in the Jewish apocalyptic writings. And although the idea of the kingdom is basic to the teaching of both bodies of literature, the Jewish understanding of this kingdom is completely different from the vision found in the New Testament.  The kingdom of Jewish thought was that in which the fortunes of Israel, or at least a remnant within Israel, would be restored and the surrounding nations judged. Israel waited for and hoped for national restoration and glory, and everything else was but a means to these ends – even the Messiah Himself had to be but an instrument in attaining these goals. This is also to be understood against the background of persecution and suffering which the Jewish nation as a whole suffered under their oppressors. The future hope of the nation was viewed, particularly in times of persecution and national unrest, in terms of deliverance from an alien power and the restoration of Israel. By the turn of the era, the expected Messiah was mainly regarded as a military deliverer of the Zealot type who would rid the country of their hated enemy. These expectations were clearly based on Jewish Scripture (the classic formulation of this ideology is found in Nathan’s oracle in 2 Samuel 7: “I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels … and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever … I will be his father, and he shall be my son … And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established forever[2]).  I would remind you that even the disciples of Jesus, after everything they had seen, experienced and learned from the Lord, still asked the same question: “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the Kingdom to Israel?”[3]

 

It is already easy to see the “anomaly” of the messianic claims of Jesus: There is little, if anything, in the Gospel portrait of Jesus that accords with the Jewish expectation of King/ Messiah from the house of David. The fact that someone could become messiah by crucifixion, resurrection and ascension into heaven is without parallel in the Jewish sources. Jesus was not a ‘Messiah’ of Jewish conception; He didn’t come to fit the Jewish expectations of Messiah; as Messiah, He was hidden from Israel – and that is precisely the reason why He didn’t call Himself Messiah. Instead, He called himself the Son of Man – and have you realized that in all the Gospels, “no one ever asked: ‘What is a Son of Man, anyway?’ They knew what He was talking about whether they believed his claim or not.”[4] And if we really want to understand the ministry and the message  of Jesus Christ in the Gospels,  we have to know that too. We need to have a thorough understanding of the concept of “Son of Man”.

(to be continued…)

 

 

[1]  Luke 9:20-22, CJB (Complete Jewish Bible)

[2] 2 Sam. 7:12-16

[3] Acts 1:6

[4] Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: the Story of the Jewish Christ , The New Press, NY, 2012, Chapter 1

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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Join the conversation (32 comments)

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  1. Nick

    Yes Ashley, I think that we have the same mission to grow and achieve closeness and connection with God here and now-as Jesus did. God is both beyond us and in us-the within us is what we must work on as Jesus did.
    Nick

  2. Stephen Myers

    There was one time when Jesus was happy to be recognised as the Messiah, but to someone who had a very different understanding of what that meant. The Samaritan woman at the well was the first person to whom he revealed he was the Messiah, but it was in response to a description of the Messiah as the revealer of truth.

    The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, ” I, the one speaking to you, I am he.” (John 4: 25,26)

    Not a warrior king, not a Zealot leader, but the one who explains all things. To someone with this understanding of the Messiah, Jesus was happy to reveal himself.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Stephen, that’s a very interesting way to look at this scene. I don’t know whether you followed my Hidden Messiah series , but in the very first post of the series (As Though Hiding His Face From Us) I addressed this issue. Here is what I wrote then: “In fact, the only time in the entire New Testament that He reveals his Messianic identity is in the scene with the Samaritan woman in John 4. Just think of that! The only time when He speaks of it, is not to a Jewish person but to a Samaritan woman, and even then only at a time when His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food – that is, when there was not a single Jewish person in sight!” I wrote about it also in my books (If you are son of God, in particular).

  3. Roger Abrego

    Would you kindly give me your thoughts and sources for this statement? It’s a very interesting topic for me.

    1. Julia Blum

      I would be happy to, Roger, – but which statement do you mean? Can you please specify?

  4. Ashley Lamberton

    I have understood for many years now, that in calling Himself the “Son of Man” he was endorsing His humanity. So many christians believe that Jesus could do the miracles etc because He was God in the flesh; but what he was saying by calling Himself the Son of Man, is that He was born here just as we are, and we have (been given through his death & ressurection) the same power & authority as sons of God.

    1. Julia Blum

      I know Ashley, that’s exactly what I wrote in my post: for the majority of Christians today , these words designate the human nature of Jesus – but they had a very different, almost the opposite meaning in the 1st century. I think, we should know that – and we should know also, how the people the people around Jesus understood this title.

  5. Tom

    I recall wrestling with this while a theological student and I still have a big question mark hovering over my head. Bluntly put ” I am interested to hear what you will put forward”?

    1. Julia Blum

      Well Tom, I really hope you will find my coming posts interesting. Stay Tuned!

  6. Nick

    Hi Julia! Thanks for your latest post. I look forward to the next one. With all of these ideas of hiddeness, I can not help but think of Jewish Kabbala. The New Testament seems to make more sense in the “light” of Kabbala principles.

    Thanks again,
    Nick

    1. Julia Blum

      You probably are right Nick, there should be a lot of parallels. There have been Jews who came to believe in Jesus through parallels between Kabbalah and the New Testament. Unfortunately, Kabbalah is not my area of expertise, so I don’t think I can elaborate on this topic.

  7. David Russell

    Hello Julia and Others,
    I am looking forward to this series, and gaining an understanding how Son of Man and HaMashiach are best understood in first century context.
    David Russell

  8. David Susen

    Thank you Julia. I have read the NT countless times and have felt what you are saying but it never turned into words – you did that for me. “תודה לך אחותי ב “הבן של האדם 🙂 .

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you David, I am really glad to hear that (ותודה על העברית שלך 🙂

  9. Margre Schwartz

    The Title: “Son of Man”, can be deciphered by the prophet Daniel to mean the Messiah.

    1. Julia Blum

      It is not that simple, Marge. In some writings the conceptions of Son of Man and Messiah are clearly distinguished, in others they are brought together; yet nowhere they are completely fused. These ideas are not only different in their origin, they also represent in their development two separate strands of eschatological expectations and indicate two distinct emphases of ‘messianic’ hope. This is exactly what I intend to show in my next posts.

  10. Sam

    What a great topic for discussion! I am looking forward to your next series Julia, thank you kindly for taking the time and effort that we benefit from! I have always thought of Daniel 7 as a reference point for the Son of Man, but maybe in first century Judaism they had some idea of the Son of Man from the Book of Enoch? I dont know, just speculation!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your comment, Sam. You are right, of course: the very first time we hear about “Son of Man” in Jewish literature is Daniel 7; this figure, “the ‘one like a Son of Man’ who comes with the clouds of heaven in Dan. 7:13, gave rise to a different apocalyptic expectations, which emphasized the heavenly, transcendent character of the coming savior. The earliest Jewish evidence for the interpretation and reuse of Dan. 7:13-14 is found indeed in the Similitudes of Enoch (I Enoch 37-71).