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“?

 

******************

 

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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  1. Patrick

    I wonder if Jesus did not eschew the Messiah label because 2cd temple era Jews were not focusing on 1 Messianic character as the Christian faith has it in Jesus of Nazareth? It may have confused the crowds.

    In the works of Daniel Boyarin and other researchers, we can see that for example the Qumran community was expecting at least 2 and at times mention of 3 Messianic types were expected.

    Other 2cd temple Jewish literature also shows similar expectations and reading John chapter 1, the evidence there indicates the sanheddrin apparently was expecting 3 of these types as they quiz John Baptist. “Are you the prophet”? “Are you Elijah”? “Are you Messiah”?

    In Geniza, there was debate about maybe Elijah and Phineas are one also.
    http://www.academia.edu/5510414/Literary_Canonization_at_Work_The_Authority_of_Aggadic_Midrash_and_the_Evolution_of_Havdalah_Poetry_in_the_Genizah

    1. Julia Blum

      Excellent comment, Patrick. The figures of Son of Man and Messiah are clearly distinguished and not often are brought together; and nowhere they are completely fused. They have different origin and represent two different types of eschatological savior. We have to keep in mind that Jesus is choosing to present His mission and His ministry in “Son of Man” terms.

  2. Samuel Premkumar

    “Again the Kohen Gadol was questioning him and says to him, Are you the Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach, HaBen Hamevorakh? 62 And Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach said, Ani hu, and you will see the BEN HAADAM )[DANIEL 7:13-14] YOSHEV LIMIN HaGevurah )[TEHILLIM 110:1] UVA IM ANENEI HASHOMAYIM (the Ben HaAdam )[Moshiach] sitting at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven).”

    Yeshuah here unequivocally states that He is both the long awaited Messiah and the son of Man of Daniel 7.

  3. Luis Enrique Antolín

    Something in addition, I think importantant and useful in order to help to make sense. In Synoptic Evangels, Jesus after staying silent in his trial before Sanhedrin and the high priest Caifas, at the end He speaks and calls Himself the Son of the Man,what provokes the final and radical judgement, to be imputed as blasphemous.

    Interesting,very interesting subject to be considered.

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, because Son of Man was understood as heavenly, divine character (like in Dan. 7), and therefore His words sounded blasphemous to them: by calling himself Son of Man, He actually claimed to be God.

  4. Alfredo Quevedo

    Son of Man…. in a mystical way, Son of Adam… the son that Adam would have had…

    “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply…“” Genesis 27-28a

    … if only he and Eve wouldn’t have eaten from the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil.

    So the one who died without having a descendant in this generation…

    “By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living. For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?” Isaiah 53:8

    … was given the gift of being the first fruit of the new harvest…

    “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand.” Isaiah 53:10

    … new men and women with the same nature as Adam and Eve before the fall.

    Yeshua the son of Adam, and new head of the new generation of men and women with eternal bodies… the New Covenant in full…

    “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. Jeremiah 31:31

    “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” Jeremiah 31:33-34

    “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” Ezekiel 36:26-27

  5. Charles

    The woman at the well claimed ancestry to Jacob making her the one Jesus came for the lost sheep of the house of Israel

    1. Julia Blum

      She did, of course – but it was how she saw it. She was “a woman of Samaria” – and didn’t Jesus Himself say to His disciples: …”do not enter any city of Samaritans ; but rather go to the lost sheep of the of the house of Israel”? There is a clear-cut borderline between the “cities of Samaritans” and “the lost sheep of the of the house of Israel” in these words of Jesus, don’t you think?

  6. John Miller

    Yes, I think we all accept the Jewish anticipation of the times: a Messiah/deliverer. Jesus as “Son of Man” is clearly different, but His choice of words, as pointed out. Today, as then, Jewish people may reject the notion of Jesus as their Messiah because, “He didn’t bring peace.” Jesus, as Son of Man, was bringing peace to the human heart and making peace with God thru the blood of the cross. In His first Coming, “Son of Man” denotes His place before the Father as servant…also substitute and representative of mankind, His mission being to reconcile God and man, to resolve the “sin problem.” Although His mission may not have been anticipated by 1st century Judaism, Jesus repeatedly declared, “If you can’t believe on Me, believe the works that I do.” The Day of His Visitation should have been anticipated from Daniel’s prophecy. Yet, He was dismissed as a Law breaker, agent of Satan. That’s blindness. The works He did were clearly written of and should have been anticipated from Isaiah. He didn’t fit the Pharisaic mold of one submitted to the 2-fold Law, but declared, “My sayings,” to be followed and preached. He opposed the hypocrisy and outward religion being practiced. Nothing blind about all this, except that of the human heart.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi John, thank you for your comment. In my Hidden Messiah series on this blog we discussed it already – the discrepancy between the the Jewish Messianic expectations and Jesus’ mission. In my next articles about Son of Man I will try to elaborate and develop this topic. Of course, many prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus – but as Alfred Edersheim wrote: ”it is the combination of letters which constitute words, and the same letters may be combined into different words”. We have to remember it while reading Tanach (Old Testament).

  7. 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

  8. 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).

  9. 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?

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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

  14. 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 🙂

  15. 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.

  16. 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).