A LESSON FROM SEMIOTICS
We already know that “the Jesus folk were not alone on the Jewish scene”. For the last several weeks, we’ve been trying to grasp the ideas and the concepts that were alive on this scene in this time – in order to be able to read the New Testament texts through the Second Temple Jewish eyes. Why do we want to do that?
Many years ago, while studying at the Tartu University in Estonia, I sat in on lectures on the then popular and simultaneously infamous theme of semiotics. I happened to remember the first lecture with perfect clarity. The lecturer, the world-renown professor Yuri Lotman, started by drawing two circles on the board. “This is the message-sender and this is the recipient,” he said. “In the understanding of semiotics, text” – he then drew a zig-zag line joining these two spots – “is communication conveyed by a sender to a receiver,” i.e. not just text in the strict sense of the word, but any cultural phenomenon can also be referred to as “text”. (This is the way I understood it; I don’t recommend using this description as an academic definition). The text sent must not only be received, but also read – decoded or deciphered, so to speak. Naturally, somewhere along this path it is possible that distortions or incorrect deciphering will occur. The recipient of the text might read into it not entirely what, or entirely not what, the message-sender wanted to convey. One of the tasks of a cultural historian is to faithfully decipher the cultural “texts” of past centuries, in order to read into them the exact meaning with which their “authors” invested them.
In this sense, one of the most astounding examples of the huge disparity between the modern understanding and what the original reader would have understood in the same texts, is the theme – and even the very term – of Son of Man. Son of Man is the main title of Jesus in the Gospels (especially in Mark and Luke) – and the fact that the expression is never applied to Jesus by somebody else as a title or address and is always placed by evangelists on His own lips – this fact is very remarkable and meaningful. What did Jesus mean and what did He allude to when He called himself “the Son of Man“? Speaking in the language of the semiotics, what did the sender send that we were not able to “decipher” and to understand?
In the traditional Christian interpretation today, the expression “Son of Man” designates 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 the Second Temple Judaism, still adhere to this opinion. In fact, the opposite is true – and in this and in the coming articles I will try to show it.
The same fascinating book that we have been discussing over the last month—the Book of Enoch—will again be a priceless resource in this undertaking. T In our previous discussion, we spoke about the book of Watchers, the first part of the book of Enoch. For the purpose of our current study, we will be reading the second sub-book of the book of Enoch, known as the “Similitudes” (or Parables) of Enoch. This text, which according to a scholarly opinion, was written in the first century AD, is not connected to the Gospels in any direct way, and therefore shows completely independently “that there were other Palestinian Jews who expected a Redeemer known as the Son of Man, who would be a divine figure embodied in an exalted human”. How did this expectation begin? Let us say a few words about the predecessor and precursor of Enochian – and also New Testamental – Son of Man.
THE TRANSCENDENTAL SAVIOR
The Hebrew Scriptures taught the concept of God reigning visibly and tangibly in the history of His people. A king was God’s anointed one. If the king was righteous, God would bless the people, and this blessing, as well as the kingdom itself, was a very tangible, earthly reality. However, what happened if the king was unrighteous? Somebody should remedy the wrongs perpetrated by the unrighteous ruling king. Therefore, within the actual history, the vision of an “anointed one to come” began to emerge—a future transcendent savior. The worse the current historical situation became, the stronger arose hope for the reverse order that this savior would bring. Thus, the genre of apocalypse was born. In apocalypses, the original biblical texts about ‘anointed ones’ were placed in an eschatological framework, and therefore transformed into eschatological messianic texts. Consequently, this genre became central to the process of the rethinking and reinterpretation of the Bible in the Second Temple period.
At the head of this apocalyptic mentality, stood the biblical Book (Apocalypse) of Daniel, with Daniel’s famous vision of “One like a Son of Man” in chapter 7. This chapter describes a vision in which the prophet sees four great beasts coming up out of the sea, each one different from the others. The ‘Ancient of Days’ appears in this vision in all his glory. Then, after the fourth beast is destroyed, there appears on the scene ‘One like a Son of man’ who is conveyed on the clouds into God’s heavenly Council where he stands in the divine presence: “I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days … Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.
Daniel’s apocalypse provided a new paradigm for messianic expectations, quite different from the Davidic one. Thus, the Apocalypse of Daniel clearly marks the end of the biblically oriented period and at the same time stands at the beginning of a new apocalyptic period, with a totally new view of history and a new messianic paradigm. In Daniel’s “son of man”, a completely new concept of God’s participation in earthly life begins: God’s representative becomes the ‘transcendent one’. “The ‘One like a Son of Man’ who comes with the clouds of heaven in Daniel 7:13, gave rise to a different kind of messianic expectation, which emphasized the heavenly, transcendent character of the savior figure.” In the following centuries, this kind of transcendent, heavenly deliverer will play an increasingly important role in Jewish eschatology. Next time, we will see that the Similitudes use the term “Son of Man” constantly- referring it to a divine-human figure of the end time Savior and sounding almost “Christian” sometimes.
Excerpts from my books are included in this article (and many other posts here), so if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them through my page: , https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/
 Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels (Kindle Locations 1134-1139). The New Press. Kindle Edition.
Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels (Kindle Locations 1134-1139). The New Press. Kindle Edition.
 Dan 7:13,14
 John J. Collins The Scepter and the Star: the Messiah of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient literature (The Anchor Bible reference library, 1995), p.175
Join the conversation (8 comments)
Is it possible that the title ‘Son of man’ is used intentionally to the opposite expression of the ‘sons of God’ as mentioned in Gen. 6, because of His mission: To realize Tikkun Olam, doing the opposite of ‘the sons of God’ ?
Yes, I think it might be the case indeed – but even in this case, this title “son of man” existed long before Jesus. Starting from the book of Daniel there had always been Israelis who expected a Divine Redeemer known as the Son of Man. One of the main missions of this Redeemer would be to reverse the evil brought by “the Sons of God” of Genesis 6 – and in this sense, the “Son of Man” title might indeed be an intentional “reverse” expression.
Mark is the Book of the Perfect Servant, and Luke is the Perfect Priest. Do you think this has anything to do with the Son of Man title in these books?
The Book of the Perfect Servant, and the Book of the Perfect Priest -it’s how we read these Gospels. I believe we have to start from the original text, though: Jesus calls Himself “Son of Man” in these books, and this is the message (His message) that we have to be able to receive and to understand. Our interpretation and out understanding should be based on this original message – and should always start with it.
Thank you once again Julia for your valuable insights. It is so important for us to be aware of the culture, understanding and expectations of the original recipients of our Scriptures. Jesus Himself most certainly was! The Book of Enoch is a valuable resource to that end, although I think many Christians see it as simply myth, and therefore not to be taken seriously.
Thank you Dorothy, I couldn’t agree more. There are many Jewish texts of the intertestamental period that are completely ignored by most of the Christian readers – while they are indeed, the most valuable resources helping us understand the culture and the background of the original audience of the NT.
Thanks Julia! Keep it coming. There’s much confusion about these names including messiah and Christ- material or spiritual.
Thank you Nick! I am always looking forward to your comments, thank you for following the blog!