Son of Man A Hypothesis

It is no wonder that the Son of Man material in the Jesus tradition has proved so intractable for those seeking some significant measure of consensus for the results of the quest. The degree of complexity of the data is unparalleled in the Jesus tradition. The parallels on which historical research so much depends, both in linguistic and apocalyptic usage, are so disputed as to dating and relevance as to leave any historical hypothesis vulnerable to attack from more than one angle. Moreover, the data have manifestly been developed. That is to say, the tradition has not simply been performed and transmitted. In the course of the transmission the understanding of the material has developed. The core elements have probably changed in meaning while remaining the same in words ('the son of man' has become 'the Son of Man'). An event in heaven (seen in vision, or in some final climactic revelation) has possibly been developed to express hope for Jesus' return from heaven.

How then did Jesus see his own role? The difficulty of hearing Jesus and of gaining a perception of his self-understanding in relation to 'the son of man' is more severe than in any other case within the Synoptic tradition. Not because 'the son of man' motif was wholly retrojected into the Jesus tradition at a later stage of the traditioning process. Nor even because the motif has been greatly modified. But simply because what was initially heard by the first disciples in Jesus' use of the phrase 'the son of man' grew in significance during that earliest traditioning period. It is precisely here, the nearest Jesus came to a self-referential role-description, that the impact of Good Friday and Easter quickly caused these disciples to perceive (recognize?) a greater significance in that phrase and to express that greater significance in their early performances of the tradition, without making much (if any!) alteration to the actual words used.

If all that is so, can any firm hypothesis, let alone conclusion, be drawn? I believe so.

a. At least we can be confident regarding the starting point, that is, that Jesus himself used the phrase 'the son of man' (§ 16.4a). In terms of tradition-historical analysis the case could hardly be clearer or stronger. When so many issues in the Jesus tradition are difficult to resolve because the evidence is so confusing, students should be relieved to find one instance at least where the weight of evidence tips the balance so heavily in one direction. It is disappointing that so many have allowed less clear-cut data or less weighty considerations to undermine one of the firmest findings available to us. If we cannot be confident that Jesus used the phrase 'the son of man' in his speech, and quite regularly,

225. 'It is certain that Jesus used the expression "son of man"' (Theissen and Merz, Historical Jesus 548).

then there is almost no feature of the Jesus tradition of which we can confidently assert that Jesus spoke in this way.

b. Beyond that confidence quickly diminishes. As to the possibility of identifying an Aramaic phrase behind the Gospels' Greek, the negative results of searches for Aramaic parallels are undeniably a major problem. Nevertheless, I think the evidence is strong enough to support the conclusion that Jesus did use Aramaic bar 'enasa in a general and self-referential way, probably best indicated by a translation such as 'a man like me', equivalent to the English 'one'. Jesus the would presumably have been attracted by the phrase's ambiguity between general reference and self-reference and by the play it made possible between 'men', 'man', 'a man like me'. At any rate such an ambiguous word-play is evident at various points in the Jesus tradition. That is to say, Jesus was remembered as using the phrase in that way. It is hardly credible that the ambiguity and word-play were introduced once the tradition had been put into Greek. It must have been a feature of the tradition in its Aramaic phase. This usage should therefore count as evidence for Aramaic usage in pre-70 Palestine and not be dismissed because clear parallels are lacking elsewhere in our deposit of firstcentury Aramaic. In which case there seems little cause to deny the usage to Jesus himself, as the Jesus tradition attests.

c. It can be judged also likely that Jesus' word-play on bar 'enasa included at least some reference to 'one like bar 'ena¡T in Dan. 7.13. With the possible exception of Luke 12.8, there is no evidence to speak of supporting the view that Son of Man was an already established title of or way of referring to a hoped-for heavenly redeemer figure. Nor is there evidence (apart from Mark 14.62-64 par. where the Dan. 7.13 allusion is clear) that bar 'enasa would have caused offence to Jesus' hearers. A plausible thesis, then, is that it was Jesus himself who saw in the Danielic bar both a further play on the Aramaic idiom and a signal which give him hope of vindication, whatever happened to him.226 Because of the ambiguity of the Aramaic phrase itself, and because Dan. 7.13 was an example of the idiom ('one like a human being'), such an allusion need not have been heard as a claim to be the manlike figure, but could be taken simply as an allusion to the vindication-following-suffering role which the figure represented for the faithful of Israel. We shall have to return to this possibility in §17.4 below.

d. This last conclusion correlates well with what we can learn in regard to the Similitudes of Enoch. The likelihood that the Similitudes were introducing a fresh interpretation of Daniel's vision undermines the counter-argument that they presuppose a prior interpretation of Dan. 7.13 as referring to a heavenly angelic judge able to act on Israel's behalf. And the fact that clear indications of influence from the Similitudes appear only late in the development of the Jesus tradi

226. Cf. particularly Bietenhard, 'Der Menschensohn' 345-46.

tion (Matthew, John) strengthens the suspicion that the Similitudes did not appear on the scene anyway until some time after Jesus' mission was ended.

e. As to the development clearly evident within the Jesus tradition at this point. It seems to have started with Jesus' own use of the Aramaic idiom (bar 'enasa) into which he himself drew the particular bar'enas allusion to Dan. 7.13. In the course of transmission the self-reference in 'the son of man' became more pronounced, and the transition to Greek established the phrase as a formal title ('the Son of Man'). In the same process the initial allusion to Dan. 7.13 was made more complex by a succession of elaborations: by incorporation of an allusion to Ps. 110.1 (Mark 14.62), by reversal of the direction of travel to include the thought of Jesus' return (parousia) from heaven (particularly Matthew), and by development of an allusion to the also-developed use of Daniel's vision in the Similitudes of Enoch (Matthew and John).

This hypothesis is quite strong in tradition-historical terms, even though supporting evidence from outside the Jesus tradition is confusing and indecisive. Its strength is that it takes seriously the Jesus tradition both as the attempt to remember what Jesus said and as the attempt to interpret that tradition in the light of developing faith-insight (Christology) and changing circumstances. Its greatest value is in demonstrating the likelihood that Jesus himself was influenced by both of the roots (more often set in antithesis by contemporary questers), that he thought of himself as very much bound up with the frailties of humankind, and that the Danielic vision may have encouraged him in hope of being welcomed by the Most High on the completion of his mission. Its greatest deficit for traditional Christian faith is the corollary that the tradition of Jesus coming (again to earth) may have originated from a post-Easter merging of the Son of Man coming motif with the return motif of the crisis parables.

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