Son of Man The Issues

After 'the kingdom of God/heaven' there is no phrase so common in the Jesus tradition as 'the son of man'. Its importance within the Jesus tradition, and possibly as a key to that tradition, therefore, can hardly be exaggerated. More to the immediate point, it seems to be the nearest thing in the Jesus tradition to a self-chosen self-designation. For example, in the healing of the paralysed man Jesus

77. Keck presses the point more strongly: 'Jesus probably saw himself as God's obedient son, replicating the Father's way' (Who Is Jesus?97-100; see also 140-44).

says 'that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins' and then to the paralytic 'I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home' (Mark 2.10-11). Later on Jesus teaches that 'the Son of Man must suffer many things . . . and be put to death and rise after three days' (8.31). And in the hearing before High Priest Caiaphas he says, 'You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven' (14.62). No one for whom the Gospel of Mark was intended would fail to recognize 'the Son of Man' as a reference to Jesus himself. So, is this the key for which we have been looking? Did Jesus speak of himself as the son of man/Son of Man?

Would that it were so straightforward. These initial simple observations cloak a controversy which has raged (the term is not inappropriate) for more than a century and shows no sign of abating. Indeed, the ongoing 'Son of Man' debate is one of the great embarrassments for modern historical scholarship, since it has been unable to produce any major consensus.78 Does, then, the fragmentation of scholarly judgment on this topic simply illustrate the truth of the postmodern critique of historical method? Given the extent of the motif in the Jesus tradition, that would be an important conclusion with considerable ramifications.

Broadly speaking, for the last 150 years, the controversy has been between two principal interpretations — what might be characterized as the human son of man and the heavenly Son of Man. Traditionally 'the Son of Man' was understood as an expression of Jesus' humanity and so as a counterpoise to his status as 'the Son of God', stressing his divinity. But the reference to 'one like a son of man' coming with the clouds of heaven in Dan. 7.13 was always a problem for that view, and the publication of 1 Enoch in the first half of the nineteenth century gave a lasting boost to the heavenly Son of Man interpretation.79 As linguistic resources and analytical technique improved through the twentieth century, these two views have continued to provide the main options, but each with several variations.80

The heart of the issue is disagreement on the root of the usage, on the source of the phrase in the Jesus tradition. There are two main possibilities. The difficulty has been to see how the two relate to each other within the Jesus tradition.

78. E.g., D. Burkett, The Sonof Man Debate: A History and Evaluation (SNTSMS 107; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1999) quotes the pessimistic sentiments of A. J. B. Higgins, R. H. Fuller, and F. H. Borsch (2, 121).

79. Burkett, Son ofMan Debate particularly 13-31.

80. W. Horbury, The Messianic Association of "The Son ofMan'", JTS36 (1985) 3455, gives a nicely concise review of the twentieth-century discussion (34-36).

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