The "Son of Man" and "Son of God" Phrases
Many verses include the phrase, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου: "the son (huios) of the man (anthropos)." This phrase occurs in over a hundred times in the Gospels. It appears as commonly in the synoptic Gospels as it does in John's Gospel. There is a bit of humor in it because basically Jesus refers to himself as "the child" rather than as a man, and it may be considered one of Jesus's catch phrases.
The phrase is actually "the son of the man", with an article before both nouns. In Greek, as in English, referring to someone as "the man" was a compliment with the sense that the person was an exceptional man or the head man. The humor here could have worked many different ways here depending on the intonation, but if someone referred to Jesus as "the man", he might refer to himself as "the child of the man", which is a humbler role. However, since Joseph held no position of power, Jesus is not likely referring to his earthly father.
In this article, we will also be discussing the "son of God" phrase as well. However, this phrase is used much less than the "son of man" phrase, around a score of time. Overwhelmingly, these uses are in John, where over 80% of them occur. We should also note, that the Greek term for "God" is almost always used with an article so "the God" is closer to the sense in Greek.
Both phrases are very simple Greek.
The Son of the Man
"The Son" is from huios, which means a "son," and more generally, a "child." Its specific meaning is "son" but it is generally used to mean a "child" generally, not just male children. However, it is also used to refer to the state of being a child, that is, what we describe as "childhood."
"Of man" is from anthropos, which is "man", "person," and, in plural, "mankind." It also means "humanity" and that which is human and opposed to that which is animal or inanimate. Again, the male sex is not a central element here. In the singular means, this word can refer to a specific "person" or to the entire race, "humanity." In plural, it becomes "people" and "peoples" as well as "men." Today, when people take more of an issue with the gender in language, the "person", "humanity," and "people" versions almost always work in translating Christ's words. The use of the word for "woman" is different than the word for men. In that Jesus uses it exclusively either to address a woman or to describe an activity performed by women.
Always ignored in Biblical translations is the use of the article "the" before "man". Though it is always translated as "the son of man," the Greek always reads "the son of the man." In other words, both words include the definite article "the." This is important because the definite article is much more definite in Greek than English. It is a form of the demonstrative pronoun ("this" and "that") in English. So the sense is closer to "the son of that man" or "this son of this man". You may want to read this article on the Greek article.
Since "man" also means "mankind" or "humanity", the phase could be the sense of "this son of this human race" but it is less likely to mean "the son of this people" because "people" would require the plural version of the Greek word for man.
Chronologically in the Gospels, Christ doesn't use this phrase at all in his first long sermon, the Sermon of the Mount. He uses it soon after while stating he has no place to lay his head. In the traditional fictionalized explanation of Christ's words, the phrase itself comes from an attack on Christ by the Pharisees that Christ re-purposes.
The Son of the God
The "son of God" phrase simply replaces the word for "man" with the Greek word for "God" (theos). Again, the definite article is always used with "God", so this cannot mean "the son of a god," but only "the son of the God," with the idea that there is only one God implied. "God" is from theos, which means "God," and "the Deity." This phrase could be translated as "the child of God" or "the child of divinity." Notice, however, that the phrase "childhood of divinity" doesn't work with this phrase like it does as "the childhood of humanity."
We reiterate that the word for "God", theos, is almost always used with the article ("the") before it. So the real form in this phrase is τοῦ θεοῦ "of the God" or "of this God." Jesus distinguished the God of the Judeans for all the others gods of the era by using the article.
However, in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus never refers to himself as "the son of God," though others do so. Only in John do we see Jesus using this phrase. However, John specifically tells us in John 20:31 that his purpose for writing is to testify that Jesus was the Christ and the son of God so we shouldn't be surprised. If we think of the synoptic Gospels primarily as the Christ's public teaching and John's Gospel as the private teaching shared only with the apostles, this makes sense some sense.
Old Testament Use
This exact phrase "the son of the man" is never used in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. What is used is the phrase without the definite articles, so "a son of a man." This is important because when Jesus quotes the Bible, the Greek text almost always follows the Septuagint word for word except in cases of minor paraphrasing to make a specific point. In Greek, the phrase "a son of a man" has a very different meaning than "the son of the man". In Greek the article is stronger than the article in English so the sense is even more specific, closer to "this son of this man" in English.
In the old testament, the "a son of a man" phrase is used to refer to all of humanity, often in the phrase "man and the son of man" with the idea of the descendants of the current generation (Num 23:19, Job 25:6, Psa 8:4, Psa 80:17, Psa 144:3, Isa 56:2, Jer 49:18, Jer 49:33, Jer 50:40, Jer 51:43, ).
However, in Ezekiel, its use changes. It is the name that God or the messenger of God ("the one who spoke) used to address Ezekiel. It is used dozens and dozens of times, more than all of the other Old Testament uses combined. The sense is that Ezekiel, as the "son of man", is a spokesperson of God to the planet, not only people but the animals as well.
In Daniel, the use of the term is like that of Ezekiel's in that it is used to address the prophet personally (Dan 8:17) by a figure in a vision. However, Daniel also says that the figure in the vision resembled the son of man in the clouds of heaven (Dan 7:13-14). The Son of Man vision is definitive in Christian prophecy:
- I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
In Matthew 24:30, Jesus clearly uses one aspect of this verse, specifically "the clouds of heaven" to describe the coming of "the son of the man". Comparing the Greek of Daniel in the Septuagint (here), we see that the same Greek words used to describe "the clouds of the heavens" and just as clearly "a son of a man" in Greek. For example, in both, "the heavens" or "the skies" is plural, not singular at is appears in English translation. However, there are also differences. Daniel used a preposition "with the clouds" while Christ uses a preposition meaning "upon" or "on the clouds."
The "son of God" phrase is used only once in the Old Testament in Dan 3:25, when it is used to describe a mysterious fourth figure seen with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar.
A General Role or a Specific Title
Generally, it is assumed that "son of man" is a "title," along with "son of God" that Jesus claims for himself. However, Jesus seems to claim that neither of these terms are titles exclusive for him.
The best example here is the "son of God" phrase. It is used more rarely than "son of man." Being a "son of God" is obviously a higher status title than "son of man." However, Jesus does apply it to others. Most clearly, when challenged on using the term "son of God", he quotes in John 10:34 from Psa 82:6, where the psalm says, "Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High." So Jesus sees "son of God" as a general term describing all men.
However, he also says that to be a "son of God", we must follow God. When his opponents claim to be the "sons of God" themselves, he says in John 8:42, that they are not "sons of God" because they do not love him and because he comes from God. Some people are "of God" and others simply are not, as in John 8:47 and in similar verses, though others are children of God as well. The Christ's role as the "child of God" is a special one because He alone came from God. The term is not unique but his claim on it is different.
Jesus does connect the idea of "the son of the man" being that "son of God" in John 3:16. Though the actual phrase "son of the God" is not used, Jesus refers to God giving his "only" son or, most specifically, unique son. So, while there may be many children of God, there is by definition, only one unique "son of God."
As we move to the more common term, "the son of the man," it seems as though this same rule applies. Christ is describing a special role but not a unique title that he alone can claim.
The Use of "the Son of Man" Phrase
The first reference of Jesus as to being "the Son of Man" is in Matthew 8:20 where he says he has no place on earth. This is after his longest "sermon", where the phrase is notably absent. He then uses the term referring to his power to forgive sins and as the lord of the Sabbath. He defines "the son of the man" as the one who sows the good seeds, with those seeds being his Word. The vast majority of his uses refer to the son of the man's coming. It is the only term he uses when predicting his future betrayal, death, and resurrection.
In reading the words of Jesus the Christ in the Greek, it appears that He is making a specific point in using the phrase "this child of this man." It is the very specific idea of a specific person in a specific place as opposed to someone playing a generic role in history. He is not any son of any man. He is the first to claim that title, but we can all think of ourselves as "this child of this man" to define our own separate roles in history. To understand this usage, we must look at the general ways in which this term is used.
If we accept that Jesus is only referring to himself as "the son of the man" or "this son of this man," his speech seems a little off. Generally, people who refer to themselves in the third person seem a little unbalanced. The more they do it, the more unbalanced they seem. One possible explanation was that this was a title given to him by others, perhaps in reference to the Son of Man prophecy of Daniel. However, another possibility is that this term arose from his enemies trying to brand him a bastard. Jesus uses this term so commonly that there is no way we can discuss them all, but we should cover certain special ones that seem to clarify how Jesus meant the term. Most of this discussion will focus on the Gospel of John. The reason for this is that John wrote his Gospel later than the others and much of it seems to focus on clarifying the Christ's role. His use of this term, therefore, seems more useful in determining its meaning.
Jesus first uses the term in John 3:13. This reference is particularly useful because he used the term here to refer to "one who has descended from heaven." While this may seem a role that he plays exclusively the larger context indicates something else. In the verses from John 3:3 to John 3:8, Jesus is explaining that humanity, in general, is born of both the flesh and the spirit. While in modern Christianity, we take this to mean that we must be born again in baptism, but the original Greek does not say "born again," but "born from above."
The confusion between "born again" and "born from above" comes the Greek term used. That word works something like our word "over." It means "over" in the sense of "above" and "over" in the sense of "again." However, Jesus clarifies this by saying that a man is born "of the spirit" as opposed to just "of the flesh." Some of this is lost in translation because the Greek word for "spirit" also means "wind" or "breath." Of course, God is spirit, not flesh (John 4:24).
If we think of this phrase as meaning "the child of humanity" or "childhood of humanity" as a concept, its lifting up (John 3:14) so people could believe in it (John 3:15), takes on a different sense. The sense of a person being held up as an example so the people could have faith that life is not flesh, but exists beyond the flesh as spirit. The child of humanity is the spirit that was born from above and gives us life after the death of the flesh.
This reference is instructive because of its close proximity to the first reference to the "son of God" in John 3:16. Notice however, that when he uses this term for the first time, he qualifies it as the "unique" Son of God. This makes it clear that the unique Son of God is also a child of humanity. However, "the child of humanity" term is not given as unique. Logically, not all children of God nor all children of humanity can qualify as the unique Son of God, but one child of humanity may also be the unique child of God.
Note how carefully Jesus the Christ in John delineates his two roles. As the Son of God, the Jesus raises the dead to life in John 5:25. But he is given the authority to judge humanity based upon his other role, that as the child of humanity immediately following in John 5:27.
In many cases, Jesus refers to the "son" and "father" without being specific. Indeed, in many of these verses, we may think we are seeing references to Jesus as the Son and God as the Father when the statements themselves could apply to any father and son--at least initially.
If we look at John 5:19 and John 5:20, they could describe any son learning from any Father. The uniqueness of the Father comes into play as the discussion turns to raising the dead and giving them life (John 5:21). However, even here, the role of "son" can be viewed as more generic. Though the son "gives life" and "have life within himself," these works can also be viewed generically in the sense that any child who becomes a parent gives life. Only when calling the dead from the tombs does the role become that of the Son of God.
Notice that Jesus doesn't get personal, that is, connecting these ideas to himself until John 5:30. After eleven verses of discussion about the Father and Son, Jesus suddenly starts referring to himself personally. What has changed? The topic is no longer the general relationship between God and his children but Jesus' specific role and what he can claim about it. Any child of God or child of humanity does these things as given this ability by God. However, in speaking for himself, offers evidence for his claim on these roles. The whole next section is about his evidence. It is all in the first person, not by title.