Unlike the “son of God” phrase that Jesus only used six times, and only four times to describe himself (see this article), Jesus uses the phrase, "the son of the man," (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, o huios tou anthropou) to refer to himself about eighty-six times in the Gospels. It appears as commonly in the synoptic Gospels as it does in John's Gospel. While we were able to look at every reference to “the son of God,” it would take an entire book to do this for “the son of man.”
As we mentioned in the article on “the son of God,” referring to yourself in the third person is called illeism. Jesus’s use of “the son of man” is illeism on steroids. It indicates either idiocy (“Elmos loves you!”), raging narcissism, (“Dali is immortal and will not die.”) or self-deprecating humor ("Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?"). Of course, since this is Jesus, he uses it primarily as self-deprecating humor.
The humor is right on the surface. Jesus refers to himself as "the child" rather than as a man. He used it so often, that it had to be considered by his listeners a “catchphrase” (see this article) because of its frequent repetition. The joke may have been that because he uses humor so much, he seems more like a child than a man.
The Greek: The Son of the Man
The phrase is actually "the son of the man," with an article before both nouns. The use of the article is very important in Greek, much more important than in English (see this article). It is closer to the demonstrative article (“this” or “that”) than our English “the.” Many of Jesus verses are often easier to understand if we replace a “the” with a “this.” Indeed, the oddness of Jesus referring to himself in the third-person decreases if we translated this phrase as “this son of the man.” It becomes then a specification of himself, rather than a simple third-person reference to himself.
"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” not just male children, especially in the plural. However, it is also used to refer to the state of being a child, that is, what we describe as "childhood." However, it was also used to describe the relationship of an adult child to a parent. We are still children of our parents when we are no longer children. We should also note that "son" and "father" in Greek are inclusive of all generations. So someone is the "son" of their father, their grandfather, great-grandfather, and so on. A"father" can be any of the past generations, going back to Abraham is Jesus's case. This fact plays into Jesus words in many different verses and it may also play in this phrase.
The “of” is from the form of the words “the man.” They are in the genitive case, which requires a preposition to translate into English. The most common is the "of" of possession. However, it can also mean "belonging to," "part of," and so on. It does not always indicate possession, but it does in this phrase.
"Man" is from anthropos, which is "man," "person," and, in plural, "mankind." It also means human as 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" of any sex. In the plural, it becomes "people" and "peoples" as well as "men."
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." This is important because the phrase “the man” has a specific meaning in ancient Greek, very like its meaning in English. When we tell someone that they are “the man” it is a compliment. It was in Greek as well. We describe a person or group in charge as “the man.” This was also true in Greek. The term could mean the one in charge in a hierarchy.
The dropping of the article in English translation may have resulted from the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible that was the official text for over a thousand years in the West. Latin has no definite article. So the religious people translating the Bible in English, though working from the Greek, were more familiar with the Latin form, which would have been simply “son of man” not “the son of the man.”
In at least one verse, John 5:27, biblical translations add a "the" before "son" to make it seem as though Jesus is using his typical reference to himself. In that verse, relating to Jesus's authority for judging people, Jesus says he is given that power because he is "a son of a man." Both of the definite articles are intentionally not used. In other words, he can judge other people because he is human.
The humor in this phrase could have worked many different ways here depending on which words were emphasized and the context. We know the first time Jesus uses this term, but the exact context in unclear. It appears in Matthew 8:20 (echoed in Luke 9:58):
KJV: The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
Literal: The vixens have dens and the winged ones of the sky, perches. But this child of the man? He doesn't have anywhere, this head, he might recline.
This comes soon after the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, but he doesn’t use this phrase are all the “sermon” itself. He actually doesn’t use any third-person references in it.
Who Is “The Man?”
I am tempted to save this discussion until a later article, but we might as well deal with the mystery up front.
So, who is the man?
If someone referred to Jesus as "the man," complimenting him,“the man” could refer to himself. Jesus might have called himself "the child of the man" to put himself in a humbler role. He was a man when working as a housebuilder, but, as a teacher, he was just a child. Evidence for the "second childhood" explanation of this phrase might be seen in Matthew 11:25:
KJV: I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
Literal: I confess myself to you, Father, master of sky and the earth. Because you concealed these from wise ones and educated ones and you disclosed them to babies.
However, this argument would be stronger if Jesus hadn’t specifically used the term for “babies” here instead of children.
Could Jesus have been referring to his earthly father, Joseph? This would make the phrase a compliment to his dead father. However, this seems unlikely. Nothing is recorded in the Bible to give us the sense that Joseph had distinguished himself in a way to earn this title. The Gospel writers didn’t note anything.
Indeed, the lack of explanation by the Gospel writers is interesting. They either didn’t understand this reference themselves or they thought that their readers understood it. Or maybe they did tell their readers, but, reading the Bible today, we miss it.
Who was “the man” in Judean history? Abraham? Moses? Isaiah? Who was “the man” in terms of the promised “anointed one?” There was only one: "the man" was King David. This is why two of the Gospels trace Jesus’s ancestry back to David. This phrase may have been a very subtle and humorous way of referring to himself as the expected anointed one, descending from David, a joke that insiders would get but that would confuse his opponents are arouse no fear among the Roman.
It is unlike that “the man” here refers to “humanity” or to the Judean people. While anthropos can refer to humanity as opposed to animal life, the definite article destroys that meaning. There is no “this humanity.” There is only one. The Bible’s translates it as “the son of man,” which seems to refer to humanity, but this only works because they cut the definite article. Could it mean “this people” referring to the Judean people? Only if anthropos was plural.
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 12:28, Jesus refers to this verse by using an uncommon Greek verb from it used in the phrase "came to the ancient of days" in the Greek version of this verse. In Matthew 24:30, Jesus clearly uses another 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 the man" is a "title," along with "son of the 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 the God" is obviously a higher status title than "son of the man." However, Jesus does apply it to others. Most clearly, when challenged on using the term "son of the 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 the 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.
His Use of "the Son of Man" Phrase
The first reference of Jesus as being "the Son of the 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.
In John, 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."
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 "has 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.