Part of the problem appears to be that different individuals in the early Christian movement had different ideas about what the title "Son of Man" actually meant. The OT literature, the NT literature and the intertestamental apocrypha all seem to use the term in different ways. We begin with its use in the OT.
Uses of "Son of Man" in OT literature:
There are three different ways that the phrase "Son of Man" is used in the Old Testament1.
Firstly it is used as a perjorative (Job 25:4-6):
How then can a mortal be righteous before God?
How can one born of woman be pure?
If even the moon is not bright
and the stars are not pure in his sight,
how much less a mortal, who is a maggot,
and a son of man2, who is a worm!’
Secondly as an honorific emphasising human beings as being next to God in the order of creation (Ps. 8:3-6):
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
sons of men that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet.
And thirdly in an apocalyptic or eschatological sense (Dan. 7:13-14):
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a son of man
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
First thing to note is that the first two uses of the term (lowly creature, creature slightly beneath god) don't really seem to influence any of the New Testament uses of the term. Daniel - with its use of the "son of man" in an apocolyptic context - seems like a much better fit. However, could the litany of New Testament uses of the term really all be derived from a single passage in Daniel? Could the NT authors have been inspired by a somewhat more contemporary source?
Uses of "Son of Man" in intertestamental literature:
The intertestamental period (i.e. the very rough period of some 200 years between the penning of the last books of the OT and the first books of the NT) was actually a period of great literary creativity within the Jewish faith. Although most of this material remained at the fringes of acknowledged scripture within both the Jewish and Christian faiths, that is not to say that it wasn't a great influence on (and, indeed, reflection of) the thought of the day.
The intertestamental work of greatest relevence to the issue at hand is surely the book of 1 Enoch. Although doubts and controversies about the date and manner of its composition linger, there is good reason to believe that the oldest sections of the work (mainly from 1 En. 1-36, aka the Book of Watchers) were penned at some point near the beginning of the 3rd century BCE and it was probably completed in something approaching its surviving form by the end of the first century BCE.
Its relevence to the topic at hand is that it appears to present a quite developed eschatology centered (in part) around a figure titled "the Son of Man"3. While clearly sometimes inspired by the passage from Daniel, the author(s) of The Book of Parables (1 Enoch 37-71) flesh the figure of "the Son of Man" out in a way that often startlingly resembles later Christian understanding of the term. This "Son of Man" is described as a pre-existing being who has a rank higher than the angels, as "the Elect One" and - perhaps - even as a messianic figure (48:10, 52:4). He is described as having "righteousness", is depicted as sitting on a throne at the right hand of God, where he has the wicked brought before him in judgment to be shamed. The parallels between the understanding of "the Son of Man" in 1 Enoch and the gospels (at least the first way that the term is used in the gospels - see below) are there for all to see.
But could such a work have really influenced Christian thought? It seems likely that the work was popular in early Christian circles, as it has the distinction of being the only non-OT work cited in the entire NT (in Jude 1:14) and is cited as authoritative scripture (a precursor to canonicity) by many early early church fathers. Even Jesus' own thought may have been directly influenced by 1 Enoch, or at least the exegetical philosophy that gave rise to it. To quote Raymond Brown4:
All this evidence suggests that in apocolyptic circles of the 1st century AD, the portrayal in Dan 7 had given rise to the picture of a messianic human figure of heavenly pre-existent origin who is glorified by God and made a judge. Against that background Jesus, if he was familiar with apocolyptic thought, could have used "Son of Man" terminology. He need not have read the Parables of 1 Enoch, but only have been aware of some of the burgeoning reflection on Dan 7 that gave or would give rise to the presentation of the Son of Man in the Parables [and elsewhere].
We now finally move onto the use of the term "Son of Man" in the New Testament.
Uses of "Son of Man" in NT literature:
One of the most confusing aspects of the use of this title in the NT is that it is extremely frequent in the Gospel literature (appearing some 80 times) but appears just three times outside of the gospels (excluding Acts). Why this title appears so frequently in the Gospels but not in other early Christian literature (both within and outside of the NT) is one of the most mysterious questions surrounding this title.
NT treatment of "Son of Man" outside the gospels - As I have already mentioned, the phrase "Son of Man" appears just three times outside of the gospels and Acts. These appearances are Hebrews 2:6, Revelation 1:13 and Revelation 14:14, all of which appear to be direct allusions to the OT passages posted above. Hebrews 2:6 is taken directly from Psalm 8:4 (a popular Psalm in the early Christian community) and the passages in Revelation appear to have been inspired by the apocolyptic use of the term in Daniel 7:13. That is, in contrast to the use of the title in the Gospels, the rare use of the title outside of the gospels can be traced back directly to the way it is used in the OT: why is its use in the gospels so different?
NT treatment of "Son of Man" within the gospels - In addition to the earlier fact that it is used so frequently, there are two vital facts we must note about the use of the term in the Gospels.
Firstly (with the possible exceptions of Mk. 2:10 and Jn. 12:34) the term "Son of Man" is only placed on the lips of Jesus - that is, it appears nowhere in the general narrative or on the lips of other characters within the gospel. It is a term almost completely peculiar to the purported sayings of Jesus. Secondly, as J.D. Kingsbury notes, no person ever addresses Jesus as the "Son of Man" and Jesus never makes any attempt to address its meaning5. The precise significance of these facts is difficult to ascertain, but they may be important in piecing how the term came to be used within the gospel literature.
With that in mind, there are two main ways in which the title is employed within the gospels6. Firstly as a reference to some future eschatological being "who is to come" (e.g. Mk. 8:38; 13:26; 14:62), an understanding probably derived from the apocalyptic passage in Daniel. Often in these passages the most straightforward reading is that Jesus is referring to a third person, eg. Mk. 8:38:
'Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
It takes a very contrived reading of the text to assume that Jesus here is referring to himself.
On the other hand, most of the passages featuring the phrase "Son of Man" do appear to be third-person references made by Jesus about himself. These are passages which refer to "unique events in the story of Jesus' suffering and death, so that 'son of man' seems to be only a roundabout way of saying 'I'"7. With all that in mind, how do we square these different usages and account for the inconsistent yet frequent use of the term throughout the gospels?
It's difficult to say for certain, and about all we can say about the issue with any confidence is that the understanding of the term within the early Christian community was confused, and this confusion is demonstrated by its inconsistent use both between and within each of the gospels. On the other hand, the frequency with which it is used probably suggests that the term goes back to Jesus and the idea that all instances of the term "son of man" were anachronistic inserts by the gospel authors probably doesn't hold much merit.
One possible explanation for the data is that Jesus actually did reference a "son of man" figure quite frequently throughout his ministry, and his understanding of this figure was furnished by the eschatological uses of the term in Daniel and 1 Enoch. In other words, he believed that the eschaton would bring with it "one like the son of man" as a cosmic judge, to be given dominion of the Earth during the coming Kingdom of God (e.g. Mk. 8:38; 13:26). After his death, the failure of the eschaton to manifest itself and the growing belief in the Christian community concerning the parousia8 and higher Christological views, this "son of man" ceased being associated with a heavenly agent of the eschaton and instead started being linked to Jesus himself.
Firstly the apocolyptic "son of man" sayings (which plausibly originated with Jesus) were transformed into expectations of Jesus' return as that son of man, and secondly other sayings were invented linking the "son of man" to events in Jesus' life (usually by the means of having Jesus "predict" these events, while referring to himself with this third person title). Though the evidence available to support this position is hardly unequivocal, it does have the virtue of explaining:
- Why the term is so frequent in the gospels (it originated with Jesus, and may have formed an intergral part of his overall eschatology).
- Why only Jesus uses the term and why no-one else applies it to him.
- Why the term is so inconsistently and confusingly applied.
Now if I've done this properly, you should be more confused about the term "Son of Man" than ever. Hopefully, though, my argument becomes more apparent as we progress through the gospels and encounter more specific instances of how it is used by the gospel authors.
1 - Taken from The Five Gospels by Funk et al., pp. 76-77.
2 - In some translations the phrase is rendered as "human beings" or "mortals", but the original Hebrew is ben 'adam (בן אדם), literally the "Son of Adam" (where "adam" refers both to the mythical first man of Genesis and is the Hebrew word for mankind more generally).
3 - One problem is that much of the material concerning the "Son of Man" was not found amongst the manuscripts of 1 Enoch discovered at the Qumran site, leading some scholars to suggest that the "Son of Man" material might not have been original to the book and may have therefore been redacted by later Christian authors. However, such a conclusion is hasty in my opinion, as the "Son of Man" material exists within the lastest layers of 1 Enoch, and the Qumran manuscripts may therefore simply represent an earlier stage of the work, an explanation that fits in with our current understanding of how the work was developed in successive stages.
4 - An Introduction to New Testament Christology, pp. 95-96.
5 - The Christology of Mark, pp. 166-179.
6 - Funk et al., p. 77.
7 - Ibid.
8 - i.e. Jesus' second coming.