Glossary of Terms

Son of man


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Son of man, a term with a variety of meanings in the Bible. The New Testament usage of the term ‘Son of man’ is at first sight simple enough. With one exception (Acts 7:56) and apart from the citation of Ps. 8:4 in Heb. 2:6 and an allusion to Dan. 7:13 in Rev. 2:13, the term is used exclusively by the earthly Jesus in reference to himself. It is usual to classify these occurrences in the synoptic Gospels under three headings:

  1. sayings in which Jesus refers to his present activity during his earthly ministry (e.g., Mark 2:12 and parallels; 2:24 and parallels; also Matt. 8:20 [Q] and 11:19 [Q]);
  2. sayings in which Jesus refers to his impending passion and/or resurrection (Mark 8:31 and parallels; 9:9 and parallels; 9:31 and parallels; 10:33 and parallels); and
  3. sayings in which he refers to his future activity as judge and Savior at the end (e.g., Mark 8:38; cf. Luke 12:8 [Q]; Mark 13:26 and parallels; 14:62 and parallels).

In John ‘Son of man’ as a self-referent of Jesus has a more varied usage, the most characteristic being those sayings that speak of the exaltation of the Son of man, an expression that makes a double allusion to the cross and exaltation (John 3:14; 8:28;12:34). John 1:51 looks like an original Parousia saying (third category above) transferred to the present ministry (first category). John 6:53 speaks of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of man, and John 9:35 (if the text is correct) of believing in the Son of man.

The difficulties begin when one asks the origin of the term. Is it authentic to Jesus? If so, in what sense did he use it? Regarding the origin of the term, it is widely held, especially among German scholars, that the term ‘Son of man’ was already current in pre-Christian, Jewish apocalyptic writings (Dan 7:14; The Similitudes of Enoch). Here already the Son of man appears as God’s end-time agent of salvation and judgment. British scholars, in particular, often argue that the only pre-Christian example is Daniel, but that there the ‘Son of man’ stands for Israel as a corporate entity. The Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71) do not appear in early versions of Enoch.

It has therefore been argued by some British scholars that there was no pre-Christian, apocalyptic concept of a ‘Son of man,’ and that therefore no light is cast by such sources on the way Jesus used that phrase. Jesus must have used ‘Son of man’ as a simple self-designation, perhaps as a self-effacing way of referring to himself simply as a human being (cf. Ps. 8:4). This usage could account for both the present and suffering references. Sometimes, in this view, the future sayings are explained as post-Easter developments under the influence of Dan. 7:14.

Those who accept the view that there was a pre-Christian apocalyptic concept of a ‘Son of man’ sometimes argue that Jesus used it of a transcendental figure other than himself (see esp. Mark 8:38; Luke 12:8 [Q], where Jesus appears to distinguish between himself and the coming Son of man). This coming Son of man will vindicate Jesus’ present offer of final salvation to his contemporaries. After Easter and the rise of an explicit christological faith in Jesus, it is held, his followers saw in him his own vindicator and therefore identified him with the apocalyptic Son of man.

Yet another current view is that Jesus did not use the term ‘Son of man’ at all, either as a self-designation or in reference to a coming figure distinct from himself. It was, in this view, the post-Easter community that first introduced the term ‘Son of man’ to the Jesus tradition in the apocalyptic sense. In both the last mentioned views the present and suffering sayings must have developed out of the future sayings by retrojecting the title into Jesus’ earthly life. As this survey indicates, there is no unanimity among scholars at present either as to the origin or the exact meaning of the title ‘Son of man.’


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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