“Son of Man”: Jesus’ Most Important Title

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Not only is "son of man” one of the most important phrases in the Bible, it is one of the most misunderstood and disputed. Rooms could be filled with all the books and articles written on this subject. Translators are not immune to fascination with this phrase, and the meaning of “son of man” is a perennial topic of debate. We are keen to understand it because it is the phrase that Jesus used for himself more than any other. A full understanding of “son of man” reveals what Jesus knew about himself and increases our appreciation of how he communicated his message.

Revised: 25-Oct-2013
מְתֻרְגְּמָן Meturgeman is Hebrew for translator. The articles in this series illustrate how a knowledge of the Gospels’ Semitic background can provide a deeper understanding of Jesus’ words and influence the translation process.

Not only is “son of man” one of the most important phrases in the Bible, it is one of the most misunderstood and disputed. Rooms could be filled with all the books and articles written on this subject.

Translators are not immune to fascination with this phrase, and the meaning of “son of man” is a perennial topic of debate. We are keen to understand it because it is the phrase that Jesus used for himself more than any other. A full understanding of “son of man” reveals what Jesus knew about himself and increases our appreciation of how he communicated his message.

Many Interpretations

There are many interpretations of the meaning of “son of man,” and people bring to the discussion different presuppositions. If I were to ask a “common man in the church” what the Gospels mean by “son of man,” he would probably respond that it refers to the humanity of Jesus. Since “Son of God” is used throughout the New Testament and refers to Jesus’ divinity, then wouldn’t “son of man” be the opposite and refer to Jesus’ humanity? There is nothing wrong with this line of reasoning as far as logic goes, but it is based on insufficient information.

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Bibliography

Two commonly quoted articles concerning this subject are:

  • Carsten Colpe, “ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 8:400-477.
  • Geza Vermes, “The Use of bar nash/bar nasha in Jewish Aramaic,” in Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (3rd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 310-328.

Two articles related to the sociolinguistics of first-century Israel are:

  • Chaim Rabin, “Hebrew and Aramaic in the First Century,” in The Jewish People in the First Century (eds. Shmuel Safrai and Menahem Stern; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 2:1007-1039.
  • Randall Buth, “Language Use in the First Century: The Place of Spoken Hebrew in a Trilingual Society,” in Notes On Scripture In Use 12 (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1987): 25-42.
Dr. Buth has published another essay on the meaning of “son of man” in the Gospels since this article was first published: Randall Buth, “A More Complete Semitic Background for בר־אנשא, ‘Son of Man,'” in The Function of Scripture in Early Jewish and Christian Tradition (ed. Craig A. Evans and James A. Sanders; Sheffield: Sheffield, 1998), 176-189.

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