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.
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.
The early Greek-speaking church interpreted this phrase from the Gospels in much the same way. Ignatius, around A.D. 108, wrote that Jesus was both the “son of man” and “son of God ” (Ign. Eph. 20:2). The Epistle of Barnabas, written about A.D. 90-130, makes the contrast explicit: “See Jesus, not as son of man, but as Son of God” (Barn. 12:10). Consequently “son of man” was not a popular title for Jesus among members of the early church. Jesus was different from other men because he was divine, the Son of God, and that was the message the church was eager to communicate to the world.
Careful attention to the context of the Gospel passages containing “son of man” can lead to a deeper insight into what the title may mean. In Greek the phrase is ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου (ho huios tou anthrōpou, “the son of the man”), which some have supposed carried a prophetic connotation because “son of man” is used so frequently in the book of Ezekiel. Others recognized that it occurs in poetic passages as a synonym for “man” (e.g., Num. 23:19), and see it as nothing more than an ornate way of saying human being.
Many people have seen a connection with the “son of man” in Daniel, and stressed that the title must imply that Jesus was claiming to be the heavenly son of man seen in the vision of Daniel 7:13-14. The Daniel connection is unmistakable in Mark 14:62 where Jesus says that the son of man will be seen coming with the clouds of heaven. This is particularly interesting to Christians because it means Jesus was making a supernatural reference when he used the phrase. He was not trying to emphasize his humanity, but was referring to his heavenly origin. Daniel 7:13-14 reminds us just how powerful this implication can be:
I was having a vision in the night and I saw someone like a man [כְּבַר אֱנָשׁ literally, “like a son of man”], coming with the clouds of heaven. He reached the Ancient of Days and was presented to him. He was given authority, honor and kingship, and all peoples and nations of every language were worshiping him. His authority is an everlasting authority that will not pass away and his kingdom, one that will never be destroyed.
The interpretation based on a reference to Daniel is so satisfying to Christian faith that a Christian may be inclined at this point to stop and conclude that the riddle of the “son of man” is solved. In fact it is, but there is a challenge to that solution that one cannot simply ignore: many Semitic scholars contend it is historically impossible that Jesus used “son of man” as a title. These scholars argue that “son of man” cannot be understood as a title in the Gospels because in Jesus’ time it had already become normal idiom for “someone, a person” and so could not have been used as a title in either Aramaic or Hebrew.
Aramaic and Hebrew
Before evaluating that claim, we must explain a few facts about Aramaic and Hebrew. In Hebrew, “son of man” is בֶּן אָדָם (ben adam). It is a normal idiom in the language and simply means “a human being, a person, somebody, anybody.” The Aramaic בַּר אֱנָשׁ (bar enash) has exactly the same meaning. Both the Hebrew and Aramaic phrases are attested in the Bible, and both are used today in Israeli Hebrew. An idiomatic translation of Daniel 7:13 would read, “…someone like a human being, coming….”
In the Greek Synoptic Gospels the phrase “son of man” always occurs with “the,” while in Hebrew and Aramaic the phrase is usually without “the.” Many Semitic scholars argue that in Aramaic or Hebrew “the son of man is lord of the Sabbath” would be understood as a general claim that “any human being is lord of the Sabbath.” They feel that in Jesus’ day the definite article had already become weakened. In Eastern Aramaic dialects dating from the fourth-sixth century A.D., the word “the” lost much of its definiteness, which to some extent is also true of the generic article of Western Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew. In the Aramaic dialects, “the” often occurs in the phrase “the son of man” in the sense of “a.” Others argue that in Aramaic “the son of man” means “a certain man.”
There may be evidence that in the Hebrew of Jesus’ time “the son of man” was a normal idiom for “man/someone.” We find an interesting scribal addition to the text of a first-century B.C. Hebrew Dead Sea Scroll. The text reads:
“Who can comprehend your glory, and what is man [בֶּן אָדָם, ben adam, a son of man] compared with your wondrous works? Of what value in your eyes is one born of woman?” (Manual of Discipline, 1QS 11:20-21)
The scribe has corrected the text by adding -הַ (ha-, “the”) above the line to change ben adam to ben ha- adam (בֶּן הָאָדָם, “the son of man”). This may indicate that “the son of man” in the sense of “a human being” was a normal idiom of the scribe who was copying the scroll.
Some have looked to the Aramaic and Syriac (an Aramaic dialect) translations of the New Testament for clues to the background of “son of man.” Neither the Syriac Peshitta, Christian Palestinian Aramaic nor Old Syriac translate ho huios tou anthrōpou into normal Aramaic. The translators knew that the normal idiom would not fit. So the Christian Palestinian texts and Old Syriac used בְּרֵה דְּאנָשָׁא (bereh denasha, “a particular man’s son”; literally, “his son of the man”). We can assume that Jesus did not use such an Aramaic phrase for two reasons: first, it is not natural Aramaic and there is no clue as to why unnatural Aramaic would be used; second and most strongly, its puerile sense does not fit any of the Gospel contexts. The only thing that the Aramaic translators have done is to make the Aramaic sound as bad as the Greek.
The Peshitta translator used בְּרָה דְּאנָשָׁא (bera denasha, “the son of the man”). This fails for the same reasons as the Christian Palestinian and Old Syriac translations. Together, the differences in the three Aramaic translations confirm that they are not preserving a usage from Jesus. Rather, they are trying to translate a Greek phrase that they may not understand but know does not equal their normal idiom “son of man.”
A side issue concerns the fact that Jesus referred to himself in the third person: “the son of man”—rather than in the first person: “I.” Scholars are divided regarding the significance of this. Some say that Aramaic bar enash was a very polite way of referring to oneself. However, all the examples of this phrase being used by a speaker to refer to himself also include mankind in general. Thus, when a speaker refers to himself and says “a/the son of man can do such and such,” he is saying that a human can do such and such and that he is included in humanity.
Palestinian Aramaic dating from post-third century A.D. attests a special phrase for a speaker referring exclusively to himself: הַהוּא גַּבְרָא (hahu gavra, “that man”) and הַהִיא אֶתְּתָא (hahi eteta, “that woman”). Both phrases are idiomatic ways of saying “I” or “you.”
Some scholars have reasoned that if “son of man” cannot be a title in Aramaic or Hebrew, then those passages in the Gospels which are only understandable as titles must be secondary creations of the church and not real sayings of Jesus. From such a perspective, only those sayings where the meaning “mankind in general” and/or “I” fit the context are viewed as authentic.
But this whole approach stumbles on one major fact. Since the Greek-speaking church did not understand or approve of the title “son of man,” it could hardly have invented the title and attributed it to Jesus.
Jesus must have developed it, but that brings us back to the beginning. What did Jesus say in Hebrew or Aramaic, and what did it mean? How could he have used “son of man” as a title?
What is needed is a solution from Aramaic or Hebrew that can explain the Gospel texts in which Jesus uses “son of man” as a title. We then can investigate what special information that solution communicates.
In the time of Jesus three languages were used in the land of Israel: Hebrew, the tribal language; Aramaic, the business language and former prestige language of government; and Greek, the current prestige language of government. Since the turn of this century, Jewish scholars have been pointing out that Mishnaic Hebrew was alive and well during the Second Temple period. After the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Bar-Kochba letters, New Testament scholars have had to make room for this wider sociolinguistic picture. Those that have accepted the evidence from the Oral Torah, which is in Mishnaic Hebrew, have recognized that much or most of Jesus’ teaching would have been in this colloquial Hebrew. And this is what permits a full solution to the puzzle of the expression “son of man.”
If a man were speaking Hebrew and used the Aramaic phrase bar enash in the middle of his speech, his listeners would immediately recognize that the phrase was not the idiom “son of man, person, someone,” but something different, a title, something capitalized or in quotes. But that is only the beginning of what the speaker would be communicating.
Jews of the first century were conversant with the Holy Scriptures and knew them in the original languages. Most of the Jewish Scriptures were written in Hebrew, but a few sections are in Aramaic. Genesis and Jeremiah each contain a sentence of Aramaic, Ezra has about three chapters in Aramaic and Daniel is about half Aramaic. What is especially significant is that Daniel 7 is in Aramaic, and that the only example of the Aramaic bar enash in the Bible is in the passage Daniel 7:13-14. A Hebrew speaker would have been able to use bar enash and point unambiguously to the mysterious man in heaven of Daniel 7.
An English reader should not be distracted by the use of two languages in one conversation. Jews were bilingual for several hundred years, and many rabbinic stories change from Hebrew to Aramaic and back. With “son of man, bar enash,” we are only talking about “loan words,” much the same as one can say adios to some hombre in an American cowboy movie.
We can test this hypothesis of the use of an Aramaic phrase in Hebrew speech by looking at the passage in the Gospels where Jesus is first reported to have used the title “son of man.” In Matthew 9:6, Mark 2:10 and Luke 5:24, Jesus defends his healing of the paralytic and forgiving of sins by stating: “…that you may know that the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins….”
It is clear that Jesus is here speaking against the background of Daniel 7. The reference to “authority” recalls one of the main themes of that passage, and the explicit mention of “earth” becomes understandable as a contrast to the supernatural setting of the Daniel vision. If Jesus were only contrasting “human beings” with “God,” he would not have had to say “on earth.” The best explanation for why earth is mentioned is that the Danielic heavenly “son of man” is the background that Jesus assumes his audience to understand. Jesus then brought in “earth” as part of the new, salient information in his communication. The position in the sentence of the clause “on earth” also supports this interpretation. By using the Aramaic bar enash, Jesus was able to signal this background unambiguously. His hearers clearly were perceptive enough to follow, since they already had objected to his simpler passive statement, “Your sins are forgiven.”
We may conclude that Jesus used the Aramaic bar enash to refer to the heavenly person of Daniel 7, that he was able to use “son of man” as a title in Hebrew speech, and that the audience was able to understand him.
This solution—an Aramaic phrase used as a title in Hebrew speech—has been discovered independently by several scholars. The author came to the above conclusions while working on Gospel translations in Africa. Dr. Robert Lindsey had previously come to the same conclusion.
Here and there I have met others with such views, however it needs to be mentioned that not only is the above linguistic solution not accepted by a majority of scholars, but they do not even discuss it. This should change as people become more conscious that three spoken languages existed side-by-side in first-century Israel.
There is a common thread uniting the views of those who think that Jesus signaled Daniel 7 by using the Aramaic bar enash in the middle of Hebrew speech. Anyone who holds this view must assume that Jesus spoke or taught in Hebrew much of the time. That Jesus used Hebrew a significant amount of the time is a sociolinguistic conclusion that has a growing number of supporters in New Testament scholarship, but one that is still a minority opinion.
A translator also must ask how this whole discussion will affect translation. If he simply translates ho huios tou anthrōpou (based on the Aramaic bar enash) as “the Son of Man,” he may inadvertently communicate to his audience the opposite of what the Gospels teach. A reader might think, for instance, that the Son of Man is someone other than Jesus, since many cultures do not commonly have speakers refer to themselves with third-person titles. Even scholars have argued that Jesus referred to someone else, although that cannot be consistently maintained throughout the Gospels or in light of the known Jewish practice to allow such third-person use.
The other serious miscommunication would be to suggest that the title focuses exclusively on the humanity of Jesus. As seen above, the title does mean “man” but refers to a special “man in heaven.” A translator must test the reactions of readers in his target audience, and if the above two pitfalls occur then he needs to remedy the situation.
Several options are open. One is to translate woodenly but use a footnote and explain the usage when it is first encountered in a Gospel. This works well in societies that have been literate for generations and are accustomed to footnotes. It also has the advantage of preserving a continuity with earlier translations in that and other languages. A second option is to translate woodenly and use a glossary to explain the title. A third option is sometimes used in societies that are newly literate and do not have access to help materials. In such a situation, where the translation must communicate and stand or fall on its own, it is sometimes best to have Jesus say, “I, the Man of Heaven…,” or “I, the Man that the prophet Daniel spoke about….”
Jesus made a strong messianic claim when he said that he was the “son of man.” As a phrase “son of man” means “man,” but as a title it refers to the heavenly being of Daniel 7, to that person who is “like a man” but something much more. When one looks at all the depth of relationships implied in that term, one can appreciate the power of Jesus’ favorite designation of himself. It is a title pregnant with the incarnation, God becoming Man.
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.
-  See for example, M. H. Segal, “Mishnaic Hebrew and its Relation to Biblical Hebrew and to Aramaic,” in Jewish Quarterly Review Old Series XX (1908-9): 647-737. ↩
-  See the discussion in Robert Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark (2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Dugith, 1973), xx, 71-73, reissued on JP as Robert L. Linsesy, “Introduction to A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark.” ↩