The phrase “the son of man” (o uios tou anthrōpou) occurs 82 times in the Gospels, and four additional times in the rest of the New Testament. In Hebrew, which Jesus may have been speaking, the term isben Adam, literally, son of Adam. There are four common viewpoints regarding what Jesus meant by this phrase: he could be calling himself a human, the Messiah, a prophet, or simply speaking of himself in the third person using idiomatic Hebrew or Aramaic. Allow me to briefly summarize these theories before proposing a fifth.
1. Son of Man = Human
First, it is often thought that by using the phrase, Jesus was pointing out that he was human. It should be immediately obvious that this cannot be exactly true. Though Jesus was fully human, he cannot have been simply making that claim by using the phrase “son of man.” Nobody goes around declaring “I am a human” unless they are not straight in the head. Generally, those who hold this view believe that Jesus did not actually say these things, but the second-century church added these saying to the Gospels in order to defend against the heresy of Doceticism, which claimed that Jesus was not fully human. There is a way for Jesus to call himself “the son of man” and mean that he is human, but before we consider that, let us look at the two other common understandings for the term “the son of man.”
2. Son of Man = Messiah
The second option is that in using the phrase, Jesus was calling himself the Messiah. This view leans heavily upon Daniel 7:13, which speaks of one like a son of man coming on the clouds from heaven. Since the angels say something similar about Jesus in Acts 1:9-11, many equate the prophecy of Daniel 7 to the Messianic ministry of Jesus. Again, there are a few problems with this view. First, Daniel writes of one “like” a son of man. This was actually a key text for the Docetic heresy just discussed. They pointed to this verse and said, “See? Jesus was not actually a man. He was only like a man. He only looked like one.” So although Jesus was the Messiah, it is dangerous to use this verse as a key text to explain the phrase “the son of man” as Messianic title. Besides, it is much more likely that with this image, Daniel was referring to the people of God as a whole. This does not mean that the title “the son of man” is not Messianic. It is; but not through the Daniel 7 route.
3. Son of Man = Prophet
Third, many view the title “the son of man” as a prophetic title. The phrase is frequently found in the Hebrew scriptures as title for prophets. This is especially true of Ezekiel. From this it is argued that when Jesus used the term, he was calling himself a prophet. Not much can be said against this view except that in the vast majority of the places where Jesus speaks of “the son of man” he seems to be saying more than “I am a prophet.”
4. Son of Man = I
Finally, some have argued that maybe the term simply means “I.” Scholars have noted that in Hebrew and Aramaic, the phrase “son of man” is frequently a term of self-designation. It is another way of saying, “I” or “me.” Of course, it can also be used to refer to someone else, as in “he” or “that person.” Since Jesus was mostly likely speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic, this is a likely option. And yet, it does not seem to fit all of the instances in the Gospels. It frequently seems that Jesus is implying much more than simply “I.”
So what does the title mean? The way forward is to see how Jesus uses other titles, terms, and symbols in his teaching and in his miracles. For a comprehensive discussion on this, read Jesus and the Victory of God by NT Wright, who argues that through everything Jesus said and did, he was pointing out that he was the new temple, the new priesthood, the new Torah, the new land, and the new King. Jesus took every prominent symbol of Judaism, and directed them all at himself.
This, I believe, is what Jesus meant by the term “the son of man.” He used it as a way of directing the symbol of “Israel as the people of God” directly toward himself. Jesus was using the term to refer to himself as a collective entity. He is the one in whom all Israel—indeed, all humanity—is fulfilled, and through whom all humanity has a new beginning. In him, Israel and the entire world have been freed from exile. As “the son of man” (ben Adam) Jesus is the new and true son of Adam. Where Adam failed and led the entire human race into captivity to sin and death, Jesus, as the son of Adam—the second Adam to use Paul’s terminology (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:47-49)—has brought life and freedom. When Jesus uses the term, he is referring not only to himself, but also to all those who will be in him. “The son of man” is an all-encompassing figure who is the representative of the entire human race.
In this way, the term is prophetic. Jesus is a prophet, speaking the will and word of God to the world. But it is more than prophetic. It is also Messianic. Only the Messiah can be the corporate and collective entity of all mankind. Which, of course, makes the term extremely human. Jesus was a man, but more than just a man. He was the representative of all people, in whom all humanity becomes fully human.
When Jesus speaks of “the son of man,” he is referring not only to himself, but to all humanity as well. A theologically-guided dynamic equivalent translation of “the son of man” could be “I, and all humanity with me.”
For more on this topic:
- Green, Joel; McKnight, Scot; and Marshall, I. Howard. “Son of God” in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992), 777-780.
- Wright, NT. Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 360-367, 512-519, 624-651.
- Young, Brad. Jesus the Jewish Theologian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 243-252.
- Flusser, David. The Sage from Galilee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 107-116.