By Rachel Bargiel

A study of the Gospels indicates a seeming contradiction surrounding the nature and person of Jesus of Nazareth.  He often refers to himself as "Son of Man," or uses the term as if speaking about an unidentified third person.  Followers of his movement refer to him as "Lord" or "Son of God;" bystanders call him "Rabbi;" his opponents accuse him of claiming "sonship" with God.

These references often go unnoticed and are considered as relatively insignificant by some lay persons and students of the biblical text.  But scholarly research reveals that "Son of Man" is a concept which originated in, and was supported by, the Hebraic culture, religion, and mindset (as opposed to the Greco/Roman "Hellenistic" world view, from which Christianity arose, and out of which came the use and popularization of the "Son of God" title).

To shed some light on this discrepancy, the following is an attempt to 1) present the symbolic world views from which these terms emerged by exploring the ancient sources which expand their historical definitions; and 2) to propose a hypothesis that the words of Jesus can only be clearly understood in the context of his role as a first-century Pharisaic teacher (and healer), who obviously used rabbinical methods of instruction and offered his personal authoritative interpretations, often challenging those of his contemporaries.


Apocalyptic literature arose out of periods of "popular unrest, armed confrontation and oppressive occupation."  In this highly-charged political environment, which resulted in catastrophic social upheaval for first-century Judea, a world view and "orientation toward God" manifested itself in a preoccupation with the "end times." (Fredriksen, p. 82.)  This is what scholars refer to as "apocalyptic eschatology" or "apocalypticism" which is specifically defined as "revelations or disclosures of God's hidden knowledge of the End." (Scholem, pg 6.)  Time and time again, within Judaism, apocalyptic texts emerged from an "acute Messianism" which was the result of specific historical circumstances.  This messianism was the hope that the End was about to break through in the immediate future--"transcendence into history"--causing a catastrophic transition involving destructive events, which would then result in a restructured world and utopian era. (Scholem, pg 7.)  This "national eschatology" included: 1) the reinstitution of the Davidic kingdom; 2) the future glory of Israel reclaimed, as it returned to the ways of God; and 3) everlasting peace as all nations turned from idolatry to the God of Israel.  (Scholem, pg 5.)  When one gets a sense of these Messianic motifs in the world view of Jesus and his followers, the picture becomes quite clear.

According to Fredriksen, "Son of Man" is "notoriously obscure," meaning that when modern students question Jesus' use of the term, his intention is not clearly understood.  In the Hebrew language, "son of man" is ben adam; it is simply translated as a "human being" or "mortal man."  The term is also used in several Jewish apocalyptic works (including, but not limited to, Ezekiel, Daniel, Esdras, and Enoch) and in these instances refers to one of several concepts. (Fredriksen, pg 138.)

In Ezekiel, "son of man" is used often as an emphatic salutation or address from God to the prophet.  In Daniel, which was written in Aramaic, kebar enosh is translated as "like a son of man."  This figure represents a Messianic king "coming on the clouds of heaven" or a "non-human hero figure" (Fredriksen, pg 84), to whom God gave "an everlasting dominion, glory, and kingdom..." extending collectively to the "qadishay elyonin" (literally translated as "the holy ones of the Most High") (Daniel 7:13-18).

According to S. R. Driver, acclaimed Semitic linguist, writing in the International Critical Commentary, the term "son of man" is frequently used in extra-Biblical sources.  He supplies the following quote from Enoch 46:1:
Enoch, according to popular legend and based on the account in Genesis, had been translated directly to heaven; he spoke of the renovation of Jerusalem and the judgment by the Son of Man in the end of days. (Fredriksen, pg 84.)  Driver also adds, "Without doubt this was the primitive Judaistic understanding of the statement of the Lord at his trial" (referring to Mark 14:63, where Jesus, when questioned at his trial before the high priest, admits to being Messiah, "...the Son of the Blessed...the Son of be seated at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven...") (Driver, pg 320.).

Therefore, the "'Son of man' was a man-like eschatological judge...the highest conception of the Redeemer ever developed by ancient Judaism...and, in Judaism, the Son of Man was frequently understood as the Messiah." (Flusser, pg 103, 104.)  Dr. Flusser, an Orthodox Jew and renowned authority in New Testament Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, writes:
Fredriksen mentions that except for the Gospel narratives, "son of man" only appears in the new Testament in three other places: once in Acts 7:56, during the stoning of Stephen (who equates the "son of man" with Jesus, standing at the right hand of God) and twice in the Book of Revelation which mentions "one like a son of man" in both accounts. (Fredriksen, pg 84.) (Notice the consistency of the traditions is preserved in all the texts, which read, "one like a son of man"--with the exception of the account of Stephen's vision in Acts, where "son of man" is identified specifically as Jesus.)


The popular belief that Messiah would restore Israel to its former glory and oust the oppressive pagan rule over Judea became the most central, and decisive, factor in Jesus' struggle to complete his mission; ultimately, it decided his fate.  It was this issues of messianic "kingship" that set him at odds with Temple authorities and the Romans.  The Sadducean priesthood was despised by every one; it was politically and religiously corrupt.  Jesus, "this prophet from Galilee, publicly (and successfully) ... foretold the decline of the priestly caste, and the destruction of the Temple." (Flusser, pg 111.)  He actively struck a blow against the Temple, and by implication, Roman authority, when he attempted to drive the traders from the sanctuary.  The people, because of his powerful healing abilities, had become so impressed that they wanted to make him king--clearly a threat to the political stability of the region.  The Gospel of John seems to indicate that Jesus' activity and his popular following would result in a "national revolt," provoking the intervention of Roman authorities, which would ultimately lead to the destruction of the nation and the Temple itself.  Apparently, the Temple authorities were required to suppress Jesus' movement to preserve the delicate balance of power imposed upon Judea by Rome.  By this, one could easily assume that Jesus had a substantial number of followers, given the priests' fears in his claiming kingship. (Brandon, pp 127, 128.)  Kingship was the sole issue at his trial; this claim, though "not of this world," still was understood as a seditious act against Rome and connected him with a fundamental principle of the radical Zealot movement. (Brandon, pg 138.)

The Jewish authorities understood, because of their exposure to oral law codes, what was implied by many of Jesus' actions.  For example, his reference to God as "Abba" (the Aramaic equivalent of "Daddy") implies his unique position of intimacy with the Father.  (Generally, God was only addressed in the collective sense as "Our father," or "Avinu" in Hebrew.)  His entry into Jerusalem as the "triumphant King of Zion" and the noisy throng of well-wishers caused great alarm and dismay among the Pharisees, as they were fully aware of the prophetic significance of this public display.  (There exists standing rabbinic authority pertaining to Zechariah 9:9 which states, "if Israel deserved it, the Messiah would come with the clouds of heaven or, if otherwise, riding upon an ass (Sanh. 98a)." (Driver, pg 321.)  Also, when Jesus forgives the sins of the man on Sabbath (Luke 5:24) and claims "authority on earth" to do so, he is definitely and clearly implying his unity with God.  In Tanakh, the Hebrew word for "forgive" is salach and was only used in conjunction with God forgiving or pardoning; only He had that authority. (Blizzard, tp. 3.)  The Pharisees readily charged him with blasphemy because they, as well as the general populace, were aware of a whole body of rabbinical literature, stemming from the contemporary Judaism of the time.

The disciples surely understood him to be "King Messiah" as shown in the inquiry of James and John "that they be allowed to sit on his right and left hand in the kingdom and in their expectation on the Mount of Olives that the Risen Jesus was about to restore the kingdom to Israel." (Brandon, pg 188.)  They had seen his miracles and had witnessed visions from heaven and voices from on high.  This was a well-known phenomenon with miracle workers of his day, according to tradition. (Fredriksen, pg 140.)  His use of common rabbinical "parallelisms" indicated that his audiences understood him to be clearly alluding to his "higher" self-perception, not by proclamation, but rather by active demonstration. (Blizzard, tp. 6.)


"Son of God" does not appear as a title in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament).  The Aramaic term lebar elohin in Daniel 3:25 is literally translated, "like a son of the gods," but is rendered "like a divine being" in the Tanakh.  Returning to Mr. Driver's commentary on the Book of Daniel, "son of Deity" is "... entirely genuine to Aramaic Paganism... as to the theological interpretation of the son of God, the Jewish commentaries identify him simply as an angel." (Driver, pp 214, 215.)

"Sons of God" is quite another matter in Judaism.  There are several references in the Tanakh to "sons of god" or sons of the living God" (Genesis 6, Job 1-2, Hosea 1).  "Sons of God is curiously translated in Tanakh as "divine beings;" it can only be assumed from the prior statement that these were identified as angelic beings.  In Scripture, "sons of God" could refer to angels, monarchs, prophets, just men, and the entire nation of Israel. (Fredriksen, pg 140.)

So, the term, "Son of God" is principally Hellenistic.  According to Burton Mack, the term "son of God" was applied to a wide range of special figures in the Greco-Roman world, including "gods, ideal types, and personification of human capacities held to be divine."  Its origin was in the "ancient Near Eastern mythologies of divine kingship... the king was imagined to be the son of the high god."

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., Jesus' movement redefined its message and incorporated its message in doing so.  The Jewish communities were disbursed and these displaced persons fled from Judea into the north, east, and south.  The Gentiles which entered the Christ movement brought with them their culture (along with the significant changes that resulted from Hellenistic Judaism).  Christian communities separated themselves from their "antecedent" religious cultures, forming a movement that was neither Jewish nor Greek; it reclassified its teachings surrounding the significance of Jesus' resurrection. (Brandon, pg xii.) "Son of God" came to imply something greater than a royal Davidic king; it represented Jesus as a "unique, pre-existent, divine entity." (Brandon, pg 140.)  The term "Son of God" had come to be used for Jesus as the Christ in respect to his divine nature and father's approval of his mission into the world...;" it became a "pattern of destiny on the model of Hellenistic deities and their missions." (Mack, pp 283,284.)  It centered solely on his mission after his resurrection.

+ + + +

It is evident that Brandon, Fredriksen, and Mack have explored in great depth the historical and social framework within which the New Testament was written.  They propose many hypotheses and make numerous assumptions based upon their studies.  The data they have compiled is an invaluable tool in forming a context for Jesus and the Judaism of his day.  Undertaking a study of the ancient apocalyptic and rabbinical texts is imperative in understanding the full impact of Jesus' words upon his audiences, as they were surely familiar with these earlier writings.  (This can be deduced from traditions governing the educational processes for Jewish children.)

Unfortunately, today much of what is reported in the New Testament is misunderstood, based on one's particular religious bias and orientation.  (To illustrate: when comparing translations of the Book of Daniel, Jewish scholars refer to the "holy ones of the Most High" as "Israel" and Christian scholars use the term "saints.")  It is understandably difficult for Jews to look at Jesus' words in any context because of the Church's reinterpretation of his mission, notwithstanding its ugly response, historically, to the Jewish people.  It is also difficult for the Church to orient Jesus properly as a first-century Pharisaic rabbi with a seemingly elevated self-consciousness, as it would threaten the very doctrinal foundations of ecclesiastical Christianity.

This perplexing dilemma can be evidenced when these writers only briefly touch or consider the concept of "Son" in Judaism.  "Son" used as an idiom is common in Judaism. (Driver, pg 319.)  According to Dr. Flusser (who devotes an entire chapter to this concept), it was widely accepted during the Second Temple Period.  A great tension existed between the "miracle-working charismatics and the class of scribes; the miracle-worker was seen as closer to God than other men, like a household companion, like a son to a father.  Such holy men practiced poverty by compulsion.  It was in character for these people to perform their miracles in secret; the mentality of the charismatic apocalyptist who had access to the mysteries of God was to enlighten the minds of many." (Flusser, pp 94-96.)  He also states that not until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls were scholars aware of "the high degree of self-consciousness in Judaism" and explains that Jesus' prayers are in line with Essene hymn writings. (Flusser, pp 94-96.)

Because our authors also fail to mention the current and revolutionary well-attested scholarship in Israel with regard to the Hebrew (rather than Aramaic) origins of Jesus' teachings (Bivin and Blizzard, UDWJ pp 40-43), it is difficult to place a high level of confidence in many of their conclusions.  In my view, they are falling short in attacking the problem from a Western, Christianized world view.

To rectify this, it seems a thorough study of rabbinical texts (especially of Jesus' contemporaries--Hillel and Shammai) would provide greater insight into the meaning of his teachings.

Whether one accepts his divinity or not seems a personal decision, it is clear he equated himself as one "having authority on earth" and who would "return on the clouds of heaven."  This certainly indicates that his certain allusions to "Son of Man" were, ultimately, reflecting the eschatological figure in the apocalyptic literature.  Whether he is Messiah can be debated forever, in light of the "prophecies" that were "fulfilled" during his life and if the New Testament authors can be trusted. Multitudes of modern Christians and Jewish believers will attest to Jesus' unique position in history and his reality in their lives, as they await his imminent return.  And the devout of Israel--the Hasidim, the Conservatives and the Reform--all would vehemently disagree, arguing his "illegitimate" birth as the son of a Roman soldier (in line with rabbinic tradition).  Secular skeptics question his existence in history at all.

To quote a fellow professor, "the only thing that separated the Nazarenes from first-century, mainstream Judaism was that they knew the name of Messiah and the others did not."  If Jews and Christians could somehow, as believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, get behind the centuries of misunderstanding, hatred and murder to that central difference, and drop the theological "packaging" to study the wisdom of the man, Yeshuat Natzeret, perhaps understanding and healing would emerge.  It is a shame that the writings of this first-century rabbi have been discredited and virtually ignored by Jewish scholars in years past.  He remains misunderstood still--by Jews, as well as Christians--even as when he walked the earth.  Martin Buber reflects:
I would have to concur with his observation.

Originally from Houston, Texas, Rachel Bargiel, after a lengthy career in the legal profession, resumed university studies where she received a B.A. with Honors in Religious Studies and a Legal Assistantship Certificate from the University of California at Santa Barbara.  She was inspired by studies of Biblical Hebrew, Targumic Aramaic, and the cultural and political dynamics affecting Judaism during the Second Temple Period, as well as during the modern period.  In 1991, she travelled to Israel for an intensive archaeological study seminar hosted by Drs. Roy Blizzard and Brad Young, and in 1993 completed a Summer Ulpan (Intensive Language Instruction) at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  She is presently pursuing graduate course work at Santa Barbara and plans to pursue a historical analysis of religion's legitimization of violence and racial intolerance.

Yavo Digest, July 1996

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