Jesus as the Son of Man in the Book of John Essay

Introduction

In the canonical gospels of the Bible’s New Testament, Jesus Christ frequently uses the term Son of Man to address himself.  Unfortunately, the subject matter remains to be a cause of confusion as religious and critical scholars have showed repetitive failure in understanding and transcribing the true essence of the term.   This is, in large part, brought about by the fact that the sources for the Gospel of John and the use of the term Son of Man are both convoluted and diverse respectively.  In addition, the rise of secular and liberalist thought in the 19th and 20th centuries have created streams of thought that created a thin line between the authenticity of religion and historicity.

            In light of the confusion surrounding the term Son of Man, questions regarding its implication and actual definition have been raised.  Questions such as “what does the term Son of Man really denote?” and “to what context and up to what extent does the phrase Son of Man apply?”,  consequently, the importance of defining the phrase and determining the multiple facets of the term prove to be the focal points for comprehending the true context of the phrase.  Likewise, in accordance with Christ’s frequent mention of the phrase in the Gospel of John, the significance of analyzing the gospel proves to be equally important.

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Background, Definition, and Use of the Phrase Son of Man

When speaking of the phrase Son of Man, it is inevitable to not think of the Bible as one of the primary sources for scrutiny.  Chrys Caragounis writes that the phrase Son of Man is mentioned five times in the book of Daniel alone.[1]  However, it is also important to determine whether the phrase is limited to Biblical frameworks.

The Gospel of John contains and emphasizes on one of the most confusing titles in religious and literary history, Son of Man.  A thorough scrutiny of the Gospel of John reveals that Jesus constantly refers to Himself as the Son of Man, not to be confused as synonymous with the phrase Son of God; but the Gospel suggests that the terms are not mutually exclusive of each other.

C.K Barrett primarily implies that the phrase Son of Man is a heavenly figure, not essentially divine but definitely sent by God with authority no human could ever have. [2]  Delbert Royce Burkett, on the other hand, writes that the phrase’s constant iteration in the Gospel tradition simply shows that it is a vital part in understanding the early Christian Community. [3]  However, there is no exact definition of the phrase due to the fact that it falls under numerous categories and contexts.

As much as the prevalence of Biblical evidence supporting the context and definition of the Son of Man is concerned, Chrys Caragounis considers several possible extra-biblical sources for the use of the phrase, namely of Iranian, Babylonian, and/or Canaanite origin[4].   Caragounis also indicates the possibility of other sources such as Gnostic, Hellenistic, and Chaldean backgrounds.  This is because the sources of ideas for the book of Daniel and the Bible per se came from several areas of the world.  Caragounis strengthens his argument by inciting the idea that a concept from a single source cannot simply be justified unless relevant universal ideas are presented to support the concept.[5]

Burkett defines the term Son of Man in multiple facets: as a manifestation of Christ’s humanity; as an epitome of the promised saviour from the Old Testament, and as a simple term to which an individual can address himself.[6]  In addition, the definition of Son of Man varies throughout the centuries as numerous ideas and notions regarding its definition, use, and context emerged.  Despite the fact that the scholars and interpreters throughout different centuries differed in context, the sole basis for defining the phrase was centred on Jesus Christ. [7]

However, as the multiple interpretations of the term Son of Man have been the centre of debate over the centuries, Burkett sees a definitive and relevant problem, to who does Jesus really address the term to? And to what son of Man sayings are the one’s that came from Jesus himself?[8]  Burkett sees the emergence of such questions as a result of Christ speaking of the Son of Man in a third person perspective.

The Context of the Gospel of John

The Gospel according to John is the last of the four Canonical Gospels found in the New Testament of the Bible.  It is a narrative of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ but differs in Theological Emphasis, instead of Historical accounts. [9]  The Gospel of John focuses on Jesus himself, with an underlying concept that Jesus is the Messiah, with primary emphasis on Theological Meaning.

A unique characteristic of the Gospel is the diversity found in the literal and figurative interpretations within the Gospel.  There is, conversely, a deeper underlying value on the content, the value beyond historical context found in John’s elaboration on Jesus Christ and the ultimate meaning of life

All the canonical gospels of the Bible’s New Testament offer a narrative of the life, ministry, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ as well as establish Christ as the Son of God and Son of Man.  The Gospel of John is no different considering that John presents the story of Jesus Public life through His miracles, sermons, and parables; John also entails Jesus’ fulfilment of the prophecy through his suffering and death.

However, unlike the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who only entail Jesus’ life in platonic narrative manners, as a result, the Theological tendency of the gospel is overpowered by the literary medium making it nothing more than a general story. [10] John’s Gospel seems to focus more on giving a testimony to the context of Christ’s existence, more particularly, John differs from the synoptic gospels in such a way that there is emphasis on Christ being the epitome of the words Son of Man.

The Messianic Implications of the Son of Man

            The Gospel of John is known to emphasize on Christology or the essence of Jesus’ fulfilment of the Messianic prophecy, it is then inevitable to not put the Messianic context of the phrase Son of Man in to consideration.  Despite the content, accounts in the gospel can bare witness to Jesus addressing himself as the Son of Man thereby giving the phrase Messianic implications.  In this regard, the connotation of the phrase Son of Man is defined through its literary use.

A most notable occurrence of such implication is Christ’s claim to himself as Son of Man instead of Messiah upon prediction of His impending suffering, death and fulfilling the prophecy. Furthermore, as previously iterated, Christ also addresses himself as The Son of Man in the basis of fulfilling His mission as the Messiah written by prophets prior to Jesus.

            A.J.B Higgins notes that the term Man in the phrase Son of Man refers to a heavenly individual.  As Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate presented the brutally punished Jesus, he used the words “Behold the Man.” [11] Higgins furthers that John the Evangelist establishes the particular verse in order to establish Jesus, the Son of Man, as a form of Christological message.[12]

C.K. Barrett meanwhile discusses that the core essence of John’s Son of Man is his death, and only through desth that the Son of Man will come to be recognized fully.  Barrett adds that John’s Gospel is the only one to have noted that the Son of Man is a pre-existent being who descended to earth and assumed the form of a human being.[13]  This means that the Son of Man is the mediator between God and earth’s people.

            Chrys Caragounis on the other hand describes the Messianic Son of Man in two accounts, the Son of Man as a life-giving individual in John 6:27 and 53 describes Jesus having perpetual contact with God angelic instrumentality. [14]  Caragounis furthers that John 9:35 characterizes the Messianic Son of Man to be an advocate of laying down his mission of reconciling man with God primarily through faith, while 5:27 entails the Son of Man to have power to hold judgement.[15]

            Higgins further denotes that only the Gospel of John speaks of the Son of Man (Jesus) as a figure in the final Judgement of humankind.  In John Chapters 3:13 and 6:62, Higgins suggests that both verses have a connection to Jesus’ claim of Himself, the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the God coming from the clouds of heaven. [16] As such, the Gospel of John relays the concept of the phrase, Son of Man, through its very essence.

            Delbert Royce Burkett also sees the Messianic Son of Man to have an apocalyptic implication.  Burkett entails that the Son of Man based on the apocalyptic verses of the books of Daniel and Enoch are two of the most widely accepted belief in scholarship, mainly due to the similarities of the Gospel to both literary works.[17]  Royce furthers that Daniel 7:13 is understood as an entity pre-existent of the world, similar to how the Son of Man is established in the Gospel according to John.  Royce also states that the phrase is a pre-supposition to the Messiah even before the prophetic or proleptic perspectives have been established. [18]

Similarly, the protestant revolution also made an allusion to Daniel 7:13 as the source of the Gospel’s concept of the Son of Man   The protestant beliefs also adhere that the author of Daniel describes the Messiah similar to how He is described in John 3:13.  Daniel has then given the first reference of the phrase Son of Man to Jesus Christ which He in turn adapted for Himself.[19]

Delbert Royce Burkett imparts that the Son of Man as a Supernatural entity is a concept found in most late 19th and early 20th century scholars.  Burkett cites R.H. Charles claim that:

    The Son of Man as portrayed in the parables is a supernatural being and not a mere man.  He is not even conceived as a being of human descent. . .  This title, with its supernatural attributes of superhuman glory, of universal dominion and supreme judicial powers, was adopted by our Lord. [20]

Burkett also writes that the derived Son of Man from the Book of Daniel were taken as an equal to the title Messiah, with no further explanations.  Citing the sentiments of Willibald Beyschlag, Burkett argues that Messiah might as well be substituted for Son of Man. [21] However, according to Burkett’s citation to W.M.L De Wette’s claim, such Messianic implications of the term Son of Man is enhanced give a more humane side to the Messiah:

     We must. . . presume that Jesus called himself the Son of Man because He represents the Messiah. . . in his human, unprepossessing individuality, as Daniel too wishes to designatethe human form of the same and as Ezekiel (of whom Jesus also perhaps took consideration) represents himself in comparison with God as son of man, i. e. as a weak mortal.[22]

In any event, one of emphases found in the Gospel according to John is on the Messianic aspect of Jesus as the Son of Man based on the apocalyptic traditions in the Jewish canon as well as through His suffering and death.  Although there are apocalyptic implications to the phrase, the Messianic context of the Son of Man does not eliminate the present a conflict, rather, it further denotes the phrase as a total fulfilment of the Messianic concept.

Conversely, the Jewish people, to whom the Son of Man was promised, failed to understand the essence of Christ as epitome of the phrase.  They all thought that the Son of Man will come in full glory, commanding attention from all parts of the planet.

The Genealogical Context of the Son of Man

A certain premise of the Gospel of John is that the gospels content is directed towards Greek-speaking Jews who were sceptics of Christ’s nature.[23]  As such, the perspective of language barriers can be considered as one of the factors for the complexity of the true essence of the phrase Son of Man.  This is brought about by the reason that early Gnostic interpreters (mostly Greeks) believed that Jesus as the Son of Man is a descendant of a particular biological parent, namely Anthropos who, in Gnostic beliefs, is considered a principal deity. [24]

The Orthodox tradition, meanwhile, highlights the notion that Jesus Christ is a descendant of a human parent and thus manifests a nature innate to that of a human being.[25] Orthodox beliefs suggest that the context of Jesus being the Son of Man is translated as the Son of the Human, with the human being spoken of refers to a particular parent who is believed either to be Adam or Mary.  Following the protestant reformation, the doctrines attribute the term Son of the Human to Joseph the Carpenter, the foster father of Jesus.

The Human Concept and the Idiomatic Son of Man

Similar to the elucidation of the Orthodox tradition, 17th century schools of thought dwelled on the definition of Son of Man as the manifestation of the human side of Jesus; however, the perceived Human context of the Son of Man proved only as an enhanced context as scholars believed that Jesus had a human nature which was an element contributing to his lowliness and a contradiction to his divinity. [26]

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the prevalent belief surrounding the phrase Son of Man inclined more on the Human perspective.  Delbert Royce Burkett resides on the notion that the phrase can generally refer to a particular person, a man. [27]  Delbert Royce Burkett alludes to Walter Wink’s claim that Christ Himself was human in such a way that he is susceptible to mistakes, personality flaws, and even temptation which leads to sin.  Yet he introduced a new perspective to the term human, an embodiment that would remind people of the task of becoming human as God is human.[28]

However, in the broadest sense, it is quite noticeable that Christ does not generally address himself as the Son of Man. [29] For instance; Jesus does not say “The Son of Man is tired and He needs to rest.”  Furthermore, Christ only uses the term to address himself as the individual, the man, who would fulfil the prophecy.

Burkett adds that the Human Son of Man is more of a down-to-earth expression for Christ.[30]  Considering that he lives among humans, Jesus does not walk among men and women to proclaim his divinity, but to promise them a better life free from the corruptive tendencies of sin, instead of the superficial platonic expectation of the Jews during Christ’s time.

The human context for the term Son of Man then appears to be parallel with what the Gospel of John aims to achieve.  As previously mentioned, the evangelist John focuses more on the context of Christ’s essence as the promised Messiah, as such, the human perspective shows Christ’s ability to share and feel human emotions such as compassion, suffering, empathy, and fear as he had shown in his 3 year public life.

In a similar account, the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus serves as one of the most important windows into the humanity of Jesus.  This is brought about by the fact that he felt many of the same emotions as do average human beings thereby making a connection between Jesus and the reader in a very special and profound manner.

In a similar magnitude, as the context of John’s Gospel holds, Christ needs to have true understanding of what the human conditions are.  In a magazine article, Delbert Royce Burkett concurs with such context by writing the essence of Divinity is to fully realize how it is to be human, in this regard, Jesus Christ serves as the true model of humanity.[31]

Several adaptations such as the motion picture The Passion of the Christ, which contains most material from the Gospel of John, also implied a human side to Christ’s identity as the Son of Man as Jesus himself considered the possibility of another way to epitomize the phrase and not go through his pre-destined suffering and death.  Likewise, the film also strengthened the human context of the Son of Man as Jesus asked Judas “You betray the Son of Man with a Kiss?” wherein Christ showed signs of the human feeling of being betrayed.

Christ’s suffering and death conversely traditionally interpreted as God murdered His own Son to pay the ransom of humanity’s relentless sinning.  However, Burkett accorded with Walter Wink’s belief that Jesus was killed by the powers comprising the dominant system during His time.[32]  Even Christ’s resurrection and ascension implicate a context of Humanity as the Son of Man’s placement at the Right Hand of the Father gives the disciples a tendency not to think about God separately from Jesus.[33]

Burkett further attests to the humane side of the Son of Man concept by discussing Wink’s claim that:

Many of the Gospel sayings concerning the son of the man depict an apocalyptic figure who descends from heaven at the end of the age bringing judgment and destruction. Wink relies mainly on the sayings that lack this apocalyptic element. He thinks that some truth can be found in the apocalyptic sayings but admits that he has to “dig deep” to find it. They are true insofar as they reflect hope for the future manifestation of a truly humane society, but they debase Jesus’ original vision insofar as they express a longing for a supernatural intervention that will bypass human responsibility for changing the world.[34]

The Philosophical Concept of the Son of Man

In light of the presented arguments regarding the multiple facets of the context of the phrase Son of Man together with the rise of the secular non-biblical ideas on religious figures, it is important to determine what it is to be human.  This is because the extent of Christ’s humanity and divinity are debatable due to the lack of textual evidence.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra constitutes as the perfect example, not only on presenting a humanistic Son of Man but on presenting the multiple aspects of the term as well.  The Zarathustra presents humanity as a life with purpose and meaning. To achieve such, an individual must have the power of will in order to break away from the last man’s end—that is, an absolute, determined truth satisfied by whimsical happiness and a complete reliance on what is being given out.[35]

Nietzsche also furthers that the nature of a man is the unification of the body, soul and will working together as one. If the soul separates itself from the body, the body will only feel physical suffering like lust and if the will separates, the body wills itself to revenge.[36] The will and soul purpose for leaving the body is because it only wants to feed on pleasure and happiness and afraid of suffering and death.[37]

Insofar as what Christ has manifested in the Gospel of John, the Son of Man concept justifies two concepts.  On one hand, by showing signs of having free will, Jesus showed the human side of the Son of Man, meaning he is truly human by nature because of how Nietzsche determined the inseparable concept.  On the other hand, Christ used His free will to push through with the fulfilment of the Messianic prophecy despite His knowledge of what fate awaits him.

As such, Jesus, being the human Son of Man justifies Zarahuthra’s attempt to eliminate the purposeful concept of Divinity with the individual choice he made based on the human concept of the will.[38]  Likewise, his choice has overlooked possible alternatives which are also options for the free will to choose from, Christ in this sense, enters a deeper realization of the human nature.[39]

Conclusion

            The concept of the Son of Man based on the Gospel of John aims to present multiple facets of Jesus as the personification of the term.  Although the author of the gospel focuses more on the aspect of Christology and to a greater degree nonetheless, he still managed to manifest the multiple facets of the concept of the Son of Man.

            Despite the fact that the debate regarding the context of the Son of Man still remains unresolved, The Son of Man as understood in the Gospel of John attempts to bridge the gap between human understanding and fallible thought surrounding the tenets of religious beliefs, particularly of Christianity.  Regardless if one is a conformist or not, the Son of Man in the Gospel of John at least gives a better understanding of how Christ has become the central figure for the most dominant religion in the world.

Bibliography:

Burkett, Delbert “The Son of Man Debate” Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, pp.1-87, 1999.

Caragounis, Chris. “The Son of Man” Germany: Mohr Siebeck, pp.36-147, 1986.

C.K. Barrett, C.K. “The Gospel According to John: An Introduction with Commentary and notes

on the Greek Text” London: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 3-72, 1978.

Higgins, A.J.B. “Jesus and the Son of Man” Cambridge: Lutterworth Press,pp. 154-158,            2002.

Kaufman, Walter. “The Portable Nietzsche” New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

Kelber, Werner. “The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing

in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q Voices in Performance and Text” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Kruse, Colins “The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary”

Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, p. 21, 2004.

[1] Chris C. Caragounis, The Son of Man, (Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1986), 35.
[2] C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to John: An Introduction with Commentary and notes on the Greek Text, (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1978), 71-72.
[3] Delbert Royce Burkett, The Son of Man Debate, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1-2.
[4] Chris C. Caragounis, The Son of Man, (Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1986), 36
[5] Chris C. Caragounis, The Son of Man, (Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1986), 37.
[6] Delbert Royce Burkett, The Son of Man Debate, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 3-4
[7] Delbert Royce Burkett, The Son of Man Debate, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 4.
[8] Ibid. 31.
[9] C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to John: An Introduction with Commentary and notes on the Greek Text, (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1978), 3-4.

[10] Werner H. Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q Voices in Performance and Text, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997),

[11] A.J.B. Higgins, Jesus and the Son of Man, (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2002), 154.
[12]A.J.B. Higgins, Jesus and the Son of Man, (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2002), 154.
[13] C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to John: An Introduction with Commentary and notes on the Greek Text, (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1978), 72.
[14] Chris C. Caragounis, The Son of Man, (Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1986), 147.
[15] Chris C. Caragounis, The Son of Man, (Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1986), 147.
[16] A.J.B. Higgins, Jesus and the Son of Man, (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2002), 158
[17] Delbert Royce Burkett, The Son of Man Debate, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 22
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Delbert Royce Burkett, The Son of Man Debate, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 28
[21] Ibid. 25.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Colin G. Kruse, The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), page 21.
[24] Delbert Royce Burkett, The Son of Man Debate, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 6
[25] Delbert Royce Burkett, The Son of Man Debate, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 7

[26] Delbert Royce Burkett, The Son of Man Debate, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 13-15

[27] Ibid. 87
[28] Delbert Royce, “Our Man Jesus,” The Christian Century, 22 May 2002, 44
[29] Delbert Royce Burkett, The Son of Man Debate, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 87
[30] Ibid. 87
[31] Delbert Royce, “Our Man Jesus,” The Christian Century, 22 May 2002, 43-46.
[32] Ibid., 44
[33] Delbert Royce, “Our Man Jesus,” The Christian Century, 22 May 2002, 44-45
[34] Ibid.
[35] Walter Kaufman, “The Portable Nietzsche,” (New York: Penguin Books, 1976)
[36] Ibid.
[37] Walter Kaufman, “The Portable Nietzsche,” (New York: Penguin Books, 1976)
[38] Ibid.
[39] Ibid.

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