"The Son of Man" Part 2: The Greek
This phrase is not, “the son of man” as it is translated in the Gospels. In Greek, it is usually "the son of the man", o huios tou anthropou, (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου). Unlike the “son of God” phrase that Jesus only used six times, and only four times to describe himself (see this article), Jesus uses this =phrase to refer to himself about eighty-six times. It appears as commonly in the synoptic Gospels as it does in John. Oddly, however, it is never used in the Sermon on the Mount, the longest section of Jesus’s words in the Bible. This might indicate that Jesus adopted it later, when he became increasing uncomfortable talking about himself.
While we were able to look at every reference to “the son of God” in the previous post, it would take an entire book to do this for “the son of man.” Here, we just discuss its main mysteries.
Christian teaching does a very poor job of explaining this phrase. The most common is the most obvious: that he uses it to refer to himself. This tells us nothing about why or what it meant. Next, they say that it refers to his humanity and that it is a title of humility because he was God. This can only be partly correct because this phrase is half humble, but not from the part about being human, which is a bit of a brag. However, the most detailed explanation has to do with it being an Old Testament prophecy. This is all wrong, as we will discuss in detail in next week’s essay when we will see that all their “evidence” for this is a matter of mistranslation.
As we mentioned in the article on “the son of God,” referring to yourself in the third person is called illeism. Jesus’s use of “the son of man” is illeism on steroids. It indicates either idiocy (“Elmo loves you!”), raging narcissism, (“Dali is immortal and will not die.”) or self-deprecating humor ("Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?"). Of course, since this is Jesus, he uses it as self-deprecating humor.
Its humor is right on the surface. Jesus refers to himself as "the child" rather than as a man. He used it so often, that it had to be considered by his listeners a “catchphrase” (see this article) because of its frequent repetition. The joke may have been that because he uses humor so much, he seems more like a child than a man.
The Greek: The Son of the Man
The phrase is "the son of the man," with an article before both nouns. The use of the definite article “the,” is much more important in Greek than in English (see this) for more). It is closer to the demonstrative article (“this” or “that”) than our English “the.” Many of Jesus's verses are often easier to understand if we replace a “the” with a “this.” Indeed, the oddness of Jesus referring to himself in the third-person decreases if we translate this phrase as “this son of the man.” It becomes then a specification of himself, rather than a simple third-person reference.
In at least one verse, John 5:27, biblical translations add a "the" before "son" to make it seem as though Jesus is using his typical reference to himself. In that verse, however, relating to Jesus's authority for judging people, Jesus says he is given that power because he is "a son of a man." Both of the definite articles are intentionally left off. In other words, he can judge other people because he is human. This, however, is not what he means by his catchphrase.
"Son" is from huios, which means a "son," and more generally, a "child." It is used to mean any child, not just male children, especially in the plural. It is also used to refer to the state of being a child, that is, what we describe as "childhood." However, it was also used to describe the relationship of an adult child to a parent. We are still children of our parents when we are no longer children. We should also note that "son" and "father" in Greek are inclusive of all generations. So someone is the "son" of their father, their grandfather, great-grandfather, and so on. A"father" can be any of the past generations, going back to Abraham in Jesus's case. Jesus refers to the Biblical patriarchs as “fathers,” which is usually translated differently in the English Bible.
The “of” is from the form of the words “the man.” They are in the genitive case, which requires a preposition to translate into English. The most common is the "of" of possession. However, it can also mean "belonging to," "part of," and so on. While this noun form does not always indicate possession, it seems to in this phrase.
"Man" is from anthropos, which is "man," "person," and, in the plural, "mankind." It also means human as opposed to that which is animal or inanimate. Again, the male sex is not a central element though this word’s gender is masculine. In the singular, this word can refer to a "person" of any sex. In the plural, it becomes "people" and "peoples" as well as "men."
Always ignored in Biblical translations is the use of the article "the" before "man." Though it is always translated as "the son of man," the Greek, except for the exception above, always reads "the son of the man." This is important because the phrase “the man” has a specific meaning in ancient Greek, very like its meaning in English. When we tell someone that they are “the man” it is a compliment. It was in Greek as well. We describe a person or group in charge as “the man.” This was also true in Greek.
The dropping of the article in English translation may have resulted from the Latin Vulgate which was the only Christian Bible in the West for over a thousand years. Latin has no definite article. So the people translating the Bible in English, though working from the Greek, were more familiar with the Latin form, which would have been simply “son of man” not “the son of the man.”
The humor in this phrase could have worked in many different ways depending on which words were emphasized and their specific context. However, the Gospels cannot capture emphasis and, in this case, do a poor job of explaining the initial context of this phrase. We know the first time Jesus uses this term in the Bible, but the only context given is that someone says he will follow Jesus. Jesus’s response is in Matthew 8:20 (echoed in Luke 9:58):
KJV: The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
Literal: The vixens have dens and the winged ones of the sky, perches. But this child of the man? He doesn't have anywhere, this head, he might recline.
This comes soon after the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, but he doesn’t use this phrase at all in the long text of the “sermon” itself.
Who Is “The Man?”
We might as well deal with this mystery up front. There are a number of possibilities.
If someone referred to Jesus as "the man," complimenting him, Jesuhave called himself "the child of the man" to put himself in a humbler role. He was a man when working as a housebuilder, but, as a teacher, he was just a child. Evidence for the "second childhood" explanation of this phrase might be seen in Matthew 11:25:
KJV: I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
Literal: I confess myself to you, Father, master of sky and the earth. Because you concealed these from wise and educated ones and you disclosed them to babies.
However, this argument would be stronger if Jesus hadn’t specifically used the term for “babies” here instead of sons or children.
Could Jesus have been referring to his earthly father, Joseph, as “the man?” This would make the phrase a compliment to his dead father. However, this seems unlikely. Nothing is recorded in the Bible to give us the sense that Joseph had distinguished himself to earn this title. Nor does Jesus ever mention him, at least not anything that the Gospel writers note.
Indeed, the lack of explanation by the Gospel writers is interesting. The evangelists either didn’t understand this reference themselves or they thought that their readers understood it without explanation. Or maybe they did tell their readers, but, in reading the Bible today, we miss it.
Who was “the man” in Judean history? Abraham? Moses? Isaiah? Who was “the man” in terms of the promised “anointed one?” There was only one. "The man" was King David. This is why two of the Gospels trace Jesus’s ancestry back to David. This phrase may have been a very subtle and humorous way of referring to himself as the expected anointed one, descending from David, a reference that insiders would get but that would confuse his opponents are arouse no fear among the Romans.
It is unlike that “the man” here refers to “humanity” or to the Judean people. While anthropos can refer to humanity as opposed to animal life, the definite article destroys that meaning. There is no “this humanity.” There is only one. The Bible translates it as “the son of man,” which seems to refer to humanity, but it only works because they mistranslate “the man” as “man.” Could the phrase mean “this people” referring to the Judean people? Only if anthropos was plural, and, even then, this is not how Jesus referred to any race of people.
So this phrase was used humorously. Most likely as a sly reference to Jesus being descended from David, an heir to kingship. This is a good start. However, we need to know more.
People say all types of things about this title, but most of those things are incorrect both historically and linguistically. In the next article, I will look specifically how forerunners of this phrase are used in the Greek Old Testament. After that, we will briefly look at verses in which Jesus uses this phrase that may imply something about its meaning.