The self‐designation most often used by Jesus in the Gospels. It occurs seventy‐two times in the synoptics; two passages (Matt. 18.11; Luke 9.56) are, however, textually uncertain, and if parallels are not counted, the number of different Son of man sayings is forty‐three. To these may be added thirteen in the Fourth Gospel. John 12.34, like Luke 24.7, is only an apparent exception to the rule that the expression is always uttered by Jesus himself, the only genuine exception being Acts 7.56. Apart from John 5.27, the designation in all these passages is literally “the son of the man.” In the New Testament the undetermined form, “a son of man,” is found in Hebrews 2.6 (quoting Ps. 8.5) and in Revelation 1.13 (the exalted Christ) and 14.14 (an angel).
The Son of man sayings in the synoptics fall into two groups, those about the Son of man's mission and his fate on earth (e.g., Mark 2.10 par.; 2.28 par.; 10.45 par.) together with the passion predictions (Mark 8.31 par.; 9.31 par.; 10.33 par.), and those concerning the position and role of the risen and exalted Son of man and his parousia (e.g., Mark 8.3 par.; 13.26 par.; 14.62 par.). All Son of man sayings are christologically significant. Nevertheless, in the synoptics there are many passages without the expression where textually and linguistically there could be no objection to it (e.g., Mark 2.17 par.), and such passages sometimes have synoptic parallels containing the expression (e.g., Luke 22.27; cf. Mark 10.45 and Matt. 20.28). In the synoptics, there seems to be an increasing monopolization of the expression in sayings of Jesus about his mission, his fate, and his position beyond the resurrection. In the Fourth Gospel the situation is different: here Son of man sayings compete with the “I am” sayings and the self‐designation “the Son.” The distinction in usage is always significant; “Son of man” is always used in major statements.
Being central in the Gospel tradition, then, it is no wonder that Son of man is one of the most debated expressions in the New Testament. Its seemingly enigmatic character can be measured by the endless attempts to find an acceptable solution as to its meaning, and despite tendencies apparent in more recent research, it is not accurate to speak of a growing consensus. It is possible, however, to distinguish between two main views: (1) The expression was current and, under certain circumstances, understandable as a messianic title at the time of Jesus. (2) Such usage must be excluded on linguistic grounds alone. There is also the question whether the expression as it now stands in the Gospels is to be understood as a messianic title or not. And in the case of the former, are we to presume a development in meaning from Jesus to the Gospel tradition?
The New Testament itself does not give us the slightest hint as to the meaning of the expression, and there is no evidence for the double‐determined form (“the Son of the man”) before it appears in the New Testament. In the Greek of the Septuagint it appears only in the undetermined form, which, similar to the Hebrew original ben ʾādām, conveys a generic meaning synonymous with “man,” that is, human being (Ps. 8.5; Ezek. 2.1; Dan. 8.17). In the Hebrew Bible, the expression occurs 108 times, 93 of which are in Ezekiel as God's way of addressing the prophet. The Aramaic equivalent, bar ʾĕnāš, occurs only once, in Daniel 7.13, which speaks of “one like a (son of) man.” This saying has had a decisive impact on the understanding of Son of man in the New Testament, and it is quoted or alluded to many times (see Mark 13.26 par.; 14.62 par.; but also Rev. 1.7, which does not actually mention any son of man). The imagery of Daniel 7.13–14 may be the foundation of the Son of man sayings relating to the status of the exalted Christ.
Now, “one like a man” in Daniel 7.13 is by no means a messianic figure, but a symbol of the victorious Israel, the kingdom of the saints of the Most High, which succeeded the four world empires (Dan. 7.18, 22, 25, 27). Thus, when we find in 1 Enoch 46–71 and 4 Ezra 13 similar imageries of a son of man or simply a man, these cannot be independent witnesses of a special concept, but uses of the imagery of Daniel to describe a messianic figure. The comprehensive attempt earlier this century to verify the existence of a special son of man conception, sometimes assumed to be a variant of the ancient Near Eastern myth of the primeval man, universal and transcendent in its outlook (in contrast to the nationalistic and earthly expectation of a Davidic messiah), has obviously failed.
Another question is whether the expression in the Gospels and Acts 7.56 is to be understood as a title. With the exception of Matthew 16.13 and John 9.35, this is possible. On the other hand, the title never occurs in confessions (e.g., Jesus is the Son of man), nor is it used predicatively (Jesus, the Son of man). The determined form must not be taken as a reference to the expression “like a son of man” in Daniel 7.13.
There is, however, yet another possibility. Granted that the Greek form of the expression originates in Aramaic, it may be explained as a direct extension of the idiomatic use of the expression bar ʾĕnāš. It is now almost universally agreed that at Jesus' time this expression was in general usage in Galilean Aramaic both as a noun (meaning “a human being”) and as a substitute for the indefinite pronoun and as a periphrasis for “I,” the actual meaning depending on the context. The double entendre may express a generalization, meaning “one,” “a human,” or it may be a self‐reference provoked by awe, modesty, or humility, in accord with the content of the actual saying. In that case, the double entendre is deceptive, a near parallel being Paul's way of speaking of himself in 2 Corinthians 12.2–3. It is possible to understand the Gospel Son of man sayings in accordance with this Aramaic idiom. But the double entendre has been done away with by the Greek rendering with its awkward literalness (“the son of the man”), which substitutes an explicit indication of the identity of the subject speaking. This does not mean, however, that the expression has become a title. In the Gospels it is, at the same time, Jesus' periphrasis for “I” and a way to emphasize who is speaking. In other words, it is not the expression “son of man” that tells us who Jesus is, but on the contrary, it is Jesus who tells us who the Son of man is.
It is thus reasonable to suppose that the usage of the expression in the Gospels originates in the way in which Jesus spoke of himself. The question of the genuineness of the individual Son of man sayings must therefore depend on their content: are they understandable in the mouth of the historical Jesus or not? Naturally, the answer will depend upon the individual interpreter's idea of what Jesus believed and preached about himself, and what may be referred to the early community. It seems probable that the sayings about the risen and exalted Son of man and his parousia, depending on Daniel 7.13–14 for their imagery, were created in the process of interpreting the faith in the resurrection of Jesus, and that they were shaped in analogy to other sayings of Jesus about himself. As indicated by 1 Thessalonians 4.15–17, this interpretation is early and reflects the same tradition expressed later in Mark 13.26 and especially Matthew 24.30–31.
The uncomplicated way in which the expression is used in the Gospels indicates an early foothold in the Greek gospel tradition, which is confirmed by its occurrence also in the Fourth Gospel. In this gospel, one can perceive a beginning of reflection upon its wording, which transcends the purely idiomatic meaning it had in Aramaic (see especially John 5.27). In the apostolic fathers, it is understood as a statement of Christ's human nature and corresponds to the title Son of God (see Ignatius Ephesians 20.2; cf. Epistle of Barnabas 12.10). Later, it is seen as a reference to the figure in Daniel 7.13 and is read as a messianic prophecy (Justin, Apology I.51). Not until the nineteenth century do we find an attempt to see a specific conception behind the expression.