A common phrase used on the lips of Jesus frequently in all the gospels, but not elsewhere in the NT (except Acts 7: 56 and Rev. 1: 13); in Greek, a curious translation of the Aramaic bar nasha (= in Hebrew ben adam). In the OT it is the form of address by God to the prophet Ezekiel (but translated by the noun ‘mortal’ in NRSV), and in Ps. 8 it is used of mankind in general as pre-eminent in the created order; in Dan. 7: 13 f. the phrase symbolically represents the people of Israel, contrasted with the beasts who stand for the Gentile nations. Later, in the Similitudes of Enoch, the Son of Man is a supernatural figure, the agent of salvation and of judgement.
In the course of the many discussions of this term, it has been suggested that Jesus was not referring to himself at all by this title and that it was attributed to him by the post-resurrection Church. However, the lack of its use outside the gospels suggests that it was avoided because it was regarded as sacred to the utterances of Jesus himself. Other scholars have distinguished those sayings which refer to Jesus' present life and imminent death from the sayings which anticipate the future Kingdom and the place of the Son of Man in it. Most German scholars take the view that ‘Son of Man’ could only have the latter, apocalyptic, significance; it was part of Jesus' expectations of the future. Sayings which do not fall into this category are creations of the Church. Yet another view, increasingly accepted, is that Jesus did use the term and did mean himself by it, but that it was an elusive, round-about, deliberately enigmatic way of referring to his mission of saying: ‘I, being the man I am’. Matthew certainly intends ‘Son of Man’ to mean ‘Jesus’ for he sometimes substitutes ‘I’ for ‘Son of Man’ (Matt. 10: 32 for Mark 8: 38). For him, it is a title of special dignity. Jesus is no ordinary man (Matt. 16: 13), and when the passion is complete (‘from now’, Matt. 26: 64) the Son of Man will be enthroned.
Such a view maintains the authenticity of the ‘present’ sayings, while allowing that the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus affirming the future glorification of the Son of Man may be creations of the Church as part of mainstream Christian interpretation, but it was not used liturgically as one of the titles of Jesus because in the life of the post–Resurrection church, it was no longer adequate to express its belief.