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31.5.23

Historicity of the ‘son of man’ sayings in the synoptic gospels

Historicity of the ‘son of man’ sayings in the synoptic gospels

One question that I hope to write about at length is the question of which, if any, of the ‘son of man’ sayings in the synoptic gospels may plausibly go back to the historical Jesus. Working from the extant documents of the earliest Jesus-followers, the movement appears to have originated as an apocalyptic sect within Judaism. Though the gospel does contain disparate traditions and redactionary material, this point nevertheless seems to me to be an essentially uniform trait of the Jesus Movement across the first century.

In its earliest biblical attestation ‘son of man’ was an idiom which, especially when paired alongside ‘man’, simply meant ‘human’ or ‘mortal’. We sometimes find it used in reference to an individual person (e.g. throughout Ezekiel for the titular prophet), where it identifies him as a mortal being. In the early second century BCE the apocalypse Book of Daniel then used ‘son of man’ as a symbol for the community of faithful, Torah-observant Judeans, in contrast to ‘beasts’ which symbolized four consecutive gentile kingdoms who ruled over the Judean people (i.e. human Judeans versus inhuman gentiles). Around the turn of the millennium, an Enochic apocalypse called the Book of Parables turned Daniel’s symbol into a messianic figure who would usher in the eschaton and preside in judgment over humanity.

The incorporation of a messianic ‘son of man’ as an identity for Jesus in the New Testament is only natural in this context. But we should wonder if Jesus himself spoke of the ‘son of man’, or whether the sayings attibuted to him in the synoptic gospels come from other traditions, or were inventions of the evangelists themselves. The question is unsettled in scholarship, but I have sketched out some initial thoughts when reviewing each saying, which I have broadly grouped into three categories.

Messianic Secret Sayings

These are sayings in which Jesus shows clear knowledge of his imminent death, his subsequent resurrection, the salvific nature of that event, and the need to keep this information secret until after he is raised from the dead. While the need for secrecy is brought up multiple times in the first half of the Gospel of Mark, it is at the halfway point when Jesus acknowledges for the first time that he is the Messiah, which is immediately followed by his revelation to the disciples that the ‘son of man’ must be raised from the dead.

Mark 8.30–32a

Matthew 16.20–21

Luke 9.21–22

And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the son of man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.

Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The son of man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’

Matthew and Luke repeat Mark’s dramatic reveal of Jesus’ messianic identity.

Mark 9.9–13

Matthew 17.9–13

‘How then is it written about the son of man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt?’

‘So also the son of man is about to suffer at their hands.’

The disunity between the transfiguration scene and the sayings on either side is widely recognized. The pericope to which this saying belongs seems to predate Mark’s use of it, but the saying itself—identifying John the baptizer as ‘Elijah’ (Mal 4.5–6) implicitly—appears to be an invention of Mark or his community. (Matthew copies it, but makes the identification explicit. Luke drops it, though his birth narrative restores the identification with ‘Elijah’.) The addition of the ‘son of man’ saying seems to have been done to strengthen the perceived ties between John and Jesus, but the author makes a vague reference to things ‘written about the son of man’ and his ‘many sufferings’. He may have had passages such as Isa 52–53 in mind, but this only further demonstrates that the saying reflects the theology of Jesus’ much later followers, rather than something Jesus said.

Mark 9.30–32

Matthew 17.22–23

Luke 9.43b–45

‘The son of man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’

‘The son of man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.’

‘The son of man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’

The historicity of a ‘betrayal’ by one of Jesus’ own disciples is disputed. It is entirely possible such happened, though Mark’s passion narrative is largely unreliable as a historical source.

Mark 10.32–34

Matthew 20.17–19

Luke 18.31–34

‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the nations; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’

‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the nations to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’

‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the son of man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the nations; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.’

Mark 10.41–45

Matthew 20.24–28

‘For the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

‘the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Mark 14.18b–21

Matthew 26.21–25

Luke 22.21–23

‘For the son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’

‘The son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’

‘For the son of man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!’

The author of Mark may have been used 1 Corinthians as a source and misunderstood παραδίδωμι (1 Cor 11.23) to mean ‘betray’ rather than ‘deliver’, the latter of which is certainly Paul’s intended meaning. Other passages in the synoptics suggest Jesus expected all of the twelve disciples to remain faithful to the end (e.g. Matt 19.28), incongruent with Jesus also expecting one of them to betray so severely that it would result in a condemnation that the betrayer would have been better off having ‘not have been born’.

Mark 14.32–42

Matthew 26.36–46

Luke 22.41–46

‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’

Luke drops the reference to the ‘son of man’ here, though he makes up for it later.

Mark 14.57–62

Matthew 26.62–64

Luke 22.67–70

Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am; and you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’

Then the high priest said to him, ‘I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’

They said, ‘If you are the Messiah, tell us.’ He replied, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the son of man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.’

While this ‘son of man’ saying has an apocalyptic dimension, it should be recognized as the climax of his ‘messianic secret’ motif: Jesus is at last confronted directly by his worst enemies, the religious leaders of Jerusalem who should know better than anyone how to recognize the Messiah, and when he bluntly confirms he is the Messiah and that the arrival of the ‘son of man’ is imminent, they condemn him to death. It is a bitter irony designed to serve Mark’s narrative.

Matthew 16.13–23

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the son of man is?’

Mark and Luke have Jesus asking who people say ‘I am’. Matthew, perhaps in ignorance of how Mark used the ‘messianic secret’ motif, identifies Jesus as the ‘son of man’ prior to his revelation to the disciples that Jesus is him.

Matthew 26.1–2

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the son of man will be handed over to be crucified.’

Matthew converts narration from Mark into dialogue, giving Jesus another occasion to remind his disciples of his impending death.

Luke 22.47–53

‘Judah, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the son of man?’

Mark had Judah Iscariot speak similar words to the mob coming to arrest Jesus. Matthew mostly followed Mark here. Luke, having trimmed the reference to the ‘son of man’ when Jesus spoke about his betrayer, modified Judah’s wording as dialogue from Jesus.

Luke 24.6–7

‘Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the son of man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’

As the Gospel of Mark neared its conclusion, Jesus told his disciples that after his resurrection he would first meet them in Galilee. When the women discovered Jesus’ body missing from his tomb, a ‘young man’ instructed them to tell the disciples that Jesus was going to Galilee ‘just as he told you’ (16.7; cf. 14.26–28). Mark ends before any such scene takes place, but Matthew followed this plot thread and supplied the scene. In addition to the previous statements (26.30–32; 28.7), Matthew also has Jesus himself tell the women the disciples must ‘go to Galilee’ where ‘they will see me’ (28.9–10). The disciples then go to Galilee (28.16–20). Luke—apparently using Mark independently of Matthew—also found the lack of a resurrection appearance problematic, but rather than supplying the Galilean scene, Luke removes any references to the idea that the risen Jesus would first appear to them in Galilee. Luke instead has Jesus appear to them in Jerusalem, and changes the above saying from Mark’s ‘young man’ so that Jesus simply happened to be ‘in Galilee’ when he predicted his resurrection. This is the most transparently fabricated saying in the Messianic Secret category.


Sapiential Sayings

The second category contains just four sayings.

Mark 2.1–12

Matthew 9.2–8

Luke 5.17–26

‘But so that you may know that the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’

‘But so that you may know that the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’

‘But so that you may know that the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’

Mark places this saying in context of Jesus healing a paralyzed man, which Matthew and Luke keep. Within the larger narrative of Mark, the saying here may easily be understood as demonstrating authority Jesus uniquely had as the messianic ‘son of man’. However, it has been suggested that much of Mark’s first half derived from collections of pericopes concerning Jesus: a pair of miracle collections, a parable collection, and a controversy collection. This last one, if it existed, would have contained this episode of the paralytic man being healed. Removed from Mark’s narrative design, the phrase ‘son of man’ may plausibly be read in its older sense, as an idiom referring to humans in general. This is, in fact, how Matthew interprets the passage: ‘they glorified God, who had given such authority to men’.

Mark 2.23–28

Matthew 12.1–8

Luke 6.1–5

‘The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath; so the son of man is lord even of the sabbath.’

‘For the son of man is lord of the sabbath.’

‘The son of man is lord of the sabbath.’

The controversy over the sabbath would have been found in the same pre-Markan collection as the previous episode. Here, the idiomatic sense of ‘son of man’ is even more apparent, because we find it used in conjunction with ‘man’ (cf. Num 23.19; Job 25.6; Psa 8.4). But, as with the above, Mark has placed it into his narrative where he has uniquely identified Jesus as the ‘son of man’, changing the meaning of the passage.

Matthew 8.18–20

Luke 9.57–58

‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.’

‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.’

The latter two Sapiential sayings are shared only by Matthew and Luke. In context, Jesus is commenting on his inherent homelessness as a traveling preacher. I note, however, that Jesus did have residences available to him. He is known to have come from Nazareth (Mark 1.9, etc), and he ‘made his home in Capernaum’ (Matt 4.13). If the saying did preexist either Matthew or Luke, it may have been intended to mean that foxes and birds find their homes in natural places, but that humans (‘the son of man’) have no such place and must build artificial homes. The application of ‘son of man’ to Jesus specifically would be, like those Sapiential sayings in Mark, artificial.

Matthew 11.16–19

Luke 7.31–35

‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

‘To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the market-place and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.” For John the baptizer has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; the son of man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’

This is the only one of the four Sapiential sayings which seems to require identifying Jesus as the ‘son of man’. He contrasts himself to John the baptizer, but for the purpose of showing how they were each treated terribly. For many years I have been unable to decide which I find more convincing: the theory of a now-lost Q document which Matthew and Luke independently used to expand Mark, or the theory that every alleged ‘Q’ passage is simply where Mark was expanded by Matthew, which was subsequently copied by Luke (or vice versa). If this came from Matthew (or Luke), it may have been influenced by Mark 9.9–13. A few scholars, I think most prominently Geza Vermes, pointed to passages like this to suggest that ‘son of man’ had become a circumlocution to mean merely ‘I’, but this hypothesis has never seemed compelling to me. For the moment, I wonder if this was a Sapiential saying which was modified to match some of the sayings from the Messianic Secret.


Apocalyptic Sayings

This final category contains passages where the ‘son of man’ is an eschatological figure nearly identical to that found in 1 Enoch’s Book of Parables.

Mark 8.37–9.1

Matthew 16.27–28

Luke 9.26–27

‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the son of man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’

‘For the son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the son of man coming in his kingdom.’

‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the son of man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.’

This prophecy is found on the other side of the transfiguration scene. Mark intended this prophecy to be understood as fulfilled in the transfiguration, but the connection is clearly artificial, such that it appears Mark set out to protect the prophecy from failure by reintepreting it within a much less natural context. This indicates that Mark has not invented this passage. The sort of prediction made here—that the eschatological judgment would arrive within his generation—coheres well with several other passages found in all three synoptic gospels, which I think makes it plausible Jesus said something like this. However, while Jesus claims that people will be condemned for rejecting his teaching authority (‘me and my words’), nothing in his phrasing requires identifying him as the ‘son of man’ who will act as judge. Jesus seems to talk about the figure as if he is another person.

Mark 13.26–27

Matthew 24.30b–31

Luke 21.27–28

‘Then they will see the son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.’

‘And they will see the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.’

‘Then they will see the son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

The ‘son of man’ here continues to resemble the Enochic concept, while alluding to LXX Deut 30.3–5. As above, Jesus does not identify this ‘son of man’ with himself. However, I think there is strong reason to suspect this saying may belong to a section of Mark 13 which originated in as an apocalyptic tract circa 39–40 CE, long after Jesus had died. This tract, a midrash on the apocalyptic prophecies in Dan 7–12, set out to provide a sequence of eschatological events so that observant Judeans could recognize when the son of man was about to arrive to rescue Israel. In contrast, other apocalyptic sayings attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels suggest Jesus believed the arrival of the eschaton was inherently unpredictable. If correct, Mark’s author placed this tract in Jesus’ mouth amid other apocalyptic teachings more plausibly attributed to him. Matthew changes the introduction to this passage so that the disciples ask Jesus ‘what will be the sign of your coming’, making his identification with the son of man explicit.

Matthew 12.31–32

Luke 12.10

‘Whoever speaks a word against the son of man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the holy spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.’

‘And everyone who speaks a word against the son of man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven.’

Both Matthew and Luke have added the statement about blaspheming the son of man. The original text in Mark only mentions blasphemy against the holy spirit.

Matthew 12.38–40

Luke 11.29–30

‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was in the stomach of the sea monster for three days and three nights, so the son of man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.’

‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the son of man will be to this generation.’

Mark contains a similar saying, but shows Jesus declare that no sign will be given at all. The son of man is compared to Jonah as an eschatological figure: Jonah’s sudden arrival in Nineveh signaled that God’s judgment on the city was imminent, which demanded repentance. The implication is that the son of man will arrive without warning, just before judgment takes place. Matthew has invented the identification between the ‘sign of Jonah’ and Jesus’ death and burial. This does not belong in the Messianic Secret category, but Matthew has been influenced by those sayings.

Matthew 19.28b

Luke 22.28–30

‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the son of man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’

‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’

The saying seems to preexist the gospels, since it appears that Jesus expected his twelve disciples to all ‘sit on twelve thrones’. Such a saying is difficult to imagine being invented by someone with knowledge of Mark’s narrative without feeling compelled to insert some clarification on the fate of Judah Iscariot. In Luke, ‘my trials’ is a clear after-the-fact reference to Jesus’ death, while the mention of the eschatological kingdom as a time when Jesus will drink alongside the disciples seems to borrow from Luke 22.17–20. In Matthew, the verbage of the ‘son of man’ being ‘seated on the throne of his glory’ is exceptionally close to phrases used in the Book of Parables, perhaps indicative of influence from 1 Enoch. (Matt 22.11–13 quotes from 1 Enoch 10.4 nearly verbatim.) The connection between the son of man and multiple thrones used for judgment also reminds me of the ‘thrones’ in Dan 7.9, which seem to be the ‘court’ which ‘sat in judgment’ in 7.10. In further contrast between the two, Luke’s version stresses how Jesus is central to the eschatological vision: me, my trials, I confer, my Father has conferred on me, my table, my kingdom. Matthew’s version only refers to Jesus insofar as the twelve disciples ‘followed’ him, but it is the son of man (who is again not identified as Jesus) who actually sits on the throne. With these considerations, I think Matthew’s version is probably closer to the original, though its age is difficult to say.

Matthew 24.26–27

Luke 17.23–24

‘So, if they say to you, “Look! He is in the wilderness”, do not go out. If they say, “Look! He is in the inner rooms”, do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the son of man.’

‘They will say to you, “Look there!” or “Look here!” Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the son of man be in his day.’

The analogy between the son of man’s arrival and lightning is not immediately obvious: is it a comment on the timing of his arrival (as sudden as lightning), on the nature of his arrival (obvious and without debate, unlike the pretenders), or on his appearance when he arrives (bright like the sun, like lightning)? I am inclined to favor the first interpretation, if only because it conforms well with expectations set in multiple other passages.

Matthew 24.37–39

Luke 17.25–30

‘For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the son of man.’

‘But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the son of man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulphur from heaven and destroyed all of them. It will be like that on the day that the son of man is revealed.’

Another comment on the timing of the son of man’s arrival: sudden, without warning. Luke shows influence from the Messianic Secret motif, that Jesus predicted his own death (‘first he must endure much suffering’).

Matthew 24.43–44

Luke 12.39–40

‘But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

Matthew 5.1–12

Luke 6.20–26

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.’

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the son of man.’

Similar to previous sayings, one version mentions the son of man where the other mentions Jesus. Has one taken an ambiguous ‘son of man’ and given him an explicit identity, or has the other taken the explicit mention of Jesus and heightened the drama of its eschatology by referring to Jesus as the son of man, which is not ambiguous because his readers know they are one and the same person? I categorize this saying as Apocalyptic only in that the beatitudes feature general allusions to eschatological rewards for the righteous. Both versions of the beatitudes feature redactive elements, and the lack of reference to any physical form of persecution (only verbal repudiation and communal rejection) suggests something which Jesus’ followers are already experiencing; apocalyptic predictions tend to anticipate bloodshed, not simply insults (e.g. Matt 23.29–36; Luke 11.47–51). The saying presupposes a situation where the Jesus Movement has already existed for some time.

Matthew 10.23

‘When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the son of man comes.’

In the middle of the previously-mentioned apocalyptic tract reproduced in Mark 13 we find a paragraph where Jesus predicts the violent response his followers will meet when they spread his message (13.9–13). The Gospel of Luke kept that paragraph in its parallel chapter (Luke 21.9–14). Where we should have expected to find the paragraph in Matthew’s parallel chapter, we only find a similar passage (24.9–14). Instead the chapter from Mark 13 has been relocated within Matthew to a chapter which features Jesus instructing the twelve disciples how to spread his message throughout the region of Judah (Matt 10.1–23; Luke’s versions of these instructions, 9.1–6; 10.1–16, lacks a paragraph like this). The result in Matthew is that Jesus emphatically commands the disciples to ‘go nowhere among the gentiles’ nor among ‘the Samarians’, but only ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (10.5–6), yet in the same breath tells them they must proclaim his message to the ‘governors and kings’ of ‘the gentiles’ (10.18). The paragraph concludes with the saying above, which has no parallel in Mark or Luke. The result is a disjointed set of instructions: Must the disciples avoid the gentiles or preach to them? Should they face persecution head on or flee quickly? The paragraph which this saying concludes again seems to presuppose a time later than Jesus, when his followers have shifted their focus toward making gentiles aware of the ‘name’ of Jesus. The saying itself, however, shows no concern for the gentile world because the disciples will not even be able to proclaim Jesus’ message throughout the land of Israel before the son of man’s sudden arrival.

Matthew 13.36–43

‘The one who sows the good seed is the son of man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The son of man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’

The interpretation of this parable is absent from Mark, and features language characteristic of Matthew’s author. While he does rely on older eschatological traditions, it is simpler to say the paragraph is an invention of the author rather than something Jesus said which Matthew uniquely preserved.

Matthew 25.31–46

‘When the son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.’

The joint reference to the ‘son of man’ and ‘the throne of his glory’ is nearly identical to the phrasing from Matt 19.28b. We speculated there about influence from 1 Enoch, a suspicion which I think is strengthened in this ‘parable of the sheep and goats’. The passage could almost be something copied directly from the Book of Parables. The claim that ‘eternal fire’ has been ‘prepared for the devil and his angels’ also has close parallels in 1 Enoch. However, this ‘parable’ shows a close affinity to the instructions to the disciples in Matt 10.1–23, though expressed through the scenario mentioned in 10.40–42: the sheep and goats are judged according to how they treated the disciples. (The ‘the least of these, my brothers’ in 25.40 echoes back to 12.46–50.) One question is whether the ‘gentiles/nations’ (25.32) follows from the potential Enochic influence, or from Matt 10.18. This passage may not have originated with Matthew’s author, but he has heavily modified it, making it uncertain which parts, if any of it, could have come from Jesus.

Luke 17.22

Then he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the son of man, and you will not see it.’

Luke 18.1–8

‘And yet, when the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

Luke 19.10

‘For the son of man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

Luke 21.34–36

‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the son of man.’

Luke contains a handful of unique ‘son of man’ sayings. The third follows from the Messianic Secret’s presentation of Jesus as self-aware of his impending death, which identifies him/the son of man as an empathetic savior, rather than the cosmic being who will arrive suddenly to pass judgment and usher in a new age. This latter concept is found, to varying degrees, in the other three sayings.


Conclusion

In the Messianic Secret category, the ‘son of man’ can only possibly be understood as referring to Jesus and his crucifixion. The initial sayings are carefully constructed by Mark’s author for thematic purposes: they reveal how the author and his community interpreted the death of Jesus, expositing on the place where Jesus stood in their theology. The remaining sayings, found in Matthew and Luke, reiterate the premise of these sayings (that Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection) without actually invoking the theme of secrecy.

Three of the Sapiential sayings are quite easy to interpret within a Second Temple context as generic proverbs about humanity. They appear to be early expressions of positions argued in wider pharisaic and rabbinic Judaism. This makes it possible, I think, that these three came from Jesus. I categorized the fourth saying as Sapiential simply because of the reference to Lady Wisdom, the personification of God’s wisdom in Proverbs, Sira, and the Book of Wisdom. Yet it offers no sage perspective on humanity. It seems instead to rely on knowledge of Jesus’ eventual death, hence his comparison to John the baptizer. This would throw it back into the Messianic Secret category.

Most of the Apocalyptic ‘son of man’ sayings share the same notion that he is a cosmic judge who will, sometime in the near future, be revealed to the world without any warning. Only in places where authorial redaction is obvious do we find Jesus identifying himself as the son of man. He otherwise seems to think of the figure as someone else. While a few of these sayings do seem to be invented by the authors, and possibly one from an independent apocalyptic tradition which has been attributed to Jesus through editing, the rest are more or less consistent with one another.

This is only a sketch of my thought process, based on only some light reading on the specific topic. How I approach some of these passages will likely change, especially if I ever find myself favoring a particular solution to the Synoptic Problem. Regarding the sayings in the Messianic Secret category (including a few which I initially placed in the other two groups only because of a surface-level reading), I think the likelihodd that any of them came from the historical Jesus is essentially zero. However, while I do think it is highly probable that many of the Sapiential and Apocalyptic sayings predate the gospels and their sources, the biggest difficulty is determining whether they are old enough to have come from Jesus. I think it is at least plausible, but I will have to revisit them for a more in-depth study some other time.

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