What Does The Title “Son of Man” Mean?

I’ve heard a number of good and bad explanations for the title “Son of Man” over the years and I’ve largely tried to avoid getting into the weeds on this matter because I have primarily focused on studying the early parts of the Old Testament, however, there this term is used so often in the New Testament that we really need to understand what it means and what it does not mean. In this article we will dive into the Old Testament, as well as extra-biblical literature such as the book of Enoch, in order to build an understanding of this title for Jesus. We will also touch a bit on history and culture and how it plays into the development of messianic themes for the Jewish people.

What Son of Man Does NOT Mean

When I was a young man in Catholic school I was told that the phrase likely refers to Jesus’ humanity and that the title Son of God referred to his divinity. Thus, these terms could be understood as joint descriptions of Jesus’ duality. This explanation was also popular among the protestant churches that I attended as a young man. This was supported by the fact that the title Son of Man (more accurately “Son of Adam”/בן־אדם) was used quite often as an address for the prophet Ezekiel and others in the Old Testament. In fact, it’s used over 90 times in Ezekiel alone. It is generally agreed upon by most scholars that this title for Ezekiel is a reference to his being a human and not a divine being. [1]Walther Eichrodt, Ezekiel, The Old Testament Library, (The Westminster Press, Phil, 1966), pp 14-15, 61. Furthermore, Psalm 8:3 states that man was created a littler than the angels (lit. gods/מֵאֱלֹהִ֑ים) and so the title makes sense if it referred to humanity and not the divine.

However, applying this interpretation to Jesus’ title always seemed to fall short for me. For starters, the title Son of Man was often used in scenarios where Jesus was clearly being accused of blasphemy or doing something that a normal man could not do. For example, in Luke 5 Jesus speaks of his ability to forgive sins as the religious leaders are murmuring of blasphemy.

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

22 Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”
(Luke 5:21-24)

Now, some have pointed out that the title Son of Man was used here because Jesus said the Son of Man has authority to “on the earth” to forgive sin….thereby making a distinction between heaven and earth. This would alleviate the claim of blasphemy as he not equating himself as YHWH in heaven but as something different. Nevertheless, this is unconvincing because the title is used elsewhere depicting a divine Jesus.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
(Mathew 19:28)

While it might be beneficial to review all of the passages concerning this term, all 90+ occurrences make for a tall order and it won’t actually solve the riddle. To solve the riddle we have to look into the origin of the title, not just how it’s applied.

The Real Meaning of the Son of Man

As many astute biblical readers have already noticed, nobody in the New Testament questioned what Jesus meant when he called himself the Son of Man. In other words, it was a well known title, just like the title of “Son of David”. It was part of a collection of messianic terms. The difficulty here is that that Old Testament evidence for such a title is scant. In fact, only one book in the Old Testament mentions anything close to this title. In the book of Daniel we are given a glimpse of this messianic figure. The first reference is from Daniel 3 and it does not actually use the term “Son of Man”. As such, many don’t include it in the equation but I will demonstrate that this passage is indeed part of the messianic expectation or at least of a cosmic view held by the Jewish people.

Daniel 3 contains a well-known story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were thrown into the furnace by Nebuchadnezzar. As the king glimpsed inside the furnace, the he makes an astonishing claim.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?”

They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.”

25 He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of a god. (or the son of God)”
(Daniel 3:24-25)

There are a few interpretations of what is meant by “son of a god/לְבַר־ אֱלָהִֽין”which is the Aramaic phrase meaning the son of God, son of a god, or the son of the gods. All translations are technically correct since the word for God and gods is an Aramaic plural (Elohin), just like the controversial Hebrew form Elohim. The word Elohim here requires some background. The ancient Canaanites and Israelites worshiped the god El who had 70 sons that were lesser gods and were called elohim which is a reference to them being the sons of El. Eventually the word “Elohim” became the generic form of saying “gods” or “divinity” generically in the proto-Canaanite language. Before the monotheism of the second temple period, the idea that there was a single god was barely present in the language and the wording of “the gods” slowly transformed its meaning to refer to THE God. The problem with this is that the word now took on dual functions, both as a plural and a singular. Only the context of the speech was left to determine the exact meaning. To add more wrinkles, the plural construction that we see with “Elohim” can also be translated generically to mean “divine being” or more abstractly as “divinity”.

With the case of Daniel 3:25, the context can tell us if this is a reference to “son of the gods”, “son of a god”, or “son of God” or another variant. One’s theological interpretation will depend on what the phrase “לְבַר־ אֱלָהִֽין” means, not what it says. In other words, Christians will see this as a trinitarian and messianic reference, as the translators of the KJV did, and translate the phrase to mean “the Son of God”. However, Hebrew scholars have universally seen this as meaning “Son of the gods” or “Son of a god” which is generally understood in the second temple period to refer to an angel or a created heavenly being. Some rabbinic traditions hold that the angel was Gabriel.

And some say that the angel Gabriel recited: “And the truth of the Lord endures forever.” This Gemara elaborates: When the evil Nimrod threw our father, Abraham, into the fiery furnace, Gabriel said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, I will descend and cool the furnace, and I will thereby save the righteous Abraham from the fiery furnace. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: I am unique in my world and Abraham is still unique in his world. It is fitting for the unique to save the unique. Therefore, God Himself went down and saved him. And as the Holy One, Blessed be He, does not withhold reward from any creature who sought to perform a good deed, He said to Gabriel: You will merit the rescue of three of his descendants under similar circumstances.

Rabbi Shimon HaShiloni taught: When the evil Nebuchadnezzar threw Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah into the fiery furnace, Yurkamo, the ministering angel of hail, stood before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and said before Him: Master of the Universe, I will go down and cool the fiery furnace, and I will save these righteous ones from the fiery furnace. Gabriel said to him: The strength of the Holy One, Blessed be He, will not be evident in this manner, as you are the minister of hail, and everyone knows that water extinguishes fire. Your action would not be regarded as a great miracle. Rather, I, the ministering angel of fire, will descend, and I will cool the furnace from within, and I will burn it from the outside, to consume those who threw the three righteous men into the furnace; and I will thereby perform a miracle within a miracle. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: Descend. At that time Gabriel began praising God and recited: “And the truth of the Lord endures forever”, as God fulfilled His promise to him from more than a thousand years earlier.
(Pesachim 118A:21 – 118B:1)

Moreover, Nebuchadnezzar refers to this being as an angel in 3:28, calling him a “מַלְאֲכֵהּ֙/Angel or messenger”. Certainly, there is a strong case to be made for the angel interpretation but it is also true that second temple Judaism often equated the sons of God as meaning angels. It was implied that these were heavenly beings, however, the ancient concept of angels was drastically different than our modern concepts. Often the angels were considered to be sons of God as we see in Genesis 6 and other extra-biblical texts like Enoch.

The matter of interpretation was also complicated by the matter of no definite article, meaning the word “the” is implied in the phrase if we assume it means “the gods”. Aramaic has a slightly different way of assimilating the conjugating the definite article than Hebrew and I won’t bore anyone with that here, but it is clearly missing or assimilated in a way that is not discernible. Therefore, the translation “son of the gods” becomes problematic.

Translation issues aside, it seems as though Daniel 3 depicts a divine being of some nature that is human-like. This human-like, but also heavenly, being shows up again in Daniel 7 but this time his title is “the Son of Man”.

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
(Daniel 7:13-14)

This passage more clearly depicts a divine messianic figure. In fact, it is clear that the New Testament probably has this image in mind when Jesus is called the Son of Man. Nevertheless, there is a problem that needs addressed which is determining the source of this eschatological figure. He is seemingly nowhere to be found in the Old Testament and only emerges in the late book of Daniel. This messianic figure pops out of nowhere and with little explanation.

Origin of the Son of Man Figure

There are a few origin theories but one of the most common is that the concept is from from Genesis 3:15 where there exists a foreshadowing of the defeat of Satan. The defeat is said to be at the Hands of זַרְעֲךָ֖ “your (Sara’s) seed”, meaning the offspring of Adam and Eve. This interpretation is not without merit but would clearly be only a tiny piece of the puzzle, if any piece at all. Nevertheless, some Jews held to the idea that the messiah that would end Satan’s reign would be a human.

To find other explanations we much look at the popular texts of the intertestamental time period. As it turns out the Son of Man shows up in extra-biblical texts more than the Bible itself. The Deuterocanonical book of 4 Ezra or 2 Esdras was popular and was part of the Greek version of the Old Testament that served as the basis for the Christian and messianic movements. In chapter 13, we learn of a messianic figure that the Almighty has been hiding for “many ages”. This figure goes on to deliver God’s creation. The scene should sound somewhat familiar for those who’ve read the book of Revelation.

After seven days I dreamed a dream in the night. 2 And lo, a wind arose from the sea and stirred up all its waves. 3 As I kept looking the wind made something like the figure of a man come up out of the heart of the sea. And I saw that this man flew with the clouds of heaven; and wherever he turned his face to look, everything under his gaze trembled, 4 and whenever his voice issued from his mouth, all who heard his voice melted as wax melts when it feels the fire.

5 After this I looked and saw that an innumerable multitude of people were gathered together from the four winds of heaven to make war against the man who came up out of the sea. 6 And I looked and saw that he carved out for himself a great mountain, and flew up on to it. 7 And I tried to see the region or place from which the mountain was carved, but I could not.

8 After this I looked and saw that all who had gathered together against him, to wage war with him, were filled with fear, and yet they dared to fight. 9 When he saw the onrush of the approaching multitude, he neither lifted his hand nor held a spear or any weapon of war; 10 but I saw only how he sent forth from his mouth something like a stream of fire, and from his lips a flaming breath, and from his tongue he shot forth a storm of sparks. 11 All these were mingled together, the stream of fire and the flaming breath and the great storm, and fell on the onrushing multitude that was prepared to fight, and burned up all of them, so that suddenly nothing was seen of the innumerable multitude but only the dust of ashes and the smell of smoke. When I saw it, I was amazed.

12 After this I saw the same man come down from the mountain and call to himself another multitude that was peaceable. 13 Then many people came to him, some of whom were joyful and some sorrowful; some of them were bound, and some were bringing others as offerings.


“This is the interpretation of the vision: As for your seeing a man come up from the heart of the sea, 26 this is he whom the Most High has been keeping for many ages, who will himself deliver his creation; and he will direct those who are left. 27 And as for your seeing wind and fire and a storm coming out of his mouth, 28 and as for his not holding a spear or weapon of war, yet destroying the onrushing multitude that came to conquer him, this is the interpretation: 29 The days are coming when the Most High will deliver those who are on the earth. 30 And bewilderment of mind shall come over those who inhabit the earth. 31 They shall plan to make war against one another, city against city, place against place, people against people, and kingdom against kingdom. 32 When these things take place and the signs occur that I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed, whom you saw as a man coming up from the sea.

33 “Then, when all the nations hear his voice, all the nations shall leave their own lands and the warfare that they have against one another; 34 and an innumerable multitude shall be gathered together, as you saw, wishing to come and conquer him. 35 But he shall stand on the top of Mount Zion. 36 And Zion shall come and be made manifest to all people, prepared and built, as you saw the mountain carved out without hands. 37 Then he, my Son, will reprove the assembled nations for their ungodliness (this was symbolized by the storm), 38 and will reproach them to their face with their evil thoughts and the torments with which they are to be tortured (which were symbolized by the flames), and will destroy them without effort by means of the law (which was symbolized by the fire).
(2 Esdras 13:1-12, 25-38)

The messianic figure in 2 Esdras certainly serves as an expectation of the messiah and his nature. He is described as being both the Son of Man and My Son (God speaking). The messiah concept we see in the New Testament was formulated more from the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament than the rest of the Old Testament. As discussed in other articles, the Bible used by Jesus and the apostles was the Greek Septuagint which included the Apocryphal books and they are treated as canonical. They were also influenced by the 1st book of Enoch which also lays out a messianic concept. The messianic communities like that in Qumran placed a lot of value in the apocalyptical texts.

And there I saw the One to Whom belongs the time before time, and His head was white like wool. With Him was another being, whose countenance had the appearance of a man, and his face was full of graciousness, like one of the holy angels. I asked the angel who went with me […] concerning that son of and who he was, and whence he was, and why he went with the One to Whom belongs the time before time.

He answered and said to me: ‘This is the son of man who has righteousness, with whom dwells righteousness, and who reveals all the treasures of that which is hidden, because the Lord of the spirits has chosen him, and whose lot has the pre-eminence before the Lord of the spirits in uprightness for ever. This son of man whom you have seen shall raise up the kings and the mighty from their seats and the strong from their thrones, and shall loosen the reins of the strong and break the teeth of the sinners.’

And at that hour that Son of Man was named in the presence of the Lord of the spirits, and his name before the the One to Whom belongs the time before time. Yes, before the sun and the signs were created, before the stars of the heaven were made, his name was named before the Lord of the spirits. He shall be a staff to the righteous whereon to stay themselves and not fall, and he shall be the light of the gentiles and the hope of those who are troubled of heart. All who dwell on earth shall fall down and worship before him, and will praise and bless and celebrate with song the Lord of the spirits. For this reason has he been chosen and hidden before Him, before the creation of the world and for ever more. The wisdom of the Lord of the spirits has revealed him to the holy and righteous; for he has preserved the lot of the righteous, because they have hated and despised this world of unrighteousness, and have hated all its works and ways in the name of the Lord of the spirits: for in his name they are saved, and according to his good pleasure has it been in regard to their life.

In these days downcast in countenance shall the kings of the earth have become, and the strong who possess the land because of the works of their hands, for on the day of their anguish and affliction they shall not be able to save themselves. And I will give them over into the hands of My elect: as straw in the fire so shall they burn before the face of the holy, as lead in the water shall they sink before the face of the righteous, and no trace of them shall any more be found.

And on the day of their affliction there shall be rest on the earth, and before them they shall fall and not rise again. There shall be no one to take them with his hands and raise them, for they have denied the Lord of the spirits and His Messiah. The name of the Lord of the spirits be blessed.
(1 Enoch 46:1-48:10)

Subsequent appearances of this figure exist in 1 Enoch 38 and 39 as the “Elect One” or the “Anointed One”

In 1 Enoch we see a messianic figure and an apocalyptical vision that would be quite familiar to readers of the New Testament. It is difficult to read the passage from Enoch and not picture the New Testament messiah. Where did the books Enoch and 2 Esdras get these messianic ideas from? Were they original to these authors? Were they actually given revelation by God about the messiah? Or was there some development leading up to these books?

The Source of “New Revelation”

The time of the Jewish exile in Babylon forced many Jews to rethink their scripture interpretations as well as develop new ideas and traditions. These changes were party due to what they perceived initially as failed prophecies but were also influenced by the cultures they encountered while in exile. During the exilic period and the post-exilic period the Jewish people developed all new ideas of what heaven was like and who exactly was there. Texts from this time period is where we first see a robust development of the angels who were given names and defined roles. In the Apocryphal books like Tobit we find a remarkable passage that explains a seemingly unusual passage in Revelation.

Revelation 8:3-4: And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.

Tobit 12:12,15: So now when you and Sarah prayed, it was I (the angel Raphael) who brought and read the record of your prayer before the glory of the Lord, and likewise whenever you would bury the dead.

For more information on how the apocryphal texts affected New Testament thinking readers can read a previous article titled “Influence of the Apocrypha on New Testament Theology“. Additionally, for apocryphal quotes that show up in the New Testament I will refer the reader to another article, “Did Jesus or The New Testament Authors Quote from The Apocryphal Books?“.

During this time period the idea of the resurrection of the righteous developed. New apocalyptical texts were written revealing hidden knowledge and end times predictions. Specialized communities like the one in Qumran collected texts and created their own specialized ones which foretold of Armageddon. During the later stages of the Persian period and then the Greek period, two interesting developments happened. One development was that of dualism which was from contact with the Zoroastrian Persians. Dualism provided an explanation for balancing both good and evil and explained why such evil and failures gripped mankind and even the Jewish people. Dualism conceived of a good deity and also a wicked one that was given authority for a time over the earth, much like the view of YHWH and Satan. Another major development was gnosticism from the Greek influences. Gnosticism focused on revealing hidden knowledge and divine revelations which was great for a people looking to explain their perpetual occupation by foreign forces, despite the promises of God. Gnostic and dualistic thinking often combined to form thrilling and captivating apocalyptical texts. These texts were so influential to Jews in the 1st century that Christians continued to develop texts in these traditions.

It is here that it must be said that, after Jesus only, the Christians seemed to perpetuate these types of texts. The significance is that it demonstrates the sectarian nature Judaism in the 1st century. The Jews who followed and believed in these new movements laid the groundwork for Christianity which is why many New Testament concepts show up on apocryphal texts but not in the Old Testament. On the other hand, Pharisees avoided such additions to the Jewish faith. Even less enthused were the sadducees who didn’t even consider Old Testament prophets to be equal to the law and in some cases eschewed the prophetic texts all together. They also did not believe in the resurrection of the righteous as it was not apparent in the the Pentateuch, only the prophets like Daniel.

One development that happened, as a result of many of the previously mentioned influences, was that of a second power in heaven; one who was at the right hand of God. This concept is generally referred to as the “two powers in heaven”. In the early stages of this idea it was the Michael or Gabriel who was believed to be the second power. The idea of an angel that was 2nd in command stemmed from the many Old Testament references to “the Angel of the Lord”. The fact that these texts describe the angel as “the angel” rather than “an angel” was thought to have been an influence. The phrase, “the angel of the Lord” shows up in the Old Testament 50+ times. Some of the more interesting examples are as follows:

But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
(Genesis 22:11)

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.
(Exodus 3:2)

The angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land I swore to give to your ancestors. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? 3 And I have also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you.’”

4 When the angel of the Lord had spoken these things to all the Israelites, the people wept aloud, 5 and they called that place Bokim. There they offered sacrifices to the Lord.
(Judges 2:1-5)

The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. 12 When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

13 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”

14 The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”
(Judges 6:11-14)

Of the many references from the book of Judges, one stands out in the angel of the Lord being equated as divine. The narrative leading up to the birth of Samson is a prime example of what caused speculation among the later Jewish people.

God heard Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman while she was out in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. 10 The woman hurried to tell her husband, “He’s here! The man who appeared to me the other day!”

11 Manoah got up and followed his wife. When he came to the man, he said, “Are you the man who talked to my wife?”

“I am,” he said.

12 So Manoah asked him, “When your words are fulfilled, what is to be the rule that governs the boy’s life and work?”

13 The angel of the Lord answered, “Your wife must do all that I have told her. 14 She must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, nor drink any wine or other fermented drink nor eat anything unclean. She must do everything I have commanded her.”

15 Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, “We would like you to stay until we prepare a young goat for you.”

16 The angel of the Lord replied, “Even though you detain me, I will not eat any of your food. But if you prepare a burnt offering, offer it to the Lord.” (Manoah did not realize that it was the angel of the Lord.)

17 Then Manoah inquired of the angel of the Lord, “What is your name, so that we may honor you when your word comes true?”

18 He replied, “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.” 19 Then Manoah took a young goat, together with the grain offering, and sacrificed it on a rock to the Lord. And the Lord did an amazing thing while Manoah and his wife watched: 20 As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame. Seeing this, Manoah and his wife fell with their faces to the ground. 21 When the angel of the Lord did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the Lord.

22 “We are doomed to die!” he said to his wife. “We have seen God!”

23 But his wife answered, “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this.”

24 The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson.
(Judges 13:10-24)

In many cases the angel of the Lord is not so much a messenger but an instrument of God’s judgement.

So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. 16 When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.

17 When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the Lord, “I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall on me and my family.”
(2 Samuel 24:15-17)

The Lord said to Gad, David’s seer, 10 “Go and tell David, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.’”

11 So Gad went to David and said to him, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Take your choice: 12 three years of famine, three months of being swept away before your enemies, with their swords overtaking you, or three days of the sword of the Lord—days of plague in the land, with the angel of the Lord ravaging every part of Israel.’ Now then, decide how I should answer the one who sent me.”

13 David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands.”

14 So the Lord sent a plague on Israel, and seventy thousand men of Israel fell dead. 15 And God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem. But as the angel was doing so, the Lord saw it and relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then standing at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.

David looked up and saw the angel of the Lord standing between heaven and earth, with a drawn sword in his hand extended over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell facedown.
(1 Chronicles 21:9-15)

Then the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!
(Isaiah 37:36)

In the book of Zechariah the angel of the Lord is well defined and is listed in the presence of both YHWH and Satan. He also acts as a mediator between God and man.

And they reported to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”

12 Then the angel of the Lord said, “Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” 13 So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.
(Zechariah 1:11-13)

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. 2 The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”
(Zechariah 3:1-2)

Because of these passages and many like them, much speculation arose as to who this angel was and what his relation to God. Apocryphal literature provides names for these angels since they were not in the scriptures (Excepting Michael & Gabriel) and there were 7 principle angels with Michael being the leader as he was the angel of war and warriors. Early rabbinic testimony claims that the names of the angels were acquired from the Babylonian exile (Yerushalmi Rosh Hashana 56d). In reality it was probably the influence of Persia that led to the 7 named archangels. Zoroastrian teaching contains their own list of 7 archangels.

Spenta Mainyu – “Bountiful Spirit”
Asha Vahishta – “Highest Truth”
Vohu Mano – “Righteous Mind”
Khshathra Vairya – “Desirable Dominion”
Spenta Armaiti – “Holy Devotion”
Haurvatat –  “Perfection or Health”
Ameretat – “Immortality”
[2]Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism Volume One: The Early Period, E. J. Brill, Leiden 1975. (1989 edition ISBN 9004088474)

Nevertheless, there exists a gap between the angel of the Lord and the Son of Man. How did the thought of an archangel get turned into a messianic figure? Rabbis and scribes during the period of the Greek occupation developed a belief in the duel fulfillment of scripture’s prophecies. Oracles were for the immediate people and for the distant people at the end of the age. The visions of a final Armageddon was envisioned with the angel of the Lord leading the charge. Since the angel of the Lord was already well known as appearing on the earth in human-like form, he became known as the 2nd power in heaven, with the appearance of a man. This man-like angelic being was described in Daniel and other texts as being the messiah and the agent of God in the end of the ages. But was this powerful son motif a new idea to the Jews?

El & Ba’al, The Northern Influence

This section of the article is going to dive into what many would call speculation. For those that are familiar with the Old Testament, it is quite noticeable that some of the Hebrew scriptures have a northern Canaanite/Israelite bend to them. It’s not quite as common since the scriptures were compiled and edited by Judah after Israel had been taken captive by the Assyrians. The scriptures spend much time criticizing the Israel for their worship of Ba’al and adopting customs of the northern people, such as Assyria and Phoenicia. While this might seem unimportant to the discussion, I believe it’s necessary. But to understand we have to look more at the religion of the Israelites, who were essentially Canaanites.

The people of Israel worshipped a deity named El. He is named in the Bible as Elohim. The term Elohim originally referred generically as “gods” because it was meant to be a title for the sons of El. These little gods were called the Elohim and quite often in the Hebrew scriptures the word we see in English to mean “angel” is actually elohim rather than the correct Hebrew word “malak”. Malak actually translates to messenger which more or less fits the modern idea of what an angel is. Nevertheless, the leader of these lesser divine beings was Ba’al. Thus, the later Enoch literature was not inventing narratives when it spoke of the sons of god descending to mate with the daughters of man. The same would be true of the same accusation made in Genesis 6 which explains the giants.

What makes this whole thing interesting is that a large portion of the Israelites already believed in a supreme deity with a powerful son leading the pantheon or the other heavenly beings. Ba’al gained his position at the right hand of his father by defeating Yamm the sea deity and deity of death, Mot, which is coincidentally the proto-Hebrew word for death. In Biblical Hebrew is was adjusted to mavet. The etymology concerning this change is well documented and also not the main point of this section so I will refrain from explaining it. The important thing is to remember the details of the story. After defeating Yamm and his serpent, the Leviathan, Ba’al is actually defeated by Mot initially but is then resurrected by help of his sister Anat. After which he is enthrone.

Ba’al’s father, El, is described as the ancient of days and an old wise gray bearded deity that presides over the heavenly councils. Ba’al essentially acts as El’s right hand. The possibility that the Ba’al motif influenced the Son of Man concept is one seriously worth looking into. At the very least, they were probably aware of the Ba’al narrative. A mirror of this motif is the elevation of Marduk in the Babylonian pantheon by defeating the sea serpent like Ba’al. Another parallel exists in the defeat of Typhon by Zeus. Whether or not these religious views influence the Israelite religion is hard to determine but it certainly made the concept accessible to the Jewish people.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Ba’al mythology is his title as “rider of the clouds”. Being that he was a storm god he was often pictured as a god of thunder, rain, and war. The popular story of his dying and rising was used to explain seasonal changes and its impact on the rain. The absence of rain was explained by Ba’al temporary death and the return of the rainy season by his revival. Jesus describing himself as coming on the clouds would have been a very familiar image.

The Influence of Greek Philosophy

The effect of the Greek occupation of the Jews is difficult to estimate but most New Testament commentators have documented the hellenization of the Jews quite thoroughly. In ancient Near Eastern theology a deity could manifest itself in multiple ways but it was not considered to be of multiple parts like the trinity. The Jews, however, readily accepted that God had a spirit and was thusly 3 parts. Greek philosophers like Plato wrote extensively on the supposed 3 parts of the human being, sectioning them into a physical body, and soul/spirit, and a mind. If God existed in heaven and his Spirit existed also, then his 3rd part must have been the body. Identifying both God and his Spirit is easy in the Old Testament but if God had a physical body, what or who was it? Naturally, Platonic thought created a framework for identifying the Angel of the Lord with God’s physical presence. If God had created man in his image and man had 3 parts, then naturally God must also have 3 parts.

Concluding Thoughts

Jesus’ identification with the Son of Man is drawing from sectarian Jews who had applied a certain exegesis to the Hebrew scriptures while integrating new ideas borrowed from the cultures around them. Naturally, a great number of Jewish leaders found this new sect as heretical, believing that they did not find these ideas from the scriptures but superimposed them upon the scriptures. However, this is far from the truth. The truth is that the Jews were forming new exegetical opinions about the scriptures using new information and ideas from other cultures.

Son of Man Research References

Ian L. Sanders, C.M, The Origin and the Significance of the Title ‘The Son of Man’ as Used in the Gospels. (Link)

Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism Volume One: The Early Period, E. J. Brill, Leiden 1975.

Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Stuy of Israel’s Second God, Westminster/John Knox Press Louisville, 1992.

Maurice Casey, The Solution to the ‘Son of Man’ Problem, T&T Clark International, 2009.

Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism, Brill Academic Publishers, Inc., Boston, 2002.



1 Walther Eichrodt, Ezekiel, The Old Testament Library, (The Westminster Press, Phil, 1966), pp 14-15, 61.
2 Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism Volume One: The Early Period, E. J. Brill, Leiden 1975. (1989 edition ISBN 9004088474

3 thoughts on “What Does The Title “Son of Man” Mean?”

  1. I have always been under the impression that, when Yeshua referred to Himself as the Son of Man, He was showing remarkable – UTTERLY REMARKABLE – affection for mankind in that He wanted to refer to Himself in that way. He also wanted to regularly emphasize the fact that He WOULD be able to pay the blood sacrifice price – because He was born of mankind.

    • Yea that was a common view even into the 60s. I have a wonderful commentary by Joseph Fitzmeyer who advanced a similar claim…. And he was even involved in some of the early research in the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, since research into Apocryphal literature the DSScrolls has come to maturity, it’s relatively easy to tie the phrase to a messianic expectation. It’s quite possible that current scholars are wrong (including myself) but I have yet to see evidence that would demonstrate such. If further information is provided I would not hesitate to update this article with new information and possibly even a new conclusion.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.