Monday, November 13, 2006

The Son of Man

February 11, 2007
Luke 5.18-26; 6.1-11; (7.34; 9.22-26, 44, 56-58; 11.30-32; 12.8-10, 40; 17.22-30; 18.8, 31; 19.10; 21.27, 36-38; 22.22, 67-69; 24.7)

In Luke, Jesus uses the title "son of man" to describe himself on numerous occasions. What does he mean by this? What does this title mean to his immediate audience? In what contexts does Jesus apply the title to himself? And how are we to understand him in light of that context?

Jesus did not make up this title for himself. It is found in the Old Testament, most prominently in Ezekiel and Daniel. It can also be found in other ancient Jewish sources, such as the books of Enoch. So, it was a fairly well-known title among first century Jews.

Two specific contexts prove revealing for understanding why Jesus referred to himself as the "son of man". The first is found in Luke 5.18-26, where Jesus heals a paralytic man. This is also the first instance in which we find "son of man" in Luke's Gospel. Here we see it is apparently significant in its relation to Jesus' ability to forgive sins. Note that Jesus forgives the man's sins first, and then moves to heal him. The healing was a demonstration to the skeptical scribes and Pharisees – a demonstration that proved his ability and authority, as the son of man, to forgive sins (5.24).

Any first century Jew would hardly conceive of forgiveness apart from the sacrificial system sanctioned by God through the temple. So, how can Jesus forgive sins? What about his words or actions revealed to those healed, and to those who witnessed his healings, that his forgiveness was (at least) as legitimate and as authoritative as that sanctioned by the temple priests? The priests were the ones making atonement for the people, thus bringing forgiveness (Leviticus 4.26, 31, 35; 5.6,10, 13, 16).

We have already seen that Jesus associated himself with counter-temple figures (such as John), and that he himself behaved in counter-temple fashion. (See the study on January 14, "Jesus, John, and the Temple".) A citation from that study proves helpful for us here: "Interestingly, in 5.21-24 Jesus links his authority (ezousian) to forgive sins with his being the son of man - a trait possibly linked to the one like a son of man in Daniel 7.13-14 (LXX), who is given dominion (ezousia)." It will be argued at a later time (March 11) that the "one like a son of man" in Daniel 7.13-14 is a high priestly figure, and the event told there corresponds to the priestly duties on the Day of Atonement. If it is true that Jesus' claim to be the son of man is a priestly claim, and that his actions and words are to be understood in some sense as opposing the temple establishment of his day, then perhaps his ability to forgive sins, the authority for which belonged to the temple priests alone, should be understood as a prime example of such opposition to the temple.

So what is Jesus doing? What is he trying to accomplish by this kind of action? Why doesn't he recommend to those healed that they engage in the temple process of atonement, which seemed to be still valid, at least from the days of his youth (Luke 2.21-52), and upon the healing of a leper (5.14)? Again, the priests were the ones making atonement for the people, thus bringing forgiveness. Jesus' claims in Luke 5.18-26 are therefore incredibly bold. He says, though implicitly: 1) "I do apart from the temple what the priests do in the temple. I need no temple." And, 2) that the ruling high priest, Caiaphas, at least has an equal, and at most is illegitimate. Statements like these, made throughout Luke's Gospel, eventually get Jesus in serious trouble (19.47; 20.19; 22.2; see also 6.11; 11.53-54).

The second context proving helpful in understanding Jesus' claim to be the "son of man" is that of Luke 6.1-11, where he asserts that "the son of man is lord of the sabbath". Just as in the previous text, Jesus performs a healing to demonstrate that authority. From this point on, healing on the sabbath becomes a regular event for Jesus (13.10-17; 14.1-6). This is another bold claim – one that enrages and confounds the Jewish leaders.

In Luke 6.1-5 we are told of Jesus' followers plucking grain, rubbing it and eating it on the sabbath – an unlawful deed according to the Pharisees. Jesus answers the accusers' question with the story of David and his hungry men, recorded in 1 Samuel 21.1-6, how they ate the bread reserved for the priests. After relating that story, he concludes somehow authoritatively, "The son of man is lord of the sabbath", to which there is no retort.

What can we learn from Jesus' use of the "son of man" title here? What is he saying about himself by appealing to that title? One implicit detail might prove helpful. In 1 Samuel 21.6, the bread is said to have been hot, suggesting that on the sabbath the priests were responsible for making bread from grain. And so, here in Luke 6.1-5 we find Jesus (and his followers) again doing what priests do, with an authoritative appeal to the "son of man" figure (usually associated with Daniel 7.13-14).

Read through Luke's Gospel, noting the numerous references to the "son of man". What does each of these references tell us about Jesus? Why does he decide to use that title for himself at these specific points in his teachings and ministry?


Two additional comments:

The book of Ezekiel is full of references to a "son of man", God applying this title to Ezekiel (2.1, 3, 6, 8; 3.1, 3, 4, 10, 17, 25; 4.1, 16; 5.1; 6.2; 7.2; 8.5, 6, 8, 11, 12, 15, 17; 11.2, 4, 15; 12.2, 3, 9, 18, 22, 27; 13.2, 17; 14.3, 13; 15.2; 16.2; 17.2; 20.3, 4, 27, 46; 21.2, 6, 9, 12, 14, 19, 28; 22.2, 18, 24; 23.2, 36; 24.2, 16, 25; 25.2; 26.2; 27.2; 28.2, 12, 21; 29.2, 18; 30.2, 21; 31.2; 32.2, 18; 33.2, 7, 10, 12, 24, 30; 34.2; 35.2; 36.1, 17; 37.3, 9, 11, 16; 38.2, 14; 39.1, 17; 40.4; 43.7, 10, 18; 44.5; 47.6). Ezekiel is of the priestly lineage (1.3). Perhaps this is another link between the "son of man" and the office of priest.

Another title ascribed to Jesus in Luke's Gospel in "the holy one of God", given to him by a demon (4.34). This title was somewhat common in the Old Testament. Aaron was called this in Psalm 106.16 (see also Numbers 16). This may or may not bear any weight in understanding Luke 4.34; however, since we have considered Jesus to be the promised faithful high priest, it seemed worth noting.


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