If you want to know how Jesus understood himself, you have to ask why he kept referring to himself as son of man. More than any other term. On more than 50 occasions.
Scholars offer opinions ranging from “it just means a human” (as it did in his language) to “it means Jesus is the divine figure of Daniel 7.”
You can imagine how exhilarating it was to find an author summarizing my own conclusions of what Jesus meant, especially one who wrote 100 years ago!
Andrew Zenos wrote The Son of Man: Studies in the Gospel of Mark just before World War I when there was a lot of debate on this topic. This book is more artistry than argument, more a portrait of Jesus than persuasive exegesis. The opening chapter is the gold.
Many scholars go straight to the son of man in Daniel without considering what currency the phrase might have had before Daniel’s time. Some even miss the significance of the human/beast contrast in Daniel 7. God’s people had been suffering at the hands of rulers that behaved like animals (“beasts”) tearing each other apart to gain and maintain power. Daniel’s vision asks us to ponder what it would be like if our original sovereign (“the Ancient of Days”) took authority away from those who act like beasts and gave it to someone like a human (“one like a son of man”). Everything would be resolved if the earth was ruled by someone who acted like a human instead of like an animal.
Professor Zenos’s book is now in the public domain, so I’ll let him tell you in his own words:
Though the source of His power was divine, its nature and exercise were to be in the highest sense human — humane, it would be better to say, were it not that even that beautiful word is scarcely full enough of the meaning infused into humanity by Jesus. It suggests humanity in contrast with brutality. (pp. 4-5)
Zenos recognizes that son of man means “human” in Hebrew/Aramaic, and that Daniel incorporates the meaning of “human” found in earlier Hebrew texts:
If man is made in the image of God, the rule of God on earth must be godlike, that is to say, human. It is this that the apocalyptist-prophet was endeavouring to put before his sorely persecuted and oppressed fellow-believers. The dominion of the brute force was destined to pass away, and its place on the throne was to be occupied by a figure the very opposite of brutal — that of the Son of Man. (pp. 8-9)
This leads Zenos to recognize that the kingdom of God is both present and future. Most scholars now accept the already and not-yet aspects of the kingdom, but Zenos had this insight early:
Thus, the Son of Man was at the same time a future and a present power to be reckoned with. (p. 9)
If the beatitudes describe the reversal of fortunes under by Jesus’ reign, this is just the right way to describe the political significance of the son of man:
The lust for conquest, greed for territory, the subjugation of weaker peoples by stronger, the cruel exactions of the hard earnings of the subject race by some autocratic monarch — all these, in spite of change of method, still continue. But they continue no longer unchallenged, no longer recognised as the normal and ideal for all mankind Side by side with them has arisen the kingdom of the Son of Man, — the reign of the Humane One, — who desires and aims that all shall have equity and justice dealt out to them. (pp. 10-11)
Zenos recognized that the problem of beastly rulers continues into the modern world:
Perhaps no single character in modern history more signally typifies the dominance of force which, according to the vision of Daniel, the Son of Man was to supersede, than Napoleon the Great. (pp. 11-12)
So here’s the summary statement that concludes chapter 1:
He who is the Son of Man is also the Son of God. It is no mere accident that these two titles have become fixed on the same person. He is the Son of Man because he is the Son of God. Theology has worked at the problem of the person of Christ for nineteen centuries, but it has scarcely advanced beyond the fundamental facts of the earliest Christian experience which kindles at the touch of the Spirit of God, enabling devout souls to recognise in Jesus the perfect man and the perfect God. He is perfect man because He is the perfect image of a certain nature and aspect of God.
The heart of the message of Christianity is that God and man are somehow kin. … Thus the Son of Man saves because his humanity is the humanity of God.
Nietzsche looked for the solution of the problem of human life in the coming of a being of transcendent power, the Superman; but if Power be force only, the world has known enough of its dominion, and it has known it to its grief and disappointment. The rise of a superman of mere Power would be a reversion to brutality. The hope of the world must be fixed in something better, the reign of love, which is the reign of the Son of Man. (pp. 17-18)
The first chapter of Zenos’s book was the best summay I’ve ever found to integrate Jesus’ identity and his mission: the son of man, restoring the kingdom of God.
Unfortunately, the rest of Zenos’ book felt disappointing. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but he didn’t carry this great insight through in his exegesis of specific son of man texts. Like so many others, he missed the concreteness of the kingdom, limiting it largely to the spiritual dimension instead of the transformation of God’s world.
If you want current research on this topic, you couldn’t go past the Library of New Testament Studies compilation ‘Who is This Son of Man? The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus edited by Larry W. Hurtado and Paul L. Owen (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2011). Hurtado’s final chapter — “Summary and Concluding Observations” — is the best in the book, presented with Hurtado’s usual well-measured approach. Zenos is nothing like this, but he did capture the sense of Jesus’ unique use of this phrase like no one I’ve ever read.
Andrew Constantinides Zenos (1855-1942) was dean and professor of biblical theology at McCormick Theological Seminary (Presbyterian) in Chicago.