Son of Man

GalileeGrassIn making self-claims, Yeshua’s normal mode was to be ambiguous. This feature in the way the Gospels tell the story has become known as “the messianic secret.” It means that even today it is possible for some historians to say things like, “Jesus had no knowledge of being either Messiah or a divine man.” Is this really so? Or was the vagueness in his words deliberate, a way to hint about his identity so that after his glory was disclosed followers would catch the meaning?

The title “son of man” is a case in point. It is used in the Hebrew Bible in two ways, to describe someone as “a human being” (differentiated from the divine) as is especially seen in the book of Ezekiel, or to describe one who is enthroned beside God and given to reign over the earth forever as in Daniel 7. No one could pin Yeshua down or indict him for making grandiose claims about himself. To further increase the ambiguity, Yeshua used the third person, referring to “the son of man” in ways that left one wondering if he meant himself or someone else.

The Daniel 7 “one like a son of man” was a figure of controversy in Jewish interpretation. The text says there were thrones (plural) set up in heaven (vs. 9). This is odd since one would think only God has a throne in heaven. And the angels are standing in array before God, so it does not appear that any of the chief angels would be enthroned with God. But one “like a son of man” came to him, which is to say someone who is not completely human. The most likely explanation, since he will be enthroned with God, is that he is something more than human.

I am writing a discipleship guide for Messianic Judaism which is due to be released in late July. I will be sending email list members the entire text of chapter 3, “The Son of God and His Father,” this week. Want to get extras like this from MJ Musings? Sign up here for our email list.

This passage became a center of controversy in second century Judaism known as the “two powers in heaven” heresy. Apparently even the great rabbi Akiva had said something regarded by students after him as dangerous: that one throne was for God and the other for David (i.e., Messiah). But this interpretation would give credence to the Jewish followers of Yeshua whose ways were known to the early rabbis. Rabbi Yosi the Galilean had a preferable interpretation which discredited Yeshua-believers and also the later Gnostics: that one was for God to sit in in judgment and the other when he operated out of mercy (see Babylonian Talmud at Hagigah 14a, and Alan Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, Waco: Baylor Univ Press, 2012, pgs. 47-49).

Were the Yeshua-believers right? Was the second figure, the Son of Man in Daniel 7, divine alongside the Ancient of Days?

Our answer has to be given in retrospect. The Daniel passage is open, its meaning something hinted at and ambiguous. The Daniel Son of Man and Yeshua, according to his self-descriptions, shared in common that they would rule over the world. As Yeshua said, “in the regenerated world, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones” (Matt 19:28). He promised his closest followers would eat and drink at his table and sit on thrones (Luke 22:30). Yeshua indicated that he saw himself as this Son of Man, the one who is given a kingdom and who is enthroned beside the Ancient of Days in Daniel. We will explore further whether this means Yeshua is divine in chapter 9, “Divinity and Messiah.”

The son of man sayings of Yeshua may sound humble, about a suffering and very human figure. But they are a mystery, because they are really, in Daniel’s words, about one “like a son of man.” In other words, there is more to him than humanness.


  1. As you already know, Derek, we don’t see eye-to-eye on your notion of “the most likely explanation” for how this “one like a son of man” is described. In modern parlance, with a nod to “scifi” terminology, this phrase would refer to a “humanoid” of uncertain origin. If we do not read any presuppositions into the phrase, it is merely an accurate description of an appearance by someone who had no means of investigating more closely, nor any compelling clues to provide more clarification. Given also the example of the exalted Henoch/Metatron in the second-century story of the four rabbis in the pardes, the humanoid described in Daniel could just as validly represent an exalted human of the same ilk, and certainly could represent an exalted human Messiah. We have another example of such a “humanoid” in Daniel’s story of the fiery furnace, which may in this case have been an angel not unlike the “man” who wrestled with Yacov at the Yabok crossing or the one who announced that Samson would be born. We can even look to an example of a clearly-human high priest seen as standing in HaShem’s Judgment Hall for an indication of a circumstance in which a human presence appears in a heavenly venue. Hence I recommend greater caution regarding the interpretation of the nature of the Dan.7 humanoid.

  2. I think Daniel 7:13-14 does not say “with clouds of heaven, (one) like a son of man is coming” , but “a people of clouds of heaven like a son of man is coming”. (A people will receive the kingdom like a man usually gets a kingdom.) This fits with the explanation by the angel that the kingdom will be given to the people of the saints of G-d. In Daniel 7, I think Daniel saw weird creatures and a people made up of clouds, not “(one) like a son of man.” It does not even say “one” in the quote. There are many more details to this, but I can’t list them here.

    1. ‏”עִם־עֲנָנֵ֣י שְׁמַיָּ֔א כְּבַ֥ר אֱנָ֖שׁ אָתֵ֣ה הֲוָ֑ה“‎
      (Daniel 7:13 BHS-W4)

      There is no word “people” in here, Kenneth. “With [the] clouds of heaven one like a son of man comes.” I agree that the explanation later in the chapter is an alternative reading, with “the people” standing in the place of the son of man. See Boyarin’s book for explanation.

      1. Derek,

        The word “with” is spelled ayin mem which could say “people” in Aramaic just like in Hebrew, instead of “with”. “I saw in visions of night, and behold, a people of clouds of heaven like a son of man is coming…”

        1. Kenneth, ah, I did not grasp you were offering an alternative vocalization. Sorry I missed that. The pronouns in 7:13-14 are singular though, which I realize doesn’t prove the collective interpretation is wrong. But there is plenty of reason to think the Masoretic vocalization (“with the clouds”) is correct. The fact that the later parts of the chapter offer a collective re-interpretation is all the more reason to think an individual is in mind in 7:13-14. Have you seen Boyarin’s exegesis of it in The Jewish Gospels?

          1. Derek,
            What do you mean by the later interpretation? Do you mean it was about the saints of G-d or about a man?

        2. @Kenneth — The problem with your attempt to interpret the word with an alternative vocalization to that provided by the Masoret is that it actually makes no sense linguistically. A reader familiar with the language and its idioms would not read it as you are suggesting, because it just doesn’t scan or flow as language must do. It would be far too awkward and forced, and not suited to the context. As Derek properly pointed out, the corresponding singular pronouns shape that context, and its corresponding interpretation.

          1. Proclaim Liberty,
            I don’t understand what is wrong linguistically. Could you explain specifically what sounds wrong? Also, if it is translated as “one like a son of man”, but literally it says “like a son of man”, is that linguistically good in the usual translation?

          2. @Kenneth — The use of the word “one” in English translations is an attempt to clarify what is implicit in the singular “bar enosh”, along with the subsequent singularity of corresponding tenses and pronouns (which, I suppose, is why the plural notion of “heavenly cloud people” doesn’t fit or “sound right”).

            Translation from one language to another often requires such auxiliary additions in order to capture something that is not conveyed by a literal word-for-word rendition, especially when some of the words are represented by single-letter prefixes or suffixes in a language like Hebrew or Aramaic, where also familiar English constructs like definite and indefinite articles like “the” and “a” are also hidden within the unwritten vowel structure. Recognizing such constructs requires either an analytical familiarity such as I’ve expressed it here, or else aural familiarity from much spoken practice (or both).

            My own aural experience with Aramaic is limited to a number of traditional Jewish prayers, and miscellaneous readings from Talmud and other Jewish literary sources, and I still struggle with it; hence I tend to apply my experience with spoken Hebrew as an analytical tool in addition to literary grammatical analysis. Such is my own approach to developing an “ear” for the correct rendition of Aramaic phrasing. Thus I also appreciate and rely on the guidance provided by the ancient Masoretes who added vowel pointing to the text in order to capture their own more extensive familiarity with the language. In this particular case, further additional guidance may be obtained by cross-checking with the Septuagint translation, that indicates also how ancients who understood implicitly what they were reading chose to render it into another language. They chose the Greek word “meta”, indicating their recognition of the meaning as “with” rather than even the faintest hint of the notion of “people”. I hope this multiplicity of witnesses suffices to convince you of the proper rendition.

  3. ProclaimLiberty,

    In Daniel 7, Daniel saw many strange creatures made up of strange things. I think it says he saw a people made up of clouds of heaven coming like a son of man to get the kingdom. Usually, a kingdom is given to a person, not a people, so maybe that is why it says it is coming like a person. A people can take a singular verb and singular pronouns. You can see that in many Biblical quotes.

    The Septuagint is a translation. If the people read the Aramaic without vowels, then they had to guess what it said too. They could have read it wrong too.

    Kenneth Greifer

    1. @Kenneth — I think you missed the point of my reference to the Septuagint. It demonstrates that Jews who were fully as familiar with Aramaic as they were with Hebrew and Greek, read it in the same way as the Masoretes who inserted the vowel markings that provide the same interpretation. The conclusion you ought to draw is that folks who knew Aramaic ever so much better than you or I do provided for us clear guidance about the proper interpretation of this passage. Thus your attempts to read it otherwise may be deemed “wrong”, and it doesn’t matter if Boyarin didn’t reply to you, or if you feel that you haven’t received sufficient explanation from Derek. I’ve tried to provide a sufficient amount of additional explanation and justification to convince you that your attempt to force the passage to say something it does not say truly is not correct.

      Just because we are discussing a vision, we are not justified in seeking the oddest possible rendition of its description. That’s not the way people describe their dreams or visions, and they make special efforts to highlight features that seem to them especially unusual or confusing. We have no hints in this passage that Daniel was trying to be particularly obscure about his imagery, and it would not be fair to him to press for strained interpretations that do not fit the straightforward meanings of the linguistic patterns that he chose. You really have no reasonable justification to continue asking for someone to validate the reading that you presented above, because you have been shown the most authoritative valid reading that is available and the reasons why it is authoritative and why it is preferable to yours.

  4. Derek,

    I know you are very busy, but if you do read this, I will answer your question. I took out Boyarin’s book, but I could not read it. I didn’t find it interesting. I sent him my idea about Daniel 7:13-14 a long time ago, and he wrote me back that I was wrong, but he did not give any explanation, kind of like you. (I understand how tremendously busy you are just from looking at how much you do on your blog and from the amount of books you write. Plus, I know you are busy with work and family responsibilities.)

    I also sent him my extremely different opinion of the angel of the L-rd, but he did not even comment about that. He is probably as busy as you are.

    Thanks for your time.

    Kenneth Greifer

  5. I recently thought of a new idea. Maybe the “people of clouds of heaven” are not made up of clouds of heaven, but are the people and /or angels in front of G-d in Daniel 7:10. It doesn’t say they are angels or people or both.

    Kenneth Greifer

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