In 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.
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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.