Reflection on Jesus as the ‘Son of Man’

This is a title that Jesus uses for himself in the gospels, and it has a complex background. Since it has not been widely used by Christians, it can be helpful to look at its earlier uses.

The Greek ho huios anthropou in the Gospels translates an Aramaic or Hebrew original bar nash. The Greek has two words that have been translated ‘man’ in English, but they differ in meaning. [Hebrew is similar.]  One is for a male, but anthropou means any ‘human’. (It is the root of such English words as anthropology and philanthropist.) This is harder to translate as the Jesus title, lacking a suitable equivalent – ‘Son of Humanity’ is not quite the same. ‘Son of…’ expressions seem to be a figure of speech; others in the gospels are ‘sons of thunder’ and ‘son of perdition’ which have a poetic colour. There is a Semitic grammar here that we cannot duplicate in English.

The first meaning in the time of Jesus for Son of Man is that it is simply a synonym for a person, ‘a human being’, as in Ps 8:6 where it is in parallel (in the manner of Hebrew poetry).  ‘What is a human that you should notice ‘him/her’ or the son of a human that you should care for ‘him/her’?’  In the Book of Ezekiel the prophet is addressed by the Lord as ‘son of man’ –about 87 times – where again it means a human person.  The word was also used as a roundabout reference to oneself, and that may be the way it was heard by those around Jesus.

There is no recorded use of the phrase as a messianic title until after first Jewish war, ad 70-100, contemporary with gospels; it is found in late writings not part of our Bibles, 4 Ezra 13, 1 Enoch 37-71, and in Rabbi Akiba, before 135. This use for ‘The Messiah’ was based upon a passage in the Book of Daniel which is an ‘apocalypse’ masquerading as a prophecy. In a night of visions, Daniel reports seeing that four kingdoms that had oppressed the Jews  – which he  poetically called ‘beasts’ – will be destroyed and the people freed. Then there is a vision of the ‘Ancient of Days’ (as traditionally translated) which is God sitting in judgement. After the last beast is destroyed, Daniel says, ‘I saw, coming on the clouds of heaven, one like a son of man. He came to the ‘Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. On him was conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship, and all peoples of the earth, nations and languages became his servants. His sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty which shall never pass away, nor will his empire ever be destroyed.’  This vision of all power conferred on ‘the Son of Man’ fit into the idea of a Messiah whose rule will everlasting.

The question for us as readers is what it meant for Jesus and Mark. Since Jesus uses it for himself, what does he mean by it? E. P. Sanders has this advice: ‘We do not learn precisely what Jesus thought of himself and his relationship to God by studying titles….there were no hard definitions of ‘Messiah’, ‘Son of God or ‘Son of Man’ in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Even if he had constantly called himself by all three titles, we could learn what he thought of himself only by studying him – not by studying the titles in other sources.’

In its first appearance in Mark, 2:10, Jesus as Son of Man claims power to forgive sins on earth, and demonstrates it by a healing. Another later use claims that he is Lord of the Sabbath. A number of times the title will be in relation to his death and resurrection.

Joan Griffith

On our new series of Bible notes

As we start to publish some biblical notes connected with the readings for each Sunday’s Mass, you may want to know something about the person who is preparing them – so this is a brief introduction to both my background in scripture studies and my limitations!

I have been a member of St Peter’s for over 20 years, moving to London from the USA to live with my daughter and her family. Many of you will know the four Dicksons from their involvement in the parish; until this autumn they led the music at the 11:15 Family Mass. I am a Eucharist minister, have worked with a ‘small Christian community’, the Soup Run, and have recently started writing the Bible notes for the parish RCIA group.

I have been interested in the Bible since my late teens, but for most of my life any study was done around the edges. I am still very much an ‘amateur’ – I like the meaning behind that word, literally one who does it for ‘love’ and not as a profession. But in the 80s, I was fortunate to be able to do a MA in Applied Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.  In my three years there, I took all the scripture courses I could, worked at learning the Greek in which the New Testament is written, and got a smattering of the Hebrew of the Old Testament. 

I now study at home, using various books on hand and with some access to the excellent library at Heythrop College. My basic ‘checking in’ book is the New Jerome Biblical Commentary written by a number of Catholic writers to cover every book of the bible and also including a number of topical articles on many aspects of the background to the scriptures. I use it as an encyclopedia and it is a great source to compensate for my large areas of ignorance!  With the four gospels especially, I have a variety of commentaries to compare. Only a small amount of all this, of course, will be taken up in these notes.

There are varied interpretations that fit into the overall Catholic faith, and I will at times be summarizing those of various scholars, choosing what appeals to me. So be aware that you may disagree and also expect that you will find insights on your own! I have been much enlightened, for example, with what was shared by others in our small community meetings. We could say the only ‘expert’ for you is yourself, listening to God as you reflect on the words of scripture.

Sharing background I have found useful will, I hope, help others who do not have time to do the research. My basic aim is to make the scriptures used at Mass easier to understand, and to open them out for readers and listeners to find how God speaks to them through the words of the inspired writers. 

Questions and feedback will be welcome, as this starts as an experiment. My hope is that all of us through the Mass and the scripture will draw ever closer to the Father, Son and Spirit who reveal themselves in human words.

Joan Griffith

Pastoral Letter on receiving Holy Communion

From the Westminster diocese website:

In his latest Pastoral Letter to Catholics in the Diocese of Westminster The Most Revd Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster is to ask every parish and community to refresh its reverence and love for the Blessed Sacrament and its practice of receiving Holy Communion.

You can listen to the Pastoral Letter by clicking here and the full text is available at the bottom of this webpage.

In the Pastoral Letter, which will be read out at the 214 parishes in the diocese on the weekend of 9 – 10 July 2011, Archbishop Nichols notes the usual practice of receiving Holy Communion and the choices which each recipient is at liberty to make.

“The usual practice in our parishes is for the Sacred Host to be received on the hand, standing, and – when practical and prudent to do so reverently- for the Precious Blood to be received from the Chalice, also whilst standing.  This practice of standing is now confirmed in the Liturgical Norm for England and Wales, just recently approved by the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome.”

“This Norm together with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal also provide choices which each recipient is at liberty to make: to receive the Sacred Host in the hand or on the tongue, either standing or kneeling. Each way has its symbolic and spiritual meaning helping us to be profoundly aware of whom it is that we receive and the unity of faith we share.”

In the Pastoral Letter, Archbishop Nichols also reminds Catholics of the need to observe a Eucharistic fast and to seek forgiveness of sins.

“It is important that we also prepare well to receive Holy Communion. We observe a Eucharistic fast, of at least one hour. We seek forgiveness of our sins, through the penitential prayers of the Mass and through the Sacrament of Penance, especially whenever we are conscious of grave sin.”

Text of the Pastoral Letter.