If you were to ask a Christian, or rather a gospel-reading Christian, who the ‘Son of Man’ is, invariably, you will get the answer that he is Jesus. As this article will show, what is surprising is that the very early Christians did not believe that Jesus was the Son of Man. In fact, one never finds the phrase in any of Paul’s writings, whose authentic letters span the fifties CE. Moreover, despite what the gospels say, reading between the lines, in all probability, Jesus thought the Son of Man was someone else. Furthermore, there is serious doubt whether the Son of Man actually exists or ever existed.
The phrase ‘son of man’ appears roughly 200 times in the Bible, about 70 of which appear in the gospels. Ordinarily, it means ‘human being,’ and it always has this meaning in Ezekiel, where it appears about 90 times. For instance, in Ezekiel chapter 2 alone it appears 4 times:
“And he [God] said unto me [Ezekiel], ‘Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee.’ And the spirit entered into me when he spake unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spake unto me. And he said unto me, ‘Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day. For they are impudent children and stiffhearted. I do send thee unto them; and thou shalt say unto them, “Thus saith the Lord God.” And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house,) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them. And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions: be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house. And thou shalt speak my words unto them, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear: for they are most rebellious. But thou, son of man, hear what I say unto thee; be not thou rebellious like that rebellious house: open thy mouth, and eat that I give thee.’ And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein; And he spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.” (Ezekiel 2:1–10, KJV, emphasis mine)
All 4 occurrences of the phrase “son of man” in this passage mean ‘human being’ and it is not a title of any sort.
In the gospels, however, most of the time, it refers to Jesus, and it is a sort of title. Some of the verses are very clear who the phrase refers to; to give a few examples:
“When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, ‘Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?’” (Matthew 16:13, KJV, emphasis mine)
Note the all-telling phrase “I the Son of man.”
“For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40, KJV, emphasis mine)
Jesus was the one buried for three partial days.
“As they [the apostles Peter, James, and John] came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, ‘Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.’” (Matthew 17:9, KJV, emphasis mine)
Jesus was the one who resurrected.
“And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples [apostles] apart in the way, and said unto them, ‘Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death.’” (Matthew 20:17–18, KJV, emphasis mine)
Jesus was the one who was betrayed by his apostle Judas and consequently sentenced to death.
But there are several exceptions in the gospels where it’s not so obvious who the phrase refers to; for example:
“Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me [Jesus] and of my words in this adulterous [unfaithful] and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38, KJV, emphasis mine)
Notice the word “also,” which gives the impression that the “Son of Man” is someone other than Jesus. Luke’s gospel, written around 90 CE, twenty-odd years after Mark’s, gives the same verse almost word for word, except that it strategically leaves out the word “also”—presumably, not to leave any doubt in the reader’s mind.
“Whosoever shall be ashamed of me [Jesus] and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father’s, and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:26, KJV, emphasis mine)
Mark’s version (the one that includes the word “also”), however, passes the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’: something embarrassing Christians would not make up—like Jesus’s crucifixion or baptism—but which has the ring of truth. This means that it is, most probably, what Jesus said originally. Recall that Mark’s gospel was the earliest gospel written (around 70 CE) and so probably the most authentic. Luke’s version is what later Christians (who wanted to extol him higher than he claimed to be) started to believe in Jesus. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman explains this much better in his book Did Jesus Exist?
“The sayings in which Jesus talks about himself as the Son of Man cannot pass the criterion of dissimilarity. But the sayings in which Jesus seems to be talking about someone else do pass the criterion: surely Christians who thought Jesus was the Son of Man would not make up sayings that appear to differentiate between him and the Son of Man.” (p. 306)
So, what made Christians start to believe that Jesus was the Son of Man? Look at the following two gospel verses:
“Jesus said unto them [his apostles], ‘Verily I say unto you, that ye which have followed me, in the regeneration [new world order] when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’” (Matthew 19:28, KJV, emphasis mine)
The ‘new world order’ corresponds to the ‘kingdom of God/heaven’—a kingdom of justice, sharing, and love—as we have seen in the last posted article by the same title.
“That ye [apostles] may eat and drink at my [Jesus’s] table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:30, KJV)
Now, if the apostles were going to judge the tribes of Israel, it stands to reason that Jesus (as their master) would judge the whole world. In fact, in the Apostles creed, which can probably be traced back to the first century CE, we still pray,
“From there [heaven] He [Jesus] will come to judge the living and the dead.” (Catholic Online: “The Apostles’ Creed,” accessed April 11, 2022)
Now, look at this verse from Matthew’s gospel:
“As therefore the tares [weeds] are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:40–42, KJV, emphasis mine)
In this passage, again it is uncertain whether Jesus is referring to himself: but the “Son of Man” seems to be a ‘cosmic’ character sent by God to judge the whole world at the ‘end-times’; that is, prior to the inauguration of the ‘kingdom of God’ (or ‘kingdom of heaven’). In fact, it hardly seems that Jesus is referring to himself here: throughout his life, he always tried to convert, not eliminate, sinners. It sounds more like a warning than a threat.
Let me start our discussion of this subject by first quoting New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? Regarding the kingdom of God, he writes,
“The future kingdom [of God] would be brought by a cosmic judge whom Jesus called the Son of Man.” (p. 305)
In other words, according to a biblical scholar, the phrase ‘Son of Man’ does not seem to refer to Jesus himself. I must admit I was quite astonished when I first read about this concept: I always thought that Jesus simply referred to himself by the phrase ‘Son of Man.’
Book of Daniel
But who could this cosmic judge be if not Jesus? We find the answer in the Old Testament book of Daniel. The protagonist of the book had the following vision:
“I [Daniel] saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days [God], and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13–14, KJV, emphasis mine)
So, according to Daniel, a world-wide kingdom of God was transferred to this “Son of Man” to rule it indefinitely. Jesus, of course, never questioned scriptures; so, he assumed the existence of this cosmic ruler, the Son of Man, in his speeches and teachings.
It seems, therefore, that Daniel’s vision was a future one: the Son of Man was supposed to come in the ‘end-times’ to judge everyone prior to establishing God’s kingdom on earth. So, it’s not clear whether the Son of Man, in fact, existed during Daniel’s vision. Notice also that there is absolutely no indication that this Son of Man was supposed to suffer at all, nor die as the gospels suggest above. Have a look at this verse, which is much clearer:
“For as the lightning, that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall also the Son of man be in his day. But first must he suffer many things, and be rejected of this generation.” (Luke 17:24–25, KJV)
Of course, such verses are made-up nonsense by the evangelists: it doesn’t jibe with Daniel’s portrayal of the Son of Man.
Now, Daniel was written around 165 BCE (although its author claims he wrote it around 600 BCE); but in any case, there is no doubt that Jesus, as a human being, was inexistent when this book was written.
However, because of the many gospel verses identifying Jesus with the Son of Man, and assuming that the Son of Man existed in heaven at the time of Daniel’s vision, Christians reasoned that it was Jesus who appeared in Daniel’s vision. Indeed, they believe Jesus existed prior to his birth, from the beginning of the universe, as God’s “Word.” In fact, in John’s gospel, we read,
“In the beginning [of creation] was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1, 14 KJV)
Some Christian denominations, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe that Jesus is Michael the Archangel in human form. (Reed, accessed April 12, 2022) So, Jesus is supposedly ‘God’s Word,’ the ‘Son of Man,’ and Michael the Archangel; not to mention also ‘Son of God’ and even ‘God.’ All this confusion clearly shows that from the Bible one cannot tell who Jesus really is. I like to keep things simple: I do believe Jesus was born of a sperm donated directly by the Holy Spirit to his mother, Mary; but I also believe that he was inexistent before his birth (i.e., around 5 BCE) like all of us.
Again, in his book Did Jesus Exist? New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman continues,
“The sayings that make this differentiation [between Jesus and the Son of Man] are always ones that predict what will happen in the future, when the Son of Man comes in judgement on the earth. These sayings are also multiply attested in early sources …. Conclusion: Jesus appears to have talked about a future Son of Man who would bring God’s kingdom.” (pp. 306–7, emphasis mine)
The ambiguous references to the ‘Son of Man,’ therefore, always relate to his coming in judgement in the end-times. Notice that Ehrman adds, “These sayings are also multiply attested in early sources”; so, it is probably the case.
It follows, therefore, that we have another contradiction in the Bible (a subtle one, perhaps): that is, passages that say that Jesus is the “Son of Man” and passages that say (or at least imply) that the “Son of Man” is someone else.
So much also for the Apostles’ Creed where it says, “from there [heaven] he [Jesus] will come to judge the living and the dead.” Although that is what Christians believe, Jesus himself did not seem to think that he was going to be the judge of all of humanity: as far as he was concerned, the Son of Man was given that responsibility. So, oddly enough, our most ancient Christian creed is not even authentically Christian.
Not convinced yet? Here is another interesting passage from Matthew’s gospel; it portrays Jesus saying,
“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat [food]: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.’ Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?’ And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.’ Then shall they also answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?’ Then shall he answer them, saying, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.’ And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” (Matthew 25:31–46, KJV)
First, notice that in this passage, there is absolutely no mention of Jesus: the only reference is to the “Son of Man.” Second, according to this passage, all one must do to enter the “kingdom” of the “Father” (the ‘kingdom of God’ or the ‘kingdom of heaven’) and gain “life everlasting” is to do good deeds to others in need. So basically, all one must do is to observe the core of the Mosaic Law.
Probably needless to mention, this is contrary to Christian theology because one of the tenets of Christianity is to believe in Jesus’s death, resurrection, and his being the Son of God and our Savior to enter the kingdom of God (or heaven). In the above passage, the “righteous” had no clue who the “Son of Man” was, and they still entered God’s kingdom! So, the title “Son of Man,” here could not have originally referred to Jesus: because according to early (and even modern) Christian teaching, one could not possibly enter the kingdom of God (or heaven) unless one knew and acknowledged Jesus as God’s Son and one’s Savior. Consequently, the evangelist Matthew seems to have slipped here. The above gospel passage, therefore, passes the criterion of dissimilarity and, consequently, it’s most probably authentic: that is, what Jesus actually said.
Let me now quote New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman to confirm what I just wrote here: this way, I will be more convincing. He comments as follows on the last passage from Matthew’s gospel:
“The future [last] judgement is based, not on belief in Jesus’s death and resurrection, but on doing good things to those in need. Later Christians—including … Paul … [and] other writers of the Gospel—maintained that it was belief in Jesus that would bring a person into the coming kingdom. But nothing in this passage even hints at the need to believe in Jesus per se: these people didn’t even know him. … The conclusion? The sayings of the passage probably go back to Jesus.” (pp. 312–13, emphasis mine)
Let me reiterate Ehrman’s conclusion here: “The sayings of the passage probably go back to Jesus.” This means they bear much more weight, for us Christians, than any other passages in the New Testament, including those by Paul. Consequently, belief in Jesus as well as ‘substitutional atonement’ (Savior) seem to be false doctrines. In fact, in his book God and Empire, John Dominic Crossan states,
“It is certainly correct … to call Jesus’ death—or in fact the death of a martyr—a sacrifice, but substitution and suffering are not the point of a sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the [non-violent] radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization’s brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him. Jesus’ execution asks us to face the truth that, across human evolution, injustice has been created and maintained by violence while justice has been opposed and avoided by violence. That warning, if heeded, can be salvation [well-being].” (pp. 140–41, emphasis in original)
Apparently, the apostles lost Jesus (a great miracle worker) so abruptly that the only way they could make sense of it was assuming it was all part of God’s plan and that Jesus had to die to deliver us from our sins. And that’s what they taught Paul when he converted to Christianity. Paul, being new to Christianity, regurgitated their then-current ‘creed’:
“I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” (First Corinthians 15:3, KJV)
But, in fact, there are no Old Testament scriptures saying that the ‘Messiah’ (Jewish for ‘Christ’) must suffer. The Messiah was supposed to be a great Israelite king (the calibre of David and Solomon) who would rule the whole world with God’s help.
It goes without saying, that despite what Christians believe, the above theological concepts are false; they rob God of his impartiality: God gives rain to everyone—good or bad. Since modern Christians equate the kingdom of God to heaven, these doctrines condemn the majority (about 5.5 billion) of humanity to hell, possibly leaving only (about 2.4 billion) Christians who can go to heaven. If this were truly the case, then Satan has defeated God—hands down—throughout the ages.
Although, throughout the gospels, Jesus seems to refer to himself as the Son of Man, in his book God and Empire, also biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan makes it clear that he does not think Jesus adopted the title himself; he believes that the evangelists assigned it to him (p.127): basically agreeing with Ehrman that Jesus is not the Son of Man.
So, it seems Catholics are right in this respect: we probably all have to pay a fair price for our sins in purgatory before we can enter heaven. In other words, Jesus did not pay for our sins, as Protestants believe. Here’s another quote from Matthew’s gospel confirming this:
“For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16: 27–28, KJV, emphasis mine)
In other words, Jesus thought that the coming of the kingdom of God (in which God ‘rules’ in our heart) was imminent—within his generation; he was wrong, of course, by two millennia and counting: showing that he was only human: it shows he didn’t know everything, so he couldn’t possibly also be divine (God).
Of course, I don’t believe the punishment for our sins will be eternal. (Refer to my article on “Hell” to see why.) Recall also that, in Jesus’s mind, the ‘kingdom of God’ was a kingdom on earth: in fact, in the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ we still pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth” (Catholic Online: “The Our Father,” accessed April 13, 2022, emphasis mine). See my last article on the “Kingdom of God/Heaven.”
In short, most of the time in the gospels, the phrase ‘Son of Man’ refers to Jesus because later Christians assigned this ‘title’ to him; however, in fact, the Son of Man should not refer to Jesus. Jesus himself probably believed that there would be a universal judge inaugurating the beginning of the kingdom of God.
Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus thinking that the Son of Man will accomplish his task in one fell swoop: like lightning flashes across the sky from east to west.
“For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” (Matthew 24:27, KJV)
This verse is repeated, almost word for word, in Luke’s gospel. (Luke 17:24)
According to the gospels, following the coming of the Son of Man, the end of the earth as we know it will ensue. In Matthew’s gospel, the above verse is immediately followed by these words of Jesus:
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. … Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” (Matthew 24:29–31, 34, KJV, emphasis mine)
So, Matthew portrays Jesus predicting the end of the earth as we know it prior to the establishment of a brand new one within the then-living generation. The same concept of the ‘end-times’ is also found in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels. (See Mark 13:24–27 & Luke 21:24–28, 31–32, 36)
Notice also that Jesus did not seem to realize that if a single star (like the sun) were to fall upon the earth, it would disintegrate the earth—the earth would not survive the conflagration. However, in those days, people taught that stars were small—the size of a fig, say. This means that, even according to gospel texts, Jesus did not know everything, especially scientific facts: which implies that he was only human; thus showing he cannot be God.
Note, however, that Jesus seems to keep himself distanced from this ‘cleansing’ action: the task is delegated to the Son of Man. Naturally, this conforms with Jesus’s totally-non-violent character.
Incidentally, Jehovah’s Witnesses (and other Christian denominations) believe there are no humans in heaven, except Jesus, because of the following verse in John’s gospel portraying Jesus telling Pharisee Nicodemus:
“No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which [who] is in heaven.” (John 3:13, KJV)
Of course, their belief crumbles all to dust if Jesus is not the Son of Man himself: in other words, if this is truly the case, not even Jesus is in heaven—by their own teaching.
Still, the Son of Man possibly only existed in Jesus’s imagination: the way he understood Scriptures as written in Daniel; it does not even follow that he really exists. For all we know, it was only a vision or a dream Daniel had: we don’t really know whether what he saw was factual. So the very existence of the Son of Man, even biblically, is questionable. The introduction to Daniel’s dream or vision goes,
“Daniel had a dream and visions of his head upon his bed: then he wrote the dream.” (Daniel 7:1, KJV)
Remember also that Jesus was only human, and keep in mind that the Bible is not a truth factory, either.
Incidentally, Jesus could not possibly have said the last clause “who is in heaven” if he was referring to himself. In writing the last clause “who is in heaven,” the evangelist John seems to have forgotten, momentarily, that Jesus was supposed to be speaking in this account—not the evangelist himself: Jesus could not possibly be in heaven while speaking to Nicodemus. It may be worth clarifying what the evangelist means here. At the time his gospel was being written (i.e., some 70 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection), Jesus had presumably ascended into heaven. Since Jesus was referring to himself in the text, he could not possibly have uttered this clause while speaking to Nicodemus (i.e., while he was still alive); naturally, he only went to heaven after he died and was resurrected. Talk about ‘gospel truth’!
Catholic Online: “The Apostles’ Creed,” https://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=220.
Catholic Online: “The Our Father,” https://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=216.
Crossan, John Dominic. God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008. (ISBN: 9780060858315)
Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York, NY: Harper One, 2012. (ISBN: 9780062204608)
Reed, David and Penni Reed. “I Was a JW Elder.” In Investigator 10, 1990 January: http://users.adam.com.au/bstett/JwElderDavidReed10.htm.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Oxford, UK, 1769.