Why “Son of Man” In the Gospels Was a Unique Reference to Daniel 7

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Note this in an excerpt from Son of Man: The Gospel of Daniel 7.

Jesus used the title the Son of Man far more than any other title including well-known titles such as Messiah or Son of God. There are a number of reasons why this title was a reference to Daniel 7. One is the context of the phrase. The second one is the uniqueness of the language Jesus used.

The Context of the phrase Son of Man

The phrase Son of Man can be translated as human because that is the essential meaning of the phrase. As we get further into the pages of this book, we will see Jesus took this phrase from Daniel and turned it into a title. If we read this title as only meaning human, we miss a significant part of Jesus’ message.

Jesus’ great challenge was revealing His divinity, not proving His humanity.His humanity was never challenged in the Gospels; in fact, the opposite was true. He was so human people had difficulty believing He was God.[1]The nature of Jesus’ humanity only became a question centuries later when the church became predominantly Gentile and had to deal with various heresies.

Jesus used the phrase as a title. Jesus called Himself theSon of Man(or we could say the human). He was not aSon of ManHe was the unique Son of Man. While son of man was an ancient phrase, this was not a known title, and Jesus’ use of Son of Man was unusual.[2]

The use of Son of Man is very unique in the Gospels. Jesus was the only person referred to as Son of Manin the Gospels. He was also the only person who called Himself the Son of Man, and He did it at least seventy-eight times. When other people referred to Jesus, they called him a man—not a Son of Man—over fifty times in the Gospels.[3]Furthermore, Jesus used man to refer to Himself as a man in John,[4]revealing Jesus did not use Son of Man to reference His humanity. The gospel authors made a clear distinction between Son of Man and generic references to humanity. Son of Man and man or human were not used interchangeably in the Gospels. This indicates the authors expected us to read Son of Man as a unique title and not a generic reference to humanity.

No one else dared to claim the title Son of Man.Others claimed the title messiah and Gentile rulers claimed to be sons of god, but no one else claimed Son of Man. It was unique.

Son of Man was an unusual title, but Jesus never had to explain it.Jesus’ audiences and His opponents understood Son of Manwas a title and a claim to an exalted status. Jesus consistently used Son of Man to claim that status, and no one ever challenged Him to explain His claim. His opponents disagreed with it, but they understood it.

Jesus repeatedly used Son of Man as the justification for His exalted status. As we will see in the Gospels, Jesus consistently used Son of Man to justify His exalted status and the authority of His teaching, and to present Himself as divine. He also used His identity as Son of Man as the basis for His primary teaching themes.

Jesus primarily lived in Galilee, a religious area familiar with the Scriptures.The Jewish Galileans Jesus lived among were religious and knew the Bible well enough to recognize Jesus was referring to the book of Daniel. Again, this is demonstrated in the fact Jesus used the title to make bold claims and did not have to explain it.

Jesus was accused of blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of Man.Three of the four times Jesus was accused of blasphemy were directly related to His claim to be the Son of Man,[5]and a case can be made that the fourth instance was also a reference to the Son of Man as we will see in a future chapter.[6]

Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man was the reason He was executed.[7]This is especially significant because Jesus was asked if He was the Messiah and the Son of God. Jesus answered He was the Son of Man, and that provoked the High Priest to accuse Jesus of blasphemy and demand His death.

Jesus was betrayed as the Son of Man. Jesus asked Judas at the time of Jesus’ arrest, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48).

The first Christian martyr died for claiming Jesus as the Son of Man. Stephen was executed when he declared Jesus as the Son of Man in the heavens.[8]

Jesus usually combined Son of Man with other themes from Daniel 7. It is relatively simple to make an argument on language alone that Son of Man was a reference to Daniel. However, Jesus usually combined the title Son of Man with other themes from Daniel, further indicating He expected His audience to connect Son of Man with Daniel. For example, when Jesus referred to Himself as Son of Man in seventy-eight verses He directly referenced other themes from Daniel in fifty-three of those verses. In seven more verses, He made allusions to themes in Daniel when claiming to be the Son of Man. 

This means sixty out of seventy-eight references to Son of Man also include other elements from Daniel. That alone is enough to communicate a firm link to Daniel. Taking it one step further, we will see Jesus likely was alluding to Daniel’s prediction of suffering when He predicted He must suffer as the Son of Man. If we consider suffering as a Daniel theme, it leaves only six references to Son of Man in the Gospels that do not also include another reference to a theme from Daniel 7.

It was a common teaching technique at the time to reference a phrase or excerpt from a passage to make a connection to that passage. Jewish teachers during Jesus’ time would often quote a phrase or excerpt from a passage their audience knew in order to reference the entire passage. When they used a key phrase, their audience understood they were expounding on the larger passage the phrase or quotation was pulled from. This teaching technique is found throughout the New Testament, but unfortunately our lack of familiarity with the Old Testament often causes us to miss many intentional references to the Old Testament. And Son of Man is a critical Old Testament reference many readers miss.[9]

While there has been considerable debate over the title Son of Man, we will find Jesus intentionally referenced Daniel, His audience knew He was referencing Daniel, and the Gospels were written so we could recognize Jesus’ use of Daniel.

The Uniqueness of the Phrase Son of Man

To grasp how unique the phrase Son of Man is, we need to also consider it in light of the original languages of the Bible. There is much that has been said about this, but we can summarize a few main points for our purposes. 

Nearly the entire Old Testament was written in Hebrew. One exception is Daniel 2:4–Daniel 7:28. The verses were written in Aramaic. The entire New Testament was written in Greek. Additionally, there are other phrases in the Bible which can be translated son of man in English, but Daniel 7:13 contains the only time in the Bible son of man was written in Aramaic (בראנש, bar enasha). Every other instance of son of man in the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (בןאדם, ben adam).

While Hebrew and Aramaic are related languages, the words are different, which means son of man in Daniel 7:13 is completely unique. No other verse contains bar enasha. This is even true in the book of Daniel. In an English translation, we find Son of Man in Daniel 7:13 and Daniel 8:17. However, because Daniel 7 was written in Aramaic and Daniel 8 was written in Hebrew, it is not the same. Daniel 7 contains bar enasha and Daniel 8 ben adam. The difference in meaning is even obvious when you read the chapters in English. In Daniel 7, the Son of Manis presented as a divine figure in the heavens, and in Daniel 8, son of man is used to address Daniel. They are obviously not the same person.

This may seem to be a small detail, but it is very significant. Jesus was multi-lingual, but most of His public teaching was probably done in Aramaic. Therefore, when He referred to Himself as the Son of Man, He spoke the Aramaic (bar enasha) found only in Daniel 7 rather than the Hebrew (ben adam) found in a few other passages. Again, there is only one bar enasha in the Old Testament, so it is clearly linked to Daniel. 

With this in mind, we need to briefly consider the way Jesus’ words are recorded for us in the Gospels. Once again, Jesus taught in Aramaic, but the Gospels were written in Greek.[10]What we want to notice is the way Jesus’ words were translated into Greek emphasized the link between Son of Man and Daniel. 

During Jesus’ time, son of man was used in Aramaic to indicate human. For example, Daniel used the phrase that way in chapter 7. 

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. (v. 13 ESV) 

His description of Jesus could literally be translated as, “I saw one who looked human coming with the clouds in the heavens.” While son of man meant human in Aramaic, son of man was not used in Greek. In Greek, you would simply say man (ἄνθρωπος,anthrōpos). Therefore, if Jesus has used the phrase son of man simply to mean human, the authors of the Gospels could have translated His words directly to anthrōpos, but they did not.

When the gospel authors recorded Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man(ὁυἱὸς τοῦἀνθρώπου, ho huios ho anthrōpos), they wrote Jesus’ Aramaic literally in the Greek rather than translating what Jesus said into proper Greek. This indicates the authors wanted to make sure we knew exactly what Jesus said in Aramaic. They also included the definite article the(ὁ, ho) so readers would recognize Jesus used Son of Manas a title. He did not say He was a Son of Man. He said he was the Son of Man.[11]

This becomes even more significant when we remember Son of Man was used seventy-eight times in the Gospels, and every time it referred to Jesus, and in ever instance but one, Jesus was the one who used it.[12]However, the word for man(anthrōpos) is found in over one hundred and ninety verses. Jesus also used this word when He wanted to describe Himself as a human. Other people used the word to refer to humans. They even used the word to refer to Jesus as human.

We’ve covered a lot, so let’s summarize the main points. 

The Son of Man was an intentional title in the Gospels. Son of Man was an Aramaic phrase. It made sense in Aramaic and basically meant human. However, it was an odd phrase in Greek[13]and not the way to say human in Greek which means the gospel authors did not translate Son of Man into proper Greek. They clearly wanted to communicate the Aramaic phrase Jesus used. Furthermore, every time Jesus used Son of Man, the Gospels included the definite article the which made the phrase a distinct title. Jesus was not just a Son of Man; He was the Son of Man. While the Gospels were written in Greek, they were written in such a way to emphasize the Aramaic Jesus used, and the Aramaic phrase is only found one place in the Old Testament—Daniel 7.

The gospel authors did not use son of man in a generic sense to refer to humanity.The gospel authors consistently used the normal Greek word for man (humanity) when they wanted to refer to humanity. Jesus was referred to as a man, and Jesus even used the word to speak about himself. So, the Son of Man was used by Jesus in an intentional way while man was consistently used in a generic way to speak of humanity. Again, this is important because these conversations did not originally happen in Greek. They are translated conversations. Perhaps the original speaker used the phrase son of man to speak of humanity because that would have been correct Aramaic. However, when it was recorded in the Gospels, it was written down in correct Greek as man. The Gospels frequently use the generic Greek word for man, but they never use the phrase son of man to speak about humanity in a generic way.

The gospel authors used the same Greek for Son of Man as the Greek translation of Daniel used by the early church.The Septuagint (LXX) was the Greek translation of the Old Testament most frequently used by the apostles. In the Septuagint, Daniel 7:13 was translated into Greek as “like a son of man” instead of “like a human.” The translators preserved the Aramaic phrase in Greek instead of converting it into a equivalent Greek word. The Gospels used the same Greek translation of Jesus’ words as the most common Greek translation of Daniel 7:13.

The authors of the Gospels translated the conversations in the Gospels in a very intentional way. When Jesus called Himself the Son of Man,it was an Aramaic phrase literally written in Greek. However, when speaking of humanity, the gospel authors used the typical Greek word. Their translation was obviously intentional. They wanted us to know what Jesus said in Aramaic when He called Himself the Son of Man. In other cases, they only communicated that someone spoke about a man.

The gospel authors intentionally created a connection between Jesus’ words and Daniel 7. We have to remember the books of the Bible were written as literature. They were written intentionally so readers could make connections and come to correct conclusions. The authors often used biblical language from passages to help readers make connections to those passages. 

Though they wrote in a different language from the Old Testament, the gospel authors were clearly trying to communicate a direct connection to Daniel in the language they chose. When we consider their choice of language in light of everything we have already seen, the connection to Daniel is simply undeniable.

[1]        Matthew 13:46, 55–58; Mark 6:4–5; Luke 4:22-24; John 12:34.

[2]        Because Jesus likely taught in Aramaic scholars have questioned whether Jesus used a definite or indefinite article and if it was significant. However, the Greek version of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels always included the definite article to make it apparent Jesus used Son of Man as a specific title that applied only to Himself.

[3]        Matthew 9:3; 12:24; 13:54, 56; 26:48, 61, 72, 74; 27:19, 24, 47; Mark 2:7; 6:2; 14:44, 71; Mark 15:12; Luke 7:39; 15:2; 23:2, 4; 23:6, 14, 18, 41, 47; John 1:30; 4:29; 5:11–12; 6:52; 7:15, 25, 27, 31, 35; 9:16, 24, 29, 33; 10:41; 11:37, 50; 18:14, 17, 29–30, 40; 19:5, 12, 21. Jesus was questioned one time, “Who is this Son of Man?” but it was a response to Jesus’ teaching. The people did not address Jesus that way (John 12:34).

[4]        John 8:40.

[5]        Matthew 26:64–65; Mark 14:62–64; Luke 5:21–24.

[6]        John 10:24-25, 33.

[7]        Matthew 26:64–66; Mark 14:62–64.

[8]        Acts 7:56.

[9]        While many Christians have not been taught the connection to Daniel, scholars have recognized the connection to Daniel for some time and have written quite a bit about it. More and more scholars recognize Jesus’ use of Son of Man as a deliberate and intentional reference to Daniel.

[10]     The Bible is an inspired book which has been supernaturally preserved, and God chose to preserve it in Greek. Some have proposed part of all of the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic. For our purposes, we will consider the Gospels that have been supernaturally preserved  as the authentic Gospels.

[11]     There has been much debate on the significance of the use of the definite article in Aramaic, but the fact the gospel authors used a definite article in Greek is significant because “the Son of Man” is not a Greek phrase, thus indicating they want their readers to connect to the underlying Aramaic.

[12]     The one exception is John 12:34. In this verse, the crowd says, “Who is this Son of Man?” The speaker was not Jesus, but the crowd, was speaking Jesus’ words back to Him.

[13]     “the Greek expression ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου is not normal monoglot Greek…” Casey, Maurice. The Solution to the ‘Son of Man’ Problem, New York: T&T Clark International, 2009. 61.


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