Friday, December 30, 2011

Son of Man (3)

Yesterday I jotted down a few thoughts on Jesus and the judgment of the earth.  By the way, I edited the last couple paragraphs of yesterday's to fill out my impression a bit.  Today I continue that train of thought.
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... Perhaps the best evidence for a judgment on earth comes from the "Son of Man" imagery of the first three gospels.  There is a remarkable agreement among even many who are very skeptical that Jesus used this phrase as a way of talking about himself.  Take Luke 9:58: "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."  There is no special meaning to the phrase "Son of Man" here.  It just seems to be the way Jesus often referred to himself as if to say, "I have no place to lay my head."

And Jesus is almost the only one who calls himself "Son of Man" in the New Testament.  The phrase is almost never found outside Matthew, Mark, and Luke and even then it was not a title by which others referred to Jesus.  No one seems to get upset that Jesus calls himself this name, which probably means it was not a phrase widely used at the time for anything.  It is a puzzle.

However, it gets even more puzzling when we get to some of the connotations the phrase has in some parts of the gospels and some contemporary Jewish literature.  Take what Jesus says to the high priest when he is on trial in Mark 14:62, "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."  This verse is a clear allusion to Daniel 7:13, where someone like a "son of man" comes with the clouds of heaven.  This figure receives power and authority from God so that all nations and peoples worship him and he brings a kingdom that will never be destroyed.

We find a lot of potentially troubling verses when we get to this topic.  What does Mark 7:1 mean, which says that some standing there with Jesus will not die before the kingdom has come with power?  What does Mark 13:30 mean when it says that generation will not pass before things like the coming of the Son of Man takes place?  It sounds similar to what Jesus tells the high priest: YOU will see it. What I want to point out here is merely that these pictures of things that are coming seem to involve the living on the earth.

One of the most striking Son of Man passages is in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25:31-46).  The Son of Man comes, the nations are gathered for judgment.  There is no mention of resurrection.  The picture is of the Son of Man coming from heaven to earth and gathering all those of the earth to be judged, with the kingdom of the Son of Man immediately commencing thereafter.  I mentioned this picture back in chapter 3 on Jesus and the Poor.

What is interesting is that the imagery here is very similar to something found in another Jewish book of the period, 1 Enoch. [1] In 1 Enoch 62, the "Son of Man" sits on a throne and judges the world as well.  It is such a strikingly similar picture that some connection seems almost certain.  Was Jesus alluding to this tradition when he called himself the Son of Man?  Did those who wrote this part of 1 Enoch know about Jesus?  Did Matthew paraphrase this passage because he knew this tradition or did those who wrote this part of 1 Enoch know Matthew?

These are difficult questions to answer.  On the one hand, the tradition of 1 Enoch could not have been widely known at the time of Jesus or it would have provoked more of a reaction and Jesus wouldn't have used the phrase casually so often.  Does Jesus' use of this expression fall in the category of hiding his messianic identity from the crowds?  The inner circle would know what Son of Man meant, but it would be an ambiguous phrase to most outsiders.

I merely want to draw two conclusions.  The one is that Jesus was remembered as preaching that a judgment was going to come to the earth.  The other is that at least the gospel writers compared Jesus' role in that judgment to the role of the Son of Man in the traditions of Enoch.  Jesus would be God's agent of judgment when he returned from heaven, the king-judge of Daniel 7.

[1] In particular, a section of 1 Enoch called "The Parables of Enoch."  This part of the book was not present among the Dead Sea Scrolls, leading most experts to think it was written later than the other scrolls, perhaps as late as the first century AD.

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