Review of “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. London and New York: T&T Clark (Continuum), 2010.
Part 5: Did Jesus consider himself to be “The Son of Man”?
According to Casey, belief in the resurrection of Jesus was one of the earliest aspects of the Christian faith, and was based on visionary appearances witnessed by his earliest followers. But the manner in which these visions were experienced and interpreted by Jesus’ followers was determined by Jesus’ own prediction that he would die and subsequently be raised to life again (p. 456). In a series of sayings which Casey concludes originates with the historical Jesus, Jesus, speaking of himself as “the son of man” (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου), predicts that he will rise again after three days (Mark 8.31; 9.31; 10.33-34). Furthermore, as Casey argues, in addition to Jesus’ prediction of his death, Jesus deliberately provoked his own crucifixion. His journey to Jerusalem and challenge to the temple authorities should be viewed as a deliberate attempt to effect his own martyrdom. In short, Jesus was on a suicide mission. Therefore, concludes Casey, the nature of the post-resurrection visions is a reflection of Jesus’ own teaching about his future death and resurrection; they are not just the Church’s invention, not – for example – an ad hoc explanation why their hero had met with an untimely death. Instead, Casey holds that, Jesus deliberately followed in the steps of the Jewish prophets and more recent Maccabean rebels, inviting his own martyrdom. Moreover, following the Maccabean belief in the post-mortem vindication of righteous martyrs, Jesus believed that following his death, he too would be given eternal life.
If Jesus made these predictions about himself, we might ask: is this all that Jesus claimed for himself? Did he not also claim for himself a special role in the coming eschatological Kingdom, in particular the role of a semi-divine intermediary like Elijah or the archangel Michael … or like the figure who become known as “the Son of Man”? Casey acknowledges that a passage such as Mark 10.40 envisages a central role for Jesus in his heavenly glory. In Mark 10.35-45, two of Jesus’ disciples, John and his brother James, ask Jesus if they can have pride of position when Jesus is exalted to heavenly glory. Jesus denies this to them, claiming that only God can grant such things. Then, in a private word to all the disciples, which may or may not be an original part of the same tradition, Jesus explains that the Kingdom of God does not involve lording it over others like tyrants, but requires serving others. Jesus concludes, in v. 45, by saying, “The [or "a"?] son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
From this passage, we learn that Jesus and his disciples viewed Jesus as having a special role in Heaven – higher than the disciples and other worthy recipients of heavenly life, but subject to God. Jesus thought that one day he would be a “second power in Heaven”, just under God! This strange belief makes sense of Jesus’ choosing twelve disciples, for in this act, Jesus was reconstituting a new Israel, each disciple a leader of the twelve tribes which made up the idealized Old Testament concept of Israel, with Jesus as their David-like, kingly head. If Jesus believed in a Kingdom of God, it was one in which Jesus was king, and only his followers were truly Israel! But, Jesus also expected hardship while on Earth; he expected that in order to become great in the afterlife, to become first among all people in eternity, they would have to serve as slaves, and be subject to the possibility of martyrdom. In this, Jesus adhered to the idea that earthly suffering and righteousness led to heavenly reward, which was a Jewish belief invented probably only as late as the second century BC (see, e.g., Daniel 12.3; 2 Maccabees 7) – although never a belief which was accepted by all Jews.
Clearly Jesus thought that he held a special role in this coming kingdom. But what of his statement that “The [or "a"?] son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”? The Greek phrase ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου (lit. “the son of the man”) is not normal, native Greek, but is translation Greek, behind which we can detect the clear signs of an Aramaic Vorlage, bar (e)nash(a). In general usage, bar (e)nash(a) is a circumlocution which simply means “a person”. So, by saying, for example, “a son of man is like a worm”, all one would be saying is that “a man/human is like a worm” (cf. Job 25.6). This saying does not mean that Jesus in particular is like a worm! Casey also notes that the term bar (e)nash(a) is sometimes used, as it is by Jesus, to speak of oneself in the third person. So when Jesus says “the son of man is going to die”, it is possible that he might only be saying, “I am going to die”. Casey explains that Jesus might have a reason to speak of his impending death in the third person, because such things are humiliating or difficult to face (p. 368). The context of Mark 10.35-45 does not help us distinguish whether Jesus is referring to a specific, titular Son of Man or just “son of man” (i.e. a person). For in the context of this passage, Jesus is saying that his personal example, in which he predicts that he will serve on Earth and later become a kingly figure in Heaven, is the rule also for John and James and every one of his followers. So bar (e)nash(a) could refer either to Jesus himself as a specific person (“the Son of Man”) or to everybody (“a son of man”, i.e. “a person”).
There is a fundamental dilemma then in interpreting the “son of man” sayings (or at least in respect of the earliest son of man sayings that go back to the historical Jesus, because in later usage ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου becomes more clearly a title for Jesus). The unusual phrase is, however, very distinctive of Jesus, and is found directly on his lips, not in the narrator’s sections in Mark. Casey provides careful reasons to interpret every one of the genuine bar (e)nash(a) sayings which go back to the historical Jesus as having a general usage, that is, as applying to all people generally. Casey’s discussion of the “son of man” passages here and recently in The Solution to the “Son of Man” Problem (2007) is extremely comprehensive, and even if you ultimately disagree with his conclusions, the clarity of his argument and breadth of knowledge demands engagement. Casey’s discussion of the scholarship on bar (e)nash(a), the few dozen non-Christian usages of bar (e)nash(a), and the use of bar (e)nash(a) by Jesus is unmatched in contemporary scholarship. Moreover, Casey is right to maintain that the titular sense of bar (e)nash(a) (“Son of Man”) simply does not occur in the unequivocal manner of its Christian use before the Gospels. It does not occur in Daniel, where instead the heavenly figure is described as “one like a son of man/human” in appearance, which is not a title, whether it refers symbolically to Israel or, as I favour, to a divine intermediary such as Michael, among other options. It does not occur as a title in the Similitudes of Enoch, although it is used fairly singularly to refer to an individual man who is eventually transformed into the eschatological judge. In the Similitudes, the phrase “son of man” gains a specific association with Enoch and his heavenly counterpart the eschatological judge, because the term is used repeatedly of him. Moreover, it is coloured from the beginning by the clear use of imagery from Daniel 7 (Similitudes 46.1-4). So, while “son of man” is not technically titular in the Similitudes, the term has gathered a specific connotation of the divine intermediary responsible for the eschatological judgement. As many authors in the volume published the same year as Casey’s Son of Man (Gabriele Boccaccini’s Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man) argue, despite the inherent uncertainty, there is a good case to be made for a 20 B.C. dating of the Similitudes. On this basis, the phrase “son of man” was an established address for an individual person, moreover a glorified transformed divine intermediary figure, before the birth of Jesus, and before the floruit of the apocalyptic figure who taught Jesus, John the Baptist.
For Casey, while the historical Jesus believed he would have a special place in Heaven, and believed and predicted that he would have to suffer a martyr’s death to attain it, he did not historically term his heavenly counterpart “The Son of Man”. It is certainly possible to interpret each of the genuine “son of man” sayings of Jesus in a general rather than titular sense, although a full discussion of each case would take us a long way from the present book, into many of Casey’s other publications on this interpretive problem. While I’m not convinced by his conclusion that every reference by the historical Jesus to ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου / bar (e)nash(a) is general; i.e. that none are titular with the meaning “The Son of Man”, the question is admittedly very difficult to determine, not least because – and this is Casey’s (as well as Vermes’) insight – we must first retrovert Mark’s Aramaic-derived Greek Jesus-sayings into their hypothetical Vorlagen before even beginning to consider whether the phrase is titular or generic. Lurking in the background to this issue, also, is the odd fact that the term ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου is almost entirely restricted to the Gospels, and is not included for example in any of the earlier Pauline epistles – although plausibly because the epistles lack the direct speech of Jesus and are composed in native not translation Greek. So was “Son of Man” a title used by Jesus himself, or developed only by Mark and followed by the other Gospels? Mark 14.62 clearly links – similar to the author of the Similitudes before him – the “son of man” sayings with imagery drawn from Daniel 7.13-14, which speaks of “one like a son of man” (i.e. somebody in human form) who “comes with the clouds of Heaven”, puts an end to evil, is “given dominion and glory and kingship”, which lasts for all eternity. For Mark, it seems clear that ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου has become a title of the divine intermediary who will act as eschatological judge and second in power to God in Heaven. As Casey argues, the historical Jesus accepted this heavenly role, so could the title “Son of Man” which Mark employs to describe it also go back to the historical Jesus?
Casey not only argues for the general meaning of bar (e)nash(a) in each of the specific general uses by Jesus by detailed analysis of text and translation technique, but he raises a further argument which he considers makes the general meaning necessarily present whenever bar (e)nash(a) is employed. Casey argues that “the general level of meaning… cannot be avoided in the original Aramaic” (p. 363). Now it is one thing to argue from the meaning of specific passages that Jesus does not employ the title “Son of Man”; but this goes further and appears to assert that Jesus could not have used the term bar (e)nash(a) without also including its general sense (i.e. “a man”). If true, it would effectively rule out the possibility that Jesus could have used the Aramaic expression bar (e)nash(a) in a titular sense. But is this correct? Can a very general word – even as general a word which simply means “a man” in general use – not have been used by Jesus in a sense which excludes this general level of meaning? A word used very generally can indeed lose its general sense in certain technical usages. Take the word “man” in English, to begin with an analogy. Although it has just the same level of generality, extending to all “humankind”, it can also be restricted to certain people. If I say, “I’ve got to work for the man“, the term “the man” refers only to a white, upper-class man, and excludes the general level of “man”. In this example, although I am a man, I am not “the man”; the specific, technical usage excludes the general use. Closer to home, in Hebrew, the corresponding term ‘ish (“man”/”human”) has a very general semantic range. But now and again it is used restrictively, to refer to a special class of men, to heroes, to mighty men. Take Numbers 13.3b, which refers to the list of spies as ‘ishim (“men”), and uses the term in apposition to roshey beney-yisra’el (“chiefs of the sons of Israel”). Here, the general extent of the term “men” is erased, as it is used to describe the spies with the phrase “all of them men”. The author is not retaining the whole generality of the semantic range (obviously the spies are “men”!), but referring to each of the spies as a special type of man: a hero; a great warrior.
Moving from these analogies to Jesus’ use of “son of man”: how might we conclude that the historical Jesus may have employed this Aramaic phrase – which in most circumstances has a very general sense – in a very specific way, in fact, to refer to himself as the divine intermediary understood as the eschatological judge of humankind? The first thing to note is that the circumlocutory form “son of man” would easily attract such a specific secondary, technical, titular meaning – much more easily than the term “man”. Casey only locates 50-odd usages of “son of man” in a millennium of Aramaic usage, as opposed to the many thousands of uses of “man”. In addition, this rare phrase “son of man” would have easily evoked the passage in Daniel for Jesus and his followers, given (1) the highly apocalyptic nature of the earliest Jesus movement, (2) Jesus’ own similar delusion that he was destined to take up the top spot in Heaven under The Power Himself (God), (3) the favouring of this precise circumlocutory phrase to apply to a glorified divine intermediary in the Similitudes by an apocalyptic author exhibiting notable similarities to the Jesus Movement, and (4) the apparent importance of Daniel on Jesus and his followers as evident from the extent and significance of its use in the New Testament. For Jesus, then, bar (e)nash(a) would most probably have had this strong connotation of a divine intermediary figure who wielded divinely instituted power. It is this precise persona that Jesus took on, perhaps as a result of his own visionary experiences (as at his baptism, in the desert, and his transfiguration, etc). Jesus considered himself to be this Son of Man, which provided him with power and authority while on Earth (e.g. regarding the Sabbath law), stimulated his intent to invite death and martyrdom as had the Maccabean martyrs who were transformed into heavenly beings, and formed the basis for his belief in his eschatological role as judge of the living and the dead. So while it is possible that the historical Jesus used bar (e)nash(a) only in a general sense, there is no necessary reason why the Aramaic phrase bar (e)nash(a) could not in a certain context have an exclusive sense. Moreover, this exclusive, titular sense in fact corresponds precisely with Jesus’ conception of himself as deserving of a special role in Heaven as eschatological judge and second power under God.
For example, in Luke 12.8-9, a passage discussed by Casey as a translation of an Aramaic saying originating with the historical Jesus (and which he reconstructs with some significant difference to the Greek translation which follows), Jesus tells his disciples,
And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man [or, a son of man] also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.
As Casey affirms, “[t]here should be no doubt that, in two or three sayings, Jesus declared that people’s attitude to him during the historic ministry would condition their fate at the last judgement” (Son of Man, p. 193). Jesus set himself up as the new measure of Jewish exclusivity, the measure of “true Israel” within “Israel”. Jesus appears to have had a somewhat overinflated estimation of his own self-importance within the cosmic scheme of things (readers will recall that the imminent, apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenario which he predicted never in fact came to pass). We might also then conclude that Jesus’ exclusive demand for his follower’s allegiance to him as the sine qua non of attaining eternal life has significant continuity with Paul’s demand for belief “in” Christ as the key to salvation. Far from being the exemplar of the possibility of a new universalism-to-come – as in the creative but ultimately futile romantic fantasies of Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek – Paul was adhering to Jesus’ own exclusivism when he reconstituted the old lines of exclusion (Israelite versus Gentile exclusivity) in an analogical fashion, setting followers of Jesus against non-followers of Jesus (as Daniel Boyarin already observes brilliantly in A Radical Jew, 1997).
Moreover, if “son of man” is titular here, this passage assumes a preeminent position of Jesus on the day of judgment, as judge of the living and the dead. This is consistent with the preeminent heavenly position Jesus saw for himself in his discussion with John and James, and of which his disciples were well aware. The role of Jesus as the judge of the whole earth on the Day of Judgment, and the imminence of this eschatological finale, can be found throughout the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 8.34; Eph. 1.19-23; 2.6-7; Col. 3.1-4; Phil. 2.8-9). This authentic saying of Jesus in Luke 12.8-9 also shows that the belief in a unique apocalyptic role goes back to the historical Jesus. By contrast, Casey argues that “son of man” merely refers to “a man”, that is, that those who confess Jesus on Earth will find somebody-or-another giving them a favourable report in Heaven – not the Son of Man figure. Conversely, when in Luke 12.9, Jesus notes that those who deny Jesus “will be denied”, Casey claims that the denial is by God himself, not by Jesus in his judgment role as “Son of Man”. While, as noted, Casey’s interpretations are possible, they do not seem to offer the better interpretation, and this is so in particular because of the very close match between the “Son of Man” figure here in Luke 12.8-9 and the other New Testament passages in which the figure doing the judging of the living and the dead is Jesus. The most economic explanation must be that in claiming this particular role of eschatological judge and preeminent heavenly power, Jesus is claiming precisely the role of the Son of Man. Casey accepts that Jesus predicted his death; he accepts that Jesus predicted his preeminent position in Heaven; but he does not consider that the “Son of Man” sayings which tell of both Jesus’ earthly suffering and heavenly exaltation refer exclusively to Jesus. But for the reasons given, I would go that extra step.
Jesus understood himself as having an important, even singular role in the entire cosmos. He understood himself as the successor to the lost Davidic kingship in Israel, the eschatological judge of all humanity, destined to be the second power in Heaven under only God himself. Although Casey disagrees, I conclude that Jesus, not just his followers, described this particular role of power and judgment with the term the “Son of Man”. The term Son of Man, so distinctive on the lips of Jesus, was learned by Jesus through instruction by John the Baptist and appropriated through Jesus’ own visionary experiences. Following two centuries of speculation concerning the intriguing description of the principal heavenly angel and harbinger of the eschaton as being “one like a (son of) man” in Daniel 7.13-14, the concept of the Son of Man was developed, and this concept in particular – which was evident in essence in the Similitudes – provided Jesus with his self-understanding as eschatological judge of all humankind, both a transformed man and leading power in Heaven. While the Jesus Seminar and other nineteenth-century liberals like to present Jesus as a cuddly wind-up toy whose string you can pull and make him recite any of a few dozen comforting aphorisms (to borrow an image from Joseph Hoffmeier), the historical Jesus turns out to be more of a David Koresh-type demagogue with an overinflated estimation of himself than some harmless Cynic philosopher.