Chapter VII: The Son of Man

by Martin Dibelius

Chapter VII: The Son of Man

What significance did Jesus ascribe to himself? Did he re­gard himself as the Messiah, the Anointed of God, to whom the hopes of his people pointed, as the one who should renew the glorious kingdom of David and restore their freedom to the people of Israel, now ruled over by the Romans? Did he believe that he was chosen by God to appear to the world on the clouds of heaven “like a Son of Man,” as the Re­deemer of the world predicted in apocalyptic books? In the learned as well as in the popular religious literature of the preceding century, this question has been raised again and again — and with widely differing results. It seems strange that after such long efforts no clear answer should be found. It seems still more strange that the Gospels should not con­tain consistent evidence on the subject, which would silence all doubt.

Our first task is to understand why doubt is possible, why caution is demanded, and why critical reflection is justified. Our Gospels are — as we have observed all along — books that set out to establish faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Mes­siah. Thus we read at the end of the Gospel of John (ch. 20:31): “But these signs are written in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that from such faith you may have life in his name.” What is here ex­pressly set as subscript under one Gospel stands unwritten under all: Jesus is the Christ.

But what did the Evangelists, what did the growing Church, understand by “ Christ,” the “ Messiah,” or — as our translation for both titles runs — the “ Anointed “ of God? Here lies the first difficulty. The Evangelists look back. They know Jesus not only as put to death but as risen and exalted to God’s side “from whence he shall come again to judge the living and the dead.” They speak out of the Easter faith, and for this faith the word “ Messiah,” i.e.,

Christ,” has a new meaning: it designates the rank that be­longs to Jesus and to no one else. Before the resurrection, the word had not been determined by the events but by the expectation; everybody could import into it what he hoped for. To many, the life and work of Jesus seemed better fitted to awaken doubt as to his Messiahship than faith. Had it been otherwise, John the Baptist would not have sent his messengers to Jesus. The Evangelists, wherever they touch the question of Messiahship, already speak of the Messiah in the Christian sense, so that all doubt as to Jesus’ Messiah-ship is excluded. In all passages that come under considera­tion, words and deeds that relate to the Messiah are thus given a Christian interpretation, so that the Passion and resurrection, for example, already belong to it. The Gospels depict what the community believed about Jesus, not what he himself and what others thought about him in his life­time. Therefore all these passages, strictly taken, are not sources for the pre-Easter, but for the post-Easter, the Chris­tian, period.

Even our oldest Gospel, that according to Mark, must be understood thus. The picture that Mark draws is this: in spite of his words and deeds Jesus was not recognized by the people as Messiah. That he is the Messiah, only the super­terrestrial and subterrestrial beings know, not men. For that reason, only the persons who are” possessed “by demons, i.e., the demons themselves, address Jesus as the Messiah; but Jesus forbids them to spread this knowledge farther: he wants to be sure that his Messiahship is kept a secret (see, e.g., Mark 3:11, 12). In the same way Jesus forbids the pub­lication of his great miracle acts, the raising of the girl, the healing of the deaf-and-dumb man and of the blind man of Bethsaida. And when Peter in answer to Jesus’ question ut­ters the great saying, “ You are the Messiah,” Jesus an­swers here again with the command not to spread this rec­ognition farther (ch. 8:29, 30). Once only, the most intimate disciples behold him for an instant in a transfigured, heav­enly state; but they are immediately forbidden to tell any­one of it “until the Son of Man is risen,” i.e., until he has re­turned forever to that transfigured heavenly state (ch. 9:9). Thus in Mark’s Gospel heavenly vision and human uncer­tainty are bound together: Jesus was the Messiah and could not deny this even during his earthly life; but he wanted his status kept secret, for — this is manifestly the leading thought in Mark — only thus is to be explained the fact that these men, his contemporaries and fellow countrymen, fi­nally delivered him to the Romans to be crucified.

A quite different picture is drawn by Matthew, at least of that scene in which Peter recognizes and confesses the Mes­siah. Jesus’ answer is a beatitude upon the disciple to whom God has granted this recognition. Then Jesus continues:  “And I say to you, that you are Peter [the rock], and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.  I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven;  what you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; what you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18,19).  And then only after the above follows the command of silence, as in Mark.

It is a sort of founding of the Church — and one may well ask whether at this moment Jesus already looked forward to a Church. Furthermore, one may ask why Mark did not in­clude these words, if they had already been transmitted in this connection in his day. Obviously they had not been, at least not in connection with this incident, for Luke too is ignorant of them. They speak of the founding of the Church and of the right to bind and loose within the Church, i.e., to pronounce guilty or not guilty. They reflect in the form of a prophetic promise a situation that the Evangelists know from experience: the Church is founded to endure perma­nently, and it possesses the right to forgive sins or to retain them. It is a sublime picture that Matthew gives us. But it is a Christian, a post-Easter, picture!

Thus the recognition that all the passages that speak of Jesus’ Messiahship have been done over from the Christian point of view gives rise to the question whether or not Jesus knew himself to be the Messiah. The question is justified. The classic passage, Peter’s confession of the Messiah, does not give an unambiguous answer to the question, since the oldest tradition does not tell us how Jesus received that con­fession of the disciple. But perhaps we can get closer to the problem if we consider the traditions having to do with Je­sus’ stay in Jerusalem.

In the first place, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover is itself loaded with meaning. For Jesus does not, like others, enter the capital city as a festival pilgrim. He seeks there, as we have already seen (p. 62), nothing less than the final decision. The call to make ready for the Kingdom of God is carried from the province to the capital

— that signifies a deliberate challenging of the leading circles of the Jewish religion, those who regard themselves as God’s professional counselors, the scribes, and the members of the Sanhedrin or “ Chief Council.” John gave expression to their thought when he had them say to Nicodemus (ch. 7:52), “Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.” In this instance the prophet does come out of Galilee, and the multitudes — especially, perhaps, the Galilean pilgrims, but also certain circles from the capital — prepare for him a tri­umphal reception.

Of course here too the tradition is borne along by Chris­tian interests. Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on an ass. This signifies a fulfillment of the Prophet Zechariah’s prediction of the king, “meek and riding on an ass,” who would come to the “daughter of Zion.” According to the three oldest Gospels, Jesus acquired his mount by means of miraculous knowledge; according to John’s Gospel it was only later on, “when Jesus was glorified,” that the disciples became aware that with this entry they had unwittingly fulfilled the proph­ecy. So here again the account is shaped by a miracle; the fulfillment of the prophetic words is the main thing, not the historical context, i.e., the enthusiasm of the multitude, and the expectations, perhaps of a political sort, to which it gave rise. Yet it does not necessarily follow from this that the entry into Jerusalem is unhistorical.

The entry signifies at any rate an event fraught with Mes­sianic significance. And associated with it, according to the Synoptic narrative, on the same day or soon after, is the ejec­tion of the traders from the forecourt of the Temple, the so-called cleansing of the Temple. Now this is really a public appearance of Jesus at the center of the Jewish cultus, the strongest kind of challenge to all those who were hitherto in control there. But of course it is not absolutely a Messianic act, one of those that were expected from the Anointed of God. Even a prophet, acting in God’s name and in a repre­sentative capacity, could exercise the right of sovereignty in the Temple. Yet nothing is said in the story about any repre­sentative capacity. Even so, the final impression remains that Jesus acted in this instance as Lord, as Son, as Messiah. One has also every right to ask how such a proceeding was pos­sible for an unknown Galilean. Why did not the authorities interfere, either the Jewish or the Roman? Had so many of his adherents crowded into the Temple with him that they held possession of the place, if only for a day? On these points we have no information, and therefore it is plausible to see in the event only the expression of a moral authority. This was undoubtedly present, otherwise the Jews would not have given Jesus free scope. One is reminded of the boy Je­sus, how, according to the story in Luke 2:46, asking and answering questions in the Temple at the age of twelve, he threw the teachers of his people into astonishment, and not less so his parents: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In a similar way he may now as a man have claimed a sovereign right in the holy house. We are thus brought very near, at this point, to accepting a Mes­sianic estimate of his person.

A decision of the Messianic question may more readily be reached from the account of Jesus’ crucifixion. We know nothing for certain regarding the conduct of his trial, for the Evangelists had no one to rely on who had been an eyewit­ness of the proceedings. Therefore Jesus’ confession before the high priest cannot be included without question in this chain of evidence, for the witnesses of the scene were re­stricted in number and of a kind not accessible to the Chris­tians. But doubtless the crucifixion of Jesus, like all execu­tions at that time, took place with the fullest publicity, and everybody knew what the crime was that was to be atoned for by such an execution; either a herald announced the guilt of the offender or it was set forth on a placard. Eye­witnesses of the crucifixion were known to the earliest com­munity (Mark 15:21); for this reason we can trust the re­port that Jesus’ offense was publicly posted (ch. 15:26). All four Evangelists know that Jesus was designated on this placard as “ king of the Jews.” This is the form, then, in which the title of Messiah had been made intelligible to the Roman procurator. Jesus was crucified because he was ac­cused of laying claim to the throne, of aspiring to be Mes­siah. There must, accordingly, have been something in his way of speaking and acting that gave this charge a certain amount of justification.

He must have set forth the claim, although in a different sense from what the Roman thought and from what the Jew made the Roman believe, to be the Anointed of God. But this is antecedently probable, anyway. It was a time of political tensions and of revolutionary agitations. Again and again, people had been coming forward with promises of a Messianic kind. Anyone who proclaimed, as Jesus did, the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, or revealed the forces of this Kingdom already active in the present, or led his followers to Jerusalem, as the scene of decisive action such a leader had to face the question whether he himself was going to be the Promised One. In his case, the question had only to do with the future; Kingdom, like Messiahship, comes from God. One cannot, even Jesus cannot, be Messiah by virtue of his own right; one can only, and Jesus can only, trust, believe, know that God has chosen him to be Messiah and will install him as Messiah in his Kingdom. Within the time frame of this world the Messiah is only designated, not enthroned.

Jesus knew himself to be the Messiah chosen by God, es­pecially when he made his entrance into Jerusalem and ap­peared in the Temple as Lord. And now as one casts one’s eye backward the evidential force of the other testimonies becomes stronger, not of the individual events but in their interconnection and sequence. It now seems no longer in­credible that a disciple, interrogated by Jesus himself, should have spoken forth his faith in Jesus’ future Messianic dignity. Everything that Jesus did and said has its own special im­portance — if it is not merely the announcement of what an­other is going to do but is the anticipatory realization of the events to which the speaker himself is called. When two disciples of Jesus plead for the places of honor at his side, in his Kingdom, they must be speaking with the conviction that he is going to he the king of the coming Kingdom (Mark 10:37). When a woman anoints the head of the Mas­ter as he reclines at the table, she is honoring him in the way one honors a king; she sees in him the king of God’s Kingdom (ch. 14:3—7). The shouting throng at the entry— and even his enemies at the Temple cleansing who, however, make no attempt to interfere — either recognize or at least suspect in Jesus’ person the Messiah-to-be.



Of course, in spite of all this, it is still not decided with what title the coming king was honored. Obviously the word “ Messiah” did not have the wide circulation or tile significance that we more or less unconsciously assume. In the Synoptic tradition the expression “Son of Man” is much more frequent; in the three oldest Gospels it occurs — leav­ing out the infancy and Passion narratives — more than three times as often as the title “ Messiah.” This is to be ex­plained on the ground of the special ideas and expectations that, for the Christians, were bound up with the phrase “Son of Man.” Apocalyptic writings like the Book of Enoch designated by this name the world Redeemer who was to come from heaven and who at the same time bore the outward semblance of a man. The name may have been connected originally with the ancient Persian doctrine, according to which the “primal man,” the first to be cre­ated, would appear again at the end of the ages. There were other conceptions, according to which this primal man did not live and die as a man but, as a semi-divine being, existed with God in heavenly concealment only to be re­vealed at the end of the whole series of world ages. The Apostle Paul refers to this doctrine when he distinguishes the “earthly” Adam from the “spiritual” Adam (i.e., “man”!) and adds,” Now it is not the case that the spiritual appears first, but rather the earthly, and only after that the spiritual “ (I Cor. 15:46). Here, of course, the assumption is that the Son of Man is the coming Messiah or, as the Book of Enoch says, the “Elect One,” i.e., the Chosen of God. However, the idea of the concealment of the Son of Man provided the first Christians with the key that unlocked for them the earthly life of Jesus. For, finally, the earthly life of Jesus and its ignominious end, and all that was repugnant and humiliating in the historical existence of Jesus, still be­longed to this concealment. And “must not the Messiah suffer these things, in order to enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26)? Yes, and “heaven must receive him until the time when all things return to a fresh beginning” (Acts 3:21). Thus the belief in the Son of Man afforded the guarantee that the work of redemption was not yet fully carried out and that Jesus would come again in glory as the manifest Son of Man, and thus enter definitively into his Messiahship. Thus the Son of Man doctrine helped the first communities to overcome the difficult riddle of the cross. They envisaged the coming Messiah in the figure of the Son of Man — this is the Christian way of understanding the Son of Man doctrine.

But it still remains to be asked whether Jesus himself did not already move in a similar circle of ideas. He could speak of the coming Son of Man, without referring to himself (e.g., Luke 17:24; Mark 8:38). In Jesus’ Aramaic speech the ex­pression “son (or child) of man” was not distinguished from “man”; yet he spoke mysteriously, though clearly enough for everyone who shared these expectations of the day or the coming of “the Man.” There are also, however, among the transmitted words of Jesus, some in which the most paradoxical statements are made regarding the Son of Man: that he goes hence, and that he will be delivered into the hands of sinners. Often enough, it is true, these sayings already reflect the Christian interpretation of Jesus’ career, and the Evangelist is in such cases more interpreter than narrator. But at least one saying does have reference to the presence of the historical man Jesus; he answers one who would go with him as a disciple:


“The foxes have holes,

And the birds of heaven have nests,

But the Son of Man does not know where he can lay his head”

(Matt. 8:20).


Thus it was possible for Jesus to speak in such a way as to suggest the contrast between the obscurity of his indigent earthly existence and the glory of the “Man” from heaven— the contrast and at the same time the connection — for the needy life belongs to the concealment of the Son of Man and points to the future.

The preference for the expression “Son of Man” in the Christian tradition shows in any case that the Christians knew of no political activity on the part of their Master.

“Son of David” and “Messiah” would permit a political interpretation; “ Son of Man “ means the one sent into the world by God, not the heir of David’s throne and the eman­cipator from the Roman rule. Anyone who sets out to maintain that Jesus planned an attack on the Roman forces of occupation or on the Jewish authorities is compelled to deny the whole tradition: not only the sayings about turning the other cheek or about service, but also the promises of the Kingdom which God will bestow upon the humble-minded, those who are detached from the world and, although in the world, are cut off from it. If Jesus had meant to gain political leadership, he would have had to choose his ad­herents differently; he would have had to give more thought to winning the masses and to gaining public success; he would have had to carry on his mission in the prominent cities of the country (see p. 62); and he would have had in word and deed to rouse his disciples to action and inspire them with zeal to battle against the existing order. He did just the opposite of all this. And if it so happens that he him­self did drop the Messianic title, but employed the expression “Son of Man “ — both with and without reference to him­self — that is a confirmation of his nonpolitical attitude. The sword which he says that he brings (Matt. 10:34) goes, as the rest of the saying shows, through families and not through nations.

There are two situations within the Synoptic tradition that permit the reader to peer deeply into Jesus’ attitude toward the hope of his nation, and also explain why Jesus did not say yes without more ado to all Messianic glorification, and yet did not reject his nation’s hope. The first of these situa­tions is the scene where Jesus sends his answer to the Bap­tist. John asks: “Are you the Messiah? “ and Jesus answers, in substance, “The Kingdom of God is com­ing; and blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” The ques­tion of personal estimate falls into the background; it is the Kingdom toward which faith ought to be directed. The second scene is not quite so well attested historically, for it can hardly rest on the report of reliable witnesses, and yet it lays claim to the truth of the inner situation. It is the ex­amination before the high priest. He asks, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed? “ And Jesus answers with a clear affirmation, “I am, and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Majesty and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Thus the hope of the nation confronts Jesus once more, with a tone of interrogation, in his last hour. He does not, however, speak of the throne of David but of the throne of God. It is in that direction, and toward the coming in splendor of the Son of Man, that the eyes of the judges ought to be turned; for the redemption of the world is something more than any Messianic activity (Mark 14:61 f.).

Speaking in general, we may say that the events of the Passion story, above all, the Last Supper, can be far better understood if Jesus intended to leave behind him on earth a circle instructed by him, one devoted to the Messianic ex­pectation, as a witness and pledge of a personal attachment to him. And there are also certain sayings in which Jesus speaks of himself and of his purpose that permit us to sur­mise that he intended himself to be the leader and the inaug­urator of God’s Kingdom: so with tile twin sayings about the fire that he is to kindle and the baptism that he is to un­dergo (Luke 12:49f.).

We might go still farther. We might conjecture that for Jesus the one is not possible apart from the other, the Mes­sianic rank not apart from the thought of suffering. We might assume that the more probable the prospect of suffer­ing and death became to Jesus the more certainly he antici­pated his installation as Messiah. But all such suppositions go beyond what the accounts of the Gospels say or suggest. They do not set out to give a portrayal of Jesus’ inner life, nor to tell about inner changes or developments. The aim of their narration is rather to enable their readers to recog­nize Jesus’ true rank even during his earthly life. Hence one may draw from the tradition only that particular answer to the Messianic question which may be gathered from the tra­dition as a whole, without reinterpreting it or reading into it something that is not really there.



Let us now attempt to survey the various considerations that have been set forth in this chapter and to sum up the final impression. This above all is clear, clear beyond all doubt, that during his ministry Jesus did not set the question of Messiahship in tile foreground. The designation of his person with the appropriate title (Messiah, Son of Man, Son of David, etc.) is not a condition of salvation. One is to see in his acts God’s working, one is to perceive in his appearing God’s coming with his Kingdom — that is what Jesus de­mands, but not the confession of his Messiahship.

But it is also clear that Jesus intends to do more than merely announce the Kingdom of God. The fact that he can speak with full authority as he does, that he can ask men to recognize the forces of God’s Kingdom in his healings, even now before this Kingdom has appeared — that is in itself a proof of the fact that God’s Kingdom is drawing near. Je­sus himself, in his own person, in his words and deeds, is the decisive sign of the Kingdom. Therefore he insists that men must recognize the signs of the times; that is why in all his promises and commands he can appear before men with a claim that is more than human, that he can ride into Jeru­salem as king of peace, and take charge in the Temple as Lord.

The term “Messiah” is susceptible of many interpreta­tions and not every one of them would come up to Jesus’ conception. Perhaps for this reason Jesus spoke more often of the Son of Man than of the Messiah. The term “Son of Man” includes the thought that the Man from heaven who will appear at the end of the world is first to be hidden for a time. Such a concealment — in spite of all the signs that he performed — was Jesus’ earthly life and suffering.

That in this sense Jesus affirmed his rank as Son of Man or Messiah is also shown, finally, by his execution as pretender to the throne. It is the proof of the fact that he actually did, during his lifetime, make the claim that he would sometime become Ruler, Messiah, or Redeemer. So then his words, say­ings, groups of sayings, and parables must not be viewed as the occasional utterances of a rabbi. They are to be under­stood as the proclamation of a lofty commission, as com­mands of God spoken through a human voice. Only then do these words bear their proper, deeply serious import.