Part 1: He Was Remembered – Chapter 2
The burden of Jesus’ preaching seems to have been the proclamation of the kingdom of God. Mark tells us that Jesus began his public career with the announcement: "The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel"; (Mark 1: 14-15.) and all the accounts of his teaching in the Synoptic Gospels are so filled with the phrase that we cannot question its importance for Jesus -- the more so as the infrequency of its appearance in the Epistles would indicate that it was not used especially often in the early church.
But constantly as Jesus apparently used the words" kingdom of God," we are not too sure of what he meant by them. Here is one of the most intricate problems in New Testament study; and although in these lectures we cannot attempt a thorough treatment of Jesus’ teaching any more than of his life, nevertheless we cannot avoid giving some attention to this problem. This is true not only because of its intrinsic importance, but also because it is involved in the question of how Jesus came to be interpreted in the early church, a matter with which we shall later be concerned.
The difficulty of deciding just what Jesus’ first hearers understood him to be saying about the kingdom of God grows out of the ambiguity of the Aramaic phrase rendered in Greek. No single English phrase conveys the full and varied significance of the term. Three meanings can be distinguished, although none of the three is really complete when it is separated from the others: (1) the eternal, ultimate sovereignty of God, his kingship (as in the familiar, "Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever"); (2) the rule of God in and among men in so far as God’s sovereignty is acknowledged and his will is done; (3) the complete and perfect establishment of God’s rule in the age to come." In the first sense, the kingdom was real -- indeed, the ultimate reality -- but was not yet actual; in the second sense, it was actual but imperfect and incomplete; in the third sense, it would be both actual and complete. In the first sense, one would acknowledge the kingdom of God; in the second sense, one might belong to it even now; in the third sense, one would expect and hope for it. In the first sense, the kingdom was above history; in the second, it was within history; in the third, it was at the end, or beyond the end, of history. Once it is seen that the same phrase might be used in all or any of these closely related but distinguishable senses, there will be no surprise that contemporary students of the Gospels differ in their understanding of what Jesus meant.
The dimensions of the problem can, perhaps, be indicated most clearly if we consider the three views which settle on one or another of the three possible meanings of the term as being its normative meaning for Jesus. Those who hold these views, without denying the ambiguity of the phrase "kingdom of God," nevertheless affirm that Jesus was more or less consistent and specific in his use of it; but they disagree as to just which of the three possible, or partial, meanings of the term Jesus had primarily in mind.
There are, first, the " consistent eschatologists," of whom Albert Schweitzer is the best known representative. (The important works of Schweitzer dealing with this subject are Das Messianitäts und Leidensgeheimnis: Eine Skizze des Lebens Jesu (Tübingen, 1901). English translation by W. Lowrie, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1914); and Von Reimarus zu Wrede:Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung (Tübingen 1906), English translation by W. Montgomery. The Quest of the Historical Jesus (London: A. & C. Black, 1910). Schweitzer’s earlier work was antedated by the significant study of Johannes Weiss, Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottez [Göttingen, 1892] . For recent interpretations of reactions to Schweitzer’s position see A. Wilder, Eschatology and Ethics in the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1939), pp. 28 ff., and C. C. McCown, The Search for the Real Jesus [New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1940]. pp. 238 ff.) These interpreters take the third meaning as normative and assert not only that Jesus expected the imminent and catastrophic end of history and the present world and God’s establishment of a new order in which his righteous purpose would be perfectly fulfilled, but also that whenever he spoke of the "kingdom of God" he used the phrase in that sense and in that sense only. The strenuous and absolute character of Jesus’ ethic is explained as owing to his belief in the imminence of the great catastrophe: it was an "interim ethic."
At the opposite extreme from Schweitzer and his school are those liberal interpreters who regard the second sense of the "kingdom of God" as normative for Jesus. According to these interpreters, the passages in the teaching of Jesus which suggest that he expected the early end of history have been read back into his words by the later church, itself immersed in apocalyptic hopes and speculations. Jesus meant by the "kingdom of God" simply the rule of God in so far as it was and could be realized by men living under the normal conditions of human life. Those who acknowledge his kingship and seek to do his will already belong to his "kingdom"; and this, according to this understanding, is the only meaning the term has in Jesus’ authentic teaching. This view is historically the least tenable of the three consistent views, but, because it is the most congenial to our modern mood, is probably held by the largest number of modern readers. H. B. Sharman may be mentioned as one of the few serious defenders of this interpretation.(See Sharman, The Teaching of Jesus About the Future [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909] and Son of Man and Kingdom of God [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943])
The third possible consistent position is defended by C. H. Dodd and has had in the last decade a very great influence. Dodd holds, in effect, that Jesus used the phrase "kingdom of God" chiefly in the first sense -- the eternal righteous sovereignty of God -- but that he believed this "kingdom" was being manifested in a unique and supreme way in his own life and works.(Dodd has used the term "realized eschatology" to designate his position set forth most clearly in The Parables of the Kingdom [New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935]) and in so doing conceals somewhat, it seems to me, its essential character. The phrase ‘ realized eschatology" suggests that the end of history has now come. This, as we shall see, is Rudolf Otto’s understanding of Jesus’ thought (see below, pp. 88 f. and, therefore. the phrase might well be used to describe Otto’s view, the participle being taken as a present: eschatology being realized." But I submit that Dodd’s position, although it is not independent of Otto’s, is essentially different. Dodd does not believe that Jesus thought of the kingdom as coming at all, either now or later, if by "coming" we mean either actually becoming historical or (so to speak) displacing history. It is a suprahistorical reality which has "come" in Jesus only in the sense that it is supremely present, active and potent in him. It is now "revealed" -- it being understood, of course, that by "revelation" is meant an actual presence and activity not a mere announcement or declaration. This view is stated most clearly and unequivocally on pp. 107 f. of Dodd’s book, just cited. See also the excellent criticism of Dodd’s position by C. T. Craig, "Realized Eschatology," Journal of Biblical Literature, LVI [March 1937], pp. 17 ff.) Jesus was not announcing a future event or referring to a future order when he spoke of the kingdom; he was referring to an eternal Reality which, nevertheless, was then and there making itself known -- that is, was present and active within history -- in a way both unprecedented and unduplicable. Dodd relies greatly on Jesus’ assertion: "The kingdom of God has come upon you." (Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:20.) He interprets this to mean: "In me, in my words and deeds, the sovereign power of God confronts you. You are now judged. God’s salvation is now offered you." In no other sense than this would the kingdom of God ever "come."
Perhaps these three "consistent" views can be more clearly distinguished if we ask what was Jesus’ conception of the time of the kingdom’s coming. Schweitzer would say it was a future event, but so imminent that Jesus could sometimes speak of it as though it had already occurred. Sharman would reply that the kingdom for Jesus was past, present and future -- future only in the sense in which it Was also present and past. Dodd would answer that the kingdom was neither past nor future, nor yet present. It was an eternal reality -- above and beyond time altogether -- although it was revealed in time and active in time, supremely in Jesus’ own life and work.
It is not necessary to choose among these three views. There is no reason to assume that Jesus’ use of the phrase "kingdom of God" was simple or consistent. He doubtless employed the phrase in all three of the senses we have been discussing. That Jesus was aware with every breath he drew of the eternal kingship of God everyone will agree; that he believed men could come even now in some real sense and measure under the righteous and loving rule of God is almost equally clear; and only by the most tortuous methods of interpreting the Gospels can one escape the conclusion that Jesus expected the kingdom of God as a future supernatural order.
If the phrase had all three meanings for him, it is likely that whenever he used it all three meanings were in some measure present in his mind. The eternal kingship of God implied for him the eventual vindication of God’s righteousness in the end or beyond the end of history, and implied meantime the possibility of man’s accepting and submitting himself to God’s rule. We may assume that none of these closely related meanings was ever entirely absent from his thought when he spoke of the kingdom, but one of them might on any given occasion be primary. It is not unlikely that the eschatological meaning was frequently dominant. Nor do I believe we can accept Dodd’s view that Jesus thought of the whole meaning of the eschatological hope of Israel as being exhausted in the manifestation of the will and power of God which was taking place in and through his own person. It may well be true that the whole meaning of eschatology is for us fulfilled in the revelation in Christ -- that is, in the active presence in Christ as known within the church -- of the eternal order, the kingdom of God: the Fourth Gospel has some such conception. But it is impossible to ascribe such a view to Jesus without doing too much violence to the tradition. Jesus expected the fulfillment in a future -- although immediately future -- order.
It is necessary to allude to one other modem interpretation of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom, that of Rudolf Otto.(See Reichgottes und Menschensohn (München, 1934), English translation by F. V. Filson and B. L. Woolf. The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man (London and Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1938-39). Otto argues that although in Jesus’ thought the kingdom was always primarily eschatological, it was nevertheless a present fact. It could be both eschatological and present simply because the final eschatological events had already begun to occur. In Jesus’ own life, in his words and acts, the supernatural kingdom was beginning; the consummation was still to come, but the final crisis of history had already broken. It is thus that Otto interprets the passage already referred to: "The kingdom of God has come upon you."
To me it seems not unlikely that Jesus did think of the kingdom in some such way: as already being realized. Much in the Gospels suggests that Jesus thought of himself not merely as announcing the crisis of history but as being himself a factor in the crisis. Certainly the first Christian generation so interpreted him. For these first believers the final crisis was not merely to come; it had come. Their eschatology was both present and future. They were themselves in the midst of the final judging, saving act of God. The career of Jesus was the beginning of a mighty eschatological event with which history was rapidly coming to an end. This understanding of the significance of the moment in which they stood and of the relation of Jesus to it may well go back to a primitive memory of how Jesus himself understood the significance of the events of which he was the center.
I rejected a moment ago Dodd’s view that for Jesus the whole meaning of eschatology was fulfilled in the revelation of the sovereign righteousness of God which was taking place in him; I find it impossible to deny the element of the temporal in Jesus’ thought about the judgment and the kingdom. But this part of our discussion may appropriately end with the remark that, although this is true, nevertheless the expectation of a future crisis need not represent the whole of Jesus’ meaning when he says that the kingdom of God, even in some absolute sense, is at hand. There are other kinds of immediacy besides temporal immediacy; and Dodd has rendered a great service in making us more vividly aware of that fact. Indeed, I do not believe one is distorting or modernizing the teaching of Jesus when one denies that even for him the whole meaning of the immediacy of the kingdom was exhausted by the expected future crisis. The kingdom of God could be thought of as imminent in the future only because in another sense it is constantly present. It will come soon because it is near. The kingdom, in this absolute sense, did not come soon -- it did not come at all -- but it is still near. We are each moment under the awful judgment of God and the forgiveness of God is being in each moment freely offered us. Thus in its deepest sense -- may we not say, even for Jesus? the text is still true: "The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand." The time is always being fulfilled; the kingdom of God is always at hand; not as a future event perhaps, but in the profounder sense of an ever present reality, both within our life and above it, both immanent and transcendent.
Because we shall later be specifically concerned with the way Jesus was understood and interpreted in the early church, we cannot avoid paying some attention to another difficult problem -- the problem of how Jesus thought of the relation in which he himself stood toward the eschatological kingdom of God. Was he merely the prophet, the herald, of the coming judgment and salvation, or did he stand in some closer and more important relation to it? I have just indicated, in referring to Rudolf Otto’s views, that there are many passages in the Gospels which suggest that Jesus thought of himself as being not simply an announcer of a future event but also an actor or participant in an event already beginning to occur. Just how did he think of his own role? No question about Jesus can be asked with less likelihood of an assured answer, but the question must be asked nevertheless if we would approach an understanding of the meaning of Jesus in the early church.
There were current in the circles in which Jesus lived at least four or five ways of thinking of the agency through which God would judge the world and inaugurate the age to come. Of these, three apparently more widely prevalent than others. According to one view, there would be no agent at all: God would directly, without any intermediary, set up his kingdom and would himself reign. This view we may call the "theocratic" conception of the kingdom. A second conception was "messianic" -- God would act through an anointed king, a descendant of David, to defeat his enemies and establish his kingdom. This "Messiah" (or his dynasty) would either reign forever or else would reign for a certain time, perhaps a thousand years, and then would surrender the rule to God, when the "millennial" kingdom of the Messiah would become the everlasting kingdom of God. The third conception was that of the "Son of Man" -- a heavenly being of human aspect who, according to some of the apocalypses, would appear in glory to judge the world.( In Dan. 7:13 f. there is an account of the appearance in the apocalyptic vision of one "like unto a son of man." This being clearly symbolizes Israel and follows the appearance of several beasts, which represent various foreign powers. In Enoch 37-71 and in II Esdras 13, this being has been personalized and has assumed some of the functions of the Messiah.) In this conception, the inauguration of the new age would be an entirely supernatural process and God’s agent would be an altogether supernatural figure. There is no sufficient evidence that before Jesus’ time the "Messiah" and "Son of Man" conceptions had been fused, although -- within Christianity, at any rate that development eventually took place. The two titles represented two different ways of conceiving God’s agent or vicegerent in the final crisis.
Which of these conceptions did Jesus hold, or did he hold any of them? We can answer with some assurance that he did not expect a "Messiah" in the strict, somewhat political sense in which that term has just been defined. The kingdom of God was for Jesus not a resurgent Israel under a victorious Davidic king -- even an Israel generous toward her erstwhile enemies and persecutors, as in Jeremiah and parts of Isaiah. Some of Jesus’ disciples may have held such a view, but everything indicates that Jesus did not. It is possible that his thinking about the kingdom was simply theocratic, and many competent modern interpreters claim that this was the case; (Among these may be mentioned S. J. Case, Jesus: A New Biography [Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1927], and F. C. Grant. The Gospel of the Kingdom [New York: Macmillan Co., 1940]). but this would mean that all the references in the Synoptic Gospels to the eschatological Son of Man have been read into Jesus’ teaching by the early church.
We are certainly safe in saying that Jesus thought of the "fulfillment of all things" either in theocratic or in apocalyptic "Son of Man" terms. The decision between these two possibilities is complicated by the fact that whereas there can be little question that Jesus used the phrase "son of man," (The ground for this assurance is not merely the Gospel testimony that Jesus used the phrase; it is rather that it appears so often on his lips and nowhere else. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus is said to have spoken of the Son of Man no fewer than 69 times [38 times when parallel passages are disregarded], but the evangelists themselves make no use of the term. The same thing is true of the Fourth Gospel with one or two possible exceptions. Acts 7:56 is the only clear exception to this rule in the New Testament and contains the only use of the phrase as applied to Jesus outside of the Gospels. Apparently the early churches generally did not use the term, but there was a clear memory that Jesus had used it. On this whole matter see F. J. Foakes-Jackson and K. Lake, Beginning of Christianity [Part I, Vol.I. London: Macmillan Co. 1920], pp. 345 ff. [especially 374 ff.]) it is again (as in the case of the "kingdom of God ") not clear in what sense he used it, for the Aramaic word of which "son of man" is the literal translation was an ambiguous term.
The phrase "son of man," Whether in Hebrew or Aramaic, might apparently he used to mean simply "man" or "a man." (That this is true in Hebrew no one denies. G. Dalman questions that it was true in Aramaic (The Words of Jesus [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. 1902]. pp. 234 ff.), but there are many to differ from him. Cf., e.g., Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Macmillan Co., 1925], pp. 256 f. For a full discussion see H. Lietzmann, Der Menschensohn [Freiburg and Leipzig, 1896]).An illustration of this generic use appears in the parallelism of the Psalm:
What is man that thou art mindful of him?
And the son of man that thou visitest him? (Ps. 8:4. Other instances of this usage, whether generic or individual, are: Job 25:6; 55:8; Pss. 144:3; 146:3; Isa. 51:12; 56:2; Jer. 49:18; 51:43; Dan. 8:17.)
And the individual sense is exemplified in the words, "O son of man," with which Ezekiel is addressed. There seems little reason to doubt that Jesus may have used the phrase in this common sense.
But the term had also come to be widely employed, as we have seen, to refer to the heavenly person who would be manifest in the last days, and in many of its occurrences on Jesus’ lips it has this meaning. For example, consider the following passages selected almost at random from the several Synoptic Gospels:
For the son of man shall come in the glory of his father with his angels; and then shall he reward every man according to his deeds. Verily I say unto you, there are some standing here who shall not taste of death till they see the son of man coming in his kingdom. (Matt. 16:27 f. Cf. Mark 8:38-9:1; Luke 9:26 f.)
But when they persecute you in this city, flee to another; for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel, till the son of man come. (Matt. 10:23)
In the regeneration, when the son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory. . . (Matt. 19:28)
Watch ye therefore, and pray always that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass and to stand before the son of man. (Luke 21:36)
For as the lightning cometh forth from the east and shineth even unto the west, so shall be the coming of the son of man. (Matt. 24:27; Luke 17:24)
And then shall they see the son of man coming in clouds of heaven with power and great glory. (Matt. 24:30; Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27)
Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the son of man cometh. (Matt. 24:44; cf. Matt. 25:13)
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. (Matt. 25:31)
And ye shall see the son of man sitting on the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven. (Mark 14:62; Matt. 26:64)
The eschatological significance of the phrase "son of man" in such passages cannot be denied, but many deny the authenticity of the passages themselves. These interpreters hold that Jesus used the phrase only in its ordinary sense of "man," and that some community in which the Gospel tradition was being formed, itself thinking of Jesus as the apocalyptic Son of Man, read that meaning back into Jesus’ words. This is possible; but the fact that no early community can be found which felt any special interest in the title "Son of Man" makes it hardly probable. Paul, for example, does not use it,(Something will be said later about Paul’s conception of Christ as "the second man from heaven" (I Cor. 15:47 ff.). It is enough at the moment to say that the whole context of this remark of Paul makes unlikely that he has in mind the Son of Man of Daniel or Enoch. But see C. H. Kraeling, Anthropos and Son of Man (New York: Columbia University Press, 1927). especially pp. 174 ff.) and even in Mark and the other Synoptics, as we have already observed, it is only Jesus who uses the title; the Gospel writers themselves never use it, nor does any other person in their narratives. There would appear to be a genuine memory that Jesus not only used the title but that he used it in an eschatological sense.
This would not mean that he employed it only in that sense. He probably used the title with both meanings -- that is, to designate both man and the Son of Man -- but because the eschatological seemed the more important to the early church (especially since it was soon believed that Jesus was alluding to himself when he used the term), it was inevitable that all of Jesus’ uses of the phrase should be interpreted in that sense and, if necessary, conformed to it. Thus an original statement of Jesus that the Sabbath was made for man and that the " son of man" (that is, man) is master of the Sabbath becomes an affirmation that the Son of Man (that is, Jesus himself as God’s vicegerent) is Lord of the Sabbath.(Cf. Mark 2:27 f. with Matt. 12:8 and Luke 6:5. This is a particularly illuminating case. Mark reads: "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath: therefore the son of man is lord also of the Sabbath." it is clear that even for Mark the "son of man" is Jesus, not mankind. Matthew and Luke regard this part of Jesus’ statement, thus understood, as being so incomparably the important part of it that they merely omit the priceless "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.") There were no doubt many cases of this kind -- most of them no longer identifiable in the Gospels (Is it possible that Mark 2:10 [Matt. 9:6; Luke 5:24] and Matt. 12-32 [Luke 12:10] are other instances?)
I have just alluded to the impression established in the early church, certainly as early as the Gospel of Mark, that Jesus was speaking of himself when he referred to the eschatological Son of Man. Can we trust that impression as going back to Jesus’ first hearers and associates? There can be no question that the Gospels represent him as thinking of himself in this way, just as they also represent him as regarding himself as the Messiah.( The case for Jesus’ conscious messiahship, however, is considerably less strong. The term "messiah" or "king" occurs on Jesus’ own lips in the Synoptic Gospels only 13 times (39 times elsewhere), whereas, as we have seen, "son of man" is found 69 times (and not once elsewhere). A study of Mark 8:27-30; 14:61 f.; and 15:2-5. and parallels, will reveal how very weak is the evidence that Jesus actually acknowledged the messiahship. To be sure, he is not said to have denied it. but it is inconceivable that the early church could have accepted such a denial even if it had been remembered. There are only two accounts of Jesus’ explicitly accepting the title. Mark 14:62 and Matt. 16:17 ff. More often Jesus is silent or evasive when the question of messiahship is raised. Matt. 16:17 ff. appears very much like an insertion into the traditional story of Peter’s confession. Neither Mark nor Luke records any acknowledgment by Jesus of the title of Messiah, which Peter has conferred.) But several considerations will put us on guard against accepting these representations too quickly.
The first of these is the obvious fact that once the early church came to think as being a heavenly eschatological Redeemer (whether it used the "Son of Man" or not) it was inevitable that it should regard him as having thought of himself in that same way, even if nothing in the remembered tradition of his words gave specific support to that view. But if Jesus actually often used the phrase "son of man" (as he almost certainly did), and especially if he used it, even occasionally, in the apocalyptic sense (as he probably did) , the tradition would have seemed to offer the strongest support to the view. Since Jesus was the Messiah and since "son of man" was in some circles a recognized messianic title, obviously (it would seem to the early churches) he was referring to himself when he spoke of the Son of Man. It would not have been necessary to read the words " son of man" into the tradition; that phrase was already there. Only the slightest changes would have been required to bring the remembered teaching of Jesus about the Son of Man into line with the faith that he was himself the Son of Man. These changes would have been made quite unintentionally and unconsciously -- or, if consciously, they would have been made with the purpose not of distorting the tradition but of correcting and clarifying it.
That this may well have happened is rendered more probable by another consideration. Some students of Aramaic give us reason to believe that the term under discussion might be used to designate a particular man and that it might sometimes have the meaning of "this man" -- that is, "I" or "me."(See, for example, J. Héring, Le Royaume de Dieu et sa venue [Paris, 1937]. p. 104; see also Lietzmann, op. cit., pp. 82 ff. the present writer can claim no competence in this field.) Thus, Jesus may quite possibly have used the phrase in speaking of himself, the so-called messianic consciousness not being involved at all. One of the most likely instances of this is Jesus’ warning to an overeager disciple that whereas the birds have nests and the foxes have holes, the "son of man" does not have a place to lay his head; the meaning may well be, if these linguists are correct, "this man." (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58. Is Matt. 11:18 f. [Luke 7:33 f.] another possible instance of this?) If, now, Jesus not only used the words "son of man" in speaking of the imminent end of the age but also used them (in another sense) in speaking of himself, the belief that he knew himself to be the eschatological Son of Man was certain to develop, once the church, or any significant part of it, came to think of him as the apocalyptic Judge and Savior. Indeed, his having so spoken of the Son of Man and of himself would virtually assure that the early church would think of him in that way.
The probability that the primitive church, rather than Jesus himself, is responsible for the identification of him with the Son of Man is further confirmed by the fact that the "Son of Man" passages in which this identification is most explicit are, on the whole, not the eschatological passages. Where the words "son of man" are being most clearly used to designate the coming heavenly Judge, there is least evidence of self-identification.( Notice, for example, the passages cited on pp. 93 f. In none of these does Jesus identify himself as the Son of Man, and in some cases it is exceedingly hard to harmonize Jesus’ statement with such a belief on his part, as when he says, "When they persecute you in one city, flee to the next; for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone through the cities of Israel till the Son of Man come"; or, "Be ye ready, for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh.") Such evidence is strongest in those passages where Jesus is clearly referring to his own death, as in the following:
And he began to teach them that the son of man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed. (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22)
The son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him. (Mark 9:31; Matt. 17:22; Luke 9:44)
Behold we go up to Jerusalem; and the son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles. (Mark 10:33 f.; Matt. 20:18 f.; Luke 18:31 ff.)
The son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 1 10:45)
In these passages, granted their authenticity, Jesus is plainly referring to himself, but he may be using the term "son of man" to mean "this man" or "I"; or he may have said "I" and the more impressive title was later substituted. (It can be easily shown that this often happened, whether in these instances or not.) It is noteworthy also, as Héring points out, that although many of the "Son of Man" passages refer to his own passion and many to the coming of the heavenly being on the clouds, none of them refers to both events together.(Op. cit., p. 101.)This is not surprising: the idea that the apocalyptic Son of Man should die (and even before he had come!) would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to entertain, even if Isaiah 53 was taken "messianically," as was probably not the case so early.(Isaiah 53 is, of course, the principal passage of several in Isaiah dealing with the Servant of Yahweh, who was led " as a lamb to the slaughter," who bore the iniquities of others and by whose stripes others were healed. The early church found in this passage a clear and certain prophecy of the vicarious suffering of the Christ. There is no evidence, however, that the passage was understood by Jewish readers otherwise than as a reference to the nation of Israel. and this was surely the reference the prophet himself intended to make. Many Christian scholars hold that Jesus interpreted his role [and the meaning of messiahship] in terms of the Suffering Servant pattern. To me there seems too little evidence to support such a view. Indeed, the only passages which can be even claimed to do so are Mark 9:12, Mark 10:45 [quoted just above],and Luke 22:37, although the many passages in which Jesus is represented as predicting that the Son of Man must die might be cited in partial support. According to this view. Jesus was original not only in taking the Suffering Servant as a type of the Messiah but also in combining this conception with that of the supernatural Son of Man. We are dealing with a matter far too difficult and perplexing to permit of one’s dismissing easily and surely any possible interpretation. especially one held by so many serious and competent interpreters, but to me this view seems unlikely.)
But the principal difficulty in the way of believing that Jesus thought of himself as the eschatological Son of Man is the psychological one. That one might come to regard oneself as Messiah is conceivable; indeed, it is known that many did so regard themselves and were so regarded by others. But the supernatural Son of Man conception seems far less possible of acceptance, either for oneself or by others. Rudolph Otto makes the most successful attempt to demonstrate that it was psychologically possible for Jesus, in all sanity, to think of himself as actually being the future Son of Man. He bases his attempt upon the prevalence in Persia and more or less throughout the East of a type of thought which affirmed the existence in heaven of spiritual or angelic counterparts of persons living on the earth. According to Otto, Jesus thought of the heavenly Son of Man as thus corresponding to, in a real sense identical with, himself. Strong support, Otto holds, is lent this hypothesis by the Similitudes of Enoch (chapters 37-71) ,which Charles dates in the first century BC. According to this document, Enoch, after many visions of heaven in which the Son of Man has appeared, is himself finally transported there. He is carried into higher and higher regions of heaven, undergoing various transformations, till finally he is brought into God’s own presence. But nowhere has he seen the Son of Man, who had figured so prominently in his visions. According to Otto’s interpretation of a disputed text, as Enoch wonders what this absence means, God says to him: "Thou art the Son of Man." Otto writes:
Long before Christ’s appearance, a certain idea was fully developed in circles which had plainly formed long before him and to which he himself plainly belonged. The idea was that a powerful preacher alike of righteousness, the coming judgment, and the blessed new age, a prophet of the eschatological Son of Man, would be transported at the end of his earthly career to God; that he would be exalted to become the one whom he had proclaimed in the literal sense that he himself would become the very one he had proclaimed. But that also meant that his activity even during his earthly life was nothing else than the proleptic activity of this very redeemer.(The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, pp. 212 f. Quoted by permission of the Zondervan Publishing House.)
Otto’s argument is impressive, and this summary, even including the quotation, does not do justice to it. But it falls short of being convincing. There is a vast difference between believing that an ancient worthy like Enoch (who walked with God and did not see death) became the Son of Man and believing that one will oneself become the Son of Man. Although Otto’s suggestion may possibly throw light upon how the early church could have come to think of Jesus as being the Son of Man, it is a less promising clue to the understanding of how Jesus himself could have come to hold such a view.
The truth is that whereas after the resurrection it is not difficult to understand the belief that Jesus was the heavenly Son of Man, it is hard to understand it before that event. This Son of Man is essentially a heavenly being: how could Jesus have been identified as such until he had become a heavenly being? I find it most reasonable to conclude that Jesus sometimes alluded to the coming of the Son of Man, that he may occasionally have referred to himself as a son of man or this son of man, and that the primitive church did the rest.
But the matter cannot be permitted to end just there. Although it seems to me unlikely that Jesus could have thought of himself as actually being the heavenly Son of Man, it does seem clear that he regarded himself as sustaining a connection of peculiar responsibility with the coming Judgment and as standing in some close relation with the advent of the Son of Man. God has entrusted to him some unique and supremely significant mission.(For example. Jesus is represented as saying, "For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels" (Mark 8:38). This is reproduced almost verbatim in Luke 9:26. In Luke 12:8 f. we read this word of Jesus: "Whosoever shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of Man also confess before the angels of God; but he that denieth me before men shall be denied before the angels of God." Notice that in this passage Jesus is not represented as identifying himself with the Son of Man, although there is an intimate connection: men’s attitude toward Jesus determines the attitude of the Son of Man toward them. In Matt. 10:32 f. the passage reads: "Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my father." Here, although Jesus is represented as thinking of himself as doing the "confessing." he does not speak of himself as the Son of Man.) As to just how Jesus conceived of it we cannot know, if indeed his sense of divine vocation followed the lines of any particular conception. Héring, to whom I have been indebted at several points in this discussion, concludes his study of the appearances in the Synoptic Gospels of the phrase "Son of Man" in the eschatological sense with these three propositions:
1. Jesus professed faith in the coming of the Son of Man.
2. He indicates the existence of a soteriological connection between his earthly mission and the coming of the Son of Man; the attitude which men take toward the gospel will be the principle of judgment by the Son of Man.
3. He was in a mysterious way aware of a future identity between his own person and that of the Son of Man. (Le Royaume de Dieu et sa venue, pp. 95 f.)
The first two of these conclusions seem to me to be clearly indicated. I am not so sure of the third, but would prefer it to a denial of any uniqueness in Jesus’ consciousness of his own relation to the imminent redemption. The ascription of messianic honors to Jesus by the early church, although it does not need to be so explained, and cannot in any case be adequately so explained, can nevertheless be more easily explained, if it was remembered that Jesus gave evidence of knowing himself to be in some unique and mysterious way related to the coming crisis of judgment and salvation.(If the term "Messiah" could have been taken in the general sense of "one appointed of God" to the task of proclaiming "the nearness of the Realm of God and also its true character," as B H. Branscomb suggests in his The Gospel of Mark [London and New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937), pp. 151 f., it is clear to me that Jesus may well have thought of himself as such. The question is whether the term in Jesus’ day would have lent itself to such a use. Besides, how can we explain, on this basis, the fact that there is considerably more evidence in the Gospels that Jesus identified himself with the Son of Man than with the Messiah? In other words, I find myself agreeing with Branscomb’s understanding of how Jesus conceived of his task [he was uniquely related to the kingdom], but am not convinced that he would have applied the term "Messiah" to himself or that, in fact, the evidence makes it at all probable that he did so. Branscomb’s summary under the head, "Did Jesus regard himself as the Messiah?" (op. cit., pp. 145 ff.). is excellent and important. See also C. T. Craig, "The Problem of the Messiahship of Jesus," in E. P. Booth, New Testament Studies (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press. 1942). pp. 95 ff.; and M. S. Enslin, "The Date of Peter’s Confession," in Quantulacumque (London: Christophers’. 1937), pp. 121 ff.)
There is perhaps no really debatable question in the life of Jesus in which Christian theology and piety are likely to feel they have so much at sake as in this question of how Jesus regarded himself. For many the suggestion that Jesus may not have thought of himself as either Messiah or Son of Man may seem perilously near a denial of Christian faith in his supreme significance. Although the matter does not properly belong within an historical discussion, may I conclude this lecture with some remarks on this not unnatural state of mind.
The first remark is a reminder that the whole discussion turns on certain very specific patterns of thinking about God’s agent in redemption. That any of these patterns could be in any literal sense accurate is exceedingly unlikely. It is not difficult to trace the development in history of the Jewish messianic conception and of the later Son of Man idea. The study of the origins and growth of these ideas is not likely to lead one to place unlimited confidence in their truth. Indeed, both cannot be true in any literal sense since they contradict each other at many points. As a matter of fact, it is a foregone conclusion that no human way of thinking about God and his ways can be literally accurate. "Messiah," "Son of Man" are human ways of thinking, historically developed, and at best can only point to, suggest, symbolize the final salvation, upon the reality of which faith and hope lay hold. In the literal sense Jesus could not have been the Messiah or the Son of Man because in the literal sense there is no Messiah or Son of Man. Why then should it seem so important that he should have thought of himself as such?
A second remark is the reminder that Jesus’ significance does not at all depend upon the way he thought of himself. God did what he did in and through Jesus quite regardless of the terms in which Jesus conceived of his nature or task. If the term "Christ" is used, not literally, to designate one who had been expected, but to designate him in whom the kingdom of God had actually been supremely revealed, then it can be believed that he was the " Christ." As we have seen, the primitive Christians, whatever Jesus’ own view, confidently expected within their own generation the fulfillment of the hopes of the prophets and apocalyptists and were sure that Jesus would shortly come again in glorious power to judge the world and to redeem the contrite. Those expectations were disappointed; the fulfillment did not take place and Jesus did not come again. But the belief that he was the Christ cannot be dismissed as mere illusion. Jesus was called "Christ" not primarily because of what the early believers still hoped for from him but because of what they had actually found in him. In him they had already been confronted with the judgment of God; in him God’s righteousness had already manifested itself as truth and grace.
He was the Christ, not because he inaugurated the kingdom in the apocalyptic sense or ever will (although it would be rash and presumptuous to affirm absolutely that he never will), but because in him the eternal kingdom of God was in a unique and unprecedented way present and active within history, was not only seen and declared supremely and unmistakably as righteousness and love, but was actually present as judgment and salvation. And though twenty centuries have passed, as we read his words and the meager story of his life and death and rising again, even we are made aware of the reality and the nearness of the kingdom of God. Even we can know that he was and is the Christ.