Which title is right?

For most Bible readers, Jesus’ status as the “Son of God” describes his divinity. Conversely, when Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” the title seems to denote his humanity. Yet, it’s usually the other way around: “son of God” is a phrase for a human being, and “son of man” describes divinity.

On the surface, it would seem to make sense that “son of God” would be a moniker that marks one’s affinity to God or divine status. For instance, when Peter says of Yeshua, “You are the Messiah (Χριστὸς; Christos), the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), one would expect that Peter refers to his divinity. But these titles do not denote divinity in Israel’s Scriptures. The Hebrew term “Messiah” (משׁיח; Mashiach), or “Christ” in Greek, means “anointed one,” and this same language appears in the Psalms to describe the earthly Davidic king who is also called God’s son. The psalmist says that the nations set themselves “against the Lord and against his anointed one (משׁיחו; mashicho)” (Ps 2:2), and this anointed king responds, “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my son (בני; beni); today I have begotten you” (2:7). Thus, when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah and Son of God, he is making a declaration about Jesus’ royal status as David’s descendant.

The same reference to royalty holds for God’s description of Solomon. While it will be David who has a son, the Lord assumes fatherhood over the earthly king, saying, “I will be his father, and he shall be my son (בני; beni)” (2 Samuel 7:14). Elsewhere in the Bible, sonship under God doesn’t include any insinuation of divinity. For instance, Exodus describes the entire people of Israel as the son of God when the Lord tells Moses, “Israel is my firstborn son (בני בכרי; beni bekhori)” (Exod 4:22). To give an example from the Gospels, Luke’s genealogy ends a long list of fathers and their sons with “Adam [son] of God” (Lk 3:38), but the evangelist does not imply that Adam was divine. Instead, “son of God” is a title for individuals who have a close relationship with God, but who are not deific themselves.

On the other hand, “son of man” (or “son of humanity”) sounds like it should describe a terrestrial human being. After all, God calls the earthly Ezekiel “son of man” (בן אדם; ben adam) almost a hundred times (e.g., Ezek 2:1-8; 3:1-25), so shouldn’t Jesus’ self-application of “son of man” mean the same thing? But Ezekiel is written in Hebrew, and Jesus would have spoken Aramaic. While the two languages are related, “son of man” means something very different in the Aramaic text of Daniel than it does in the Hebrew Ezekiel. In a night vision, Daniel sees “one like a son of man” (בר אנשׁ; bar enash) approaching the heavenly throne on the clouds and receiving divine “dominion and glory” from God (Dan 7:13-14). In Aramaic, “son of man” denotes divinity. This why the high priest charges Yeshua with blasphemy when Jesus says, “You will see the Son of Man (υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου; huiòn tou anthrópou) seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). It was not blasphemous for someone to assert that he was the “Messiah” or “son of the Blessed,” as the priest puts it (Mk 14:61)—he knew these terms were used of mortal men in their Scriptures—but for Jesus to equate himself with Daniel’s divine “son of man” was a step too far.

To modern Bible readers, it may seem paradoxical that “son of man” denoted divinity and “son of God” meant a mortal. Jesus is both “Son of God” and “Son of Man”—human and divine—but the meaning of these titles isn’t necessarily self-evident today. In the ancient biblical world, things are not always what they seem! Luckily, a look into Scripture’s Jewish languages and contexts can illuminate its original intent.  

Published by neaseno

I was born on Powers Bluff in Wood County, Wisconsin, into a traditional community of Neshnabek. I was raised speaking only native languages, and learned to speak English upon entering school at the age of 6. As of this writing, I am one of 5 remaining Heritage Fluent Speakers of Potawatomi.

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