Tag Archives: andrew livingston

CHRISTIAN TRADITION AND THE INVADING SON OF MAN

The following is a guest post by author Andrew Livingston.


 

Craig Evans: In your view what is the single most important passage in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) for which a strong argument for authenticity can be made that suggests that Jesus viewed himself as divine?

Mike Licona: …The apocalyptic Son of Man [is what] I’d go with…Mark, the earliest Gospel, regards Jesus as this apocalyptic Son of Man, this divine figure…It’s in Mark, it’s in Q, it’s in M, it’s in L, it’s in John, and it’s in these multiple literary forms—biography, sayings, literature, and letter [sic]. I think that’s extremely strong [evidence for historicity]. And this apocalyptic Son of Man does things that only can be done to [sic] God…I think they have great claims to historicity, that Jesus actually believed himself to be this apocalyptic Son of Man. [1]

This is Mike Licona’s favorite (and for all intents and purposes, his only) argument for why you should believe that Jesus was God Incarnate and not merely a human prophet. It isn’t just Licona either: Christian apologists in general constantly harp on this notion that Jesus thought of himself as “the apocalyptic Son of Man”. For those not in the know, that refers to the traditional Christian interpretation of the book of Daniel, chapter 7, verses 13-15:

“I saw [in a vision of the future] one like a human being (Aram: “one like a son of man”) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. [2]

Because in biblical stories Jesus frequently applies this “Son of Man” moniker to himself, and because some of the passages in which he does so make it sound like he’s the one who will do the judging on Judgment Day (Matthew 13:37-43 being one example), Christians basically take it for granted that the term “Son of Man” is synonymous with “God almighty” (or at least with “God incarnate”). Of course, if you but read three sentences further into that passage in Daniel you’ll find that there’s a downright hellacious case of cherry-picking going on here. Three more sentences, that’s all it takes. Here is what the passage looks like when those three sentences are not left out:

I saw one like a human being (Aram: “one like a son of man”) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.

First the text says, “I saw one like a son of man…To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away.” And then, just below: “The holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom forever.” The author is explicitly defining with the latter comment what he meant by the former one. He’s talking about the kingdom of Israel itself, not some literal single person who somehow both is himself God and at the same time is getting presented before God.

Nonetheless, Licona tells us that instances of Jesus applying the “Son of Man” moniker to himself are so widely scattered throughout different early sources by different authors, who were writing so many different kinds of things, that there is no way the idea can not be based in historical fact.

A couple of obvious problems present themselves which a lot of you probably already knew about or have thought of on your own while reading this. For one thing, if two sentences in The Old Testament can prove anything then surely two sentences in The New Testament can do the same, and utterly decimate any notion that Jesus thought of himself as God Incarnate:

“A man ran up and knelt before [Jesus], and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)

Christian apologists only make their position look all the weaker with their desperate attempts to deny the plain sense of those words. James McGrath has explained the matter with admirable succinctness at the following link. By all means read this; it’s just a couple of paragraphs.

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2014/11/jesus-piety.html

It must also be noted that (as far as the first three Gospels go, at least) most of the passages wherein Jesus is spoken of as “this apocalyptic Son of Man” make explicit predictions that the apocalypse in question was supposed to happen while the first generation of Christians was still alive:

These twelve [disciples] Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “…When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Matthew 10:5, 23; see also Mark 9:1, Mark 14:61-62, and the entirety of Mark chapter 13)

And so there are two possibilities exactly. The first possibility is that Jesus was a false prophet (c.f. Deuteronomy 18:21-22)—which is a thought Christians and Muslims will equally find intolerable. [3] The second possibility is that The Bible indeed cannot be trusted to depict Jesus accurately, at least when it comes to these “Son of Man” passages. Those are your options. There is no third option.

The above two points suffice all by themselves. But there is another point that can made and it reveals in some detail how the matter of “the apocalyptic Son of Man” actually proves—better than virtually anything else can—just how unreliable The New Testament and its depiction of Jesus can be.

Remember that The Bible is one single book only because happenstance has made it so. The various writings of Paul, Jeremiah, Isaiah, John the Elder, and so forth can be found between the same two covers for no other reason than that some people decided a long time ago to make a point of placing them between those covers. There was never any concerted effort by dozens of different authors living in separate countries and separate centuries to compile their works into one volume of their own accord. These are sixty-six different writings we’re talking about (or seventy-three, if you’re a Catholic) by dozens of different writers. As such anything that begins with, “What does The Bible say about…” is automatically an unintentional trick question. Which Bible author do you mean? The relevance of this fact, as explained by Shabir Ally, is:

Most people read the New Testament Gospels vertically. They start at the beginning and they go towards the end, and then they start a new Gospel after that. And that is fine…but we also have to read with peripheral vision. We have to read across, horizontally, from one Gospel to another. In other words, when we come to an episode in a Gospel we have to keep our fingers there on the text and then flip over to another Gospel where the same episode is related, and observe how they are similar but also pay attention to how they are different. [4]

And when you do apply such a vertical reading to the Gospels an unmistakable pattern begins to emerge. While the depiction of Jesus which Licona refers to as “the apocalyptic Son of Man” is indeed widely scattered across independent early sources and found in various literary forms it’s nonetheless all but impossible to find one single solitary example of any two authors independently referring to the belief at the same time. It seems as though everybody thought they knew (and perhaps even treated it as a given) that Jesus had made such claims about himself yet nobody could agree on exactly when he had done this.

Look for yourself. Pick up a Bible and find any place in any of the four Gospels wherein Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man”. Then flip through the pages and find a place where another Gospel tells the same story and see if Jesus uses the phrase in that version of it as well. I’m telling you now, he won’t. Even the speech from Matthew I cited above serves as an example of this paradox. Read the “Mission of the Twelve” section in the tenth chapter of Matthew and then read the equivalent passage in Luke (where it’s also in the tenth chapter). In Matthew’s version of the speech Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man”; in Luke’s version he does not.

The same thing keeps happening all throughout the text. Examples abound. As John Dominic Crossan put it, “There is only one single case where the Son of Man expression occurs in multiple independent attestation; that single exception is [the] ‘Foxes Have Holes’ [story found in The Gospel of Thomas part 86 as well as Luke 9:58/Matthew 8:19-20]” (emphasis Crossan’s). [5] The examples of this I’m about to show are the ones I’ve personally selected because I find them to be the most striking and undeniable cases; as I list them I want you to bear in mind that there are more where they came from. Follow the endnote if you want to see where you can read a more complete list.

Example #1:

“Everyone…who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33)

“Everyone who acknowledges me before others, the 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.” (Luke 12:8-9)

Example #2:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:27-29)

When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16)

Example #3:

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” (Luke 6:22-23)

Example #4:

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:28-29)

“Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Luke 12:10)

Example #5:

While [Jesus] was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. (Matthew 26:47-50)

While [Jesus] was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” (Luke 22:47-48)

Example #6:

The Pharisees came and began to argue with [Jesus], asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side. (Mark 8:11-13)

Some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:38-40)

Example #7:

Some people brought a blind man to [Jesus] and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.” (Mark 8:22-26)

[Jesus] saw a man blind from birth…He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see…[Jesus] said [to the man], “Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. (John 9:1-38)

If Jesus genuinely had been known as “the Son of Man” right from the very start, and known that way because it was his own self-designation, why then shouldn’t any two authors ever be able to agree on where it is he used the label? Does it not seem instead that the whole “Son of Man” concept somehow crept into Christian tradition at an early point and has stayed there since whereas the true historical Jesus, during his own time, never said anything of the sort? [6]

And it doesn’t end there. As James Crossley has observed there are discrepancies regarding when and how often Jesus gets called the son of anything (i.e. whether it be “Son of Man” or “Son of God”) depending on the date of the text in question. The later the document, the more often this happens. As you read what Crossley said bear in mind that Mark was the earliest Gospel, followed by Matthew and Luke, and John was the latest:

Jesus’ reference to himself as “the Son” (Mark 13:32) reflects the developing Christology of the early church. [In the Gospel of Mark] it is used by Jesus of himself only in [Mark 13:32,] (other less explicit possibilities being 12.6 and 14.62), which…should make us a little suspicious as to whether it is actually from the historical Jesus. This is supported by the fact that Jesus uses the term “Son” of himself only once in Q [i.e. those passages that are precisely the same between Matthew and Luke, probably coming from a lost text that predated both], Mt. 11.27/Lk. 10.22). In contrast Jesus uses it of himself 23 times in John where it clearly has some reference to Jesus’ divinity (cf. 5.18-26; 10.30-39). Worth noting too is Matthew’s editing of Mark where Matthew heightens the Christological use of the term “Son” (Mk 6.52/Mt. 14.33; Mk 8.29/Mt. 16.16; Mk 15.30/Mt. 27.40; Mk 15.32/Mt. 27.43). The title of “Son” is obviously a developing Christian tradition…” [7]

I hope you’re beginning to see why Muslims are never convinced or even impressed when Christian evangelists endlessly repeat like a broken record that The Qur’an was written “six hundred years too late”. Not a single one of these evangelists is willing to compare separate writings and authors from within The New Testament and allow them to contradict each other. Apparently it’s perfectly fine to emphasize how early the book of John is compared to The Qur’an—but under no circumstances is any importance to be attached to how early the book of Mark is compared to John. Which is a shame, because were they only willing to think that way they’d discover that our historically worthless text from six centuries too late is right on the money—not just with this issue but over and over and over again, on subject after subject after subject.

I have perfected your religion for you, and I have completed My blessing upon you, and I have approved Islam for your religion…People of the Book [i.e. believers in The Bible], now there has come to you Our Messenger, making clear to you many things you have been concealing of the Book, and effacing many things. There has come to you from God a light, and a Book Manifest whereby God guides whosoever follows His good pleasure in the ways of peace, and brings them forth from the shadows into the light by His leave; and He guides them to a straight path. (Surah 5; verses 3, 15-16, A.J. Arberry’s translation)

 

NOTES:

[1] From the Mike Licona-Dale Martin debate “Did Jesus Believe He Was Divine?”. The video I’ve transcribed this from is embedded in my article “A Few Brief Words on N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God”.

[2] All biblical quotations in this article are copied from The New Revised Standard Version, using the website Bible Gateway.

[3] Of course, finding an idea intolerable isn’t all by itself grounds to dismiss it as untrue: let me therefore recommend for you an article that pretty thoroughly debunks all forms of this Jesus-as-Chicken-Little depiction of the historical Jesus. (Which, by the way, seems to be a view held by the majority of scholars—at least depending on what country the scholar lives in. You might want to bring that fact up the next time you see a Christian evangelist try to bedazzle somebody with argumentum ad populum arguments such as, “A majority of scholars agree that Jesus’s disciples believed he had risen from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind.” A majority of scholars consider Jesus to have been a false prophet! That boat has sailed.) That article is “A Temperate Case for a Non-Eschatological Jesus” by Marcus Borg, which over the course of just a few pages settles the matter for good and all, in my own estimation.

[4] From the Shabir Ally-James White debate “Is The New Testament We Possess Today Inspired?”.

[5] “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant” by John Dominic Crossan, from the appendices (pages 454-56 and 440). Harper San Francisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. First HarperCollins paperback edition published in 1992.

[6] I have a suspicion that the way this happened (also the way Christianity turned so quickly into an apocalyptic movement expecting a first-century Armageddon) involved the panic that the Jewish people in Jerusalem went through at the time of the Caligula crisis circa the year 41. This hypothesis, however, would need an article all its own, and I’m nowhere near sure enough or educated enough to write such a thing yet. Consider this note a case of, “I’m just throwing it out there.”

[7] “The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity” by James G. Crossley, page 23 (or chapter 2, in case the page number is different in your copy of the book). 2004 T & T International, a Continuum imprint. London/New York.