Over the past century, a great deal of academic ink has been shed over the Biblical term “Son of Man.” For some decades, scholars have known that that discussion has been seriously skewed by a serious error or distortion, but that realization has not yet reached a general audience. When it does, a few thousand sermons might need to be rewritten.
In the gospels, Jesus often uses the term “Son of Man,” which has multiple meanings depending on context. In some cases, it means just a human being, or is a deprecating way of referring to oneself (loosely, “This guy here thinks…”) On other occasions, it evokes a famous messianic image in Daniel 7:
n my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
In Daniel, the phrase is best translated “one in human form,” but the phrase Son of Man did acquire messianic implications, as suggested by the way we often capitalize it. From many instances, see Jesus’ declaration that “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.”
The idea has attracted a huge literature, much of which focuses on one vital non-canonical document, namely 1 Enoch. Not only does the text repeatedly speak of the Son of Man, but it does so in explicitly messianic language: “And this Son of Man whom thou hast seen shall raise up the kings and the mighty from their seats, [and the strong from their thrones] and shall loosen the reins of the strong, and break the teeth of the sinners” (46.4).
So thoroughly do these passages seem to prefigure the later Christian use of Son of Man that a few scholars have argued that the relevant section of 1 Enoch is a later Christian interpolation. That view, though, does not command much support. A Christian interpolator would have made the Jesus references much more clumsily explicit, as such later editors usually did. Subtlety was not their strong suit.
So here, surely, we have Jesus’ source for the “Son of Man” idea?
But here’s the problem. Like many writers, I have used the text of Enoch from the well-known collection by R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Clarendon Press, 1913), which has long been a scholarly mainstay. It is easily accessible, and the fact it is out of copyright means that I can download passages directly, as I have done here. Charles’s translation of the Son of Man section culminates thus:
And he [i.e. the angel] came to me [ie Enoch] and greeted me with His voice, and said unto me "This is the Son of Man who is born unto righteousness, and righteousness abides over him, and the righteousness of the Head of Days forsakes him not." (71.14-15)
That verse in particular is massively used in scholarship on Jesus and his times, and his conception of himself and his messianic role. But now contrast this with a modern translation of the same verse:
You are the Son of Man who was born to righteousness, and righteousness reigns over you, and the righteousness of the Head of Days will not leave you.
This is from Miryam T. Brand, “1 Enoch,” in Louis H. Feldman, James L. Kugel and Lawrence H. Schiffman, eds., Outside the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013), vol. ii, 1399. That’s not just a shift of nuance. In this translation – and in
all reputable modern versions – there is no doubt whatever that the Son of Man is not a dreamed-of messiah that is yet to come, it is Enoch himself. That point was made clearly by the authoritative edition of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha edited by James H. Charlesworth in the early 1980s.
In the most favorable view, Charles made a grievous error back in 1913, and one that has echoed through generations of later writing and preaching. His version leaves open the door that the text might prefigure Christ, rather than a named Old Testament person. And it doesn’t.
The question must remain: was his mistranslation deliberate?
This story raises troubling questions about the number of things we take to be obviously true, but which derive from simple academic error.
Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor Universityand author ofThe Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.