The Sunday School teacher will stand before his or her class and ask, “What do we mean when we call Jesus the Son of God?” The answer will be either “He is Divine” or less often “He had no human father.” The teacher may then ask, “What do we mean that Jesus is the Son of Man?” Often the answer will be given that “He is human.” And most of the time these answers are acceptable along with the affirmation that Jesus was one hundred per cent Divine and one hundred percent human. That affirmation is definitely orthodox by the Chalcedon formulation. However, the answers are wrong.
“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'” (Matthew 3:17 NRSV) The ancient Christian heresy called “adoptionism” claimed after his baptism is when God adopted Jesus as his son. It is wrong for important reasons. The simplest reason is that God never adopted anyone. Still, there were certain people in the Old Testament that were regarded as God’s “sons.” Who were they? These men were the Kings of the Davidic line. And while later Kings of Judah might have claimed a divine connection by adding the divine name of “Je” to their names (Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Jeconiah) none of them were truly regarded as divine. The prophet Jeremiah once refers to the last king of this line as “Coniah.” (see Jeremiah 22:24-30) Some fundamentalist interpreters would likely claim, “Of course, the prophecy had not been fulfilled yet.” However, that begs the question of what was given to them as they were being called “son of God.” The answer is kingship with the responsibilities and the authority that accompanied the role of the King.
First century Jewish scholars would certainly understand being called the son of God was a witness to kingship. And according to Daniel Boyarin in his work, The Jewish Gospels only one person could ever take up the mantel of King in the Davidic line. That person was known as the Son of Man.
Boyarin argues that the belief that the Son of Man as a Divine Being was held by many first century Jewish scholars. He uses the witness of Daniel chapter 7 and 1st Enoch and the Similitudes of Enoch to demonstrate the Son of Man was supposed by a large number of scholars to be a divine being originating in heaven and arriving on earth to return to the side of God. That man would be a truly anointed one of God – the Messiah of God. Jesus was saying nothing that these believers in the promise to Israel did not already believe. He was merely claiming the mantel for himself.
A larger number of Jewish scholars did not accept the conclusions about the Son of Man that some others had reached. The visions given in the books previously mentioned are vague to say the least. There is even a conclusion that marks Enoch “who walked with God” and was taken by God to be the Son of Man. Interestingly enough each group tended to refer to the other as “hypocrites.”
The synoptic gospels then understand the term Son of Man to be a Divine Being. And they are witnessing to Jesus claiming to be that person. By the time John’s gospel was written the Divinity of Christ was affirmed by enough early Christians that the writer sets out to explain what is meant in a seeming duality of God.
Modern scholars today have concluded that Matthew’s gospel was written by the early Christians who settled in Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:26). If so, this would explain one of the most problematic passages in Matthew’s book. “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” (10:23). The context of this verse is when Jesus sends out the twelve disciples to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Albert Schweitzer believed this text demonstrated Jesus was not divine because it appears Jesus got it wrong. Searching the gospels for “the historic Jesus” is probably the wrong way to go about it. The gospels are meant to witness to a resurrected and ascended Messiah. Another problem is that we forget how Matthew interprets a passage of Scripture.
The prophet Hosea in chapter 11 and verse 1 of the Old Testament book bearing his name. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Matthew tells the amazing story of the holy family fleeing Bethlehem and staying in Egypt outside of Herod’s jurisdiction. When Joseph is told to return home, the writer uses the statement from Hosea to affirm that Holy Scripture is being fulfilled. And yet, the context of Hosea 11:1 is a reference to God recounting Israel’s history as a wayward child using the tribe of Ephraim as the stand-in for all of the northern Kingdom of Israel. The narrative of the gospel is that Jesus is taken to Nazareth which is in Galilee in the area once occupied by the northern kingdom. Matthew interprets Holy Scripture with actions in the life of Jesus even if the plain meaning of the text indicates something unrelated. Jesus’ words and actions are related to these texts in Matthew’s understanding of how the Scriptures can be fulfilled.
Obviously, then, the writer of the gospel will interpret Jesus’ words into the life of the church. Jesus does not mean geographical Israel (which really cannot be said to exist) but the “towns of Israel” wherever Israelites live. The Christian community in Antioch assumes the Son of Man will reappear soon.
Using Boyarin’s Talmudic scholarship, it is evident that the Christian Scriptures (both the interpretations of the Old Testament and the writings of the New Testament in the Christian tradition) are taken from the Jewish community that believed the apocalyptic visions of the Son of Man and accepted Jesus’ claim to be Him. The Jewish community that did not understand the apocalyptic visions of Daniel and the works bearing the name of Enoch would have been most likely not to understand the claim.
Boyarin’s book includes more material about how Jesus went about observing the Torah. He also describes how those that followed Jesus’ way accepted the suffering and death of the Messiah as fulfilling Isaiah 53. To this writer, it appears that Jesus’ claim to be the divine being known as the Son of Man is crucial to understanding the Christian viewpoint that eventually changed Christianity from a Jewish movement to a primarily grouping of Gentile communities that is too far separated from its Jewish roots and even misunderstands its Scriptures and Tradition making untenable claims about both.