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  • Writer's pictureKathy Berry

"Son of Man" In Early Jewish Literature


Today, I offer a rereading of the New Testament as a Judaism within the diverse Jewish setting of the first century. I begin by stating that the “Son of Man” accolade, as expressed in the New Testament, is not new. Instead, it thoroughly lies within Jewish thinking and evinces the Jewish character of the New Testament. Subsequent articles will approach other biblical motifs with the same hope—to reread the New Testament through a cultural lens. Since this is the first of a series, a helpful backdrop is necessary.

Much of the most compelling evidence for the Jewishness of the early Jesus communities comes from the Gospels themselves. The Gospels, of course, are almost always understood as the marker of a very great break from Judaism. Over and over, we find within interpretations of them (whether pious or scholarly) statements of what a radical break is constituted by Jesus’ teaching with respect to the “Judaism” of his day.[1]

Daniel Boyarin’s above statement succinctly states what I wish to research: the Jewishness of the New Testament within first-century Jewish diversity. Additionally, I agree with Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner’s analysis of the first-century New Testament world: “No one has succeeded in so defining a single Judaism everywhere ascendant, unifying all the Jews and excluding everybody else.”[2]


Chilton and Neusner’s point is that the Judaic system, the set of beliefs within a singular Judaism such as the unity of the one God, the Torah, the Temple, the concept of atonement, and the Land, while being unique Jewish identifiers, tells us nothing of the lives within various Jewish circles, claiming to form the true “Israel,” or having sonship with the Father. Earliest Christianity was no different, for instance, sharing these claims with the exclusive Qumran community, another first-century Jewish sect (cf. Gal. 6:16; Rom. 8:14). Instead, they are, as Chilton and Neusner explain, the lowest common denominator for each of these groups within the Judaic system of their time. What does this say then about the New Testament documents?


“A Judaism” within a Judaic system appeals, says Chilton and Neusner, to its social order as “Israel” (cf. Gal. 6:16). Furthermore, a group that is situated in a Judaic system uses Torah’s text to argue for “Torah” as a way of life. There are many New Testament examples, but see how Paul or Jesus argues within the framework of the Torah’s text for a Torah-inhering lifestyle: Romans 3; Matthew 5-7.


Finally, according to Chilton and Neusner, such a group will also link their theology to the Torah through interpretations, rites, and actions. One may look to the prescribed instructions given to Gentiles coming into the “Jesus Movement” in Acts 15:22-29. To this, the gentile lifestyle of paganism must end in favor of “jewishly” living.[3] In other words, gentile believers do not become Jewish but adopt some “Jewish-like” behaviors. Hence, they abstain from meat offered to idols, from drinking blood, from things strangled (could be a euphemism for infanticide), and from sexual immorality—all related to idolatry. They should worship only the God of Israel and uphold the Torah’s moral code. Furthermore, Gentiles should learn the Jewish concept of sacrifice for the atonement of sins. Indeed, they must understand what sin is and its consequences. These topics fall within the purview of Jewish thinking, indicating a departure from the Greco-Roman appeasement system of worship.


Chilton and Neusner continue: “The Founder of Christianity (Jesus), as portrayed by the authoritative Scriptures, saw himself as an Israelite within the framework of the Torah (in secular language: a Jew who practiced Judaism).”[4] I propose that the study of the New Testament does likewise.


All this considered, the “Son of Man” motif spans Jewish literature, revealing remarkable similarities to the canonical text. In all cases, the “Son of Man” imagery depicts a glorified figure in the form of a man who operates with the same authority as the Ancient of Days (God), receives worship, judges mankind, and rides the heavenly clouds. Let’s look at a few examples before continuing our discussion next time.





In 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 people of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14, final form 2c. BCE).
And at that hour, the Son of Man was named in the presence of the Lord of Spirits, and his name before the Head of Days … he shall be the light of the nations … hope for those whose hearts are troubled (1 Enoch 48:2, 3b, 4a, 3c.BCE-1c. CE).
He (Son of Man) shall hurl kings from their thrones and their dominions because they will not exalt and praise him nor humble themselves before him by whom their kingdoms were granted (1 Enoch 46:4).
Behold, a wind arose from the sea and stirred up all its waves. And I looked, and behold; this wind made something like the figure of a man come up out of the heart of the sea. And I looked, and behold, that man flew with the clouds of heaven…” (4 Ezra 13, 1c. CE).

And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62, late 1c. CE).


Consider these extra-biblical Jewish writings spanning from the 3rd century BCE to the late 1st century CE. Next time, we will look at them more closely to compare the New Testament’s “Son of Man” motif. Even with this introduction, one can see the Jewish thought flowing through these texts, which span four centuries.

[1] Boyarin, Daniel, The Jewish Gospels (Kindle Locations 1510-1511). The New Press. Kindle Edition.


[2] Chilton, Bruce and Neusner, Jacob, “Introduction” in Judaism in the New Testament: Practices and Beliefs (Routledge: New York, 1995), xv.


[3] Nanos, Mark D., Reading Paul within Judaism (Cascade: Eugene, OR., 2017), 128.


[4] Chilton and Neusner, “Introduction,” xiv.

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