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DID JESUS CALL HIMSELF THE SON OF MAN?
CARL S. PATTON
Los Angeles, California
The Synoptic Gospels represent Jesus as calling himself the "Son of Man."
The contention of this article is that Jesus did not use this self-designation.
i. The Synoptic Gospels represent Jesus as attempting to avoid being known as
"the Messiah." This conflicts with his use of a title which carried an unmistakable
2. In certain instances the phrase belongs to an editorial observation which has
become a part of Jesus' conversation.
3. Sometimes the phrase is inserted by Matthew or Luke into a passagefrom
Mark which is without it. Occasionally these insertions alter or spoil the original
meaning of the passage.
4. In many passages common to Matthew and Luke and not found in Mark, one
of the later evangelists lacks the phrase where the other has it.
5. In other instances where the phrase is common to Matthew and Luke, the
passage bears evidence of later working over. In other passages the phrase is textu-
If Jesus did not call himself the Son of Man, did he entertain the idea of his
messiahship and of his parousia which the church attributed to him ?
Throughout the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is represented as
calling himself the "Son of Man." It has been generally
agreed that this representation is correct. It is the contention
of this paper that this consensus of opinion is erroneous, and
that there is every reason to think that Jesus did not use
Whatever the phrase "Son of Man" may have meant in
its Aramaic original, there is no doubt that to the writers of
the gospels it was a designation for the Messiah. But even
to those who think of Jesus as always conscious of his messiah-
ship, his use of this title is still full of difficulties.
The most general of these difficulties is, that the Synoptic
Gospels represent Jesus as making a constant effort to avoid
being known as the Messiah. "He suffered not the demons to
speak, because they knew him," says Mark. 1 Luke fills the
sentence out by adding, "to be the Messiah." 2 Even after
the confession of Peter at Caesarea, when Jesus had acknowl-
1 Mark 1 : 34. * Luke 4:41.
502 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
edged his messiahship in the intimate circle of his disciples,
he still forbade them to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
But if Jesus thus refused to allow himself to be known as the
Messiah, how could he, habitually and in passages long anterior
to those just referred to, have referred to himself by a title
which would have betrayed his messiahship to the crowd?
Indeed, why should Jesus have referred to himself in the third
person, under this or any other title? Why should he not
always have said "I," as other men do, and as he himself did
in many of his most emphatic passages ?
Particular instances of Jesus' reported use of this title
support the suspicion aroused by this general consideration.
One of the most obvious of these instances is found in the story
of the paralytic borne by his four friends. 1 The account
runs: "In order that ye may know that the Son of Man hath
power on earth to forgive sins, he saith to the sick of the palsy,
I say unto thee, Arise." No one can have read this sentence
without feeling its illogical construction. To be logically con-
structed it should read, either, " In order that ye may know
that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins, I
will now say to the sick of the palsy, Arise"; or "In order
that they might know that the Son of Man had power on earth
to forgive sins, He said to the sick of the palsy, Arise." The
first of these two orders would make the speech throughout
a speech of Jesus. The second would make it throughout
a part of the narrative. In the sentence as it actually runs,
the point of view is partly that of the speaker, Jesus, and
partly that of the narrator, Mark. But if the clause which
contains the title "Son of Man" be taken, not as part of the
speech of Jesus, but as part of Mark's own narration, the con-
fusion in the persons of the verbs disappears and the whole
statement is quite natural. In other words, in this instance
the phrase "Son of Man" seems naturally to go back to Mark
and not to Jesus.
1 Mark 2:10; Matt. 9:6; Luke 5:24.
DID JESUS CALL HIMSELF THE SON OF MAN? 503
There is a somewhat similar instance in which the words
"the Son of Man" occur in what seems like an editorial
addition; the phrase is found in all three synoptics, Matthew
and Luke evidently taking it and its entire context from Mark. 1
The phrase occurs at the end of the discussion concerning Jesus'
walking through the corn on the Sabbath: "Therefore the Son
of Man is lord also of the Sabbath." This closing sentence
fits the argument about the Sabbath so poorly that Schmidt,
in his Prophet of Nazareth, has argued from it that the phrase
"Son of Man" did not refer to Jesus, nor to any other indi-
vidual, but to man generally. If "the Sabbath was made
for man, not man for the Sabbath," the appropriate conclusion
is that man, as such, is lord of the Sabbath, and not, as Mark
has it, "the Son of Man." If however the argument of Jesus
be allowed to conclude with Mark's verse 27, and his verse 28
be regarded as an addition by Mark himself, Jesus is relieved
of this illogical conclusion. The verse will then have come
from a time when the proper observance of the Sabbath was
not quite settled among the Christians, and when the example
of Jesus was adduced, as it probably often was, in support of a
certain freedom of observance.
In an instance peculiar to Luke the same phrase would seem
with equal clearness to be part of an editorial comment, though
appearing upon the surface as part of a saying of Jesus. It
is that of the parable of the Unjust Judge. 3 The obvious pur-
pose of the parable is to exhort men to patience and to a con-
tinued belief in God's justice. The parable closes with the
question, "Nevertheless, when the Son of Man cometh, shall
he find the faith in the earth ? " Noting the article before the
word "faith," one asks, "What faith"? And answers,
naturally, the faith which Jesus had taught, the faith of the
Christian church. But who was in doubt about the continu-
ance of that faith? Not Jesus, certainly. Who then?
Luke himself. In the mouth of Jesus, spoken at a time when
1 Mark 2:28; Matt. 12:8; Luke 6:5. »Luke 18:8.
504 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
he was not "coming," but was actually there, the words add
nothing to the parable, and are quite out of place. But in
the mouth of Luke, written during a period of persecution
and uncertainty, they bear pathetic witness to the difficulty of
maintaining the new faith in view of the long delay of the
An equally clear instance of the misplacing of our phrase
is found in Matthew's form of the question addressed by Jesus
to his disciples, "Who do men say that the Son of Man is?" 1
Matthew and Luke take the entire passage from Mark. Luke,
like Mark, makes Jesus ask, quite naturally, "Who do men
say that I am?" Matthew's insertion of the phrase "Son of
Man" spoils the question by making it carry its own answer.
Considering the fact that when Matthew goes on to make
Jesus direct his question to his disciples, it reads, not "Who
do ye say that the Son of Man is ?" but "Who do ye say that
I am?" one may conclude without much hesitation that the
phrase in the earlier question is a gloss upon the original
gospel of Matthew.
Equally plain is the case of the incident recorded by
Luke 2 of the reception of Jesus in the Samaritan village, closing
with the words, "For the Son of Man did not come to destroy
men's lives (souls) but to save them." As in so many instances
where this phrase is used, the tense of the verb is aorist. It
is not, "the Son of Man has come," or "is come," but "came" ;
thus seeming to betray the point of view of one who looks
back upon the life of Jesus and sums up its significance in a
single statement. That in this instance the words are an
editorial addition, and not a part of the speech of Jesus, is
clearly confirmed by the fact that they are lacking in the
best manuscripts and are omitted by Westcott and Hort.
The same may be said of Luke's words 3 appended to the
conversation between Jesus and Zaccheus. Though in this
instance no manuscript authority exists for the rejection of
•Matt. 16:13. 2 9:si-56. 319:10.
DID JESUS CALL HIMSELF THE SON OF MAN? 505
the words, "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save
that which was lost," they obviously constitute an editorial
addition to the actual speech of Jesus, explaining why he spoke
so graciously, and indicating the developed conception of his
work which prevailed in the church at the time of the writing
of Luke's gospel.
A similar instance is that of Jesus' discourse on true great-
ness. 1 "Whoever would be great among you," says Jesus,
"let him be your servant." Matthew follows Mark in the
additional words, "For even the Son of Man came not to be
ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom
for many." The words are well attested. In Luke's render-
ing of the same speech, 2 however, which has evidently been
somewhat worked over by Luke or has been influenced in his
account by other sources than Mark, the words are lacking.
In Matthew, also, the words are followed, in various manu-
scripts, by a considerable addition in the same vein. Quite
without the suggestion contained in these facts, one can but
consider this sentence of Mark's (and Matthew's), with others
of the same kind already considered, as an editorial comment
of the gospel writers, intended by them to enforce Jesus'
advice by his own example both in life and death. The
perfectly definite reference to the death of Jesus, and the
developing conception of what that death meant to the world,
would almost of themselves stamp the words as an utterance
of the growing faith of the church, and not as an utterance
of Jesus himself.
We may advance the matter a step further by observing
somewhat more in detail some of the passages where the
phrase "the Son of Man" is inserted in one gospel where the
parallel passage in one or both of the other gospels is without
it. Thus in the passage which Matthew takes from Mark, 3
he inserts (vs. 28) the phrase "the Son of Man coming in his
"Mark 10:45; Matt. 20:28. "Luke 22:24-27.
'Matt. 16:24-28; Mark 8: 34 — 9:1; Luke 9:23-27.
506 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
kingdom." Bousset has called attention to the fact that in
this instance, and in several others peculiar to Matthew, the
conception of a kingdom of Christ seems to have taken the
place of the Kingdom of God about which Jesus preached.
Any such substitution of one conception for the other must
of course be much later than the time of Jesus. That such a
substitution has taken place in this instance is confirmed by
the fact that Mark and Luke not only lack the phrase "the
Son of Man," but instead of "in his (Christ's) kingdom" read
simply and naturally, "the Kingdom of God."
Matthew has a similar insertion of our phrase in his sen-
tence, 1 "When the Son of Man sits upon the throne of his
glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones judging the tribes
of Israel." The body of this section appears to be taken from
Mark, 2 but to have been influenced in both Matthew and Luke
by a non-Markan source common to them. The part of the
discourse containing our phrase is apparently taken by both
Matthew and Luke, not from Mark but from this other source.
But though Luke has thus derived his statement "Ye shall
sit on twelve thrones judging the tribes of Israel" from the
same source as Matthew, Luke's version of it does not con-
tain the phrase "the Son of Man." Matthew has added it.
The source of Matthew and Luke is here obviously an old one,
probably older than Mark, going back to a time of predomi-
nantly Jewish Christianity; but the phrase added by Matthew
does not appear to have been contained in it. Matthew's
habit of heightening the eschatological character of various
passages is further illustrated by the fact that elsewhere in this
same section he reads "the Son of Man upon the throne of
his glory," where Luke reads merely "my kingdom." Here
again, of course, in both gospels, occurs the substitution of the
kingdom of Christ for the Kingdom of God.
In Matthew's twenty-fourth chapters occur two instances
of our phrase peculiar to him, though he is here depending
1 Matt. 19 : 28. ' Mark 10 : 28 f . 3 Vss. 30 and 39.
DID JESUS CALL HIMSELF THE SON OF MAN? 507
upon Mark. "The little apocalypse," to which the passage
belongs, is now generally considered to be a Jewish document
worked over, or worked into the speech of Jesus, by the
evangelists or by a tradition anterior to them. In the first
instance just referred to, Matthew has the words, "And then
shall be seen the sign of the Son of Man in heaven"; they
are lacking in both Mark and Luke. In the second instance,
the passage concerning "the days of Noah," Matthew and
Luke (Mark has here no parallel) once use our phrase in
common; 1 but Matthew adds it a second time 2 where it is
lacking in Luke. That the words are to be credited to Matthew
(or his source ?) instead of to Jesus, is further indicated by the
fact that here, as in other instances where the phrase is peculiar
to him, he has coupled them with the word "parousia," a
usage peculiar to Matthew.
While Matthew contains a larger number of the insertions
of our phrase where Luke or Mark (or both) in parallel pas-
sages are without it, Luke is to be credited with a few such
insertions. In his beatitude 3 "Blessed are ye when men shall
hate you .... on account of the Son of Man," Matthew's
somewhat close parallel to this beatitude is without this
phrase. This is one of the few passages where the phrase is
not used in an eschatological sense. But Luke's language
here, implying that the Christians are or have been persecuted
for their messianic expectations concerning Jesus, certainly
betrays a time much later than that of Jesus himself. The
passage 4 "Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will
the Son of Man confess before the angels of God" is obviously
eschatological. It contains the same confusion of first and
third persons which has been noted in other instances. In his
parallel verse Matthew says simply, "Him will I confess. " s
In most instances, therefore, it is Matthew, but in a few
'Matt. 24:37; Luke 17:26. "Vs. 39. ^6:22. < Luke 12:8.
s Other instances of Luke's peculiar use of our phrase have been discussed above,
but they occur in passages not duplicated in the other gospels.
508 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
instances it is Luke, who represents Jesus as referring to him-
self as "the Son of Man" where in the other gospel he says
simply "I," "me," or "mine."
In one or two instances Matthew and Luke agree in the
use of our phrase where they are dependent upon Mark but
where Mark does not use it. Most notable of these is the
passage concerning "the sin against the Holy Ghost." I
suppose that any reference to "the Holy Ghost" in the
mouth of Jesus is liable to suspicion on general grounds;
since the Fourth Gospel undoubtedly represents the early
tradition that "the Holy Ghost was not given" till after the
death of Jesus. In this case, however, we are not left to such
general considerations. Matthew and Luke agree in making
Jesus say, 1 "Whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of
Man, it shall be forgiven him." They thus contrast those
who speak against Jesus, with those who speak against the
Holy Ghost; the former may be forgiven, the latter not.
Mark, 2 from whom the passage is taken, does not contain this
contrast, as he does not contain our phrase. He does, how-
ever, have the phrase " the sons of men." If Mark had before
him the same source from which Matthew and Luke derived
their phrase "the Son of Man," it is hard to say why he
should have replaced this phrase, with its direct and unmistak-
able reference to Jesus, by his more general and colorless
phrase. But the entire passage, either as recorded in Mark
or in some earlier source or as worked over by Matthew
and Luke, obviously comes from a period of the developing
life of the church when the members of the church were recipi-
ents of the Spirit and those outside were not. Blasphemy
against the Holy Ghost was then much worse than blasphemy
against the Son of Man, because one might speak ill of Jesus
without knowing or understanding him, but one who spoke
ill of the Holy Spirit struck at the very life of the church,
and reviled the gift by which all Christians lived. The pas-
'Matt. 12:32; Luke 12:10. '3:28-29.
DID JESUS CALL HIMSELF THE SON OF MAN? 509
sage reminds one of Paul's statement, "I give you to under-
stand that no one speaking in the Spirit calleth Jesus accursed,"
and was probably written, or assumed its present form, some-
where near the time these words of Paul were written.
There remain certain instances where the phrase "the
Son of Man" is used by both Matthew and Luke, in parallel
passages not derived from Mark. Such is the passage in which
Jesus compares himself to Jonah and Solomon. 1 Luke says
simply that as Jonah was a sign to his generation, so the Son
of Man shall be to his. The meaning seems eschatological.
Matthew however changes the meaning by introducing the
extremely definite prediction about the "three days and nights
in the heart of the earth." The definiteness of this prediction,
so different from anything else reputed to have been said by
Jesus, has of itself led many to suspect that the exact wording
of Matthew's passage took shape after the resurrection. This
explanation would certainly relieve Jesus of the responsibility
of comparing himself so freely with Solomon, and claiming
such superiority to him — a thing eminently proper for the
early church to do, but somewhat strange as coming from
A similar passage, open to a similar objection, is that in
which Jesus compares his parousia to the lightning. 2 Of this
comparison, Bousset 3 remarks that it can be attributed to
Jesus only upon the supposition that he had "completely
mythologized his own person." Of the passage, "Ye know
not in what hour the Son of Man cometh," 4 it need only be
remarked how ill the words fit the time of Jesus himself, and
how well they fit the period in which the gospels were written,
when men were looking with eager expectancy for the parousia.
The same thing is true of the statement, "Ye shall not finish
the cities of Israel before the Son of Man be come. 5 If as
has been suggested by Mr. James Hardy Ropes (if I remember
1 Matt. 12:40; Luke 11 :3c 3 Kyrios Christos, pp. 11-12.
2 Matt. 24:27; Luke 17:24. <Matt. 24:44; Luke 12:40. sMatt. 10:23.
510 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION
correctly), the section in which this saying occurs was first
compiled as a book of instructions to the early Christian
preachers, the words fall beautifully into place; the preachers
are to make haste, as their task can hardly be completed, at
best, before the parousia. In the mouth of Jesus, alive and
well and with no immediate prospect of death before him,
they are strangely out of place.
It would be too tedious to ask the reader to examine every
passage in which our Synoptic Gospels use the phrase "the
Son of Man." By far the larger part of them have now been
gone over. To the writer's mind, not one of them is unsuspect.
In many instances the phrase is obviously inserted by one
writer into a context where one or both of the other gospels
are without it. In others, it is textually suspicious. In
others it is obviously an editorial remark which the author
never intended to be taken as part of the speech of Jesus. In
others its introduction produces confusion in the persons of
the verbs and in the structure of the sentence. In others it
betrays a point of view obviously unlike that of Jesus and
impossible in his time. It abounds in passages which speak
of the death and resurrection and "parousia" of Jesus in
precisely such terms as he would not have been likely to use
but as were entirely natural for his followers to employ after
his death and while awaiting his parousia.
If Jesus did not call himself the Son of Man, the question
naturally arises, at what period the phrase began to be applied
to him. Light is thrown upon this question by the fact that
the phrase is never employed by Paul. It is found once in
the book of Acts, in the mouth of Stephen; but the speech
of Stephen is probably much later than Stephen himself.
It occurs in the common non-Markan document that lies
behind Matthew and Luke; whatever that document be called,
its most probable date is a few years later than the Pauline
epistles. The title is used oftener by Mark than by this
earlier source, and oftener by Matthew and Luke than by
DID JESUS CALL HIMSELF THE SON OF MAN? 511
Mark — an indication that it only gradually acquired its place
as a recognized messianic title of Jesus.
If Jesus did not call himself the Son of Man, the further
question remains whether, and how far, he thought of himself,
in any way, at any time, as the Messiah; or whether, if he did,
he connected with that idea those images of a return upon
the clouds and a messianic throne and kingdom which the
early church reports him as having entertained. The present
study is of course not conclusive upon such a point. But
many or most of those messianic conceptions which are most
materialistic and most obnoxious to modern minds, find
their expression in precisely those passages where the phrase
"the Son of Man" is most freely used. The present study
does certainly throw doubt upon the authenticity of these
passages as coming from Jesus, and therefore relieves him of
the responsibility for the grosser elements of the messianic