What is the ‘Son of Man’? The Paradox at Jesus’ Trial

The Bible uses several titles in referring to Jesus. The most prominent is ‘Christ’, but it also uses ‘Son of God‘ and ‘Lamb of God‘ regularly. However, Jesus often refers to himself as ‘Son of Man’. What does this mean and why does he use this term? It is in the trial of Jesus that the irony of his use of ‘Son of Man’ really stands out. We explore this here.

Many are somewhat familiar with the trial of Jesus. Perhaps they have seen the trial depicted in a film or read it in one of the gospel accounts. Yet the trial that the Gospels record brings forth profound paradoxes. It forms part of the events of Day 6 in Passion Week. Luke records the details of the trial for us.

Jesus on trial before Pontius Pilate
Popular Graphic Arts, PD-US-expired, via Wikimedia Commons

At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. “If you are the Christ”, they said, “tell us.”

Jesus answered, “If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”

They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?” He replied, “You are right in saying I am.”

Then they said, “Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips.”

Luke 22: 66-71

Notice how Jesus does not answer their question whether he is the ‘Christ’.  Instead, he refers to something totally different, the ‘Son of Man’.  But his accusers don’t seem puzzled by that abrupt change of topic.  For some reason they understand him even though he does not answer if he was the Christ.

So why?  Where does ‘Son of Man’ come from and what does it mean?

The ‘Son of Man’ from Daniel

‘Son of man’ comes from Daniel in the Old Testament. He recorded a vision explicitly about the future, and in it he references a ‘Son of Man’.  Here is how Daniel recorded his vision:

Daniel lived ca 550 BCE, long before Jesus

“As I looked,

“thrones were set in place,
    and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
    the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
    and its wheels were all ablaze.
10 A river of fire was flowing,
    coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
    ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
    and the books were opened….

Daniel 7:9-10

13 “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. 14 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.

Daniel 7:13-14

vs. Son of Man at Jesus’ Trial

Now reflect on the irony of the situation at Jesus’ trial. There stood Jesus, a peasant carpenter living in the backwater of the Roman Empire. He had a ragtag following of lowly fishermen. At his recent arrest, they had just deserted him in terror. Now he is on trial for his life. By calling himself the Son of Man he calmly claimed before the chief priests and other accusers to be that person in Daniel’s vision.

But Daniel described the son of man as ‘coming on the clouds of heaven’. Daniel foresaw the Son of Man taking worldwide authority and establishing a never-ending kingdom. That could not be more different from the actual situation that Jesus found himself in at his trial. It would seem almost ludicrous to bring up that title with him being in that situation.

What was Luke thinking?

Jesus is not the only one behaving strangely. Luke does not shy away from recording this claim and putting it on record. However, when he did so (early 60s first century CE) the prospects for Jesus and his fledgling movement seemed laughable. His movement was ridiculed by the elite, disdained by the Jews, and ruthlessly persecuted by the insane Roman Emperor Nero.  Nero had the Apostle Peter crucified upside-down and Paul beheaded.  It should seem beyond sane reason that Luke would keep that fantastic reference in the mouth of Jesus. By writing it down he made it public for all their detractors to scoff at.  But Luke was confident that Jesus of Nazareth was this same Son of Man from Daniel’s vision. So, against all odds, he records Jesus’ irrational (if it were not true) exchange with his accusers.

Philip Devere, FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

‘Son of Man’ – being fulfilled in our time

Now consider this. Only after Jesus gave his reply, and centuries after Luke put it on record, some significant parts of the Daniel Son of Man vision have been fulfilled by Jesus.  Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man stated that:

“all peoples, nations, and men of every language worshiped him”.

That was not true of Jesus two thousand years ago. But look around now. People from every nation and practically each of the thousands of languages do worship him today. This includes former animists from the Amazon to Papua New Guinea, the jungles of India to Cambodia. From East to West and North to South people worship him now on a global scale. For no one else in all of recorded history is this even remotely plausible. One may dismiss this with a ‘yes well that is due to the spread of Christianity’. Sure, hindsight is 20-20. But Luke had no human way of knowing how things would unfold in the centuries after he recorded his account.

How could the Son of Man get worship

And worship, to be real worship, can only be given by a free will, not under coercion or by bribery. Suppose Jesus was the Son of Man with the powers of Heaven at his command. Then he would have had the might 2000 years ago to rule by force. But by force alone he would never have been able to get true worship out of people. For that to happen people must be freely won over, like a maiden by her lover.

Asbury Revival- nonstop, two-week prayer and worship session that took place at Asbury University (2023)
Mollie Landman HunkerCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Thus to reach fulfillment Daniel’s vision required, in principle, a period of free and open invitation. A time when people could freely choose whether they would give the Son of Man worship or not. This explains the period we now live in, between the First Coming and the Return of the King. This is the period when the Kingdom’s invitation goes out. We can freely accept it or not.

The partial fulfillment of Daniel’s vision in our times provides a basis to trust that the remainder will also be fulfilled someday.  At the very least it might raise our curiosity about the truth of the overall Biblical story.

In his first coming he came to defeat sin and death. He achieved this by dying himself and then rising. He now invites everyone thirsty for everlasting life to take it. When he returns as per Daniel’s vision he will fully establish the ever-lasting Kingdom with its ever-lasting citizens. And we can be part of it.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Old Testament Reliability

We previously looked at the basic principles used in the discipline of Textual Criticism. We then applied these principles to the New Testament. By these measures the New Testament reliability exceeds that of any other ancient book.

But what about the books of the Old Testament? Are they as reliable and unchanged as the New Testament? What role do the Dead Sea Scrolls play in this?

The Old Testament: An Ancient Library

The Old Testament’s uniqueness comes in several ways. First it should be thought of more as a library since many authors wrote the various books of the Old Testament. Second, they wrote them a very long time ago. To appreciate the immense antiquity of the Old Testament writings, we compare them in a timeline with other ancient writings:

Historical Timeline with Major Biblical Characters

The timeline above places Abraham, Moses, David and Isaiah in history. They are the major characters of the Old Testament. Compare where they sit on the timeline with Thucydides and Herodotus, whom historians consider the earliest ‘Fathers of History’. Herodotus and Thucydides only lived when Malachi wrote the final Old Testament book. Their writings only looked back about 100 years before their time to conflicts between Greek city states, and between Greece and Persia. Other important historical persons and events like the founding of Rome, Alexander the Great, and the Buddha all come much later than the Old Testament characters. Essentially, the rest of the world only woke up to history when the Old Testament added its final books to its rather extensive collection.

Textual Criticism of the Old Testament Masoretic Text

The authors of the 39 Old Testament books wrote between 1500 BCE and 400 BCE. They wrote in Hebrew with small portions in the later books written in Aramaic. The blue band shows the 1100 year period when the various Old Testament books were written (1500 – 400 BCE):

Timeline of the Old Testament Masoretic Manuscript

These original writings are preserved today in Hebrew manuscript copies known as the Masoretic Text. Modern Bible translators use the Masoretic Text to translate the Hebrew Old Testament into today’s languages. So using the principles of Textual Criticism (see here for details), how reliable is the Masoretic Text?

The Earliest Existing Masoretic Copies

ManuscriptDate of Composition
Codex Cairensis895 CE
Aleppo Codex950 CE
Codex Sassoon1000 CE
Codex Leningradensis1008 CE

So you can see that the earliest existing Masoretic manuscripts date only starting from 895 CE. If we put these manuscripts in a timeline with the original writings of the Old Testament, we are given the following:

Timeline of the Old Testament Masoretic Manuscript

You can also see that the interval between the date of composition and the earliest existing copies (the primary principle in Textual Criticism) exceeds 1000 years. 

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Qumran Caves (Cave #4)
Effi Schweizer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1948, Palestinian shepherds discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls hidden in caves by the shores of the Dead Sea in Qumran. A shepherd boy had thrown some stones into the mouth of a cave higher up in the face of a cliff. He then heard the sound of clay jars breaking from the impact of the stones. Intrigued, he climbed up the cliffs and found the sealed clay jars with the Dead Sea Scrolls inside. The Dead Sea Scrolls contained Hebrew manuscripts of all the books of the Old Testament, except the Book of Esther. Scholars date their composition between 250 and 100 BCE.

Dead Sea Scrolls in the Timeline of the Old Testament Manuscripts
Short Video on Textual Criticism and Dead Sea Scrolls

Significance of Dead Sea Scrolls for Textual Criticism

With the discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-twentieth century the whole world witnessed a monumental event in Textual Criticism. In basically one instant, the Dead Sea Scrolls pushed the Old Testament Hebrew text 1000 years back in time. This raised the intriguing question: Had the Hebrew text of the Old Testament changed during this 1000 year period from 100 BCE to 900 CE? Europe at this time had built its civilization over the preceding 1500 years based upon the Old Testament. Had that text been changed or altered during its history? The Dead Sea Scrolls could shed light on this question. So what did they find?

“These [DDSs] confirm the accuracy of the Masoretic Text… Except for a few instances where spelling and grammar differ between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text, the two are amazingly similar.”

M.R. Norton. 1992. Manuscripts of the Old Testament in The Origin of the Bible.
Dead Sea Scrolls in the Timeline of the Old Testament Manuscripts

Scholars found almost no change in the Hebrew between the Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls, though they jumped back 1000 years. In comparison, consider how much the English language has changed in the last 700 years, yet the remarkable Hebrew text remained static over such a great length of time.

The Psalms Scroll
Photograph: The Israel Antiquities Authority, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Bible’s Integrity

The Dead Sea Scrolls support the Bible’s primary claim to authenticity. The New Testament claims that Jesus fulfills God’s Plan announced since the beginning of human history. The many Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by him throughout his life provides a central proof, or evidence, for this claim. The reasoning is as simple as it is logical.  No human, no matter how clever, educated, or knowledgeable knows the future, especially when looking hundreds of years ahead. But God does know, and even sets up, the future. So if we find writings that correctly prophesy minute details of monumental events hundreds of years into the future they must have been inspired by God rather than merely thought up by men. You can think of the Old Testament prophecies forming a lock, waiting for a key to ‘fit’ into the lock to open it. Jesus claimed to be that key.

Genesis 1:1-8 From the Dead Sea Scrolls
Photograph: The Israel Antiquities Authority, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, before the Dead Sea Scrolls, we did not have definitive proof that these prophecies were actually in writing before the events that they foresaw. Some dismissed them by arguing, for example, that perhaps the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus were ‘inserted’ into the Old Testament say in 200 CE. Since no Hebrew Old Testament text before 900 CE existed, that objection could not be quickly refuted. But with the Dead Sea Scrolls we find these prophecies had indeed been written down at the very latest by 100 BCE, 130 years before Jesus taught, performed miracles, and resurrected from the dead. 

The Old Testament Prophecies in the Dead Sea Scrolls

So the Dead Sea Scrolls prove that the prophecies were in print before Jesus fulfilled them. The prophecies found in the Dead Sea Scrolls include:

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Israel

The world discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948. This was the same year as the modern revival of Israel into a nation after almost 2000 years of Jewish exile. The timing of these two central events of the 20th century, being the same year, makes their remarkable re-entry to our world even seem scheduled by a Higher Power. Even just in their discovery, the Dead Sea Scrolls hint that The Mind foreordaining Jesus’ coming thousands of years ago seems to be still organizing events today.