Titles of Jesus – Son of Man
Sometimes the small words matter in how we understand a section of scripture. Some translations of Revelation 1.13 refer to ‘one like a Son of Man’, while others say ‘one like THE Son of Man.’ This small change makes a surprising difference, and takes us to the heart of what this curious phrase means.
It first appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Ezekiel, the titular prophet is addressed by God as ‘Son of man’, which could alternatively be translated as ‘human’ – making a distinction between God and humanity. Then in the book of Daniel there’s an apocalyptic vision of ‘one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven.’
Then things are different in the New Testament. The phrase has acquired a definite article – ‘the Son of Man’ – and is mainly used by Jesus to refer to himself. Is this telling us that Jesus is human, or that he is the Messiah? Somehow, used in a slightly different way, the same short phrase can mean both of these things – reminding of the paradox of Jesus being the Word made flesh.
In T.S. Eliot’s long and sometimes perplexing poem there’s a reference back to Ezekiel. A narrator addresses an unknown character as ‘Son of man’, and says they cannot answer a question because they ‘know only a heap of broken images’. Sometimes when we struggle with the Bible this is how we might feel; we only have a heap of images that we can’t fit together. Yet scripture gives us the language to begin to talk about God, however imperfectly. God can even speak to us in the gap between ‘a’ and ‘the’, and in one short phrase we see the two natures of Jesus brought together.