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St. Mark’s Use Of ‘Son Of Man’ And ‘Son Of God’

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, we see Jesus referred to as the ‘Son of God’ and the ‘Son of Man’ on numerous occasions, the former occurring a total of eight times within the text, and the latter, being ‘the most frequent of the Christological images in the Gospel of Mark[1]’, a total of fourteen times. With the author of Mark making such regular use of these phrases, scholars have been naturally inclined to investigate them further in an attempt to decipher their intended Christological meaning and ultimate purpose. In this essay I will seek to sustain the line of argument that the phrases ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’ within the Gospel are relatively ambiguous, after considering the multiple ways in which the phrases were utilized pre-Mark it is perhaps difficult to assess how much of his use of the terms was intended to be theologically significant. However, whether intended or not, it is undeniable that the phrases are loaded with potential Christological significance and we can postulate numerous theories of how the writer of the Gospel may have been utilizing the terms for effect.

Prior to embarking on an exploration of the potential theological significance of the phrases ‘son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’, it is perhaps worth outlining some of the ways in which scholars have observed the phrases being used in contexts independent of the Gospel. As Vermes I think rightly asserts, when engaging in analysis of a phrase, ‘the preliminary step, as always in this field, must be a careful analysis of its use outside the Gospels[2].’ Engaging with its use outside the Gospel arguably sheds an amount of light on its use within the Gospel. I will begin, firstly, by looking into the historical usage of the term ‘Son of God.’ Broadhead provides an enlightening account of the historical use of the title within his Naming Jesus; he maintains that ‘the son of God title has an extensive, diverse background in the history of religions. It played a role in the thought of Egypt, in Hellenism, and in the Roman world. The term is also important in the thought world of the Old Testament and within Judaism. The Christological use of Son of God stands within this wide-ranging tradition[3].’ Firstly, he acknowledges the use of the Son of God title in the ancient near east as a title bestowed upon rulers , Pharaohs, for example. Within a Hellenistic and Roman context, it was used in connection with a wide range of characters, none of whom would be designated the literal son of God: ‘rulers, mythical heroes, wonder workers, and famous historical figures[4].’ The title seems to have been suggestive of some form of connection with divinity in the form of Godly support or favor. Broadhead also highlights the tendency of modern scholarship to view the New Testament usage of the term as influenced by the Old Testament in which ‘various angelic figures and members of the council of Yahweh were seen as God’s sons[5]’; we can observe such a usage at Genesis 6:2, for example: ‘the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.’ It is also perhaps worth noting the translational difficulties faced when attempting to understand the use of specific, isolated biblical phrases because, often, it is difficult to decipher exactly what the biblical phrase would naturally be translated as. For example, the centurion’s revelatory confession at 15:39 is translated as ‘Truly this man was God’s son’ where it is a possibility that the phrase was intended to read ‘a son of God’, a phrase perhaps more mundane considering the point made earlier that numerous biblical figures can be referred to as sons of God.

A similar analysis can be carried out with regards to the phrase ‘Son of Man.’ According to Vermes, the phrase is widely accepted among scholars to be of Aramaic origin[6] often used as a noun (‘ a man’, ‘the man’) and can be used to denote ‘someone’ in a indefinite way[7]. Others have also noted that the term ‘son of man’ could perhaps have been used as ‘equivocal circumlocution[8]’ which would not have been out of place in Aramaic literature. Vermes has noted that we might expect this kind of circumlocution in the context of many of Jesus’ direct claims; a statement such as ‘the son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins[9]’ is softened by the use of ‘Son of Man.’ Simply saying ‘I’ would perhaps have been regarded ‘immodest[10].’ Similarly, when speaking of Jesus’ suffering, ‘…the use of a circumlocution in such a context is to be expected rather than a direct prediction of the speaker’s violent death[11].’ Broadhead concisely summarizes in four points the common linguistic uses of the phrase: firstly, ‘as a generic term it would mean ‘a human being[12]”, as mentioned earlier, it can simply mean ‘someone’, it can mean ‘I’ and, finally, ‘as direct address it could point to a human figure or to one who is more than human[13].’

In a sense, this type of linguistic/ historical consideration of the terms’ usage adds an extra dimension of difficulty to the task of interpreting their use in Mark. If these terms were standard terms used commonly in the literature of its time, how far can we say that Mark’s specific use of them has any theological/ Christological significance? Mark may not be implying anything new or momentous by his use of the phrases ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of God.’ If ‘the son of man’, for example, was simply a noun phrase, then we could potentially be in danger of imposing Christological interpretation where none was intended. Broadhead alludes to this idea when he claims that ‘the key issue raised by this linguistic data is how a term with generic. indefinite, or deflected reference to one human can take on the technical theological status found in later writings[14].’ However, although it is, ultimately, impossible to provide a concrete response to this issue, we can certainly analyse Mark with a view to his having used the phrases solely for literary purposes and without too much difficulty find numerous Christological and theological messages encompassed within them.

As has been suggested by many scholars, the phrases ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of God’ are perhaps best read in tandem; both seem to contribute to Mark’s depiction of Jesus as a whole. Firstly, the ‘Son of God’ title is used in order to establish Jesus’ authority. As mentioned above, the ‘Son of God’ title in itself, for a wide range of audiences would have had connotations of a ruling figure if nothing else. Mark’s readers would be aware of his attempt to suggest that Jesus is an authoritative figure. This theme of authority in connection with the ‘Son of God’ phrase is perhaps further demonstrated by the fact that it is frequently used in connection with a commanding action of Jesus; for example, he casts out demons in 5:7 and 3:11. In addition, 9:7 ‘points to the authority of Jesus’ teaching[15].’ The Son of God also seems to be utilized in a very revelatory sense; it is declared by God himself in a moment of revelation (9:7), the centurion experiences the sudden realisation of Jesus’ sonship (15:39) and Jesus reveals his identity powerfully to the High Priest with the phrase ‘I am’, linking Jesus entirely to the father through the use of ‘ego emi.’ The grandeur of the settings in which the Son of God phrase is used perhaps highlights its importance to Mark. He also places it at the very beginning of his Gospel declaring it as a fundamental teaching. Thus far, then, we can see the declaration of Jesus as the Son of God as an important teaching which is being frequently reinforced.

With this in mind, Perrin postulated his theory that Mark is laying the ground work, so to speak, for his ‘corrective Christology[16].’ He argues that through the use of the ‘Son of God’ phrase, Mark is establishing a ‘rapport[17]’ with his readers, he then ‘deliberately interprets and gives conceptual content to these titles by a use of ‘Son of Man’, a designation which is not, properly speaking, a Christological title but which to all intents and purposes becomes one as Mark uses it[18].’ Perrin argues that Mark wishes to correct the views of some of his early church community who maintain a theos aner Christology as opposed to his own theology of the cross. Weeden holds a similar viewpoint with regards to this notion of corrective Christology; he holds that the debate between the theos aner (divine man Christology) and theologia crucis was one raging within Mark’s own early church community and he used his Gospel to dramatize the two sides, the disciples acting as representatives for Mark’s opposition, the theos aner, and Jesus as representative of his own view. For Perrin, the theos aner side of the debate is represented by the wrong interpretations of the ‘son of God’ and ‘Christ’ titles, Mark places the ‘Son of Man’ phrase purely on the lips of Jesus to emphasis the correctness of this Christology. I am unsure about this notion of corrective Christology; though it does seem like a reasonable interpretation of Mark’s text and Perrin does provide evidence, it is still rather speculative. However, I think that Perrin’s idea of the Son of Man title acting as elaboration on the Son of God revelation (‘Mark uses Son of Man to correct and give content to a Christological confession of Jesus as the Christ[19]’) is a sound interpretation and provides a reading of the Gospel in which yields clarity.

In light of this interpretation, the ‘Son of man’ is very theologically significant as it divulges the kind of Christ Jesus is. This allows for the evident duality encompassed within Mark’s depiction of the Son of Man; he is depicted both as an authoritative figure at 2:10 and 2:28, for example, yet connected with great suffering- ‘the son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed[20]…’ The phrase ‘son of man’ does appear to be used frequently in connection with Jesus’ death: ‘the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death[21]’, ‘the son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners[22].’ He comes ‘not to be served but to serve[23]’ but, in a crucial juxtaposition, will be ‘seated at the right hand of the power[24].’ This notion of the suffering Messiah could potentially be attempting to appeal to Mark’s church community; under the weight of constant persecution, they would arguably be able to identify with Jesus’ suffering and relate his struggle, in a sense, to their own. This suffering discipleship is what Mark would most likely want to encourage. Jesus’ suffering humanizes him and allows him to become more relatable than if he were simply depicted as a divine ruler.

Some have also noted the importance of Jesus’ suffering to the fulfillment of scripture; as Hooker maintains: ‘the necessity for his sufferings could best be understood in terms of the fulfillment of Old Testament scripture; only the future, final manifestation of his glory, an expectation based on the imagery taken from Daniel, was now expressed, as was natural, in terms of “the son of man[25].”‘ Mark could potentially be attempting to appeal to a Jewish audience through his apparent fulfillment of Daniel; the mention of the Son of Man in Daniel almost validates the claim that Jesus is that son of man. He is the Messiah who will triumph for Israel. Vermes perhaps suggests that equating Jesus to the figure in Daniel is a misinterpretation on the part of the disciples; he argues that ‘the hero of the Daniel narrative is a human being elevated above the wicked beasts and granted everlasting dominion over all things. a symbolical representation, according to the interpretative conclusion, of the eschatological triumph of the historical Israel….’ He argues that the term ‘Son of Man’ is ‘a neutral speech form which the apocalyptically-minded Galilean disciples of Jesus appear to have ‘eschatologized’ by means of a midrash based on Daniel 7:13[26].’ However, misplaced or not, it does seem as though the term son of man would have reminded of Daniel’s dream and the characteristics of Daniel’s ‘son of man.’

In conclusion, Mark’s use of the phrases ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’ within the Gospel is relatively ambiguous as Mark never explicitly states or insinuates his reasons for the terms. Though it is perhaps a possibility that the writer of Mark intended nothing specifically theologically revelatory by his use of the two phrases, is undeniable that the phrases are loaded with potential Christological significance and there is certainly room for theorizing about the desired effect of these terms and Mark’s reasoning behind using them.

[1] Edwin Broadhead, Naming Jesus: Titular Christology in the Gospel of Mark, London, 1999.

[2] Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, chapter 7

. [3] Edwin Broadhead, Naming Jesus: Titular Christology in the Gospel of Mark, London, 1999.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, chapter 7.

[7] Edwin Broadhead, Naming Jesus: Titular Christology in the Gospel of Mark, London, 1999.

[8] Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, chapter 7

[9] Mark 2:10

[10] Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, chapter 7.

[11] ibid.

[12] Edwin Broadhead, Naming Jesus: Titular Christology in the Gospel of Mark, London, 1999.

[13] ibid.

[14] ibid.

[15] Edwin Broadhead, Naming Jesus: Titular Christology in the Gospel of Mark, London, 1999.

[16] Norman Perrin- The Christology of Mark: A study in Methodology, The Interpretation of Mark, Telford (ed.)

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid.

[19] ibid.

[20] Mark 8:31

[21] Mark 10:33

[22] Mark 14:41

[23] Mark 10:45

[24] Mark 14:62

[25] M.D. Hooker, The Son of Man in Mark, chapter 9.

[26] Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, chapter 7

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