Monday, August 20, 2012

Problems for Ehrman: #2, The Son of Man

In his book, Did Jesus Exist?, Bart Ehrman argues that Jesus was merely an apolyptic preacher, warning Jewish listeners of the imminent coming of the kingdom of God, to be ushered in "by a cosmic judge whom Jesus called the Son of Man." According to Ehrman, anytime Jesus refers to this future heavenly Son of Man, the saying is authentic. But anytime Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, it is an instance of his followers putting words in their leader's mouth, since they thought (though Jesus didn't) that he was the Son of Man. (p.307)

But Ehrman also thinks that Jesus believed that he was the Messiah, who "would be the king of the coming kingdom of God....when the Son of Man brought the kingdom to earth, he, Jesus, would be anointed its ruler." (p.319) So apparently Ehrman thinks that Jesus believed that the Son of Man and the Messiah are to be two different persons.

There seem to be a number of problems with this view. First, is there any evidence that anyone thought the Son of Man and the Messiah were to be two different people? Second, when Jesus refers to the future Son of Man (sayings Ehrman accepts as being authentic), he describes him as a ruler or king (e.g., Matthew 25:31, a saying that Ehrman is quite sure came straight from Jesus's mouth: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne"). So who is to be king: Jesus or the Son of Man? Third, earlier in his book, Ehrman pointed out that the Aramaic (Jesus's native language) word for "man" and "son of man" is the same word: barnash. So when Jesus used the phrase "the Son of man" he and his listeners knew that it could also mean "the man." It's difficult to believe that Jesus and his listeners wouldn't wonder why a cosmic judge, who had never been a man, would be called "the Son of man," nor why he would be in a position to judge men. What would make sense is for "the Son of man" to live as a man, a perfect man, who had come to fulfill the Law (which Ehrman thinks Jesus said of himself), and thus earn the right to judge and rule other men. Perhaps Ehrman addresses these issues somewhere else. Unfortunately, just like his forgetting to explain the "author of life" phrase in Acts, he doesn't explain this apparent paradox in this book, either.

Meanwhile, this creates two problems for Ehrman. First, he has argued against the mythicist view by maintaining that the oldest traditions display a Jesus who saw himself as being merely human. Yet he offers us a Jesus who seems to suffer from a split personality. And second, his own view that the oldest traditions are consistent with his view that Jesus was merely human has been severely compromised.

Thanks to Steven Carr, I found out that Ehrman has his own blog. I joined and addressed my concerns to him. If I get an answer, then with his permission, I'll post it on my blog.


Jon Garvey said...

"First, is there any evidence that anyone thought the Son of Man and the Messiah were to be two different people?"

Bilbo I did this essay ( during my theological studies which deals both with Jewish Messianic expectations and Jesus's use of "Son of Man".

Bilbo said...

Thanks, Jon. Yes, I realize that there were different ideas about what the Messiah would be like: a human, political king on the one hand; a cosmic, semi-divine being on the other. But did anyone entertain the view that there would be both a human, political king and a semi-divine being?

Jon Garvey said...

Well, as I say in the essay, the Danielic "Son of Man" was clearly a divine being, but widely applied in some way to Israel - however, during the intertestamental period there seems to have been a move towards applying the idea to an individual, maybe in some sense divine - but not specifically the Messiah for the most part. "Son of God" was originally an alternative to "Davidic King" but as I suggest may have acquired a more divine aspect by Jesus' time, allwong the incorporation of the "Son of Man"

Jewish Messianic expectations were various - sometimes the King like David, sometimes the Priest like Joshua, sometimes the Prophet like Moses - sometimes all three. There's a book about it with a great title - "Judaisms and their Messiahs".

That Jesus combines all four ideas in the gospels is in itself significant. But there seems no good grounds for any idea that Jesus applied "Son of Man" to anyone but himself. In fact, the idea is laughable - try thinking of an alternative description for the eschatological "Son of Man" passages that isn't Jesus himself. Does he in any sense behave or speak like the precursor of another?

Bilbo said...

Jesus speaks as if he knows exactly what the Son of man will say and do.

But back to my point: People might have thought that the human Messiah would come and make things right. They might have thought that the heavenly Son of man would come and make things right. Did anyone think both would come?

And did anyone refer to the heavenly figure as "the Son of man" besides Jesus?

Jon Garvey said...

Some may have understood Daniel's "Son of Man" as the Messiah, but I'm not aware that any were expecting two Messiah-like figures, one human and one divine.

But as I noted in the essay, the clearly Davidic phrase "Son of God" had acquired divine meaning by Jesus's time, and so formed the basis of the blasphemy charge against Jesus. Messiah was, by some at least, expected to have heavenly origins.

So you'd have to suggest that the Son of God and the Son of Man were two separate, divine, figures - which definitely doesn't show up in the sources. Unless Ehrman gives contemporary sources for his contention, I think it's just speculation.

Your last question was covered pretty fully in my essay, I thought.

Bilbo said...

Ehrman denies the historicity of the dialogue at Jesus's hearing before the Sanhedrin, saying that we probably don't have good witnesses to what was said, assuming there was a hearing. So according to Ehrman, we have evidence of Jesus referring to a future Son of man, and of Jesus confirming to his disciples that he was the Messiah. That makes two different people - the Messiah and the Son of man.

Jon Garvey said...

Yeah - well if you deny your sources selectively you can make up any version of history you want. The history of higher criticism in a nutshell.

Bilbo said...

Which is why I prefer debating on their own ground, going with what they accept as being historical, and showing that it leads to an inconsistent view of who Jesus was. I think Ehrman's view is certainly inconsistent.

I read your essay once. I didn't see how it answered my question.