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What does 'Son of Man' really mean?

Did you know…

. . .that the phrase "Son of Man," which Jesus uses in this week's gospel story, is actually from a book in the Hebrew Bible. Here is the phrase in its original context in the book of Daniel:

Daniel 7:13-14

As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. 14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

This comes from a section in the middle of Daniel where the author is recounting an apocalyptic vision of things to come, which is then interpreted by someone identified as an "attendant" that tells Daniel what the vision means. Its important to remember that Daniel was a prophet when the Hebrew people had been exiled to Babylon and held there in captivity after the Assyrian Empire conquered and occupied Jerusalem. These apocalyptic visions were not, therefore, of the end of the world, but of the end of that oppressive occupation, when the Hebrew people would be returned to their land and reclaim their autonomy as a people. This is what the "one like a human being" (also translated "one like a son of man) descends from the clouds to do: lead the people back to freedom, independence, and their home. Only a few verses later, the interpreted of the vision refers to those who will prevail in this fight for freedom:

Daniel 7:27

The kingship and dominion

and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven

shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High;

their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,

and all dominions shall serve and obey them.”

Here we see the same language that was first attributed to the "one like a human being" not just to one person anymore, but the "the people of the holy ones of the Most High." The attendant seems to be saying that this everlasting kingdom, including its "kingship," shall be given to many peoples, not just one.

This term, "one like a human being," is what Jesus is referencing when he speaks about the "son of Man." It simply means a child of a human, a human being. Often we read this, and Jesus seems to use it, as a title for himself. It is not clear, though, what exactly Jesus meant when he used this term. Was he talking about himself? Was he talking about his return after his ascension, where he would lead people to liberation and freedom? Or was he talking about humanity, or human beings, taking up the mantle of his fight for freedom from oppression? This is a mystery to hold gently, and one to which we may never know the answer.

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