It is employed as a poetical synonym for man, or for the ideal man, e.g. "God is not as a man, that he should lie nor as a son of man, that he should be changed" (Numbers 23:19). "Blessed is the man that doth this and the son of man that shall lay hold on this" (Isaiah 56:2). "Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand: and upon the son of man whom thou hast confirmed for thyself" (Psalm 79:18).
The Prophet Ezechiel is addressed by God as "son of man" more than ninety times, e.g. "Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak to thee" (Ezekiel 2:1). This usage is confined to Ezechiel except one passage in Daniel, where Gabriel said: "Understand, O son of man, for in the time of the end the vision shall be fulfilled" (Daniel 8:17).
"I beheld therefore in the vision of the night, and lo, one like a son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and he came even to the Ancient of days: and they presented him before him. And he gave him power, and glory, and a kingdom: and all peoples, tribes, and tongues shall serve him: his power is an everlasting power that shall not be taken away: and his kingdom shall not be destroyed" (7:13 sq.).
The person who appears here as son of man is interpreted by many non-Catholics as representing the Messianic kingdom, but there is no thing to prevent the passage from being taken to represent not only the Messianic kingdom, but par excellence the Messianic king. In the explanation, verse 17, the four beasts are "four kings" R.V., not "four kingdoms" as translated by D.V., though they appear to signify four kingdoms as well for the characteristics of oriental kingdoms were identified with the characters of their kings. So when it is said in verse 18: "But the saints of the most high God shall take the kingdom: and they shall possess the kingdom for ever and ever", the king is no more excluded here than in the case of the four beasts. The "son of man" here was early interpreted of the Messias, in the Book of Henoch, where the expression is used almost as a Messianic title, though there is a good deal in Drummond's argument that even here it was not used as a Messianic title notwithstanding the fact that it was understood of the Messias. It has to be added that in the time of Christ it was not very widely, if at all, known as a Messianic title.
The employment of the expression in the Gospels is very remarkable. It is used to designate Jesus Christ no fewer than eighty-one times thirty times in St. Matthew, fourteen times in St. Mark, twenty-five times in St. Luke, and twelve times in St. John. Contrary to what obtains in the Septuagint, it appears everywhere with the article, as ho huios tou anthropou. Greek scholars are agreed that the correct translation of this is "the son of man", not "the son of the man". The possible ambiguity may be one of the reasons why it is seldom or never found in the early Greek Fathers as a title for Christ. But the most remarkable thing connected with "the Son of Man" is that it is found only in the mouth of Christ. It is never employed by the disciples or Evangelists, nor by the early Christian writers. It is found once only in Acts, where St. Stephen exclaims: "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God" (7:55). The whole incident proves that it was a well-known expression of Christ's. Though the saying was so frequently employed by Christ, the disciples preferred some more honorific title and we do not find it at all in St. Paul nor in the other Epistles. St. Paul perhaps uses something like an equivalent when he calls Christ the second or last Adam. The writers of the Epistles, moreover, probably wished to avoid the Greek ambiguity just alluded to.
The expression is Christ's, in spite of the futile attempts of some German Rationalists and others to show that He could not have used it. It was not invented by the writers of the Gospels to whom it did not appear to be a favourite title, as they never use it of Christ themselves. It was not derived by them from what is asserted was a false interpretation of Daniel, because it appears in the early portions of the public ministry where there is no reference to Daniel. The objection that Christ could not have used it in Aramaic because the only similar expression was bar-nasha, which then meant only "man" bar having by that time lost its meaning of "son" is not of much weight. Only little is known of the Aramaic spoken in Palestine in the time of Christ and as Drummond points out special meaning could be given to the word by the emphasis with which it was pronounced, even if bar-nasha had lost its primary meaning in Palestine, which is not at all proved. As the same writer shows, there were other expressions in Aramaic which Christ could have employed for the purpose, and Sanday suggests that He may have occasionally spoken in Greek.
The early Fathers were of the opinion that the expression was used out of humility and to show Christ's human nature, and this is very probable considering the early rise of Docetism. This is also the opinion of Cornelius a Lapide. Others, such as Knabenbauer, think that He adopted a title which would not give umbrage to His enemies, and which, as time went on, was capable of being applied so as to cover His Messianic claims to include everything that had been foretold of the representative man, the second Adam, the suffering servant of Jehovah, the Messianic king.
Jésus Messie et Fils de Dieu (Paris, 1906); ROSE, Studies on the Gospels (London, 1903), DRUMMOND, The Jour. of Theol. Studies, Il (1901), 350, 539; HARTL, Anfang und Ende des Titels "Menchensohn" in Bibl. Zeitschrift (Freiburg, 1909), 342.
APA citation. (1912). Son of Man. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14144a.htm
MLA citation. "Son of Man." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14144a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Scott Anthony Hibbs.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.