Anyone who reads the Gospels understands that one of Jesus’ favorite titles to use of himself is the son of man. Interestingly, the son of man moniker is used 79 times in the Gospels, and once in Acts (7:56), but in each case it is Jesus using the phrase of himself. Nobody calls Jesus the son of man, nor is anyone else called the son of man.
Although there is debate about where the New Testament title son of man comes from, it almost certainly comes from the backdrop of Daniel 7:13-14, where “one like a son of man” comes before the Ancient of Days and is given dominion over the entire world with an everlasting kingdom. Daniel 7, which was understood as Messianic even before the time of Christ (cf. 4 Ezra 13) provides the vocabulary which Jesus could appropriate for himself—indicating He is the Messianic representative of humanity.
This understanding is affirmed by Jesus himself in passages like Mark 14:61-62. In response to the question, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus states, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (v. 62). The combination of the son of man title and the description of the clouds of heaven only fits with the Daniel 7:13-14 backdrop. So, the title son of man in the New Testament is best understood as a Messianic reference that Christ claims for himself from the background of Daniel 7.
Why is Ezekiel a Son of Man?
Naturally, a follow-up question to the preceding observations relates to Ezekiel and the fact that he is called son of man 93 times. In fact, the singular phrase “son of man” (בֶּן־אָדָם), shows up a total of 107 times in the Old Testament. Why would Ezekiel be called son of man, when the New Testament seems to clearly indicate that the phrase as Messianic implications?
First of all, as others have noted, Jesus is referred to as “the Son of Man” (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου) in the Gospels (the definite article being utilized). However, in contrast, Ezekiel is referred to as a son of man, generically (בֶּן־אָדָם). In Hebrew and Greek, the definite article is used to specify while the absence of the article is usually indicative of quality. So, in the case of Ezekiel and other Old Testament references, the quality of humanity is being stressed.
This point is illustrated well by one of the none-Ezekielian references in Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.” In other words, deity and humanity are being put in contrast here. Son of man could simply be translated as “human being” in this context.
This understanding of the title son of man being an emphasis on humanity fits well with the overall message of Ezekiel. Compared to the divine majesty and transcendent glory of God as displayed in Ezekiel 1, it is an important reminder that Ezekiel is only just a man. He may be a prophet with an important message, but he is always one of them (humans), not comparable to the One he sees in his visions.
Son of Man Language in Targum Jonathan
After Israel went into exile in 587 BC, the Jewish populace began to speak primarily Aramaic. Although the Hebrew language never died out, the primary usage of the Aramaic language continued among the Jewish population, even into the early first centuries. Because there was such a heavy usage of Aramaic as the lingua franca there was a need for the Jewish people to have access to the Scriptures in Aramaic. Thus, the Targumim (plural of Targum) were written.
The Targumim were Jewish Scriptures translated into the Aramaic language. One of the more famous of these Targumim was Targum Jonathan, a translation of the prophets (Josh–Malachi) sometime in the first two or three centuries AD.
Of interest to our present article, Alinda Damsma observes that the translator of Ezekiel in Targum Jonathan uses a unique translation of the title son of man. Rather than translating the phrase son of man (בֶּן־אָדָם) in Hebrew to the natural Aramaic equivalent (בר אנשׁא), the Ezekiel translation kept אָדָם as a proper name in the translation (בַּר אָדָם). This stands out all the more since in other places in Targum Jonathan, the phrase son of man is translated normally into Aramaic (e.g., Jer 49:33). Damsma argues that the Ezekielian translator was motivated to avoid the Messianic connotations of son of man (בר אנשׁא) as it appears in Daniel 7.
This evidence helps us understand that there was a difference between how Jewish people read Daniel 7 and Ezekiel. One was viewed as Messianic, and the other was viewed as a phrase underscoring the human mortality of Ezekiel in contrast to the divine visions which he had access to.