A pensive Jesus peers out at his fellow man , in this 15th-century wooden icon (62 inches high), now in Moscow’s Tretiakov Gallery, by Russian artist Andrei Rublev. In all four Gospels, Jesus is called “the son of man,” which until recently was thought simply to identify him as the Messiah. But author Bruce Chilton shows that the phrase carries two different meanings in the Gospels. On some occasions, Jesus refers to himself as the son of man to indicate that he is a man among men, an ordinary human being (see Matthew 8:20//Luke 9:58). Not only was this usage known to the author of Psalms (see Psalm 8:4), but it was current in the Aramaic of Jesus’ own day. At other times, Jesus refers to the Son of Man as distinct from himself: “Every one who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8–9). Here, the Son of Man—an angelic being associated with the throne of God—is to confirm the message preached by the human Jesus.
Depending on the context, then, Son of Man can refer to a human or to an angelic being. Chilton argues, however, that the matter is even more complex: Jesus, a master of metaphor whose parables were often analogies of the coming kingdom, was a poet capable of giving “son of man” earthly and heavenly significances at the same time. Thus Jesus, a human son of man, is the prophetic interpreter of the divine realm where the angelic Son of Man resides with God.