Monday, August 23, 2010

Jesus - the "Human One"?

Last Friday I posted on the gender inclusive language of Genesis 2 in the soon to be released Common English Bible. I noted that while I support the use of gender inclusive language in Bible translations, I wonder if we can take it too far. I am hesitant about the choice to translate the Hebrew term “Adam” as “human” when the Hebrew pronouns clearly indicate that we are talking about a male here and there is not yet a female option available in the creation story. I think the translation of “Adam” as “humanity” in Gen 1:26 works well, but not in Genesis 2.

This week I want to examine how the phrase “son of man” is translated in the CEB New Testament. But first a couple of disclaimers.

First, I am a contributing translator to CEB and applaud it. Any criticism or critique I offer is not intended to disparage the efforts of anyone working with CEB. I am simply raising questions about translation strategy.

Second, this post is not about the son of man. That is a topic that has consumed the energy of scholars for well over a century. My purpose here is not to weigh in on or arbitrate between any particular hypotheses. I simply want to consider how the CEB translates the phrase and ask whether this is helpful.

In an over generalization of the topic we can say a few things about the phrase.

Few New Testament scholars doubt that Jesus used this phrase to describe himself. In fact, there is not one instance in any of the four Gospels where Jesus is called “son of man” by someone else. It always appears on the lips of Jesus.

Quite often this phrase is Jesus’ way of saying “a man/person like me.” It was an Aramaic idiom for referring to one’s self. (eg. Mark 2:10).

The phrase could sometimes refer to a heavenly type being. This is based on an interpretation of Daniel 7:13 that developed in Second Temple period Judaism and is found such literature as 1 Enoch 46.1-3 and 4 Ezra 13.1-3.

At times in the Gospels, the phrase “son of man” reflects this Second Temple interpretation of Daniel 7:13. One of example is the apocalyptic statements of Jesus in Marks 13:24-27 (cf. 16:62).

With this broad overview we can see that there are (at least) two different ways to interpret the phrase: (1) Jesus as the “human” son of man (2) Jesus as “the heavenly” son of man. Careful consideration of the problem would suggest that we not elevate one over the other. Context will sometimes help us to determine which is correct, while at other times we might need to hold them together in tension.

This is what the CEB does with the phrase. They translate the “Son of Man” as the “Human One”. Thus Mark 13:24-27 now reads:

“In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the ends of the earth to the end of heaven.

Perhaps I am too conditioned by years of hearing “Son of Man” that the “Human One” has the same effect on me as nails on a chalkboard. I wrote to the editors and they directed me to a blog post where they explain the reason for this translation. Much of their choice was driven by the confusion of many readers over what the phrase means. Many think that to call Jesus the “Son of Man” is the same as calling him divine (i.e. “Son of God).

Here is what the editors have to say:

We tested this translation with hundreds of readers. Several found the change jarring. One leader responded, "For me, at an emotional level it feels contrived. Unlike onomatopoeia it feels empty and sterile; it is not a phrase that draws me into wanting to discover or explore or experience the meaning (and Person) that it represents. At a cognitive level it seems to cut off any sense of divinity to Jesus. I realize the Christology of Jesus is a challenging idea, but to call him the Human One seems to deny the possibility that he is the Son of God and God the Son."

The response of this reader mirrors what we heard in reading groups. We asked, "What do you think "son of man" means for Jesus? Many responded that "Jesus is divine." This confusion is similar to stating, "At a cognitive level [Human One] seems to cut off any sense of divinity to Jesus." The feedback is very clear evidence that many English speaking Christians confuse the meaning of two literal titles that are applied to their knowledge of Jesus: "son of man" is confused with the meaning of "son of God." Indeed, at a cognitive level many of us have a view of Jesus that is so transcendent that the incarnation is temporary, perhaps only while Jesus was a baby. In reading Matthew we see that the phrase "Son of God" or rather "God's Son" (as a title) is used frequently in the CEB translation. The CEB also refers to God as Father, accurately. So we have no agenda in the New Testament translation to deny the fully human and fully divine nature of Jesus, then and now. There is a preference in the CEB for clear English. Human One will become less of a surprise over time, but admittedly it is surprising to encounter it the first time if you memorized the KJV version. The act of reading a new translation makes you think about assumptions.

I understand the choice. Part of my job in every class I teach is to undo misunderstanding that has been passed on from generation to generation. But I am not sure that translating “Son of Man” as “the Human One” solves the problem.

If the goal of the CEB is make the Bible more readable and accessible I wonder we they did not simply translate the Aramaic idiom away. What I mean is, when Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man,” translate it as “I” or “me”. Thus Mark 2:10 would read “But so you will know that ‘I’ have authority on earth to forgive sins.” Then, when the term appears in a technical sense related to the interpretation of Daniel 7:13, the phrase could retain its Second Temple interpretation of a divine being and translate it “Son of Man.”

What do you think? Is this a helpful translation? How would you translate it?


  1. But what of pandeism? The pandeistic model proposes that all faiths, all religious texts, derive from an underlying unconscious spiritual force from which our Universe was born -- and that religious figures such as Pandu and Jesus and the Buddha merely expressed glimpses of this incomprehensible pandeistic underlying mind, and all religious texts are fallible human attempts to record the image-sense of the incomprehensible.

  2. "It always appears on the lips of Jesus."

    Almost, but not quite. See John 12:34 for the only exception.

  3. Thanks for the mention of John 12:34. I knew that, but my fingers overlooked while typing. :)

  4. How does the CEB render the equivalent Hebrew, or Aramaic, phrase in Ezekiel and Daniel? Here we run into another issue of translation; clear and concise "meaning" versus word-plays and intertextual connections. There is little doubt that Jesus knew these two texts, and that the NT authors were aware of both Ezekiel and Daniel as well. Language is not always clear and concise, and we forget that we too often speak with ambiguity. I agree with John that when Jesus uses the phrase "son of man" that he often is using a phrase to indirectly refer to himself. However, we do not know always what particular background text Jesus has in mind: Ezekiel, Daniel, another perhaps? Translating "son of man" in the NT as "human one," but translating the equivalent Hebrew or Aramaic phrase in the OT differently keeps any English reader from making those intertextual connections. Again, just like Gen 2, this translation may suffer from trying to be too accurate in meaning while sacrificing other qualities of translation (e.g., intertextuality, poetics, word-plays, etc.).