Today’s note will examine the Synoptic “Son of Man” sayings which relate to the suffering of Jesus. The best explanation for these sayings is that Jesus is consciously identifying with the human condition (as a “son of man”), especially in terms of the experience of hardship, suffering, and death. A particular group of these sayings specifically refer to the sacrificial death of Jesus. If we consider the core Synoptic sayings of the Triple Tradition (Mark, with parallels in Matthew and Luke), more than half of the Son of Man sayings by Jesus refer to his (impending) suffering and death; these include:
- The three “Passion predictions” by Jesus—Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33
- Related references to his suffering/death—Mk 9:9, 12; 10:45, and
- Two references on the night of his Passion—Mk 14:21, 41
None of these sayings are Messianic, as such, but relate specifically to Jesus’ unique experience of suffering and death. The sacrificial, atoning character of this suffering is implied, but stated clearly only in Mk 10:45 par:
“for (so) also the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul [i.e. his life] in exchange for [a)nti] many (others) as a way (to) loose (them from bondage)”
In such passages, it is hard to see the expression “son of man” as anything other than a kind of self-reference—i.e., a circumlocution for the pronoun “I”. Yet the original sense of identification with humankind should not be missed: Jesus, as a human being (on earth), gives himself (his own life) on behalf of other human beings.
The Passion Predictions (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par)
The three predictions by Jesus of his upcoming suffering and death are a central component of the Synoptic narrative, and are found in all three Gospels. They follow the conclusion of the “Galilean Period”, marked by Peter’s confession (Mk 8:27-30 par), and precede the journey to Jerusalem (covered by Mk 10), with the third prediction set as they approach Jerusalem. As such, they are transitional, leading into the Judean/Jerusalem period and the Passion narrative (Mk 11-15). Mark and Matthew essentially follow the same outline; however, Luke has expanded greatly the period of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, filling the span of 9:51–18:34 (nearly 9 full chapters) with much traditional material—sayings, teaching, parables, etc. I have discussed the three Passion predictions in considerable detail in an Easter season series last year.
Just as we saw with the two Feeding Miracles (5000 and 4000), there is some question, among critical commentators, whether the three Passion predictions by Jesus reflect separate sayings (and historical traditions) or different versions of the same tradition. The general similarity of the sayings would tend to support the critical view that they derive from a single historical tradition. On the other hand, the three predictions are clearly distinct in the Synoptic narrative, providing the framework for the period prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33). It seems likely that this structure was did not originate with the Gospel of Mark, but rather, already existed as an organizing principle for the narrative prior to its inclusion. In Luke, the periodic symmetry of this outline has been altered, due the enormous amount of material between the first two predictions (Lk 9:22, 43b-45) and the last (18:31-34).
There are certain differences between the versions of these three sayings (cf. the earlier study cited above for comparisons); however, the use of the expression “Son of Man” is consistent throughout. The key phrase in the first saying (Mk 8:31 par) is “it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many (thing)s…” Matthew’s version of this saying is the only one which does not use “Son of Man”, being presented indirectly by the narrator: “Jesus began to show his disciples that it is necessary for him…to suffer many things” (Matt 16:21). This indicates that the Gospel writer clearly understood the expression “Son of Man” as a self-reference by Jesus.
The second saying (Mk 9:31 par) is shorter, focusing upon a particular aspect of the suffering, presented in a three-part chain—betrayal, execution, resurrection:
“The Son of Man is (being) [i.e. about to be] given along into the hands of men, and they will kill him off, and being killed off, after three days, he will stand up [i.e. rise] (again)”.
The third Passion prediction saying (Mk 10:33) effectively brings together the first and second, expanding upon them, describing the suffering in more vivid and precise detail. Indeed, Jesus’ statement summarizes the scenes which will be narrated in 14:43-15:20ff. Again, Matthew (20:18-19) follows Mark closely; while the formulation in Luke (18:31ff) is quite different, suggesting here a development of the tradition:
“…and all things written through the Foretellers [i.e. by the Prophets] will be completed for the Son of Man; for he will be given along…”
This emphasis on Jesus’ suffering as a fulfillment of Scripture and the Prophets becomes an important Lukan theme in the remainder of the Gospel (and the book of Acts).
Mark 9:9, 12
In between the first two Passion predictions, and following the Transfiguration scene, Jesus again refers (twice) to the suffering of the Son of Man:
“And, at their stepping down out of the mountain, he set through to them [i.e. to his disciples] that they should not bring through [i.e. reveal] (even) one (thing) of what they saw, if not [i.e. except] (until the time) when the Son of Man should stand up [i.e. rise] out of the dead.” (Mk 9:9)
Matthew (17:9) narrates this as a direct quotation by Jesus: “You should not say (anything) to anyone (about) this sight until the (time at) which the Son of Man should rise out of the dead”. Luke paraphrases the tradition (9:36b), making no reference to the “Son of Man”.
The saying which follows in Mk 9:12 is tied to a separate tradition, involving the eschatological/Messianic figure of Elijah (who is to come), vv. 11-13. It is not certain whether this saying occurred at the same time as v. 9, or has been joined to it thematically. Certainly the Markan v. 10 joins them together in the narrative. The original context of vv. 11-13 is not easy to determine; but, from the standpoint of the wider Gospel Tradition, Jesus would be seen here as identifying John the Baptist with “Elijah”, and referencing John’s suffering (and death) as foreshadowing his own (cf. 1:14a; 6:14-29). This association is made more specific in Matthew’s version of the “Q” material in 11:2-15 (vv. 11-15). In 17:10-13, Matthew follows Mark, but again makes the identification between John and Elijah definite (v. 13). Luke omits the tradition entirely, perhaps because he has already associated John with Elijah elsewhere (Lk 1:17, 76-77; 7:27).
Mark 14:21, 41
The expression “Son of Man” is used by Jesus again (twice) on the night of his Passion. The first (Mk 14:21 par) is set in the context of a woe against the betrayer (Judas); the verb indicating betrayal, paradi/dwmi (“give along”), is also used in the Son of Man Passion prediction sayings (cf. above). The expression “Son of Man” occurs twice in verse 21, as if to emphasize the experience of his suffering (through the betrayal). Matthew (26:24) follows Mark closely, whereas Luke (22:22) has simplified the saying somewhat.
The second saying is set in the garden, just prior to the ‘arrest’ of Jesus (Mk 14:41):
“the hour (ha)s come—see, the Son of Man is given along into the hands of sinful (men)!”
Along with these Synoptic traditions, Matthew and Luke each include an additional Son of Man saying in the Passion narrative—Matthew’s occurs at the very beginning of the narrative, as a kind of thematic introduction (26:2), while Luke’s occurs in response to the kiss of Judas (22:22). Both of these sayings follow very much in accordance with the main Synoptic tradition summarized above.
In the next daily note, I will be looking at a different kind of Son of Man saying by Jesus—those which refer to a divine/heavenly figure who will appear at the end-time Judgment. I will discuss the two Synoptic references (Mk 13:26; 14:62), along with a survey other Son of Man sayings in Matthew and Luke (the “Q” material, etc).