Divine Son of Man? (Boyarin review, part 1)

Daniel Boyarin has come out with a short, readable book arguing a provocative thesis.

The Jewish Gospels, The Story of the Jewish Christ sets out to demonstrate that early Christian ideas about Jesus are all Jewish ideas about a coming messiah figure.

Many Jews, argues Boyarin, believed that a divine being would come to rescue them. This is not a development of the later church, an explanation of what had just happened with Jesus, but a thoroughly Jewish idea.

This, says Boyarin, is what we find in texts looking for a coming Son of Man. This is a title indicating divinity.

Furthermore, early Jewish people were looking for a coming a king, a messiah. This is what “son of God” means: a human being anointed by God.

Today, I want to engage his chapter on Jesus as son of man.

Boyarin’s argument is this: the son of man in Daniel 7 is God. Therefore, early Christian depictions of Jesus as son of man indicate that the Gospel writers saw Jesus filling this role, expected by many Jews.

This leads Boyarin to make a couple of exegetical moves that I think are important: interpreting Mark 2, he says that Jesus is claiming to be the son of man figure from Daniel, the one who rules the world for God.


But I take considerable issue with Boyarin’s reading of Daniel 7. He argues that the son of man in Daniel 7 is “part of God” (p. 26), or a second God. A divine figure.

It is crucial that we realize what the reader has to agree to in order to arrive at such a conclusion. Three pillars uphold his argument.

First, Boyarin recognizes that his interpretation runs counter to the interpretation given by the author of Daniel. In Daniel, the explanation of the vision of the son of man is that the human figure represents the holy ones of the most high, or, the people of the holy ones of the most high–in context, the Maccabean martyrs.

Boyarin sees this interpretation as a later interpretation by the author of Daniel in which the redactor is attempting to silence the clear meaning of the vision by giving a contradictory meaning. Thus, for Boyarin, Daniel 7 itself embodies the question of whether a redeemer figure can be God or not as an intramural Jewish debate.

The idea that the visions and the explanation are from different redactional layers strikes me as special pleading. It is quite common in apocalyptic literature to have a confusion vision explained to the seer. Was this particular apocalyptic vision not interpreted in some non-extant older strand?

Questions of apocalyptic genre and the age of the vision persist in the other two planks of Boyarin’s argument.

Boyarin says that the human one being divine, and the interpretation being secondary, represent the clear and obvious reading of the vision as it stands.

But this is apocalyptic literature. In apocalyptic literature, the “clear” reading is a clear picture that points to something else.

Are we to assume that Daniel 7 teaches that the world is or has been run by lions with wings, man-eating bears, flying leopards, and iron-toothed monsters?

The son of man figure is the last in a series of rulers, of kingdoms, that exercise power over the earth, and over God’s people in particular.

Does all of this end when we get to the Son of Man and the vision suddenly shift into a “clear” vision telling us literally what happens? Such an argument depends upon a genre mistake, akin to many that Christians make in attempting to make sense of Revelation.

Third, Boyarin argues that we have here the remnants of an ancient Canaanite tradition in which there were two gods ruling the earth: El and Ba’al, who came into Israelite religion as El and YHWH before the latter two were joined into one.

Without questioning the evolutionary picture outlined by Boyarin, are we still to believe that a second century, post-exilic, post-Josianic, apocalyptic text reflects a genealogical antecedent from which it was separated by hundreds of years? This seems highly unlikely. What year would Daniel’s vision have had to be written to make such a Canaanite influence viable?

It is important for readers of Boyarin’s argument to recognize that the argument concerning Dan 7 is not an interpretation of the passage, but an interpretation of an alleged prehistory of the passage that stands in direct tension with Dan 7 as it now stands. Moreover, it is worthy of scrutiny even as offered.

To claim that the Gospels depict Jesus as the Danielic Son of Man is important. And, it is important for showing that Jesus occupies a special place of authority not generically given to all people. Boyarin makes these points well.

But the argument as offered in ch. 1 does not go very far toward demonstrating that Jewish people were looking for a divine messiah, and that this is the claim of the Gospels.

The book suffers from a bit of equivocation in terms of what Boyarin intends to demonstrate with respect to the son of man’s divinity. In a curious footnote, Boyarin says that one might distinguish between functional divinity–someone exercising divine activities such as ruling or judging human begins at the end times– and ontological divinity.

After exerting 55 pages of ink affirming Jewish people’s expectation of something that could only be construed as the latter, Boyarin inexplicably indicates in this note that he intends the former: functional divinity is what he means by someone “being” God. The remainder of the chapter is spent discussing how, in light of Daniel 7, we know some Jews anticipated a divine messiah.

Throughout, Boyain does not mean someone like Adam, ruling the world on God’s behalf (a functional divine christology) but someone like the early Christian confessions indicate: a preexistent God (ontological christology).

The early Jewish usage of the son of man figure might be more to Boyarin’s point than his reading of Daniel 7. We’ll discuss that next time.

6 thoughts on “Divine Son of Man? (Boyarin review, part 1)”

  1. You had to know I would comment on this one…

    Haven’t read Boyarin’s book, but have read his recent article in HTR about Daniel 7 that basically makes the argument you outline here. Don’t disagree that Boyarin makes some questionable exegetical moves.

    That said, the arguments by folks such as John J. Collins for the “one like a son of man” in Daniel as an angelic figure are much stronger, and also don’t posit a disjunction between the vision in the first part of the chapter and its interpretation in the 2nd part. The “holy ones of the most high” (in the interpretation) are angels, just as “holy ones” are often angels in Early Jewish literature, especially apocalypses. The interpretation then specifies the righteous too: “the people of the holy ones of the most high.” So…it’s all right there in, and not “behind” the text.

    This is standard Jewish apocalyptic logic wherein what happens in the heavenly realm determines what happens on earth; thus discussing the vindication, victory, etc., of the angel or angels over a people (i.e., the righteous among Israel in the case of Daniel) is an “apocalyptic”-cosmic way of talking precisely about the vindication of the people.

    Also, about the ancient mythology in the passage, there has been much recent scholarship about the legacy of earlier (i.e., Ugaritic, Babylonian, etc.) myths in later Near Eastern literature; including research on Daniel as an example of this phenomenon. Since I already mentioned Collins, I’ll point you to his own excellent contribution to this research, focused directly on Dan 7 and such mythology: “Stirring up the Great Sea: The Religio-Historical Background of Daniel 7,” [reprinted] in Seers, Sibyls and Sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism, 139-55.


      1. Btw, didn’t mean to come across as lecturing you in that comment. I know you know about all the stuff I said. Was more for others’ benefit.

        Thanks for your post about Boyarin.

    1. Stephen, I really don’t find the Collins argument convincing, though this is a bit off the top of my head:

      The king who is the horn on the head of the fourth beast makes war against the saints and prevails over them until judgment is given for the saints of the Most High (7:21-22). Is it likely that we are being told that Antiochus Epiphanes made war against angels and prevailed over them until God intervened? There is no evil angelic counterpart to the son of figure in the vision. The beasts represent human kingdoms or kings. Why, then, does Daniel pit human forces against angelic forces? Why not angel against angel as in 10:13?

      If the saints of the Most High are angels, the son of man figure stands for many angels, not one divine figure.

      Angels in Daniel are clearly labelled as such, including Israel’s prince Michael. Why not in chapter 7?

      Why would an angel need to be carried on the clouds of heaven?

      I don’t have Collins’ stuff to hand, but are there parallels in Jewish apocalypticism where kingdom and glory and rule over the nations are given to angels?

      Notice Daniel 8:24: “His power shall be great—but not by his own power; and he shall cause fearful destruction and shall succeed in what he does, and destroy mighty men and the people who are the saints.”

      The first three references in the interpretation are to the “saints of the Most High” (7:18, 22, 25); the fourth is then to the “people of the saints of the Most High” (7:27). It seems to me that the latter is either a literary variation on the former or that it means “the people to which the martyrs belong”. The LXX has “the holy people of the Most High” or just “saints of the Most High” (Theod.) in verse 27.

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