It’s common to hear theologians and apologists claim that Jesus’ self-designation, “son of man,” is a reference to the divine/exalted figure in Daniel 7:13-14. As such, Jesus’ use of “son of man” is a claim to deity. However, there are two problems with this conclusion. First, while Jesus referred to Himself as “son of man” many times, He only connected the term with Daniel 7:13-14 on one occasion (Mt 26:64-66; Mk 14:62-64; Lk 22:67-71). Is it reasonable to think that Jesus’ understanding of this phrase is based entirely on Daniel 7 when He only connected the phrase with Daniel 7 on one occasion at the end of His ministry? While I do not doubt that Jesus saw Himself as the son of man figure of Daniel 7, I do not think this exhausted His understanding or use of the phrase.

Second, when you look at the context of Daniel 7, the son of man figure does not appear to be a divine figure at all.

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13-14)

The Ancient of Days is God, but the son of man appears to be an ordinary man to whom God gives an everlasting kingdom. He is served, but not worshiped. While some have seen a hint to deity in the fact that he is described as one “like a son of man.” It’s argued that he was only like a human being because in addition to being human, he was also divine. However, this is reading too much into the text. The author said he is like a son of man because he looked like a human being, in contradistinction to the beasts that were pictured before him (“like a lion,” “like a bear,” and “like a leopard”). This conclusions is confirmed, but modified, by the angel’s interpretation of the vision:

As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. 16 I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of the things. – “These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.” (Daniel 7:15-18).

The angel reveals that the son of man is not an individual human, but a representation of a group of humans, namely all of God’s people.[1] On what basis, then, is there for thinking that the son of man figure in Daniel 7 is a divine figure, or that Jesus’ claim to that title was a claim to deity?

While Jesus does make statements about the son of man that are connected with receiving a kingdom and power (Mt 16:28; 19:28; 24:30; 25:31; 26:64; Mk 8:38; 13:26; 14:62; Lk 9:26; 17:30; 21:27; 22:69), and while Jesus does imply that He is the son of man of Daniel 7:13-14 (Mt 24:30; 26:64-66; Mk 13:24-27; 14:62-64; Lk 21:27; 22:67-71), none of these uses imply that Jesus is divine.

There are only two saying of Jesus that might plausibly be understood to mean that the son of man figure is divine. The first is Jesus’ saying to Caiaphas that “from now on you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:64-66; see also Mk 14:62-64; Lk 22:67-71). While the saying itself does not imply Jesus’ deity, the response of the high priest and Sanhedrin does. Both Matthew and Luke record that they deemed Jesus’ saying blasphemous and worthy of death. There is nothing blasphemous about claiming to be the final Davidic king, so they must have understood the son of man figure in Daniel 7 to be a divine figure, and thus Jesus’ claim to be the son of man as tantamount to a claim to divinity. Be that as it may, this only tells us how they understood the son of man in Daniel 7. It tells us nothing about Jesus’ own understanding of the passage. Unless we are willing to affirm that Jesus misunderstood or misused the Daniel 7 passage to claim deity, it is best that we attribute the Sanhedrin’s response to their own understanding rather than Jesus’.

The second saying is found in John 3:13. Jesus claimed that the son of man descended from heaven. While this surely teaches that Jesus is divine, it does not mean that the title “son of man” itself connotes deity, nor that Jesus understood the son of man figure in Daniel 7 to be a divine figure.

It seems to me that while Jesus surely understood Himself to be the son of man figure of Daniel 7, the title itself does not carry any semantical weight. In other words, the context conveys the meaning rather than the phrase itself. That means Jesus’ mere use of “son of man” would not conjure up a specific and universal referent in the minds of the hearers. That’s why the Jews had to ask Jesus what He meant by calling Himself the son of man (Jn 12:34). If the Jews had a monolithic understanding of this term (such as a divine figure or the figure in Daniel 7), there would have been no need for their question. It seems that they were just as baffled by Jesus’ use of the phrase as many of us modern readers are.

After coming to this conclusion on my own, I was happy to discover that Larry Hurtado largely agrees. I quote Hurtado at length:

That is, I submit that the diversity of sentences/sayings in which ‘the son of man’ is used in the Gospels leads to the conclusion that in these texts the expression’s primary linguistic function is to refer, not to characterize. The expression refers to Jesus (and almost entirely in sentences where it is used as a self-designation), but does not in itself primarily make a claim about him, or generate any controversy, or associate him with prior/contextual religious expectations or beliefs. ‘The son of man’ can be used in sayings that stake various claims about Jesus (e.g., Jesus’ authority, or humble situation, or heavenly provenance, or eschatological significance), but it is the sentence/saying that conveys the intended claim or statement, not ‘the son of man’ expression itself.

With genuine respect for the many scholars who have done so, it is, nevertheless, a linguistic fallacy to impute to the expression ‘the son of man’ the meanings of the various statements in which it is used. Instead, we are to attribute to the referent, Jesus, the import of these sentences. As an analogy, let us consider the statement, ‘The professor is compassionate’. In this statement, compassion is ascribed to a particular figure referred to as ‘the professor’; but the word ‘professor’ itself does not thereby carry (or acquire) the meaning ‘compassionate’. ‘The professor’ designates and even classifies a given person as holding a particular professional role, but the term itself does not acquire the attribute ascribed to this particular professor. So, for example, to treat ‘the son of man’ as if in itself it ‘means’ a figure of authority (on the basis of sayings such as Mark 2.10), or of humility (on the basis of sayings such as Matt 8.20/Luke 9.58), or eschatological judge (on the basis of Matt 25.31), or a heavenly being (on the basis of John 3.13-14), or even the figure of Daniel 7.13 (on the basis of Mark 14.62/Matt 26.64) would all represent the fallacious move that I identify here. … In short, Jesus (as portrayed in the sayings/sentences in question) defines ‘the son of man’; ‘the son of man’ designates but does not define Jesus.

But the sheer diversity of sentences in which the Evangelists used ‘the son of man’, and the instances where they felt free to use the personal pronoun interchangeably with the expression [compare Mt 16:13 to Mk 8:27 and Lk 9:18, and Mt 19:28 to Lk 18:30], surely show that it did not have for them some precise and fixed meaning (or fixed set of meanings). Instead, these authors knew the expression essentially (and in all likelihood solely) as the distinctive way that Jesus typically referred to himself, and so deployed it accordingly when they sought to represent Jesus uttering sayings that included a self-reference.[2]

I conclude, then, that there is no basis for the claim that “son of man” was Jesus’ way of identifying Himself as the divine figure in Daniel 7:13-14. While Jesus saw Himself as the son of man figure in Daniel 7, neither Daniel nor Jesus ever affirmed that figure to be a divine being. Jesus identified with the “son of man” figure in Daniel 7 because He was the promised Davidic king who had come to set up an everlasting kingdom; however, that does not mean Jesus’ use of “son of man” was always a reference to Himself as the Davidic king. In most contexts, the phrase is used as another way of saying “I.” While Jesus may have borrowed the phrase from Daniel 7, that does not mean that His every use of the phrase was intended to conjure up thoughts of Daniel 7.



[1]One might conclude that the son of man is both an individual and a group. The son of man may refer to both the individual king who leads the kingdom, as well as the citizens of the kingdom as a whole. This would be similar to how the beasts of Daniel 7 are said to represent individual kings (7:14) as well as kingdoms (7:23).

[2]Larry Hurtado, “Summary and Concluding Observations” in The Son of Man Problem: Critical Readings, Benjamin E. Reynolds, ed.; available from; Internet; accessed 11 February 2021.