Can you tell me about the “Son of Man” reference in the book of Daniel and why Jesus calls himself that in front of Pilate?

Daniel relates that he saw a vision of four beasts that originated in the “great sea,” a symbol for chaos and the power of evil. He then relates that the vision continued with an image resembling a human being or “one like a son of man” coming from above “with the clouds of heaven” (Dn 7:1-14). The beasts are considered to be symbols of pagan kingdoms while the “son of man” figure represents someone from the kingdom of the Most High. In this context, the son of man is not meant to refer to a historical person, but is a figure of speech which later developed into a term for the Messiah himself.

Interestingly enough, in the gospels it is only Jesus who uses the term “Son of Man” to refer to himself, and he uses it with several meanings: pointing to the good works he does, the suffering he will undergo, and in an “eschatalogical” sense when questioned by Caiaphas the high priest, (not Pilate). It is such an obscure term that scholars today still can’t claim authoritatively to know what he meant by it. Some believe it is simply a generic term for a human. Yet Jesus chose to borrow Daniel’s reference to a man coming on the clouds whose appearance will herald the beginning of the end, i.e. the time when God’s kingdom will win an ultimate victory over evil. Of course Christians have come to associate this vision with the second coming of Christ.

Ann Naffziger

Ann Naffziger is a scripture instructor and spiritual director in the San Francisco Bay area. She has has written articles on spirituality and theology for various national magazines and edited several books on the Hebrew Scriptures.