Tag Archives: Ashton: Understanding the Fourth Gospel

The First Edition of the Gospel of John (1)

The Gospel of John is notorious for its several awkward transitions and these have led a number of scholars to argue that the present Gospel we know is quite different from what must have been its first edition. A recent discussion led to the question of what scholarly publications there are on the original version of the Gospel of John. That sent me back scrambling to dig out what I was sure I must have read a few years ago in a work commended as a must-read to anyone interested in serious studies of the Gospel of John.

A leading scholar on the Gospel of John, John Ashton, has proposed the passages I list below were not part of the original work. Ashton is not suggesting that a later edition had a different author — at least not in its entirety. The stylistic argument indicates that in several instances the same author returned at a later date and under different circumstances to his work to add additional material.

Most interesting is the proposal that the “Cleansing of the Temple” scene was originally in the same place as it is found in the Gospel of Mark — just prior to the Passion of Jesus — and that it was later moved to its present location (chapter 2) to make way for the later addition of the Raising of Lazarus.

At the end of the list of passages that did not belong to the author’s original draft I set out a scholarly reconstruction of the sequence from chapter 10 on. A future post will hopefully complete what I begin here. (Quotations are from John Ashton’s Understanding the Fourth Gospel.)

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Starting a New Religion with The Gospel of John

One of the more absorbing books I caught up with about a year ago is Understanding the Fourth Gospel (2nd ed) by John Ashton. (I had read somewhere that this is the book to read for anyone wanting to understand what could be understood about this gospel. It obviously had something of interest for me — since writing this post I noticed I have written on snippets of this book several times before, now collated here.)

Of many insights I would like to revisit and share, here’s one I opened up again just now. It shows how this gospel, unlike other Jewish literature and, say, Matthew’s gospel, declares itself (through its Jesus) as the foundation of a new religion. Nothing new really in the big scheme of things here, but it does give another glimpse into the mind and context of the author of this gospel.

The life of Moses furnishes an ample reservoir of legends from which Jewish writers of all persuasions could draw when searching for fresh models, symbols or arguments to encourage and inspire their own contemporaries.

Thus Deuteronomy gives a new twist to some of the earlier episodes involving Moses in Exodus and Numbers.

The same book anticipates further room for story development by announcing a future prophet “just like Moses”.

Since the Exodus story is, among other things, a foundation myth, the frequency with which other writers turn to it should not surprise us. What may cause surprise is the number of guises in which Moses appears . . . .

  • leader and legislator
  • inventor and engineer (Artapanus)
  • prophet (Josephus)
  • sage in an allegorical country where the wise man is king (Philo)
  • a shepherd of his people (Testament of Moses; Pseudo-Philo)

Moses figure in:

  • Attic style drama (Ezekiel the Tragedian)
  • allegory (Philo)
  • historical romance (Artapanus)
  • history (Josephus)
  • testament genre (Testament of Moses)

But Moses was not the only inspirational option available to writers.

Books were also written in the names of Enoch, Baruch, Ezra.

The key thing to note about all of the above:

Yet although they were proposing new revelations they were not repudiating the old.

Where the Gospel of John is different:

Where the fourth evangelist differs from all of these, as well as from those who exploited the Moses tradition, is in his conscious substitution of this tradition by the story of Jesus: ‘You search the scriptures,’ Jesus tells ‘the Jews’, ‘and I am the one to which they bear witness’ (5:39). The deliberate replacement of one founder-figure by another (the same step would be taken centuries later by Mohammed) is effectively the proclamation of a new religion. We may compare John with Matthew here, for whom Jesus is a second Moses, refining and purifying the law, but not replacing it (5:17). John, by contrast, puts the law aside, offering instead, in the name of Jesus Christ, ‘grace and truth’ (1:17). Similarly the Temple, the second pillar of contemporary Judaism, was for Matthew a place where Jesus’ disciples continued to offer their gifts: whereas in John the locus of Christian worship has shifted to a place of ‘spirit and truth’ (4:23) [p. 448]

The Mystical Return of Jesus to “Many Mansions”

In my Father’s house are many mansions . . . . I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:2-3)

There is nothing like this statement in the synoptic gospels. Many interpret this passage in John to mean that Jesus is going to prepare a room in a heavenly palace for each believer who will eventually get there. But the author of the gospel appears to explain what he means here just a few verses later, and it has nothing to do with a believer going to heaven and finding a nice apartment room there with their name on the door. Rather, the room is the body of the individual believer, and that Jesus and the Father will descend to earth to make their mystical union with each believer.

The larger house or mansion that contains all of these many rooms or abodes or homes is the “church” or wider community of the Johannine Christians.

This is another snippet from John Ashton’s Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 2nd ed. He begins with Hoskyns suggesting that the starting point for interpreting this verse is the fulfilment of a prophecy found in both canonical and noncanonical Jewish writings:

Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. (Exodus 25:8; c.f. Exod. 29:45; Lev. 26:11-12)

And I will set my sanctuary in their midst for evermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them . . . (Ezekiel 37:26-27)

For behold! I am coming and I will dwell in your midst, says the Lord. (Zechariah 2:10)

And I will build my sanctuary in their midst, and I will dwell with them and be their God, and they shall be my people . . . (Jubilees 1:17)

This suggestion is plausible and attractive. If Hoskyns is right, then the μοναι (AV “mansions”) of 14:2, individual rooms or apartments in the house of God, are reinterpreted in 14:23 as places on earth, localized in the community, where not only Jesus but God himself, coming in a cultic or mystical manner, can find a welcome. (Understanding, p.441)

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (John 14:22-23)

Another scholar (David Aune) is cited by Ashton as suggesting that the term for “house” in 14:2 and 8:35 was probably used by the Johannine community of Christians to refer to themselves. For this reason, Aune also interprets “mansions” as a reference to each individual believer in whom dwells the spirit of the Father and the Son.

That is, according to the Gospel of John, the “coming of Jesus Christ” is not a “parousia” at a climactic “end of the age” event, nor is it the resurrection, nor is it the sending of the Holy Spirit. Rather,

[i]t presages a mystical union of awesome intimacy, one that indicates the profoundly contemplative character of the Johannine community.

Ashton is aware that many Protestant writers don’t like to use words like “mysticism”, but that the above interpretation of Jesus and the Father making their home with believers in their “rooms” (bodies, minds) is a much more coherent and obvious explanation than the “going to heaven” idea preferred by many believers today.

How could I resist including this pic (The Mansions) that Zemanta [now defunct] threw up for me while typing the above post. I never knew I grew up and lived so many years so close to heaven — my old hometown, Brisbane, Australia.

A Gospel of John Link to the Book of Enoch – and a Meaningful Death without a Resurrection

My previous post discussed John Ashton’s observation that the Prologue of the Gospel of John owes something to the ancient noncanonical Jewish beliefs about Wisdom as expressed in Ecclesiasticus or The Wisdom of Ben Sira. This post is intended to be read as a part of that post.

ashtonWithout wanting to misrepresent the central themes of John Ashton’s book, Understanding the Fourth Gospel (2nd ed) — it is NOT about the noncanonical sources of the Gospel of John as I might appear to be suggesting here — there is the other side of the message of the Prologue that Ashton also addresses, and that is the return of the Logos from earth back to heaven.

The Prologue concludes with Jesus returning to the bosom of the Father in heaven:

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten [. . . varying MSS lines for God or Son . . .] who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him. (John 1:18)

As Ashton remarks, with the return of the Son of God to the Father at the end of the Prologue, the story is in effect over before it begins.

But the theme of Jesus returning to the Father is picked up again later in the Gospel. Jesus’ death is depicted by the evangelist as an ascent to heaven, a return to the Father who sent him, an ascent back to his original home in heaven with the Father:

Then Jesus said to them again, “I am going away . . . Where I go you cannot come” . . . Then Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know . . .” (John 8:21, 28)

“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all . . . to myself” (John 12:32)

“I am going to the Father (John 14:12, 28)

If the Wisdom of Ben Sira expresses a Jewish belief that “Wisdom” was sent into the world but was rejected by the world, with the result that only a chosen few (Israel) received Wisdom as their own where she could dwell (until rejection and failure to recognize her set in), another noncanonical Jewish book, 1 Enoch, completes this thought by declaring that after Wisdom had been sent she returned to her place in heaven.

Wisdom found no place where she could dwell, and her dwelling was in heaven. Wisdom went out in order to dwell among the sons of men, but did not find a dwelling; wisdom returned to her place and took her seat in the midst of angels. (1 Enoch 42:1-2)

This is the conclusion of the Prologue and it is also the conclusion of the Gospel of John. (The resurrection and epilogue are clumsily added end-tags that add nothing to the message and meaning of the Gospel.)

Jesus, after having been sent by the Father from heaven with a revelation from God — a revelation that is expressed in the Gospel narrative’s Works, not Words, since the words themselves “reveal” nothing more than that Jesus was the revealer (Ashton building on Bultmann) — returns to his home in heaven and to the Father who sent him.

Thus Jesus, like Wisdom as attested in noncanonical Jewish scriptures, is sent from heaven, descends therefore from heaven, is rejected on earth, finds a dwelling place among a few, then ascends back to heaven.

As Ashton remarks, (from memory) if this is not gnosticism, it is (nonetheless awfully) close.

This notion of descending from heaven and ascending back to heaven is also a Son of Man motif in the Gospel. This is established from the beginning when Jesus tells Jesus that Nathaniel will see the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (1:51).

The descending and ascending motif is also a noncanonical Wisdom motif. If (as is argued elsewhere and by others) the Son of Man is associated with the cult of royalty, kings, in Israel (compare the development of the notion of “Son of Man” from the original Aramaic text in Daniel where a kingdom of Israel is to replace the kingdoms of gentiles represented by beasts), then it appears that the Gospel of John represents an attempt to merge this royal Son of Man with the idea of the Logos, the true Wisdom that is replacing the Law of Moses (1:17), descending and ascending in relation to its home in heaven.

We thus see here in the Gospel of John how a death of the heavenly messenger, the Christ even (though this title is not overly emphasized, apparently, in the original strata of the Gospel of John) is seen as a positive event in its own right, and requires no resurrection sequel to touch it up with extraneous “hope”. In the Gospel of John the death of Christ is equated as a glorification of Jesus, an ascent to heaven, a return to the Father.

In addition to the above passages cited from GJohn, we have:

And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. (John 12:23-24)

Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified . . . (John 13:31 in context of Judas going out to betray Jesus and initiate the events leading to his death)

These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son,  . . . .
And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.
(John 17:1, 5)

For the Johannine school of Christianity, the death of Jesus was in and of itself a glorious thing — it was Jesus’ return to heaven and the Father. His being “lifted up” by crucifixion was paradoxically actually a “lifting up” back to heaven!

One can begin to see how the gospel’s inclusion and rewriting of resurrection appearances of Jesus can be argued as superfluous. There are several reasons for thinking that they were never part of the original text quite apart from the above. Examples: angels appear to deliver one-liners without waiting for answers; the appearance of Jesus to the disciples fearfully locking themselves in a room knows nothing of the next scene where we learn that Thomas was missing; etc. Indeed, as Gregory Riley argues in Resurrection Reconsidered, someone was using the Gospel of John’s turf to argue against other Christians who followed Mary, Peter and Thomas as their lead-disciples.

One conclusion:

John Ashton’s Understanding the Fourth Gospel is not about noncanonical sources of the gospel. But he does offer enough evidence to remind us that understanding Christian origins requires a broader outlook than seeking to relate everything in the New Testament gospels back to something in the canonical Jewish literature, or Old Testament.

Image from http://comingflood.com/ancient-texts
Image from http://comingflood.com/ancient-texts

 

Evolution of Gospel of John’s Prologue from the Wisdom of Ben Sira

It seems almost trivial to write a post based upon John Ashton’s discussion (Understanding the Fourth Gospel 2nd ed.) of the theological links between the Wisdom of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) and the Prologue in the Gospel of John, given the depths he explores throughout the gospel. But even though it’s only a pimple on a much larger discussion, I found it interesting enough (and short enough) to write about anyway.

Beginning of the Gospel of John from a pocket ...
Image via Wikipedia

Most of us know the Prologue of John well enough. The Word was with God in the beginning, become flesh, rejected by his own, finds a place among his disciples, . . . .

But first, a select look at Wisdom (a “she” in the OT) in the pre-Christian Jewish literature:

In the Jewish Scriptures (Christianity’s Old Testament) and noncanonical writings, Wisdom appears as a feminine figure who is a favourite of God.

Wisdom is speaking in Proverbs 8:30

Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him (or God’s “darling and delight” and “playing in his presence continually” in the NEB).

Ashton believes that this playful feminine figure appears in the guise of the masculine and more severe figure of the Logos, the Word, in the Gospel of John. But how? What was the stepping stone between the two, since the gulf seems too great to have been reached in a single leap?

John Ashton sees the link in Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Ben Sira, or of Jesus the Son of Sirach.

By an amazing leap of theological imagination he had identified Wisdom, who had ‘come forth from the mouth of the Most High and covered the earth like a mist’ with the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law which Moses commanded us. (p. 503, Understanding)

Thus Sirach 24:3

I came out of the mouth of the most High, and covered the earth as a cloud/mist.

and 24:23

All these things are the book of the covenant of the most high God, even the law which Moses commanded for an heritage unto the congregations of Jacob.

Note, of course, how John’s Prologue swaps the law of Moses with the Logos. (For the Law was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.)

Earlier in Sirach — 24:4-7

I [Wisdom] dwelt in high places, and my throne is in a cloudy pillar.
I alone compassed the circuit of heaven, and walked in the bottom of the deep.
In the waves of the sea and in all the earth, and in every people and nation, I got a possession.
With all these I sought rest: and in whose inheritance shall I abide?

Then Sirach 24:8

So the Creator of all things gave me a commandment, and he that made me caused my tabernacle to rest, and said, Let thy dwelling be in Jacob, and thine inheritance in Israel.

Compare also with John’s Prologue

Sirach 24:9

He created me from the beginning before the world

and in another apocryphal writing, the Wisdom of Solomon 9:4

Give me wisdom, that sitteth by thy throne

When Wisdom, who had dwelt from the beginning with God, entered the world as the Law and God’s special gift to Israel, she (Wisdom) began to have a history. But that history was essentially one of “incomprehension and rejection”. (p. 504)

Compare the themes above with those in the Prologue of John:

  • The Word (Logos) dwelt from the beginning with God, as did Jewish Wisdom
  • The Word was sent by God to the earth, as was Jewish Wisdom
  • The Word thus came to God’s own (Jews) but it did not find a dwelling place, as Wisdom also came to God’s own (his creation – all races)
  • But God did grant a few to welcome the Word to make its home among them, just as God gave Wisdom as a special gift to Israel.
  • The Word tabernacled among men, as Wisdom also tabernacled on earth.
  • The Word suffered rejection and disbelief, as did Wisdom.

And beyond John’s gospel

Sirach also resonates with other Wisdom passages in gospels other than that of John.

Sirach 24:33

I will yet pour out doctrine [teaching] as prophecy, and leave it to all ages for ever.

Compare Luke 11:49

Therefore the Wisdom of God also said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute.”

and Mattew 23:34

Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city.

The Wisdom of Ben Sira

Many scholars have seen the above Lukan passage as a very early strata of a Christian saying because of its link with personified Wisdom, and believe Matthew “modernized” the saying (not from Luke, but from the same source Luke used for the passage.) That is certainly a plausible explanation in its own right, but when we compare the above theological ambience of Sirach with the Gospel of John, which many scholars declare to be the latest written gospel, the question of the age and source of the Lukan passage (being very primitive) is not necessarily so secure. Especially so if we take note of those scholars who argue Luke antedates John. It is not unthinkable (though I do not have the Greek skills to argue the point in depth) that the Lukan passage shared the lateness of John’s — with John developing a theology of identifying Jesus with Wisdom, and a second-century Luke (or at least a Lukan redactor who also wrote Acts) attempting to tie bits of John with the other gospels as and where he found it possible to create a more “catholic” (and anti-Marcionite) gospel grounded in “Judaism”. (See my notes on Tyson for details.) 

Jesus in the Gospel of John — and the Apocalypse of Abraham

The way Jesus is portrayed in the Gospel of John owes as much to the literary and theological culture of Jewish apocalyptic writings from the same era. Will set out the following in easier to follow table form on www.vridar.info soon.

Compare, for example, the Jewish Apocalypse of Abraham, possibly written around the same era as the gospels and other early Christian literature (parenthetic notes are mine and/or John Ashton’s (Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 2nd ed.)– some translation variations are from R. Rubinkiewiez):

1. Then a voice came to me speaking twice, “Abraham! Abraham!” and I said, “Here I am!” And He said, “Behold it is I, fear not for I am with you, for I AM before the ages, and Mighty, the God who created the first light of the world. I am your protector and your helper.”

2. “Go, take me a young heifer of three years, and a she-goat of three years, and a ram of three years, a turtledove and a pigeon, and bring me a pure sacrifice. And in this sacrifice I will lay before you the ages to come, and make known to you what is reserved, and you shall see great things that you have not hitherto seen:

3. because you have loved to search me out, and I have named you ‘my friend.’ (The text here in fact says ‘my lover.’) But abstain from every form of food that comes forth out of the fire, and from the drinking of wine, and from anointing yourself with oil, for forty days, and then set forth for me the sacrifice which I have commanded you, in a place which I will show you on a high mountain, and there I will show you the ages which have been created and established by my word, and I will make known to you what shall come to pass in them on those who have done evil and righteousness in the generations of men.”

4. And it came to pass when I heard the voice of Him who spoke such words to me, and I looked here and there, I found no breath in me, and my spirit was frightened, and my soul seemed as departed from me, for I fell down as a stone, as a dead man upon the earth, and had no more strength to stand. And while I was thus lying with my face towards the earth, I heard the voice of the Holy One speaking, “Go, Jaoel [or Yaoel — a contraction of the gods Yahweh and El], and by means of my ineffable Name raise up yonder man and strengthen him , so that he recovers from his trembling.

5. And the angel whom He had sent came to me in the likeness of a man [cf Dan. 7:13] and grasped me by my right hand and set me up upon my feet and said to me, “Stand up Abraham, 0 friend of God who loves you; let not the trembling of man seize you! For lo! I have been sent to you to strengthen you and bless you in the name of God, who loves you, the Creator of the celestial and the terrestrial. Be fearless and hasten to Him. I am called Jaoel [or Yaoel — a contraction of the gods Yahweh and El] by Him who moves those who exist with me on the seventh expanse over the heavens, a power in virtue of the ineffable Name that is dwelling in me [cf. Exod. 23:21]. I am the one who has been given to restrain, according to His commandment, the threatening attacks of the Living Ones of the Cherubim against one another, and to teach those who carry Him, the song of the seventh hour of the night of man.

6. I am ordered to restrain the Leviathan, for every single attack and menace of every single reptile are subject unto me. I am he who has been commissioned to loosen Hades, and destroy him who stares at the dead. (This ‘staring’ is an attitude of Satan, whereby he paralyses and victimises the dead.) I have been sent to bless you now, and the land which the Eternal One, whom you have invoked, has prepared for you, and for your sake I have wended my way upon earth [For your sake I have indicated the way of the land – cf Exod. 23:20].

7. Stand up, Abraham! Go without fear; be right glad and rejoice, and I am [also rejoice] with you! For age-lasting honour has been prepared for you by the Eternal One. Go, fulfil the sacrifices commanded. For lo! I have been appointed to be with you, and with the generations that will spring from you, and with me Michael blesses you forever. Be of good cheer and go!”

Compare the remarkable similarities between God and Yaoel above and Jesus in the Gospel of John:

Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.  .  .  . Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.(John 8:56, 58)

But he saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid. (John 6:20) and Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:27)

Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. (John 15:14-15)

Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. (John 1:50-51)

I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you. (John 16: 12-15)

And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man. Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. (John 5: 27-29)

Then said Jesus unto them, Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. (John 7:33)

These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

As Ashton observes, the question is not who copied from whom, but that both represent a common view of Abraham and the roles and natures of heavenly beings — God and Jesus or Yaoel and the Son of Man. Both depict comforting heavenly beings who have been sent to reveal great things to those who are to be henceforth their friends, and much more.

Intimations of the Death and Resurrection of the Son of Man in Daniel

I owe most of the following either to John Ashton in his second edition of Understanding the Fourth Gospel or to someone he cites in there (unfortunately cannot recall which):

Firstly, the original Aramaic expression for what is generally today translated as Son of Man really means nothing more than a man-like figure or one like a man. Secondly, that original Aramaic meaning is by Christian times irrelevant since by the time of the Christian writings and Jewish apocalyptic writings of the same era, it had come to mean what it is translated as today: Son of Man.

Before the Son of Man appears

Prior to the entrance of Daniel’s Son of Man is the well-know fourth beast (the Syrian/Seleucid empire of Antiochus Epiphanes — not Rome!)

Daniel 7:19-21, 23-25

Then I would know the truth of the fourth beast, which was diverse from all the others, exceeding dreadful, whose teeth were of iron, and his nails of brass; which devoured, brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with his feet; . . . that horn that had eyes, and a mouth that spake very great things, whose look was more stout than his fellows. I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them; . . . .

Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces. . . . And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out [persecute] the saints of the most High. . . and they shall be given into his hand . . . .

The fourth beast was terrifying particularly for making war against the saints, the people of God, and martyring them.

A series of beast-like creatures had appeared. The first was “like a lion”. This eventually became “like a man”. (Dan. 7:4). The next was “like a bear”, and the third “like a leopard”. Presumably these could, technically, have been translated originally as “Son of Lion, Son of Bear, Son of Leopard, just as the successor to the fourth beast was translated “Son of Man”. I say technically, and do not suggest this translation by any means. But this makes a significant point about the original meaning of the Aramaic “man-like figure”.

If the four beasts are 4 kingdoms (Dan. 7:17), is the Son of Man any different?

The original meaning of the Son of Man

When the Most High brings low the fourth beast, Daniel is told that at that time,

the kingdom and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High . . . . (Daniel 7:27)

This verse is the angelic interpretation of the vision Daniel had seen of the one “like a Man” replacing the fourth beast:

I watched till the beast was slain, and its body destroyed and given to the burning flame . . . . I was watching in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him, then to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom . . . . (Daniel 7: 11-13)

It is thus not difficult to interpret the original meaning of the Son of Man as a symbolic reference to the Jews or the saints once liberated from the power of the Syrian empire, particularly from Antiochus Epiphanes.

But there’s (almost certainly) more

Place this interpretation beside that other Second Temple exegesis about the offering of Isaac at the time of the Maccabean martyrdoms: see Jesus displaces Isaac and the full set of my notes from Levenson at this archive.

From Levenson, we know we have are clear evidence of speculation about a resurrection of Isaac from his sacrifice among certain Jewish circles. We can also see in the original meaning of the Son of Man in Daniel that this figure could well represent the saints rising victorious to claim the kingdom after having suffered martyrdom at the hands of the fourth beast.

As the man-like figure became reinterpreted to refer to a singular heavenly being, one like the Son of Man, do not early Christian beliefs that the Son of Man was to be delivered up and crucified and rise again suggest the strong possibility that the original interpretation of this figure in Daniel, as one representing the persecuted yet ultimately victorious saints, also carried over with the personification of the term?

And not only the Christians

As John Ashton remarks, it is really difficult to know if the Son of Man figure in Daniel is meant to be seen as an evanescent dream like waif figure, or a real angelic being. Are the beast-like creatures really mere visions or is Daniel watching heavenly creatures act out what is to happen on earth?

If the latter, then it seems that the Son of Man was seen as a literal spiritual being who was to be identified with Christ.

But this sort of speculation and evolution of interpretations of Daniel was part and parcel of strands of Jewish thinking generally at the turn of the era. Christians had a complex Jewish heritage to draw on for their theological creations.

This is topic of the next post, Jesus in the Gospel of John — and Jewish Apocalyptic