Tuesday, August 25, 2020

With the Clouds

The term 'son of man' is one that Jesus used repeatedly in reference to himself. That is, unless you're with Bart Ehrman's view that Jesus was referring to a divine being yet to come. In any case, it's a term that in the Second Temple Period came to be understood as referring to a messianic figure. Some thought it was an angel, like Michael or Gabriel, and others were less certain about the identity. What developed and which came to be the common view was a departure from what was likely meant originally. Consider this passage from the book of Daniel:

"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. And 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." Daniel 7:13-14 English Standard Version

Any contemporary Christian familiar with the New Testament would immediately read that as referring to Jesus, and the arrival 'with the clouds' could be mistaken for the 'Second Coming.' In fact, that's not what's happening here.

First, the term translated 'son of man' means, in reality, 'human being.' Thus other translations give us a rendering of the passage like this one:

"As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed."Daniel 7:13-14 New Revised Standard Version

Coming across that phrasing has always been a speed bump in my reading, as I have to adjust in my mind to think 'son of man' to get the same meaning I always did, with the messiahship of Jesus taken as a given. Even now that I understand it better I find the same effect in slowing my pace of reading. Old habits die hard.

Second, the human being was coming 'with the clouds of heaven,' but where was he arriving? In fact he wasn't arriving on earth to judge, but rather at the throne of the 'Ancient of Days' or simply 'Ancient One' in order to receive authority and dominion over all nations. This is not a description of the 'second coming of Jesus' to earth.

Third, the chapter goes on to tell us who the 'son of man' or 'human being' is, and it isn't a single individual. Consider these subsequent verses, quoted from the NRSV:

15 As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. 16 I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: 17 “As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.” 
21 As I looked, this horn made war with the holy ones and was prevailing over them, 22 until the Ancient One came; then judgment was given for the holy ones of the Most High, and the time arrived when the holy ones gained possession of the kingdom. 

27 The kingship and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them.”

This entire vision depicts the rise of various oppressive powers, and then describes the ultimate reversal of fortunes, with Israel conquering all and being given dominion over the nations of the earth. What we are reading is the hope for the victory of Israel over all who crushed and enslaved them.

As I've indicated, later development in the Second Temple Period through many other writings not considered canonical, and many more likely lost to history, set the stage for messianic expectations. Instead of victorious Israel they awaited a conquering messiah. So, when Jesus lived, people asked whether this could be the one they were waiting for. Other 'messiahs' had come along before him, and some came after, but when Jesus died his earliest disciples came to believe that he still lived. Interpreting his life within the framework of their worldview, they ascribed meaning as they understood it to who he was an how he lived.

There's still room for a progressive Christian faith in here. One that affirms that Jesus was sent by God and perhaps even divine in some sense, while also affirming that if he had lived in a different time or place, the symbolism and mindset used to shape the meaning of his life would have given us a different picture of him. It could even be argued that he did indeed return from the dead physically without denying the truth of the context in which he lived. In either case, the early disciples ransacked the writings they had available, both those now considered canonical and those that are not, in order to sort out what it all meant.

Mind you, I don't share the eagerness to prop up the Jesus of history as a divine being. My goal is to understand who he was thought to be, and why. More than that, I'm enjoying diving into the thought-world of the Second Temple Period. It helps explain so much of the New Testament, illuminating topics I've always found difficult to comprehend.