The Blasphemy of the Son of Man

Extracted from the book “The Jewish Gospels”, by Daniel Boyarin


The reasons that many Jews came to believe that Jesus was divine was because they were already expecting that the Messiah/Christ would be a god-man. This expectation was part and parcel of Jewish tradition. The Jews had learned this by careful reading of the Book of Daniel and understanding its visions and revelations as a prophecy of what would happen at the end of time. In that book, as we have just seen, the young divine figure is given sovereignty and made ruler of the world forever. I want to show that Jesus saw himself as the divine Son of Man, and I will do so by explaining a couple of difficult passages in the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The Son of Man has been afforded glory, sovereignty, and dominion over all the sublunary world, as we saw in Daniel 7 above: “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.” While this verse comes from an interpretative framework within the chapter that seeks to demythologize the narrative of the Son of Man, such effort could not withstand the power of the verses earlier in the chapter in which the divinity of the Son of Man is so clearly marked.

In Mark 2:5–10 we read the following:  And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins except the one God?”  And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic. . .

“But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” The Son of Man has authority (obviously delegated by God) to do God’s work of the forgiving of sins on earth. This claim is derived from Daniel 7:14, in which we read that the one like a son of man has been given “authority, glory, kingship”—indeed, an “authority that is eternal that will not pass away.” The term that we conventionally translate as “authority” in its New Testament contexts, ἐξουσία, is exactly the same term that translates the Aramaic in the Septuagint, namely, “sovereignty” or “dominion.” That is, what Jesus is claiming for the Son of Man is exactly what has been granted to the one like a son of man in Daniel; Jesus rests his claim on the ancient text quite directly.

According to this tradition, then, Jesus claims to be the Son of Man to whom divine authority on earth “under the heavens” (Daniel 7:27) has been delegated. The sovereign, moreover, is the one who has the power to declare exceptions to the Law. The objection of the Scribes, calling Jesus’ act of forgiveness “blasphemy,” is predicated on their assumption that Jesus is claiming divinity through this action; hence their emphasis that only the one God may forgive sins, to which Jesus answers in kind: the second divine figure of Daniel 7, the one like a son of man, is authorized to act as and for God. This constitutes a direct declaration of a doubleness of the Godhead, which is, of course, later on the very hallmark of Christian theology.

Throughout the Gospel, whenever Jesus claims ἐξουσία to perform that which appears to be the prerogative of the divinity, it is that very ἐξουσία of the Son of Man that is being claimed, which is to say, a scriptural authority based on a very close reading of Daniel 7.35 We see now why the later Rabbis, in naming this very ancient religious view a heresy, refer to it as “two powers in heaven.”

“The Son of Man Is Lord Even of the Sabbath”

The question of how to read Daniel  was very much on the minds of Jews of the period, and not only those who became followers of Jesus. Mark, quite directly and intentionally, is offering us a close reading of Daniel. In this light, we can begin to interpret one of the most puzzling and pivotal “Son of Man” statements in the Gospel. I place these texts in an entirely different context from the one in which they are usually read; in this new context, certain clues become much more vivid and telling.

It’s a question of looking at the text in a new and different way, which in turn reveals connections that help sketch an entirely different picture of what’s going on—or better put, what was at stake for the evangelist and his hearers. This interpretation of Mark 2:10 as being a close reading of Daniel 7:14 enables me to begin to understand anew the other puzzling Son of Man statement in Mark 2, known as the incident of the plucking of grain on the Sabbath. In this story, Jesus’ disciples are discovered plucking grain and eating it as they walk on the Sabbath by some Pharisees who challenge Jesus as to this seemingly insouciant or arrogant violation of the Sabbath. Jesus defends them vigorously.

This passage helps us understand how it was that Jesus saw himself (or is portrayed as seeing himself) both as the divine Redeemer and as the Davidic Messiah whom the Jews were expecting:  One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him:  how he entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath;  so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”

There are several well-known problems attending on this passage, which (as is Mark 7, which I will presently treat) is of enormous importance for reconstructing Jewish religious history. The major issues are the reason for the disciples plucking on the Sabbath; the nature and meaning of Jesus’ reply invoking the analogy of David; the connection between that reply and vv. 27–28, in which the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, and the Sabbath is made for man; and the meaning and connection between those verses. Jesus seems to be giving too many justifications of the disciples’ behavior; is the defense based on an ancient halakhic principle that the Sabbath may be violated for human welfare, or does it have something to do with Jesus’ messianic status? Many scholars have “solved” these problems by assuming that the text has been interpolated. This explanation, while in itself unsatisfactory, points up the tension in the text between ancient halakhic (legal) controversy (which there certainly is here) and radical apocalyptic transformation in the words of Jesus (which I believe is also here).

What convinces me that there is genuine memory of halakhic controversy here is the fact that the elements of Jesus’ arguments are found later within the traditions of the Rabbis.*

Here is the crucial text for our purposes:

Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Elʿazar the son of Azariah and Rabbi Akiva were walking on the way and Levi Hassaddar and Rabbi Ishmael the son of Rabbi Elʿazar the son of Azariah were walking behind them. And the question arose among them: “From whence do we know that the saving of a life supersedes the Sabbath?” .  Rabbi Ishmael answered: Behold it says:  “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; 3but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed” [Exodus 22:2–3]. And this is true even if we are not sure whether he came to kill or only to steal. Now the reasoning is from the light to the heavy: Just as the killing of a person which pollutes the Land and pushes the divine presence away supersedes the Sabbath (in such a case of one caught at night breaking and entering), even more so the saving of a life!”. Rabbi Elʿazar spoke up with a different answer: “Just as circumcision which [saves] only one member of a person supersedes the Sabbath, the entire body even more so!”. . .  Rabbi Akiva says: “If murder supersedes the Temple worship which supersedes the Sabbath, saving a life even more so!”  Rabbi Yose Hagelili says: “When it says ‘But keep my Sabbaths,’ the word ‘but’ makes a distinction: There are Sabbaths that you push aside and those that you keep [i.e., when human life is at stake, this supersedes the Sabbath].”  Rabbi Shimʿon the son of Menasya says:  “Behold it says: Keep the Sabbath because it is holy to you; to you the Sabbath is delivered and not you to the Sabbath.” Rabbi Natan says: “It says: And the Children of Israel kept the Sabbath to keep the Sabbath for their generations. Profane one Sabbath for him [the sick person] in order that he may keep many Sabbaths!” (Mekhilta, Tractate Sabbath, 1)

In seeking to distinguish the radically new and un-Jewish in Jesus’ preaching, Christian writers have frequently read his statement that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath both as indicating total opposition to the keeping of the Sabbath laws at all and as initiating a religion of love and not one of casuistry. In this text, however, we see that the Rabbis themselves held views about the Sabbath that were closely related to Jesus’ own (more expansive, to be sure) views, certainly not in direct contradiction of them.

The thematic similarities between some of these arguments and Jesus’ arguments in the Gospel are striking. This parallel gets even stronger when we consider one further argument that we find in Matthew 12 but not in Mark: “Or have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you something greater than the Temple is here,” thus providing a parallel to Rabbi Akiva’s argument from the Temple as well. Jesus may very well have been in controversy with ancient Pharisees who had not yet articulated the principle that saving a life supersedes the Sabbath. As my colleague Aharon Shemesh points out, such was the opinion of the Jews of the Dead Sea Community.

Jesus’ teaching in this regard, however, is hardly in opposition to the teaching of the later tannaim, who possibly did learn it from Jesus but probably did not. What is distinctive to the Jesus of the Gospels is, I think, the further apocalyptic extension of these principles, namely, the Son of Man statement—the statement that the Son of Man, the divine Messiah, is now lord of the Sabbath. It is this too that explains the one probable and potentially huge difference between the saying of the Rabbis and that of the evangelist (or Jesus). The rabbinic interpretations, and their halakha, tend strongly in the direction of allowing the violation of the Sabbath by a Jew to save another Jew, while the setting of Jesus’ saying and its consequence seem (but not inescapably) to indicate that any human might be saved on the Sabbath.

If it is the case, as it seems, that the Rabbis’ law applies only to Jews, Jesus’ extension of it is a product of the radical apocalyptic moment within which the Gospel of Mark is written, a moment in which the Torah was not rejected but expanded and “fulfilled”—to use Matthean terminology—a moment in which the Son of Man was revealed and claimed his full authority.41 The Son of Man, according to Daniel, was indeed given jurisdiction over all of the nations, and I would suggest gingerly that this explains the extension of the Sabbath (and thus Sabbath healing) to them. Here in Mark we find a Jesus who is fulfilling the Torah, not abrogating it.

The Gospels are testimony to the antiquity of themes and controversies that later appear in rabbinic literature. Since there is little reason to believe that the Rabbis actually read the Gospels, it follows that we have independent witnesses to these controversies. The arguments from David’s violation of the Torah, from the assertion that the Sabbath was made for the human being, and from the service in the Temple constituting a permitted violation of the Sabbath (the latter found in Matthew and not in Mark) are all mobilized in rabbinic literature in order to justify saving life on the Sabbath (including, no doubt, salvation from starvation), with only the important proviso that it must be necessary for the healing to be done on the Sabbath, that is, the condition is life-threatening, or might be if not treated. This concatenation can hardly be coincidental; some very early version of a controversy of the permission to heal on Sabbath is to be found in this passage.

Were we to remain at this level of interpretation, we would find a not particularly radical, even strangely “rabbinic” Jesus fighting against some rigorists whom he identifies as Pharisees. However, this approach leaves too much in the text unexplained. It doesn’t explain at all the argument from David’s having fed himself and his followers on forbidden bread. We will see presently how taking that textual moment seriously will reveal another dimension of the Markan theology of Jesus (Christology).43 In short, my suggestion is that a set of controversy arguments in favor of allowing violation of the Sabbath for healing (now an accepted practice) has been overlaid with and radicalized by a further apocalyptic moment suggested by the very connection with David’s behavior.

The David story itself can go either way. Just as the Rabbis chose to emphasize David’s hunger and thus the lifesaving aspect of the story, justifying other breaches of the law if a life can be saved (Palestinian Talmud Yoma 8:6, 45:b), so did Matthew; Mark, by contrast, understanding the story as being about the special privileges of the Messiah, pushed it in the direction that he did. On this account, the reason for the absence of v. 27 in Matthew (and Luke) is that Mark’s messianic theology was a bit too radical for the later evangelists. I think that the problems of this sequence of verses are best unraveled if we take seriously its context following Mark 2:10, as I have just discussed. If Jesus (the Markan Jesus, or the Jesus of these passages) proclaims himself as the Son of Man who has ἐξουσία by virtue of Daniel 7:14, then it is entirely plausible that he would claim sovereignty over the Sabbath as well. Extending the clearly controversial notion that healing is permitted on the Sabbath by virtue of various biblical precedents and arguments, Jesus makes a much more radical claim: not only does the Torah authorize healing of the deathly sick on the Sabbath, but the Messiah himself, the Son of Man, is given sovereignty to decide how to further extend and interpret the Sabbath law. This is, I suggest, primarily motivated by the fact that it is David who violates the Law to feed his minions, so Jesus—the new David, the Son of Man—may do so to feed his minyan.44 The point is surely not—as certain interpreters give it—that David violated the Law and God did not protest, so therefore the Law is invalid and anyone may violate it. Rather, it is that David, the type of the Messiah, enjoyed sovereignty to set aside parts of the Law, and so too does Jesus, the new David, the Messiah. This is not an attack on the Law or on alleged pharisaic legalism but an apocalyptic declaration of a new moment in history in which a new Lord, the Son of Man, has been appointed over the Law.

Paying attention to the Danielic allusion implicit in every use of the phrase “Son of Man,” one can see that in all those situations the Markan Jesus is making precisely the same kind of claim on the basis of the authority delegated to the Son of Man in Daniel as he does in Mark 2:10.45 This enables me to propose a solution to the sequence of vv. 27–28. One objection could be that the Sabbath is not “under the heavens” but in heaven and thus not susceptible to the transfer of authority from the Ancient of Days to the one like a son of man. This objection is entirely answered by the statement that the Sabbath was made for the human being; consequently the Son of Man, having been given dominion in the human realm, is the Lord of the Sabbath.46 It is actually a necessary part of the argument that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, for if the Sabbath is (as one might very well claim on the basis of Genesis 1) in heaven, then the claim that the Son of Man, who has sovereignty only on earth, can abrogate its provisions would be very weak.

I think that this explanation of the connection between vv. 27 and 28 answers many interpretative conundrums that arise when 27 is read as a weak humanistic statement, something like “The Sabbath was made for man, so do whatever you want.”47 In my view, in contrast, what may have been a traditional Jewish saying to justify breaking the Sabbath to preserve life is, in the hands of Mark’s Jesus, the justification for a messianic abrogation of the Sabbath.48 This interpretation has the virtue, I think, of solving two major interpretative sticking points in the text:  the unity of the two answers of Jesus (both are references to his messianic status) and the subordination of “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”49 The halakhic arguments in Jesus’ mouth here and in chapter 7 are too well formed and well attested historically to be ignored; Jesus, or Mark, certainly knew his way around a halakhic argument.50 They are not a relic but represent, I believe, actual contests from the first century, and as such, they provide precious evidence that such halakhic discourse and reasoning was extant already then. But that is not all there is here, of course. There are two elements that mark off the Gospel mobilization of these arguments from a purely halakhic controversy.

The first is that in both cases, Jesus uses the argument itself and the halakha itself as a sign of an ethical reading, a kind of parable (called such explicitly in chapter 7); the second and most exciting is that the apocalyptic element of the Son of Man is introduced here, as in the story of the paralytic, to bring home the messianic nature, the divine-human nature, of the sovereignty of Jesus as the Son of Man now on earth. The comparison to David is, of course, very pointed and does suggest that the Redeemer of Daniel 7:13–14 is indeed understood as the messianic king, son of David. I would find here, therefore, clear evidence of identification of the Davidic Messiah with the Son of Man, an identification that clearly does not require a human genealogical connection between the two, for the Son of Man is a figure entirely heavenly who becomes a human being.

There were other ancient Jews from around the time of the earliest Gospel writings who also read Daniel 7 in the way that I am suggesting Jesus did. On this reading, Mark’s saying about the Son of Man being Lord of the Sabbath is precisely a radical eschatological move, but not one that is constituted by a step outside of the broad community of Israelites or even Jews. If Daniel’s vision is now being fulfilled through the person of Jesus as the incarnation of the Son of Man, some radical change is exactly what would be expected during the end times. The sovereign, we are told by modern political theorists, is the one who can make exceptions to the law when judged necessary or appropriate. It is exactly for such judgments that the Son of Man was given sovereignty. The sovereignty is expressed by extending the permission granted to Jews to violate the Sabbath to save the lives of other Sabbath observers by Jesus the Messiah to include all humans. This eschatological move is one that many Jews would have rejected not because they did not believe that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath but because they did not believe that Jesus was the Son of Man.

I would argue that this divine figure to whom authority has been delegated is a Redeemer king, as the Daniel passage clearly states.52 Thus he stands ripe for identification with the Davidic Messiah, as he is in the Gospel and also in non-Christian contemporary Jewish literature such as Enoch and Fourth Ezra. The usage of “Son of Man” in the Gospels joins up with the evidence of such usage from these other ancient Jewish texts to lead us to consider this term used in this way (and, more important, the concept of a second divinity implied by it) as the common coin—which I emphasize does not mean universal or uncontested—of Judaism already before Jesus. According to Mark (and Matthew even more so), far from abandoning the laws and practices of the Torah, Jesus was a staunch defender of the Torah against what he perceived to be threats to it from the Pharisees. Far from being a marginal Jew, Jesus was a leader of one type of Judaism that was being marginalized by another group, the Pharisees, and he was fighting against them as dangerous innovators. they have changed the rules of the Torah. This is made clear in a key rabbinic text, which, while much later than the Gospel, ascribes a change in the halakha to the time of Mark.


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