69. Romans 2:16 and the Son of Man

Hilary Le Cornu

The meaning of the term “Son of Man” in the New Testament has long been debated. Since it is only found in the mouth of Yeshua, it has become the focus of christological speculation, linked with the issue of Yeshua’s self-awareness. Scholars are divided, however, over whether it is a messianic title or a simpler form of self-designation. Although much research has been conducted on the use of the term in the gospels, little attention has been paid to the passage in Romans 2:15-16. In this article, we shall try to demonstrate that Paul has the Son of man tradition in mind in these verses, which speak of Yeshua’s role in judging the “secrets of men” on the day of judgment. If this assumption is correct, it will reinforce the view that Yeshua specifically applied the title “Son of man” to Himself in reference to His function as judge at the end of days.

The use of the term “Son of man” falls into three categories in the Gospels.1 These relate to His presence in the present; His suffering and resurrection; and to the coming Son of man. In the over sixty cases where it is found, Yeshua exclusively uses the title, and does so in the third person. Thus some scholars present the first group as evidence that in either Aramaic or Hebrew the term is not a (messianic) title at all but merely a way of saying “man”: “Yeshua said to him: ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air (have) nests; but the Son of man (=I) has nowhere to rest his head” (Matthew 8:20).2

The second group relates to the suffering and resurrection of the Son of man: “And as they were coming down from the mountain, Yeshua commanded them, saying, ‘Tell the vision to no one until the Son of man has risen from the dead … but I say to you, that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of man is going to suffer at their hands’ ” (Matthew 17:9-12).3

The third set refers to the future coming of the Son of man. This part of the tradition directly stems from the passage in Daniel 7: ” ‘I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven one like a Son of man was coming, and he came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And unto him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and (men of every) language might serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and his kingdom is one which will not be destroyed’ (Daniel 7:13-14).

The explanation which Daniel requested in order to understand the vision indicates that the “one like a Son of man” is given “dominion, glory and a kingdom” once he has judged the fourth kingdom and the last king to arise out of it. This king will “speak out against the Most High and wear down the saints of the Highest One,” into whose hands the saints will be given until the court sits for judgment and his power is destroyed and annihilated forever (cf. verses 24-27).

Although for the biblical author the Son of man symbolizes “saints of the Most High”, the enigmatic figure was also – perhaps originally – associated with the Messiah in apocalyptic and other texts.4 This is demonstrated most clearly in the Enoch tradition, reflected not only in the books of Enoch themselves but also in Ben Sirach and Jubilees:

“He (God) placed the Elect One on the throne of glory; and he shall judge all the works of holy ones in heaven above, weighing in the balance their deeds. And when he shall lift up his countenance in order to judge the secret ways of theirs, by the word of the name of the Lord of the Spirits, and their conduct, by the method of the righteous judgment of the Lord of the Spirits, then they shall speak with one voice, blessing, glorifying, extolling, sanctifying the name of the Lord of the Spirits. For the Son of man was concealed from the beginning, and the Most High One preserved him in the presence of his power; then he revealed him to the holy and elect ones. . . And they blessed, glorified, and extolled (the Lord) on account of the fact that the name of that (Son of) Man was revealed to them. . . Thenceforth nothing that is corruptible shall be found; for that Son of Man has appeared and has seated himself upon the throne of his glory; and all evil shall disappear from before his face.” (1 Enoch 61:8-9, 62:7, 69:27-29)5

“Few like Enoch have been created on earth. A sign of knowledge to all generations, and he walked with the Lord, and also he was taken up from the earth.” (Sirach 49:14, 44:16)6

“And he (Enoch) was taken from among the children of men and we led him to the garden of Eden for greatness and honour. And behold, he is there writing condemnation and judgment of the world, and of all the evils of the children of men … for the work of Enoch had been created as a witness to the generations of the world so that he might report every deed of each generation in the day of judgment.” (Jubilees 4:23-24, 10:17)

Scholars have noted the close affinities between the Enoch tradition and the Son of man sayings in the gospels. They have correctly noted the common set of motifs between the Son of man idea of the “sign” or witness of judgment: “And as the crowds were increasing, he (Yeshua) began to say, ‘This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign, and (yet) no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so shall the Son of man be to this generation. The men of Ninevah shall stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn them, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Luke 11:29-32).

This sign is connected with judgment in at least two aspects. The first has been pointed out by scholars who have remarked that the Son of man was expected to stand witness against the men of his generation, or, like Enoch, record the condemnation of the generations and deliver it at the day of judgment. The second aspect is directly linked to judging man’s heart.7 This facet is also reflected in the gospels, although only indirectly associated with the Son of man:

“And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother, “behold, this (child) is appointed for the rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed – and a sword will pierce even your own soul – to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34~35)8

The textual affinity of this passage with Romans 2:16 is clear: both verses refer to the discernment of the secrets, of men’s hearts. Romans 2:16 is a difficult verse as it stands, however. The interpolative phrase “according to my gospel” suggests that Paul felt the need either to defend a potentially controversial idea or to emphasize that this idea was to be regarded as authoritative. The difficulty may be resolved on the assumption that Paul was diverging from the biblical idea that it is God Himself who judges man’s heart.9 In the light of the text in Luke, however, it is possible to connect Romans 2:16 with the Son of man tradition.10 This claim is reinforced by the fact that Paul refers to the same textual source in Romans 8:27. Research suggests that Romans 8:27 is part of the complex of motifs which include Luke 2:34-35 and Hebrews 4:12. This complex is based on Proverbs 20:27:

“The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the innermost parts of his being.”11

Paul may therefore be referring in Romans 2:16 to the judgment by the Son of man of the hearts and thoughts of all men, as a “testing-stone” to decide who will fall and who will rise and be redeemed on the day of judgment.

If this assumption is correct, we may draw some important conclusions from it. First, the function of the Son of man as eschatological judge is confirmed. This is now known not only from the gospels but also from Paul. Further, the judgment can be divided into two aspects: collective and individual. Although Paul deliberately says that “according to my gospel” it is “the Messiah, Yeshua” who will be used by God to judge “the secrets of men”, he suggests a phraseology of the spirit searching “all the innermost parts of his being”, as well as indicating that “his” gospel is perhaps based on some esoteric knowledge which is nevertheless to be regarded as authoritative. If this interpretation is true, then we have evidence that Paul deliberately linked Yeshua to the Son of man tradition. This fills in some of the “theological” gap to which Vermes alludes. It moreover affirms that the term “Son of man” was indeed a messianic title and was understood and used as such not only by Yeshua but also by Paul.

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 4 No 2, Son of Man/Son of God, Spring 1996)


1 Cf. Matthew 8:20,9:6, 12:8, 32,40, 13:41, 16:13, 27f, 17:9, 19:28,24:30,39, 25:31-36,26:64, Mark 8:38, Luke 11:29-30, 12:8, 18:8, 21:36, 22:28-30, 69, John 1:51, 3:13f, 6:27, 12:34, Acts 7:56, Revelation 1:13, 14:14. For a full list, see G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew (London: Collins, 1973), 179. The term thus appears in all four gospels, Acts and Revelation. The importance of this verse in Romans can be measured by a remark made by Geza Vermes:”.. outside the Gospels (the term) appears once in Acts 7:56, and twice in Revelation 1:13 and 14:14. In other words, this presumed christological formula is given nowhere in Paul or the other epistles, i.e. in the explicitly theological compositions of the New Testament.” G. Vermes, Jesus, 160.

2. Cf. Matthew 12:8. Yeshua’s indirect use of the term is taken by some scholars to support the claim that he was deliberately downplaying any ascription of messianic power; cf. R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (NY: 1953), 26ff.

3. Cf. John 3:13f, 12:34.

4. The biblical foundation for the term is not restricted to this passage in Daniel. The term is frequently found in Ezekiel as a designation for the prophet (cf. 2:1, 8, 3:1, 3,10, 4:1, 5:1 etc.). The importance attached to the text in Daniel, however, is clearly attested in all contemporary Jewish writings of the time. For the messianic interpretation of the verse, see Tanhuma Buber Toledot 20, Midrash Psalms 2:9, 72:5, Hagigah 14a, Sanhedrin 38b, 96b-98a. the connection of the Son of man with Melchizedek is made through the messianic interpretation of Psalm 110:1, which served as the source of speculation concerning the Messiah’s preexistence; cf. Mark 12:35-37, Luke 22:69,11 QMeIch. See D. Flusser, “Melchizedek and the Son of Man,” in Judaism and the Origins of christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 526-534.

5. Cf. En. 49:3-4, 4 Ez. 16:62-63, Ps.Sol. 17:2lff.

6. For the text and discussion, see D. Flusser, “Jesus and the Sign of the Son of Man,” in Judaism, 526-34.

7. At the risk of generalization, the first element might be regarded as the collective aspect and the second as the individual.

8. Luke obviously understands the “sign” here on the basis of biblical passages including Isaiah 7:14 (“The Lord Himself will give you a sign”), 28:16 (“Behold, I am laying in zion a stone, a tested stone (testing-stone) … He who believes (in it) will not be disturbed”); cf. also Psalm 118:22, Isaiah 11:10, Malachi 3:18, 1QH 2:13-14, 7:12. These texts are all messianic and interpreted so in later Jewish literature.

9. Cf. Samuel 16:7,1 Kings 8:39,1 Chronicles 28:9, Psalm 7:9, Jeremiah 11:20,17:10, 20:12.

10. Flusser claims that Yeshua knew the Enoch tradition in the book of Jubilees but did not mention him because he “did not intend to invite an unnecessary critique by his hearers. In addition, it is quite probable that Jesus himself considered Enoch to be a problematic personality: Although Jesus used a source which spoke favourably about Enoch, he transferred Enoch’s eschatological task to the Son of Man.” D. Flusser, Jesus, 533. Paul may have been aware both of the tradition and of its controversial nature; Jesus himself never mentions Enoch in his extant sayings, and Enoch never appears in the entire tannaitic and talmudic traditions, according to Flusser, because of the exaggerated praise given to him in Jewish mystical and apocalyptic circles; ibid.)

11: This idea is made clear through a comparison of the New Testament texts with a passage in 1 Clement 21:1-2,9: “Take heed, beloved, lest his many good works towards us become a judgment on us, if we do not good and virtuous deeds before him in concord, and be citizens worthy of him. For he says in one place: -‘The Spirit of the Lord is a lamp searching the inward parts’ … For he is a searcher of thoughts and desires; his breath is in us, and when he will he shall take it away.” It appears that Proverbs 20:27 lies behind both Luke 2:34-35 and Hebrews 4:12, where the common motif of the sword is applied to Yeshua as the “sign to be opposed … to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” and the “word of God” which is able to “judge the thoughts and intentions of the hearts.”



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