In an interview with Maureen Cleave of the Evening Standard in 1966, John Lennon made the unfortunate remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. It was an unfortunate remark only because it was misunderstood. Lennon did not think the Beatles were better than Jesus. What he immediately clarified in the now famous interview was that Christianity misunderstood Jesus, that the disciples ruined the movement and that while Jesus was all right, Christianity was losing appeal among young people.
Whatever one may think of John Lennon and his remarks, the US evangelical right at the time was outraged. Evangelical teen-agers burned their Beatles records, evangelical radio stations stopped playing Beatles music, and various and sundry evangelical preachers used the remark to speak about the evils of Rock and Roll.
A little less than sixty years and a generation later, something has drastically changed in the evangelical right. Not only was it okay for Donald Trump to brag about sexual assault during his election campaign of 2016, but it was also okay for the President to compare himself favorably with Jesus in 2019. Although he is no longer President and is now buried in lawsuits, the evangelical right still thinks it’s perfectly normal to claim divine status for Trump. In a self-published book, Helgard Müller asserts that Trump is the biblical “son of man” and “the Christ.” Müller believes there are two Christs. One is Jesus, the Son of God, and the other is Trump, the Son of Man (someone Jesus predicted). Cheering, not outrage, is the response of the evangelical right.
The work of thoughtful theologians everywhere ought to be religious literacy, but often theology is isolated in the university and available only to specialists. To an untrained ear—and even in some cases to trained ears—it sounds “biblical” to talk about the “son of man,” but sounding biblical and being biblical are two different things.
The expression “son of man” is an English translation of Latin translating Greek translating Hebrew. The Latin filium hominis was used to translate the Greek ho huios tou anthropou. Since in Greek the word Anthropos means a human being, the Greek literally reads “the son of the [a] human.”
For the New Testament writers, the Greek translation made the original Hebrew and Aramaic expression abstract. Native Greek did not have an expression like “the son of a human.” The expression in Aramaic is from the book of Daniel, and it is in the Hebrew of Psalms. When a word comes to us from another language, it can become abstract and can take on meanings it did not originally have. Biblical literacy means paying attention to these transformations, which technically concerns Translation Criticism, usually part of Grammatical Criticism generally.
The gospel writer of Mark draws the expression “the son of a human” from the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. In the Septuagint, in Danial 7, the phrase “huios anthropou” is found. The Greek is translating the Aramaic, bar nasha’ of Daniel 7:13. The Hebrew form of the phrase is ben ‘adam (note how the Hebrew Adam like the Greek Anthropos means human). The Hebrew expression can be found in Psalm 8:4, “What is a human creature (ben ‘adam) that thou art mindful of us.” The phrase is not a title but a reference to a human being or, metaphorically, to the weak and finite human status, like in Psalm 8.
In the book of Daniel at 7:13, the writer offers an apocalyptic or end time vision in which one “like the son of a human” comes from heaven to assume dominion over all the earth. The writer relays an ecstatic vision so that the vision is not ordinary or every day. It is similar to Paul seeing the risen Christ. If Paul was seeing what anybody could have seen, his vision would be meaningless. It was meaningful for Paul because it was special, it was ecstatic. Here in Daniel, an ecstatic vision enables the writer to see a figure similar to a human coming from the clouds to take dominion over the earth. The vision is obviously not referring to a human being but to something mindful of a human figure. Who or what it is remains unstated.
Because Daniel is unclear, a gospel writer like Mark can take the expression from Daniel and turn it into something related to Jesus. We have to admit that people do this kind of thing all the time. Human beings are good at taking things that sound interesting and turning them into something they were never intended to be. This act used to be called deception; now it is called a conspiracy theory.
Mark chose, it seems independently, to recreate the “son of a human” into the suffering Jesus who will one day return to earth. Matthew and Luke eagerly followed this lead and enhanced it. So, in Mark, “the son of a human” expression is used either as a reference to the self (it’s original meaning) or to relate Jesus to an apocalyptic figure. At Mark 2:28 Jesus says, “so, the son of a human lords it even over the sabbath day.” This interesting expression can go two ways. It can mean that “I (Jesus) can lord it over the sabbath” or it can mean that humans generally can “lord it over the sabbath.” Since the whole lesson is about the sabbath being created for human beings, the second interpretation is likely correct. “Humans can lord it over the sabbath.”
In another instance Mark takes the expression “the son of a human” as the apocalyptic figure in Daniel. Mark uses the expression as a divine title for Jesus. Jesus must suffer as the son of a human before he can be raised from the dead (Mark 8:31) and, eventually, return to take dominion over the earth (Mark 13:26). This interpretation has become the typical Christian interpretation of the cross. Jesus must suffer before he can be glorified. It is an interpretation that does not really make sense (why does God need suffering?). A better interpretation of the cross is that Jesus died with integrity. Christianity has never liked that one.
The evangelical right likes to focus on the glorification of Jesus and God, and it likes to believe that Trump is the fulfillment of biblical promises concerning the end of time. The evangelical right will be disappointed because, even if humans manage to destroy the earth, the earth will go on without us. But, in the meantime, should the “rest of us” outside the Christian right just sit around and watch?
There needs to be a concerted and well-supported effort to spread biblical literacy in our culture. Biblical illiteracy has proven to be too dangerous and too harmful. The evangelical right no longer strictly concerns evangelicals. The conspiracies and the lies and the abuse of the Bible have become a threat to the human future. Christian leaders need to forget about the question of whether or not Christianity can survive into the future. The question about the future only forces the church and its leaders to compromise with extreme elements in society in attempts to remain popular.
The gospel writer Mark wrote about “the son of a human” to highlight the suffering of Jesus. In retrospect, it might have been a mistake. Nevertheless, the writer spoke from the ground up under the weight of the Roman Empire. The apocalyptic imagination of the writer was stirred on by resistance, but in the evangelical right today the resistance is lacking, the empire is celebrated, and the insult of the poor is standard. Trump is imagined as the son of man and another Christ, but this claim is at the expense of Mark’s warning (13:6) that emerges from below, “Many will come using my name and claim, ‘I am the one.’”
1. Lennon stated that “Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary.” Interview with Maureen Cleave, Evening Standard, March 4, 1966.
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