The Theological Construction Kit

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 8: “Who Was Jesus?”)

When I was a kid, my favorite toy was my TinkerToy set. It was simple, it was fun, and with a bit of imagination, you could construct whatever you want just by putting the right pieces together. As an adult, I don’t play much with TinkerToys any more, but apparently you can achieve the same sort of effect with the Bible, and in some circles you even get to refer to the result as “history.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

William Lane Craig is arguing for the historicity of three titles allegedly claimed by Jesus: Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man. As it turns out, however, none of the passages Craig cites actually portray Jesus as making any explicit claim to be Messiah, and the “Son of God” claims have some historical problems. Moreover, despite dismissing extrabiblical documents as fraudulent (when used to dispute the historicity of Jesus), Craig turns around and cites them as reliable authorities when it suits his argument to do so. Will he continue the same pattern when it comes to the title “Son of Man”? Or will he add even more complications to his case?

The phrase “son of man” appears 107 times in the Old Testament, and 93 of them are in the book of Ezekiel, as God’s pet name for Ezekiel himself. Here are a few samples to give you an idea of its typical usage:

O LORD, what is man, that You take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that You think of him? (Psalm 144:3)

God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent (Numbers 23:19)

I, even I, am He who comforts you. Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies And of the son of man who is made like grass…?(Isaiah 51:12)

So not really a terribly apocryphal phrase. “The son of man” is just an ordinary Joe, a regular guy, with the usual human frailties and fallibilities. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s have Dr. Craig explain it for us.

Some critics maintain that in calling himself “Son of Man” Jesus merely meant “a human person,” just as the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel referred to himself as “a son of man.” But with Jesus there’s a crucial difference. For Jesus did not refer to Himself as “a son of man,” but as “the Son of Man.” Jesus’ use of the phrase with the definite article “the” is consistent throughout the gospels.”

By using the definite article, Jesus was directing attention to the divine-human figure prophesied in Daniel 7:13-14 (RSV). Daniel describes his vision in the following way:

(Note: I’m going to switch to the New American Standard translation instead of the RSV so I can tie it in to the online Bible here.)

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 to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the 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.

This is rather an odd argument, isn’t it? Craig makes a big deal about how Jesus must not have been referring to Ezekiel, because Jesus used the definite article “the” instead of the indefinite article “a” like Ezekiel did. Then he quotes where Daniel refers to “One like a Son of Man.” (And interestingly, the phrase “a son of man” does not appear anywhere in Ezekiel as far as I can find—it’s all, “And you, son of man, do such-and-such.”) Out of 107 verses that mention “son of man” Craig picks the one verse that sounds vaguely Messianic in some way, and somehow telepathically knows that Jesus was using the phrase “THE Son of Man” to secretly transmit the message that he was referring to the “someone like A son of man” in Daniel 7.

It’s just like my old TinkerToys: you find a construction you don’t like, so you break apart the connection you don’t want, and plug in the connection you do want. The argument about “a” versus “the” was simply the tool for breaking the unwanted connection. It has nothing to do with creating the new one.

And, by the way, take a look at that prophecy again. “Dominion was given to Him…”, etc. Who do all the “Hims” refer to? It’s grammatically ambiguous: Craig looks at it and sees “And He [son of man] came up to the Ancient of Days, And was presented before Him [Ancient of Days]. And to Him [son of man] was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him [son of man]. His [son of man’s] dominion is an everlasting dominion,” etc.

But this could just as easily be a surrender scene, in which the representative of humanity (“someone like a son of man”) voluntarily submitted mankind to the Ancient of Days: “And He [son of man] came up to the Ancient of Days, And was presented before Him. And to Him [ancient of days] was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him [ancient of days]. His [ancient of day’s] dominion is an everlasting dominion,” etc—not the exaltation of the Son of Man, but rather the surrender and subjugation of the son of man to his Creator. But I digress.

Craig cites a number of verses to support the claim that Jesus believed in the future coming of “the Son of Man,” (which turn out to be fairly vague references), and then appeals, once again, to the documents he dismissed as “frauds” when trying to refute what critical scholarship has to say about the historicity of Jesus.

The Similitudes of Enoch describe the preexistent Son of Man (1 Enoch 48:3-6; compare 62:7) who “shall depose the kings from their thrones and kingdoms (1 Enoch 46:5) and shall sit “upon the throne of his glory” (1 Enoch 69:29). I’ve also mentioned the similar vision of 4 Ezra 13, in which Ezra sees “something like the figure of a man come up out of the heart of the sea,” whom the Most High identifies as “my son” (4 Ezra 13:37) and who preexists with the Most High.

And here’s the interesting bit.

The point in mentioning these passages is not that people of that time… would have recognized His allusions to such works… but rather that the understanding of Daniel’s Son of Man as a divine-human figure fits with first-century Jewish ideas and therefore could have been in Jesus’ mind. By using the indirect expression “the Son of Man” to refer to Himself, Jesus prevented a premature revelation of His superhuman and messianic status.

This is classic Christian double-think. William Lane Craig believes that Jesus revealed himself throughout his ministry as a divine Messiah, as he [Craig] has argued thus far, and yet he simultaneously believes that Jesus actively prevented any such revelations from being made, on the grounds that such revelation would have been premature. Each idea is the explicit contradiction of the other, but he believes both, because sometimes you need to argue that Jesus did explicitly claim to be God, and sometimes you need to argue that He had to hide this important claim in special, secret code words that only the enlightened would come to understand later on.

The contradiction ought to be a hint: “You’re trying to believe that Jesus was really God incarnate, but the facts aren’t consistent with what you want to believe, and so you end up contradicting yourself trying to make them all fit what you want.” But thanks to the miracles of the “Christian worldview,” such conflicts don’t even register as contradictions. They’re just both true—for certain values of “truth.”

Craig next goes on to cite Mark 14, which portrays Jesus as answering the question, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” with a direct, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” That does seem like a pretty straightforward assertion of at least semi-divine status, but if we put on our historian’s hat for a moment, there’s reason to suspect that this account might not be accurate.

In Luke’s account, Jesus gives a different answer, telling the priest, “If I tell you, you will not believe.” Luke then has the priest ask Jesus if he’s the Son of God, and has Jesus give a direct, “Yes I am” in reply. Meanwhile, Matthew has Jesus answering the question with the ambiguous response, “You have said,” followed by a vague reference to seeing the Son of Man coming on the clouds. In Matthew’s account, Jesus never does come right out and claim to be Messiah or God or the Son of God, or anything. All three accounts mention the title Son of Man, and reference “coming on the clouds,” but they vary as to whether or not Jesus made any explicit confession of deity or messiahship.

From a historical perspective, it seems unlikely that any of the Gospel authors would want to take a clear confession of Godhood and try and obscure it or remove it, but it would be perfectly natural for them take an account in which Jesus made no such confession, and “amplify” the account to make it clearer that Jesus was really being executed because he was the real true Messiah. Thus, we have Matthew not adding the confession at all, and both Mark and Luke adding it, but in different places. (Meanwhile John’s account, curiously, does not have Jesus being questioned by the Council at all, but only by Annas the high priest, who questioned him briefly and then sent him to Caiaphas, who sent him to Pilate without asking any recorded questions).

The one thing all three synoptic accounts have in common, though, is the reference to the Son of Man “coming on the clouds.” But even that is a bit odd. If you go back to the original prophecy in Daniel, someone like a son of man is seen coming up on the clouds to the Ancient of Days. In other words, in Daniel’s account, the prophet’s viewpoint is celestial: someone like a son of man comes up to heaven on the clouds. Jesus’ reference, however, is to a Son of Man coming down on the clouds, accompanied by angels no less, even though Daniel makes no mention of any angels coming with him. Jesus, in other words, is providing a terrestrial viewpoint, looking forward to some future event that’s plainly different from the one Daniel is describing.

Let’s stop a moment to get our bearings. Craig’s goal, in chapters 8 and 9, is to present “some of the evidence that will enable you to make a case for the radical personal claims and resurrection of Jesus,” which he alleges is part of historical scholarship’s “new appreciation for the historical reliability of the New Testament documents.” One would assume, therefore, that after 25 pages of presentation, we would be seeing some of the “veritable revolution in New Testament scholarship” that would justify such claims.

What we find instead is Craig dismissing the pseudepigrapha as fraudulent when historical critics use them, and then turning around and citing these very same documents as authoritative sources he can use as the basis of Jesus’ alleged messianic claims. We find him cherry-picking verses and sources that support his argument, and ignoring relevant passages and texts that don’t. We find him reading modern, Trinitarian, Christian interpretations back into ancient texts, and treating these interpretations as the sole, unquestioned meaning of the texts. And over and above all, we find the underlying assumption that the Bible must be saying that Jesus is the divine Messiah because He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Based on Craig’s presentation so far, I have to conclude that the only thing new about this “veritable revolution” is a renewed determination on the part of Christian academics to come up with some kind of counter-argument to use against critical scholarship. The techniques don’t seem to have changed much. The reasoning is the same as it has always been. They’re quote-mining more recent publications, to be sure, but then they’re simply declaring victory, just like always. New theology, same as the old theology.

Still, there’s good material here, for those that are interested in all the convolutions an intelligent-but-faith-driven mind goes through on its way to its pre-assigned conclusions. Next time we’ll look at what Craig calls Jesus’ “implicit” claims to be “the Son of Man.” A bit ironic, considering that he’s basing all this on one or two verses in Daniel that don’t even mention anyone called “the Son of Man.” Stay tuned.

One Response to “The Theological Construction Kit”

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    Good stuff!

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