Fortress Press

The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man

The Human Being

Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man

Walter Wink (Author)


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A thorny historical issue handled with artistry and imagination

The epithet "the son of the man" (or "the Human Being") in the Gospels has been a highly debated topic. Wink uses this phrase to explore not only early Christology but the anthropology articulated in the Gospels. Jesus apparently avoided designations such as Messiah, Son of God, or God, though these titles were given by his disciples after his death and resurrection. But Jesus is repeatedly depicted as using the obscure expression "the Human Being" as virtually his only form of self- reference.

Wink explores how Jesus' self-referential phrase came to be universalized as the "Human Being" or "Truly Human One." The Human Being is a catalytic agent for transformation, providing the form and lure and hunger to become who we were meant to be, or more properly perhaps, to become who we truly are.
  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • ISBN 9780800632625
  • Format Paperback
  • Dimensions 6 x 9
  • Pages 384
  • Publication Date November 8, 2001


MINNEAPOLIS (September 29, 2003)-The Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS) recently awarded Walter Wink's The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man the 2003 Award for Best Book Relating to the New Testament.


"An impressive book. Brilliant and passionate, powerful and provocative, a remarkable integration of religion, psychology, politics, the quest for Jesus, and our yearning for 'The Human Being' that we see in Jesus. Wink fills us with a passion for becoming truly human."
— Marcus Borg, Author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time

"Conjoining rigorous historical-critical analysis of the 'Son of Man' traditions with informed reflections on philosophy, psychology, and mysticism, Wink not only gives us new insights into such texts as Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Gospels, he offers a new understanding of Jesus within his own first-century context. More remarkable still, through his recovery of the 'Human Being' he provides a lens through which all readers—regardless of religious identification or theological suasion—can discover what it means to be human. This is engaged, honest scholarship at its best."
— Amy-Jill Levine, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, Vanderbilt University Divinity School

"Walter Wink's The Human Being is at once brilliant, innovative, provocative and challenging. Displaying rigorous historical-critical scholarship while being attuned to recent developments in literary and sociological methods, the volume is nonetheless thoroughly readable, even also inspirational. Interpreting the phrase 'the son of man'-an expression found both in Hebrew sources and on the lips of Jesus-as referring to a human being, Wink explores what it means in Jewish and Christian texts to 'become more human.' Wink weaves together an impressive mix of textual analysis, politics, psychology and ethics. His volume is an essential contribution to studies of Paul, John, Gnosticism and even Jewish mysticism."
— Biblical Archaeology Society


I am puzzled that a species that has subjected virtually the entire universe to its analytical gaze and has penetrated to the tiniest constituents of matter still knows next to nothing about how to become human. I am greatly agitated that our society seems to be losing the battle for humanization. Violence, domination, killing, disrespect, terror, environmental degradation, and want have reached intolerable levels. Likewise, I am bewildered, having lived the greater part of my life, that I know so little about becoming human myself. I am shocked that I am still so largely an amalgam of conventions and opinions and so little in touch with my real thoughts and feelings. Who am I? What might I become? Why have so many of us sold out to miniaturized versions of ourselves?

These are some of the questions that prompt this study of the biblical expression, "the son of the man." The farther I penetrate into the mystery of this term, the more profound and provocative it seems. I have struggled with this puzzle long enough to suspect that the real reward lies not in deciphering the riddle but in wrestling with it. It may be that the "son of the man" is a genuine enigma, an irreducible riddle. But nothing so piques the curiosity of humans as the inexplicable. Perhaps our curiosity is a symptom of a desire to become more human. Like all who have gone before and will follow, then, I rise to the bait.

In this book I am exploring the hypothesis that this opaque figure, the son of the man, is a catalyst for human transformation: unchanging and unchanged, yet changing those who dare come in contact with it. It seems that there is within us, deeply buried or just below the surface, something that knows better than we the contours of our own true face, or that "new name that no one knows except the one who receives it," as Rev. 2:17 mysteriously hints.*

A word, then, about the spirit in which I will conduct this inquiry. This book shares in a growing effort to cast the original truths of Christianity in new molds that have a more lively appeal for people in our day. For my part, I have been searching among the records of Judaism and Christianity to see if there are perhaps other ways to interpret, and live out, the original impulse of Jesus. I want to reflect both exegetically and theologically on how that impulse, inaugurated by Jesus, can open to us the present possibilities of the past. I do so as one who is deeply committed to what Jesus revealed. I believe that the churches have to a tragic extent abandoned elements of that revelation. I do not wish to throw the whole enterprise overboard, however. The Gospels continue to feed me, as does all of Scripture, even the worst parts of it, and some churches are impressively faithful. But if Scripture is to speak to those who find its words dust, we will have to radically reconstitute our reading of these seminal texts.

My supposition is that something terrible has gone wrong in Christian history. The churches have too often failed to continue Jesus' mission. I grant that the church fathers sometimes understood the implications of the gospel better than the earliest Christians, who lacked the perspective of hindsight. But there is a disappointing side as well: anti-Semitism, collaboration with oppressive political regimes, the establishment of hierarchical power arrangements in the churches, the squeezing of women from leadership positions, the abandonment of radical egalitarianism, and the rule of patriarchy in church affairs. Those of us who are to varying degrees disillusioned by the churches feel that it is not only our right but our sacred obligation to delve deeply into the church's records to find answers to these legitimate and urgent questions:

  • Before he was worshiped as God incarnate, how did Jesus struggle to incarnate God?
  • Before he became identified as the source of all healing, how did he relate to, and how did he teach his disciples to relate to, the healing Source?
  • Before forgiveness became a function solely of his cross, how did he understand people to have been forgiven?
  • Before the Kingdom of God became a compensatory afterlife or a future utopia adorned with all the political trappings that Jesus resolutely rejected, what did he mean by the Kingdom?
  • Before he became identified as messiah, how did he relate to the profound meaning in the messianic image?
  • Before he himself was made the sole mediator between God and humanity, how did Jesus experience and communicate the presence of God?

    It is, of course, conceivable that the surviving data do not permit us to distinguish the Jesus of the Gospels from the gospel of Jesus. However, it is my considered judgment that there is sufficient evidence to develop an alternative mode of access to Jesus. Specifically, clues and traces in the Gospels provide flashes of authenticity that seem incontrovertibly to go back to Jesus, or to a memory of him equally true. When we finish our quest, however, we will not have the historical Jesus "as he really was," for such a feat is impossible. If we are successful, we will have contributed, through historical reflection and interpretation, to a new myth, the myth of the human Jesus.

    Toward that end, I will attempt to construct a christology from below, using the son of the man sayings as my guide. Our itinerary will start with the use of the expression in the Hebrew Scriptures and in later, non-canonical data. Then we will focus on the pre-Easter and post-Easter son of the man sayings ascribed to Jesus. We will conclude with the striking parallels in Jewish mysticism and Gnosticism that show that the son of the man was an archetypal phenomenon touching others than Christians in that world. But first we must discuss the presuppositions and methods that undergird this book, and to that we now turn.

    *To use Carl Jung's terms, the son of the man may be considered an image of the archetype of wholeness, that mediates between the transcendent Self and the individual ego.
  • Preface

    The "son of the man" is the expression Jesus most often used to describe himself. For two thousand years it has resisted deciphering. In Hebrew, the phrase simply means "a human being." The implication seems to be that Jesus intentionally avoided honorific titles, and preferred to be known simply as "the Man," or "the human being." Apparently he saw his task as helping people become more truly human.

    All of the ancient texts that refer to "the son of the man" come packaged in male language. This places on the reader the burden of having to translate that language into gender inclusive terms. I have tried to keep male language at a bare minimum, substituting other terms as often as possible, while still identifying the original language. If I have failed to find the happy medium, please accept my apologies in advance. The gold of ancient wisdom is often buried in such mud as this, and those who refuse to get dirty may forfeit the treasure.

    This study may strike some who have read my earlier works on the biblical "principalities and powers" as a major departure from the concerns that animated that inquiry.* While the current book explores new territory, it is by no means discontinuous with that earlier effort. In studying the Powers I attempted to understand what were the forces that prevented people from becoming more human. Here,in studying the "son of the man, I have attempted to gain some idea of what it means to become more human. In a more accessible sequel will search for clues about how to become more human.

    The work on the Powers began in 1964. Research on the "son of the man" began in 1971, when I first attended a seminar given by the Guild for Psychological Studies in San Francisco, California. Those two research themes have being running on parallel tracks ever since. I must acknowledge my profound debt to the Guild, and especially to its founder and presiding genius, Elizabeth Boyden Howes, for insights that not only informed me but in part transformed me, and are transforming me still. I will attempt to acknowledge my use of material that came out of almost twenty summers of seminars with the Guild, but I no longer can be sure where the Guild's insights stop and mine begin. Please regard this book, then, as a community enterprise of which I am a scribe.

    In another way I have written this book for myself. I do not mean to suggest that the reader must agree with my findings. I have many friends who think quite differently from me, who are wonderful human beings, and who can get along quite well without this book. But I have also encountered many people for whom this approach represents an exciting alternative to an orthodoxy they feel has lost its vitality.

    *The Powers trilogy consists of Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984); Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986); and Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). There is a summary of the trilogy, focusing on the third volume, titled The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998). I have, in addition, written several books that apply the Powers analysis to practical issues: Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987); When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998); and Peace is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, editor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000).

    Table of Contents


    Part 1
    The Original Impulse of Jesus

    1. The Human Being in the Quest for the Historical Jesus
    a. The End of Objectivism
    b. The Myth of God Incarnate Versus the Myth of the Human Jesus
    c. The Myth of History
    d. Jesus' Original Impulse

    Part 2
    The Anthropic Revelation: The Human Being

    2. The Enigma of the Son of the Man
    a. The Human Being in Ezekiel
    b. Ezekiel's Vision
    i. God as the Human One
    ii. Ezekiel as Child of the Human One
    3. Feuerbach's Challenge
    a. Response to Feuerbach
    b. On Anthropomorphism
    c. We Are the Seer and the Seen
    d. From Feuerbach to Berdyaev
    4. Other Biblical and Extrabiblical References
    to the Human Being up to 100 C.E.
    a. Psalm 8
    b. Psalm 80
    c. 1 Enoch 14
    d. Daniel 7
    e. Ezekiel the Tragedian
    f. The Dead Sea Scrolls
    g. The Similitudes of Enoch
    h. 4 Ezra
    i. Odes of Solomon
    j. Conclusion

    Part 3
    The Human Being: Pre-Easter Sayings

    5. Jesus and the Human Being
    a. Plucking Grain on the Sabbath
    b. The Healing of the Paralytic
    c. Foxes Have Holes
    d. Blasphemy against the Human Being
    e. A Glutton and a Drunkard
    f. The Human Being Refuses Signs
    g. The Human Being Serves
    h. The Human Being Seeks and Saves the Lost
    i. The Human Being Must Suffer . . .
    j. . . . And Be Killed
    i. The Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement
    ii. The Love Theory of the Atonement
    iii. The Representational Theory of the Atonement
    iv. Liberation Theory of the Atonement
    k. Conclusion
    6. Jesus and the Messianic Hope
    7. Projection and the Messianic Hope
    a. Breaking Messianic Projections
    b. Incarnating God
    c. Death: Shatterer of Projections
    d. Projection and Inflation

    Part 4 The Human Being: Post-Easter Sayings
    8. The Human Being: Catalyst of Human Transformation
    a. Ascension . . .
    b. . . . into an Archetype
    9. The Human Being: Apocalyptic versus Eschatology
    10. Apocalyptic I: The Human Being Comes
    11. Apocalyptic II: The Human Being Judges
    12. Apocalyptic III: The Future of the Human Being
    13. The Human Being in John
    14. The Human Being in Letters Ascribed to Paul

    Part 5 The Human Being in Jewish Mysticism and Gnosticism

    15. The Human Being in Jewish Mysticism
    a. God as Human in Jewish Mysticism
    b. Enoch/Metatron and the Human Being in Jewish Mysticism
    c. Ascended Humans in Jewish Mysticism
    d. Conclusion
    16. The Human Being in Gnosticism
    a. The Human Being in the Nag Hammadi Library
    b. The Human Being in the Early Church Fathers
    c. The Human Being in Poimandres
    d. Conclusion

    Part 6

    a. Once More, Seeing . . .
    b. Will the Real Human Being Please Stand Up?
    c. Just Jesus

    Appendix 1 Was There a Primal Man Myth?
    Appendix 2 Philo on the Archetypes
    Appendix 3 Ezekiel's Influence on Jesus
    Index of Texts
    Index of Authors