The last part of this series turns us from what is language to how do we use it, particularly in a “Christian” context. Previously, i outlined the liquidity of language and its meaning. In the religious context, how should people interpret their “Scriptures” whether that be the Qur’an, the Bible, or the Upanishads. My answer would be “historically.”
The first thing we should do when interpreting a book (or even a conversation) is that we should place it in its context. For instance, in the Book of Mark, how should Jesus’ reference to the “son of man” be seen? Geza Vermes, in his book Jesus the Jew, suggests that “son of man” was an Aramaic idiom simply referring to the person speaking (and also sometimes the person spoken to). In his view, this phrase has no connection whatsoever with Daniel 7, 1 Enoch, or 2 Esdras (the only three locations in what can be called “Scripture” in Jesus’ time where the phrase is used). This view is further supported by going to the claims in 1 Enoch and 2 Esdras. In 1 Enoch, the “son of man” is directly referred to as Enoch himself. To use it as support for some eschatological figure would quickly remove Jesus from the possibility of being that figure. In 2 Esdras, the references to the “son of man” shed no new light on this figure. Furthermore, 2 Esdras is believed to have been written after Jesus was resurrected, thus making it an unlikely source for confirmation. We are left with Daniel 7. Looking at the rabbinic teachings of the era (i.e. the Talmud and the Mishnah), it is seen that none of the rabbis prior to the late 1st century saw the “son of man” in Daniel 7 as some kind of prophecy, let alone one about the Messiah. It is not until the 1st century (which is when Mark is written) that we see a shift in understanding. First Christians and then Jews began to re-interpret Daniel 7 as a prophecy of the Messiah.
Textually, scholars have suggested that, of the 70+ references to the “son of man” in the 4 gospels, only 5 bear any kind of relation to Daniel 7…and none of those were spoken by Jesus. Therefore, it would appear that at the earliest context, “son of man” was not a reference to the Messiah and only became such after Christianity. As such, i suggest that we should not take statements of Jesus in the Gospel as allusions to a greater eschatological figure.
In the Christian tradition, the idiomatic interpretation of “son of man” has disappeared. Most would see “son of man” as a direct reference to Daniel 7 and the eschatological figure. As such, we should take this interpretation when reading it after the gospels, as it is what most Christians believed.
While this view of interpretation seems rather oddly named because it focuses on both the historical application and contextual usage, it also becomes futural in that it changes. Interpretations change to fit the language and culture of the day, but the message itself does not. With an understanding of the development of ideas, it is easy to see how some views that are proclaimed as historically accurate but have little historical basis (e.g. premillenialism, but that’s another topic!). Furthermore, it is a way to retain historical orthodoxy without excluding the contemporary culture.