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Language Studies

Aramaic Thoughts


''Son of Man'' in the New Testament - Part 5

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In the Targums, these various Aramaic sources consistently translate the Hebrew ben adam (son of man) with bar enosh or some variant thereof. That is, while the Hebrew phrase is singular, the Aramaic sometimes uses a plural form. Sometimes, too, the Aramaic will use bar enosh even where the Hebrew has something other than ben adam, such as ish (the most common term to refer distinctly to a human male).

The Hebrew adam can be a proper noun, as in the case of Adam. It can also be a common noun, referring to a male human being. Its most common use, however, is a generic use, to refer to any human being, or to the race as a whole. The term ish on the other hand refers distinctly to a male human being, and is thus sex-specific. It is also commonly used to indicate a husband, though the noun ba’al (properly, lord or master) is also used to indicate husband, though less frequently. As a result, adam is very close in its range of meaning to the Greek anthropos, while ish is very close to the Greek aner.

The one point at which the targums vary from the above indicated consistency is in regard to ben adam as it is used throughout Ezekiel and in Daniel 7. In these cases, the Targums use the hybrid phrase bar adam (adam is a Hebrew word, but not an Aramaic one; and bar is the usual Aramaic term for "son"). To quote Joseph Fitzmyer, "This translation seems to be a deliberate shift to avoid the ordinary bar enosh and to insure the solemnity of the phrase."

With regard to the Talmudic material, the results are much the same as with the Targums. The phrase bar enosh (though often spelled bar nosh due to aphaeresis of the initial aleph; which shortened spelling is a good indicator of the lateness of the text) is used consistently in a generic manner. In addition to the fact that these texts are late (later than the second century AD), nowhere is the phrase used in the way Jesus consistently uses it in the gospels.

To sum up our information to this point, the following statements can be made. The Hebrew phrase ben adam is primarily used as a generic, simply to indicate one of the general class of human beings. This same use is characteristic of the Aramaic phrase bar enosh (or bar nosh). Nowhere in any of the Aramaic sources, either pre- or post-New Testament, is the phrase used with a messianic meaning. Where the Hebrew ben adam does occur in an unusual sense (Ezekiel and Daniel) the Aramaic sources that translate or cite them use a hybrid Hebrew-Aramaic phrase to indicate the distinctiveness of the title. Two questions are thus raised by this evidence. The first question regards the source of Jesus’ use of the phrase. The second question regards the precise meaning of the phrase. These questions are similar to those regarding the gospel use of the phrases "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven." Neither phrase occurs in the Old Testament, so why are they so prominent in the New Testament? Additionally, what precisely is meant by the phrases, and are they synonymous, or do they indicate distinct entities? These questions are, of course, outside the scope of these articles, but we will look further at the New Testament use of "son of man" in succeeding weeks.

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Monday, March 30th, 2020
the Fifth Week of Lent
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Meet the Author
Dr. Shaw was born and raised in New Mexico. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico in 1977, the M. Div. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1980, and the Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1981, with an emphasis in biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament and Targumic Aramaic, as well as Ugaritic).

He did two year of doctoral-level course work in Semitic languages (Akkadian, Arabic, Ethiopic, Middle Egyptian, and Syriac) at Duke University. He received the Ph.D. in Old Testament Interpretation at Bob Jones University in 2005.

Since 1991, he has taught Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a school which serves primarily the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, where he holds the rank of Associate Professor.
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