Son of man

I think one of the more subtle shifts over the last quarter century has been how the Church approaches doctrinal ideas. One easy observation of this shift is the change in the missionary library (1). Correlation is slowly disentangling itself from the last generation of thought. The future is markedly more…scholarly (or possibly simple).

While skimming through the Scott Kenny research collection, a copy of which is held at BYU, I came across a hand written letter from President Charles W. Penrose to Joseph F. Smith dated April 21, 1915. This letter begged the President for a meeting about an unnamed apostle that was publishing an untenable interpretation of the term “Son of Man.” Included with the letter was a 5 page typescript rebuttal to this apostle that Penrose believed was severely mistaken.

The apostle with whom Penrose had this disagreement was likely the President’s son, Joseph Fielding Smith. Elder Smith eventually popularized his views and received a champion in his son-in-law, Elder McConkie. In the 1953 Improvement Era and later in Answers to Gospel Questions, Elder Smith wrote:

In each of the four gospels we read where the Savior frequently refers to himself as “the Son of man.” Invariably in the New Testament, the common noun, “Man,” is printed with a lower case “m.” This is very likely due to the fact that the scholars who did the translating did not understand the significance of this expression. Seemingly, they took the view as you have expressed it, that it has reference to the fact that our Lord became a man and while on the earth appeared as a man. You will realize that for centuries the prevailing notion that God, when speaking of either the Father or the Son, was without body and was not in the form of man, except as our Lord appeared among man in his earth ministry.

The expression should be written, “Son of Man,” with a capital “M,” meaning Son of God. In revelations given to the Prophet Joseph, the Savior uses this term when speaking of himself. See the Doctrines and Covenants, 45:39; 49:6, 22; 63:53; 68:11. There are other occasions when our Lord called himself “Son Ahman.” See sections 78:20 and 95:17.

In other places we find links between the title Son of Man to the title Man of Holiness.

Penrose’s position paper included point by point arguments that references scripture, source language, and prior church authorities to show that “Son of Man” doesn’t refer to Jesus Christ’s divine lineage or Godhood (insistence on capitalization?). Instead, it meant that Jesus was born from a mortal woman. Penrose betrays a measure of shocked disbelief that such a position could even be advocated. He also noted as an aside that the un-named apostle was essentially encouraging church antagonists (i.e., the “Reorganites”) who said that the Utah Mormons worship a man.

Personally, I like Penrose’s position, though I don’t particularly care what the Reorganites think. I am no Bible scholar, but I like the idea that Christ, though God, emphasized his mortal nature. I’m sure there is a ton of scholarship on this issue, and I am quite ignorant (and thus likely mistaken). Perhaps most importantly, I like how he got the answer. He tried to include all the data he could and make a reasonable judgment. It is the process that feels right to me (not to mention that Ezekiel is called “Son of Man” 93 times).

It seems to me that some of the wackiest ideas ever propagated in the restoration rest on foundations similar to the definition Penrose was worried about. What exactly is the provenance of these ideas except the common sense definitions that accompany them? There is a generation of thought and materials that are now slowly being forgotten.

The first Priesthood quorums to receive “correlated” lesson manuals were the Seventies. B. H. Roberts penned the Seventies Course in Theology, which required a battery of scholarly books as reference materials. There are flaws galore, to be sure, but it seems that we approaching where we were 100 years ago, now with better tools. With 80 some odd Mormon graduate students in ancient scripture scattered about and the Religious Education dept. at BYU in flux, Penrose may yet get his way.


  1. In 1976 the library was A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, The Miracle of Forgiveness, Gospel Doctrine, Jesus the Christ, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Doctrines of Salvation vol. 1-3. The library released in 2004: Jesus the Christ, Our Heritage, Our Search for Happiness and True to the Faith


  1. um… Did you intentionally gloss over this?

    Moses 6: 57
    57 Wherefore teach it unto your children, that all men, everywhere, must repent, or they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God, for no unclean thing can dwell there, or dwell in his presence; for, in the language of Adam, Man of Holiness is his name, and the name of his Only Begotten is the Son of Man, even Jesus Christ, a righteous Judge, who shall come in the meridian of time.

    I mean, this is the pivotal scripture around which the whole issue rests. Of course, you don’t have the Penrose letter available, but I am willing to see a dualism in the Title of “son of man” where more than one meaning can be implied.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    “Son of” X is a Hebraism for something that has the characteristics and qualities of X. So the “sons of the prophets” were themselves prophets. “Son of man” essentially means “human.” In the book of Daniel it begins to take on messianic overtones, and Jesus’ application of the title to himself (as recounted in the Gospels) sometimes picks up that nuance.

    I know of at least one source that follows the Penrose view. Stephen Robinson has an article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism that explains all of this and calls Jesus both son of man and son of God (IE both human and divine). I think the article is on Doctrinal innovations of the restoration or some such; I’m pretty sure it begins with the word “doctrinal” in the D volume.

  3. Matt,

    We’re again at the point of authorial intention and understanding vs. modern usage (and yes, I believe Moses to be modern midrashic revelation not a recovery of an ur-text).

    In the OT, “son of man” simply means son of mankind i.e. a mortal (in Hebrew we use “son of” to denote ethnic identity — Israelite is “son of Israel”; so “son of man” is “man-ite”.

    When you put things in capitals as we do for Daniel’s messianic “Son of Man,” you turn it into a title. It still means “mortal” though. It’s the difference between, say, “one day, a man will come” and “one day, The Man will come.” Of course, we don’t have these capitals in the original text, so we have no way of knowing which one is meant.

    Anyway, my feeling is that Penrose is right: Jesus is “The Man.”

    As for Moses, well, I’m a big believer in sensus plenior, which is what I believe modern revelation often extracts from ancient scripture. And of course, JFS is teaching true doctrine (Jesus is the Son of a Man).

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Here is what Robinson says on this subject:

    SON OF MAN – From his mother Jesus inherited mortality. Hebrew ben ‘adam denotes “a son of Adam,” that is, any mortal man (Dan. 8:17). Thus, as a son of Adam, Jesus represents Adam’s children, acting as their agent with the Father. As both Son of God and Son of Man, Jesus stands between God and man as mediator. With the definite article, the Son of Man described an expected apocalyptic heavenly figure, identified with the Messiah (Dan. 7:13). Jesus is the son of the archetypal Man, the perfect heavenly Man, the Eternal Father (Moses 6:57; 7:35). In this sense

  5. BTW, 80 grad students in religion! And my sense is that the majority of Bible students are — to a greater or lesser degree — partakers of the modern scholarly theories of biblical criticism. Make of that what you will.

  6. Thanks for the great information, all. I guess I did gloss over it intentionally as I am afraid of posting on Biblical Scholarship. I’ll be frank and admit that I’m not sure what to make of Moses 6:57.

    Kevin, are we basically saying in Mormonism that it is both or that it depends on how you look at it?

  7. I think I pretty much agree with Robinson.

    Anyway, for completeness sake, for footnote 1, the “Missionary Library” in 2000 was Articles of Faith, Jesus the Christ, Our Search for Happiness, Our Heritage, Gospel Principles, Truth Restored, and Marvelous Work and a Wonder. But at the time, it was not strictly enforced, at least in the philippines cebu mission. I would doubt strict enforcement today as well.

  8. Where does this magical 80 grad students number come from? I’ve heard it tossed around before…

  9. The BYU Religion Dept has done an audit of people in religion programs. Whilst I did not hear it from the horse’s mouth, I did hear “80” from another horse. Can someone confirm?

  10. Matt, that is the same library that I had on my mission and as far as I can tell was in circulation from 1988-2004

    I would doubt strict enforcement today as well.

    I think it depends on the mission. My nephew’s mission president just asked that all the missionaries only read the scriptures and the Missionary Library. All else, including CES manuals, was to be sent home.

  11. Ronan, I don’t have that many on my list. I would have estimated 40-50.

  12. There is a generation of thought and materials that are now slowly being forgotten.

    Our ward library has a copy of Man, His Origin and Destiny. I was surprised to discover that none of our ward librarians (including one who is almost old enough to be my father and has an advanced science degree from BYU) knew anything about the book. (I didn’t quiz them or anything. They asked me about it when I checked it out.)

    I guess I’m a nerd.

  13. Nick Literski says:

    I don’t have access right now to the Journal of Discourses, but therein, Orson Pratt reports a revelation given to Joseph Smith, which explains the term “Son of Man.” “Man of Holiness” (also “Ahman”) is given as a name/title of Deity, and Jesus is thus the “Son of Man of Holiness” (or “Son Ahman”). You can find this easily enough with a cd version of the JD.

    This “scholarly” approach is bent on making LDS-ism just another protestant sect. About a year ago, the current BYU Religion dean and three other professors released a cd entitled “What Da Vinci Didn’t Know,” intended to counter “The Da Vinci Code.” The bulk of the discussion was a *refutation* of the idea that Jesus was ever married. These “scholars” went so far as to mention the many early LDS leaders who taught otherwise, but relegate them to “speaking in a particular time and cirumstance” (a nice way of saying “but they didn’t know what they were talking about, like WE do”). One of the speakers, in a sanctimonious tone, declared that it was wrong to believe Jesus married, because “We imitate Him! He doesn’t imitate us!” Another said LDS shouldn’t believe Jesus was married because (his words) “Our beloved Prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley, certainly isn’t talking about that in general conference!”

    The history of the church, Penrose included, has been one of successive generations of leaders dumping whatever they thought made them seem strange. As Hinckley said, not so long ago, “We don’t want people to think we’re weird!”

  14. I don’t know that any response to the Davinci Code can be held up as serious LDS scholarship or as exemplary of the whole genre.

  15. Hm. Nick, I would disagree. I think it makes us more Mormon. I think that it was the generation that we are leaving that adopted too much from protestantism.

    The JD quote you want is in JD 2:242-3. It talks about Ahman, but doesn’t mention “Son of Man” or “Man of Holiness.”

    The Church came out at the same time the book about the Davinci Code came out saying:

    The belief that Christ was married has never been official Church doctrine. It is neither sanctioned nor taught by the Church. While it is true that a few Church leaders in the mid-1800s expressed their opinions on the matter, it was not then, and is not now, Church doctrine.

    This is a fair analysis, though there are statements in the 1890’s as well.

    The scholarly approach let’s us separate the truth from speculation. The scholarly approach doesn’t say what you seem to be saying about the titular Ahman as it relates to the Son of Man.

  16. Does good scholarship turn Catholics into Protestants?

  17. J.- thanks for saving me the frustration. I couldn’t find the reference on and was wondering how I got do my own form of text search.

    Anyway, interestingly enough, only the only people I find referencing a “Son of Man of Holiness” are BRM, Robert Millet, and GeoffJ. How’s that for company?

  18. From his mother Jesus inherited mortality. Hebrew ben ‘adam denotes “a son of Adam,” that is, any mortal man

    Of course, those who subscribe to Adam-God can have their cake and eat it, too: “son of Adam” and “son of God” would, in the end, be the same thing.

  19. Mark N. – Yeah, all 5 of them can have their cake and eat it too…

  20. Nick Literski says:

    It seems I was conflating two Orson Pratt statements. Here is what I was thinking of, from JD 2:342:
    “There is one revelation that this people are not generally acquainted with. I think it has never been published, but probably it will be in the Church History. It is given in questions and answers. The first question is, “What is the name of God in the pure language?” The answer says “Ahman.” “What is the name of the Son of God?” Answer, “Son Ahman—the greatest of all the parts of God excepting Ahman.” “What is the name of men?” “Sons Ahman,” is the answer. “What is the name of angels in the pure language?” “Anglo-man.” This revelation goes on to say that Sons Ahman are the greatest of all the parts of God excepting Son Ahman and Ahman, and that Anglo-man are the greatest of all the parts of God excepting Sons Ahman, Son Ahman, and Ahman, showing that the angels are a little lower than man.”

    My apologies for the “off the top of my head” confusion.

  21. thoughts:

    it seems that joseph smith first used the title in moses 6 and 7 where it occurs repeatedly. it also shows up in later revelations of the d&c and in the book of abraham.

    moses 6 and 7 deal with enoch; in fact, according to history of the church, the joseph smith understood moses 6 and 7 to be a portion of the ‘Prophecy of Enoch’ cited in the epistle of james (i.e. 1 enoch).

    in 1 enoch the title ‘Son of Man’ is rather prominent. as e. isaac summarizes: “The Messiah in 1 Enoch, called the Righteous One, and the Son of Man, is depicted as a pre-existent heavenly being…(Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 1:9)”

    it is striking that: (1) joseph smith began to use the title in his book of enoch, and (2) that his Son of Man in moses 6 and 7 is a pre-mortal divine being (a seemingly counterintuitive interpretation).

    as for the new testament, if you subcribe to traditional authorship, the author of the epistle of james was jesus’ mortal (half) brother. if jesus’ brother was familiar with 1 enoch, it is possible that jesus was familiar with it too and that when he refered to himself as the son of man it was as the pre-existent divine Son of Man in 1 enoch.

    so, this suggests that pembrose was wrong, at least in refernce to joseph smith’s understanding of the term; what jesus (and the evangelists) meant by it is less obvious. if joseph smith’s undestanding of Son of Man is based in an extrabiblical source (i.e. the actual 1 enoch or a revelation related to the ‘Prophecy of Enoch,’ either literally or just in his mind), then biblical references like ezekiel are rather irrelavent. it seems to me that pembrose was more concerned with establishing a good pr image for the church, i.e. making mormonism more like a mainstream church movement (like the reorganites had done and were doing) than the cult movement that it is, or rather was until the late 1800s.

  22. Well, Son of Man is a bit more complicated than all of this. It is Jesus’ preferred form of self-designation. Only four instances occur outside the Gospels. In the Gospels, Jesus is the only one who uses it of himself.

    Son of Man, Suffering Servant, and Messiah were conflated in Enoch, just before the NT. Basically, the Son of Man is a transcendent judge figure who is rejected and then vindicated by God.

    Yes, I did have this question on my comps and I can go on forever…but I won’t bore you with the details.

  23. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 16 No, it turns them into Episcopalians.

  24. Matt W (#17),

    BRM, Robert Millet, and GeoffJ

    Use caution when searching google, the reference was not to something GeoffJ said, but to a comment by Mark Butler.

  25. “Son of Man of Holiness” has always been my understanding of the meaning of “Son of Man”.

    BRM’s comments about “Jesus and Mary …” seem to indicate his feelings about the Savior’s marital status. I have never heard any of the Brethren counter his comments.

  26. #22 comment reminds me of something I heard while listening to Bart Ehrman audio tapes (he’s a good source, isn’t he?). I don’t have the tapes now, but I remember him saying that one or two of the gospel accounts imply that Jesus was not necessarily referencing himself with the title “Son of Man.” I thought, well who else could he be talking about?! But then I forgot about to investigate the matter. Does this ring any bells, Mogget or anyone else?

    Also, about the missionary library — I believe _Articles of Faith_ was removed from the list around the time I went (1993). A distribution center stocking boy told me the book was dropped because it contained racially charged statements. I have never that book all the way through, but maybe Talmage said some unsavoury things about first nation peoples–Indians, etc. Or any number of other things… I don’t know.

  27. Also, about the missionary library — I believe _Articles of Faith_ was removed from the list around the time I went (1993).

    When I left on my mission in 2003, the missionary library consisted of Jesus the Christ, Articles of Faith, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, Truth Restored, Gospel Principles, Our Heritage, and Our Search for Happiness. My mission president also permitted the CES Book of Mormon manual, and a book entitled Drawing on the Powers of Heaven by Grant Von Harrison.
    In 2004, a few months before I finished my mission, Preach My Gospel was introduced, replacing that awful purple training guide. Along with this introduction, the library was changed. True to the Faith was added. A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and Articles of Faith were removed. (I don’t fully recall if there were any other changes to the library. I wasn’t affected too much by this because I had already read the books.)

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    Now that I’m home I took a quick look at the Anchor Bible Dictionary s.v. “Son of Man.” It is quite lengthy, and I don’t have time to read the whole article. The intro, however, says what I tried to say above much more artfully, so I’ll quote it below:

    SON OF MAN [Heb ben ‘adam; Aram bar ‘enash; Gk (ho) huios (tou) anthropou]. A Semitic expression that typically individualizes a noun for humanity in general by prefacing it with “son of,” thus designating a specific human being, a single member of the human species. Its meaning can be as indefinite as “someone” or “a certain person.” Used in Dan. 7:13-14 to describe a cloud-borne humanlike figure, the expression–or at least the figure so designated in Daniel–became traditional in some forms of Jewish and earlhy Christian speculation which anticipated a transcendent eschatological agent of divine judgment and deliverance. In the NT that agent is almost universally identified with the risen Jesus.

  29. Yeah, all 5 of them can have their cake and eat it too…

    Nah, I’ll bet there are at least 8 or 9 who will admit to it openly. The rest just keep it to themselves and are willing to wait and see.

  30. Kevin:

    So pretty much, for the outside of Mormonism view, Daniel was saying “someone will come”, and Christ, by taking up the title Son of Man was saying “I am that someone.”

    Jacob: sorry for the mistake.
    Mark N.: You may well be right.

  31. Mark N. – Yeah, all 5 of them can have their cake and eat it too…

    Nah, I’ll bet there are at least 8 or 9 who will admit to it openly. The rest just keep it to themselves and are willing to wait and see.

    I know of at least 8 and that’s only in a small, relatively insignificant area. My guess is that the numbers are well into the hundreds.

  32. I thought Nibley’s idea of the Son of Man in his book “Enoch the Prophet” was always enlightening also. (p. 35)

    There is one parallel that has exercised the experts more than all the others put together, and that is the puzzling relationship between Enoch and the Son of Man. No question has been more diligently discussed in the journals than the identity of the son of Man; few scholars can resist the temptation of pointing out with magisterial ease just who he is, but with little or no agreement among themselves. Aside from Jesus, it is Enoch who of all the candidates lays by far the most convincing and challenging claim to the Son of Man title “as teacher, wise one, advocate, prophet, ideal man, bringer of salvation, revealer of hidden mysteries, etc.”

    The key to the identification as R. Otto sees it is that Christ “lived and preached in the role and in the name of the Son of Man, just as Enoch also in his preaching was a functionary of the Son of Man and his Righteousness.” In 1 Enoch 37:71, “Enoch has become the eschatological Saviour himself, the ideal of the pious community,” officially designated as the “Son of Man.”

    Though earlier scholars were disturbed by the outright identity of the two (R. H. Charles deliberately alters the ancient text to avoid it), their identity was fully recognized by ancient theologians; indeed, the Christian “tendency to identify Adam in all his characteristics with Jesus, who similarly is represented as ‘The Perfect Man,'” matches the practice of identifying Enoch also with Adam. Eusebius states the case thus: “The Son of Man and the Son of Adam are the same thing, so that Adam and Enosh are the same; carnal (sarkikon) through Adam, rational (logikon) through Enosh.”

    He also makes it perfectly clear that by Enosh he means Enoch: “The Hebrews say that Enosh not Adam was the first true man. . . . He ‘was not found’ [said only of Enoch] means that truly wise men are hard to find. He withdrew from the world of affairs and thereby became the Friend of God [cf. Abraham]. The Hebrews call him ‘The Friend,’ signifying thereby the favor (charin) of God.” For the Mandaeans, the Son of Man is necessarily the Son of God, “for he is Enosh, the first man created,” in the direct image of God.

    In the intertestamental period, “the Son of Man tradition [was] in a fluid state and could be adapted to any Messianic Figure.” The individual is unique, but the type can be shared. Thus in the Dead Sea Scrolls Michael is the Son of Man, but for that matter so is Melchizedek.

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