A Summary and Appreciation

by J. Harold Ellens

(For more articles from this special feature.)

Walter Wink is a professor at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. His specialty and faculty discipline is Biblical Interpretation. In this important world of very specialized scholarship he has published an impressive spate of sturdy books, a number of which have won prestigious awards. In 2002, Fortress Press brought out a volume which is something of the crown of his creation, the fruit of his long scholarly endeavor at understanding the Bible and sharing his insights with us. That volume is entitled, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man.1 It addresses what may well be the knottiest theological problem in Christianity and in the Second Temple Judaism from which Christianity arose, namely, the problem of the meaning of Jesus’ apparent self-designation, the Son of Man.

Marcus Borg, of Jesus Seminar fame, declared that Wink’s new book is impressive, brilliant, passionate, powerful, and provocative. He called it a remarkable integration of religion, psychology, politics, the quest for Jesus, and our yearning for “The Human Being” that we see in Jesus. He says that Wink, and his new book, fill us with a passion for becoming truly human. There is good reason for Borg to praise this work. Wink’s objective in this volume is to recover the true meaning of the humanity of Jesus, which was to a large extent appreciated by the Jesus’ movement and by the earliest Christian church, but was eclipsed already by the mid-second century when the church became preoccupied with the question of the divinity of Jesus.

Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt, approves of Wink’s undertaking, describing it as an admirable scholarly endeavor that conjoins rigorous historical-critical analysis of Son of Man traditions in ancient Judaism with sound reflections on philosophy, psychology, and mysticism. She sees in this new book rich insights into the ancient exilic texts of Ezekiel and Daniel, and into the late first and early second century C.E. texts of the gospels. Levine thinks Wink leads us to a new understanding of Jesus within his own immediate context, thus recovering not only Jesus’ humanness but also the ideal possibilities of our humanness. The book is a lens through which we can discover what it means to be human, regardless whether we agree with Wink on his own personal theological perspective or religious identity.

Wink’s previous books alerted us to the powerful impact this one could be expected to have. He edited Peace is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, as well as Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches. He has written a dozen books, including his prize-winning series on The Powers—The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, and When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations. In addition, we have from his pen such worthies as Violence and Nonviolence in South Africa, The Bible in Human Transformation, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, and Transforming Bible Study .

In this present volume, Wink offers us seventeen chapters, organized in six parts, plus three appendixes, a glossary, and appropriate detailed indexes. Fortress has packaged it in a genuinely attractive binding. The message of the book is organized in six parts: 1) The Original Impulse of Jesus, 2) The Antropic Revelation: The Human Being, 3) The Human Being: Pre-Easter Sayings, 4) The Human Being: Post-Easter Sayings, 5) The Human Being in Jewish Mysticism and Gnosticism, and 6) Results and Conclusions.

The themes are developed in detail by such chapters as “The Human Being in the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” “The Enigma of the Son of the Man,” “Feuerbach’s Challenge,” “Other Biblical and Extrabiblical Reference to the Human Being up to 100 C.E.,” “Jesus and the Human Being,” “Jesus and the Messianic Hope,” and “The Human Being: Catalyst of Human Transformation,” as well as six chapters on the son of man in apocalypticism and two on the concept in mysticism.

Wink’s argument may be summarized readily and clearly, and I undertake to do it here, succinctly and with deep appreciation for him and his book. A good way to begin is by quoting the first paragraph which sets the course.  

“The son of the man” is the expression Jesus almost exclusively used to describe himself. 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. (xi)  

Wink’s approach to this issue is in the spirit of trying to disclose the original truths of Christianity and express them in modes that speak to interested folk in our day, in a manner that will feed both our quest for self understanding and for transcendental insights. He makes the assumption that the tradition of the faith has been so badly twisted throughout history that it is difficult for persons and for the church to see clearly and do what Jesus had in mind, because it is virtually impossible to discern any longer what he was really up to. This perplexity is largely a legacy of the Imperial Church established by Constantine in the fourth century, structured by the creeds and episcopal program of authority in the fourth and fifth centuries. Douglas John Hall recently addressed this problem in his important little book, The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, in a way most congenial to Wink’s concern here.2 Wink formulates the issues simply as the following ones:  

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
* 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? (2)  

Wink undertook this work believing he could find enough data in scripture and in history to make a significant contribution to 1) focusing the authentic memory of Jesus of Nazareth through historical reflection and interpretation, and, 2) to creating “a new myth, the myth of the human Jesus ” (3). He acknowledges from the outset that recovering the historical Jesus “as he really was” is impossible. What can, perhaps, be discerned, he thinks, is what Jesus intended us to understand by the reign of God which he proclaimed. Wink thinks the center of that issue is a new way of thinking about what it means to be a human being before the face of God, the thing Jesus intended to convey by his self-designation as The Son of The Man. The crucial thing about Jesus is not his divinity but his humanness. His divinity is precisely his special way of being human. “The Human Being means what Jesus was, and how he was, and what his process of individuation was” (253). Wink’s argument is very persuasive.

If we take this line of thought seriously, the author argues, it will land us in something like this mystery: “God is Human and we are to become like God”  (257). The quest for humanness is the hunger and search for becoming an individuated human person with the personal characteristics of God. These characteristics have to do with cherishing others in a way that champions the unique, precious, and inherent qualities and potential of each human person, resisting with courage and aggressive vigor all forces and powers intending to devalue, denigrate, and degrade human personhood in any and every human being.

The key biblical narrative and metaphor upon which Wink bases his argument is the manner in which the term, son of man, is used in Ezekiel and Daniel. He urges us to recognize that the Man in Ezekiel who calls Ezekiel a son of man, is the “Ancient of Days” who sits on the throne to which, in Daniel 7:13ff, the son of man is raised up, introduced to the Ancient of Days, and exalted. This enthroned figure, Wink argues, is The Ultimate Human, namely God, by whom the son of man is exalted. We are to be his sons and daughters, that is, authentic human beings after the model of the Human. A sound Christological formula should look something like this, says Wink:

God as the Human One
Ezekiel as the son of that Human One
Jesus as the son of that Human One
Hence Jesus as the Son of God, the Human One. (256)  
Our author epitomizes the intent of his work by quoting a paragraph from Frederick Borsch, one of the scholars who made a valiant effort to uncover the meaning of the Son of Man title or phrase in the Synoptic Gospels.  
Jesus. . .was not content to preach about a myth; he had to discover how that myth related to the actualities of his own life and those of his disciples. In everyday situations as well as in his entire ministry he was engaged in the process of forcing the myth up against the hard facts of life, making what truths it held to become real and alive. . . .Without  the myth, Jesus might not have been able to accept the cross; without the cross we would never have known how much truth lay beyond even the revelatory powers of this myth.3  
I had the privilege of inviting five internationally notable scholars to a special book session at the Society of Biblical Literature Convention in Toronto in November 2002: Alan Segal of Barnard College and Columbia University, Delbert Burkett of Louisiana State University, Jack Miles of the Getty Museum and USC, Gabriele Boccaccini of the University of Michigan, and Wayne Rollins of Assumption College and Hartford Seminary. All agreed to present a critique, appreciation, and scholarly response to The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man . Walter Wink has provided a written response to all of them.

The responses to Wink and his response to the responses are tough minded, hard headed, and definitive. They give no quarter and ask none. The reader will find them stimulating, objective, scholarly, and highly readable. This is brilliant and thoughtfully analytical exchange at its most persistent, penetrating, and perceptive best. The results are entertaining, enticing, educative, and aggressively expressed. At the same time, it is clear throughout that they are driven by a deep respect for Wink’s work; a profound interest in the truth about Jesus, about history, and about theology; and an unusual scholarly grace and goodwill.

What did it mean to Jesus, and what does it mean for us that he apparently understood himself rather exclusively to be the Son Of (the) Man (ho huios tou anthropou)?


1. Walter Wink (2002), Minneapolis: Fortress.  
2. Douglas John Hall (1996),
The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, Philadelphia: Trinity Press International; republished, Eugene, OR: Wiph and Stock, 2002.  
3. Frederick Borsch (1967),
The Son of Man in Myth and History, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, p. 404.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2003, Vol. 53,  No 2.