Notes on Daniel 7: “One Like a Son of Man” in the Septuagint

Requiring a break from revising the dissertation bibliography, for the next few posts, I’ve decided to go back through some old notes about the book of Daniel within the context of the Second Temple period. This will be the first entry, which concerns the Old Greek version of Daniel 7.

In Daniel 7, after Daniel sees the four beasts and the court of the “ancient of days,” another character appears:

I saw in the night visions,

and behold, with the clouds of heaven
    there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
    and was presented before him.
 And to him was given dominion
    and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
    which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
    that shall not be destroyed. (ESV)

This translation basically tracks with the Masoretic tradition here, which is Aramaic for this particular passage of Daniel. Although I think it’s widely known already, “son of man” is a standard Aramaic idiom for saying “human being.” So at first glance, in the “ancient of days” (7:9-10) we have a figure who appears to be God himself, while the “one like a son of man” is a more human figure. Now have a look at what the Old Greek (OG)/LXX version has to say:

I was looking in a dream of the night and behold, upon on the clouds of heaven came (ἤρχετο) one like (ὡς) a son of man, and like (ὡς) an ancient of days he was present, and the bystanders were present with him. And authority was given to him, and all the nations of the earth by kind and all glory serving him: and his authority is an authority of eternity, which cannot be removed, and his kingdom is the sort that cannot perish.[1]

As Greek diction goes, the OG of Daniel is a bit choppy (one of my professors once simply called it “bad”), which I have tried to reflect in my rendering. Still, insofar as every translation is an interpretation, we should notice what the OG is doing here. In the OG, this phrase “and like (ὡς) an ancient of days he was present” is pretty different from both the later Theodotion Greek and from the Aramaic.[2] It could also be translated more starkly: “and as an ancient of days he was present.” This peculiar formulation has support in multiple manuscripts.[3] When I first tried writing down a translation of the phrase in bold a few years ago, I thought I had made some mistake, but others had seen the same thing.

In a very interesting article, Benjamin E. Reynolds argues that the OG’s language has the ancient of days and the son of man bleeding into one another, as “the OG closely aligns the Ancient of Days and the ‘one like a son of man’ by describing the ‘one like a son of man’ as ὡς παλαιὸς ἡμερῶν in 7,13c.”[4]

Reynolds further observes that the OG’s “one like a son of man” is the object of specifically cultic worship, since the verb λατρεύω only ever appears in the Greek Old Testament to describe the worship of Israel’s God.[5] Likewise, this figure’s appearance with/upon the clouds of heaven—shared by both the Greek and Aramaic versions—also strongly smacks of YHWH himself. “No other being,” writes Reynolds, “including angels, appears with clouds in the OT. Thus, the ‘one like a son of man’s’ coming with the presence of clouds implies the figure’s similarity with the Lord and most likely indicates a heavenly being greater than the angels.”[6]

This all means that some Jewish translator, about a century before Jesus at the latest,[7] seems to have had a very elevated view of this “son of man” figure. I suspect this has implications for how the term functions in the New Testament, which has been a point of contention among New Testament scholars for some time now (strangely, in my view).

Like what? Well, at risk of thinking on the fly, the OG might offer a bit of exegetical leverage on the odd exchange between Jesus and the high priest in Mark 14:61–63 (parallels in Matt. 26:63–65, Luke 22:67–71). When the high priest asks if Jesus is the Messiah, it seems to me that the simple answer “yes” could not itself have served as a charge of blasphemy. If it did, the high priest’s question doesn’t make sense as a line of cross-examination, as it would amount to, “Would you like to commit blasphemy here in your public trial?”

I suspect what really got Jesus in trouble was the addendum, his specific combination of Ps. 110 and Daniel 7—especially Daniel 7. In Mark’s version, it reads, “you will see the son of man sitting on the right hand of power (cf. Ps. 110:1) and coming with the clouds of heaven (cf. Dan. 7:13).” To identify as the Davidic figure seated at God’s right hand doesn’t strike me as functionally different than calling oneself the Messiah. The Psalmist, after all, seemed to apply this originally to a human monarch. But the Danielic material might be far more explosive, given what we have seen above.

If Daniel’s “one like a son of man” was closely (albeit somewhat hazily) linked to the person of God himself in the eyes of some ancient Jews, Jesus’ emphatic self-identification with that figure might have seemed tantamount to identifying with God, hence the charge of blasphemy.But this is just a theory. Almost certainly, others have done extensive research on this conversation.

Perhaps more firmly, one can see how Revelation’s (1:12-16) stark combination of the imagery of “one like a son of man” with the “ancient of days” in the person of Jesus may not have been such a huge leap after all. Apparently, something like this combination had been part of the tradition for some time already.

  1. ἐθεώρουν ἐν ὁράματι τῆς νυκτὸς καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐπὶ τῶν νεφελῶν τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ὡς υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου ἤρχετο, καὶ ὡς παλαιὸς ἡμερῶν παρῆν, καὶ οἱ παρεστηκότες παρῆσαν αὐτῷ. καὶ ἐδόθη αὐτῷ ἐξουσία, καὶ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς κατὰ γένη καὶ πᾶσα δόξα αὐτῷ λατρεύουσα· καὶ ἡ ἐξουσία αὐτοῦ ἐξουσία αἰώνιος, ἥτις οὐ μὴ ἀρθῇ, καὶ ἡ βασιλεία αὐτοῦ, ἥτις οὐ μὴ φθαρῇ. Text taken from Robert Hanhart and Alfred Rahlfs, eds., LXX, Editio Altera (Stuttgart: Dt. Bibelges, 2013).
  2. Theodotian: ἕως τοῦ παλαιοῦ τῶν ἡμερων ἔφθασεν (“he came unto the ancient of days”). Aramaic: אתה הוה ועד־עתיק יומיא מטה (“he was coming and was present unto the ancient of days”).
  3. Benjamin E. Reynolds, “The ‘One Like a Son of Man’ According to the OG of Daniel 7,13-14,” Biblica 89, (2008), 71, citing Papyrus 967 and Codex 88.
  4. Reynolds, 74. 
  5. Reynolds, 75–6.
  6. Reynolds, 75.
  7. R. Timothy McLay, “The Old Greek Translation of Daniel IV-VI and the Formation of the Book of Daniel,” Vetus Testamentum 55, no. 3 (2005), 317.


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