The gospels use several titles when talking about Jesus. When looking at Matthew’s gospel the particular title that is used may give important clues about the disposition of characters in the story in relation to Jesus, but since so many of these titles are deployed in chapters eight and nine it may be helpful to examine each one in a little more detail.
The ‘Son of’ titles: Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man
Son of David or relation to David:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever…But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. (2 Samuel 7: 12-13, 15-16)
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. (Isaiah 11: 1)
The land, the temple and the Davidic line of kings were significant pillars of Judaic identity for centuries. The destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in the years around 586 BCE brings an end to the reign of Davidic kings over Judah, but one of the hopes is that in the post-exilic years there will be a reestablishment of the line of Davidic kings and with that reestablishment will be a return to the ‘golden era’ of the Hebrew people. After Babylon the land of Israel is, with the short exception of the time after the Maccabean revolt, ruled by a foreign empire either directly or through vassal kings. The Son of David title in relation to this existing hope is the desire for a King of the Jews that will be God’s anointed one that will bring the people back to their glory days when they were not ruled over by Rome or the Herodian kings. In this way the title is close to the Christ/Messiah title.
Matthew spends longer on the genealogy of Jesus than on narrating the birth of Jesus, and one of the primary linkages in the genealogy is to David. From the first verse we learn that Jesus is the Son of David, the Son of Abraham and David stands at the transition from one set of fourteen generations to the next. The lineage of David is also highlighted both at the end of the genealogy in verse 17 and in the address to Joseph, Son of David in the birth narrative in verse 20. While the continuity with the person and story of David in important to Matthew, the Son of David title is never used by Jesus to refer to himself and the only time Jesus mentions David he implies or states that we are seeing one who is greater than David. In Matthew 12: 3, when responding to the Pharisees complaint about Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on Sabbath, Jesus replies to the Pharisees complaint, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?” and he proceeds to imply that he is greater than David, greater than the temple and, using his chosen title states that, “the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” Additionally in conflict with the Pharisees in Matthew 22:41-45 when Jesus asks, “What do you think of the Messiah, whose Son is he?” the Pharisees’ response is “the Son of David” but then Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1 and again states that David calls the Messiah (and by implication himself) Lord.
Several of the uses of Son of David are related to requests for healing, which is surprising because David is not thought of as a healer (with the possible exception of playing the harp to calm the evil spirits in Saul). In the closely related stories of the two blind men in Matthew 9:27 and the two blind men in Matthew 20: 30 the request for healing comes in the identical form, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” Similarly, the Canaanite woman asking for the demon to be cast out of her daughter in Matthew 15:22 asks, “Have mercy on me, Son of David.” The combined usage of this title with both the blind and an outsider paradoxically imply that the blind and the outsider perceive what others do not. The crowds will initially ask “Can this be the Son of David?” in Matthew 12: 23, which will bring about another conflict with the Pharisees where Jesus will again claim the title Son of Man and link his healings and work to the Spirit and the Kingdom of God. Finally, in Matthew 21:9 and 21: 15 the crowds will shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
While Jesus will almost always use the Son of Man title (see below) to refer to himself, the linkage with David and the hope of a renewal of the Davidic line is present in Matthew. Jesus’ actions also enhance the linkage with David as we will see when we look at the ‘triumphal entry’ into Jerusalem in Matthew 21: 1-11. Matthew regularly taps into the prophetic hope surrounding the reestablishment of a Davidic king who will be the awaited messiah. Yet Matthew, along with the rest of the New Testament, attempts to deploy a wide range of titles and narratives to describe the central importance that Jesus of Nazareth will occupy in the hope and faith of the disciples who make up Matthew’s community.
Son of Man (Son of Humanity)
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being (Son of Man—this is a place where the NRSV’s desire for inclusivity unfortunately obscures the textual linkage) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. Daniel 7: 13-14
The Son of Man, or one like a human being as the NRSV renders this figure, appropriates the connection between the Davidic king and God and places it within a cosmic context. Daniel, where this title emerges from, is probably one of the later books of the Hebrew scriptures but it operates in a world where God reveals how God is active in the midst of the rise and fall of empires and kings. The worldview of Daniel, sometimes called an apocalyptic worldview, believes that the God of Israel is ultimately in control in the world and the God will judge the nations and restore the faithful ones to their proper place once God acts in judgment toward the nations. In place of the domination of the nations the cosmic Son of Man assumes a dominion that will not end. Although there is a strong resonance with the Son of Man and the Son of David, the Son of David is closely linked to Israel while the Son of Man’s dominion is over all peoples, nations and languages.
Among the ‘Son of’ titles Jesus, in Matthew, uses the Son of Man exclusively in referring to himself. The Son of Man title is often used to refer to both the suffering of the Son of Man and the authority or glory of the Son of Man while other times it simply seems to be a self-reference to Jesus as he describes either what it means to follow him or how he is received. The title Son of Man is first used in Matthew 8:20 when a scribe approaches Jesus as a ‘Teacher’ and offers to follow him wherever he goes. Here Jesus describes the manner of his life, and by implication the life of those who would follow him wherever he goes by stating, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Similarly, Jesus uses the title for description of how he is received in Matthew 11: 19, “the Son of Man cam eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton, and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ And finally, in Matthew 20: 28, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Finally, when Jesus asks his disciples about how he is perceived he uses this title again, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16: 13) but then immediately follows that question with asking his disciples “But who do you say that I am?”
Most of the usages of the Son of Man title are explicitly tied to either Jesus’ authority or his suffering. Many of the texts of suffering are explicitly tied to the handing over of Jesus to those with religious and political authority and his crucifixion (Matthew 12: 40; 17:12, 17:22, 20: 18, 20:28, 26:2, 26:24, 26:45) repeatedly tying Jesus’ embodiment of this title with suffering, crucifixion and death. Yet suffering and glorification are linked in this title both in terms of resurrection (17:9) in manners that have a strong resonance with Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man receiving authority and coming on the clouds of heaven (Matthew 19: 28, 24: 27-44, 25: 31-46, and in response to the accusation of being the Messiah the Son of God in Matthew 26: 64). But it can also be used in more mundane ways to justify the authority Jesus exercises to forgive sins (9:6) or to have greater authority than his opponents concerns about Sabbath regulations (12:8). The Son of Man title is closely tied to the authority, suffering, resurrection, glorification and self-identification of Jesus. Matthew, with seeing Jesus’ authority extending beyond Israel to include all the nations, probably hears in this title a more universal claim to authority and power than the Son of David title carries.
Son of God
I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” Psalm 2: 7-8
Most modern readers assume that the Son of God title automatically assumes divinity, but in the ancient world being called a son of a god was associated with being king. Caesar Augustus, emperor of Rome at the birth of Christ was often referred to on inscriptions and coins as ‘the son of the divine Julius’ (Julius Caesar being afforded divinity upon his death) but this practice also has strong ties in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the language of the book of Psalms. As one whose authority was derivative from the LORD the God of Israel, and one who reigned on God’s behalf the anointed king could be referred to, as in Psalm 2 above, as the son.
In Matthew this title probably has the most surprising application. On the one hand it is implied twice from the voice from heaven of a cloud where the implied speaker is God (Matthew 3:17, 17:5) declaring Jesus as the Son, the beloved. On the other hand it is most frequently found in the mouth of forces in resistance to Jesus: the devil in the temptation (Matthew 4: 1-11), 2 demon possessed men (8:29), the high priest at Jesus’ trial (26: 63) and mockers at the cross (27: 30-34). Yet, it can also be found on the mouth of Jesus’ disciples in general (14:33) and Peter specifically in his answer to the question “But who do you say I am” when he responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (16:13) In Peter’s answer we see Messiah (anointed king) and Son of the living God tied together. While the Son of God title in both Jewish and empire context are linked closely to the authority of a king, Matthew is probably hinting with both the title from the voice from heaven and its ironic usage by both the devil and demoniacs that something greater is at play. This is also alluded to in Matthew 14:33 when the disciples not only declare Jesus the Son of God but also worship him.
The three ‘Son of’ titles overlap in their understanding of the kingly role of Jesus. Jesus at a minimum in Matthew is linked to the hope for a Davidic king and to God’s action to act on behalf of God’s people and to reign over the nations. The titles in their usage are also tied to the title of Jesus as Christ/Messiah and his proclamation of the kingdom of heaven/God. In Matthew, Jesus intentionally uses the Son of Man title for self-reference with its more universal application than the Son of David or Son of God titles. Yet, all three titles link Jesus to the hope for a divinely anointed leader who would rescue the people and through the narrative of Matthew we see how Jesus both accepts and changes the expectations for these hopes.