The Johannine Son Of Man And The Descent-Ascent Motif -- By: John W. Pryor

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 34:3 (Sep 1991)
Article: The Johannine Son Of Man And The Descent-Ascent Motif
Author: John W. Pryor


The Johannine Son Of Man
And The Descent-Ascent Motif

John W. Pryor*

In the world of Johannine scholarship, consensus has been attained on few aspects of the evangelist’s theology. But it is probably true to say that no one would care to dispute that John makes use of a descent-ascent Christology. It is also true that for many scholars this descent-ascent Christology is understood as being associated with the Johannine Son of Man terminology. While the link between Son of Man and descent-ascent is argued carefully by some,1 it is assumed by others.2 It is the burden of this paper that the presumed nexus between the Johannine Son of Man and a descent-ascent Christology is simply not there and that the Johannine Son of Man is not to be thought of as a heavenly descending-ascending figure. Our procedure will be simply to examine, mostly in sequence, the relevant evidence.

I. John 1:51

The first appearance of the term “Son of Man” in the gospel also contains reference to ascending and descending. John 1:51 is a verse about which, quite apart from discussion in the commentaries, much has been written.3

* John Pryor is lecturer in New Testament and theology at Ridley College in Victoria, Australia.

There is general agreement that the background to the verse is Gen 28:12 and its interpretation in contemporary Judaism. What is not certain is whether the vision promised Nathanael and the Johannine community (opsesthe) is of a theophany on earth (Rowland) or of the glorified Son of Man in heaven (Painter, Neyrey). The strongest case can perhaps be made for the latter exegesis:

The disciples are certainly not seeing the pre-descended Son of Man, nor are they seeing the Son of Man on earth (as in Mark 2:10, 28) for they are looking into the “opened heavens”; nor are they evidently seeing the parousia return of Jesus, a tradition which is totally absent from John’s Gospel. The vision would seem, then, to be an appearance of the re-ascended Son of Man who was crucified and returned to glory.4

For our purposes it needs to be noted that nothing here is being said of the descent-ascent of the Son of Man. It is the angels who are subject to movement, and that of a constant kind. And even in their case it is n...

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