"Son of Man" in John 5:27 is an anarthrous (meaning it has no article) predicate nominative that precedes the verb, a form that Daniel Wallace refers to as “Colwell’s construction.” The predicate nominative is a special use of the nominative case wherein the noun serving as the predicate is the same as the subject or describes the category to which the subject belongs. It is joined to the subject by a linking verb, which can be either stated or implied.
υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου ἐστίν
son of man he is
According to Wallace in The Basics of New Testament Syntax, a general rule about Colwell’s construction is that it is normally qualitative, sometimes definite, and only rarely indefinite (p. 117). The reason that it can be definite despite being anarthrous is related to Colwell’s Rule, which states that a definite predicate nominative that precedes the verb is usually anarthrous. In other words, while the lack of an article can mean “son of man” is indefinite, its placement before the verb allows it to be understood as definite. With these considerations in mind, I consider the ways “son of man” in Jn 5:27 has been translated into English (source biblehub.com):
- With a definite article - the son of man (majority of English translations)
- With an indefinite article - he is a son of man (AMP, ASV, WEB)
- With no article - he is son of man (LSV, YLT)
Here are my observations of each: Of the first, that the “son of man” in Jn 5:27 is definite and should be rendered “the son of man” is supported by Colwell’s Rule and the way “son of man” is otherwise found with the article in the gospel of John. Of the second, “a son of man” is indefinite but what it communicates is qualitative - “he is a son of man” implying that he is a man or he is human. Regarding the third, while translations that leave out the article may be the most literal, it forms a rather awkward construction in English.
Given the above, I suggest that there are three ways we can interpret
υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου ἐστίν:
- As definite - he is the son of man
- As indefinite/qualitative - he is a son of man
- As both definite and indefinite/qualitative
Based on the way the clause is constructed, my choice is for the third option, which is that
υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου ἐστίν conveys both that Jesus is the son of man and that he is a son of man. Because of the nuance added by the Greek word order, I consider the placement of the predicate nominate before the verb to be important. This nuance, or rather, these nuances of meaning are lost in translation because the predicate nominative is not placed before the verb in English.
What is the significance of omitting the article?
In a passage that is full of self-revelation, it is significant that Jesus refers to himself as the son of God in verse 25 (the article there is unambiguous) and then as the Son of Man (the Messiah) and a son of man (human) in verse 27 (the lack of the article and position of the words allowing for both readings). According to Bill Mounce, Greek uses word order as a means of emphasis (Normal Sentence Order). While the nine repetitions of the arthrous υἱός in John 5 emphasize Jesus’ identity as the divine (implicit) Son of God, the word order that accounts for the anarthrous υἱός of verse 27 serves to place an exclamation mark on his identity as the human Son of Man.
Again, in a passage marked by self-revelation, these two aspects capture the essence of who Jesus is and how they relate to what he came to do: his identity as the divine Son of God, that of the having and imparting of life; and his identity as the human Son of Man, that of the power and authority to execute judgment. With respect to the latter, Jesus’ words affirm him as the Son of Man prophesied in Daniel 7:13-14 (cf Mt 25:31-32) - the article is anaphoric, referencing back to “son of man” in Daniel 7. But they also confirm his being “son of man” according to Psalm 8:4-6, though as one who came to fulfill/reclaim the “glory and honor” of God’s vision for men (cf Hebrews 2:4-6).