Review of @ivpacademic’s Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels

Dear readers, to be sure, I really did enjoy this book once I got past the first chapter. Further, I really do enjoy most of what Dr. Bird writes – you can find his blog here. As you will see, I disagree with the premise, but overall the book is rather enjoyable. I would love to dialogue about what event solidified Jesus as Messiah at some point in the future, but I have to agree, it’s not merely the Resurrection. Dr. Bird and I have discussed our respective views of what the Gospels are before (here and here). Also, IVP, I love you all, seriously. A lot. So, don’t hold this against me. 

There is often a subtle truth we readers fail to realize when reading a text purporting to reveal in an unbiased manner some historical event. There is a vast separation between the event and the literature of the event. Perhaps it is a separation cased by time, geographical location, or even in transmission. Further, with the onset of cognitive memory studies, we are starting to get a better picture of how the later act of remembering changes the perception of the event while warping, even ever-so-slightly, the transmission of said action so that future reception is itself changed. Recently, with the work of Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, we have seen the use of social memory science in exploring the Historical Jesus and subsequent fields of study related to him. Yet, Michael F. Bird, in his latest work, has none of this and instead plows ahead with the usual conservative view that the Gospels are something of a historical record rather than any sort of theologized and interpreted reflection of authors and communities existing decades after the life and death of the Historical Jesus. Did I mention the Gospels are heavily weighted in urging the readers to see Jesus how they want him seen?

While clichés are often fun to throw around, to suggest Oscar Cullmann contributed anything more substantial to Historical Jesus studies with his statement (10) than a well-worn cliché is to deny the progress of both science and biblical studies in this arena. Let me step back here for just a moment. I am not suggesting Cullmann understood his statement as a cliché, but it is often misused and thus suffers from an evolution into a cliché. It is almost like later students of Cullmann somehow transformed the teacher into something more than he claimed to be, even if we recognize him truly as such.

Early followers of Jesus, orthodox and heterodox, believed various things about him, yet the depth of belief does not make it necessarily true nor does it impart into the Historical Jesus something of that belief. Yes, I agree with Cullmann “the early church believed in Christ’s messiahship only because it believed that Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah.” But, these concepts are developed theological statements (specifically, ‘church’ and ‘messiah’). It’s akin to suggesting Jesus viewed himself as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity because Christians in the fourth century came to believe Jesus to be as such. Contra his claims on 143, the claims of the Gospels need not have a full basis in the Historical Jesus for them to be considered any less true. I believe Bird sees something of the weakness in his assumption when he suggests it is not necessary to see “‘messiah’ in every passage” (6) to understand that such a nascent view was taking hold in early 1st century Palestine. Indeed, such a woodenly literal attempt at placing the beliefs of the Gospels on the Historical Jesus misses much of the “remembering” aspect of John’s Gospel as well as the parenthetical alerts found in Mark’s Gospel.

I maintain that such a centralized concept of Messiah developed much later than the actual life of Jesus. The Gospels (there are no documents about Jesus pre-existing the Gospels) are, after all, our only record of the activities of Jesus. Paul, a vastly underused aspect of Historical Jesus studies in my humble opinion, does not list much about the Historical Jesus only that the Apostle believed him to be the Anointed, the one who had brought something of a balance to the force of ethno-convenantalsim. Does Paul see this as a messiah-laden duty? Most probably, given the use of ‘Christ Jesus’ but seeing as there were several messiahs in the Jewish literary and historical tradition (Cyrus is a prime example; Isaiah 45.1), it is doubtful Jesus would have placed, or rather, followers of Jesus would have placed a high stake on any self-proclamation and insistence of sole-use of the title. And of course, this brings up other questions as to whether or not Paul’s vision of Jesus was the version originally preached by the disciples. Simply put, the avenues we must cross in order to see Jesus seeing himself as the Messiah before the writing of the Gospels making it clear what Messiah means, is simply too much to bear.

With my overall disagreements with the premise so stated, let me turn to the benefits of this book. Michael Bird has written a marvelous and easy-to-grasp book filled with nuances, theology, and serious biblical studies with the aim to give the reader something of a grasp of how Jesus would have seen himself. If the interested reader can move past Bird’s insistence and rather see it as how the Gospels saw Jesus, this book becomes infinitely more useable than before. Of course, I suspect the author would rather have it used the way he insists.

The book, after the introduction, contains four chapters — one for each Gospel — and a conclusion. Each Gospel is handled with care, with the author exploring some of the history and setting of each work but delving into such topics and linguistics, rhetoric, and narrative functions of passages and other parts of the whole. He is correct — the basic current of the Gospels are the messianism of Jesus (142) and he aptly shows this. Unlike some apologists, Bird is able to deal with the differences between each Gospel without trying to mesh together and thus destroy the uniqueness of the Gospels. He also recognizes and upholds a key tenant of these Gospels — that the belief of Jesus as Messiah is essential to the authors and thus their intended audiences (145–6). In reality, I find nothing startling or questionable in his conclusion, nor in the preceding four chapters. What is in view, however, is Bird’s recognition of the messianism in the Gospels, something that cannot nor should be denied. Indeed, Bird’s use of the narrative and the tools of narrative criticism along with intertextuality has enraptured my spirit while reading this book, drawing me deep within, as much as possible, the author’s theological intent.

There is much to be gained from this book, especially in the very public way a serious scholar examines Scripture both with a sympathetic hear and an eye towards the academy. While I disagree with the overarching premise — that the Messianism of the Gospels must be dependent upon Jesus seeing himself as what the Gospels portray him as — the value of this book is not likely to be discarded because of the first chapter. I hope serious exegetes and lay readers read this book to discover what the Gospel writers are trying to ask each and every one of us.

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4 Replies to “Review of @ivpacademic’s Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels”

  1. Joel,
    Thanks for the review. Strangely though, much of your criticisms might apply to my earlier book, “Are You the One Who is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question,” but is only obliquely relevant to “Jesus is the Christ.” The reason being, as you point out, the later focuses on the literary and theological horizon of the Evangelists in constructing the messianic concept around Jesus. That said, I’m well aware that there is no such thing as uninterpreted history and that the Gospels are deeply embedded in a theological process and framework. Even so, I would reject (1) Any bifurcation between history and theology because all history is refracted and redacted by its tradents – but that does not eviscerate any historical data from the material; and (2) The Bultmannian premise you’ve bought into whereby it matters not so much who Jesus said he was but more about what the community said about him. My point is that the biggest influence upon the Jesus community was Jesus himself. But, thanks for the review again.

  2. While I understand the warning inherent in the distinction you are making, Joel, it seems to me that, absent evidence, the question is not only unanswerable; as such it is unintelligible. To make an historical analogy: I have a biography of Geoffrey Chaucer. Now, Chaucer lived a very public life, besides being the first great English-language vernacular poet. He was a courtier and ambassador. Late in life, he simply disappears from the historical record. There is no epitaph, no notation of his death after a long and distinguished service to the crown, etc., etc. Nothing. The biographer in question, John Gardner, spins a fanciful tale of the elderly Chaucer and his wife wiling away the last days of their life in quiet seclusion, as opposed to most histories that have Chaucer carted off and beheaded in obscurity in the hopes what friends he may have had at court won’t notice he’s missing. Both cases are equally plausible, absent the evidence at hand. Wouldn’t the honest historian just say, “Well, here’s where the story ends”? So, too, with the question of the Messianic consciousness of Jesus. At the end of the day, the sources we have – the Gospels, Paul and the Pauline corpus, the pastorals (in particular Hebrews and 1 John) – point to at least some sense of blessedness about the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. Absent other available evidence, doesn’t the question about what the “Historical Jesus” thought or didn’t think become not only unanswerable but unintelligible? I suppose I would aim this criticism at the author as well as the critic.

    1. We have no available evidence Jesus thought himself anything, so can we postulate what we what?

      I agree with “point to at least some sense of blessedness about the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth” regarding the NT. Of this, personally, I have no doubt about the truthfulness of these claims, but to suggest that because it is recognized by later — much later — writers that it must be recognized by Jesus himself is a proposition that is unevidenced.

      I could provide an example as well – George Washington. When he died, he was heralded as “first in the hearts of his countrymen.” He died a successful general a President. Yet, he never would have seen himself as a father of a country or a people. Yet, once he died, he was recognized as such, and as such stories sprang up to emulate this, such as the cherry tree incident.

      How did Washington see himself? We don’t rightly know – but it wasn’t the grandiose image his biographers have given him, we know that for sure. Then, to reach back through 2000 years of Christian Tradition to suggest Jesus saw himself as Messiah is pretty impossible.

      Again, for the readers who see this – I must continue to recommend the book.

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