Some scholars argue that Jesus himself did not intend to call himself a messiah, or even that he denied being the messiah. Anything that might be taken as “messianic claim” is dismissed as a secondary addition to the text by the early church as they told and re-told the story of Jesus in the light of their belief in the resurrection. The “post-Easter” Jesus became the Christ. By the time the Gospels were written, a belief that Jesus was the Messiah had taken root and the story of Jesus was written in a way to make him into a messiah. But the “Real Jesus” himself never claimed to be the messiah.
Michael Bird addresses this question in Are You the One to Come? He states at the very beginning of the book that “the historical Jesus understood his mission, ministry, vocation…in messianic categories” (11). The first chapter of the book provides a short orientation to previous scholarship on Jesus as the Christ. Bird observes that the “well-word position” that Jesus never claimed to be the messiah is not as strongly held as it once was, primarily as a result of the so-called “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus (27) I would add here, the research into the Second Temple Period initiated by the New Perspective on Paul. In the last 50 years scholars like E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright have explored the diversity of Jewish beliefs, including their messianic expectations. What Bird attempts to do in this book is to argue that Jesus saw himself in Second Temple Period messianic categories. The source of the Christology of the early church was Jesus himself.
Bird’s second chapter surveys messianic expectations in the Second Temple Period. This is a very broad topic since there is a massive the primary literature from the period illustrating a variety of expectations. He begins with by tracing the development of messianic ideas through the Hebrew Bible, then shows how these expectations were sometimes enhanced by the translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek and Aramaic. Citing Numbers 24:7 as an example, Bird argues that the translators of the LXX “created Messianism” by combining texts to create an exilic hope for national deliverance (45). In order to show that messianic expectations were high in the first century, Bird lists and briefly describes how the Qumran Community interpreted the messianic texts from the Hebrew Bible and how some of these texts were used by “messianic pretenders” both before and after Jesus. This trajectory from the Hebrew Bible through the Second Temple period provides the context for Jesus’ messianic self-understanding.
Chapters three and four are subtitled: “a Role Declined?” and “a Role Redefined?” In the third chapter, Bird examines the evidence often used to argue that Jesus did not claim to be the messiah, primarily the post-resurrection faith that developed into the Christology of the Church and the “Messianic Secret.” But if Jesus did not claim to be the messiah, there is no good explanation for the sign on the cross, “King of the Jews.” That seems to imply that Jesus was in fact claiming something that could be understood as messianic.
Chapter four is the heart of the book. Here Bird looks at the evidence from the Gospels that Jesus’ whole career was “performatively messianic” (78). By this he means that Jesus did not necessarily claim to be the messiah, but rather that he acted out the sorts of things expected by the messiah. I expected the chapter to discuss Jesus’ miracles as a sign of the new age, or the feeding of the 5000 as an enactment of the Good Shepherd image, the triumphal entry and Temple action, or even table fellowship as a messianic banquet (which Bird does mention several times in the chapter). Rather than a catalog of “performative acts,” Bird first has an excellent discussion of Jesus’ self-reference as the Son of Man, a saying of Jesus. He argues persuasively that the title is drawn from Dan 7:14, but also that Jesus combined that title with the “smitten shepherd” metaphor in Zechariah 13:7. Jesus as a suffering Messiah is means by which Jesus enters into eschatological suffering on behalf of others.
Second, Bird argues that Jesus is not just the Son of Man, but he is the anointed Son of Man. After has been active for some time, the imprisoned John the Baptist asks if Jesus is the “One Who Is To Come.” Jesus’ response is an allusion to a series of texts from Isaiah describing the messianic age as a time when the blind will receive sight, the lame will walk, the lepers are cleansed, etc. Here Jesus answers John’s question “obliquely but affirmatively” (101). Bird then shows that these sorts of messianic expectations were present at Qumran (4Q521) “despite the protests of several scholars” (103). In fact, this chapter concludes with a short survey of the “I have come” sayings in the gospels.
Third, Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom of God implies the presence of a King, and in the much of the literature of the Second Temple period, the “dividing line between king and messiah is very thin” (105). Returning to the sign on the cross, it seems obvious Jesus must have preached something that caused the Romans to treat him as a rebel, or a supposed “king of the Jews.” There are many allusions to David and Solomon as well that support the claim that Jesus thought of himself as a King/Messiah.
I suspect that some readers will take issue with these three points since they are embedded in the teaching of Jesus. The Son of Man sayings are often rejected by historical Jesus scholars (especially in the more extreme practice of the Jesus Seminar). The same is true for the programmatic statement in Luke 4; critical scholars will deny that Jesus could read and Luke created the whole scene to portray Jesus as a “scholar” who reads and interprets Scripture. Bird does not get too distracted by “authenticity” questions, but he makes some use of the “criteria of authenticity” (e.g., multiple attestation, p. 109). The classic historical Jesus scholar is not going to like this since he uses the criteria to show the sayings are likely authentic. At the same time, the use of these criteria is falling out of favor with some scholars.
In the fifth chapter Bird addresses the difficult problem of a crucified messiah. Even Peter had a difficult time reconciling Jesus’ claim to be the messiah with his insistence that he would go to Jerusalem and be crucified. When Peter makes his climactic confession in Mark 8:27-30, Jesus does not correct him by denying that he is the messiah, but rather he provides further definition of what the messiah’s mission will include when they finally arrive in Jerusalem. Here Bird examines the anointing at Bethany, the Triumphal Entry and the Temple action as performative messianic claims. The arrest, trial and crucifixion are only explicable if Jesus had claimed something messianic in that last week (if not his whole career to that point). In the final part of this chapter (and anticipating his final chapter), Bird argues that the earliest followers of Jesus remembered Jesus life and teaching after his death and resurrection and began to re-tell the story of Jesus as the “anointed one” who fulfills the prophetic plan of Isaiah in his ministry (146). Jesus was never remembered as a martyr, but rather a crucified messiah, something that simply does not appear in any strand of Second Temple period Judaism.
In the last chapter of the book is a brief sketch of “messianic Christology.” This chapter is not a Christology in the traditional sense, but rather a set of implications drawn from the previous study. If Jesus did indeed claim to be Israel’s messiah, then he did so “from Israel and to Israel.” Jesus cannot be understood properly outside of the context of the story of the Hebrew Bible.
Conclusion. This book appeared while I was working on my dissertation on the messianic banquet, so I quickly read through the book looking for material that I could use in that project. Much of the material in the first few chapters was familiar since I was working through similar issues. When I was asked to review the book as a part of the Logos Library I was able to re-read the book more slowly in order to catch the overall flow of the book.
The book would make an excellent college or seminary textbook in a Gospels class since it does an excellent job describing the variety of messianic expectations in the Second Temple Period. It is not overly technical, although some of the details from the Dead Sea Scrolls might be overwhelming to some readers. The footnotes provide a rich bibliography for readers who desire to dig deeper into messianic expectations in the Second Temple Period.
Additional Comment: I read this book in print, but it is also available as part of the Baker Jesus Studies collection from Logos Bible Software. The Logos version includes real page numbers and the reader can take advantage of the note-taking and highlighting tools in Logos. One advantage to the Logos reader is that all scripture references are linked to you preferred Bible, including the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and Dead Sea Scrolls if you own those books in your Logos library. If you do not have those books, clicking an abbreviation will float a window identifying the meaning. For example, click on 1QM and a window appears telling you this is the War Scroll. If you download the book to your iPad for reading with the Logos app, all footnotes appear on the page you are reading along with the real page numbers.
NB: I purchased the physical copy of this book from my local bookseller, but thanks to Logos for kindly providing me with an electronic review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.