Book Review: Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (Part 1)

Bird, Michael F. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. xiv + 393 pages, pb. $30.   Link to Eerdmans

Michael Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus is a study of the origins of the New Testament Gospel. The first three chapters concern the pre-literary forms of the Gospels, focusing on the shape of the Jesus tradition. He includes a chapter on the Synoptic Problem and another on the genre of the Gospels, two often discussed issues in Gospels introductions. Finally, he concludes the book with a chapter on the reason four Gospels were included in the canon of Scripture rather than only single story of Jesus. Each chapter concludes with a related excursus. While most excurses are brief expansions on some technical aspect of a chapter, some of Bird’s excurses are long enough to be chapters on their own. The book was named one of Christianity Today’s top books of the year in the Biblical Studies category.

Bird, Gospel of the LordThe first chapter of this book is a short five-page introduction with a lengthy excursus (fifteen pages of slightly smaller print). The introduction sets up the book as first an examination of the “big bang” behind what eventually became the gospels—the oral tradition about Jesus. What was the purpose of preserving sayings of Jesus? Why were the remembered in the form they appear in the Gospels? A second goal of the book is to trace how those remembered traditions were transmitted, usually the domain of form criticism, although Bird rightly dismisses much of form criticisms advances. A third issue the book will address is how writers used the oral tradition in order to write their Gospels. Last, Bird wants to explore the theological rationale behind a four-fold canon. The excursus for this chapter defines many of the terms Bird will use throughout the book. “From Oral Gospel to Written Gospel” begins with a definition of “gospel” in the ancient world. Here Bird breaks with the majority view that the word gospel was derived from the imperial cult. While there might be some parodying of the language of the imperial cult, Bird thinks the word is ultimately drawn from Isaiah’s “glad tidings” of the end of the exile (13).

In chapter two, Bird discusses the purpose and preservation of the Jesus Tradition. Essentially he asks the question “why did early Christians preserve anything about Jesus in the first place?” Scholarship has occasionally argued that the earliest church had no interest in historical Jesus. Bird considers strange since there seems to be a great deal preserved about Jesus is life. There are several suggested solutions to this problem first historical Jesus is basic to Christian faith. Scholars often assume the main purpose of preserving and Jesus tradition is to connect Christian faith to the historical figure of Jesus. The second reason often suggested is simply the practical value of Jesus’ teaching. Bird suggests that the letter of James, for example, might be considered an early commentary on the oral traditions later in Q. A third possible explanation is the fact Christian self-definition required some sort of the preservation of Jesus tradition. Bird says “the struggle of the early church to remain within the web of common Judaism amid controversy over approaches to the Torah, Temple, and Gentiles by its members probably precipitated conflict between Christ believers and Jews” (31). This conflict resulted in the need for remembering what Jesus actually said and did.  A fourth often-overlooked motivation for preserving Jesus Tradition is assumption Jesus was the founder of a movement. From the earliest times the group was called Christians or Nazarenes.This alone would result in an interest in Jesus’ words.

Rather than at disinterest in Jesus life, Bird suggests that the quest for the historical Jesus began soon after Jesus’ death. He gives several examples of how historical information about Jesus was preserved. These range from pedagogical and rhetorical devices,  suggested Aramaic sources behind the written Gospels, as well as notebooks used by the disciples for preserving sayings of Jesus. The fact that Bird takes seriously the possibility that some disciples kept notebooks to aid in the remembrance and transmission of Jesus teachings is unusual (46). Perhaps most significant for Bird are eyewitnesses as authenticators of the Jesus tradition. Since there were witnesses who were able to “police” the developing oral and written traditions (49), there was some control on that developing tradition. Here Bird is interested in the work of Richard Bauckham on the significance of named persons in the Gospels (59). While he certainly recognizes several objections to the role of eyewitnesses, it seems reasonable that the earliest teachers were “custodians of the Jesus tradition.” In fact, the Jesus tradition was something of “a community possession.” Quoting James Dunn, Bird wonders if contemporary scholars imagine the Jesus tradition as “stored up unused in an old box in the back of some teachers house?” or perhaps “stored up un-rehearsed, in the failing memory of an old apostle?” Jesus traditions were living traditions, taught and preached in widespread communities. Jesus tradition was so frequently taught that the memory of Jesus was preserved actively (67). Yet Bird says we must be aware of the fact that what first century authors would not understand “historical reality” quite the same was “a post-enlightenment, hermeneuticly suspicious, Jesus-questing New Testament scholar” would understand it (54).

In the lengthy excursus for this chapter, Bird attempts to lay out an agenda for an “Evangelical and Critical Approach to the Gospels.”  For some readers, evangelical and critical will sound like polar opposites. Bird deals with the problem most professors teaching New Testament Gospels course have encountered. Young evangelical students get “rather edgy and even irritated” when the professor begins to Sitz im Leben and such things as the synoptic problem or the textual problems with the “woman caught in adultery” passage in John, or Matthew “re-Judaizing Mark,” or the dreaded “criteria of authenticity.”

Like Bird, I find most of my students prefer Lee Strobel to Albert Schweitzer. A number of years ago I lectured for 45 minutes on the synoptic problem, offering clear explanations of the various solutions and arguing for some sort of a saying document like Q. A dazed student in the back of the class raised his hand and asked “What is the conservative answer?” I was less stunned by the question as I was by the non-thinking attitude from a student preparing to go into ministry. For that student, at that moment, there was nothing evangelical in what I was saying about Gospel origins; therefore it was not worth thinking about. Worse, he dropped the class later that week. (The student later apologized and confessed to me wished he had taken the class more seriously, and is currently serving in a church with distinction.)

Bird prefers to call his approach “believing criticism” (68). By this he means that he still believes Scripture is the inspired Word of God, but we will serve ourselves and the church more faithfully when we commit ourselves to studying inspired Scripture in the light of context and the processes through which God gave it to us” (68). He does not want to be judged by the standards of modern historiography, as if Jesus was followed around by hidden video camera. The Gospels are not interested in “brute facts about Jesus” but rather Jesus is the continuation of the story of God begun in the Old Testament. He offers three suggestions for “Evangelical Biblical Criticism.” First, we must begin with the hermeneutic of trust. The Gospel is in fact God’s word and they are about God’s Son. Second we need to “get our hands dirty in the mud and muck of history.” Jesus is not a religious figure separate from real historical situation. We are in fact obligated to study Jesus in his historical context. Third, Bird says we must explore the impact the Gospels intended to make on their “implied audiences” if we are to understand them fully.

This, he believes, is an evangelical approach to the Gospels. I find this inspiring and heartily agree, although there are times when I am participating in an evangelical scholarly meeting when this does not seem to be the practice. I suspect this kind of evangelical, trusting scholarship is easier to maintain outside of the United States, where evangelicalism has drifted considerably to the right theologically and politically. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly agree a biblical scholar can have a faith-based approach to Scripture and interact with it on a fully “critical” level without compromising either faith or reason.

Part Two of the review appears here.

24 thoughts on “Book Review: Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (Part 1)

  1. Great review! These types of stories are some of my favorite ones to read. I really enjoy religious fiction that gives a back story to the Bible stories we are all so familiar with.

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      • I know this book us not religious fiction 🙂 I was mentioning that along with this type of religious book, based on Scripture, that I also enjoy religious fiction, such as a story about the life of Mark, which uses facts we know, but fleshed it out with possible conversations or other things that could have happened.

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  2. Hi Phillip.
    Thanks for the review. I haven’t picked up Bird’s book yet so I am hoping you can clarify for me what Bird states or what you think he means by “brute facts.” First, is he using “brute fact” as it is used in modern philosophy? Second, what would be an example of a “brute fact” that the Gospels are not interested in? Third, are those who dirty their hands in the mud and muck of history interested in “brute facts” or something else?

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    • I do not think he means “brute facts” in a technical sense, in that they have no real explanation, the phrase appears on page 69 in contrast to the “unity between the Jesus of Nazareth and the Lord worshiped in the church.” Throughout this section Bird is adamant the Gospels are “historical authentic” but not in the way an “uber-secularist” wants to define the terms. Bird wants to define “historically authentic” in the way an ancient historian would, but also in the light of the theology generated by the historical person of Jesus.

      He does not give an example, but in the context of the phrase, “brute facts” are “unbiased reporting or purely objective history.” I suppose that means there is no example of a brute fact, since there is no unbiased reporting in the Gospels!

      As for the “muck and mire,” that cannot be the brute facts of unbiased history, since those things are really unattainable. I think what he means here that the NT Scholar needs to do real history of the Second Temple Period, the Greco-Roman world, etc. This is more than simple “background studies,” perhaps “setting the historical context” is a better way of saying it. Pg 72: “We are obligated to study Jesus in his historical context.”

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  3. Thanks for the clarification. It raise does other issues for me though I realize that you may not be in position to answer it since this this not your book. In any case, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this. What exactly does one mean by “historical context”? Does not the construction of any historical context ultimately reside on at least assumed facts, “brute” or otherwise? What is “real history”? Is there a “real history’ of the Second Temple period, for example? If so, of what does this “real history” consist?

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  4. The review raises some important and fascinating things about the scholarly world and faith… particularly the kind of faith and the general belief system of American Evangelicalism. Although I’ve not traveled to nor lived in Europe or anywhere outside the USA, I note the non-USA differences you refer to. Most traditional Christians here don’t want us to follow in European “footsteps”, but it seems to be inevitable (F. Schaeffer noted this in the 1960s.) To me, that’s because they are legitimately ahead of us in certain respects. (Our American pride or suspicion of European thinking prevents many from accepting this.)

    “Higher criticism” would be one good example, although American scholarship also leads on some biblical studies and theological issues as well now… Process theology would be a good example of the latter. Process, incidentally, provides a great framework for work in the more technical and specific aspects of biblical studies. One quick example: I know of no other “system” (organizing approach to the larger issues of reality) that is better able to help one avoid a simplistic (and distorting) split between what is natural and what is supernatural…. Translated to Bird’s issues of oral tradition, historicity, etc., that means a student of Jesus and the Bible does not have to accept ALL miraculous claims as indeed God’s direct work, nor deny them all. And it may not really matter if we get it wrong on either side much of the time…. In my (Process, I think) view, “miracles” occur, but there appear to be mechanisms for them that are not suspensions of natural processes (or “laws”) done by God “him”self.

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    • Michael Bird teaches in Australia and certainly has that European evangelical view of inspiration (read his chapter in last year’s four views on Inerrancy from Zondervan, for example). By calling his approach “believing criticism” he attempts to have evangelical roots but fully employing the tools of scholarship which work for him – whether that is “high criticism” or “historical criticism” or not. To me, this is the right approach and it is a place populated with many quality NT scholars who are in fact believers. They will not get an invite to speak at Bob Jones University, but they are clearly believers.

      IMHO, fear of “higher criticism” comes from people who have not read anything that is actually higher criticism. Usually they parrot the sorts of conservative attacks that have been around for years and are blissfully unaware of what biblical scholars are actually doing these days.

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  5. One point that I make constantly is that, for the ancients, there was a difference between Truth and what we would call “factual accuracy”. Even the secular historians like Tacitus and Thucydides dealt in Truth to some extent, at the expense of factual accuracy. The most famous example are the speeches; Thucydides tells us up front that he is not recording actual words, but the sort of thing that would have been said. Beyond that, he focuses on specific events that are to stand for other events of the same type. The invasion of Syracuse is both the event itself and the epitome of Athenian hubris.

    This distinction was especially important for the authors of the NT, the evangelists in particular. They were telling the Truth; whether if was factually accurate was pretty much irrelevant. To ask the question of whether it “actually happened” is simply to miss the point.

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