Book Review: Michael F. Bird, Jesus The Eternal Son

Bird, Michael F. Jesus The Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2017. xv + 155 pages; Pb. $18.   Link to Eerdmans

This new monograph from Michael Bird is the result of a discussion held at the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 2016 entitled “How Did Jesus Become God?” featuring Bird and Barth Ehrman.  The seminar discussed Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God (Harper One, 2015) and Bird’s recently edited collection of essays entitled How God Became Jesus (Zondervan, 2015). Larry W. Hurtado, Jennifer Wright Knust, Simon Gathercole and Dale Martin also participated in this conference.

As Bird explains in the Preface, in his preparation for this conference he became aware much of what is said about adoptionist Christology is incorrect. It is simply assumed the most primitive Christology was adoptionist and scholars tended to reference John Knox or James Dunn rather than examine the evidence. This book calls that quasi consensus into question (9). Bird argues in this book that although there was Christological diversity in the early church, adoptionism was a second-century phenomenon. As Bird says, it is not correct to speak of a single, monolithic Christology of the early church, but it is equally problematic to speak of a wide variety of competing Christologies proportionally distributed across the early church (5).

After a short chapter describing what he means by both Christology and adoptionism, Bird examines two passages most often used as evidence for adoptionism (chapter 2). First, Romans 1:3-4 is one of the earliest statements often taken as evidence for adoptionist Christology, especially if these verses are a pre-Pauline creedal formula. Ehrman claims these verses say Jesus was (according to the flesh) the Davidic Messiah, then he was declared to be the exalted Son of God (14). Bird points out both titles “Son of David” and “Son of God” were messianic titles in Second Temple Jewish literature. There is no evidence the phrase “Son of God” was ever used in Jewish literature for a human who lived a meritorious life and was given divinity after a bodily resurrection (20). For Bird, Romans 1:34 claims the resurrection is the transition from Jesus’s messianic and earthy mode to a display of his divine sonship and heavenly position (23).

Second, Acts 2:36 (along with 5:31 and 13:33) claim that “God made Jesus both Lord and Messiah.” Since speeches in Luke-Acts reflect Luke’s theological agenda, it is at least possible these speeches by Peter and Paul intend to present the exaltation of Jesus as the divinization of Jesus. Bird counters this by showing Luke’s theology assumes Jesus was the messiah and Lord from the beginning (Luke 2:11). Bird cites Kavin Rowe to defend the change in Acts 2:36 is not ontological but epistemological. For both Romans 1:3-4 and Acts 2:36 there is no beginning to divine sonship implied because divine sonship is presupposed as a part of his messianic identity (29).

Bird devotes two chapters to the Christology of the Gospel of Mark. As the earliest Gospel, it is often assumed the book has an underdeveloped Christology and the baptism is clearly adoptionist: Jesus goes into the water a human, and comes out the Son of God (34). Barth Ehrman considers this as an innovation in Mark’s gospel; Jesus is adopted at the baptism rather than the resurrection. Mark’s gospel is also considered by some to have been influenced by Greco-Roman culture so that the baptism is deification similar to deified Hellenistic heroes or emperors. Bird surveys how the Greco-Roman world presented these defied figures and concludes ascriptions of divinity “were not primarily about essence but honor, status and power” (41). These people were deified because they had provided some benefit to the people and were worshiped because they were perceived as continuing to be a benefit. In the Hellenistic world the idea a human could become a god was doubted, even if there was some cultural benefit from perpetuating the imperial cult. Both Jews and Christians rejected the idea of human deification, although Judaism developed used angels or exalted humans as intermediaries between God and man. But these angelic creatures are never exalted quite to the same level as Yahweh nor were they recipients of cultic worship (59). With respect to parallels between Mark’s Jesus and the divine men in the Hellenistic world, Bird suggests everyone read Sandmel’s article on parallelomania (JBL 81 (1962). Certainly Mark needs to be read within the context of both Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds, but parallel texts “create endless possibilities” and need to be used with clear criterion in order to avoid seeing things which just are not there (108).

Turning to the details of Mark’s Gospel, Bird interacts at length with Michael Peppard, The Son of God in the Roman World (Oxford, 2011). Peppard argued the term “son of god” in the imperial cult was a major influence on early presentations of Jesus (67). For Bird, Peppard does not take seriously Mark’s key images for Jesus are drawn from the Hebrew Bible, especially in the story of Jesus’s baptism, the key adoption text in Mark. Psalm 2, Genesis 22 and Isaiah 42:1 provide Mark with his material: the Davidic king, the submissive son and the Isaianic servant. In addition, Mark’s use of Lord for Jesus connects Jesus to the Shema. It is Jesus who is the Lord, and it is the Lord Jesus who is initiating a new exodus (91).

Bird deals more briefly with three other issues in the Gospel of Mark. First, in Mark 2 Jesus claims to forgive sin. This is not the function of a priest in Judaism, only God has the prerogative to pronounce sins forgiven. Second, calming the storm (Mark 4:25-41) and walking in the water (Mark 6:45-52) are “theophanic episodes” which reveal Jesus as the God who controls the chaos of the seas (94). Third, in Mark 14:61-62 Jesus claims to be the son of Man from Daniel 7:13 who is invited by God himself to sit on his right hand (Ps 110:1). This blending of texts strongly suggests Jesus is the co-enthroned one who will be Lord of all creation (101).

Since the first four chapters of this book argue there are no adoptionist texts in the New Testament, Bird devotes his fifth chapter to explaining how adoptionism developed in the second century. Even here he questions adoptionism in Shepherd of Hermes (which he calls complicated and even incoherent, p. 111) and the Ebionites (which he calls a “poor man’s Christology, 112). Bird agrees with Bauckham’s assessment that the Ebionites were Jewish believers who were uncomfortable with some of the Christological claims being made about Jesus, and defaulted to a possession Christology (Jesus was taken over by God at the baptism). Bird thinks the first writer who can be described as an adoptionist is Theodotus of Byzantium (about 190 CE). Even here, Bird hedges since there appears to have been some mixture among his followers.

In his brief concluding chapter, Bird makes the point the New Testament is not adoptionist, but rather focuses on the enthronement of the Davidic Messiah to heavenly glory. This conclusion favors a Christology developed out of the Hebrew Bible over one influenced by the Greco-Roman world. Modern adoptionism erodes the atonement since a created being cannot redeem another created being (128) and runs the risk of a merit-based theology (129).

Like most contributions to the ongoing discussion of early Christology, this book will probably not convince adoptionists. However, Bird does successfully challenge the assertion the earliest Christology was adoptionist by carefully examining several Pauline texts and the Gospel of Mark and providing a compelling non-adoptionist interpretation of these texts.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Michael F. Bird, Jesus The Eternal Son

  1. Thanks for this review, Phillip. I’m way too busy trying to BE and ACT like Jesus… be a man for others… to put much time into my admitted hobby of theology, biblical studies and Xn origins. Similarly for commenting in depth.

    But interesting to see the variety within very early Christianity being (apparently) at least closely examined by an orthodox (i.e., “conservative”) scholar. He MAY be able to effectively “counter” Ehrman but I’ve read and heard Ehrman enough to know the man does his homework in depth and is a careful scholar that is hard to refute on either points of fact or on sensible interpretation (as you know, trained initially in an Evangelical perspective and later a more “critical” or purely historical one). (Not to say he’s never wrong, of course.)

    I won’t venture into adoptionism, not having studied it significantly nor read this book. But I do think most Christians (even of my more progressive type, and especially Evangelicals) fail to see the rapid and fairly clear progression of abstract or “interpretive” theology right within the NT. And the clear traces of an almost certainly non-divine view of Jesus’ messiahship (identity), in Mark and even in the pauline-oriented Acts. That while G. John goes waaay beyond the synoptics to present Jesus AS God (and clearly influenced strongly by Greek thought, especially re. “logos”).

    As, I suppose, an “anti-adoptionist” point (I really don’t find the speculative and abstract issues around it very pertinent to a robust and action-oriented faith), I don’t see how a well-studied person, from our vantage point of NT scholarship, can seriously take the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism and relation to John the B. as historical or theologically instructive. I believe Josephus’ account, on top of clues in Acts, etc., make it clear John did NOT serve as mainly a “forerunner” for God’s messiah, or one who debased himself in the process of elevating Jesus, with that being his god-given role.

    Though Josephus is also not to be taken as always accurate or straightforward, I see no suspicion of bias or twisting in his John “reporting”; and his description runs seriously against the claimed Gospel description of John’s main mission and connection to Jesus. And, as I’ve said, other clues tip us that the Gospels must be distorting things here. And they may be presenting what they do not EXPECT to be taken literally or as even historical in specifics though, broad stroke, Jesus may well have once followed John and taken over some of his followers upon John’s execution.

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  2. Thanks as always for a detailed response. I know that Michael Bird and Bart Ehrman were both speaking at the conference I reference above. I doubt either said anything that would convince the other they are wrong on the issue. Probably the more conservative in the audience remained firmly conservative and the Ehrman supports would think he “won the debate.”

    What makes this book unique (to me) is Bird’s insistence the statement “early Christology was adoptionist” is wrong, or at least is more based on quoting other scholars than exegesis of the the text.

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