Book Review: Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (Part 3)

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

[NB: This is the third and final part of my review of Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord.  Due to the length of my review, I posted it in three parts:  Here is part one of the review, and part two is here.]

In chapter 4 Bird offers an overview of the synoptic problem by examining “The Literary Genetics of the Gospels.” After a long section surveying the various solutions to the synoptic problem Bird offers a “fresh look” at this old problem. He argues synoptic research has operated naïvely on the assumption the Gospels writers had the identical text it appears in our neatly printed Greek New Testament. Matthew may have used a slightly different text than Mark or Luke. While this might be true, this objection does not seem to me to be very helpful in practice since very few synoptic parallels can be explained as a “variation” in the textual tradition.

Bird, Gospel of the LordSecond, every Gospel synopsis has a bias towards one particular solution to the Synoptic problem. In fact, Bird states the obvious: there is a great deal of subjectivity in all solutions to the Synoptic problem. Nevertheless, Bird thinks the two- or four- source hypothesis is basically correct and he is confident in Markan priority. But instead of a full-blown, layered, Q, he describes the sayings document as a “Q-lite” (162). He wants to avoid what he calls the often “schizophrenic” views of Q in scholarship. He is adamant that Q is merely a hypothetical document even if there are good reasons for thinking something existed and was used by both Matthew and Luke. While affirming Q, he is not convinced everything in the double tradition can be attributed to Q (170). He gives numerous examples of this phenomenon such as the story of the centurion in Q, which he describes as “sticking out like a sore thumb” (174).

What is unusual is in a discussion of the Synoptic problem is Bird’s inclusion of John’s Gospel. After giving a short overview of authorship and date, Bird surveys the differences between John’s Gospel and the Synoptics. He then offers nine possible explanations for the relationship of John’s Gospel to the Synoptics. He suggests we “envision the spasmodic intrapenetration of the Synoptic and John traditions” as they crossed on another other “in the preliminary stages” (212). Ultimately John’s Gospel is “truly enigmatic. . . it defies neat categorization as’ dependent on’ or ‘independent of’ the Synoptics in any absolute way” (213). The Excursus for this chapter is a collection of Patristic Quotations on the Order of the Gospels. These are offered almost entirely without comment.

Chapter 5 is a fresh discussion of the “Genre and Goal of the Gospels: What Is a Gospel and Why Write One?” Once again Bird begins by surveying the options for genre often found in Gospels introductions. Perhaps he spends more time on ancient biographies since he will be most attracted to this view: “given the specific features of the Gospels, I choose to label the Gospels as ‘biographical kerygma’” (271). Theologically, God is the main character of the gospels; Christologically the gospels promote the story of Jesus, and intertextuality, the Gospels are a continuation of the Old Testament narrative of God’s great ask toward his people in their history.

Yet there a number of reasons why a writer might have written a “gospel.” Mark, for example, appears to be an apology for the idea of a crucified Messiah (272). In fact, many scholars assume the Gospels are “fundamentally Christian literary propaganda” (citing David Aune), perhaps created only for use in a particular community.  Following Richard Bauckham, Bird thinks it is highly unlikely anyone would have considered writing something like a gospel purely for the members of a local church. What is more, the hypothetical reconstructions of communities behind the creation of the Gospels is highly speculative. The gospels are, as Bird concludes,  Greco-Roman biographies, indebted to Jewish sacred literature, written for the purpose of explaining Jesus to a broad audience (280).

Bird’s Excursus for this chapter concerns the “Other Gospels,” the non-canonical Gospels often described as “lost” or “suppressed.”  He clearly rejects what he calls “conspiracy fuel revisionist history of Christian origins” (282). He provides several useful charts summarizing the date and contents of these “other Gospels.”  These books are called gospels simply because they are about Jesus, and we ought to be wary using the term “gospel” for some of this literature. The reason these books were rejected by orthodox Christianity is that the books were simply not orthodox. It is not as though there were Christians sensors or “theological thought police” responsible for rejecting these Gospels (294). They simply represent “dissident groups” writing in a period of proto-orthodoxy, often ascetic and anti-Jewish (297). Bird is clear there still some value to studying these Gospels. But they will always remain “marginalia” to the real Gospels, imaginative retellings rather than replacements for the canonical Gospels.

In his final chapter, Bird asks why there are four Gospels. Does the “Fourfold Gospel of Jesus Christ” have significance? In order to get at the question, Bird considers the alternative: a single Gospel. Marcion, for example, favored the Gospel of Luke and other heretical groups have created their own Gospels. In the second century Christian writers tended to harmonize the four Gospels in order to create a single story. Some Gospels may have been written to create a rival Jesus book such as the Gospel of Thomas. This chapter ranges well into the second century and discusses the views of several of the church fathers. Irenaeus justified four Gospels based on his allegorical interpretation of Ezekiel and Revelation. Bird is correct this is not a very good reason to justify four Gospels! For Bird, “the four Gospels exhibit a plurality and unity that both encourages and restricts Christological reflection” (326).

In his final excursus Bird examines “The Text of the Gospels in the Second Century.” He surveys the date and contents of the papyri as evidence for the Gospels. But his main target or studies like Bart Erhman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. He agrees Erhman’s basic theses as correct: changes were introduced into the text tradition, often motivated by Christological concerns. But unlike Erhman, Bird argues the vast majority of additions seem to be accidental or geared toward harmonization (333).

Conclusion. Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord would make an excellent textbook of a seminary classroom. He is thoroughly acquainted with scholarship of the last fifty years and is able to present several sides of an issue with clarity. He certainly takes the text of the Gospels seriously and offers sensible solutions to some of the more difficult problems on Gospels study (source and form criticism and genre studies).

Bird’s writing style is quite enjoyable, ranging from serious scholarship occasionally laced with pop-cultural references to some sections which are quite cheeky. For example, he indicates form criticism faded “about the same time disco died” (114), leaving me to wonder if the rise in popularity of redaction criticism about the same time is somehow akin to the birth of punk rock. He describes the differences between the Synoptic Gospels and John as like leaving The Bourne Identity for The Matrix (188). Wondering about the accuracy of the oral tradition, Bird asks if it was “Wall Street Journal accurate or Fox News accurate?” (4), and he later suggests the four Gospels were a “kind of Gospel-boy-band” (311). While most of these side comments will be understood, it is possible readers from a non-western culture will find allusions to pop-culture. I wonder if an allusion to Jesus tradition as viral like “Gungam Style on YouTube” will be understood in 20 years. (Actually I hope this does become a mystery to future readers!)

I highly recommend the book as an introduction to Gospels studies. It ought to be on the shelf of every seminary student.

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

Book Review: Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (Part 2)

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

This is the second part of my review of Michael Bird’s new book, 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. Click here for part one of the review.

In the third chapter, Bird examines the formation of the Jesus Tradition. His interest here is primarily in oral tradition, something scholars have occasionally argued is irretrievably lost. On the contrary, Bird believes he can “map the shape of the tradition in its pre-gospel form” (79). This requires attention to the “telltale signs of orality”: looking for mnemonic devices, detecting local color from Galilean or Judean settings, and identifying stereo-typical oral forms in the text. There is a spectrum of views on oral tradition from a “free, fluid and flexible” tradition all the way to “formally controlled,” like a rabbi forcing his students to memorize his teachings. To some extent there is some truth to all of the suggestions surveyed by Bird in this chapter since there is evidence some traditions were passed formal ways (1 Cor 15:3-5), and others stories may have been adapted to new situations. Like many Evangelicals, Bird is impressed by Kenneth Bailey’s “informal controlled oral tradition.” Bailey is well-known for examining how modern Middle Eastern village life is not unlike the world of the New Testament. While Bird does acknowledge some of the shortcomings of Bailey’s method, but he finds it more useful than early form critical models.

Bird, Gospel of the LordPrimary interest in this chapter is Birds discussion of social memory. This method was developed by James Dunn (Jesus Remembered) and has become a very hot-topic for Gospels scholars. Dunn sought to establish a new hermeneutic for the study of historical Jesus which avoided some of the historical skepticism of the previous generations. This “social memory movement” has produced a remarkable number of monographs in the past 10 years and is producing excellent results in Gospels studies. A Bird explains it, past memories are mounted on mental artifacts that are reconstructed in the light of the needs of the present” (99). Simply put, the people who experienced Jesus remembered what he said and did. The year 100 CE did not “cause instantaneous and widespread amnesia” since people were teaching and preaching what Jesus said and did throughout the first century.

Bird explores evidence from the early second century to support this continuity in tradition. Papias, for example, could claim that he “carefully remembered” everything he learned from the elders (103). Polycarp claimed to have remembered what he gained from eyewitnesses, and Irenaeus said he made notes about these things not on paper but on his heart (105). But as Bird acknowledges, memory is not always accurate. He cites the work of John Dominic Crossan who argued people remember things that are both fact and fiction, memory and fantasy, recollection and fabrication. However, Bird thinks that these examples of failures of memory can be fairly described as merely incidental and not tied to core beliefs. People do not misremember absolute fantasies, but they do remember accurately general facts.

Second, if one thinks Jesus closest disciples and journal supporters were inclined to create memories only a decade or two after they allegedly occurred, then the studies of memory studies are obviously of little value. However the Jesus movement was formed around networks and clusters of believers and memories about Jesus were retrieved in that “net context” (109). They remembered “as a community” not as individuals.

Third, “remembering Jesus” was not an isolated instance of remembering some fact. Key to the accuracy of memory is frequency of retrieval. If the apostles really were teaching and preaching the stories and sayings of Jesus, then memory of Jesus was constantly being recalled. Those who suggested the disciples suddenly forgot what Jesus taught a few months after the crucifixion are overly skeptical. While The Gospels are theological documents, they are based on community memories. “Consequently, the memory of Jesus deposited in the Gospels bequeaths to us both authenticity and artistry, fact and faith, history and hermeneutic” (113).

In his excursus on the “Failure of Form Criticism,” Bird argues virtually “every single presupposition and procedure in form criticism has been thoroughly discredited” (114).  One major reason is form criticism never understood Judaism or Hellenism properly, tending to make them as separate and distinct as possible. Martin Hengel and others have called this assumption into question, eroding this important foundation of the form critics. The form critics also held erroneous views of oral tradition. They tended to see the role of Christian prophets as “creators of dominical tradition,” yet as James Dunn has pointed out, later Christian writers demonstrate a “healthy degree of skepticism towards prophecy” (120). Last, Bird discusses the unlikely link between the pre-literary forms the imagined Sitz im Leben. Form critics can justly be accused of making a circular argument when they argued the Gospels were allegories created by the church to address a current situation. But Bird says “all history telling is a mixture of fact and interpretation,” and communities do in fact retell traditions. This retelling may color the Jesus tradition, but it does not create the tradition. Every preacher attempts to contextualize Scripture for a new community, but the preacher does not create new tradition and place it in the mouth of Jesus.

Part Three of the review appears here.

 

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.

Book Giveaway – Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord

Michael Bird - The Gospel of the LordIt is the time of year to be thankful, and I am thankful that I have an extra copy of Michael Bird’s new book, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2014) to give away to some lucky reader of this blog. This is a new copy; mine is well read, marked and dog-eared by now. I will send a clean copy to a reader of this blog. There are no geographical limits here, although I am hoping someone from Antarctica does not win.

I plan on posted my review of the book in a few days, but for now let me say this is a nice introduction to several related topics at the foundation of Gospels studies, touching on related by diverse topics like Oral Tradition, Source Criticism, and the Genre of the Gospels. Each chapter has an excursus which digs a little deeper into some aspect of the chapter, so it is like getting two books in one. I highly recommend the book as an introduction to Synoptic Gospels study.

To have a chance at winning these books, leave a comment telling me what Famous Gospels Scholar you are most thankful for this Holiday season. Or at the very least, leave your name.  I will announce the winner picked at random on December 1.

Book Review: Michael F. Bird, Are You the One Who Is To Come?

Bird, Michael F. Are You the One Who Is To Come? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2009. 207 pages, pb. $24  Link to Baker   Link to Logos

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.

PrintMichael 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.

Are You The One To Come? (Logos on the iPad)

Are You The One To Come? (Logos on the iPad)

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.

National ETS 2013 in Baltimore

I am heading for Baltimore this afternoon to attend the National meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. I always enjoy ETS, even though it is smaller than the SBL/AAR meetings later in the week.  I am not giving a paper this year, but I am a “moderator” for a Gospels/Acts parallel session tomorrow morning.

9780310331360Because I am serving as a moderator, I will not be able to attend what promises to be one of the main events of the conference. November 19 there will be a panel discussion featuring Albert Mohler, Kevin Vanhoozer, Michael Bird, Peter Enns, and John R. Franke onthe topic of Inerrancy. These five scholars are the contributors to Zondervan’s Five Views on Inerrancywhich is due be released December 10. This will likely be a heavily attended session, given the topic and participants.

The Bible Gateway is going to live-blog and live-Tweet (@biblegateway) the event from from 8:30-11:40 AM EST. If you are not in Baltimore for the meetings, be sure to  check out the Bible Gateway blog.

If you are in Baltimore, have a great time and enjoy the crab-cakes.

Michael Bird on the Value of Anti-Imperial Readings of Romans (ETS 2011)

I went to Michael Bird’s paper this morning entitled “Raging against the Romans: The Value of Anti-Imperialist Readings of Romans?” Notice the question mark there. This is a very popular and edgy thing to be doing right at the moment in Pauline studies, so Bird’s assessment of this “movement” is timely and valuable. Bird began by expressing his initial doubt whether the sorts of anti-Imperial readings of Paul were legitimate. Over the last week or so I have expressed similar misgivings in Romans 13 as a coded statement which ought to be read as anti-Rome. And like Bird I was more or less uninterested with these articles and papers since there was a strong undertone of anti-conservative politics implied (or maybe not-so- implied in most cases!)

But Bird made a few good observations which at least make the possibility of some of Paul’s statements as anti-Imperial more likely. That the words for gospel and savior are not new words coined by Christianity is axiomatic. The good news in Rome concerns the Emperor and the savior of the World is Nero, not Jesus. For Paul to describe Jesus in these terms is at least implicitly anti-Empire. Bird dealt with two passages which frame Romans with apparent anti-Imperial language, Romans 1:3-4 an 15:12. In both cases Jesus is described as being the Messiah, the Root of David, and as such the one who will supplant the kingdoms of man.

While I agree with Bird that these texts have political teeth, they are hardly a script for revolution. Bird wondered what a Roman might make of a public reading of the first few verses of Romans (“it would probably irk him off” was the way he phrased it.) As I said a few days ago in a post on Romans 13, I seriously doubt even the most oppressed member of Paul’s church would have thought about a real rebellion against Rome since that would have been completely impossible. Paul is not talking about taking to the streets of Rome and occupying the Palace.

Instead, in Romans 13 Paul says that the believer ought to obey the government which has been appointed by God. Bird pointed out that this is not simple quietism, since in the next few verses Paul gives a justification for this submission – the time is short! The time is now very near when God will destroy the kingdom of man and establish his rule (I hear echoes of Daniel 2 and 7 here, as well as any number of Second Temple period references.)

If Paul is anti-Imperial, it is because God is anti-Imperial. God rules, not Caesar. I think that much more could be said here by using Jewish apocalyptic as a model. Paul is speaking apocalyptically when he describes Jesus as Messiah and the Root of Jesse.

Bird ended with an excellent quote from T. R. Glover, “a day will come when men will call their sons Paul, and their dogs, Nero.” Christianity did in fact destroy Rome in the end, although not through armed rebellion.