Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book Review: Are You the One Who is to Come?

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of book reviews on new books in theology or biblical studies (no more than 12 months old). I hope to provide one review per month. There won't be much strategy in picking books. It'll be whatever book catches my eye in the new book section of the Trinity library.

This month's book is Are You the One Who is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question by Michael Bird. For those of you unfamiliar with Dr. Bird, he is a young and very talented scholar teaching at Highland Theological College in Scotland. He is also, quite hilarious.

His new book attempts to answer whether Jesus claimed to be the Messiah or if his Messiaship was invented by the early church. The vast majority of critical scholarship would answer the latter. Jesus clearest claim to being the Messiah is Mark 14:62-64, which is a passage that many scholars believe to be of doubtful authenticity. Apart from this scene in Mark, there is a paucity of clear, irrefutable evidence from the lips of Jesus in the Gospel accounts where he asserts his Messianic status. Episodes with clear Messianic overtones often also are not assumed authentic by many but are routinely ascribed to the invention of the early church.

These obstacles are not insurmountable for Bird, though, as he provides a methodical and compelling argument that Jesus intentionally acted and spoke as if he was the Messiah. Bird starts by surveying the OT, and see how Messianism develops through the OT cannon. He then turns to the literature of 2nd Temple Judaism and evaluates its Messianic expectations. It was interesting to learn that there was no single Jewish view of the Messiah (nor did all Jews expect a Messiah!).

The third chapter was the most important in my opinion. Here he rebutted the five avenues scholars take to deny that Jesus had Messianic intention. They are:
  1. Jesus Messiahship was inferred from the resurrection.
  2. Passages claiming that Jesus wanted his Messianic identity kept as a secret were added by the early church because they felt they needed an explanation for the lack of clear claims of Messianic status by Jesus. The answer was simple, Jesus kept it a secret.
  3. Jesus didn't claim Messiahship, his followers inferred it from his ministry. Jesus actually rejected Messianic status.
  4. Jesus Messiahship was an inference the early church made from the sign hung above him on the cross calling Jesus 'The King of the Jews.'
  5. Messianic references stem from the church's reflection on the OT not actual events in the life of Jesus.
Bird goes through each of these and (in my opinion) refutes each of them. A main point here and throughout the entire book is that Jesus must have believed and talked in a way that implied his Messianic status, or else his followers never would have inferred that someone crucified as an insurrectionist could be the Messiah, even if he rose from the dead.

In the fourth chapter, Bird lays out the positive case, 'that Jesus was performatively messianic as opposed to being messianic in the titular sense' (p. 70). He does this by surveying materials in the gospels, especially focusing on the way Jesus used the OT (especially 'son of man' from Daniel 7).

In the chapter five, Bird goes on to explain how Jesus actions in his final days leading up to the trial in Jerusalem were deliberately Messianic. This was, in my opinion, the weakest part of the book. A few of his arguments were not convincing, especially his claim that the cleansing of the temple was a kingly act of judgment. I do credit Bird, though, since he usually points out where he thinks his argument is a little weak.

The final chapter was delightful. Bird answers the question, 'so what?' Why does it matter if Jesus claimed to be the Messiah? Bird's claims are highly provocative and I think worth pursuing in a separate post later this week.

Overall Bird's book is an excellent book. It is insightful and fresh. I greatly enjoyed that this was a book written within the Evangelical tradition that did not read like a work of Evangelical apologetics. All who are interested in serious study of the historical Jesus would benefit from this book.

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