Michael F. Bird. Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013. 219 pp. $18.00.
I grew up an atheist in an unreligious home and never had any exposure to Christianity. Once in a while when I did hear the name “Jesus Christ,” I assumed that Christ was Jesus’s last name. To most evangelicals, however, the affirmation that Jesus is the Christ/Messiah is perhaps the most obvious fact about our Lord; it’s akin to saying that Bird is the Conan-esque Australian biblical scholar. Duh. Of course he is. But in the (critical) academic world of Jesus/Gospel studies, it’s commonly argued that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah; rather, “the identification of Jesus as the Messiah is something of an ad hoc addition to the tradition, made in order to indicate that Jesus is a person of some importance in the divine plan” (3).
In Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels, Michael Bird argues that “the designation of Jesus as Messiah is not a late, secondary, or dispensable category applied to Jesus. The messiahship of Jesus comprises the primary framework in which the sum of all christological affirmations in the Gospels are to be understood, that is, all Christology is a subset of Messianology” (4). A follow-up to Are You the One Who is to Come: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question, this book offers a narrative and theological look at the messianic Christology of each of the four canonical gospels whereas the earlier title is a historical Jesus study that argues for Jesus’s messianic self-understanding.
In the introduction Bird provides a brief yet helpful sketch of Jewish messianic expectations, a few key arguments for why Jesus did claim to be the Messiah despite the fact that he never once used this title to describe himself, an overview of the messianic nature of early Christian proclamation of Jesus and the titular and messianic significance in the NT use of Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, and a survey of and response to competing histories of the origin of Jesus as “Messiah” in which messianism is either a late development or an insignificant factor for the origins of Christology.
Then a chapter is dedicated to each of the canonical Gospels, showing how each evangelist articulates the messianic identity of Jesus in a unique way and arguing that “a significant purpose of the Gospels is to convince readers – Jewish readers in particular – that Jesus is the Messiah. The Gospels consciously set out to answer Jewish objections to the messiahship of Jesus, they perceive in Jesus the climax of the Jewish hope, and they proclaim Jesus as the saviour of Israel” (33).
In chapter 1 Bird analyzes the Gospel of Mark through narrative, linguistic, rhetorical, social-scientific, and christological grids to shows how Mark addressed the objections to a crucified Messiah. Chapter 2 zooms in on Matthew’s genealogy, birth narrative, amplification of the Son of David tradition, and unique references to “the deeds of the Messiah” to demonstrate that “the Matthean Jesus is the new Davidic Shepherd over the lost sheep of the house of Israel, who leads them in a new exodus where there is forgiveness of sins, healing, and restoration of the nation” (70). In chapter 3 Bird points out several interesting ways in which Luke redacted Marcan material to make implicit messianic themes more explicit and illuminates key christological points in Luke-Acts where Jesus’s identity as the Davidic Messiah is emphasized. Each of these chapters is around twenty pages and jam-packed with insight.
Chapter 4 on the Gospel of John is about twice as long as the others at just over forty pages. Bird begins this chapter by highlighting four ways in which an implicit messianism is apparent in the Johannine prologue. He then takes us through the “sign miracles,” showing how they echo messianic themes. For example, the first sign of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana introduces Jesus “as the true bridegroom (of Israel) who supplies (new) wine for the (messianic) wedding feast” (113). The temple periscope and especially Jesus’s proclamation that he would raise the temple again in three days (2:19) harken to the various Jewish traditions of a coming messiah being a temple-builder. “The messianic identity of Jesus is so acute in the Fourth Gospel because one of John’s purposes is to persuade other Jews that Jesus is the Messiah, and to reinforce among his own network the conviction that Jesus is the messianic deliverer on whom they have rightly set their hope” (140).
Jesus is the Christ is a short book (147 pages not including back-matter) that contains a disproportionate wealth of information. Here Michael Bird has packed his first-rate scholarship into a format accessible for the interested layperson, with his typical refreshing and at-times humorous style. Readers wanting to explore the (messianic) Christology of the gospels are sure to enjoy this book; lay readers are bound to discover shocking new insights that will enrich (and possible change) the way you read the Gospels. This book is also a great read for evangelicals with scholarly interest in Jesus and the Gospels. Those with interest in historical Jesus studies should read Are You The One Who is to Come before reading this title, as the earlier book sets up this one. AYTOWITC seems to play by the rules of the HJ game, though critical scholars might still charge that some of Bird’s conclusions have a confessional bias. Jesus is the Christ seems more geared toward those who hold traditional views on Jesus and the Gospels – it’s more of a theological look, making an argument about the Christology of the gospels.
Thanks to IVP Academic for sending a copy for an honest review!
*Originally posted at Grace for Sinners*