Michael F. Bird, Jesus Is The Christ: The Messianic Testimony of The Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, February, 2013. 219 pp. Paperback, $18.00
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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!
Michael F. Bird is lecturer in theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. He has written his share of books, and most recently released Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, which I am currently trekking through review style.
He is also quickly becoming one of my favorite writers in the biblical studies/theology genre. Mainly this is because he is able to mix serious scholarship with a bit of humor and a playfulness to his writing style. He seems to actually be having fun when he is talking about his subjects, and can do so without devolving into a silliness that would undermine the seriousness of his subject matter.
Look no further than the book in question, Jesus Is The Christ: The Messianic Testimony of The Gospels. Clearly the central confession of Christianity is no joking matter. Perhaps the central question of the book is captured by the Introduction: “When Did Jesus Become Messiah?” Bird’s book is essentially a defense of the answer “He was confessed as Messiah before the Gospels were even written.” It is his contention that “the messianic testimony of Jesus is the earliest and most basic claim of early Christology” (4). In the introduction, Bird examines the evidence to defend this claim. He starts with a brief rundown of the messianic expectations before evaluating Jesus as a messianic claimant. Though he says more evidence could be marshaled, he lists the following key evidence to support the fact that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah (8-9):
- Isaiah 61 seems to play a very significant role in Jesus’ self understanding
- His central message pertained to the kingdom of God, and Jesus saw himself as the royal leader of that soon to be restored people of God
- Jesus’ frequent allusions to David and Solomon and his connection to them
- The “I have come” sayings associating Jesus with messianic activities
- Jesus’ final week involved thoroughly messianic activities, especially in terms of the symbolism involved
- Jesus was executed on charges of being a messianic pretender
In light of all this, Bird then makes the case that the early church was a messianic shaped movement, that grew out of Jesus own self understanding, actions, and pronouncements. It was not a later reaction and invention in light of his supposedly failed mission.
Bird then deals briefly with some alternate accounts of the origin of Jesus as Messiah. He then conlcudes the introduction to set the stage for the book proper by saying, “Out of all the titles and roles ascribed to Jesus, it is the contention of this study that it is the messianic theme that is paramount” (31). He then summarizes:
It is the testimony to Jesus as the Messiah that binds together the theological, literary, rhetorical, and social functions of the four canonical Gospels. Although we could rightly consider the Gospels as collectively teaching the same broad messianic story about Jesus, each of the Gospels articulates the messianic identity of Jesus in a different way, for a different end, in a different context, and with a different set of tools. It is the unique formulation of Jesus as Messiah by the individual evangelists that is explored in what follows. In the end, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are like stained-glass windows offering different shapes and colours about a figure they all regard in their own unique way as the long-promised Messiah (31).
The next four chapters and 100 or so pages are in-depth exegetical and theological treatments of each Gospel. Bird is supporting his claim about the early identity of Jesus as Messiah and unpacking each evangelist’s take on it. In Mark, we see Jesus as the crucified Messiah; in Matthew, he is the Davidic Messiah; in Luke/Acts, he is the Prophetic Messiah; and finally in John he is the Elusive Messiah.
Rather than go into detail explaining what Bird concludes, I’m just going to give you his own summary from the brief conclusion (142-143, line breaks mine):
The Gospel of Mark is an apology for a crucified Messiah where the death of Jesus is both royal and redemptive. It is the Marcan Jesus’ self-giving service as the Son of Man that defines the meaning of the messianic office.
The Gospel of Matthew builds on Mark, rather than repudiating his christological claims, by emphasizing that Jesus is the Son of David and Son of Abraham. He is the deliverer who effects the restoration of the lost sheep of the house of Israel; his messianic charism is both didactic and prophetic; he is the king who ushers in the kingdom of haven, which climaxes in the reconstitution of a renewed Israel built on the Messiah.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is the prophetic Messiah who enacts the Isaianic New Exodus that brings salvation for Jews and Gentiles. For Luke, faithfulness to Jesus as Messiah and Lord is what secures the legitimate identity of the church and places them in a bond of unity with Israel all the way back to Abraham. Luke-Acts is a community-defining narrative that defines the community by its allegiance to Jesus the Messiah.
Finally, in the Gospel of John, messiahship is the nexus in a constellation of christological convictions about Jesus as the incarnate Word, a prophet greater than Moses, the specially sent Son of God, the ascending-descending Son of Man, and even the warrior Lamb of God. John provides a forensic testimony through a stream of witnesses in signs, speeches, symbols, and Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah.
Now, if you want all that unpacked in more detail, this is the book for you. Given the burden of the book, I think Bird does a superb job in the space he uses. The main argument of the book takes up about 100 pages, and you’re given 15 pages worth of bibliography for further reading you might want to pursue. It unfortunately has endnotes rather than footnotes, but this does keep the main text clean. The notes are mostly references, but there is some extraneous discussion and occasional humorous anecdotes. The notes themselves take up about 40 pages.
So, if you’re keeping score, that’s a 200 page book, half of which is the main argument, the other half is an introduction, bibliography, and notations. For the average reader, you’ll probably be content digesting the introduction and main body. For more scholarly oriented readers, you’ll might get annoyed flipping back and forth to the notes, but will find further discussions and resources there, as well as the bibliography. For both types of readers, this will be a great resource on the most importance Christmas question of all: “Who do the Gospels really say Jesus is?” He’s the Messiah of course, and Christmas is an attempt to celebrate that in all its glory as we wait for his return.