“What did Jesus know and when did he know it?”
Historical Jesus studies have long focused on Jesus’ assessment of himself. Did Jesus believe he was the Messiah? If so, when did he come to this knowledge? If not, why did the early church view him this way? The popular term for this concept is “messianic consciousness.”
Many historical Jesus scholars dismiss the idea that Jesus believed he was the Messiah. But Michael Bird’s newest book, Are You the One Who Is To Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Baker Academic, 2009) makes a persuasive case for seeing Jesus’ words and deeds as intentionally messianic.
How does Bird make his case?
First, Bird bypasses the usual investigations of Jesus’ self-consciousness. He writes:
“I do not like the term ‘messianic self-consciousness,’ since the mental states and psychological profiles of individuals from antiquity are beyond the bounds of historical inquiry. I prefer the phrase ‘messianic self-understanding,’ by which I mean Jesus’ identifying himself in a messianic role and couching his activities as messianic in character and purpose.” (29)
Bird leaves aside questions about what was going through Jesus’ mind, and instead focuses on the words and actions of Jesus. He combs through literature from the Second Temple period of Judaism in order to demonstrate the general features of messianic expectation during Jesus’ day.
“…What I propose then is that we identify an Old Testament text as ‘messianic’ when the plain sense of the text, designates a figure with royal qualities who is sent by God, and also that either the text itself was treated as messianic in post-biblical interpretation, or else the pattern of activity that the figure embodies corresponds to a pattern of activity often expected of messianic figures in antiquity.” (46)
Bird’s valuable criteria help us understand the messianic expectations of first-century Jews, a matter of vital importance for this discussion.
Next, Bird convincingly refutes the explanations that deny that Jesus could have seen his vocation in messianic terms. Bird resembles someone poking holes in a wall that is already crumbling. He exposes the paucity of historical argumentation among scholars who cling to the idea that Jesus did not see his actions in any messianic sense at all.
Finally, Bird seeks to put forth a plausible alternative to the scholarly skeptics. He argues that Jesus Christ actually did believe himself to be the Messiah. But Bird is careful in how he makes this argument. For example, in reference to Jesus’ self-identification as the “Son of Man”, Bird writes:
“I am not arguing that ‘son of man’ was a fixed messianic title in pre-Christian Judaism or even that Jesus’ self-reference a ‘son of man’ was clearly messianic in every utterance. What I am arguing for instead is that the son of man figure of Daniel 7 contributed to the construction of a messianic narrative; it was capable of sustaining a messianic interpretation and was occasionally interpreted as messianic in pockets of pre-Christian Judaism, and Jesus’ employment of the phrase taps into this background.” (84)
Bird’s careful distinctions are helpful. He is able to show that Jesus’ use of the “son of man” title can point to a certain messianic identity without carrying the full weight of outright messianic claims.
Bird makes the case that Jesus Christ spoke in messianic terms and performed actions that aligned with certain messianic expectations. In the end, he believes this evidence points to the fact that Jesus did indeed see himself as the Messiah.
Furthermore, for Bird, it makes little sense for the early church to have forced messianic categories back onto Jesus and his ministry unless they arose from Jesus’ own actions.
“The messianism of the early church was not an impromptu add-on to disappointed hopes; instead, it issued forth in a comprehensive reconfiguration of the Jewish belief mosaic on topics such as kingship, vindication, eschatology, restoration, and the fate of the nations. The messianism of the first Jesus followers was not merely the Christianization of a homogenous and extant Jewish messianic myth; rather, it involved the redefinition and transformation of a selection of pluriform exegetical traditions and apocalyptic narratives around Jesus.” (150)
My only quibble with Bird’s work is that, in seeking to demonstrate his objectivity, he writes as if denying Jesus’ messianic understanding does no harm to Christian faith.
“…My faith would not be particularly impaired or revised if Jesus had not claimed to be the Messiah and the early church had attached this title to him as merely one way of explicating his significance. The early church did, after all, attach certain roles and functions to Jesus – such as ‘Righteous One,’ ‘Prince of Peace,’ and ‘Firstborn’ – that Jesus did not claim for himself. I for one feel no compulsion to project those roles and titles into the ministry of the historical Jesus so as to somehow validate them…” (161)
I think I agree with Bird here. But the fact is… if the Gospels had portrayed Jesus speaking of himself as the Righteous One or the Firstborn and historical Jesus scholars were to reject the Gospel witness and claim that the early church was merely foisting these titles back on Jesus, then we would have a problem.
So, I agree with Bird that the idea of Jesus seeing himself as messianic might not be crucial to our faith in the abstract sense, but precisely because of the very case that Bird makes (which shows Jesus accepting and redefining the messianic vocation), I want to say that this subject is indeed vital. If Jesus did not understand himself this way, then we are facing a problem in our view of biblical inspiration.
On a related note, I would love to see someone go further than the messianic question to the idea of Jesus’ divinity. “Did Jesus see himself as the divine representation of God? Did he see himself as the embodiment of Yahweh?’
Overall, Are You the One Who Is To Come? is a worthy contribution to historical Jesus studies. Bird’s case is rock solid. I am happy to recommend such a persuasive case for Jesus’ messianic self-understanding.