Jesus as Messiah: An Interview with Michael Bird
Yesterday, I posted a review of Dr. Michael Bird’s new book, Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Baker Academic, 2009). Today, I am interviewing Michael about his book and the implications of properly understanding Jesus’ messianic vocation.
Trevin Wax: Why do so many historical Jesus scholars shy away from affirming that Jesus understood his vocation in messianic terms?
Michael Bird: For a number of reasons.
First, belief in Jesus as Messiah was part of the early church’s faith and flowed from their conviction that Jesus was “made” Messiah by God upon his resurrection/exaltation (e.g. Acts 2.36; Rom. 1.3-4), and scholars see the early church as subsequently reading back messianic identity into the life-history of Jesus in the Gospels.
The reasoning is understandable, but flawed. Nowhere in any Jewish literature is there the inference: “resurrected” – therefore “Messiah”.
On top of that, Jesus’ messiahship does not figure prominently in the resurrection narratives of the Gospels. Short creedal summaries like Romans 1.3-4 imply the transformation of Jesus’ sonship to a new eschatological function that he did not possess before Easter, rather than signifying that resurrection suddenly marks the beginning of Jesus’ sonship, messiahship, etc.
Secondly, there aren’t many places in the Gospels which talk about Jesus as Messiah (except perhaps John 4.26, but John is rarely seen as historically valuable in reconstructing Jesus’ life by most historical Jesus scholars).
The problem here is that roles are more important than titles. It is principally what Jesus does, his “performative messianism” as I call it, that shows that he is placing himself in a messianic vocation. Claiming to be regathering Israel, ushering in the kingdom, rebuilding the temple, fighting Israel’s enemies – these are all messianic tasks.
At any rate, I do think that Jesus gives an oblique nod to messianic questions when posed to him like in Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (Mark. 8.27-30) and John the Baptist’s question to Jesus posed through his followers (Matthew 11.2-6). It has to be oblique because, rather like a nominee to the Supreme Court before the Senate, you have to be careful what you say. Otherwise people will move on you faster than you can say “filibuster” if you utter something politically controversial or explosive!
Trevin Wax: How does the messianic expectation of the Second Temple period influence how we understand Jesus and his ministry?
Michael Bird: There are several things we need to balance together.
First, not all Jews were waiting for a Messiah, and not everyone believed in one or wanted one. You could have hopes for the future (eschatology) that gave no place to a Messiah at all in some Jewish writings (e.g. Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon).
Secondly, there was no single conception of “Messiah” waiting in the wings for Jesus to apply to himself so that everyone would have understood him as hoping people would say, “Oh look! Here comes the Messiah!” There was a great degree of diversity on this, as a mere comparison of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Psalms of Solomon, Philo, 4 Ezra, and the Parables of 1 Enoch suggest. A messiah could be royal, militaristic, priestly, transcendent, prophetic, etc.
Third, even given all of this diversity, it should not lead us to believe that these portraits of the Messiah(s) had no consistent or transferable traits. I find it interesting that similar texts like Gen. 49.10 and Num. 24.7, 17 come up again and again in the messianic exegesis of Jewish authors. Obviously the Messiah saves Israel, regathers the twelve tribes, ushers in a period of peace, renews the covenant, purifies Israel’s worship, crushes Israel’s enemies, casts out sinners, either subjugates or converts the Gentiles, etc.
So when we see Jesus as acting out this messianic role, saying things that are deliberately ambiguous as to what role he sees for himself in the kingdom, claiming to be greater than the temple and Solomon, referring to himself with the oblique self-reference “Son of Man”, and so forth, we need to put that into the context of intra-Jewish debates of what kind of eschatological deliverer there will be (if it will be!) and how Jesus taps into that background, affirms some elements, changes some, disregards others, and how that would be perceived by his contemporaries.
Trevin Wax: In what ways did Jesus redefine the role of Messiah?
Michael Bird: Probably the most interesting way is that Jesus seems to have combined the messianic role with the reference to the “one like a Son of Man” taken up from Daniel 7.
Now, this is a huge area of debate; it’s very controversial, and many will contest or protest my view on this. I swore that I would never go near the “Son of Man” debate in a million years because it is hairier than a Gorilla named Harry, but for this book, I just had to to do it.
So (deep breath) here I go: In Aramaic, “son of man” (Bar [e]nasha) basically means “human being” or “someone in my position”. It is like ben adam in Hebrew as per Psalm 8: What is man that you are mindful of him or the son of man that you should care for him? You can see how certain passages in the Gospels can make sense. For example, in Luke 9.58, you can easily change “Son of Man” for “I/me/those like me … have nowhere to lay their head”.
Similarly, in the Gospel of Matthew (that tends to re-Judaize Mark), in the story of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic by forgiving his sins (Matt 9.2-8), Jesus says that the “Son of Man has authority to forgive sins.” At the end, the crowd rejoices that such authority has been given to men! Matthew obviously sees the link between “Son of Man” and human beings because of his more Semitic pedigree than Mark.
Now, that said, Son of Man also has an implicit self-reference to the speaker as one particular example of the generic class. So, yes, human beings have the authority to forgive sins, but one particular human being is actually doing it and taking center stage.
The other thing to note here is that, in many cases, there seems to be a tacit hint of Daniel 7.13-14 behind Jesus’ usage of Son of Man. Daniel 7 is a tricky passage, and who the “one like a son of man” is, is debated (Israel, King, Messiah, Angel, etc.). But I think the “one like a son of man” is a royal and heavenly figure who represents Israel before God and achieves the tasks that God gave to Israel.
We see Jesus merging the Aramaic idiom with the Daniel 7 figure most clearly in several of his parables (e.g., Lk 19.10), the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13), and in his confession before the High Priest in Mk. 14.62.
Another way that Jesus redefines things (and I’ll be briefer here) is that from Jesus’ triumphal entry and Last Supper he seemed to link the Zecharian Shepherd-King of 9.9 with the smitten shepherd of 14.7. Zechariah seems to have influenced the final act in the public manfiestation of his messianic role, while Isaiah clearly provided the “script” for other aspects like preaching good news, healing the sick, sight for the blind, etc.
In other words, Jesus saw select themes and imagery from Isaiah and Zechariah has laying out the path that the Messiah had to walk, which showed that only through suffering and sacrifice would the new exodus that Israel needed and their salvation from the tribulation about to fall upon them, be achieved.
Trevin Wax: How does an affirmation of Jesus’ messianic understanding influence our overall view of Christ’s person and work?
Michael Bird: In two ways.
First, to call Jesus the “Messiah” means that we have to see Jesus as part of story of Israel. That means the history of Israel according to the Scriptures and also the state of Israel and Jews in the first-century context. It is no good to believe that Jesus simply is “the one” and his saving work can be ripped out of the Scriptural story-line or removed from the socio-religious context of first century Palestine.
To make Jesus “Messiah” means that he can never be a heavenly redeemer who floated down from earth and teaching bad people how to be good and how to get to heaven. Jesus can only be the Savior of Gentiles if he is first and foremost the Savior of Israel (see Rom. 15.8-9!). This is why some groups, Gnostic (like the Gospel of Philip) and proto-orothodox (like the Epistle of Barnabas) seem to undermine Jesus as Messiah, because they reject either the salvation of Israel or the authority of Israel’s Scriptures.
Second, Messiah simply means “anointed one” (though I like the title “appointed one” as a looser translater). The offices in the Old Testament that were anointed were Prophet, Priest, and King. In Christian theology we call this the munus triplex. To call Jesus the “Messiah” is to confess that he is the one who reveals God (Prophet), he reconciles us to God (Priest), and he rules at God’s right hand (King).
Trevin Wax: Are there any good books out there that would take this argument a step further, and make a convincing case that Jesus also saw his vocation as, in some sense, embodying the very presence of God himself? Can a case be made that Jesus saw his vocation as divine?
Michael Bird: That’s a good question.
Well, to begin with, Jesus did not cruise around Palestine saying, “Hi, I’m God, the second person of the Trinity, soon I’m going to die on the cross for your sins so you can go to heaven, but until then I’m gonna teach you all how to be good Christians”. That is wildly ahistorical, and yet it might be how many pious Christians read their Gospels.
One thing we do see is that Jesus speaks with a sense of unmediated authority. He doesn’t simply interpret Scripture; he authoritatively pronounces what Scripture means as if he were the author. In all the Gospels, we find the emphasis on Jesus being sent by God to perform certain roles and actions. But at the same time, you often get the sense that the line between author and agent has become blurred.
I would also point out that many messianic figures were thought to be pre-existent and transcendent, and we have to wonder if Jesus saw himself in this line, especially when some of the “I have come” sayings nudge in this direction. (See Simon Gathercole on The Pre-existent Son and the recent book by J.J. Collins and A.Y. Collins on the relationship between divinity and messianism as well).
For me the real “clincher” is a passage like Luke 19.41-45 where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem because it did not recognize the time of its “visititation” (most translations add the gloss “from God”). We have here the visitation of God through his prophetic agent for which the city is held to be liable.
When I read this, I think immediately of Ezek 34 where God promises to come and Shepherd his people, and then he says, I will send David to shepherd you. In other words, we have the coming of God in and through the arrival of his Davidic Shepherd King.