Michael F. Bird. Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013. 207 pp. $18.00.
In his recent review of Jonathan Pennington’s Reading the Gospels Wisely, Dane Ortlund remarks that it’s “an exciting time to be a student of the Gospels.” As Ortlund observes, four decades of significant contribution to New Testament scholarship have created a fresh, theologically rich climate for the study of the Gospels. Michael Bird has given students of the Gospels yet more to be excited about. Jesus Is the Christ, Bird’s exploration of the messianic Christology of the four Gospels, is a tour de force.
Jesus Is the Christ is the companion volume to Bird’s work Are You the One Who Is To Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question. Whereas that book “focused on the claims of the historical Jesus in his Jewish context,” the present volume explores “Jesus’ messiahship in the narrative and theological horizons of the evangelists” (vii). Thus Jesus Is the Christ attends more closely to the text of the canonical Gospels than did Are You the One Who Is to Come? Fortunately for those unfamiliar with the previous book, Bird provides a helpful digest of its argument in the introductory chapter of this one.
Messiah in the Gospels
Bird, lecturer in theology and New Testament at Crossway College in Brisbane, Australia, argues that Jesus’ messiahship is the “mother of all Christology” (vii) and that the Gospel writers—following the tradition of Jesus himself—identified Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. But at the same time they expanded and transformed the typical messianic conceptions of Second Temple Judaism. The Gospels are thus “messianic stories about a messianic hope” (31). Indeed, Bird argues, the earliest and most basic claim of early Christology was Jesus’ messianic identity (4). Far from denigrating a multi-faceted Christology (i.e., Jesus as Son of David, Son of God, Suffering Servant, New Moses, and so on), Bird proposes that these integral aspects are better understood as subordinate to the motif of messiahship, which is the center of the Christology of the Gospels. “All Gospel Christology,” he contends, “is a form of messianism and must be understood in that light” (142).
Each chapter provides a veritable “miniature commentary” on each of the canonical Gospels. Bird demonstrates how the themes and stories of each Evangelist integrate with his unique messianic message. He argues that Mark defends and explains the intimate relationship between Jesus’ messianic status and his crucifixion: “The momentum behind Mark’s Gospel is to lead his readers to believe that Jesus is the Messiah—not despite the cross, but precisely because of it” (56). Bird further contends that Matthew and Luke portray Jesus’ messiahship particularly with respect to Old Testament (OT) expectations. In Matthew, Jesus is the Son of David and Son of Abraham, who as God’s Shepherd-King will reign not merely over the nation of Israel but over the Gentiles as well. In Luke-Acts, Bird shows how Jesus is the final prophet who redeems through a new exodus and “redraws the boundaries of Israel’s election around himself” (84).
Bird’s analysis of the Gospel of John is particularly rich. He demonstrates that John’s messianic portrait is consistent with the messianic hopes of the first century. Yet John’s Christology exceeds all messianic expectations since Jesus is “from, of, with, and even is God” (140). In summary, Bird states, “Messiahship [in the Gospel of John] is the nexus into 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” (143).
It’s impossible to list all of Bird’s wonderful theological and exegetical insights. He shows, for example, how the logos Christology of John’s Gospel intersects with John’s messianic proclamation by “placing the person of the Messiah within the orbit of the divine identity” (100). He also demonstrates how the identifications of Jesus as “the coming one” and the “Lamb of God” are laden with messianic overtones analogous to language found in the OT and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Similarly illuminating commentary appears in Bird’s analysis of the Matthean genealogy, of Mark’s use of messianic titles, and of Mark’s narrative defense of a crucified Messiah.
Delight to Read
Unlike many academic studies, Bird’s book is not only informative but also enjoyable. He is consistently scholarly while communicating in a clear and winsome way. For example, when defending the notion that Jesus did in fact claim he was the Messiah, Bird writes:
True, Jesus did not go around flying a banner saying, “Look, I’m the Messiah.” But if you proclaim the kingdom of God, declare that the day of national restoration is dawning, compare yourself to David and Solomon, perform what various people considered to be signs of messianic deliverance, enter Jerusalem on a donkey with people shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and end up on trial on a messianic charge and mocked in death as a Jewish king, well, you don’t need a PhD in rabbinic literature to see what was going on here. (9–10)
On another occasion, when describing John’s original yet complementary contribution to the messianism of the four Gospels, Bird quips, “Among other canonical Gospels, John is more like a variation on a Paganini theme than a reggae band playing at a bluegrass concert” (140).
Quality Research, Quality Argument
Other than the fact Bird wore out my highlighter, I have no substantial criticisms of Jesus Is the Christ. Bird has produced a model of solid research, literary clarity, and forceful argumentation. His arguments are exegetically rigorous and hermeneutically rich, employing everything from narrative analysis to a tempered and wise use of redaction criticism. He demonstrates remarkable knowledge of the literature of Second Temple Judaism and early Christian writings. The quality of Bird’s research and his interaction with current scholarship will also impress readers. While some may quibble with a textual interpretation here or there, Bird’s primary argument will still stand. In other words, readers will find that, for Jesus Is the Christ, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Bird has effectively shown us how to read the Gospels with Israel’s messianic hope in the foreground without deprecating the theological richness of other Christological aspects. He has integrated all the major theological themes of the Evangelists into the Gospels’ fourfold messianic witness. Jesus Is the Christ brims with such an array of exegetical and theological insights that it will be worth returning to again and again.
Samuel Emadi is a PhD Candidate in Old Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member at Hopewell Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.