I love the work of Dr. Michael Bird. It just so happens that there is a wonderful article online that is called Michael Bird: how a zealous atheist became a highly recognized Christian scholar.
The first book I read by Bird was Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question 1st Edition.
This is a wonderful resource. Bird displays his vast knowledge of Second Temple Judaism, Jewish Messianism. For example, Bird says:
The statement that “Jesus is the Messiah” presupposes a certain way of reading Israel’s Scriptures and assumes a certain hermeneutical approach that finds in Jesus the unifying thread and the supreme goal of Israel’s sacred literature. A messiah can only be a messiah from Israel and for Israel. The story of the Messiah can only be understood as part of the story of Israel. Paul arguably says as much to a largely Gentile audience in Rome: “For I tell you that Christ [Messiah] has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8–9), Michael Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2009), 163
“It is historically naive to depict first-century Palestine as ravaged with continual uprisings and to posit some Roman occupying forces as having to put down one messianic pretender after another. Alternatively, it is equally reductionistic to suppose that many of the tumultuous events of the first century were untouched by messianism. The death of Herod the Great led to several uprisings; although things cooled for a while, in the period 4 BCE to 66 CE, there were many socioreligious movements at the time of the procurators that show expectation and hope for God’s miraculous interventions and gradually a spirit of zealotry beginning to emerge. I doubt that we have to wait as long as Simon ben Kosiba in 135 CE to find another messianic leader after the death of Jesus. The following lists indicate messianic expectations that are explicitly titular or implicitly messianic.”-Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question, pgs 47-49.
Bird goes onto list the expectations using the title “Messiah.” Notice that Bird knows in order to understand messianism, we need to read the Bible but also read extra-biblical Jewish literature including the Apocrypha, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Philo, Josephus, The Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Targumim, etc,
“Messiah of Aaron and Israel” (CD 12.23–13.1; 14.19; 19.10–11; 20.1; 1QS 9.11)
“Messiah of Israel” (1QSa 2.12, 14, 20)
“Messiah of righteousness” (4Q252 frg. 1 5.3–4)
“Heaven and earth will obey his Messiah” (4Q521 2.1)
“Their king shall be the Lord’s Messiah” (Pss. Sol. 17.32; cf. 18.7)
“May God cleanse Israel for the day of mercy and blessing for the appointed day when his Messiah will reign” (Pss. Sol. 18.5)
“Lord of the Spirits and his Messiah” (1 En. 48.10)
“authority of the Messiah” (1 En. 52.4)
“For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him” (4 Ezra 7.28) “
“This is the Messiah whom the Most High has kept until the end of days, who will arise from the offspring of David” (4 Ezra 12.32) “The Messiah will begin to be revealed” (2 Bar. 29.3) “when the time of the appearance of the Messiah has been fulfilled” (2 Bar. 30.1) “the kingship of the house of David, thy righteous Messiah” (Shemoneh ‘Esreh 14)
Son of Man: (Dan. 7:13–14; 1 En. 46.1–5; 48.2; 62.1–15; 63.11; 69.27–29; 71.14–17; 4 Ezra 13.1–13, 25–26; Justin Martyr, Dial. 31–32)
Man/Ruler: (Philo, Rewards 95; Num. 24:7, 17 LXX) Rod (CD 7.19–20; Justin Martyr, Dial. 100, 126) Prince (Ezek. 34:24; 37:25; Dan. 9:25–26; CD 7.20; 1QSb 5.20; 1QM 3.16; 5.1; 4Q285 frgs. 4–6; Jub. 31.18; Sib. Or. 3.49–50)
Branch of David: (4Q161 frgs. 8–10.15, 22; 4Q252 5.3; 4Q285 frg. 5.3–4; T. Jud 24.4–6) Scepter (1QSb 5.27–28; 4Q161 frgs. 2–4 2.9–13; frgs. 5–6 3.17; frgs. 8–10, 22–26; 4Q252 5.2)
Son of God :(4Q246 1.9; 2.1; Mark 15:39)
Elect/Chosen One (1 En. 39.6; 40.5; 45.3; 48.6; 49.2, 4; 51.3, 5; 52.6, 9; 53.6; 55.4; 61.5, 8, 10; 62.1; Apoc. Abr. 31.1)
King (Mark 15.32 and par.; Sib. Or. 3.286–87, 652) Snow-white cow/horned ram (1 En. 90.9–12, 37–38) Star (T. Levi 18.3; T. Jud. 24.1; Sib. Or. 5.158–60)
Righteous One (Acts 3:14; 22:14; 1 John 2:1; 1 En. 38.2; 53.6)
Historical figures referred to as “Messiah”:
Jesus of Nazareth
Simon ben Kosiba
Implicitly messianic historical figures not referred to as “Messiah”:
Judas the Galilean Simon the servant of Herod
Athronges Menahem Simon bar Giora-
In this book, Bird discusses everything from the various models of oral tradition. social memory, why the need for four Gospels, genre criticism and other pertinent issues that are related to the New Testament. Here are a couple of highlights:
“There are two approaches to the Gospels that I ardently deride. First, some über-secularists want to read the Bible as nothing more than a deposit of silly ancient magic, mischievous myths, wacky rituals, and surreal superstitions. They engage in endless comparisons of the Bible with other mythic religions to flatten out the distinctive elements of the story. Added to that is advocacy of countless conspiracy theories to explain away any historical elements in the text. This approach is coupled with an inherent distaste for anything supernatural, pre-modern, and reeking of religion. Such skeptics become positively evangelical in their zealous fervor to prove that nothing in the Bible actually happened. Second, then there are those equally ardent Bible-believers who want to treat the Bible as if it fell down from heaven in 1611, written in ye aulde English, bound in pristine leather, with words of Jesus in red, Scofield’s notes, and charts of the end times. Such persons regard exploring topics like problems in Johannine chronology just as religiously affronting as worshiping a life-size golden statue of Barack Obama. Now I have to say that both approaches bore the proverbial pants off me. They are equally as dogmatic as they are dull. They are as uninformed as they are unimaginative. There is another way! My own approach is what I would term “believing criticism.”This approach treats Scripture as the inspired and veracious Word of God, but contends that we do Scripture the greatest service when we commit ourselves to studying it in light of the context and processes through which God gave it to us. Scripture is trustworthy because of God’s faithfulness to his own Word and authoritative because the Holy Spirit speaks to us through it. Nonetheless, God has seen fit to use human language, human authors, and even human processes as the means by which he has given his inscripturated revelation to humanity. To understand the substance of Scripture means wrestling with its humanity, the human face of God’s speech to us in his Word. That requires that we can freely engage subjects such as how the text of the Gospels was transmitted (text criticism), sources that the Evangelists used (source criticism), when and where were the Gospels written (historical criticism), why the Gospels were written (literary criticism), what kind of literature they are (genre criticism), how the Evangelists edited and adapted their sources (redaction criticism), how the story in its current shape creates meaning (narrative criticism), how the stories of Jesus interacted with cultural values and modes of discourse (social-scientific criticism), and how the Gospels came to be accepted as the four official stories of Jesus sanctioned by the early churches (canonical criticism).These are legitimate inquiries, not in spite of but precisely in light of the faith communities who cherished the Gospels as testimonies to Jesus Christ. What is more, when we say that the Gospels are historically reliable, we do not mean that they were intended to be judged by the standards of modern historiography or that they are the ancient equivalent of what it would have been like to follow Jesus around with a hidden video camera. They are historically rooted in the memories of the earliest eyewitnesses. Even if ancient writers did not have the apparatus of modern history writing — footnotes, plagiarism software, video footage, and editorial boards — they still knew the difference between events purported to have happened that did not happen and events purported to have happened that did happen. St. Luke, the Beloved Disciple, and the author of 2 Peter all believed that the Jesus-story is not make-believe (Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35; 20:31; 2 Pet 1:16).After due allowances are made for artistic license, theological embellishment, and the inherent biases of the tradents of the tradition, our witnesses to Jesus remain steadfast in their conviction that the Jesus whom they narrate is historically authentic as much as he is personally confronting. All four canonical narratives render accounts about Jesus as a historical figure situated in first-century Palestine. The Gospels are not timeless myths or deliberate fictions spun for the purpose of spiritual nourishment. They make thick historical claims, though they are not merely historical reports.Let us remember, too, that all history, both ancient and modern, is interpreted. There is no unbiased reporting or purely objective history, whether by St. Matthew, Oxford University Press, or the New York Times. As such, the Gospels are not interested in brute facts about Jesus but in the unity between Jesus of Nazareth and the Lord worshiped in the church. The Gospels are unashamedly theologically oriented, to the point that “The story of Jesus is the continuation and actualization of the story of God.”159 As works of proclamation, the Gospels endeavor to present and interpret the story of Jesus in such a way that readers (and hearers) of the story will be moved to acknowledge him as the Son of God, the Lord Jesus, whose death and resurrection are the definitive means through which the God of Israel is rescuing the world.”- Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, pgs. 67-68.
“The Gospels are rooted in the Jewish Scriptures. They explicitly function as the continuation and fulfillment of the story of Israel. That is why they are replete with citations, allusions, and echoes of the Old Testament.… The religious content and theological texture of the Gospels is heavily indebted to the worldview, socio-political landscape, and sacred texts of Judaism. Roman biography and Greek legends could refer to various religious literary works such as Delphic oracles or Homer’s Iliad. But for the Gospels, the story and worldview of Israel’s Scriptures are very much what the Gospels are about, namely, the God of Israel inaugurating his kingdom through Jesus the Messiah. It should not raise anyone’s eyebrows to say that the Gospels comprise a form of post-biblical Jewish literature with messianic faith in Jesus as its primary content. The main point of contact with the Gospels is that Jewish biographical literature contains a theography, a story about Israel’s God, working through an agent of deliverance, such as a prophet, king, or teacher. The protagonist leads the Jewish people at a time of national crisis or performs some miraculous deed at an important moment in Israel’s history. The Gospels possess a theological worldview, a geopolitical setting, didactic content, and a deliberate replication of Old Testament literary types that make some kind of connection with Jewish sacred literature irrefutable.”—-Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (p. 229). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Bird also says:
The Gospels are the textual imprint of the oral phenomena of Christian preaching and teaching about Jesus. Viewed this way, they are Christian documents related to the needs of Christians in corporate reading, worship, apologetics, and proclamation. So in that sense they are a unique genre with no precise literary counterparts. However, their uniqueness is in many ways inconsequential because they remain largely analogous to Greco-Roman biography, and the biographical genre was typified by innovation and adaptation. The content of the Gospels is singularly determined by Jewish Christian content, while the literary form of the Gospels is a clear subtype of Greco-Roman biography.- Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (p. 270), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
In my opinion, Bird is one of the most capable scholars today. His writing and his ability to not overstate his case on many topics is something to be admired. I highly recommend both of these books. You will not be disappointed!