Book Review: Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels: Michael F. Bird

Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels: Michael F. Bird, IVP Publishers, 2013, 219, pp. 978-0830828234

If you visit this blog, you know I post a lot of book reviews by New Testament scholar Michael F. Bird. I love reading his books because he always gives me a lot to think about. He also is very familiar with the first century context of the claims of Jesus.

Jewish Messianism is one of my favorite historical and theological topics. In this book, Bird goes to great lengths to discuss the Messiah issue in each Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). He goes to great lengths to help the reader understand the different perspectives each Gospel author has on why Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel and the entire world. As I have said before, Jesus can’t be the Savior of the world if he isn’t the Jewish Messiah. I will give some highlights from where Bird deals specifically with each Gospel.  Sadly, many people assume Jesus was just one of sveral messianic figures in the first century. In other words, there is nothing unique about him. But as Bird says:

“ Not all Jews in the first century were anxiously waiting for a Messiah. Despite popular misconceptions that Judea was filled with every Tobias, David, and Herschel claiming to be the Messiah, the only two figures unambiguously spoken of as the Messiah between AD 30 and 132 are Jesus of Nazareth and Simon bar Kochbar (known also as Simeon ben Kosiba).6 Yes, other figures emerged from time to time who excited hopes for future deliverance, set themselves up as royal claimants, echoed biblical traditions in their actions, but few as far as we know were explicitly hailed as messianic leaders. Among those Jewish authors and Jewish groups who did anticipate a Messiah, there were diverse opinions as to what type of figure he would be.7 Some looked for a Messiah with militaristic qualities, who would lead the people in a successful purge of Gentiles and sinners (e.g. 1QM; Pss. Sol. 17 – 18). Others imagined a Messiah with transcendent qualities and supernatural powers (e.g. 1 Enoch 37 – 71; 4 Ezra). The Qumran community envisaged two ‘anointed’ leaders in the final days: a ‘Messiah of Aaron’ and a ‘Messiah of Israel’ (e.g. 1QS 9.11; CD 12.22–23; 1QSa 2.17–22). Philo held out a hope for a Hebrew king who would establish a Jewish kingdom and subjugate the nations (e.g. Moses 1.290–291; Rewards 95–96). There is also a variety of names and titles for such a deliverer other than ‘Messiah’, including: Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, the Prophet, Elect One, Prince, Branch, Root, Sceptre, Star, Chosen One, Coming One. Messianism grew out of reflection on Israel’s sacred traditions in light of the mixed socio-political fortunes of the Jewish people in the Persian, Greek, and Roman periods. The shared thread of Jewish messianism in the various tapestries that hung around from time to time was a future hope for a royal and eschatological deliverer to liberate Israel and establish a renewed Jewish kingdom.”-Kindle Highlight 179

Also, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether Jesus very claimed to be the Messiah. If he did, what did he mean by it? Was he redefining the role of the Jewish Messsiah? As Bird says:

“Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah? For many the answer is an obvious ‘yes’, and for others it is an equally obvious ‘no’! Why the confusion?10 Well, consider the fact that Jesus never once uses the title ‘Messiah’ to describe himself. At the very most, he is called Messiah, king, and Son of David by others. By itself such data might suggest that Jesus inspired messianic hopes but did not himself embrace the title as the best label for what his ministry was about. The other problem is that the places in the Gospels where Jesus supposedly accepts the messianic designation (Mark 8:29; 14:61–62; John 4:25–26; 18:33–34) are thought to bear an uncanny resemblance to early Christian confessions of Jesus’ identity. In other words, some of the Gospel accounts look as if the evangelists or their sources have read their messianic faith back into stories of Jesus’ pre-Easter life. So where does one go with this? First, a denial that Jesus thought of himself as a messianic leader creates more problems than it solves. We still have the matter of why Jesus was crucified as a messianic pretender, how the messianic faith of the early church arose in the first place, and why the evangelists put the story of Jesus into a messianic matrix. One standard explanation is that the early church inferred Jesus’ status as Messiah from his resurrection. If God had raised him, then surely he must be the Messiah – but it is not that simple. The problem is that there is no precedent for deducing messiahship from resurrection. How does ‘resurrected’ equal ‘Messiah’? John the Baptist died a martyr, some even thought he had come back to life in Jesus (Mark 6:14–16; 8:28), but no-one thereafter considered the Baptist to be the Messiah. We could say the same about the two witnesses in Revelation 11 who are martyred, brought back to life, and ascend to heaven.”-Kindle Highlight, 198.

But even if Jesus didn’t explicitly say he was the Messiah because of the political connotations at that time, Bird also says that there are actually are some fairly good reasons for thinking that Jesus did in fact claim to be a messianic figure. He says the key evidence is as follows:

(1) Isaiah 61, about a coming anointed figure, seems to have played a significant part in Jesus’ own understanding of his role. There is an explicit appeal to a Spirit-anointed ministry in special Lucan material (Luke 4:18-21) and similarly Isaianic echoes in the material common to Luke and Matthew about John the Baptist’s question as to whether Jesus really is the ‘one to come’ (Luke 7:18-23; Matt. 11:2-6). In fact, this later unit possesses a striking similarity with a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls that attributes a similar list of deeds to Israel’s Messiah (4Q521 2.1-10).

(2) It is commonly recognized that Jesus’ central message pertained to the kingdom of God. What role did Jesus think that he played in that kingdom, its announcement and consummation? Jesus’ choice of twelve disciples was symbolic of the restoration of Israel that he believed he was effecting (Mark 3:13-16). There is also an eschatological saying that the twelve would sit on twelve thrones judging Israel and have a kingdom conferred on them the same way that the Father confers a kingdom on Jesus (Luke 22:28-30/Matt. 19:28-30). It seems that Jesus saw himself as the royal leader-to-be of the restored people of God – a king of a future kingdom.

(3) We also have to take into account the prominence of allusions to David and Solomon in Jesus’ teaching activities (Matt. 12:42/Luke 11:31; Mark 2:23-28; 12:35-37). Solomon and David were both regarded as prophets and allegedly performed exorcisms, which aligns also with the pattern of Jesus’ ministry. In any case, Jesus saw himself in a lineage associated with the greatest of royal figures from Israel’s ancient past as ways of explicating his eschatological role.

(4) Several of the ‘I have come’ sayings appear to associate Jesus with activities that, in comparison with other Jewish literature, may be suitably classified as messianic (Mark 2:17; Luke 12:49-51/Matt. 10:34; Luke 19:10).

(5) Jesus’ final week was thoroughly messianic. We have a messianic action in the triumphal entry that deliberately acts out Zechariah 9 (Mark 11:1-10). There is a messianic act in the temple where he warns of the destruction of the temple unless Israel repents (Mark 11:11-18), and elsewhere we are told that he predicted the rebuilding of the temple, which is a messianic task (Mark 14:58; John 2:19; cf. 2 Sam. 7:11-14). Jesus engages the scribes on several topics, including the identity of the Messiah as David’s Lord (Mark 12:35-37). In the passion scene, Jesus is depicted as a messianic shepherd who saves his people from the danger of tribulation by his vicarious death (Mark 14:27 = Zech. 13:7). At his trial before Caiaphas, Jesus is asked point blank a messianic question and responds with an oblique but affirmative answer that conflates Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13 (Mark 14:62).

(6) Finally, Jesus was executed on the charge of being a messianic pretender, hence the titulus that mocked him as ‘the King of the Jews’ in derisive fashion (see Matt. 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).

Bird emphasizes the Christology and messianism of each Gospel. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, he says:

“The Son of David One of the distinctive elements of Matthew’s Christology is his amplification of the Son of David tradition. Matthew places the term at the head of his Gospel in the incipit to the genealogy (1:1). Thereafter Matthew explicitly nominates the kingship of David (1:6) and he defines David as the halfway point between Abraham and the exile (1:17). Joseph is a ‘son of David’, and Jesus is grafted into the Davidic line through Joseph, his paterfamilias (1:20). Matthew also retains Son of David material from Mark. This includes the healing of the blind men at Jericho (Matt. 20:30–34 [Mark 10:46–52]) and the riddle of the Messiah as David’s son (Matt. 22:42–46 [Mark 12:35–37]). A story found only in Matthew pertains to the two men who are healed by Jesus at an early stage of his ministry (9:27–31). This is the first time in the Gospel that ‘Son of David’ is used as a form of address to Jesus. Later, after Jesus’ healing of a blind and dumb man, the crowds are astonished at his actions and ask, ‘Can this man really be the Son of David?’ (my trans.). The Pharisees respond negatively to this by saying that Jesus casts out demons by the power of Beelzebul (12:22–24). The crowd draws the inference that Jesus wanted John the Baptist to make from observation of his healings. Matthew’s account of the Canaanite differs from Mark’s account of the Syro-Phoenician woman in several regards. In Matthew, she addresses Jesus as ‘Lord, Son of David’ and appeals for mercy for her demon-possessed daughter (15:22).  Isaiah as part of the job description for a Messiah. For Matthew, the Son of David is defined by mercy rather than by massacres. He comes for compassion, not combat. Indeed, the concept of ‘healing’ arguably binds together the Isaianic message of good news with the nature of the kingdom, the authority of Jesus’ teaching, and the appeal of Jesus to those in Judea, Syria, Decapolis, and Galilee (see 4:23–25). As such, the most analogous title to ‘Son of David’ in Matthew is not ‘Messiah’ or ‘King’ (though they are connoted), but ‘Shepherd’ (2:6; 9:36; 10:6,16; 15:24; 18:12–14; 25:31–46; 26:31).

Shepherd was a role often assigned to kings in the ancient Near East (e.g. Ezek. 34), and David was the quintessential shepherd-king (2 Sam. 5:2; Ps. 78:70–72; Mic. 4:1–5). Matthew introduces the motif of compassion for the shepherdless sheep by the Shepherd in 9:36 and applies it broadly to the teaching and healing mission of Jesus. The metaphor of shepherding is also utilized in the description of the last judgement, where the righteous and unrighteous are separated much like a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats (25:32–33).41 In effect, the function of judgement is delegated from God to Jesus who, as the Son of Man, acts as king and Lord (25:34,40).42 Overall, the Matthean Jesus is the new Davidic Shepherd over the lost sheep of the house of Israel, who leads them in a new exodus where there is forgiveness of sins, healing, and restoration of the nation.:- Kindle Highlights, 1355-1397

As far as Luke’s Gospel, Bird says:

“Jesus is introduced and defined as the one who will fulfil the Old Testament promises made to David.’13 In the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ (Luke 4:16–30), Jesus enters a synagogue at Nazareth; he reads from Isaiah 61 and pronounces its fulfilment, which is followed with his rejection by the crowd. Jesus responds to his rejection by quoting the proverbs of the sick physician and the rebuffed prophet. This riposte continues with allusions to the biblical stories of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. This unit is programmatic of Jesus’ ministry, and overtures the various motifs of Luke–Acts: Spirit, mission, Christology, Israel’s rejection, and God’s acceptance of outcasts.14 The word ‘anointed’ has obvious messianic connotations, and when Jesus declares that God has anointed him with the Spirit, he is making a de facto messianic claim.15 It is entirely plausible that we have in this section echoes of a royal Davidic figure, the final eschatological prophet, the Suffering Servant, and the Messiah all put into one compressed presentation of Jesus.16 Some may wish to see the significance of Jesus’ claim to an anointing here as purely prophetic rather than messianic.17 Yet this is unlikely for several reasons. First, the Isaianic Servant displays both prophetic and royal traits.18 Second, 11Q13 and 4Q521 provide a messianic reading of Isaiah 61 similar to Luke. Third, it must be observed that a messianic reading of Isaiah 61 is found elsewhere in Luke. In response to the delegation sent from John the Baptist, Jesus replies: ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor’ (7:22). Put together, Jesus answers the Baptist’s question by way of reference to a messianic reading of Isaiah 61. The signs of national renewal associated with the messianic age are present, thus the divine design for the sending of the messianic deliverer is indeed taking shape. If John can look past his incumbent situation and identify Jesus within the story of the anointed one and his deeds, then the question that John asks is easily answered.” – Kindle Highlights 1649

As far as the Gospel of Mark, Mark, Bird says:

“Mark’s literary and theological project is to reconcile the notion that ‘Jesus is the Messiah’ with ‘crucifixion’ in a way that is persuasive to his readers. In this sense, Mark appears to be addressing the problem encountered by Paul where the cross is ‘a stumbling block to Jews’ (1 Cor. 1:23; cf. Rom. 9:32-33; Gal. 5:11; 6:12-14; Phil. 3:18). Or the objection given by Trypho to Justin: ‘It is just this that we cannot comprehend . . . that you set your hope on one crucified’ (Dial. Tryph. 10). It is a problem that is quite understandable given that Paul, Luke, Philo, and the Dead Sea Scrolls all link crucifixion to Deut. 21:23, which states that ‘cursed is any man who hangs upon a tree’ (my trans.).8 This would imply that Jesus was ‘cursed’ and therefore could not be the Messiah. It should be borne in mind that the Messiah was meant to be the representative of Israel par excellence. N.T. Wright spells out a possible problem that emerges: ‘The cross is offensive to Jews because a crucified Messiah implies a crucified Israel.’

Additionally, in the Greco-Roman world crucifixion was the antithesis of the noble death. Seneca writes, ‘Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn out agony?’ (Lucil. 101). Josephus observed many crucifixions and he said it was ‘the most wretched of deaths’ (War 7.203). Tacitus labelled crucifixion the ‘punishment of slaves’ (Hist. 4.11). The Alexamenos Graffito depicts a figure on a cross with a donkey’s head being worshipped by a man, with the epithet beneath the picture reading ‘Alexamenos worships his god’. This furnishes substantial proof of the derision associated with worship of a crucified man.”

One thing I was so thankful for was that Bird actually discusses the relationship between the resurrection and the messiahship of Jesus. Bird says:

“The resurrection would make Jesus a divinely honoured martyr, but not necessarily a Messiah. In addition, the widespread appearance of in relation to Jesus’ suffering and death (e.g. Acts 3:18-19; 17:3; 26:23; Rom. 5:6,8; 8:34; 1 Cor. 8:11; 15:3; Gal. 2:21; 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:21; 3:18; 4:1; 5:10) suggests that interpretation of Jesus’ death as a messianic death was primitive and pervasive (see also ‘Messiah died and rose’ etc. [Rom. 14:9; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; 1 Thess. 4:14]).

But from where did it come? Resurrection could not on its own create the messianic faith or a messianic atonement theology. A better point of origin for this formula would be Jesus himself, who enacted a messianic ministry in conjunction with references to his forthcoming rejection in Jerusalem.

In other words, it was Jesus’ messianic claims combined with his intimations of his violent death that, in light of his resurrection, led Christians to find patterns in Scripture of a suffering/rejected figure who could be identified as the Messiah..”

.As far as the Christology and messianism in John’s Gospel, Bird says:

“The implicit messianism of the prologue is apparent in at least four ways. First, John is amplifying his messianic testimony by placing the person of the Messiah within the orbit of the divine identity. One way that John does this is by identifying Jesus as pre-existent. The pre-existence of Jesus in the Gospel is clear in several units, not only in the prologue with ‘in the beginning’, but elsewhere too, such as Jesus’ retort to the Pharisees: ‘“Very truly I tell you . . . before Abraham was born, I am!”’ (8:58). Moreover, the pre-existence of the Messiah seems to have been debated within Judaism. The concept of a pre-existing Messiah is implied, to varying degrees, in several Jewish texts,14 yet the late second-century Christian author Hippolytus knows of a Jewish tradition that disputed such a claim since the   (1:11). The notion that Jesus as Messiah is the ‘coming one’ is firmly embedded in the Gospel tradition. Jesus is the stronger one/coming one in the witness of the Baptist (Mark 1:7/Matt. 3:11/Luke 3:16/John 1:15,30). Jesus is asked by John’s disciples if he is the ‘one to come’ (Luke 7:19–20/Matt. 11:2–3). In the triumphal entry, rich with messianic overtones, Jesus is the one who ‘comes in the name of the Lord’ (Mark 11:9/Matt. 21:9/Luke 19:38/John 12:13). This is more than a movement from A to B, as ‘the coming one’ was rich with eschatological and messianic significance.

The Septuagint version of Hab. 2:3 is messianic, and refers not simply to a coming age, but to a coming person. Thus, for John, Jesus is both the messianic temple-builder and the embodiment of God’s glory as the new temple itself. Out of the various encounters that Jesus has with key figures, the encounter that makes the most of the messianic theme is the exchange that takes place between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1–42). The substance of the dialogue focuses on ‘Living Water’ (4:4–14), ‘The Woman’s Husbands’ (4:15–19), ‘Worship True and False’ (4:20–26), and ‘The Woman’s Witness’ (4:27–30). In terms of the christological affirmations of this section, the woman affirms that Jesus is a prophet because of his knowledge of her circumstance (4:19). This leads to her pressing question – the one that divided Jews and Samaritans – about the proper place of worship: Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim (4:20). Jesus’ response is that what matters is not the place of worship, but worship performed ‘in the Spirit and in truth’ (4:23–24). The ‘Spirit’ here is not the human spirit, but the Holy Spirit who inspires the worship of the believing community.” – Kindle Highlights, Location, 1993, 2176, 2271.

Over all, this book is truly unique. Bird wrote this as a follow up to his book “Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question.” The reader will learn a tremendous amount about Jewish messianism, Christology and how each Gospel author presents Jesus to his audience.