As a Christian, I can admit when someone has a good objection to adhering to the faith I love. But then there are times when people make claims so ridiculous that it’s amazing anyone takes them seriously.
Michael Bird’s newest book, Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels, is a short but strong work that seeks to defend what is perfectly obvious to anyone except for those who don’t want to see it: Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the Messiah, and the four evangelists who wrote our gospels bear witness to this in their works. Going through Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Bird examines how these writers believed that Jesus their teacher was also the rightful king of the world and the person through whom God would re-establish His rule.
The church, Bird argues, had no reason to think of Jesus as Messiah and every reason not to. Judaism hadn’t made room for the concept of a dying savior. Even Jesus’ resurrection, on its own, did not guarantee that he was God’s anointed one. Bird’s contention—which he shares with people like N.T. Wright and is, in my opinion, right to hold—is that the church inherited Jesus’ messiahship from Jesus himself. This thought became so engrained in the early church that the claim that Jesus is the Christ quickly transformed into an actual name: “Jesus Christ”. That the apostle Paul didn’t spend any time in his letters defending Jesus’ claims to be this savior indicates that this simply wasn’t a matter that was still being debated in the church (and when you consider the doctrines that were debated in those early centuries, that’s saying something).
“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).
The book’s main chapter each cover a different gospel, and some of the points overlap. Mark’s goal is to prove that Jesus is the Messiah and that Israel’s savior won his war by succumbing to the very thing that many people assumed would prove he wasn’t a savior at all: the cross. Matthew presents Jesus as a new David who saves both Jews and Gentiles. Luke shows how the work of Jesus—and his church—fulfill what Israel’s prophets had been talking about all those years ago. And John goes beyond his synoptic siblings by arguing for a Messiah who came from heaven.
“… 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 the Messiah was not a consistent aspect of messianic hopes, but a deployable one for some. A pre-existent Messiah was not, then a Christian innovation. John’s two cents about the pre-existent Messiah debate was given in his affirmation that Jesus the Word is the king of Israel” (101).
Some of the more memorable parts of the book (to me, anyway) did not directly connect to the debate over messiahship. For instance, Bird argues that we should read Mark 13–15 as a unified whole that connects the destruction of the Temple to the death of Jesus (47). There are even similarities between the two events that I hadn’t seen before now. Both are accompanied by darkness. The disciples will be handed over to their enemies, just as Jesus was handed over to his. One temple would be torn down and another would be rebuilt. Regarding Jesus’ claim to be the good shepherd in John 10, Bird points out that this was royal imagery used not only to describe God in the Old Testament but also Amenhotep III of Egypt (126).
Bird also argues that when Jesus told a potential follower that foxes and birds of the air have beds while the Son of Man does not, he was indicting the current rulers in Palestine. Foxes, here, represented Herod (whom Jesus called a fox in another place) and the birds of the air represented the Gentiles:
“The Son of Man, then, is the messianic representative of the Jewish nation. The point of the contrast is to say that everyone, even Gentiles like the Romans, even half-Jews like the Herodians, are making themselves at home in Israel, while the people of God are oppressed by the greed of these pagan beasts. If you wish to join in the Messiah’s mission, then you have to join the ranks of the disinherited and dispossessed” (86).
Should you read this book? If you’re looking for a short but solid defense that early Christianity believed and argued for the messiahship of Jesus, then Bird’s work is good for you. And if you’re someone who thinks that Jesus didn’t argue for his own messiahship or that this aspect of his character was diminished as the church grew older, then this book is definitely for you.