Friday, September 11, 2009

Book Review: Are You the One Who Is To Come? Part 1

Bird, Michael F.

Are You the One Who is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question.

Grand Rapids: Baker Academic , 2009.

Pp. 207.

Paperback. $22.99.

ISBN: 978-0-8010-3638-5

Michael Bird, Tutor in New Testament at the Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland, prolific author, and fellow biblioblogger , has provided New Testament scholars and students with a wonderful primer revolving around the knottiest of historical Jesus questions, namely, "Who did Jesus understand himself to be?" Or to put it more specifically:"Did Jesus understand himself himself to be designated by God as the Messiah of Israel?" To this question, Bird answers with a resounding "Yes!" Bird arrives at this affirmative by arguing "...that the historical Jesus understood his mission, ministry, or messianic categories" (11).

Bird organizes his study into six succinct chapters. Chapter 1 titled "Jesus Who is Called the Christ" (Pp. 23-30) provides an overview of scholarship regarding the "messianic question" of whether or not Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah. Bird demonstrates that scholarship has largely answered this inquiry in the negative. Furthermore, Bird addresses the topic of Jesus's self-understanding. After surveying the various options that scholars have posited, Bird states that "the goal of this work is to argue ...that Jesus of Nazareth did claim, in action and speech, to be the Messiah of Israel" (29). Bird prefers to use the term "messianic self-understanding" as opposed to "messianic self-consciousness" due to the fact that analyzing an ancient figures psychological and mental states go beyond what historical inquiry can prove. Conversely, Bird defines "messianic self-understanding" as "Jesus's identifying himself in a messianic role and couching his activities as messianic in character and purpose" (29). Further, Bird is interested in "intentions and identity as they pertain to Jesus and messiahship" (29; emphasis original).

In Chapter 2 (Pp. 31-62), Bird sets out to explore the origins of messianism during the Second-Temple period. The author stresses that there was no single conception of what the messiah would be. Certain texts such as 1QM and Pss. Sol. 17-18 expected an early warrior, while others viewed him to be a preexistant and transcendent figure (1 Enoch; 4 Ezra), and yet others such as those at Qumran pictured two messiahs, one of Aaron and one of Israel (1 QS 9.11; CD 12.22-23; 13.20-22; etc.) Next, Bird tackles the Old Testament (OT) in a attempt to understand the extent of the roots of messianism found therein. The author takes on Joseph Fitzmyer and his volume similarly titled The One Who is To Come, stating that the former has wrongly correlated messianic and eschatological expectations from the OT data. For Bird, Fitzmyer is much too strict in viewing messianic texts by tying his method to the word משיח‎ ('anointed one') as it relates to the continuance of the Davidic dynasty in subsequent texts pertaining to the history of Israel (35). Bird opts for this viewpoint: "When we come to messianic hopes, biblical and postbiblical, we see that functions and roles are often more important than a single title" (35). after surveying a myriad of OT texts (34-46), Bird concludes:

...what I propose then is that we identify an Old Testament text as "messianic" when the plain sense of the text...designates a figure with royal qualities who is sent by God, and also that either the text itself was treated as messianic in postbiblical interpretation, or else the pattern of activity that the figure embodies corresponds to a pattern of activity often expected of messianic figures in antiquity (46).

Skipping ahead to chapter 3 (63-76), Bird tackles what is perhaps the central question of the volume: "Did Jesus understand himself to be the Messiah?" First, he summarizes the five reasons scholars have traditionally rejected the possibility of Jesus's messianic self-identification: 1)Linking the resurrection with Jesus's status as Messiah. In other words, Jesus did not become Messiah until after his resurrection as traditional material ( e.g. Rom. 1.4; 2 Tim. 2.8) and kerygmatic summaries of the early church demonstrate (e.g. Acts 2.36; 13.33; 64). Bird's response to this theory is manifold: One, The resurrection itself has not ties to messiahship apart from a messianic claim by Jesus or the expectation of such by his disciples. Second, there is no analogy in Jewish thought for a resurrected Messiah. Third, resurrection did play a role in messianic beliefs about Jesus in that it marked "a transition into a higher rank of sonship, and his sonship exercises a new eschatological function that he did not previously discharge before Easter" (65). 2) Another argument against Jesus understanding himself to be the Messiah is the so called "messianic secret" proposed by William Wrede. Wrede argues that this 'secret' as found in Mark's Gospel was merely theological, in that it accounted for Jesus's messiahship even though he himself never claimed to be so. Among other objections, Bird rightly refutes Wrede's attempt "to compress all miracle and kingdom traditions under the aegis of messiahship..."(67). Furthermore, Bird points out that the so-called "messianic secret" would be better categorized as a "messianic misunderstanding" due to the fact that Jesus's actions are still widely publicized even with injunctions not to do so (68).
The last 3 objections that scholars posit are briefly mentioned here: 3) The disciples' enthusiasm and the authorities' perception of Jesus as the Messiah; 4) An inference from the Titulus on the cross; and finally, 5) The Scripturizing of the Tradition. For brevity's sake, I will only discuss the last point. This objection states that the earliest Christians "ransacked" their Scriptures to find scriptural proof that Jesus was the Messiah. Bird, conversely states that "Although the evangelists and their sources interpreted Jesus's activities through the lens of Scripture, we have no indication that their reading of Scripture somehow created the story of Jesus's messiahship" (75). In addition, the author astutely points out:
What is more, it remains a mystery as to why scholars continue to insist that the evangelists or the early church created stories about Jesus out of Scripture, and yet this same propensity to engage Scripture is never attributed to Jesus himself. We muster wonder, why, in principle, Jesus was unable to deliberately act out stories and scriptural patterns that were also creative, innovative, subversive, provocative, and even offensive (75).
This segues nicely into Bird's next chapter where he discusses Jesus as deliberately acting and playing out messianic motifs in his ministry and teaching. This concludes part 1 of this review.

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