Book Review: Jesus is the Christ by Michael Bird
Many thanks to IVP Academic for this free review copy
Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels is the follow-up volume to Bird’s earlier work Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question, which explores the the historical question whether Jesus knew and claimed to be the Messiah. He concludes in that work that indeed Jesus saw himself as the Messiah outlined in the Scriptures. Jesus is the Christ builds on this conclusion and shows how the primary purpose of the four Gospels is to show that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.
If you have not read his previous book then you are in luck. The introduction to the book provides a basic analysis of the claim that Jesus knew and claimed that he was the Messiah. Bird is clear and concise in this introduction and gives the new reader sufficient background to this topic. This leads into his thesis:
“a significant purpose of the Gospels is to convince readers — Jewish readers in particular — that Jesus is the Messiah. THe Gospels consciously set out to answer Jewish objections to the messiahship of Jesus, they perceive in Jesus the climax of the Jewish hope, and they proclaim Jesus as the savior of Israel (33).”
Bird has a special knack for taking the major themes of the Gospels and weaving them together in such a way that is coherent and enjoyable to read. Starting with the Gospel of Mark he combines a narrative, linguistic, rhetorical, social-scientific, and Christological analysis on the Gospel. I especially found the social-scientific analysis enlightening. Bird shows how the shameful act of crucifixion is actually “honorable” because Mark presents the cross as the “vindication, honor, and glory” of Christ (44–45). Somehow Bird then weaves together the theological masterpiece of Matthew into a narrative showing the Matthean focus of Jesus as the Davidic messiah coming to bring deliverance to both the Jews and Gentiles. Bird then combines the Luke-Acts narrative showing that Luke’s main purposes are showing that Jesus is the messiah and that "those who express faith in Jesus and join ‘the Way’ are constituted as the people of God in the messianic age. Finally, the Gospel of John is summed up beautifully in his final paragraph:
“The confession that Jesus is the Messiah, and the mode of sonship that it claimed for him, make it clear that Jesus is from, of, with, and even is God. Jesus fulfills the scriptural hopes in such a way as to eclipse the place of the law and Moses from the centre of Jewish belief, and Jesus stands in an unparalleled unity with the Father — that is what it means to call him the Messiah (140).”
I found Bird’s approach to the Gospels both compelling and engaging. Reading through each chapter the reader is hit with a whirlwind of ideas and themes related to the Gospel writers portrayal that Jesus is indeed the long awaited Messiah. I especially enjoyed his emphasis that the Messianic titles in the Gospel of Mark, while important individually, come together as a whole to “form a mutually interpretive christological spiral where one defines the meaning of the other (45).” Bird is able to fly above the Gospels and provide narrative overview while swooping down to show how the individual parts make up the whole.
Many people reading this will already have in their mind that the Gospels present Jesus as the Messiah but this book still has much merit for those readers. The insights into the themes and theology of the Gospels are worthy to be read for anyone being introduced to the Gospels. After reading this book students will be able to read the Gospels individually and understand how each story stands in relation to the whole. If one is not convinced that the Gospels present Jesus as the Christ they too should also pick up this book because one would be hard pressed to argue against this notion after reading Bird’s analysis.
I am a footnote snob so I was disappointed when I opened the book to find that it had endnotes. This makes for a slower read for someone who is interested in the “extras” with each endnote. The introduction alone has 92 endnotes in 30 pages of writing, which makes for slow reading. I ended up just noting particular endnotes that I wanted to look at later and found this a more fruitful enterprise and to just read Bird’s analysis without stopping to check out each one. With that being said, this minor negative point should not detract someone interested in the Gospels from reading this book.
To conclude, I would highly recommend this book to any student of the Bible. The Gospels, as Pennington puts it, are the “archways of the Canon”. Understanding the themes and theology of them in relation to how they present Jesus as the Messiah will not only enrich the students understanding of the Gospel themselves but also the rest of the writings of the New Testament. With Birds engaging writing style and way of turning a phrase (such as "Mk. 14:61–62 looks like a bit of a christological blender…(51)) will leave the student with both an enlightening and enjoyable read. Highly recommended.
Also check out my other reviews of IVP Academic books:
- Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures edited by Paul Foster
- Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern by Jason Hood
Also check out his upcoming book, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction.
Pennington, Jonathan T. Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction. Baker Books, 2012, 229. ↩