Are You the One Who is to Come?
Michael F. Bird
Our modern world is awash in those who fundamentally distrust the origin and reliability of the Scriptures —particularly the Gospels and the other writings of the Apostles. Based on this radical distrust, the world writes off Jesus of Nazareth as just another wise man, perhaps more influential and more wise than others, but a man nonetheless. Clearly, if there is no God (and science has proven there is no God, right?), then the claims of this man Jesus must be nothing more than later additions by those who wanted to found an organization known as the church, and wanted the leadership and legacy from that founding. Or perhaps they wanted to believe in some form of god, or God, just to make themselves feel better, or because they were wired by evolution so they had no choice.
This entire ad hominem attack against the writers of the books we call the Gospels depends, primarily, on the idea that Jesus never actually claimed to be the Messiah; that all the actually claims to Messiahship, as it were, are later additions. But given the worst possible construction accounts —if you give the redaction critic his full measure, accept the existence of the mythical “Q” document, accept Mark as being written first, and accept almost every theory reducing the original words of Christ to the minimum possible— what are you left with? Is it possible, from this slim set of texts, to build the case that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah? Dr. Bird begins precisely here.
This is a short book; if you are familiar with the terms and ideas involved, you could probably read through it in four or five hours. But it is dense; you really must be familiar with the terms and ideas involved, or prepare yourself to spend some time looking up and understanding them.
Dr. Bird starts with examining what the meaning of the term “Christ,” is. What is it Jesus must have claimed in order to be considered the Messiah? Since Jesus didn’t call himself Messiah at all in the Gospels, this is a critical piece of background information; we must understand the text as it stands, rather than bringing our expectations to the text. As part of this effort in understanding what should be seen as a Messianic claim, the author spends the second chapter discussing Messianic expectation in Second Temple Judaism. Here he considers various men who did call themselves, or were called, Messiah, to lay out what various groups within the Jewish population were expecting.
The third chapter deals with the claim that Jesus declined to be called the Messiah, that he was the “hidden Messiah.” He agrees that Jesus did, sometimes, decline to be called the Messiah, or intentionally attempted to hide it, but that this was for a specific cultural reason —that Jesus was working within the bounds of what the average Jew expected, even reshaping those expectations (or attempting to), and preventing the condemnation of Rome early in his ministry. The author picks up on this idea of Jesus redefining the role of Messiah in the fourth chapter, showing how and where, even with minimal manuscript witness, this is clear from the record. The fifth chapter deals specifically with the trial and crucifixion of Christ. There is a long section here on the titular, the sign placed over the head of Jesus as he was crucified, and it’s significance. Dr. Bird finishes with a chapter on Messianic Christology, pulling all the threads together.
This is an excellent book for those who are a bit more technically inclined, and who want to understand the case for Christ from even the most minimal set of texts about Christ. If you’re willing to take the time to dig into terms and concepts you don’t already know, it’s well worth reading.
A note: I’m not certain, on reading this text, whether Dr. Bird actually accepts Redaction Criticism as a reliable or viable way to understand the Scriptures. He appears to within the book, but a good friend has pointed out some various footnotes, and other comments within the book, that seem to indicate otherwise —that he was intentionally working from a minimal text, while not accepting that minimal text himself. In the end, this isn’t an important point, because the thesis of the book works from the minimal text, and still shows that Jesus considered himself the Messiah long before his followers did.