Bird, Evans, et al., HOW GOD BECAME JESUS
Bird, Evans, et al., HOW GOD BECAME JESUS

On Monday I summarized Chapter 3, “Did Jesus Think He was God?” of Bart D. Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Today I will do the same for Michael Bird‘s response, Chapter 3, “Did Jesus Think He was God?” in How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature —A Response to Bart D. Ehrman. In Ehrman’s chapter he presented Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher, a prophetic figure, and one who may have entertained some ideas about being a messiah, though not in a “traditional” sense. Jesus would have seen himself as the King of the Kingdom established by Israel’s God through the mystical Son of Man figure—a figure with whom Jesus did not self-identify according to Ehrman. On the other hand, Bird says, “…my objective is to show that Jesus identified himself as a divine agent with unique authority and a unique relationship with Israel’s God” who “…spoke as one who spoke for God in an immediate sense and believed himself to be embodying the very person of God in his mission to renew and restore Israel (p. 46).”

Bird begins by criticizing Ehrman’s approach. He challenges Ehrman’s seemingly contradictory skepticism toward the reliability of the Gospels as historical sources which Ehrman continues to use as historical sources to reconstruct his historical Jesus. Bird proposes that Ehrman may be behind the curve when it comes to historiographical methodology giving a nod of the head to the recent emergence of social memory theory as an approach more befitting than the “criteria”. For Bird, if Ehrman’s methodology is flawed than one cannot but presuppose that his findings will be flawed as well (pp. 46-51).

Bird’s constructive project begins with a caveat: Jesus didn’t go about Galilee announcing “I’m God!” This would be too simple. Rather, “When I say that Jesus knew himself to be God, I mean that he was conscious that in him the God of Israel was finally returning to Zion (i.e., Jerusalem) to renew the covenant and to fulfill the promises God had made to the nation about a new exodus (p. 52).” Unlike Ehrman he finds the Gospels as historically reliable though he acknowledges that they are mixed with theology (as he makes clear with his witty statement on p. 50, “Trying to separate the history from the theology in the Gospels is a bit like trying to separate blue from red in the color purple.”

Michael Bird
Michael Bird

Bird moves through several examples from the Gospels where his exegesis indicates that the Gospels are implicitly declaring Israel’s God to be working in and through Jesus in a way that is unique and completely different from any other figure in the Hebrew Bible or other early Jewish writings. Bird argues that Jesus likely did speak of himself as the Son of Man in a polyvalent way: son of man can be idiomatic for “human”, “person”, or even as a self-reference while also alluding to emerging traditions related to “one like a son of man” from Daniel 7 (pp. 61-66). He goes through several echoes in the Gospels where the passages to which the Evangelist alludes has YHWH returning to Zion while the narrative depicts Jesus as doing this (pp. 52-56).

Bird challenges Ehrman’s flippant dismissal of Jesus’s act of forgiveness being a divine act by observing how passages like Mark 2:1-12 indicate that Jesus’ act of forgiveness was not Jesus pretending to be a priest, but Jesus speaking with “divine prerogative” as one with the authority in himself to do this act (pp. 57-58). Other deeds where Jesus acts as though he is divine wisdom incarnate, or as the Shepherd YHWH coming to save the sheep of Israel, or Jesus’ parables which insinuate that in his person YHWH is reconciling with his people all indicate to Bird that while it would be wrong to present Jesus as saying, “I am God” it is equally as misguided to use the Gospels as sources while skipping the exegetical task of asking what the Gospels themselves are trying to indicate, especially through their allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures (p. 59-60).

Finally, while Ehrman dismisses the Fourth Gospel as historically unreliable, Bird suggests that while it is a different genre from the Synoptic Gospels, “…probably based on a mixture of memory, metaphor, and mid rash, a theological elaboration of words and impressions made by Jesus on his followers”, the Fourth Gospel “…comprises a  magnification rather than a  mutilation of the claims of Jesus found in the Synoptics (p. 68).” Bird provides several parallel motifs between the four Gospels which he understands to promote a common message.

According to Bird, “Belief in the resurrection contributed to Christology but did not create one from nothing” and “The resurrection alone did not create a divine Christology (pp. 66-67).” Instead, “…the resurrection magnified rather than manufactured Jesus’ claims to divine status (p. 67).” This is contrary to Ehrman’s argument that there was no belief in Jesus as in any way divine prior to the belief of the disciples that Jesus was alive from the dead.

In summary, the difference between Ehrman and Bird begins with methodology and their understanding of the trustworthiness of the Gospels as sources for understanding the historical Jesus. This means that Ehrman will work to get past the theology of the text using critical methodology such as the popular criteria. Bird finds social memory and other similar approaches to be a better fit indicating that the Gospels present the gist of how Jesus was remembered to have spoken and acted. For Bird the allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures where Jesus acts as YHWH is supposed to act indicates that Jesus himself understood his own person to be embodying Israel’s God in a unique and unprecedented way unlike any other figure with which Jesus might be paralleled. According to Bird, Jesus didn’t say “I’m God”, but he acted as if God was in him, and as if he was one with God. This is enough to suppose we can begin speaking of Jesus as having some sort of consciousness of his own “divinity” if you will.

For more interactions with these books in the blogosphere see James McGrath’s collection of links: Ehrman and Christology around the Blogosphere.

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Previous Entries: 

Pt. 1: Prelude

Pt. 2: “How did Jesus become God?”

Pt. 3: introducing the response book

Pt. 4: the divinity-humanity continuum

Pt. 5: more on the divinity-humanity continuum

Pt. 6: “the Early High Christology Club”

Pt. 7: Bird’s first response

Pt. 8: around the blogosphere

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