In the spring of my senior year in high school I showed up to take the dreaded “AP Exam” for English. As I walked in the door, the person checking IDs asked me whose class I was in. Learning that I was in Dr. Hudgins’ class, the person rifled through a stack of 3×5 cards and found the one with my name on it:
Daniel, You have a good mind and a good sense of humor. Today, use your mind.
The lesson of that 3×5 card is one that I continue to learn, often faltering.
Reflecting on Michael Bird’s contribution to the volume, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman, I find myself wishing that he had had a Dr. Hudgins, someone to set him on a trajectory of learning the appropriate time for entertainment versus the appropriate time for serious mental exertion. Failure on this point leaves Bird’s chapters a sorry mix of condescension, foolishness, and fear.
The current post is an interim report on my read-through of the volume Bird edited. By “interim report” I mean that I’ve read just about half the book, and am responding not to the book as a whole, but to the Preface and Chapters 1 and 2.
The book is the collective work of five scholars, but all of what I’m responding to in this post is by Michael Bird.
As the title suggests, the book is a response to Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, which I reviewed here last week (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). In a blog post, Bird referred to this book as a pre-emptive pastoral apologetics. That description is apt. Bird’s pieces are for rallying the insiders and defending their faith, not for serious engagement of academic issues.
It is difficult to describe Bird’s work as anything other than clownish. Being no stranger to rhetorical flourish myself, I nonetheless encountered in these chapters argumentation through impressionistic assertion rather than scholarly response of any academic credibility.
The great “apologetic” depends on rallying the troops with conclusions such as:
…we think that his overall case is about as convincing as reports of the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, sitting in a Chick-Fil-A restaurant, wearing a Texan-style cowboy hat, while reading Donald Trump’s memoire [sic.] (p. 8)
When Bird turns to assess Ehrman’s Christology, he once again “aids” the reader in framing the issue: “Ehrman’s view of Jesus is low, so low in fact that it could probably win a limbo contest against a leprechaun.” Where was Bird when the Nicene Fathers needed him?
Bird then goes on to misrepresent Ehrman’s view as “essentially evolutionary” (p. 11).
Ehrman himself, however, contends that the Christology of the New Testament did not “evolve” in a straight line. In Ehrman’s introduction he says, “The idea that Jesus is God… was the view of the very earliest Christians soon after Jesus’ death” (p. 3).
More to the point, and in direct contradiction to Bird’s characterization, Ehrman writes: “The problem with this chronological sequencing of the Gospels is that it dos not reflect the actual chronological development of early Christian views of Jesus… some Christians were saying that Jesus was a preexistent being (the “later” view) even before Paul began to write in the 50s—well before our earliest Gospel was written. The reality is… views of Jesus did not develop along a straight line in every part of early Christianity and at the same rate. Different Christians in different churches in different regions had different views of Jesus, almost from the get-go” (p. 237, bold type added).
Ehrman’s view of Christological development is not “essentially evolutionary.”
At several points in the book there are such missteps from Bird. The explanation, it seems, is to be found in a blog post in which Bird describes his inspiration for the book. He saw a poster advertising Ehrman’s forthcoming work, and decided a response was needed, “knowing where it was probably going.” It looks to this reader as though Bird was mistaken about the book’s “probable” content, and was not sufficiently chastened in the direction of his work by Ehrman’s actual argument.
For instance, at several points along the way we find Bird claiming that notions of Jesus’ divinity were thoroughly at home in Jewish contexts, and not dependent on Greek ideas. One might think that Ehrman makes such an argument–the old evolutionary argument about Christology that developed after leaving the safe confines of Judaism. Except, of course, that this is not what Ehrman argues.
Bird is responding not to Ehrman, but to Charlie Moule’s depiction of evolutionary Christology published in 1977 (p. 11).
For his part, Ehrman makes a case for how Paul and those from whom Paul inherited traditions such as the Philippians 2 Christ hymn, might have imagined Jesus to be a preexistent being, identified with YHWH, from Old Testament (!) precedent (e.g., p. 61).
In addition to misrepresentation, perhaps the gravest sin of these chapters is the question begging.
We repeatedly find Bird reiterating the language of Jesus as “Son of God” or “Christ” or “one enthroned at God’s right hand” as though such language answers the debate in favor of his understanding of early high Christology. I note the shift from Mark 8:29, Jesus’ query that elicits the confession that Jesus is “Christ,” to a claim that the answer to Jesus’ question is the Nicene Creed (p. 46).
Bird moves from describing Jesus as “agent” to identifying him with YHWH on p. 57, and from one who can “forgive on God’s behalf” to “unmediated divine authority” on p. 58. How is agency “unmediated”?
Or again, Jesus is “exalted above” all powers, but this is supposedly an indication of “inherent” superiority (p. 38). Why not an achieved superiority? “Son of God” and “Lord to Son of David” are thought to be further indications of God’s very own incarnate presence (p. 59). Or, “manifestation of Israel’s God”—what does this mean, what would it look like?
The whole point of the debate is to answer the question of what such appellations of Jesus actually meant for the first writers and hearers. To move from the existence of such titles to the conclusion that they support a particular view is to beg the question—the alternative readings and interpretations have to be carefully investigated; the conclusion preferred has to be confirmed by evidence.
Bird does develop arguments at some important points in his work, for instance, in his discussion of the son of man. Those arguments are to be welcomed, even if they jump from “human being” to one who is much more than a “miniature throne buddy” (p. 66) without accounting well for the shift. But any argument is better than assertion, and there is some argumentation in these pages as well.
On Early High Christology
In the early pages in which he lays out the terms of the debate, Bird wants to demonstrate the great work of the Early High Christology proponents whose studies allegedly contravene Ehrman. In doing so, he cites Martin Hengel: “more happened [in Christological development] in this period of less than two decades than in the whole next seven centuries.”
I had seen this quote before. Quite recently in fact! It is cited approvingly by Bart Ehrman who is affirming the tremendous amount of Christological development that happened before the Christ hymn was penned that appears Phil 2. This is an early clue that Bird has failed to grasp the nature of Ehrman’s argument.
Also, Bird here cites an evangelical, Hengel, who agrees that development happened. Throughout his study, Bird cites such scholars. But in his own articulations of early Christology, Bird is not willing to concede any particular point at which such development has taken place. He instead clings tightly to Richard Bauckham’s claim that “the earliest Christology was already the highest Christology” (cited approvingly on p. 16).
From “In” to “As”
In developing his own Christological picture, Bird engages in some sleight of hand that allow him to present arguments as though they make his point, when in fact they do not quite make the final leap his position requires.
One such move he makes is the insertion of the word “as” into statements of the relationship between God and Jesus (pp. 16, 28).
It is one thing to say that God is made known “in” Jesus, and that God is identified “with” Jesus. Any number of studies will confirm this. However, Bird makes the additional step of then saying, the God of Israel is known “as” Jesus, something that his predecessors have tended to be more careful to avoid.
God is known “in” many things in the Jewish tradition: in the Torah given to God’s people; in the behavior of the people in obedience to that Torah; in moments of deliverance; in moments of destruction. God is so identified with such things that God’s identity is shaped by them: God becomes the God of Abraham, or the God who calls into being the things which do not exist, or the God who brought us up out of the land of Egypt. This does not make Abraham God, or the Exodus divine. Bird assumes an implication of “divine identity” that cannot be sustained.
Leaning on the Richard Bauckham Arms
Bird leans heavily on Richard Bauckham’s standards for assessing divinity, especially whether a being shares in God’s sovereignty and worship. However, this does not become a lens for assessing the early Jewish or Christian tradition, it becomes a lens for asserting that Jesus is uniquely considered divine while (a) describing the cases of others who share God’s sovereignty and worship as though they actually don’t (e.g., Enoch’s son of man, Israel’s Kings, Moses in the work of Ezekiel the Tragedian); (b) remaining silent about the instances where others share in these prerogatives (e.g., 1 Chronicles 29:20 where both God and the king are worshipped), 1 Chronicles 29:23 where Solomon sits on YHWH’s throne); and (c) assuming (not demonstrating) that Jesus shares this sovereignty and worship in some qualitatively different way (this third point is another instance of question-begging, as Bird does not demonstrate that Jesus shares sovereignty and worship in some qualitatively distinct way—he assumes and asserts it).
Bird comes close to capturing what we see so often in the Gospels when he says, “… it is probable that Jesus understood himself as a divine agent who uniquely shared in divine prerogatives, embodied God’s sovereignty, and identified his work with God’s action in the world.” He seems incapable of recognizing that to be an “agent” might very well indicate that one is operating on delegated authority (see also his discussion of the Son of Man on p. 66). Indeed, throughout the chapters, especially chapter 2, Bird asserts (does not argue) that Jesus acts with unmediated divine authority–a claim that cannot be sustained even in the Gospel of John.
How much more shall I say?
- In disputing Ehrman’s method, Bird complains that his interlocutor relies too heavily on parallels with ancient sources. But this is the exact same historical method taken up by both Bauckham and Hurtado, whom Bird depends on, to stake their claims to an early high Christology: parallels demonstrate ranges of possibility and impossibility, showing what is likely old hat and what may be novel.
- The question-begging continues in Bird’s assertion that the Christ event made Christians rethink their ideas about God. Yes. Fine. But to say we’ve “rethought God” means, first and foremost, rethinking what God has done and what this means for God’s identity (the God who gives life to the dead), not reimagining the divine ontology. That did, in fact, take longer.
- Bird complains of Ehrman’s use of the “criterion of dissimilarity” only to deploy it himself when convenient to his cause.
On Peanut Butter and Jelly
As I was reading one particular section, it seemed to me that the book evinced two particular deficiencies: too strong a Nicene hermeneutic being brought to the biblical text, and lack of awareness about the significance of the words that Bird himself had put on the page. Bird argues that Paul’s letters evince a “clear binitarian devotion” (28). The evidence? These verses: “To the church of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you” (1 Thess 1:1); Gal 1:3-5, where Paul wishes “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself… according to the will of God our Father.”
How, exactly is this binitarian? In every instance, God is “the Father.” Jesus is not. Jesus is Lord. As Paul will say in 1 Corinthians: “There is but one God, the Father… and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” When Paul says God, he does not mean the binitarian Father-Son complex. He means the Father.
When Bird goes on to illustrate how this conjunction of God and Jesus is allegedly binitarian, he says the two go together “like peanut butter and jelly, like Australia and kangaroos, like cheese and wine, or like baseball and beer!” (I’m not making this up.)
I think that, in fact, for all its silliness, this string of analogies is probably right on target: Bird is suggesting in each case two distinct things that are nonetheless taken together as somehow inseparable. This provides a possible way forward to understanding Paul’s Christology.
However, instead of recognizing that here is a conjoining of God with Jesus, the exalted second Adam, the man through whom came the resurrection of the dead, the man who will in the end turn over the Kingdom to the God and Father so that God may be all in all (1 Cor 15), Bird instead pulls the “Jesus is God” rabbit out of the peanut butter and jelly hat: “The God of Israel is revealed in, through, and even as the Lord Jesus Christ.” Is peanut butter actually Jelly? Is Australia actually a kangaroo?
It goes on. One wonders why Bird simply asserts that no Jewish person ever depicted someone as sharing divine worship or sitting on God’s throne rather than engaging (and admitting the existence of!) Jewish literature, including the OT, that depicts both.
Bird warms up N.T. Wright’s idea that Jesus saw in himself the return of Yahweh to Zion. And in the question-begging manner that plagues the chapters, never stops to ask what a Jewish person might have expected that return to look like “from below.”
For instance, might the Ezekiel text that speaks of God shepherding and gathering God’s people, for God to be king over them, and then goes on to speak of David being shepherd and prince tell us what Yahweh’s return would look like from below? Bird cites this passage only to say, “Now obviously this does not mean that David is YHWH, but neither is David just a kind of subcontractor” (56).
In other words, the passage demonstrates that Jewish people might conceive of God reigning over Israel, and God returning to Israel, precisely through a human agent who is not YHWH Himself. “Not a subcontractor” is one instance where the buffoonery that plagues the chapters displaces what needs to be a critical argument.
We Can Do Better
Throughout, Bird’s “pastoral apologetic” uses and depends on better traditionalist scholarship (Hurtado, Bauckham, Hengel) without the nuance or understanding that generated it, leaving the informed reader more dubious about the claims for Jesus’ divinity in the texts considered than when the reading began. The force of the essays depends too much on an impressionistic conclusion that Ehrman is laughable, as indeed Bird has attempted to make us laugh—only, ultimately, to leave himself looking the fool.
We must do better.
I am not willing to surrender the label of evangelical, but if we’re going to make it, we have to get over the defensiveness and assertion of our own ideas that keeps us from being able to do good scholarship and even to learn from those who do not share our label.
Fear drives Bird’s project. And fear will always cloud our judgment. The fear becomes clear in the final paragraphs, where he asserts that if Jesus didn’t think of himself as divine then the Christian canon and creeds are meaningless.
I refuse this syllogism.
On this logic, must we then go on to say that if Jesus did not know himself to be part of the eternal Trinity then the canon and creeds are meaningless? Must we scour the Gospels for historical evidence of the homoousion?
Perhaps most importantly, the defensiveness of this posture makes it impossible to listen to the Gospels, to the Bible we actually have. While “Jesus is God” makes a good reading of John, it blurs our eyes to Jesus the “son of David” in Matthew, to Luke’s “man attested by God,” and even to Mark’s “son of God” who is “son of man.”
In short, my assessment is that an evangelicalism that has Ehrman as its chief foe is in better shape than an evangelicalism that has Bird as its great champion.
A part of me wants to apologize to Bird for this, perhaps the most negative review I have ever written, but in truth I feel that he owes an apology to the rest of us–to us who consider ourselves evangelicals and are about the difficult business of engaging critical and historical scholarship for the sake of the church, and perhaps most especially to the other contributors to this volume.
As a final note, I should say that this book is not a complete loss. I have read the chapter by Craig Evans on the burial of Jesus, which offers a better model of responding to historical claims with historical scholarship. So stay tuned.