Mike Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord – A Brief Review (Gupta)

Bird GospelNow that Mike Bird has finished a major book on a systematic evangelical theology as well as numerous works on messianism, the historical Jesus, and the theology of Paul, I wonder if it is time for Mike to extend his brand into cook books and romance novels! Clearly he has a lot of time for writing!

Well, let’s wait and see if the Romans commentary he is working on kills him first. In the meantime, I am here to talk about Mike’s brand new book: The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2014). I was delighted to get ahold of this book because I am currently teaching two courses that deal with the Gospels.

Unlike a survey book on the Gospels, this volume is aimed at the nature and background of the Gospels, not their content per se. (For a good discussion of the Christology of the Gospels, see his Jesus is the Christ.) Mike deals with such matters in this book as the transmission of the “Jesus Tradition,” the Synoptic Problem, the genre question, and the canonization of the “fourfold Gospel.” In the course of these discussion, Mike also gives attention to the non-canonical Gospels – why they were written, what they are about, and how they were received by early Christians.

Let me just cut to the chase and say this was a very helpful book for me to read: excellent summaries of the state of discussion of scholarship on the given topics, always something fresh as Mike gives his own “take,” and plenty of humor and wit. (Yes, a refer to “Gagnam Style” makes it into the book!)

Just for fun, here are some “quotable quotes” from the book that I jotted down:

Q: “The Q document, in whatever form it might have existed, was probably an early handbook on discipleship that drew its content mostly from circulating dominical tradition” (29)

Memory: “Much of Jesus’ teaching material appears to have been composed precisely in order to be wedged in memory” (40)

” ‘[M]emory’ is the constant renegotiation of past and present in social and cultural frameworks. Social memory provides a way of conceptualizing how groups like the early church appropriate the past in light of and with respect to their present contexts” (99)

Believing Criticism: “My own approach is what I would term ‘believing criticism.’ This approach treats Scripture as the inspired and veracious Word of God, but contends that we do Scripture the greatest service when we commit ourselves to studying it in light of the context and processes through which God gave it to us. Scripture is trustworthy because of God’s faithfulness to his own Word and authoritative because the Holy Spirit speaks through it. Nonetheless, God has seen fit to use human language, human authors, and human processes as the means by which he has given his inscripturated revelation to humanity” (68)

Names Attached to the Gospels: “Largely following Martin Hengel, I contend that there is good reason to think that this attribution of names to the Gospels occurred very early, perhaps as early as the last decade of the first century” (p. 258).

Biographical Kerygma: “…the Gospels are a form of biographical kerygma, which narrate the story of Jesus in the mode of Greco-Roman literature” (280)

The Gospels for All Christians?: In the end, we should no more assume a single community behind each Gospel than we would assume that Tacitus wrote on Agricola for a “Tacitean community” or that Plutarch wrote his Parallel Lives for a “Plutarchian community.” It might be better to proffer the view that the Gospels were intended for local digestion within a broad network of like-minded churches with a deliberate and conscious intent of disseminating the document further afar” (278)

What to call wider category of gospels: “I propose that all books and writings pertaining to Jesus should go under the heading ‘Ancient Jesus Literature’ [rather than gospels]. and thereby leave the question of ‘What is a Gospel?’ as a secondary question once all the ancient materials about Jesus are properly grouped together. All these writings, irrespective of form and content, regardless of their dependence on or independence of the canonical Gospels, whatever titles they have or are given, are a type of Jesus Festschriften (i.e., celebratory writing about a person)” (289)

Agenda-driven canonical formation? “[W]hile theological minorities did not always get a fair hearing from their critics, the decision not to include their writings was not born out of realpolitik. The canon of the orthodox church was not designed principally for oppression and promulgated out of a quest for ecclesiastical power. Rather, it was driven by a desire to be faithful to the apostolic faith and to define the consensus of the worldwide church on the writings that make up its register of sacred books” (291)

Well, that’s all I got, but let me, again, give the “Gupta bump” to The Gospel of the Lord. Few books treat this group of subjects in one place. Even fewer do so with such clarity and insight.

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