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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 59, 2011

MICHAEL F. BIRD, Are You The One Who Is To Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009). Pp. 207. Paperback. $22.99.

In this short book, Michael F. Bird re-opens the debate about the possible Messianic self-understanding of the historical Jesus. The foreword of the book, provided by Stanley E. Porter, as well as the first chapter, gives a brief, but well-rounded, introduction to the topic. Bird clearly states that this book is “not going to set out to demonstrate that Jesus used the title ‘Messiah’ of himself,” but rather “that Jesus saw himself in messianic categories, as enacting a messianic role or a messianic vocation as part of his aim to renew and restore Israel through his various activities” (29). In this regard, the book is in conversation with Joseph A. Fitzmyer’s, The One Who Is to Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

In the second chapter, Bird provides a survey of messianic expectations and imagery in Second Temple Judaism. Particularly illuminating are Bird’s observations about several OT texts that include “proto-messianism” and their contributions to the development of messianism and the exposition of first-century CE messiah-like figures. Further, Bird briefly discusses messianic elements in other Second Temple Literature, including some from the Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although this chapter only presents a survey of a much broader topic, it provides a larger context for the discussions about Jesus.

Chapter Three is dedicated to a refutation of the idea that Jesus’ messianic identity was created by the early church. To this end, Bird questions interpretations surrounding the idea of messiahship originating from the resurrection, the purpose of the messianic secret, the disciples’ and opponents’ perceptions of Jesus’ messianic identity, the titulus on the cross, and scriptural references to Jesus as the Messiah. He concludes that there are grounds for a messianic pre-Easter faith, particularly since Jesus “acted in such a way as to quite deliberately arouse messianic hopes in those around him” (76).

When analysing Jesus’ messianic role in Chapter Four, Bird dissects the phrase “Son of Man." He argues that Daniel 7 is the point of departure for the Son of Man tradition surrounding Jesus, but that the designation does not belong to a single concept of messianism as shown by the various applications of the term in the NT and Second Temple Literature. However, Bird also mentions that this understanding was not universal and “"probably a marginal phenomenon” (97) during Jesus’ time and that Jesus combined it with the general understanding of “human being,” which was the prominent meaning. Another messianic aspect of Jesus is his use of the Isaianic theme of the anointed one. Bird demonstrates how this goes back to the historical Jesus and gives Qumranic parallels that reveal the messianic understanding of the Isaiah passages. Further, Bird engages with the title of king as well as allusions to David and Solomon, which, however, remain slightly unconvincing for his argument. As he himself concedes, what is “monarchic is not necessarily messianic” (109). Also, he proposes a messianic reading for some of the “I have come” sayings although admitting that this cannot be regarded as a universal rule for these logia.

The main section (Chapter Five) brings the book to a climax. It investigates the events leading up to Jesus’ execution, where Bird makes his strongest case for the messianic Jesus. He carefully examines the famous events and motifs of Jesus’ last week, including, amongst others, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the temple cleansing and the much disputed trial of Jesus. Bird’s presentation of the various scholarly opinions regarding each of these issues and his own thorough reasoning as to why messianism is present in the various events is very stimulating. In the final chapter, the author makes some personal theological remarks that follow from the conclusion that Jesus saw himself in messianic terms.

This volume is accessible, and yet offers a careful analysis of the evidence, along with extensive references to scholarly views both in the body of the text and the footnotes. Bird always presents both sides of the debate, allowing the reader to judge his conclusions. Although this reviewer might not always agree with him, the overall argument is persuasive. Thus, the book is a valuable resource for both the scholar and undergraduate student of historical Jesus research.

Review by
La Trobe University
Bundoora VIC 3086