Sunday, October 14, 2007

Review: Bird, Jesus and the Origin of the Gentile Mission (Part 1)

I am finishing up an amazing book right now written by a fellow blogger--Michael Bird. With Joel Willitts, Dr. Bird writes for Euangelion--a blog regularly visited (and mentioned) by the contributors of this site. I've always enjoyed Euangelion and the published articles written by Bird. So ever since I heard about his new book, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission (Library of Historical Jesus Studies; New York: T&T Clark, 2007), I've been eager to read it. T&T Clark's ridiculous' price tag, however, kept me away... until now.

All I can say is, wow! The cost of admission was high but it has been well worth it!

I've decided to do a series of posts on the book and highlight a few things I found especially interesting, adding some of my own comments along the way.

Consider this the first post in that series.

First, let me address why this book is important.

Ever since the rise of what has been called "Third Quest" Jesus scholarship, research has emphasized the real need to situate Jesus within his historical context--his Jewish context. Jesus was a Jew. That might sound silly to have to point out but the fact is most scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often lost sight of that. At certain times and in certain places--especially in German around the time of World War II--scholars even tried to disconnect Jesus from Judaism. Even today one can look at movies such as Jesus of Nazareth--a great film in many respects--and see traces of this tendency to remake Jesus into a European; Jesus has blue eyes and sounds strangely English while everyone else around him looks and acts like Jewish!

Oh, to be divinely European!

However, since the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls there has been an especially strong emphasis on getting back to understanding Jesus within the context of ancient Judaism. That has been a very good thing and has produced much fruitful work. E. P. Sanders and Jacob Neusner, both Jewish scholars are just two examples of writers whose work has shed greater light upon the Gospels. Neusner has even been praised by Pope Benedict XVI.

This trend however has had one very negative consequence though--it has often times attempted to separate Jesus from the Christian faith which emerged from him! I could go on and on about the problem of the use of the criterion of "dissimilarity"--the idea that elements in the Gospels "dissimilar to Judaism and/or Christianity" are more likely to be historical than those things which correspond to both or either of the two. (See the often overlooked but incredibly insightful discussion in the first half of Gerd Theissen and Dagmar Winter, The Quest for the Plausible Jesus: The Question of Criteria [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002]). Here let me highlight just one issue that has emerged out of the discussion: Jesus' concern for Gentiles.

Would a first century Jew such as Jesus really have envisioned the inclusion of Gentiles in the way the Church later accepted? It seems clear that Jesus was first and foremost concerned with the Jews. A verse that Albert Schweitzer highlighted is found in Matthew 10:5-6: "These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, 'Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.'" Many have concluded that this verse represents the real historical attitude of Jesus. Other stories relating Jesus' concern for Samaritans and Gentiles were only later added by the Gospel writers to defend the Church's Gentile mission. The truth, they say, was that Jesus would not have likely been concerned about the salvation of non-Jews.

Now, that isn't to say that all scholars agree with this assessment. Some scholars point out that Jesus' Galilean connection essentially de-Judaizes Jesus. These scholars argue that Galilee was actually thoroughly Gentile in culture and make-up. In fact, according to some of these people, Jesus was more like a Greek philosopher (e.g., a cynic) than a Jewish prophet.

In Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission, Michael Bird steers a middle course and leads the reader through many of the texts scholars of the "Third Quest" have been directing attention to for years. Some of these scholars have taken a look up close--others have stood from afar and come to conclusions based on what they saw through binoculars. Bird, however, like a thoughtful tour guide, points out shades and stripes often overlooked by less careful observers--and once one notices these subtle characteristic features one immediately recognizes their genus: first century Jewish restoration theology.

Buckle up. You're in for a heck of a ride...


Anonymous said...

Looking forward to reading about Bird's book, but one minor correction - E.P. Sanders is not Jewish, but rather a liberal Protestant.

Michael Barber said...


Thanks. I have always thought he was Jewish. Pope Benedict is Catholic though--I'm sure about that!

Michael F. Bird said...

1. Blessings on your recent marriage!
2. Glad you've found the book interesting and I hope that it proves instructive, don't be afraid to disagree at any point.
3. The real scary thing is how similar Brant and I are on some matters, e.g. exile, gentiles, and restoration, etc.

Anonymous said...

Sanders was a liberal protestant, I'm not sure if he would still clasify himself as such.

It seems to me that he has displayed an (increasing?) shift away from any sort of denominational (or even explicitly religious) identification.

Of course, Anon, I'd be happy for you to tell me otherwise. I'm simply basing what I say off of Sanders' writings, including his fairly recent (2004) "intellectual autobiography."

Anonymous said...


You're right, it would have been more accurate to say that Sanders has roots in liberal Protestantism (as described toward the end of his Jesus and Judaism), but he no longer has any serious (to my knowledge) ecclesial affiliation.

Unknown said...

Hey Mike!
Will you be in town for the Letter and Spirit conference this weekend?

Hope all is well!