Michael Bird on the question of whether Jesus thought of himself as God

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I am very appreciative of Michael Bird’s work, partly because he understands the importance of developing a credible theological mindset on the basis of a New Perspective reading of the New Testament, partly because he quoted my sinking ship parable from [amazon:978-1620324592:inline] in his [amazon:978-0310494416:inline]. But I am not persuaded by his argument in one of the chapters that he has contributed to [amazon:978-0310519591:inline] that the Jesus who is presented to us in the synoptic Gospels understood himself to be divine, even in the qualified sense that Bird proposes:

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. (52)

Bird argues that if we read certain episodes from Jesus’ career in the light of this premise, it may appear that the boundary between divine author and divine agent becomes blurred. “Several stories and sayings in the Synoptic Gospels point toward Jesus’ unique role as a divine agent with an unprecedented authority and who undertakes divine action” (56). I have covered this issue before (see below), but I will hastily work through Bird’s admittedly rather summary arguments here, leaving out his section on the “Johannine testimony”.

Divine authority is given to Jesus

I agree with Bird’s response to Ehrman that Jesus is claiming not a “priestly prerogative” but unmediated divine authority to forgive sins, but it is still an authority that has been given to the Son of Man on earth. The “presumption to speak with a divine prerogative” was offensive and no doubt regarded as blasphemous, but we cannot infer from it that Jesus thought of himself as God. “Son of Man” is not a name for God but for faithful, suffering Israel. In Matthew’s account the crowds marvel at the fact that such authority has been given to men (Matt. 9:8). Curiously, in an attempt to clarify the force of the Semitic “Son of Man” idiom, Bird translates the plural tois anthrōpois as a singular: “to man” (61).

The other passages which Bird cites as evidence that “Jesus expressed a sense of unmediated divine authority” come under the same heading. That people thought he spoke with a “unique authority that set him apart from the scribes” tells us very little. It is as the Son of Man—as faithful Israel—that Jesus is “Lord of the Sabbath”. The chief priests, scribes and elders who confront him in the temple ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” (Mk. 11:28). [pullquote]They clearly do not imagine that he believes himself to be God. They want to know where he got the authority from.[/pullquote] From heaven? From men?

It is not quite right to say that Jesus “reconfigured divine commandments based on his own authority” (58). Jesus is not making alterations to the Torah. He is calling his disciples to model an eschatological way of living for Israel at a time of crisis. This whole section is introduced with the statement: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

Jesus associates himself with the Lord or “son” who is David’s Lord and who has been given authority by God to rule at his right hand (Mk. 12:35-37). The saying “Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” does not clearly mean that Jesus regarded himself as an “envoy of divine wisdom”. In context it appears to mean little more than “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. Nor does “something greater than the temple” clearly refer to Jesus (Matt. 12:6): “something” (meizon) is neuter and just as likely refers to the kingdom of God as a matter of impending judgment on the temple, which may be the implication of the reference to Hosea 6:6 in the next verse.

The coming of YHWH to Zion

Jesus enters Jerusalem as Israel’s king bringing peace not as YHWH returning to Zion—not even symbolically. I have set out my reasons for disagreeing with Wright over this here.

Yes, Jesus seeks out “marginalized Israelites in a manner reminiscent of how God in his climactic return to Zion was believed to be coming to regather the lost flock of Israel” (59). But that’s what prophets sometimes do. They act out what God does, they do things in a manner reminiscent of what God does. [pullquote]Hosea marries a whore in order to act out the conflict between God and his people, but that doesn’t make him God.[/pullquote]

I don’t see, frankly, how Luke’s parable of the talents can be read as a retelling of “a well-known scriptural story about the return of YHWH to Zion” (60). This seems to make nonsense of the opening statement that a “nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return” (Lk. 19:12). It’s the Son of Man, not God, in the Gospels who receives a kingdom.

In Luke’s account of the entry into Jerusalem Jesus prophesies judgment and says, “they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Lk. 19:41-44). Bird is right to flag up passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls that speak of God’s judgment on unrighteous Israel as a “visitation”, but presumably Jesus likewise is speaking of the future event of the war against Rome. It is too much to say that the long-awaited return of Israel’s king was “God in Jesus of Nazareth coming to his people in a day of visitation” (61).

The Son of Man sayings…

Bird argues that in Daniel 7 the figure like a son of man is a “multivalent symbol for God’s kingdom, God’s king, and God’s people” (62). This seems to me to be along the right lines but in need of some amendment. First, the Son of Man figure stands not for the whole of God’s people since, in the narrative, a large number of Jews forsake the covenant (Dan. 11:32). He stands specifically for the faithful segment of Israel that is persecuted by Antiochus Epiphanes. Secondly, kingdom, etc., is given to the “people of the saints of the Most High” when they are vindicated before the throne of God. Whether the human figure also represents God’s king is less clear. In Daniel’s symbolic narrative both the beasts and the human figure represent nations; kings appear only as horns on the head of the fourth beast. Thirdly, the Son of Man may represent the “kingdom” of God’s saints, but he is not a symbol for the “kingdom of God” in the sense that Jesus’ understood the term. “Kingdom of God” refers not to a community but to a future event or new state of affairs.

It also seems to me an overstatement to say that Jesus uses the Son of Man motif to speak of his role as the one who “achieves God’s salvation by his death and resurrection”. True, the Son of Man gives his life as a “ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45), but apart from this statement the emphasis is on the suffering and vindication of the Son of Man as a precedent for the suffering and vindicated church. No real atoning significance is attached to the Son of Man narrative.

I agree that Jesus interpreted his own role in the light of Daniel 7:13-14, and that by so doing he was “placing himself within the orbit of divine sovereignty and claiming a place within the divine regency of God Almighty” (66). But that is not the same as saying that Jesus “knew himself to be God”. The argument of Daniel 7:13-27 is that the Israel that remains faithful to the covenant under intense persecution will be vindicated by God and will be given dominion over the nations. If Jesus identifies himself with that narrative, it is because he believed that the future of God’s people at a time of greater crisis depended on the faithfulness of his followers and their willingness to suffer.

Besides, it is not in fact said that the Son of Man is made to sit on a divine throne. The implication is rather that Israel’s newly acquired dominion will be exercised over the nations on earth. The seated-at-the-right-hand-of-God idea comes instead from Psalm 110. Bird properly notes that Jesus merges the two themes in his response to the high priest: “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). But still, in Psalm 110 and related traditions the authority to rule at the right hand of God is given to Israel’s king. Peter comments unambiguously on the significance of the verse. Jesus ascended into heaven, he sat at the right hand of God, and Peter explains:

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:36)

Michael Bird argues that “The resurrection alone did not create a divine Christology.” Perhaps not. But it does seem to be the case that on the basis of the resurrection Jesus was given an authority to rule that otherwise would have been God’s alone. As far as this narrative goes, I think we have to say, against Bird, that Jesus was given a status that he did not have before. There is nothing in the texts to support the argument that “the resurrection magnified rather than manufactured Jesus’ claims to a divine status” (66). Neither the Son of Man narrative nor the Davidic king narrative carries the idea of a prior or pre-existent exalted status. For that we must look elsewhere.

The blurred boundary

So yes, the boundary between divine author and divine agent becomes blurred, but for two reasons. On the one hand, as a prophetic figure Jesus acts out what God will do. The drama of his ministry is a sign of what is to come. On the other, either as the embodiment of obedient, faithful, suffering Israel (Son of Man) or as Israel’s anointed king (Son of God), he is given the authority to rule over the nations, over his enemies, that YHWH would otherwise have reserved for himself alone.

peter wilkinson | Sat, 03/29/2014 - 13:18 | Permalink

Jesus enters Jerusalem as Israel’s king bringing peace not as YHWH returning to Zion—not even symbolically. I have set out my reasons for disagreeing with Wright over this here.

I’ve read your reasons for not seeing Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem as representing (or even being) YHWH’s return to the temple. Apart from anything else, I wonder if this is driven by your agenda not to see Jesus identified with YHWH at all anywhere, for what may be reasonable attempts to interpret within a reconstructed mindset of Jews at that time.

Wright makes a big deal of Isaiah 52:7-10 being paradigmatic of Israel’s hope for the future (Simply Jesus p. 151; How God became King p.216; Jesus & the Victory of God p.40, 203, etc).  In that passage, there is the return to Zion from exile, a victory of God over Israel’s enemies, and then not simply a king returning to Jerusalem, but YHWH himself returning as king: “Your God reigns” — v.7, literally, “Your God is King”, and “When the Lord returns to Zion” v.8.

This may not be explicitly or even narrowly associated with Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem, but it sets out something like a paradigm in which identities of King and YHWH seem to merge, which would bear on an understanding of that entry. (Even if simply acted out symbolically, which you also reject, there would still be the merging of roles to explain).

It’s difficult to associate this passage simply or exclusively with the return of Jews from exile in Babylon, though I imagine that would be your preferred interpretation, but without explaining the merged roles (ie God as king — not God and king). I would think the paradigm has a huge bearing on Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem and subsequent temple actions and the whole narrative fulfilment of Israel’s hopes in himself. This is part of the wider expectations contained in Isaiah 40-55. The association of the narrative underlying the passage with Jesus being in himself its fulfilment is made of course by Paul in Romans 10.

Anyway, this is a space-filler until Michael Bird is enticed to respond to your review comments.

@peter wilkinson:

Apart from anything else, I wonder if this is driven by your agenda not to see Jesus identified with YHWH at all anywhere, for what may be reasonable attempts to interpret within a reconstructed mindset of Jews at that time.

A less cynical view would be that the prophetic interpretation of the entry into Jerusalem narrative is “driving” or determining the agenda not to see Jesus directly or literally identified with YHWH in the synoptic Gospels. I don’t see any reference to Is. 52:7-10 in the passage. I see clear reference to Zechariah 9. So it seems a reasonable assumption to make that he is acting the part of Israel’s king rather than of Israel’s God. The Father-Son / YHWH-king narratives in the Gospels presuppose at every point the differentiation rather than the confusion of identities. YHWH says to my Lord…


@Andrew Perriman:

Yes, it did seem rather cynical. My apologies. I will be more charitable in future.

I don’t see any reference to Is. 52:7-10 in the passage.

No, I think I said that there is no explicit reference. Granted the direct, explicit reference is in Zechariah 9, where there is, on the face of it, no reference to YHWH returning to Zion. But individual passages have to be interpreted against wider backgrounds of thought, and in Isaiah 52 the return of YHWH to Zion to reign as ‘king’ (you don’t mention the frequent use of this royal title for YHWH) seems to bring the two roles together. This reign would take place, according to the broader prophetic narrative (eg Ezekiel 43:7) in the temple, towards which Jesus was making his journey, although the expression of that ‘reign’ would look very different from popular expectations.

I mentioned Wright’s description of Isaiah 52 as a kind of paradigm for the eschatological hopes of Israel.  Although Wright doesn’t draw this out theologically, the separate roles of YHWH as king and the Messiah as king in relation to each other become blurred in O.T. prophecy, and arguably in Jesus himself in fulfilling these roles. It’s a respectable interpretation.

I’m not sure that the gospels do maintain the separation of roles and identities of Jesus and YHWH which you assert. For instance (and it is just one example), in the parable of the minas, the nobleman comes to the distant country, where he becomes ‘king’, goes away, then returns. Matthew’s version has the king as ‘the landowner’. If this is interpreted through narrative/historical lenses, the return corresponds to the O.T. prophetic fulfilment of YHWH’s return to Zion following the exile, in which the two roles are merged, or at least, not given the clear distinction which you say is true of the gospels. This is the outcome of Wright’s interpretation, as far as I have understood him (Victory, pp 632-639).  I’d be interested to know how you interpret the parable.

Anyway, I was just providing a reflection on your comment about  Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem as a kind of interlude. ‘Simply Jesus’ (following the link) had quite an impact on me during a Mediterranean cruise last November, when I read it for the first time. I wouldn’t want this conversation to become like Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, filling in time whilst hoping for Michael Bird to respond to your post on his book.

@peter wilkinson:

For instance (and it is just one example), in the parable of the minas, the nobleman comes to the distant country, where he becomes ‘king’, goes away, then returns. Matthew’s version has the king as ‘the landowner’. If this is interpreted through narrative/historical lenses, the return corresponds to the O.T. prophetic fulfilment of YHWH’s return to Zion following the exile, in which the two roles are merged, or at least, not given the clear distinction which you say is true of the gospels.

Matthew ties the parable to the previous story of the bridegroom and the girls who were not ready for his arrival: “For it will be like a man….” Is the bridegroom YHWH? Jesus?

Prior to that we have the exhortation to the disciples to “stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming… for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (24:42-44); and the little piece about the wicked servant who thinks his master is delayed (24:45-50). Doesn’t that rather suggest that the one who comes back to check up on his servants is Jesus?

Matthew omits the kingdom motif altogether from his version of the parable. The man is not a king, he doesn’t become a king.

Wright argues that the return of the king/man refers not to a second coming of Jesus “after a long interval in which the church is left behind” but to God’s judgment on Jerusalem. I agree, except that I think the coming of the Son of Man in this context (Matt. 24:44) is the moment of judgment on Jerusalem. But the point of the parables is that when God judges his people, the Son of Man will hold his servants accountable. This latter thought is a novelty, Jesus’ own innovation because he is concerned about the work of his disciples. It is not part of the Old Testament YHWH-returns-to-Zion motif. 

I think it is a little optimistic to expect Michael to respond to my comments on his chapter.

@Andrew Perriman:

Wright argues that the return of the king/man refers not to a second coming of Jesus “after a long interval in which the church is left behind” but to God’s judgment on Jerusalem.

Yes, and everything you say of the parable is true. Wright himself adds:

Jesus’ parable is, as it were, an expansion of Malachi 3:1-3 … Israel’s god (sic) is at last returning to his people, to his Temple …

I’ve a feeling that you have already addressed the Malachi issue somewhere else, but note the qualifying ‘as it were’. It’s true that judgment and rewards are the main thrust of the parable, but judgment was made from within a temple context, according to the wider story. And who was the king who delivered the judgment? Wright makes a convincing case for saying it was YHWH, not Jesus, in the parable. (I think it was both).

I also think Wright is convincing in denying any fulfilment of Isaiah 52 before Jesus came. Contemporary texts suggest the exile continued, in its unfulfilled expectations, including Ezra and Nehemiah. Isaiah 52 does seem to act as a paradigm for Israel’s narrative, but not as fulfilled in the immediate return from Babylon.

I don’t see why Michael Bird should not respond to your comments. He has borrowed some of your ideas before for his own publications, so he owes you the compliment. It is a long way from New Zealand though; electronic messages can get lost, or intercepted on along the way. 

@peter wilkinson:

It’s true that judgment and rewards are the main thrust of the parable, but judgment was made from within a temple context, according to the wider story. And who was the king who delivered the judgment? 

The point I made was that with regard to AD 70 there is not just one judgment. Probably it is right to say that God will come to judge his people by destroying the temple and the city. But in conjunction with that Jesus—as the Son of Man who himself suffered and was vindicated and glorified, who has received a kingdom—will come as the Son of Man does, with the clouds of heaven, either to vindicate or to punish his disciples:

For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Matt 16:27–28)

This seems to me to be very clear the import of the parables about a bridgegroom or master or nobleman coming at an unexpected time with consequences for the servants who should have been ready for him. I think Wright is wrong about the parable of the minas, and I certainly don’t think it was meant to be both YHWH and Jesus. That’s the recourse of the greedy modern interpreter who wants to have his cake and eat it.

@Andrew Perriman:

You seem to be carefully stepping around some of the suggestiveness  in the OT prophetic paradigm as fulfilled in Jesus,  especially as reflected in Isaiah 52, as well as in the parable of the minas.

I don’t understand what you mean by two judgments in AD 70. Could you explain this?

That’s the recourse of the greedy modern interpreter wo wants to have his cake and eat it.

Wright describes Jesus as embodying YHWH in his entry to Jerusalem (Victory p.653), which is as close as you can get to saying he was YHWH in person. This may make him a modern interpreter, and he is quite a portly person, but I never knew it was down to fondness for cake.

Kent Haley | Sat, 03/29/2014 - 17:53 | Permalink

I haven’t read Bird’s book, but I can’t help but wonder why you decided to omit his​ section on John?

@Kent Haley:

Fair question. Partly to keep things simple. Partly because Bird admits that John is very different to the Synoptics:

Going from the Synoptics to John is like going from New York in peak hour traffic on Friday afternoon to a Rose Bowl parade on January 1. While many similarities exist between John and the Synoptics, John is clearly in a class of his own and is doing his own thing. That gospel has a unique texture, a distinctive feel, and a definite set of objectives. My intuition is that John’s gospel is indebted to the testimony of a Judean disciple of Jesus who established a church or cluster of churches in the vicinity of Ephesus. While it definitely has its own historical tradition and is a genuine source about Jesus, nonetheless this tradition has been well and truly interpreted through a pronounced theological lens. Many of its unique sayings about Jesus are probably based on a mixture of memory, metaphor, and midrash, a theological elaboration of words and impressions made by Jesus on his followers.

There are significant points of contact, and the differences may not be as great as is sometimes thought. But I find it very difficult to read John in the same way that I read the Synoptics. It coheres neither with the Old Testament nor with the rest of the New Testament in the way that the Synoptic narrative does. What I find very interesting is that Trinitarian thought is overwhelmingly dependent on John and its underlying Wisdom/Logos theology. In that respect it has to be considered a crucial springboard in the New Testament to these later rationalizing developments.


@Andrew Perriman:

 The second Jesus told Caiaphas, “You will see Me coming in the clouds of glory” most ANE Jews  would immediately, like Caiphas, have known Jesus was claiming to be the El Elyon of the Jewish religion.

 Not only Jews, but, their neighbor’s “El Elyon” rode the clouds.

That Daniel 7 phrase is why ancient Jews struggled with what they perceived might be 2 Yahwehs or 2 manifestations of 1 Yahweh(gnostic stuff per Alan Segal).


I’m not sure how even Caiaphas (who rejected the book of Daniel, and resurrection, and angels) could confuse “the Son of Man” for “El Elyon.” Jesus is threatening the temple regime and claiming to be an agent of God’s authority over against the judges of Israel. Of course Caiaphas accuses him of blasphemy. That’s just job security.