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). They clearly do not imagine that he believes himself to be God. They want to know where he got the authority from. 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. Hosea marries a whore in order to act out the conflict between God and his people, but that doesn’t make him God.
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.