Responding to Daniel Kirk’s Strange Review

Responding to Daniel Kirk’s Strange Review April 26, 2014

In scholarship you need a thick skin and you have to be willing to accept that criticism of your work can come at you fast and furious. Sometimes the criticism can be rather humbling especially when it has some degree of validity and publicly airs your mistakes for all to see. At other times the criticism can be more frustrating because you feel misunderstood when a reviewer hasn’t really grasped what you were arguing. And then there are days when someone writes a condescending piece full of inaccuracies and misconceptions which just leaves you dumbfounded as to what possessed them to write such drivel. I have to say that when I read Daniel Kirk’s review of my chapters in How God Became Jesus I had this latter feeling.

To those who know him, Kirk has a colorful personality and he thrives on courting controversy and notoriety from his well-read blog Storied Theology. Kirk is especially adept at poking fun at the oh-so-conservative types in theology. It would seem that he has chosen me the springboard for his latest salvo against the conservative evangelicalism that he continues to find so distasteful to his intellectual palate. Kirk is actually a smart and thoughtful guy – I continue to use his Unlocking Romans as I write my own Romans commentary – so I’m at a loss as to why he wrote quite a spiteful review filled with so many specious arguments.

I do not have time to respond to all of Kirk’s points. In most cases his mischaracterization of my work will be blatantly obvious to anyone who has read the opening chapters of HGBJ. But down to business!

To begin with, Kirk takes issue with the sense of humor that I employ in my chapters in HGBJ. He calls it “clownish” and even “buffoonery.” Since this was a popular level book I was trying to do to Ehrman in print what Stephen Colbert does to him in person. Now I’m obviously no Colbert. However, given my red hair, if I grew a beard, and was a foot taller, I might possibly pass as Conan O’Brien! While some will find the attempt to infuse humor into a scholarly discussion refreshing and witty, others will find it juvenile and inappropriate. Different strokes for different folks. To date, most persons have commended me on trying to get away from the stale nature of scholarly discussion by injecting some good Aussie (= Irish convict) humour into biblical studies.

In terms of his critique, to be frank, some of Kirk’s complaints are just so inaccurate that I’m left wondering if he has a basic grasp of New Testament christology or if he even read our book at all. He completely misunderstands the arguments of Bauckham, Hurtado, and Hengel about early high christology. He looks as if he’s browsed over pages in HGBJ and cherry picked stuff that allegedly shows the book’s failings but without reading it in context. Let me give a couple of examples.

First, Kirk thinks I’ve misrepresented Ehrman by calling his approach “evolutionary.” However, the fact is that Ehrman starts off with Jesus as a prophet and then only later in the second and third centuries is Jesus equal to “God Almighty.” True, Ehrman is not arguing the same story as Bousett, however, I’ve repeatedly acknowledged that in both the book and in subsequent articles. For Ehrman the story of Jesus becoming God is the story of a mere human eventually becoming equal to God Almighty over an extended period of time.  Despite what Kirk thinks, this is definitely an evolutionary process. Just because Ehrman does not think that christology evolved in a “straight line” does not mean that his account isn’t evolutionary? Though in fairness, perhaps the terms “evolutionary” and “development” need to be parsed less we talk passed each other.

Second, Kirk thinks that I’m inconsistent in saying Jesus saw himself as both an “agent” and also acting with “unmediated divine authority.” How can I believe both, how can you have unmediated agency? Well, if Kirk had cared to read further, he’d know that I said that in Jesus the lines between author and agent were becoming blurred. That’s how I solve the paradox, but Kirk conveniently does not care to notice.

Third, on Early High Christology Club (EHCC), yes, Ehrman quotes Hengel approvingly about more happening in the first twenty years than in the next seven centuries. BUT what Ehrman and Hengel (plus Bauckham and Hurtado) think happened in that first twenty years is very, very different. Ehrman thinks that Jesus was regarded as a “god” in the sense of an exalted figure, for some pre-existent, like an Angel, whereas Hurtado, Hengel, and Bauckham believe that the monotheistic language of Deuteronomy and Isaiah was applied to Jesus! Kirk even thinks that Ehrman could be a member of the EHCC. But the sense that Ehrman thinks Jesus is “god” is entirely different to what Hengel, Hurtado, and Bauckham think the early church believed that Jesus as God! I must complain that I do not think Kirk has the foggiest idea what are the central claims of the EHCC.

Fourth, Kirk indicts me for clinging too closely to Richard Bauckham’s model of christological monotheism and divine identity, but without showing how that model is wrong. Shall we admit that it’ll take more than a blog post to take down Bauckham!

Fifth, on Ehrman’s method, I never criticized him for appealing to ancient sources, I only claimed that his use of such sources often amounts to parallelomania. And this is NOT what Hurtado and Bauckham do. They in fact show that, despite some partial analogies, extant Jewish and Graeco-Roman sources have no precise correlation to claims made about Jesus and devotion given to Jesus (though Bauckham and Hurtado do differ over the significance of Enoch in 1 Enoch).

Sixth, and a good example of Kirk’s absurd nit-picking, he states: “Bird complains of Ehrman’s use of the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’ only to deploy it himself when convenient to his cause.”  No, that’s not what happens. I argue that, while the criteria still have some validity, they are no longer regarded as the best guides to map a path towards authentic Jesus traditions and therefore Ehrman is wrong to rely on them (see Dale Allison; Chris Keith; Anthony Le Donne et al). At a later point, I do appeal to the criterion of dissimilarity, not because I’m an endorser of it, but because I want to show that by Ehrman’s own preferred criteria, there are some traditions he should be accepting. But what was a rhetorical move, Kirk takes to be an example of internal contradiction. 

Seventh, Kirk rejects my claim that “if Jesus didn’t think of himself as divine then the Christian canon and creeds are meaningless”. Kirk then goes on to claim: “While ‘Jesus is God’ makes a good reading of John, it blurs our eyes to Jesus the ‘son of David’ in Matthew, to Luke’s ‘man attested by God,’ and even to Mark’s ‘son of God’ who is ‘son of man.'” In other words, Kirk seems to be denying that Jesus is any sense divine in the Synoptic Gospels. Really? So I am left wondering, “Did Jesus think he was God or not?” The way Kirk is talking the answer seems to be “no.” But it doesn’t matter to him! I don’t want to speculate too much, and I’ll let Kirk speak for himself, but this looks like a cross between Bultmann and Ehrman. The historical Jesus did not claim to be God, but in the kerygma Jesus was declared to be “God,” and”god” in the sense that Ehrman believes is obviously good enough, and we’ll run with that. What does Nicea have to do with the historical Jesus we might ask Kirk? I assume his answer is, “not much.” That’s the vibe I get from Kirk, but he can give his own account on how/when Jesus became God.

Kirk wants an apology from me. The only apologia I shall offer is this: I have endeavored to show that the earliest christology was the highest and that the christological devotion of the early church was rooted in the self-understanding of the historical Jesus (and tried to have a few laughs while I argued the case).

Thankfully other reviews by Nijay Gupta  here & here and Andreas Kostenberger here provide more helpful evaluations of our book.

Reading Kirk’s review stimulated my imagination. I was left imagining what it would be like to read a review by Justin Bieber in the New York Times that made a condescending critique of the New York Ballet’s recent production of The Nutcracker where Bieber chastised the company for its lack of artistic excellence. Such an imaginary review would be, as with Kirk’s review here, just impossible to take seriously.

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  • Retired Prof.

    Well said, Michael. And, if what you surmise about what he thinks Jesus thought of himself is correct, then what is Kirk doing teaching at Fuller? (LOL…Sorry, I had to ask that.)
    P.S. I’ve also found “Unlocking Romans” to be helpful.

    • Danny Yencich

      I’ll go ahead and call foul on your suggestion that Kirk’s employment is misplaced while posting under the safety of internet anonymity. That’s an unfair characterization–and a dangerous one, too–and, should you deem such public insinuations in good taste (I do not), you need to at least have the decency (and the courage) to post them under your real name.

  • Mike K.

    Mike, I am not sure your last point that describe Daniel’s position as a cross between Bultmann and Ehrman (and Retired Prof’s hint that he should not be at Fuller) is fair. Cannot a historian argue that Christology developed differently at various times/places and that the Synoptics may not go beyond divine agency, and yet believe that the Holy Spirit ultimately guided the process that led to a full understanding of Jesus’ identity in the creeds? For instance, I do not think Larry Hurtado argues that the historical Jesus openly expressed a divine self-understanding, but that a dyadic devotional pattern arose because Christians were convicted that God now demanded the risen Jesus to be worshiped and that visions/charismatic exegesis led to an Early High Christology. Or other scholars who do not belong to the EHCC, such as Dunn, may take the view historically that the highest Christology comes to expression in John and theologically affirm the truthfulness of John. Otherwise, let me tell you that I am enjoying all the Christological interaction in the blogosphere 🙂

  • bam! I was annoyed, on your behalf, for the insinuation that you weren’t an evangelical and weren’t interested in doing scholarship for the church.

  • Daniel Owens

    The problem is, you insist that the creeds and your christology be read into texts while Kirk doesn’t. What is worse is that you then deny this and then call it NT scholarship. It is not.

    How completly clueless is it to care whether Jesus thought he was god or not? How in the world would you know what Jesus thought? The gospel are stories not autobiographies.

    I’m not saying I agree with Ehrman’s view but I do know that he could be right and Jesus still be the author of eternal salvation. You clearly don’t. I have a problem with this.

  • Classic! Way to respond to such ridiculousness.

  • Ivan Schoen

    This is a response? Much ado about NOTHING.

  • Jim

    I feel a bit like a fresh doggy excrement on a new white carpet for writing this on your post, but I have read both HJBG and HGBJ, and thought HJBG had lots of useful info/references even if one doesn’t subscribe to all of Ehrman’s ideas.

    Regarding HGBJ on the other hand, I wish I would have invested in a case of beer rather than in this book. For me, if it wasn’t for the chapter by Craig Evans, I’d be back at the book store asking for my money back. I think that if the chapter by Evans had been used as a template for the rest of the book, my view might have been different. I realize that I’m only one customer in the consumer pool and I’m sure that many conservative evangelicals will appreciate your primarily apologetic/theological rebuttal to Ehrman’s primarily historical thesis.

    So Daniel Kirk’s review is not all that strange to me as it represents how someone outside the conservative evangelical community is likely to view HGBJ. As a paying customer who is out one case of beer, there’s my counter rant.

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    I think you probably ought to have slept on this one. You do realize you just compared yourself to Tchaikovsky and Kirk to Beiber, right? That doesn’t come across terribly well…

  • Daniel Merriman

    Dr. Bird, I have been keeping an eye on Larry Hurtado’s blog, and have yet to see any specific response to Ehrman ‘s book. Do you know if he is planning anything? I am a lay reader, but I found his Lord Jesus Christ to be lucid and compelling, well argued and carefully limited in its claims. It seems from following his subsequent work that he has responded very persuasively to his critics. While to my knowledge he does not get into the weeds of trying to, say, prove that the tomb was empty, Hurtado’s work (which I understand Ehrman barely acknowledges) would stand in almost complete contradiction to most of the claims in HJBG.

  • Douglas

    I read one of his blog posts where he called N.T. Wright an average New Testament scholar. I stopped taking him seriously after that. About the only thing I have in common with him is a love for Coen brother movies!

  • Michael Jensen

    hmm, yes I think a rewrite with the heat and personal bits taken out might be good…. clarify your position by all means.

  • Mike,

    I recognize that Daniel has given you a big and bitter pill to swallow. I also recognize that his bedside manner would give you little comfort, and even that you probably would prefer some other physician to be attending in his place. Nevertheless, I believe he has dispensed good medicine and that, if you take it, will ultimately result in a stronger ministry for the Lord than you could ever achieve otherwise.

    What matters is the defense of the Lord and His kingdom, and Daniel has shown you how to do it better. If you do, then it will make it easier for him to find repentance as well.

  • Dr. Bird, All of your cawing at Ehrman’s views does not make Jesus God any more than all the cawing of Paul who never met the historical Jesus, or all the cawing of the Gospel writers. Even the earliest Gospel is not historical reportage so much as a ‘Gospel tract” to try and sell Jesus, because you can see the author specially scripting the Jesus story in order to try and gain adherents. Let me supply a few brief examples…

    The narrator of the earliest Gospel wrote his tale from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, i.e., someone who “knows” what Jesus and others were thinking throughout the story, knows where Jesus went and what happened to him even when Jesus was all alone, for instance during the “temptation” in which the Markan narrator tells us, ‘The Spirit sent him [Jesus] out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.’

    The Markan narrator also tells us what Jesus prayed and did when the disciples were all fast asleep, i.e., ‘He [Jesus] said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”He returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him. Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough!”‘)

    The Markan narrator knows what Jesus alone saw and heard at his baptism (‘As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “YOU are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,’ this earliest story of Jesus’ baptism also fits perfectly with the narrator’s depiction of Jesus not revealing his identity to the public. (The narrator of Matthew on the other hand alters this Markan tale, having the voice from heaven seen and heard not only by Jesus, but implies the crowd saw it too, for GMatthew changes “Jesus saw,” and, “YOU are my Son,” to “THIS is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased,” i.e., spoken to the crowd.)

    The Markan narrator knows what was spoken at Jesus’ trial, and even knows what a lone Centurion said when Jesus died, and it just so happens that the tale of Jesus’ baptism neatly frames the tale of what the Centurion said, i.e., in Mark Jesus sees the heavens “torn” open and God announcing him to be “my Son,” while at the end of Mark when Jesus dies, the curtain of the holy of holies is “torn” open (a parallel to the heavens being “torn” open), and another voice, this time the Centurion’s says, “surely this was the Son of God.” Nice framing. But is it providence, storytelling, or rather story “selling” that is going on?

    Also one might consider Gospel trajectories and how they allow one to SEE the story about Jesus growing over time from Gospel to Gospel, which raises the question of how much in the Gospels is history and how much is storytelling:

    Neither can one help but question Matthew’s typical first century “stretching of the meaning” of whatever OT passages he could find to try and make them appear like “prophecies” of Jesus’ first coming. Matthew is eager to “connect the dots” any way that he can in order to “prove” the truth of his beliefs to others, suggesting that not a little bit of creativity and imagination went into the creation of even canonical “Jesus stories.” Matthew even admits that after the resurrection appearance of Jesus in Galilee “some doubted” (whatever that means, since interpretations vary on that passage as well).

    Christians are in love with the stories that Gospel writers told about Jesus, and such writers were seeking converts first and foremost. Who knows if the average devout Christian today would have loved the historical Jesus or been willing to follow such an apocalyptic prophet (which is a valid scholarly point of view in historical Jesus studies). I’m not sure Paul would have loved the historical Jesus either, since I am not sure Paul’s soteriology and views in other matters were the same as that of the historical Jesus. We don’t have any writings by Jesus himself, explaining his views of himself and his mission, nor a single first-hand letter by anyone claiming to have seen or heard the historical Jesus preach or perform miracles. What we have are Gospel trajectories, and even the earliest Gospel appearing to be a work of propaganda. Neither am I suggesting Jesus mythicism, merely that the question of just how much of the Jesus story is history remains a moot question, and that attempts to apologize for biblical discrepancies or shrug them off will never satisfy all of the questions raised by scholarly examinations of the texts themselves.

    It’s not simply the “differences” between the Gospels (and let’s not leave out the differences between OT passages and their creative reinterpretation by Gospel authors) that threatens high Christian ideals of “Biblical authority,” but there’s also the challenging variety of possible interpretations of WHY such differences exist, i.e,. granted Markan priority, and the question of why stories or portions of Mark either appear or do not appear in later Gospels, or appear in altered forms in later Gospel retellings, or have passages inserted into the Markan story by later Gospel authors, along with additional stories concerning the parts of Jesus’ life in which Mark is silent (and the fact that Matthew and Luke differ most from each other in exactly those places where Mark gives them no clue how to proceed since Mark lacks information about Jesus’ birth and his post-resurrection appearances).

    See for instance these podcasts on Gospel comparisons:

    “Which Jesus: Examining Differences in the Gospel Narratives”
    AUDIO: free on itunes Episode 78 (see also Episodes 131 & 132, “Cross-Examining the Four Witnesses Part 1 and Part 2”)

    “Gospel trajectories” (in which you can see how different stories about Jesus grew over time)

    • Danny Yencich

      This seems to be more peddling a bizarre perspective than actually adding to the conversation.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “how can you have unmediated agency?”

    When a police officer is granted his duties by his Department/City, the chief of police doesn’t have to drive down and give him the OK sign before every arrest he makes . . .

    “if Jesus didn’t think of himself as divine then the Christian canon and creeds are meaningless”

    This is just a bizarre statement.

    • Sean Garrigan

      “This is just a bizarre statement.”

      I second that observation. It’s another example of what I noted on Peter Enns’s blog a while back, i.e. that the need so many have to maintain “the divinity of Christ” — understood in a manner that is orthodoxly acceptable — isn’t so much the defining characteristic of the post-biblical Church as it is it’s defining obsession, which sometimes inspires a myopia that’s downright breathtaking, as is the case here, it seems to me.

      This comment, more than any other I’ve seen recently, reinforces my own observation that Trinitarians apologetics have a lot in common with the presuppositional apologetics pioneered by Cornelius Van Til. Just as faith in God is the precondition for the intelligibility of scientific laws, moral absolutes, etc, so likewise belief in the triune nature of God seems to function as the precondition for the intelligibility of the person of Christ. What the biblical texts actually say is less important than the post-biblical creed, as it is the creed that serves as the Trinitarian apologist’s ultimate authority.

      In my view, the reverse of Dr. Bird’s statement is more likely true: The obsession with the notion that Jesus is God and the superimposing of that presuppositional paradigm over the biblical texts places the very teachings that were important to Jesus in the back seat, and puts ideas that probably never occurred to him in the forefront.

  • Disappointed Professor

    Sorry, i basically agree with Kirk and think your response is both puerile and misses Kirk’s point. Your volume is simply sloppy scholarship and will never be taken seriously by academics as such. Although I have my own misgivings about Ehrman’s book, yours too quickly tends toward dismissal serious issues, question-begging, and overwrought rhetoric in the place of actual argument. It’s evident you either haven’t let the data impress, or you simply don’t understand it.

    And then you compare Kirk to Bieber. Why did you do that? You publicly mock a colleague who provides you honest, admittedly tough feedback? How professional. Kirk was certainly critical and tough, but he wasn’t a condescending jerk. It’s one thing for Christians to have open, critical dialog in public. It’s another thing to do what you’ve done. You make us all look bad.

    If Kirk’s teaching is anything like what I’ve read and his response, I wish I’d have attended seminary with him at Fuller. He clearly is sympathetic to issues like this, but has high academic standards and is willing to challenge the status quo. We need more of that.