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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