A Man Attested By God: Daniel Kirk on the Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels

A Man Attested By God: Daniel Kirk on the Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels April 12, 2016

I recently had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Daniel Kirk’s forthcoming book, which he blogged about recently. The book is called A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels. I cannot emphasize enough what an important study this is. I am hopeful that it will radically shift the direction of the field, and put an end to facile and unpersuasive claims that this or that in the Synoptic Gospels reflects the depiction of Jesus as himself in some sense the one God of Israel. Here is what I wrote by way of endorsement:

This may be the most important book in Christology to appear in recent years. Written in an era when it has become increasingly popular to insist that Jesus is already depicted as a pre-existent figure in the Synoptic Gospels, one who is absorbed into the “divine identity,” Daniel Kirk makes a persuasive case for viewing the depiction of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke as one of idealized humanity. Unlike many other proposals, this category, and this volume in which it is proposed, does good justice to the evidence, and is likely to stand the test of time.

It is a common tactic for defenders of the divinity of Jesus to insist that, although Christian authors do not spell out the details of the doctrine of the Trinity, they indicate it (some would say subtly, some would say clearly) through things such as the use of one preposition for both the Father and Jesus. For instance, Bill Mounce recently made this claim on the Zondervan blog. Presumably the worship of God and the king in Chronicles (one verb, two objects) indicated the divinity of Solomon too, right? Kirk’s book addresses these issues fantastically well, and shows that idealized humanity is the category that fits the evidence best. Here’s a sample:

Idealized human figures are a wide-spread and wide-ranging reality in the literature of early Judaism. This is so both in the soft sense of persons or communities who are depicted as chosen by God or ideally pious, and in the stronger sense of human beings of the past, present, or idealized future who are depicted with actions, ascriptions, or attributes that are typically reserved for God alone. The textual data of early Judaism provides overwhelming evidence against the notion that a theological commitment to monotheism placed significant restrictions on how a faithful Jew might depict a human hero…a good deal of what is often taken to be “high Christology” in the sense of divine Christology actually has antecedents in idealized human figures, and thus is a high, human Christology. The widespread phenomena of idealized human figures suggests both that many scholars have jumped too quickly to the assumption that divinity of some sort is entailed in some of the earliest depictions of Jesus, and that the quest for parallels among angelic or other celestial figures might be less fruitful than has often been hoped. Specifically at this point return to the arguments of Richard Bauckham, who looked for parallels to his “divine identity Christology” among angels, but found that they, for instance, serve rather than rule. In the final analysis, his argument fails to prove his case not only because the data directly contradicts it (as he himself notices with regard to 1 Enoch) but also because he tried to prove the point from the wrong set of data. It is more often idealized human figures, not angels, who bear the divine identity through actions, ascriptions, or attributes otherwise reserved for God alone.

Here is another extract from nearby, which I think likewise gets at the heart of the book’s conclusions:

[B]eing identified with God is not the same as being identified as being God…Despite the assertions of some early Jewish writers, we discover a notable absence of anxiety about applying divine attributes to people in both biblical and post-biblical Judaism. This is a crucial point in parsing many of the arguments about biblical Christology, particularly those that lean on a divine identity Christology or some variation of it. The theological conviction about Israel’s one God is, of course, important to Israel’s daily piety and practice. That such a conviction is firmly rooted is undeniable. The significance of this conviction in delimiting what can or cannot be said about other creatures, however, can only be known through a study of early Jewish representations of these others. This chapter demonstrates that for many Jewish writers across a wide span of years and of Jewish conviction, the confession of God’s oneness sat easily alongside the identification of their own heroes with this God…Jewish monotheism plays little role in limiting how Jewish writers can depict (human) figures whom they or their communities recognize as being specially endowed for some task or function. Indeed, an opposite inclination seems to be at work: it is precisely through depicting some human figure through ascriptions, actions, or attributes otherwise indicative of the identity of God that early Jewish writers signal that God has given these humans crucial roles to play in the past, present, or idealized future.

The above is just a small sampling from pp.269-272. The book is very long and detailed, and extremely rich, precise, and nuanced. I cannot adequately convey just how important a contribution to New Testament Christology this is, and I strongly advise that you just go ahead and pre-order it on Amazon.

See also Dale Tuggy’s podcasts #128, 129, and 130 on Bart Ehrman and Michael Bird‘s exchanges concerning how Jesus became God, Daniel Boyarin’s lectures on Enoch, Jesus, and Metatron, Allan Bevere’s series on post-NT Christology, and Christopher Skinner’s video about his book, Reading John. In case you missed it, Jacob Prahlow’s Biblical Studies Carnival included some of the posts on Mark’s Christology as one of the highlights of the month.

Dustin Smith was involved in a debate about the pre-existence of Jesus recently:

Dustin Smith also recently explained why he believes the New Testament depicts the Father as the only true God – while eating!

 

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  • John MacDonald

    Not good for mythicism – lol

    • Pofarmer

      Why?

      “makes a persuasive case for viewing the depiction of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke as one of idealized humanity.”

      That to me, sounds like the author is saying that most of what is attributed to Jesus is-fictional. I don’t see how that precludes the Jesus of Mark as being a charachter in a story. There are lot’s of Greek stories about idealized types and Gods brought to Earth, etc, etc.

      • Then you have misunderstood what is written above about the book. Of course, mythicists are of a variety of sorts, but the majority envisage a Jesus who begins as a deity, not as a human who actually walked the Earth, for obvious reasons.

        • arcseconds

          Fitzgerald thinks there were lots of semi-independent folk accounts of a Jesus folk hero. If so, that would be compatible with the Gospels depicting an idealized and exalted individual who is not identical with God

      • Casey Dayton

        The point (do not want to speak for Daniel or James) is that there is a long biblical history/story of God using human beings to do the work of God on this earth and that without human beings God’s story does not reach it’s conclusion/telos.

        Christianity in some regards has done a horrible job (my opinion) at presenting the human Jesus – the one who walked this earth and was anointed by God to do the will of God on earth. Jesus is often depicted as above humanity – but the Jesus in the gospels is one who embraces humanity and takes on the human condition and rules righteously over it (which is what we as believers are called to do – this is why God raised him from the dead, he was the righteous human) despite being human – because being truly human according to the story is the will of God.

        Daniel (again do not want to speak on behalf of him or James) seems to be pointing out the obvious context for christology – I remember reading years back 1 Enoch and second temple literature (I am not a scholar by Job description) and thinking how the word “divine” had many usages in Jewish theology. We in the west often have one meaning for the word divine (so it seems), but in post exilic Israel they had a plethora of meanings….

        Anyhow, I very excited about this book – I think it can help push the conversation forward….

  • Dr. McGrath,

    Three questions: Does Kirk discuss the recognition by demons that Jesus is the Holy One of God and that he has come early? Does he discuss what Jesus meant when he said his life was a ransom for many? Does he discuss Jesus’ calling the cup his blood of the covenant?

    • Not as focuses in their own right. The focus is on Christology and so matters of atonement theology and eschatology do get mentioned, but only in relation to that central focus.

      • It’s not clear to me that Christology can be separated from Soteriology and Eschatology. I suggest that understanding the latter two is needed in order to understand the first.

  • John MacDonald

    If Paul knew Jesus’ brother James, and James thought Jesus was just a human person, I wonder where Paul got the idea that Jesus was a pre-existent angelic being?

    • I am not persuaded that Paul got that idea.

      • John MacDonald

        Isn’t that Ehrman’s position?

        • Yes. And?

          • John MacDonald

            I just think Ehrman is wrong that Paul thought of Jesus as a pre-existent angelic being. There is no reason to think Paul would have a radically different view of what Jesus was than his own brother would have had (since Paul knew James).

          • John MacDonald

            On the other hand, I guess there is no way to know what James thought the Christology of Jesus was. lol

          • As I said to Bart at a panel discussion about his book at SBL, I think he is reading too much into one verse which might simply be saying that the Galatians welcomed Paul as a messenger of God, as Christ himself, and not meaning to place Christ in the category of “angel” in the technical sense.

          • John MacDonald

            When Ehrman says Paul thought Jesus was an angel, does Ehrman mean Jesus was the same as the “Angel of the Lord” in the old testament, such as the one that appears to Abraham telling him not to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22:11), and the one that struck down 185 000 Assyrians to protect Jerusalem and Judah (2 Kings 19:35), etc.? Conservative scholars call them Old Testament Christophanies (Old Testament theophanies they claim involve Christ).

          • I don’t recall him ever being that specific, but at the very least, his view of Paul’s Christology is compatible with that viewpoint. And if there is anything that Ehrman’s view has going for it, it is precisely that in the early post-NT period, the category “angel (of the Lord)” is applied to Jesus quite a bit, as I recall.

          • John MacDonald

            Another point that may be in favor of this is that The Messenger [or Angel] of the Lord from the Old Testament never appears again, as such, after the Incarnation, which may suggest Jesus and the Angel of the Lord were the same person. Maybe the early Christian movement was able to assimilate Paul because understanding Jesus as the Angel of the Lord helped Paul to make the transition from Judaism to the new religion (Christianity).

          • buttle

            Interesting: so you think that James understood his brother as the rock which gave water during the Exodus, as in 1 Cor 10:4? And that would NOT require pre-existence?

          • John MacDonald

            I think this answers your objection: http://jesus-rlbible.com/?p=1187

          • buttle

            I’m not sure it does, but anyway what about the beginning of the philippian hymn? he was in the form of a god BEFORE taking the form of a slave. Doesn’t that count as a super-human pre-existence? Did his brother concur? Maybe the question is under-specified: for how long should an angel exist to qualify as a pre-existing angel? Was he created in the form of a god just a nanosecond before descending into the lower regions, as in Ephesians 4?

          • Adam was said to have been made in the image and likeness of God. Paul seems to be envisaging Jesus as an idealized human, not as a super-human. Jews thought of the Messiah as pre-existing, but it isn’t clear that Paul thought of Jesus as pre-existing as a conscious entity. Such pre-existence language is more akin to the language of predestination, where that which God plans is thought of as having a real existence.

          • buttle

            That’s not what Ephesians 4:9-10 says. He may have been created at the beginning of time as an unconscious entity and made conscious at the right time, or he may have been created on demand when needed to carry on the secret plan, or he may have been an angel among others upgraded for a particular mission, or whatever, but if he had to DESCEND like he later had to ascend he wasn’t at first a human being, idealized or not, predestined or not.

          • You seem to be assuming (1) that Ephesians is by Paul, which is debatable, and (2) that it refers to an entity descending from heaven to Earth, rather than either descending into the earth/hades before ascending into the heavens, or ascending and then descending through the Spirit to bestow gifts as the text in question mentions. See Andrew Lincoln’s commentary (or most others) for a discussion of the interpretative options.

  • John MacDonald

    Jesus clearly identifies himself as a fallible human prophet, not an all powerful God. This is why Jesus could not perform great miracles in his home town: “Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household.’ And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. (Mark 6:4-5).”

  • John MacDonald

    In Mark 1:11, God says to Jesus: “And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Understanding this to mean Jesus was God’s biological son may simply be reading later Gospels back into Mark. All that “Son” may have meant here is that Jesus was thought to one day be a King of the Jews or a Jewish hero specially favored by God or something of the like. As Ehrman says, The Israelite kings were sometimes identified as ‘The Son of God,’ but this might just be a way of saying the king is very regal in nature, or might also just be another way of saying the king was specially favored by God. Understanding the King of Israel as the “Son of God,” we read in the Hebrew scriptures, for instance:

    (1) “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name; and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me (2 Sam. 7:12-14).”

    (2) In Psalm 89, in which the psalmist indicates that David was anointed by God (that is, literally anointed with oil as a sign of God’s special favor; v. 20), he is said to be God’s “firstborn, the highest of the kings of earth (v.27).”

    (3)God says to the king: “You are my son; today I have begotten you (Psalm 2, v. 7)

    So, the words of God at the baptism in Mark would have caused the first followers of Jesus to think he was destined to be King of the Jews, not that he was the offspring of God. But the secret “main” mission of Jesus was to be an atoning death for the sins of all humanity, a mission Jesus pleaded to God to not make him go through in the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus in the gospel of Mark did not know he was going to be resurrected, so his sacrifice was a perfect “gift,” all for the love of humanity. He pleaded with God not to have to do it, but submitted himself to God’s choice. To the disciples, God failed his promise to make Jesus king of the Jews, in the same way God had previously failed to keep a Davidic King on the throne of the Jews. But the irony that Mark presents is that the very event of this failure, the crucifixion, is the same event which allows Jesus to atone for the sins of humanity.

    • John MacDonald

      I think we can reasonably infer that Jesus in the gospel of Mark did not know he was going to be resurrected, because Jesus’ prayer in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus begs for God to change God’s mind about the plan (“Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.” Mark 14:36), would make no sense if Jesus thought he was going to just suffer for a couple of hours, and then be gloriously resurrected. Why would Jesus be so terrified if he knew the end result was going to be a speedy resurrection? Jesus is terrified at the atoning death he is about to endure, one where he knows of no resurrection to offset the pain. And it makes more sense this way. If Jesus believed he was going to be resurrected shortly after the suffering, it takes away from the purity of the sacrifice. Jesus’ gift of atonement remains a “pure gift” because he did not expect the gift of resurrection in return (giving with one hand while holding out the other hand an expecting something in return).

  • Matthew Green

    James,

    I plan to get this book. I am especially interested in any book which can argue that the Jesus of the gospels wasn’t divine but a mere human being, however exalted or idealized. However, there is one part of your blog entry that I found interesting:

    “It is a common tactic for defenders of the divinity of Jesus to insist that, although Christian authors do not spell out the details of the doctrine of the Trinity, they indicate it (some would say subtly, some would say clearly) through things such as the use of one preposition for both the Father and Jesus. For instance, Bill Mounce recently made this claim on the Zondervan blog. Presumably the worship of God and the king in Chronicles (one verb, two objects) indicated the divinity of Solomon too, right? Kirk’s book addresses these issues fantastically well, and shows that idealized humanity is the category that fits the evidence best.”

    I find it very interesting that Mounce would say this. As for the worship of God and the king in Chronicles, is the single verb and two objects in any Greek translation such as the Septuagint or is it just in the Hebrew? If it’s just in the Hebrew, he might defend his comment by saying that he knows Greek much better than he knows any Hebrew and therefore cannot comment on any grammatical issues in Hebrew. If this is the case with a Greek translation, you’re right; Mounce has some explaining to do.

    This isn’t the only problem that I’d like to see Mounce explain. IIRC, he was also part of the original translation of the NIV. He has to know, then, that the 1984 edition of the NIV translates John 18:17 as “”You are not one of his disciples, are you?” the girl at the door asked Peter. He replied, “I am not.”

    The problem is that John 18:17 translated this way flatly contradicts the synoptic gospels which have a servant girl located at a fire in the courtyard where Peter is warming himself. The original NIV joins several other translations placing the first denial of Peter at the entryway to the courtyard and not the courtyard itself in the gospel of John. The most recent edition of the NIV translates John 18:17 as “”You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?” she asked Peter. He replied, “I am not.””
    This obscures the location of the first denial a tad bit and it hides the fact that in the actual Greek, the girl is called a “doorkeeper”. I suspect that the translation of the NIV probably realized that this would lead readers to conclude a discrepancy exists and would lead them to conclude that the Bible is not inerrant. I would like Mounce to explain why the original rendering of John 18:17 is not a perfectly accurate translation. Did the original translators mess up or did they get it right the first time and later translators decided to “fix” a potentially embarrassing problem?

    • I think a lot depends on whether one thinks that “divinity” is a matter that pertains just to the one God, or to those whom God is viewed as appointing.

      The denial of Jesus by Peter was embarrassing, was it not, regardless of the precise status of the person who asked him if he knew Jesus.

      I’m not sure I’m entirely clear on what you’re asking, hence my long delay in replying!

      • Matthew Green

        No problem. What I noticed was that Mounce was on the translation team of the NIV. I also noticed that in the case of Peter’s denials, the original NIV had the female servant ask Peter at the door, where his first denial occurred. If this is the best way to translate it, then this directly contradicts the synoptics, which have Peter’s first denial in the courtyard, not at the gate. The most recent edition of the NIV’s John just has the servant ask Peter if she new Jesus. It says nothing about where this happened.
        I am wondering if the NIV was deliberately altered to avoid the appearance of a discrepancy between the synoptics and John. Since Mounce was on the translation team, I want Mounce to explain this since he and other Evangelicals are devoted to the doctrine of inerrancy. Why was the passage in John’s gospel altered? Was the original translation accurate? If so, then why the alteration?
        (I tried contacting Mounce about this but I have not had a response from him)

        • Sorry for not getting back to you about this sooner. Does this help you figure out what they changed, even if the why question may be harder to answer?

          http://www.slowley.com/niv2011_comparison/John.html#John18:16

          • Matthew Green

            James, thanks for this! Actually this helps me a great deal figuring out what has been changed. It brings up a serious question: how many times might the NIV been changed in the past just to avoid the appearance of a discrepancy or error? I remember reading about changes in the book of Ezekiel because the translation team didn’t want the NIV saying that God gave the Hebrews bad laws.