Book Write-Up: A Man Attested by God, by J.R. Daniel Kirk

J.R. Daniel Kirk.  A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

In A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, New Testament scholar J.R. Daniel Kirk argues against the idea that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) regard Jesus as pre-existent and as God incarnate.  For Kirk, the synoptics portray Jesus as God’s human representative and the Messiah; the Gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as a new Adam, and the Gospel of Matthew sees him as a new Israel.  According to Kirk, Jesus as such things has divine prerogatives: Jesus rules as God’s representative, Jesus has authority over water and nature, and Jesus can forgive sins.  Still, for Kirk, Jesus in the synoptics is what Kirk calls an idealized human figure, a concept that existed in Second Temple Judaism.  This differs from seeing Jesus in the synoptics as pre-existent, God incarnate, or ontologically divine.

Kirk makes a variety of arguments in support of his position.  Kirk argues that there is no evidence that the synoptics viewed Jesus as pre-existent or as God incarnate.  Not only do the synoptics appear to treat Jesus and God as two separate entities, but, when people in the synoptics saw Jesus’ miracles, they concluded that he was the Messiah, not God incarnate.  This was not surprising, according to Kirk, since there were Jewish legends about Solomon, a king from David’s line, being an exorcist, plus there was a belief, rooted in Hebrew prophetic writings, that miracles would accompany the Messianic era.  Kirk surveys the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Jewish literature and sees there the concept of human beings (i.e., Adam, Davidic kings, Israel, priests, prophets, etc.) representing God on earth, and even having certain divine prerogatives and privileges, without themselves being ontologically divine.  For Kirk, the synoptic Gospels’ depiction of Jesus reflects this concept.

Kirk engages scholars who believe differently, specifically Richard Bauckham, C. Kavin Rowe, Richard B. Hays, Larry Hurtado, Simon B. Gathercole, Daniel Boyarin, and Crispin Fletcher-Louis.  Kirk also responds to objections.  Against the idea that Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is God because Mark 1:3 applies to Jesus Isaiah 40:3, which was about God, Kirk notes incidents in which Qumran documents apply Scriptures about God to human beings.  Some argue that Jesus’ authority over the waters echoes God’s authority over the waters in the Hebrew Bible, but Kirk responds that God’s representatives in the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Moses, prophets, and the Davidic king in certain Psalms) are also depicted or said to have authority over waters.  Against the argument that Jesus in the synoptics is God because he forgave sins, which detractors in the synoptics regarded as blasphemy because only God could forgive sins, Kirk notes that Jesus in the synoptics delegated to his disciples the authority to forgive sins, meaning it was a divine prerogative shared by God’s human representatives.

Another question that has been asked is why Jesus’ claim to be the Christ, the Son of God, and the Son of Man was considered by the high priest to be blasphemy in Matthew 26:65 and Mark 14:64.  It may have been deemed politically subversive to claim to be the Messiah, but blasphemous?  Jesus must have been claiming to be God in that case, some think!  Kirk was rather terse in engaging this question head-on.  Kirk’s discussion of blasphemy focused mostly on the ironic use of the concept of blasphemy in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.  But, on page 330, Kirk states regarding Jesus’ claim before the high priest to be Son of Man: “Inasmuch as this title constitutes a claim to exercising divine authority on earth, it is a source of opposition from Jewish leaders who see this as a violation of divine prerogative and, perhaps, their own place as God’s agents on earth.”  Kirk could have developed this argument some more, perhaps by commenting on the stance of the Sadducees toward the Book of Daniel (where the Son of Man concept appears) or Messianism, or the question of whether there was diversity of opinion within Judaism about humans sharing divine prerogatives.  Still, Kirk’s argument here is plausible.

While I do have slight reservations about the book, they either do not threaten Kirk’s overall case, or Kirk addresses such potential reservations, on some level.  One reservation is that Kirk seems to focus on Second Temple Judaism as the background for the synoptics, rather than Greco-Roman culture.  Kirk focuses mostly on Second Temple Judaism, but he does occasionally talk about Greco-Roman philosophers with miraculous powers, or the Roman emperor’s status as adopted son and representative of the divine.  In the case of certain Greco-Roman philosophers, there was a belief among some that they had ontological divinity—-that Plato or Pythagoras was a son of Apollo, for example.  One can ask if this is relevant to whether Jesus in the synoptic Gospels has ontological divinity, not just a functional or representational divinity.  Kirk briefly engages this question, saying that even in this case Jesus would not be considered a pre-existent divine being, since Plato and Pythagoras were not deemed to be such.  Kirk does not thoroughly deal with this question, but this question does not overthrow the excellent questions Kirk asks about the view that the synoptic Gospels portray Jesus as pre-existent and God incarnate.

Another reservation I have is that Kirk rarely interacts with source criticism of the Gospels.  Kirk at one point (as far as I can remember) mentions Q, but his overall approach is to treat the synoptic Gospels as unified documents: Mark has his message, Luke has his message, etc.  This reservation may challenge Kirk’s tendency to interpret some passages in a synoptic Gospel in reference to other passages in that Gospel, since the two passages may be from different sources, with different ideologies.  It does not overthrow Kirk’s thesis, however.

There were times when Kirk’s exegesis helpfully clarified passages in the synoptic Gospels.  Have you ever wondered about Jesus’ statement in Mark 2:27-28 that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath because the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath?  How does Jesus being Lord of the Sabbath follow from the Sabbath being made for man?  Kirk’s response is that Jesus in Mark 2:27-28, as Messianic Son of Man, had the authoritative role that God gave to Adam, the original recipient of the Sabbath.  Kirk argues extensively that, within parts of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., P) and Second Temple Judaism, there was a notion that God gave Adam authority over creation, and that Israel and the Davidic king assumed the mantle of Adam’s authority, and that the Messiah or Israel would assume it again in the eschatological era.  For Kirk, Jesus’ statement in Mark 2:27-28 may reflect this concept.

Also noteworthy is Kirk’s discussion of Matthew 11:27 and Luke 10:22, which state that no one knows the Son but the Father, and no one knows the Father but the Son, and those to whom the Son reveals him.  Does that imply that Jesus in the synoptics is more than human?  Kirk interprets these passages in light of the Messianic secret, and also passages in the Psalms of Solomon in which the Messiah has a special knowledge of God.

The book is about 600 pages, but it is never boring.  It is more thorough on some issues than on others, yet it still addresses those other issues (i.e., the development of different Christologies in the New Testament).  It is very well-argued, and New Testament scholarship should take its arguments seriously.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley.  My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Book Write-Up: A Man Attested by God, by J.R. Daniel Kirk

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