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.