If you haven’t started following Michael Bird’s scholarship (he blogs here and has been writing books at an astonishing pace), you need to as soon as possible. Bird’s latest book, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, is a tour-de-force of scholarship concerning the formation of the Gospels. His writing is engaging, witty, and incredibly thorough. The book is an explanation of the historical process which took place from the time of Jesus’ Kingdom announcement to the circulation of a collection of books describing Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. The result is a “must-read” work by all who are interested in the “what, why, how, and where of the Gospels.”
Bird covers five main topics in the course of his writing: the purpose and preservation of the Jesus tradition, the formation of the Jesus tradition, the literary genetics of the Gospels (including the Synoptic Problem and the Johannine Question), the genre and goal of the Gospels, and the significance of a fourfold Gospel. For each topic, the reader should expect Bird to summarize and critique an impressive amount of historical theories and scholars and then offer his own scholarly and thoroughly evangelical conclusion. Each chapter is also followed by a helpful and interesting Excursus on a related topic (such as patristic views on the order of the Gospels or the non-canonical Gospels).
Bird occasionally goes after some “sacred cows” of scholarship, such as when he attacks the merit and purpose of the idea of positing communities behind the Gospels (such as a Markan community or a Johannine community). He interestingly notes that few historical/literary scholars do this as a way of interpreting other ancient authors. However, for the most part Bird helpfully lays out the majority opinions in the world of scholarship and then carefully crafts his own tentative conclusion. I was particularly impressed with his handling of the Synoptic problem and his explication of the historical and theological significance of the fourfold Gospel [see: Fourfold Gospel].
In the end, perhaps the highest praise I can give this book is to say that it stands in my mind as a close cousin to N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. Bird mentions in the introduction that reading JVOG was a turning point in his life – it was also the moment in my life which sparked an interest in the study of the historical Jesus, an interest which has shaped my faith and theology in endless ways. I can confidently say the same about Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord – this is a book sure to clear the way forward for continued and thoughtful thinking about the historical tradition, both oral and textual, which stands behind the Gospels.
Note: I received this book from Eerdmans in exchange for an unbiased review.