Book Recommendation: The Gospel of the Lord

Book Recommendation by Garrett Best

Bird, Michael. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).

I recently finished Michael Bird’s book The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. The book has received glowing recognition from heavy hitting scholars like N.T. Wright, Craig Evans, Robert Gundry, and Jonathan Pennington to name a few. The book was also selected by Christianity Today as one of the top books of the year in Biblical Studies. I expected a lot from this book, and I was not disappointed. Bird is a rising star in Biblical scholarship publishing books and articles on Paul, the Gospels, historical Jesus, and numerous other topics. The Gospel of the Lord is an enlightening look at the origins of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the earliest years of Christianity.

This book is a must read for seminary students or for anyone wanting an in-depth look into the formation and purpose of the Fourfold Gospel. Throughout the book, Bird alerts readers to the most important questions to ask when studying the Gospels: “Why would anyone write a “Jesus book” like these, how did they compile and compose them, and why were these four Jesus books and not others accepted as canonical by the ancient church?” (3) Bird’s book seeks to address four major questions that he lays out in the introduction:

  1. “The question is “why?” Why make an effort to pass on Jesus’ sayings to others, why tell stories about Jesus, and what has that to do with anything that was happening in the early church?” (3-4)
  2. “How was the Jesus tradition transmitted?… Was the transmission of Jesus’ words really messy, or was the church more careful in its attempt to transmit the Jesus tradition to others? Are the Evangelists merely reading their own beliefs into the life of Jesus, or are they providing accounts of Jesus’ life that are in some way accurate? If accurate, how accurate, and what kind of accuracy: Wall Street Journal or Fox News accurate?” (4)
  3. “What were the sources behind the Gospels, what genre are the Gospels, and why would anyone even write a Gospel?” (4)
  4. “Why do we have four Gospels? Why not just one? And if more than one, then why not several, or a dozen?” (4)

“Fresh” is the descriptor being used by reviewers to describe Bird’s book. He has provided fresh insight into topics that have been oft discussed in books and articles by scholars. I’m thinking here primarily of his suggestions for the Synoptic Problem and the Johannine Question. He provides new ways forward to old problems. He even provides a few ideas for potential PhD dissertations (which I found helpful!).

Not only is the book detailed and packed with sound historical critical evaluation of the primary sources for the origin of the Jesus tradition, it is also entertaining to read. Bird embeds little nuggets of sarcasm and humor within the text making it engaging. Here are a few of my favorite embedded witticisms and contemporary pop culture references:

  • “For if there was no real remembrance of Jesus by his followers, then all bets are off and the historical task becomes as pointless as booking a reggae band to play at a Klu Klux Klan convention.” (82)
  • “Leaving the Synoptics for John is a bit like putting down a detective novel and taking up a sci-fi thriller. If the Synoptic Gospels were a movie it would have to be The Bourne Identity, whereas the Gospel of John would have to be The Matrix.” (188)
  • “Furthermore, putting the heading “Gospel” on a document does not really determine its genre any more than inscribing “Recent Observations on Nocturnal and Hematophagic Humanoids” on the cover of a Twilight novel turns it into a scientific research paper.” (290)
  • “Within the “Holy Internet” of Christian networks in the first two centuries, the teachings of Jesus went more viral than “Gangnam Style” on YouTube in our own decade.” (327)

In short, if you are looking for a fresh, thorough look at the origins, reliability, and purpose of the Fourfold Gospel that is enjoyable to read, then Bird’s book is a must. If you don’t have time to read Bird’s book, don’t fret. I will be starting a series of posts where I will attempt to summarize Bird’s research and draw out some of the implications for our study of the Gospels today. Stay tuned.

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