Book Reviews

The Gospel of the Lord

How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus

Michael F. Bird Grand Rapids 2014

In The Gospel of the Lord, Bird investigates early Christian history that led to the composition and retention of the fourfold Gospel. The book raises four different research questions. First, why did the early church retain the Jesus traditions that the Evangelists used to write their Gospels? What purpose did these traditions serve? Second, how did the Christian community transmit these traditions? Third, what are the purpose and genre of the Gospels? Fourth, why did the early church retain only four Gospels? These questions are not new, but often they are approached in a way that drives a wedge between history and theology. Bird approaches the Gospels with sensitivity to the fact that theology motivated the early Christian community—theology and history cannot be easily untangled.

Bird’s first two questions address the way the church maintained the Jesus traditions prior to the composition of the Gospels. Early Christians were certainly interested in stories about Jesus, but what stands behind their interest? Bird argues that the earliest believers considered Jesus as the “movement founder,” even if he ministered completely within a Jewish context. The early Christian message—that Jesus died and rose again—naturally leads to an explanation of his life and teaching, and the community understood his teaching as authoritative. The church maintained the Jesus traditions orally. Bird follows Kenneth Bailey’s schema (“Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” Themelios 20 [1995]: 4–11), rejecting the “fluid, free, and flexible” model. The community would have transmitted the traditions with some level of control. The eyewitnesses would have played a role in guiding the tradition. Bird concludes that these memories of the past would have shaped the community. He states, “It can no longer be defined in terms of separating history from theology or identifying layers of tradition, but should be conceived as tracing the impact of a memory in the formation of early Christianity. The historical event of Jesus cannot be safely stripped from the subsequent narrative representation of Jesus given in the Gospels” (p. 105).

The last two questions address how the Gospels functioned within the early Christian community. Bird loosely classifies the Gospels as biographies. Unlike other biographies, however, they narrate Jesus’s life in light of God’s plan of salvation beginning with the Old Testament. Because the stories come from the apostolic preaching about Christ, Bird calls the Gospels “biographical kerygma” (p. 271). The early church would have used the Gospels in a number of ways—from evangelism and apologetics to worship and instruction. Finally, Bird investigates the early Christian decision to receive four Gospels. Rather than harmonizing the Gospels (such as Tatian’s Diatessaron), selecting a single Gospel (as Marcion did with Luke), or writing a new Gospel (such as the Gospel of Thomas), the church decided to retain the fourfold Gospel. By the beginning of the second century, the church viewed the Gospels as the “definitive apostolic accounts” (p. 322) of Jesus’s life and used them authoritatively. The church would not formalize the canon until the fourth century, but from the second century onward, the church accepted the fourfold Gospel.

The Gospel of the Lord covers a number of issues that relate to the Gospels and their composition—from the way that the early Christians retained information about Jesus to the rationale behind the fourfold Gospel. Most critics separate theology from history, but Bird understands that early Christian theology is predicated on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—past events. Besides answering the four core questions, Bird includes excursuses that relate to each issue. He approaches each topic judiciously, taking the historical questions that critics raise seriously and proposing a better way to understand how the early Christians treated the Gospels. Any student who wishes to investigate an issue further could easily compile a reading list from Bird’s bibliography. In this respect, the book provides a helpful on-ramp to issues surrounding the Gospels.

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