Reviews of

Jesus the Eternal Son

In Christology, Eerdmans, Gospels, Michael F. BIRD, Michael Kok, New Testament, review, Synoptic Gospels on November 3, 2017 at 4:00 pm


2017.11.22 | Michael F. Bird, Jesus the Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christologies. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-8028-7506-8

Reviewed by Michael Kok, The King’s University in Alberta, Canada.

The Christian doctrine of the hypostatic union aimed to articulate how Jesus’s human and divine natures were united in one person. Over-emphasizing Jesus’s humanity at the expense of his divinity, or vice versa, was ruled out of bounds. One of the christological conceptions that was censured for falling short of the orthodox consensus on the incarnation has been labelled by modern scholars as “adoptionism,” which Michael F. Bird defines as “reducing Jesus to a human figure who had acquired divine status by merit” (7).

It is the burden of Bird’s brief, well-argued book to show that adoptionism was not entertained until the late-second century CE. It is not that Bird does not admit to a diversity of thought among the Christ followers spread out along geographical, linguistic, and cultural lines. With his characteristic nuance, Bird acknowledges in Chapter 1 that there was a plurality of images of Jesus as the miracle-working prophet, the Davidic king, the high priestly mediator, and the embodiment of divine wisdom swirling around different Christian congregations. As they formed international networks and traded texts, liturgies, and rituals, certain convictions about Jesus began to cluster together and command popular consent while other viewpoints were marginalized (2–5). Yet Bird argues that the textual warrants enlisted to support the notion that a mere human became the divine Son of God do not stand up on exegetical grounds.

Chapter 2 contests the assumption that the creedal fragments embedded in Romans 1:3–4 and in the book of Acts (2:36; 5:31; 13:33) communicated that Jesus was exalted to divine status after his resurrection. Taking a closer look at Romans 1:3–4, Bird lists the commentators who infer that Paul commenced his epistle with a creedal formula or, at the least, with a wealth of traditional material (11–12, esp. 12n1). The text identifies the “Son” as “descended from the seed of David according to the flesh” and “appointed” or “marked out” (ὁρίζω) as “Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness from the resurrection of the dead.” Bird makes several valuable points about this creed (15–24). Yes, it is futile trying to reconstruct its original wording or positing hypothetical stages in its development as it was allegedly passed down from a Jewish to a Hellenistic milieu. Yes, there is evidence that “Son of God” was used as a Jewish messianic title. It harkens back to 2 Samuel 7:8–16 where David was promised a perpetual dynasty and the heir to his throne was metaphorically heralded as God’s son. And yes, the creed was integrated into the larger themes of the letter from the presentation of Jesus as the “root of Jesse” who rules over the nations (Rom 15:12) to the future resurrection and adoption of his loyal subjects as children of God, anticipated by the “Spirit of adoption” residing within them (8:9–24).

According to Bird reading of Romans 1:3–4, “the resurrection makes a transition from Jesus’s messianic mode and earthly mode of divine sonship, to a new display of divine sonship defined by a regal function exercised from his heavenly position as God’s vice-regent” (23). Before Jesus was the “Son of God” as the royal heir of David who performed the duties of his office during his earthly life, but after his resurrection, he was glorified as the “Son of God in power” who assumed new interceding, ruling, and judging functions (21). Yet not every one of David’s descendants was hailed as God’s son, but only the chosen successor who was seated on David’s throne. It seems to me that the creed expresses that Jesus had the proper credentials in that he was born into David’s dynastic line, but he received the title “Son of God” once he was officially installed as king and enthroned in heaven after his powerful feat of rising from the dead. I do agree with Bird’s general point on page 13 that it is uncertain whether or not the original formulators of this creed were familiar with other creedal affirmations about God sending the Son from heaven (e.g., Rom 8:3; Gal 4:4–5).

The focus shifts to Mark’s Christology in Chapters 3 and 4. Bird begins on the note that there was “a complex interface between Jewish and Hellenistic traditions shaping the genre and Christology of Mark’s Gospel (38). One of his main dialogue partners is Michael Peppard, whose book The Son of God in the Roman World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) interprets this Gospel in light of Roman adoption practices and the imperial cult, especially since adoption was often the means by which imperial power was transferred from one emperor to the next. Bird grants that a Roman reader who was steeped in this cultural context may have heard these resonances in Mark’s text (67, 74–75), but Bird offers the following critical responses. First, he reviews the voices in the Graeco-Roman world who were skeptical about the claims of grandeur made on behalf of deceased and even living emperors and the Jewish thinkers like Josephus and Philo of Alexandria who rejected the emperor Caligula’s pretensions to divinity as an affront to “monotheism” (43–60). Indeed, while admitting that many worshippers in the Graeco-Roman world conceived of different gradations of divinity, Bird detects an ontological distinction between immortal deities and divinized mortals (41–43, 46–47).

Most importantly, Bird insists that the primary key to unlocking the meaning of Mark’s narrative is in the evangelist’s scriptural heritage (71–73). Thus, when the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and a voice from heaven addresses him as “my son” after his baptism in Mark 1:9–11, Jesus is anointed as the Davidic ruler who will inherit the nations (Ps 2:7–9), the servant who was the object of God’s delight (Isa 42:1), and the beloved son who was to be sacrificed (Gen 22:2). Yet I would not exclude the possibility that the “good news” of Jesus the Messiah also challenged the “good news” about Augustus, the adopted son of the deified Julius Caesar and the “saviour” who brought peace to the Empire (cf. Craig Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 1 [2000]: 67-81).

Since there are three proclamations of Jesus’s divine sonship at crucial junctures in Mark’s outline (1:11; 9:7; 15:39), Bird is adamant that the first instance at Jesus’s baptism is no more an act of adoption than the latter two instances at the transfiguration and the crucifixion (80–81). However, Bird may overlook a slight yet important detail that there are no explicit signals in Mark’s text that anyone beside Jesus “saw” (εἶδεν) the vision at the baptism, while the declarations of Jesus’s divine sonship in Mark 9:7 and 15:39 were repeated for the benefit of other characters in the story. Bird may read too much into the theme of the demon’s recognition of Jesus’s divine sonship as based on their prior knowledge of his heavenly origins (78–79), for it may be rooted in nothing more than their awareness that he was the Spirit-empowered agent of God (Mark 1:24; 3:11). Finally, Bird builds a cumulative case for a divine Christology in Mark’s Gospel, from Mark’s double identification of Jesus and God as “lord” (κύριος) to Jesus’s authority to override restrictions on the Sabbath, forgive sins, and subdue the chaotic forces of nature (81–106). Bird participates in the larger scholarly debate over whether these features may be paralleled in biblical and Second Temple literature about “intermediary agents,” including exalted humans, principal angels, and divine hypostases.

Chapter 5 explores the fifth parable in the Shepherd of Hermas and the early Christian descriptions of the Ebionites and the Theodotians in the quest to find the origins of adoptionism. To focus on the Jewish Christian sect known as the Ebionites, their name derives from the Hebrew term for “poor” and signified that they judged their material poverty as a marker of religious piety. They did not see their beliefs about Jesus as incompatible with Torah observance (113–14). Little else can be securely known about them. Bird pinpoints the problem in that our information derives from the polemical reports of their Christian detractors, who alternated between picturing them as a philosophical school with a fictional founder named Ebion to employing “Ebionite” as a catch-all term for Jewish Christians (112–13). Hence, we hear of two sets of Ebionites, one group that denied the virginal conception of Jesus and the other that affirmed it (Origen, Cels. 5.61; Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.27.3). Epiphanius of Salamis muddied the waters further; he assigned contradictory conceptions about Jesus to the Ebionites because he had a variety of sources in his possession that may have originated among dissimilar Jewish groups (Pan. 30). Bird contends that the Ebionites held a “possessionist” Christology, meaning that a divine spirit or angel was dwelling within Jesus since his baptism (113, 119–20), but his thesis faces the same difficulties due to our few problematic sources. Bird’s key evidence is that Irenaeus of Lyon linked the Ebionites with Cerinthus and Carpocrates, two “Gnostic” thinkers who thought that Jesus was possessed by a spiritual power that revealed otherworldly mysteries, but the similarities between them may only extend as far as the denial of the Virgin birth (Haer. 1.25.1; 26.1–2). Ultimately, Bird does not uncover any trace of adoptionism before the students of Theodotus of Byzantium who were located in Rome and arguably influenced by the imperial ideology surrounding the post-mortem deification of the emperor (121–22).

If “adoptionism” is defined as the apotheosis or deification of Jesus, I evaluate Bird’s thesis to be fairly compelling that this position came to its fullest expression among the Theodotians. On the other hand, I remain persuaded by Daniel Kirk’s case in his monograph A Man Attested by God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016) that Jesus’s words and deeds in Mark’s Gospel can be understood in light of his category of “idealized human” agents. Moreover, I am not sure that Romans 1:3–4 transcends a royal, Davidic christology. Even so, other canonical writings explicitly affirm Jesus’s pre-existence and incarnation (e.g. John 1:1–18; 1 Cor 8:6; Phil 2:6–11; Col 1:15–17; Heb 1:2–3). To do justice to all the voices within the New Testament canon, Christian theologians fine-tuned their conceptualization of Jesus’s humanity and divinity with the philosophical categories available to them. One last matter that may be worthy of exploration is whether chronological priority should determine theological truth. Bird concludes with the theological axiom inherited from Athanasius of Alexandria that a creature cannot perform the function of mediating between God and humankind (128–29). One might side with Athanasius on theological grounds, regardless of the historical issues over whether adoptionism was an early way of conceiving of Jesus’s identity or a late innovation. Nonetheless, Bird’s work deserves careful attention by all who are curious about the historical and theological questions.

Michael J. Kok
The King’s University, Alberta, Canada
Michael.Kok [at]

  1. […] Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology (Eerdmans, 2017) has been posted at the online publication Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies. You can get a preview of Bird’s argument in his interviews for Eerdmans and the OnScript […]

  2. […] F. Bird, Jesus the Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology. Biblical and Early Christian Studies (2017): n. […]

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