Why we should make a really, really big deal about Jesus’s humanity: short interview with J. R. Daniel Kirk on his new book

Posted by PeteEnns on September 12, 2016 in book notes and reviews New Testament 27 Comments

man-attested-by-godToday’s post a short interview is with J. R. Daniel Kirk, author of the recently published A Man Attested by God (Eerdmans, 2016).

Now, despite what you might conclude from the book’s cover, AMABG is NOT Kirk’s autobiography (haha, read the title slowly and chuckle along with me for a moment).

The book, rather, is a study of the human identity of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Kirk asks the question “How do these Gospel writers actually describe Jesus?”

Kirk’s answer is provocative, compellingly commonsensical, and carries with it some important theological implications for how we see ourselves as part of God’s story.

Daniel Kirk’s PhD is in New Testament from Duke University and he has taught in a variety of institutions over a ten-year teaching career. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Laura and two school-aged children. His other books are Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?: A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity and Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God.

1. Why did you write AMABG? Why were you curious about this idea?
Blogosphere confessional: growing up, and even all the way through seminary, I did not like the Synoptic Gospels. The faith I was nurtured on kept bringing me back around to the idea that being a Christian was about believing the right things about Jesus; specifically, that he was God. So I knew how to read John. It worked. But the Synoptic Gospels? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong. I still believe that the New Testament teaches that Jesus is pre-existent and divine. I still believe that this is an important part of the Christian confession about who Jesus is. But like so many other things I believe, this particular idea is not necessarily what each and every part of the Bible is trying to shine a light on.

In my first year of graduate school I started getting the tools to read the Synoptics through a different lens: what if these stories aren’t meant to show that Jesus is God, but are instead meant to show that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah? The idea that they show Jesus to be Messiah or Christ is, of course, obvious, but it might well be that its profundity gets lost because we take it for granted.

So what happened was this: just as I started actually understanding these stories and being able to see them as coherent narratives about Jesus as Messiah, the “early high Christology” movement started to hit its stride (the notion that Jesus’ divinity is not a later theological development but already confessed by the earliest followers of Jesus).

Now a host of New Testament scholars were saying things like, “the earliest Christology was already the highest Christology.” In other words, they were trying to stake out ground for precisely the sorts of readings that had kept me from understanding the Synoptic Gospels for years.

I wrote AMABG because I realized that what I was seeing in the Synoptic Gospels would be drowned in the rising chorus of voices singing the divine Christology song. I wanted to give people tools to see what I had seen (and to check for myself just how far my “Jesus is Messiah” paradigm could take me when rigorously interrogating these texts).

It has also been my experience that Christians are always looking for the “highest” possible Christology, and I think that this has left most of us with a rather anemic understanding of Jesus’ humanity. The good stuff goes in the “Jesus is God” box, while the weakness, suffering, and death goes in the “Jesus is human” box. But that is not only faithless to the biblical story, it takes away the ground for understanding what humanity is, why God loves us, and what God has in store for us.

So I wanted to write this book: (1) to preserve and propagate a better reading of the texts, (2) to fend off what I think to be less helpful interpretations, and (3) to help develop a theological point that has massive implications for both our understanding of Jesus and our understanding of ourselves.

2. What’s unique about your take on the human Jesus? How is it different from others who’ve written on this in the past?
What I’m saying has a rich pedigree. It is very much in line with what Paul says about Jesus as second and last Adam and what Irenaeus (2nd century Church Father) says about Jesus needing to recapitulate humanity within himself. My focus on Jesus as an exalted human even has precedent in the work of Larry Hurtado who is himself a member of the “Early High Christology Club” (here and here).

Here’s what I offer that’s unique:
  1. I have provided a much more thorough demonstration that biblical and post-biblical Judaism are both replete with examples of human beings who are “identified with God” through actions (such as sovereignty and rule), ascriptions (such as receipt of worship), and attributes (such as glory) that one might otherwise think are reserved for God alone. In this, I have shown
  2. that a massive component of Jesus’s ministry falls within a sphere that a first-century Jew could have recognized as having precedent either in heroes of the past or in the hoped-for human hero that was the Messiah.
  3. I have demonstrated that a host of things that are often associated with Jesus’ divinity are actually part of what he does as God’s right-hand man: coming on the clouds to judge the earth, forgiving sins, walking on water, feeding people miraculously, receiving the divine approbation “You are my beloved Son.”

3. What are 2-3 ideas you have in the book you’re most excited about?
(1) In my exploration of early Judaism I develop a new category that I call “idealized human figures.” It is incontrovertiblescreen-shot-2016-08-23-at-5-04-21-pm that humans were so idealized without necessarily being divinized. I think that this has the potential to change the conversation about NT Christology and immeasurably enrich our understanding of Jesus as a human and ourselves as the humans who are called to follow him.The theological richness of Jesus’s humanity goes far beyond, “We are terrible, therefore a human Jesus had to die.” It reaches back into the primordial vision of what God wants humans to be: God’s image-bearing creations that look like God on the earth as God rules the world through us.

The theological richness of Jesus’s humanity goes far beyond, “We are terrible, therefore a human Jesus had to die.” It reaches back into the primordial vision of what God wants humans to be: God’s image-bearing creations that look like God on the earth as God rules the world through us.

God does not give up on God’s plan, but sees to it that, at long last, the right kind of faithful human being comes along. Jesus reigns as humanity was always supposed to reign. Jesus entrusts himself to God as humanity was always supposed to trust. Jesus demonstrates the presence of the divine as humanity was always supposed to reflect God’s likeness.

Once we see that Jesus does what he does because he’s the right kind of human we also open up the door to see what kind of humans God expects us to be: spirit-filled children of God who overcome systemic oppression, extend the reach of God’s family, feed the hungry, tend and cure the sick, lay down our lives so that others might live.

(2) The Gospel narratives hold together beautifully, as stories, if we will allow them to turn our attention to Jesus as a certain kind of man, empowered by the Spirit God for a particular set of tasks. The chapter on Jesus as son of God and son of man show how Mark, in particular, uses Christological titles in conjunction with the developing narrative in ways that have the potential to revolutionize how many of us read the story as a whole.

(3) In his sermon on Pentecost, Peter says I’m right: “Jesus was a man attested by God through signs and wonders and miracles…”

4. Who are you trying to reach in this book?
This book is directed to nerds: professors, graduate students, upper-level seminary students, laypeople who read too much theology.

But part of what I hope for is that there will be a broadening of the ideas throughout the church. The theology we hold in the pews needs to be enriched with a more robust understanding of what it means for Jesus to be “human in all ways like us, except for sin.” That’s the essential first step in understanding how it is that we will be made like him in all ways.

  • Joe

    Pete,

    This interests me muchly, and I would like to read more, but I fear I am much below the target audience Daniel addresses. Could you recommend a similar but less academic book on the subject?

    • Pete E.

      I’m not aware of anything like that.

      • Gary

        I’ll take a slight tweak on Joe’s good question.

        Point #4 is that the book is directed to nerds. Personally for several years I’ve been fascinated by popular Christologies, as preached and as believed. I can see how a work like this can impact the target audiences’ Christologies, but how do most preachers and small group leaders gain their Christologies? Most of what I’ve observed over the years is simpler than it is orthodox and seems mostly to be constructed as popular antipole response to “Jesus was /just/ a man.”

        The other thing I noted in this blog pertains to this: “God’s image-bearing creations that look like God on the earth as God rules the world through us.” To me, that seems to be easily corruptible. Given the popular nature of God that many Christians believe in (non-incarnational, anti-kenotic, …), this all seems pretty dicey. The risks of forming a concept of God that fit into various “other Gods” we’ve discussed here are significant. When people envisage a bad God, they can do (in leading, following, letting) some pretty messed up stuff.

        How do preachers and small group leaders thus find and adopt better Christologies? As I watch politics and culture warrings, I’d think Christ-following could be somewhat different.

  • Hill Roberts

    Led a church class series couple of years back on the Humanity of Jesus (before my great shutout over E-C). Class theme wasn’t exactly the perspective of Kirk, but his would have been a great resource for our class. Anxious to read it myself. Thanks for the interview.
    As it was, I pretty much had to wing it with a little bit of insight from Tom Wright’s corpus and some from P.Yancy (The Jesus I Never Knew).
    As for the class, the thrust was simply “Okay, Jesus was fully divine, but Jesus was also fully human (ref some old councils), but let’s just talk about Jesus the son of man for a few weeks. I bet it will be very difficult to have any discussion of the humanity of Jesus without it immediately turning back to ‘no, that can’t be the way it was, because Jesus was God.'”
    Prediction fully sustained. Was a very challenging class for the dozen or so willing to even consider Jesus’ humanity. Coincidentally, we also focused on the Gospel of Mark as the main thread to see his humanity beginning to end (recall – Mark starts at the baptism, not the birth; and the ending of Mark was apparently doctored, so not too much post-res either.)

    It is only the humanity of Jesus that makes him the suitable Messiah/Savior/Man-God for me. YMMV.

  • Andrew Foley

    I am a non-academic person who is deeply passionate about theology. I have a bunch of genuine questions for Daniel Kirk but totally understand if he doesn’t respond. I am coming from a perspective influenced by missional/ Anabaptist/ charismatic perspectives:

    What would you say to someone who only believed Jesus was an idealised human and completely disregarded his divinity as a later mythological addition? Do you see this as any kind of problem?

    What do you think about the idea that we need (at least) three kinds of christologies (but that we still need a high Christology to ‘access’ all of them)? http://www.missioalliance.org/podcasts/3-kinds-jesus-matters/

    There are many progressive Christians (and radical theologians) who adopt a non-supernatural metanarrative and see Jesus fully embodying the human ‘spirit’ – like Martin Luther King Jr. Do you see this as a problem?

    What do you think of NT Wright’s proposal that Jesus fulfilled the prophetic hopes that one day God would return as King?

    • Pete E.

      Andrew, on one level these are, of course, fair questions. Daniel can answer if he shows up here, but if I had written the book, I would probably respond by saying that the–let’s call them pracrtical theological implications of this acaddemic study–are of interest for various reasons, but certainly not for assessing the argument of the book. This is analogous to people rejecting evolution because of what it does to thei theological necessity for a historical Adam: the theological implications do not determine the strengthor weakness of a given position.

      • Andrew Foley

        Thanks for the response Pete.

  • https://nextcreation.wordpress.com/ Phil Ledgerwood

    This comes at an interesting time, because I just got out of some dicey conversations about the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity. I blogged about it: https://nextcreation.wordpress.com/2016/09/04/sunday-meditations-the-trinity/

    • Gary

      Fascinating. Regardless, it seems, at least to me, more so to be a continuum of those “identified with God” and those identified as a God and any sort of objectively discernible ontologically separate category anyhow. And I get your point about the Gospel’s emphasis to be more centered in the new Kingdom and a different kind of King than about a different kind of being.

      Given the flow of the piece, I think you suggest the different Kingdom/different King to be the reason to not “hang it up.” For me, I think this corresponds to the significance of the question of whether or not humanity’s, or earth’s, or–even better–the cosmos’ trajectory definitive bent about 2,000 years ago.

      Personally, I don’t see the new way offered or manifested that I feel I could convince “the Martian anthropologist” of. To me, the different King claim seems now a bit dubious to suggest. I think I’m more comfortable though with a different kind of Way and a different Kingdom through that Way. For me, this much centers Jesus in his humanity. Perhaps it demotes him from less of a God. But it elevates him in that “just a man” doesn’t quite do justice either. Regardless, I wouldn’t know how to go about judging whether he was or is God. I just wouldn’t know how to start. And… I think I’ll be so bold as to say I’m far from alone. For me, imagining a Second Coming takes more than a lot of imagination, but if I try I can imagine scenarios where Jesus comes back and he tries to convince various sects within Christianity (never mind those without professed allegiance) that he is indeed Jesus. How would he do it? What would he have to say? What would he have to do? Would he have to demonstrate himself as smart as Stephen Hawking and as deft as Penn and Teller? What would convince everyone? I honestly can’t think of anything. Sure, one could devotionally muse that “everyone would just know.” But… somehow I can also imagine scenarios with, “Yeah right, as much as they ‘just knew’ the first time around.”

      Anyhow, perhaps indeed a different Way and different Kingdom. It’s just that honestly I don’t really see Christianity having pressed into that discernably more or less than anybody else. And I wonder if there’s a better way for humanity to get about the getting on with the Way. With the mushroomed population of modern humanity, the amount of natural resources required to feed such a wonderful lifestyle for so many, and our common inability to get along, our species may need to start working toward a better way toward a better Way soon.

      If Jesus were to be the hope of humankind, consider the real-world stakes.

      • https://nextcreation.wordpress.com/ Phil Ledgerwood

        These are good issues, Gary, and I’ve thought about it a lot.

        I would say that the task of creating and embodying a new creation (what we might call The Way) and testifying to a hope in its renewal is for me the compelling reason to be Christian in distinction from other religions or philosophies that aren’t on the same trajectory. The Kingdom is what this looks like in a world where this project is competing against other world powers and forces.

        Jesus, I would believe/confess, is the King of this Kingdom and, understanding that he fulfilled a unique role, is perhaps the clearest picture we have of what it means to embody this Way, and you can see it as the New Testament portrays it in his followers as well. Our future hope is the final establishment of this new creation in all its forms, although we are not told exactly how that is going to happen. We do have dramatic pictures like resurrections and the destruction of Death itself. At this point, a Kingdom is just not necessary any longer, at least in the sense in which its presented in the biblical narrative.

        So, when I consider what makes Jesus “more than a man,” it’s that he was chosen by God as the agent of restoring His people to their identity and mission and the benefits that come with that. He receives all authority in heaven and earth from God, performs as an agent many of the functions normally reserved for God, and is vindicated by resurrection – the first of many, Paul tells us. And it is through faith in him and what God has done in him that defines the people of God in the present age as opposed to Torah keeping or ancestry. Even Gentiles can get in on this.

        I think we are more or less off the Bible’s radar in terms of any big eschatological events except for the pointers we have to the whole new/renewed creation. The judgement Jesus warned about and the saving of God’s people through it I think are bounded by Israel’s experience in the Greco-Roman world. So, when I share the gospel with people, “the gospel” from me is that God’s kingdom has arrived definitively in Jesus Christ, and this kingdom is out for justice, compassion, peace, healing, forgiveness, etc. and its lord is Jesus, over and against the various world systems that are out there that are after different things. I believe Jesus is still at the helm of this operation through the presence and power of the Spirit in believers.

        You raised a couple of really good observations.

        1. Most Christians don’t really seem to be about this project.

        It’s definitely a mixed bag. Many are not. Many are involved and don’t know why, but just carry a sort of vague sense that doing good is what God wants.

        I think a lot of the issue has to do with the current Christian narrative that is mostly about how an individual avoids going to Hell. This narrative eats up everything and even defines the core gospel message, which is no longer, “Take heart – God’s new kingdom has come and Jesus is its king,” but is now, “You’re going to Hell, but you don’t have to if pray this prayer.”

        I don’t really know what the remedy to that is other than education and just recognizing that earnest Christ-followers in all ages and cultures have a tendency to remove the Biblical writings from their audience and context and redefine it in their own, but somehow the project manages to keep lurching along.

        2. Is Christianity really unique in this?

        In some ways, no, and insofar as someone follows another religion but is still about the task of new creation, I’d tentatively say we’re probably in the same boat. One can’t help but think of Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats, where you have the followers of the True Religion who are shut out of the kingdom and people who seem to be absolutely shocked that they’ve done anything for Jesus who are allowed in because, unbeknownst to them, they’ve been acting in his name the whole time.

        I will say, though, that the kind of thing outlined by Jesus and his followers is a demanding and comprehensive vision that has much sharper teeth than the generic “being generally good and decent folk” that you can find in any number of religions or philosophies or just being a good member of society. Just a dictum like, “Bless those who curse you and do good to those who hate you” rules out a ton. Then again, it also rules out a lot of people who claim to be Christians, too.

        I guess that’s my rambly way of saying that I think the boundaries of “the Way” or “the Kingdom” might be a little more porous than whether or not you are a Christian in the ways we’d normally apply that label.

        • Gary

          Thank you for this detailed response.

          There’s a number of things in your response that I concur with and a number of which I simply cannot find believable. For instance, I wouldn’t know how to figure out how to determine who the King of such a Kingdom is. Such language, to me, is literary, metaphorical, devotional, and mythical in ways that can “mean everything” so well as to also mean nothing. Such thoughts are higher than my own.

          It doesn’t matter how much I believe in blessing those who curse me or how much I bless those who curse me or do good to those who hate me. I do not believe in such as the resurrection. This makes me definitively non-Christian per nearly all conventions.

          Because the faith has centered itself in the belief in the method and the man of good than actual goodness itself, I find the Christian project ever so close, but yet something that has, does, and will always come up short of its most nobly aspirational ends.

          Followers are welcome to comment and condemn. I shall do my best to bless.

          • https://nextcreation.wordpress.com/ Phil Ledgerwood

            Well, the Kingdom concept is one that comes from Israel’s history and, for my own take, I’d be reluctant to let go of the historically concrete premise of it. What it meant/means for Israel to be a kingdom in the ancient Near East is essentially the same concept going forward, albeit somewhat decentralized, now.

            But even the New Testament presents the idea of kingdom as a temporary arrangement that will one day no longer be necessary, and that’s why, personally, I tend to plant my stakes in a new creation. The idea of a renewed creation is something that precedes kingdom and will outlive it. People sometimes use the concepts synonymously, and I do, too, when I’m not being careful about it, because the kingdom is the current “stage” or “format” of new creation, but it’s not a necessary one. And sometimes it has taken historical forms that are pretty unfortunate (Constantine, I’m looking in your direction).

            Your point about the popular focus of the Christian project is well-taken, and I think we’d probably agree 98ish percent about all that.

          • Gary

            One of fascinating things about religion is that it necessitates populism.

            Any crazy out there can receive revelation from God and spout it. It’s in the acceptance that it gains its authority. It’s not like there’re objective measures, scientific method, peer review, etc. of the revelations themselves.

            I’m familiar with the new creation thread of thinking. One could argue that it ought be somewhere near the core of the faith. But I’d suggest it simply isn’t. It simply isn’t what has been believed and it isn’t what is believed. It’s not the world Christianity has helped form.

            Maybe people “don’t understand their own religion” but that seems bizarrely elitist and circular to boot.

          • Hill Roberts

            All too true Gary, IMO. (When has being circular and elitist ever held back any religious idea?)

          • Gary

            You bait me… :-)

        • Hill Roberts

          Phil, NTW would be proud of that summary. Well done!!! (And, I think is exactly what this thing is all about — bringing about His will on earth as it is in heaven.)

          • https://nextcreation.wordpress.com/ Phil Ledgerwood

            Thanks! I think he would like most of the summary. There’s a few bits he probably wouldn’t be crazy about, but not insurmountable ones. I like a lot of what Wright does and am endlessly grateful for bringing a level of historical criticalishness into evangelical discourse. I feel, at times, that he constrains himself too much by evangelical expectations, and this is a perennial disappointment I have with brilliant evangelicals.

    • Hill Roberts

      Nice summary, Phil. Thanks.

  • Sebastian Lubbers

    Why Chalcedon still Matters…

    • Veritas

      These questions are as old as Christianity, and we continue to struggle with them. Reinventing the wheel over and over.

  • Hill Roberts

    Led a church class series couple of years back on the Humanity of Jesus (before my great shutout over E-C). Class theme wasn’t exactly the perspective of Kirk, but his would have been a great resource for our class. Anxious to read it myself. Thanks for the interview.
    As it was, I pretty much had to wing it with a little bit of insight from Tom Wright’s corpus and some from P.Yancy (The Jesus I Never Knew).
    As for the class, the thrust was simply “Okay, Jesus was fully divine, but Jesus was also fully human (ref some old councils), but let’s just talk about Jesus the son of man for a few weeks. I bet it will be very difficult to have any discussion of the humanity of Jesus without it immediately turning back to ‘no, that can’t be the way it was, because Jesus was God.'”
    Prediction fully sustained. Was a very challenging class for the dozen or so willing to even consider Jesus’ humanity. Coincidentally, we also focused on the Gospel of Mark as the main thread to see his humanity beginning to end (recall – Mark starts at the baptism, not the birth; and the ending of Mark was apparently doctored, so not too much post-res either.)

    It is only the humanity of Jesus that makes him the suitable Messiah/Savior/Man-God for me. YMMV.

  • Powerglide

    Don’t see how a sinless man can be fully human. If he never experienced luster greed or shame or regret, he’s not human enough for me.

    • Veritas

      You assume that Jesus did not Experience the emotion that would lead to lust or greed or regret or shame. To experience these emotions themselves is not sinful, only to succumb to them.

    • Hill Roberts

      I don’t think Jesus was sinless in the sense we usually ascribe to him. I think he was never proven to be guilty of the sins with which he was maligned, much the same way Paul, though claiming to be blameless before the Law, never could possibly have claimed to be sinless given his life as Saul. But all that aside, I find the answer to how Jesus understands my sin not so much in his life among us back then, but rather his life within us now.

      —Emmanuel —“God With Us”
      —Not – “God was once, for a few years, with a small Jewish handful of us.”
      God With Us – from then on ! The Son’s role forever more.
      The Exalted Christ Dwells in Humanity Still
      —Me, in Christ (Romans 8:1ff) is just the beginning of the story
      —God, Christ, Spirit Dwells in Me : Rom 8:10-11, Gal 2:20, Eph 3:17

      (See the —dinner scene from movie The Answer Man: “…He sees through your eyes…”)

      —He knows me from the inside out, from where he dwells in me.
      —He knows what it is like to be a sinner, because he lives in one, and shares his spirit with mine. (Rom 8:16)
      —He knows what it is like to be a failure, because he lives in one and shares his spirit with mine.
      He intercedes on my behalf because NOW he does walk in my shoes.
      He does feel my pain, shares my loss, my temptations. My sin.
      —When I pray, his spirit in me prays with me, for me. (Rom 8:26-27, 1 John 2:1)

    • Gary

      One can either tweak the harmatology or the anthropology to get there.

      For the origins of the “sinless” claim, I’d think it formatively to be in the context of the Torah. For the origins of the “fully human” claim, I’d think this to be centrally later Christological development and it formatively more Hellenistic and in context of the cultural conceptualization of the divination of what Kirk calls “examples of human beings who are ‘identified with God.'” Personally, I think there are two cultural and temporal waypoints that need intersection for substantial appreciation of the claims.

      For me to “see how a sinless man can be fully human,” I personally find it easier to consider these claims in the context of these ancient lenses, more so than what contemporary Christians tend to believe, teach, and assume on these matters. Contemporaries seemed focused on a quite different emphases, that to me, seem more centered in grappling with thought patterns of the Enlightenment with the older vocabulary utilized in ways that aren’t quite perfectly seamless.

      It’s kinda like when the Tupperware lids don’t quite match up and you can’t figure out why.

  • Hill Roberts

    What if …
    What if Jesus knew peoples’ hearts, not because he was God, but because he was human?
    What if Jesus understood who he was, what he was to do, the same way he expects of all of us, on the basis of faith, not because “he knew”?
    What if Jesus understood the role of Messiah, not because he had an inside track, but because he learned to read the OT scriptures differently from his peers?
    What if Jesus understood temptation because he was fully subject to all the temptations humanity has?
    What if “learning obedience” means exactly what it means when anyone learns obedience – via the consequences of disobedience?
    What if …

  • Hill Roberts

    My personal approach to reading the gospels.
    Jesus: God The Word – come to be one of us, son-of-man/empty God, walking by faith not sight, exalted as Son of God – dwelling within us yet.