“A Man Attested by God”: A Review
In response to several requests, I give below my panel- presentation from the review session devoted to J. R. Daniel Kirk’s recent book, A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).
At 582 pages, plus a 21-page bibliography, Kirk’s hefty tome reflects an impressive investment of effort, his main thesis being that the Synoptic Gospels present Jesus as what Kirk calls an “idealized human” who is the agent of remarkable divine power and purposes. Upon receiving the pre-publication proofs for this review, my first thought was why such a large discussion devoted to a point that will be rather uncontroversial, surely, to most scholars, that the Synoptic Gospels (and I would include John as well) present a genuinely human Jesus who acts as God’s unique agent. And why the somewhat agonistic tenor of the book?
But I take it that the size and tone of the book are explained by two factors. First, Kirk is concerned, not simply to affirm that the Synoptics present a human Jesus, albeit an “idealized human,” but also to advocate this view of Jesus as particularly productive theologically, over against what he portrays as a one-sided recent emphasis on Jesus’ divine status. Although he grants that the divine status/significance of Jesus is affirmed in some other NT texts, he warns against emphasizing this in what he describes as a “one size fits all” manner (p. 39). So, a goodly part of Kirk’s book is consumed with contending, not just that the Synoptic Jesus is a human figure, but that the Synoptic Jesus in particular is solely human, and doesn’t also partake of divinity (at least as Kirk defines that).
Second, the agonistic tone of the book reflects what seems to be an embattled sense of the issues, as reflected in Kirk’s language in references (emphasis mine) to the “onslaught of ‘early high christology’ studies” (p. 12), and his concern to “stem the rushing tide of conversation about divine Christology and reclaim some ground for exploring the most important thing that the Synoptic Gospels tell us about Jesus: that he is some kind of human Christ” (p. 581). This rather combative language is a bit of a puzzle, as I recall no sense among those of us identified with an “early high Christology” emphasis that it works against recognizing Jesus as an authentic human figure. Instead, in my work, for instance, the key contested issues were whether, as Bousset claimed, the “Kyrios cult” arose in Diaspora settings or in an authentic Jewish setting (as I and others more recently hold), and whether treating Jesus as sharing in divine status developed slowly and late in the first century (as Casey & Dunn held) or much earlier, within the very first years of the Jesus movement (as I and others in the “early high christology” stance hold).
That Kirk has a larger theological project or emphasis is evident from his Preface onward, and more extensively in concluding comments on pp. 578-82. He contends that reading “the whole Bible diachronically” (and with a particular emphasis on the Genesis creation account of Adam as God’s “image” serving as a controlling notion) yields the overarching theological conviction stated variously at numerous points in the book: e.g., “the kingdom of God comes near not when God rules as such [by which he must mean in some direct and unmediated way], but when a human king, anointed and empowered by God’s spirit, exercises an authority on the earth that by rights belongs to God alone” (xi), and another statement, “Jesus is the Human One who exercises God’s authority on the earth as God intended for humanity to do at the beginning” (11). In his Conclusion, Kirk sketches briefly the larger dimensions of his theological stance, proposing it as virtually the basis for a wide-ranging biblical theology.
I do not engage Kirk’s stated theological programme here, however, instead confining my comments to a few matters that leave me puzzled or hesitant about (1) Kirk’s stated approach, (2) his handling of certain evidence, and (3) his representation of the alternatives against which he poses his own views. I must emphasize at the outset that through large portions of Kirk’s handling of second-temple Jewish texts and the Synoptics I find myself simply nodding in agreement. But it will serve better the ensuing discussion that the book will generate to highlight matters briefly on which I think that more discussion is needed.
As noted already, Kirk grants that what he calls “divine and pre-existence Christology is attested in other early Christian literature,” citing specifically GJohn, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1 (pp. 4, 16). Kirk admits also that Paul’s undisputed letters (written several decades earlier than the Synoptics) likely reflect such ideas, although Kirk claims that Paul does not assign much importance to them (p. 572, a somewhat debatable assertion). In his Introduction Kirk declares, thus, that his aim is simply to focus on the depiction of Jesus in the Synoptic narratives, but also Kirk effectively proposes that we read them in isolation from other early Christian texts and their portrayal of Jesus (p. 13). On the other hand, Kirk devotes 132 pages (the largest chapter) to biblical and second-temple Jewish texts, this chapter serving as the context and basis for his approach to the Synoptics. He urges that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels invite their readers “to interpret them in conversation with biblical precedents,” and Kirk proffers what he terms “a historically viable reading of the texts [which I take here to be the Synoptics] from within the first-century Greek-speaking Jewish world in which they were written” (p. 9).
Of course, I agree that the second-temple Jewish tradition is the matrix within which the Jesus-movement first erupted, and also that this tradition provided the crucial conceptual categories initially appropriated and adapted by adherents of the Jesus-movement in the earliest articulations of their faith. Moreover, I agree that the conceptual resources drawn upon included what I termed “chief agent” traditions in my 1988 book, one variant of which focused on exalted human figures of the sort that Kirk discuses.
But surely the more immediate context in which the Synoptics were composed, and the readership to whom they were directed, was the Jesus-movement itself, which was well into its second generation by the later decades of the first century (when these texts are typically dated). So, how is it methodologically sound virtually to bracket out the other and prior texts, beliefs, and devotional practices of the Jesus-movement in approaching the Synoptics? Kirk says that he aims “to read the text as it was meant to be read by the author, and/or as it was likely to be heard by the audience” (40-41). But one could ask pointedly whether anyone in the first-century setting really ever read the Synoptics in the way that Kirk proposes, effectively excluding all other indications of the place of Jesus in the traditions of the faith and devotional life of early Christian circles. It is, no doubt, an interesting literary project to try to do so, but does it comprise a genuinely historical exercise that might actually reflect either how the Synoptic authors expected their readers to approach their texts or how earliest readers likely read them?
Already in the early 50s of the first century CE, a couple of decades or more earlier than the Synoptics, the letters of Paul reflect, and indeed presuppose, beliefs in Jesus’ exalted and glorified status and a whole constellation of devotional practices in which Jesus was central. My point isn’t that the earliest readers of the Synoptics also must have read Paul’s letters (though that’s fully plausible), but instead that Paul’s letters suggest that a “high” view of Jesus as sharing somehow in divine status, and a corresponding “dyadic” worship practice as well, were pretty widely characteristic of various circles in the first-century Jesus-movement, Pauline circles and others. Certainly, I find no indication in the Synoptics that the emphasis on the earthly career of Jesus was promoted as a conflictual alternative over against the sort of Christological beliefs and devotional practices that we see in other first-century texts. In short, Kirk seems to pose an “exalted human” Jesus over against treating Jesus as also bearing a divine status and significance, but the Synoptic authors don’t seem to do so.
Handling Certain Evidence
I turn now to a few matters pertaining to Kirk’s handling of certain evidence. There is such a large body of textual evidence addressed in Kirk’s book that it is impossible for me here to do more than highlight a few matters for further discussion. Since he devotes so much space to the biblical and Jewish background, I turn to it first. One major issue that springs out to me is his repeated claim that in Jewish texts this or that exalted human receives “worship,” by which I take it that he means the same sort of cultic reverence as given to God. The point of his argument seems to be to argue against the contention that the programmatic inclusion of Jesus in early Christian devotional practice is novel and noteworthy, and that this practice suggests that Jesus occupies a status like God’s. But I think he exaggerates matters.
To take one example, it is really not clear that 1 Chronicles 29:20 will bear the weight of Kirk’s repeated claim that it reflects the cultic worship of the Judean king. Clearly, YHWH is the sole recipient of the prayers and sacrifice here. In this context the lonely reference to the assembly bowing their heads and prostrating themselves to God and to the king hardly amounts to evidence of some royal cult in which the king received worship jointly with God. And the honorific language in texts such the royal wedding laudation in Psalm 45 won’t make the case either.
There are also the several texts in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71) where the pagan rulers make obeisance to the august Elect One, and the righteous gather before him to worship God; but I don’t think that these texts really make the Elect One the recipient of anyone’s cultic worship. To be sure, Kirk is not alone in making what I regard as exaggerated claims about these texts. But I will simply ask whether scholars who claim that the Elect One receives worship (and not simply submission from conquered rulers and the elect) are actually reading into the Similitudes the kind of devotional stance that is clearly reflected in early Christian texts in an understandable but misjudged effort to give the latter some direct basis in ancient Jewish tradition. Put another way, if we did not approach the Similitudes with the aim of trying to account for the remarkable Jesus-devotion reflected in early Christian texts, but simply read them in the context of ancient Jewish tradition, would we see the Elect One as recipient of cultic worship along with God? I fear that there is a kind of interpretative back-flow in some claims about the Similitudes.
In any case, the Similitudes are imaginative scenes, dreams of some future time of divine victory, not reflections of the actual devotional practice of any second-temple Jewish group. Kirk thinks that difference unimportant. But to my mind, if we are historians of religion, and not simply comparing literary motifs, the actual historical appearance of the devotional pattern reflected (indeed, presumed as already common among believers) in earliest Christian texts is a genuinely novel and therefore remarkable historical development, a significant step-change in comparison with known worship practices of other second-temple Jewish groups. For there is no other group in Jewish tradition of the time in which an “idealized human” (e.g., prophet or messiah, or “Teacher of Righteousness”) had the centrality in belief and devotional practice that the exalted Jesus held in earliest circles of the Jesus-movement. I have specified the devotional practices in question in various publications over nearly thirty years now, and cannot here take time to reiterate them. Indeed, judged historically, I contend that the place of Jesus in earliest Christian worship practice is perhaps the most remarkable development in the first-century Jesus-movement, and in taking this view I echo a similar judgement by previous scholars including Johannes Weiss, Wilhelm Bousset, and Martin Hengel.
To turn now to the Synoptics, I repeat that Kirk is certainly correct that they present us with narratives of Jesus of Nazareth, locating him specifically in time, geography, religio-cultural and political context, and positing him as Messiah and the uniquely empowered and authorized human agent of the God of the OT. But I wonder if Kirk succeeds in his additional aim of denying in them practically any hint of other early Christian beliefs about Jesus’ high significance and status. Is the strong note of mystery about Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, for example, really only that his messianic vocation requires crucifixion and resurrection? Is the content of thee demonic knowledge of Jesus in Mark really only his messianic role? By the late first century, was the Christian acclamation “the son of God” only a messianic title? Is Jesus’ messianic status all that the author hints at in the various places where the question of what to make of Jesus is posed, such as the sea-miracles in 4:35-41 and 6:45-52? In Mark 6:14-16 and 8:27-30, the various judgements about Jesus as a prophet, or Elijah, or John the Baptist redivivus seem to make at least these various “idealized human” categories inadequate. And Jesus’ question in 12:35-37 about the Messiah as David’s lord suggests to me that even this “exalted human” category is somehow inadequate, at least as understood by “the scribes.”
As for the Gospel of Matthew, Kirk commendably admits that the christology of this text may be “poised to transcend the mold of idealized human figures and stake a claim to divinity” (p. 573). Nevertheless, as Kirk insists (and rightly), even in the climactic post-resurrection scene in 28:16-20, Matthew’s Jesus exercises an authority that is explicitly conferred upon him by God. Kirk’s insists that a genuinely divine christology must involve the claim of pre-existence, which I find debateable. In the Roman world, for example, human emperors could attain divinity upon their death without pre-existence. But, given Kirk’s position, I was puzzled that there was no discussion of Matthew 23:29-39, where Jesus first speaks as if it is he who has sent previous messengers to Israel, and then utters the famous lament over Jerusalem in which he appears to have been the (pre-existent) mother-hen who repeatedly sought to shelter her recalcitrant brood, an obvious figure of the OT history of Israel’s frequent disobedience.
Representation of Others
I mentioned earlier the agonistic tone of Kirk’s discussion, and this leads me now to some comments on his representations of those with whom he posits disagreements. These are mainly figures now associated with underscoring what is often referred to as “early high Christology,” among them, Richard Bauckham in particular and, although not as frequently an object of Kirk’s critique, myself. As well, Kirk engages Gathercole’s controversial thesis that the Synoptics allude to Jesus’ pre-existence, Richard Hays, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Kavin Rowe, and also (beyond the so-called “early high christology club”) Daniel Boyarin. I find Kirk’s critique valid on some matters. But I have to say that at some points I judge his characterization of the views that he opposes unhelpful exaggerations and distortions.
For example, note Kirk’s statement that the recent “resurgence of early high Christology” involves the notion that already in the NT we have beliefs in Jesus “as divine in what might fairly be called a proto-Chalcedonian sense” (pp.1-2). In a footnote to that statement he refers to me. Now, to speak for myself, I have no recollection of ever alluding to the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures of Christ, nor any sense of how my own work can be linked to it. So I have to say that I find Kirk’s statement a complete puzzle. For the historical questions that I have pursued for nearly thirty years should be clear enough: When and under what circumstances did adherents of the early Jesus-movement come to treat him as rightful recipient of cultic devotion? What factors influenced this, and what resources did they draw upon? How was this Jesus-devotion expressed and how did it develop, especially across roughly the first couple of centuries? Chalcedon doesn’t come into it.
Kirk states that Bauckham “looms most largely,” referring particularly to his claim that in early Christian texts Jesus is included within “the divine identity” (p. 17). This is another curiosity, given that Bauckham has scarcely published on the Synoptics. Bauckham and I are not always agreed in matters, and I see his work as (like Kirk’s) shaped more by theological categories than mine. But, again, I think that Kirk distorts matters by repeatedly claiming that Bauckham’s view amounts to ascribing to Jesus an “ontological” unity with God (e.g. p. 23). For Bauckham explicitly indicates that his concept of “divine identity” consists in key actions or roles that he urges God alone plays in biblical/Jewish tradition: in particular, the creation of all things and sovereignty over all things.
Actually, Kirk himself appears to operate with the anachronistic categories that he attributes to the work of others. For example, at a number of points, it seems to me that Kirk’s argument is essentially that the Synoptic Gospels don’t exhibit the sort of “ontological” Christological categories of Nicaea; they don’t, for example, describe the historical figure of Jesus as sharing in God’s ousia (e.g., 378). Fair enough, and insofar as some scholars appear to claim otherwise, I agree with Kirk that they’re mistaken, or at least are anachronistic in their approach. But, ironically, it appears that nothing less than Nicene-like “ontological” statements would satisfy Kirk as comprising a genuinely “divine” Christological claim. And Kirk makes the absence of such specific “ontological” statements in Gospels evidence that the authors didn’t harbour any view of Jesus as divine.
Of course, the Synoptics present a genuinely human figure. This is explicitly true even of the Gospel of John as well, which emphasizes Jesus’ dependence on God and also Jesus’ genuine mortality (e.g., 5:30; 6:37-40). And, of course, the Evangelists didn’t face the issues that arose in the Christological controversies of the 3rd-5th centuries, or have to hand the conceptual categories of that time. But, surely, it is better simply to try to determine whether the christological claims and devotional practices in early Christian texts are essentially versions of those also attested for other figures in second-temple Jewish tradition (as Kirk appears to hold), or whether early Christian texts present us with a significant development and innovation in that historical context. And if they do, as I think is the case, we then have to judge how to characterize matters, and in terms appropriate to that context.
For example, I propose that the discourse about God and Jesus in the NT is largely comprised of transactional and relational statements. E.g., Jesus is sent forth, acclaimed, offered up, raised, exalted and glorified by God. Jesus is God’s unique Son, Image, and Word, and his redemptive death and resurrection accomplishes God’s purposes and redeems people for God. But the abundant centrality of Jesus in NT discourse about God and in how God is to be worshipped is also striking, indeed, unique in that historical context. The effect of this, as I have contended in my 2010 book, God in New Testament Theology, is that in NT texts collectively discourse about “God” seems to require reference to Jesus as well, and the worship of God requires the inclusion of Jesus as its basis, Jesus the one through whom it is now valid, and even the rightful co-recipient. That is, in NT texts Jesus is integral to beliefs about, and the worship of, God. That isn’t expressed in the “ontological” categories of later Christological discourse, but it does seem to me to comprise a significant (I judge unique) historical mutation in Jewish divine-agent traditions.
I repeat that Kirk is correct to emphasize that the Synoptics are primarily narratives of the human Jesus. Certainly, they present Jesus as attested, empowered and authorized by God, and then also uniquely validated through Jesus’ resurrection. The authors may well have intended to ensure that the Kyrios of early Christian belief and devotion should also be seen as the Jewish prophet from Galilee. But I also repeat that I see no indication that the authors of these texts intended to counterpose their narratives of the earthly Jesus over against the exalted claims about him that we know had been circulating widely for decades in the Jesus-movement. The contrarian tone of Kirk’s book doesn’t seem to me to correspond to the tone of the Synoptics. Moreover, there are some problems in Kirk’s approach to the Synoptics, his interpretation of some key evidence, and in his representation of those he purports to disagree with that I think mar this ambitious and stimulating work.
 See my own discussion of “Jesus Books” (a.k.a. gospels) in Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 239-347, esp. 283-346. I note that one shared feature of the Synoptics is their emphasis on Jesus as a real historical figure of 6specific time and place, and the “bios” shape of their narratives, in which they variously present Jesus as role model, authoritative teacher, and redemptive sufferer.
 L. W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia/London: Fortress/SCM, 1988; 2nd ed., Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998; 3rd ed. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).
 The methodological questions I pose are who read the Synoptics in the first instances and what beliefs and practices they brought, and were expected by the authors to bring, to that exercise. Toward an answer to these questions, it is certainly apparent that from perhaps the earliest moments the Synoptics circulated among, and were read appreciatively by, Christians who believed that Jesus shares divine glory and is worthy of cultic devotion, and yet also found these narratives of the man Jesus deeply meaningful as complementing their picture of him. This seems clear from the subsequent reception of these texts among such circles, which led to their being included in an early four-fold Gospel collection and then in the emergent NT. Moreover, so far as we can tell, these earliest readers were unaware of a conflict or tension between the picture of Jesus in the Synoptics and what else they believed about him.
 Johannes Weiss described the early emergence of cultic devotion to Jesus as “the most significant step of all in the history of the origins of Christianity”: Earliest Christianity (ET; New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 1:37. Wilhelm Bousset (Kyrios Christos [1913, 1921; ET, 1970) seems to have taken a similar view, but he contended that cultic reverence of Jesus first emerged in diaspora settings such as Antioch and/or Damascus, whereas I posit that its origin lies in Judean circles of the Jesus-movement such as the Jerusalem church. For Hengel’s view, see, e.g., “Christology and New Testament Chronology: A Problem in the History of Earliest Christianity,” Between Jesus and Paul (London: SCM, 1983), 30-47.
 Scholars linked to the emphasis on “early high christology” are also sometimes identified with reference to Martin Hengel’s description of “a new religionsgeschichtliche Schule,” a phrase used in his endorsement that appeared on the back cover of the first edition of my book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988). See my discussion of the term in L.W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 11-18.
 I fail to see how any of this is “proto-Chalcedonian.” And it is worth noting that the only putative justification that Kirk offers for his curious claim is my use of the term “binitarian” to describe the devotional pattern of earliest Christian circles (p. 2 n.2). To my knowledge, however, “binitarian” isn’t particularly a term in Chalcedonian discourse (or in Nicene discourse for that matter), and more importantly from my earliest publications onward I have repeatedly stressed that I used it simply is a shorthand designation to capture the peculiar way that God and Jesus are both distinguished and also uniquely and inextricably linked in the beliefs and devotional practice of early Christianity, and linked in a “shaped” dyad, Jesus the unique agent of God, not vice versa. Indeed, in more recent publications I’ve adopted the term “dyadic” in place of “binitarian,” precisely because of the sort of curious misconstrual of my use of the latter term that Kirk seems to perpetuate.
 E.g., Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), 7-13. On the other hand, some of Bauckham’s rhetoric can be taken as asserting an ontological claim, as in references to Jesus as the God of Israel. But I think that these must be read taking account of how he nuances issues.
 Larry W. Hurtado, God in New Testament Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010).