It’s a rare book that can make the Synoptic Problem interesting or genuinely enliven Second Century evidence for the emergence of the Four Gospel collection, but that’s exactly what Michael Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord does. Despite being a proud owner of Allen Barr’s amazing chart of Synoptic relationships, and having a proclivity for KenKen puzzles, I had given up on the “Synoptic Problem” years ago. But who knew that the “Synoptic Problem” could actually prove to be interesting? That’s only part of what Bird achieves with his mix of insight, industry, insomnia, and inventiveness.
The Gospel of the Lord is an exercise in what used to be uninformatively called “Introduction” but it is not a dusty catalogue of opinions on dates, locations, texts and the like. Bird has an uncanny ability to marshal evidence, sum up arguments, and yet take his readers with him. He’s not afraid to express his opinion — sometimes going out on a limb as far as the scholarly guild goes, and occasionally not conforming to a straightjacket of conservative opinion either. His book is an argument with a fair dash of chutzpah, but never eccentric. Even though it started life as a series of essays these have been so worked over that they are thoroughly up to date and integrated with one another.
Bird’s book does two things brilliantly — it is a current, comprehensive, clear case for the primary place of the four Gospels in historical Jesus research, and it is an urgent plea for evangelicals in particular to re-engage in depth with historical Jesus research. Bird ponders what can we know about the Jesus of history? What happened in the generation or so between Jesus’ earthly career and the writing of the first Gospel? What use did the writers of the Gospels make of each other’s work? What kind of books are the Gospels if you put them into their historical context? Why did all four Gospels and only the four Gospels emerge as the collection of authoritative lives of Jesus in the early church?
Who should read this book? Anyone who has a shred of interest in historical Jesus research. If you are anything like me and haven’t read enough serious literature on the Gospels since leaving Bible college it’s a superb re-introduction. It’s not a work of apologetics per se, and I would think that something like Blomberg’s Historical Reliability of the Gospels is the first stop. However, a careful reading of Bird’s volume would be a great help to those who find they need to answer historical questions about how the Gospels were written, transmitted, and received. While it is not a work of apologetics, it’s a fund of evidence and argument for the reliability of the Gospels as sources for the Jesus of history.