This published version of Michael Bird’s dissertation, done at the University of Queensland down under, asks the question: to what extent did the views of the historical Jesus provide the impetus for the later Gentile mission? The book is not concerned with what Jesus said after the resurrection, in the obvious great commission, but with what Jesus did prior to the cross that might have set patterns for the theory and praxis of the mission to the Gentiles carried out by his followers.
Bird is challenging the prominent position put forward by Joachim Jeremias, and contributing to work done by the likes of G. B. Caird, N. T. Wright, and Eckhard Schnabel. The standard view, which Bird convincingly improves upon, holds that Jesus exhibited no hope for the Gentiles beyond a general expectation that they would be saved at the eschaton. Against this, Bird argues that “Jesus’ intention was to renew and restore Israel, so that a restored Israel would extend God’s salvation to the world” (3). Because Jesus understood himself and his followers as replacing the temple and taking on the role of being a light to the nations, “a Gentile mission is implied in the aims and intentions of Jesus and was pursued in a transformed context by members of the early Christian movement” (3).
Bird advances his case in Chapter 2 by showing that Jesus’ understanding of Jewish restoration eschatology saw the Gentiles being saved as a sequel to the restoration of Israel. Chapter 3 then explains that neither the negative remarks Jesus makes about Gentiles (calling them “dogs”) nor Jesus’ restriction of his ministry to Israel are in conflict with this understanding of how and when the Gentiles would be included. Chapters 4 and 5 advance the argument by presenting “sayings material” and “narrative traditions” that lead to Bird’s understanding. Chapter 6 concludes the argument by contending that the disciples appropriate the role of Israel and the temple as “light to the nations.” Bird thus helpfully establishes that the mission of the early church flows naturally out of Jesus’ own mission prior to the resurrection.
This volume is commendable for its comprehensive interaction with both scholarship on the question and the relevant ancient sources. The book’s real contribution comes in the plausible explanation of how Jesus understood his role and mission developing naturally out of his understanding of the Old Testament, with the early church then carrying the program forward.
Mike Bird is a prolific and clever writer, whose prose is only encumbered by the restrictions of the guild, which makes it necessary for him to enter into less than interesting discussion of the authenticity of this or that statement. Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission, however, is a book whose thesis transcends the limitations of the disputed field of historical Jesus studies. That is to say, even those who think that discussions of authenticity are unnecessary will find Bird’s thesis stimulating and helpful. This is an important book with an engaging and convincing argument, and it is unfortunate that its price makes its availability limited.