A Man Attested by God

The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels

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J. R. Daniel Kirk
  • Eerdmans
    , September
     600 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Employing the rubric that we understand enigmatic figures based on similar figures from history and literature, J.R. Daniel Kirk’s A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels seeks to propose a new paradigm for understanding the human Jesus in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts. Kirk is anxious to address the recent resurgence among some biblical scholars of an early high/“divine” christology they detect in their reading of the Synoptic Gospels. While Kirk does not seek to undermine the later high christological developments of the tradition, he does sense that reading the Synoptics through the lens of an early divine christology blunts the predominant portrayal of the human Jesus in these three gospels. To address this issue, Kirk investigates similar “idealized human figures” in Jewish biblical and post-biblical literature and proposes to use an idealized human figure paradigm as a matrix for understanding the characterizations of the Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. He refers to this as “high human christology.”

This substantive and carefully researched book begins with a thought experiment: “What if we were to read the Synoptic Gospels themselves as bearing consistent witness to the fact that Jesus is a particular kind of human being, and to ask all along, what sort of man are we seeing in these texts?” (1) Kirk’s first chapter in this reimagining exercise is to investigate Jewish biblical and post-biblical literature for evidence of this proposed idealized human figure paradigm. The first chapter reveals a plethora of idealized human figures beginning with Adam, created as the image of God and commissioned both to share God’s creative power through procreation and to rule the created order; to Moses, both prophet and king, who even acts “as God” to the pharaoh and Aaron; to the prophets (Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel); and to the kings of Israel, a mixed bunch indeed, yet who sit on God’s throne, rule as God’s representative, and on a couple of occasions, receive worship along with God. Oh, and even Israel qualifies as idealized human figure, called to embody God’s just rule and become a light to the nations.

Kirk stresses that these idealized human figures are not divine, preexistent, or surreptitious angels masquerading in human form. Instead, these are real humans sharing the common but not monolithic characteristic of representing God on earth through either their rule or by sharing in God’s powers. Kirk carefully describes this idealized human figure as a paradigm that allows him to understand varied christological characterizations without the flattening of the diverse portrayals of the human Jesus in the Synoptics, and simultaneously allowing him to test the idealized human paradigm and its variegated expressions in these gospels. The idealized human figure(s) therefore comes to be defined as non-preexistent, non-angelic human being(s) that either represent God to the created world or the created world to God in the past, present, or expected future. God still rules the cosmos but empowers certain idealized human(s) to represent God and rule on earth as viceregent.

Throughout the remainder of the book, Kirk studies the diverse characterizations of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels and tests whether the features of the idealized human figure from previous biblical literature is reflected in the Synoptic portrayals of Jesus. The succeeding chapters demonstrate the ways that the Synoptic Gospels develop and characterize Jesus with the help of the idealized human figure. Each evangelist manifests their own unique use of this idealized human paradigm. Chapter 2 investigates the “Son of God” title used of other ideal human figures to capture and characterize the relationship between God and human beings. Chapter 3 examines the term by which Jesus refers to himself in the Synoptics, “Son of Man.” The secret hidden in plain sight in the Synoptics is that the very human figure of the long-expected messiah, an idealized human who would sit on David’s throne, needs to suffer, and die and be raised before being enthroned, very much foreshadowed in the Son of Man idealized human figure in Daniel 7. Each of the Synoptic Gospels in their own unique way demonstrate that the messiah attains his enthronement and glorification through the cross. The suffering messiah as an idealized human figure is supplemented by Jesus telling his disciples that if they wish to follow him, they too must take up their cross. In chapter 4, Kirk examines the works of power attributed to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels using Peter’s speech in Acts 2, from which he borrows the title of his book: ”Jesus the Nazorean was a man attested to you by God with mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked through him in your midst, as you yourselves know" (Acts 2:22).  Peter explains to the Pentecost crowd that God is testifying through Jesus in his various deeds of power. The final chapter seeks to examine how the three evangelists use the scripture as they construct their portrayals of Jesus

This is in many ways a magisterial work, carefully taking up and redirecting biblical and christological arguments from the past and present and reconfiguring them adroitly with the idealized human paradigm. The book is clearly organized, replete with footnotes and extensive commentary, as well as a treasure trove of applicable bibliography. A tremendous amount of work, insight, and reimagining forms the backbone of this text which embodies both a well-crafted argument and a glossary of texts, carefully interpreted, making it an indispensable resource. For those coming to this text looking for a new theory of Christian origins, or a comprehensive christology, or even a commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, they will be greatly disappointed because this is not Kirk’s purpose. His purpose is to scrutinize Jewish scripture to identify idealized human figures and then examine how this would be a way first century evangelists and readers would understand the human Jesus narrated in the Synoptic Gospels and his uniqueness. Such a study opens a portal that raises fertile areas for future investigation as Jesus and his significance continues to challenge each age.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph A. Morris is Lecturer in the Religious Studies Department at Santa Clara University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J. R. Daniel Kirk holds a PhD in New Testament from Duke University and has taught at North Carolina State University, St. Joseph’s University, Eastern College, and Fuller Theological Seminary. His previous books include Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? and Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God.


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