Review of ‘Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide To Sources and Methods’

Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide To Sources and Methods
Darrell L. Bock. Baker Academic, 2002; 230 pages.

Darrell Bock, Research Professor in New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, has distinguished himself as a preeminent scholar in his field, especially with his two-volume commentary on Luke (BECNT, 1994-96). His Studying the Historical Jesus is a primer for the beginning student of the Gospels and Historical Jesus studies in general.

The substantial introductory portion discusses the literary sources of our knowledge of Jesus. Bock situates the Gospels within their relevant cultural context, and then moves to survey both the Biblical and extra-biblical (e.g., Apocrypha and Josephus) sources that contribute to our understanding of Judaism. This provides a succinct glimpse into the early reaction to Christ and the movement that bears his name. Bock allots considerable space to summarizing the Gospels, paying particular attention to their themes, as well as briefly discussing their inter-textual relationships and dates (cf. Rethinking the Synoptic Problem, David Black & David Beck, eds., Baker, 2001). It is worth noting that the majority of these sources are Jewish in nature, a crucial fact that is (unfortunately) often dismissed by many Jesus scholars.

The remainder of the book is divided into two major parts. The first explores “Jesus in His cultural context.” Bock surveys the significant extra-biblical literary sources that establish the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. He concludes that such sources not only establish Jesus’ existence, but also describe the early growth of the Christian movement and corroborate many details of the Gospels. He then offers a chronology of Jesus’ life before closing the section with a discussion of the political and socio-cultural history surrounding it. “To understand Jesus and the Gospels, one must understand the complexity of Judaism in the time of Jesus” (p. 80). As Craig Blomberg has observed, “many participants in the Quest for the Historical Jesus fail to recognize Jesus in his Jewish milieu, thus positing that he “resembles an itinerant Greco-Roman philosopher, a Cynic sage, or an Oriental guru” (“Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?” in Jesus Under Fire, Michael Wilkins & J P Moreland, eds., Zondervan, 1995). It is difficult for us to appreciate this complexity given our own American context. Israel underwent drastic changes from events such as the Babylonian captivity to Roman rule. These changes deeply affected the Jewish people, especially given their position as God’s chosen people. As Bock notes, “Jesus was born into such a chaotic sociopolitical climate” (p. 101).

The second major section discusses “Methods for Studying the Gospels.” Here Bock summarizes the three Quests for the Historical Jesus, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each. He identifies himself (as well as numerous other contemporary evangelical scholars) as a participant in the Third Quest. He then surveys various approaches to the task of Textual Criticism, including historical, source, form, redaction, and tradition criticism. Finally there is a chapter on the form and genre of the Gospels. In order to correctly interpret the Gospels, one must identify them as narrative. Skeptics (and many Christians) frequently fail to recognize this fact, and thus arrive at skewed conclusions concerning Jesus. We must note that the evangelists composed the Gospels intentionally, writing as historically reliable biographers.

We should emphasize one motif that Bock traces throughout his study: that “of hope and promise that look to a day when God’s justice will be fully realized through an age, a central figure of peace, and a deliverance he will one day bring” (p. 16). Jesus did not only provide messianic hope for the Jews of his day, he offers hope for our lost world today. “These themes,” Bock states, “are what make Jesus’ message so Jewish in its character” (p. 17).
As its title indicates, this book is a guide. Its purpose is not to exhaust every aspect of the relevant discussions, but rather to introduce the foundation of the conversation. Insofar as the book is intended to inform the beginning student of the Gospels, it adequately meets its goal. The information is presented succinctly and clearly. There is also ample bibliographic material to satisfy the involved reader. In my opinion this volume offers the best evangelical introduction to Gospel studies currently available. I highly recommend it to Christians as a valuable tool for serving Christ.

The discussions found in Studying the Historical Jesus continue in greater depth in its sister volume, Jesus According to Scripture. Perhaps this volume merely touches on things you already know, such as that Jesus existed historically as a person in Nazareth, or that Josephus says something about Jesus in his Testimonium Flavianum. However, as you engage in apologetics with the educated of the world, you will be asked to prove your assertions—without the use of your Bible or notes. Reading this text will help you to be prepared. Today more than ever the Church needs well-informed Christians. Studying the Historical Jesus beckons the reader to pursue the Historical Jesus. By doing so, you will discover that “there is certainly more that one way to read these texts, a way, perhaps, that is far less skeptical than one often hears about on university campuses, in religion courses, or in the media” (p. 215).

This review was originally published in Areopagus Journal 6/1 (January-February 2006): 29-30.

R. Keith Loftin

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