DARRELL L. BOCK’S STUDYING THE HISTORICAL JESUS: A REVIEW

Who is Darrel L. Bock?

“Darrell Bock is research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. In addition to many articles and scholarly monographs, he has written a two-volume commentary on the Gospel of Luke for the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.”[1]  He holds a ThM from the institution at which he currently teaches as well as a PhD from the University of Aberdeen.  He is a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society. [2]  He published Studying the Historical Jesus: a Guide to Sources and Methods (the book) in 2002.  As a professor at an inerrantist institution[3], Bock writes from the perspective of a conservative biblical scholar.

Historical Jesus 101

The book serves as a “basic introduction”[4] to the background and critical study of the Gospels.  This introduction is designed to whet the appetite of those students of the Bible who are interested in further, independent study of the Historical Jesus.  Given that the book is intended as a primer for study, a Historical Jesus 101 text as it were, it was written in an intentionally non-technical manner.  Nevertheless, the book is fairly considered a work of scholarship.  Bock’s sources include numerous works of antiquity as well as a variety of modern commentaries.  At the book’s outset, Bock contends that the authors of the biblical gospels “did not write for specific churches they knew or knew about”[5] but rather for any and every church to which their gospels might circulate.  Yet, though the gospels were written as “open” documents, the evangelists should be understood within the framework of their historical and cultural contexts.  Modern Christians, when reading the gospels, do well to consider the times in which the evangelists wrote as well as how their immediate audiences would have understood the unique themes of each of the four biblical gospels.  Despite the differences in these themes, Bock concludes that all four biblical gospels share a primary focus in that they “present Jesus as a messianic claimant and uniquely sent Son of God who challenged the Jewish leadership while offering deliverance to any who would embrace him and his message.”[6]

Context and Methodology

The book is divided into two parts, the first of which lays the foundation for the second.  Part 1 presents Jesus in his cultural context.  Part 2 examines methods for studying the gospels.  Part 1 includes a chronology of Jesus’ life which attempts to date his birth and death.  Logically, such a chronology belongs at the beginning of a historical Jesus monograph. However, Part 1 of the book begins by presenting extra biblical evidence that Jesus even existed at all.  Bock begins Part 1 in this way because of the unfortunate tendency of some skeptics to assert that the evidence for Jesus outside of the Bible is “obscure and trivial”[7] Citing ancient accounts from Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Josephus as well early Christian writers; Bock demonstrates that the existence of Jesus is very well attested to in antiquity. This is so despite the fact that Jesus was not a major figure in broader Roman society during his earthly lifetime. After examining Jesus’ life, Bock explores antiquity itself.

Jesus was a Jew from the land of Israel; however his Israel was not the Israel of the Old Testament.  His culture was that of postexilic second temple Judaism, a Judaism which existed in a land that was “ruled by Rome and surrounded by a Greco-Roman presence.”[8]  The earthly life of Jesus itself can be dated by the reigns of Roman prefects and Herodian tetrarchs.  Understanding the culture of Jesus, then, involves understanding the history that brought these individuals to power.  It also involves examining the influence that pagan rulers exerted on Jewish authorities.  As a result of its long period under pagan rule, Israel had “to choose between faithfulness and prosperity, purity and access to power. Eventually, it would be forced to decide between submission to Gentiles and allegiance to God.”[9]  The book surveys the history of Israel from the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C to the time of Jesus in the 1st century AD.  During that period, the Jews managed to gain independence for a short time but it was effectively lost by the time Jesus’ birth.

The Jews of Jesus’ day were a mixed bag.  Some sought to cooperate with their pagan overlords while others longed to overthrow them.  It’s not surprising , then, that the arrival of the Messiah would elicit different responses depending on one’s acceptance of Roman rule (this is chillingly illustrated by Herod the Great’s, whose Judaism was more nominal than ethnic or spiritual, slaughter of the innocents as recorded in Matthew 2:12-23).  Messianic hope is one of six themes that Bock presents as key to understanding the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day; the others are Sabbath, purity, temple, feasts, and calendar.  In addition to these themes, Bock highlights three fundamental aspects of second temple Jewish belief and identity; monotheism-election, covenant-land, and circumcision.  These themes and aspects are present in the gospels and methods for studying the gospels are bound to consider them.

Methods of criticism for studying the gospels seem to be as numerous as 1st century Jewish political concerns.  Bock deals with six of these methods in Part 2 of the book, in which he also provides an additional historical survey.  This survey is not additional history of the land of Israel but rather the history of Historical Jesus scholarship itself.  Bock summarizes three separate “quests” for the historical Jesus.  The first quest was undertaken by rationalistic skeptics who sought to separate the religious dogma that surrounded Jesus from his historical exploits.  This quest, which began in 1774 and lasted until roughly the beginning of the twentieth century, yield little insight in the Jesus of history.  “Nothing showed this more than the work of Rudolf Bultmann (1884– 1976), who believed that we could know little about Jesus other than that he lived.”[10]  The second quest was begun in the 1950s by students of Bultman who argued that his conclusions about the historical Jesus were “too overdrawn”.[11]  Unfortunately, the second quest seems to err too far in the opposite direction of Bultman.  With their minds a little too open, second questers tend to come to downright irrational conclusions.  For example, in the second quest, the same weight is given to later noncanonical texts such as The Gospel of Thomas as is given to earlier canonical texts.  Second questers end up “knowing” the same things about Jesus that Gnostic authors didn’t know.  A third, more recent, quest for the historical Jesus seems more balanced than the first two.  “In general, those who participate in the third quest have tended to see far more historicity in the Gospels than either of the previous quests…Many conservative and moderate evangelical scholars are contributing to this work with specialized monographs and articles on aspects of Jesus’ life.”[12]  The third quest especially focuses on Jesus’ Jewish background and, in doing so, provides valuable insight into how he interacted with his own culture.

The bulk of Part 2 is dedicated to presenting six types of biblical criticism that can be applied to the study of the gospels (or the biblical text in general).  These six types are: historical criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, traditional criticism, and narrative (Genre) criticism.  Each type of criticism has its advantages and drawbacks.  For example, historical criticism can help students of the Bible understand the cultural and political backdrop against which biblical events played out.  At the same time, historical criticism “deals with probabilities and possibilities based on the attempt to explain coherently the various kinds of data it treats.”[13]  The gospel accounts are replete with miracles which are considered historical by Christians who believe these accounts to be divinely inspired.  This throws a monkey-wrench into the works of the historian who to opines on historicity by calculating probabilities.  One’s level of dogmatic dedication to orthodox Christianity or lack thereof will ultimately determine what kind of use he makes out of any of the types of criticism Bock includes in the book.  All of these types, however, seem to have valuable uses and are worthy of study.

A Worthwhile Study

Its historical surveys alone make this book worth a read.  Even those Christians who aren’t interested in what they might consider “liberal” critical traditions can appreciate the interesting history of postexilic Judaism that Bock packs into this short work.  Christian apologists can make good use of Bock’s defense of Jesus’ historical existence when dealing with Jesus mythers.  Apologists who engage with more thoughtful skeptics can further benefit from studying Bock’s explanations of critical methods.  Any Christian who wants to be a better theologian would do well to read this book and study its bibliographical resources further.  The book is by no means an exhaustive study of the historical Jesus but that is not what it claims to be.  It is fine introduction to the subject matter being presented and would make a worthwhile addition to the library of any Christian who wants to learn more about his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bock, Darrell L. Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods . Kindle Edition. Baker Publishing Group.

Dallas Theological Seminary. “Darrell L. Bock.” DTS. 2017. http://www.dts.edu/about/faculty/dbock/ (accessed February 2, 2017).

—. “DTS Doctrinal Statement.” DTS. 2017. http://www.dts.edu/about/campuses/chinese/doctrinalstatement/ (accessed February 17, 2017).

 

[1] Bock, Darrell L. Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods . Kindle Edition. Baker Publishing Group. (Kindle Locations 4410-4412)

[2] Dallas Theological Seminary. “Darrell L. Bock.” DTS. 2017. http://www.dts.edu/about/faculty/dbock/ (accessed February 2, 2017).

[3] Dallas Theological Seminary. “DTS Doctrinal Statement.” DTS. 2017. http://www.dts.edu/about/campuses/chinese/doctrinalstatement/ (accessed February 17, 2017).

[4] Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods . (Kindle Locations 68-69)

[5] Ibid (Kindle Location 137)

[6]  Ibid (Kindle Locations 627-628)

[7] Ibid (Kindle Location 1166)

[8]  Ibid (Kindle Locations 821-822)

[9] Ibid (Kindle Locations 1707-1708)

[10] Ibid (Kindle Locations 2857-2858)

[11] (Kindle Location 2875)

[12] (Kindle Locations 2903-2916)

[13] (Kindle Locations 3099-3100)

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