So you want to learn about the Historical Jesus?

Just what is the "historical" Jesus? Some take it to mean the actual Jesus of history--assuming that, at most, the gospels give us an incomplete picture of the real man. Some take it to mean the Jesus that can be proven by history. Some make no distinction between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the New Testament. How to sort through all of this?

One good place to start is with a book by Darrell Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus.

Bock is an accomplished conservative New Testament scholar. In Studying the Historical Jesus, he offers an accessible introduction to the study of the "Historical" Jesus. If you have simply read your New Testament your entire life and are now curious about its background, origins, and the history behind it, this book delivers. Or, if you have had little exposure to the New Testament and wonder what it is all about, historically speaking, this book delivers.

The Introduction opens with brief discussions of nonscriptural sources relevant to the study of the historical Jesus, including the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, and Josephus. Except for the Old Testament and perhaps Josephus, most novices to the subject are not familiar with these writings. Yet they shed considerable light on early Christianity and how we understand the New Testament. Each of the sections devoted to these writings is only a few paragraphs long but explains well the source and its relevance to studying Jesus. The main event of the Introduction, however, is his run down on each of the Canonical Gospels. Bock delivers solid discussions of each, including their structure, unique emphasis, authorship, and date. Not surprisingly, Bock's conclusions are mostly traditional.

Bock also delivers a chapter on the Nonbiblical evidence for Jesus, ably covering the "usual suspects" of Josephus, Thallus, Tacitus, and company. Again, he gives enough information to get you started without getting bogged down. Next there is an informative discussion about the chronology of Jesus' life. Bock nondogmatically discusses the various alternatives about when Jesus was born, how long his ministry was, and the date of his death. Thereafter, Bock delivers a helpful general history of the Greek and Roman empires, and then a more focused discussion on the geography, population, and culture of first century Palestine. Though some may find it a bit dry, this background is essential for a fuller understanding of the New Testament.

In Part 2 of his book, Bock moves into a more argumentative tone as he discusses and criticizes the search for the "historical Jesus." There is a helpful history highlighting the key players and their theories in the three "quests" for the historical Jesus. Bock then summarizes five systemic problems in historical Jesus research, including an undue skepticism of narratives or sayings that are similar to Old Testament narratives and sayings, and inadequate historical attention being given to Luke's special material, Matthew's special material, and the Gospel of John. The criticisms are well taken and receive insufficient consideration in most New Testament research. Getting a taste of them from Bock will equip the reader with an appropriate level of skepticism about modern New Testament scholarship. I am not one who rejects it out of hand. Indeed, there is much to learn. But modern scholarship in this area, like any other, is fallible and full of biases, agenda, and prejudices.

Next, Bock devotes chapters to several methods of historical inquiry as applied to the New Testament: Historical Criticism, Source Criticism, Form Criticism, Redaction Criticism, Tradition Criticism, and Narrative Criticism and Gospel Genre. The discussions are well done, defining each as well as emphasizing the strengths and weaknesses inherent to each disciple. Bock is no reactionary. He sees a role for each in researching and understanding the New Testament and Jesus, but appropriately chides much modern "historical Jesus" studies as overly skeptical.

In sum, Bock has delivered an excellent resource for those interested in looking into the unfamiliar ground of New Testament criticism or studying the "historical" Jesus. Indeed, this would be one of the first books I would recommend to any such person.


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