Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods

By Darrell L. Bock
Grand Rapids : Baker (2002). 230 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Kelly Osborne
15.1 (Spring 2004) : 109-111

This is the first volume in a two-part study on Jesus by a Dallas Theological Seminary Research Professor of New Testament Studies. As the title announces, Professor Bock intends to provide “the beginning student of the Gospels” with an introduction to the study of the historical figure of Jesus that is “brief enough for students to digest,” but with “enough guidance . . . to encourage further independent study” (9). He emphasizes that his aim is not to be “technical,” but to furnish “a primer” so that his intended audience will be able to “dig deeper” into the Gospel writings.

The book is important for two reasons. First, it illustrates the recent trend in evangelical scholarship on the Synoptic Gospels. Second, because the book is published by a conservative evangelical publisher and the author teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary, it may have a wide readership among evangelicals. The ideas presented in the book will therefore likely have an influence far beyond the walls of the seminary classroom or the individual reader who purchases it at a bookstore.

To accomplish his stated purpose, Bock begins with an introductory chapter (13-41) in which he discusses sources with the most direct bearing on a knowledge of Jesus, namely, biblical documents, Apocrypha, OT Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo and Josephus, as well as Jewish sources postdating the first century A.D. He divides the rest of the book into two sections. In the remainder of Part 1, Bock appears to have accomplished his purpose fairly well through four chapters that survey non-biblical literary sources for the life and background of Jesus (1), discuss the chronology of Jesus’ life and death (2), succinctly summarize the complicated political history of the intertestamental period (3), and examine the cultural background of the land and people of Palestine in the first century A.D. (4).

Part 2, “Methods for Studying the Gospels,” consists of a chapter on the “Three Quests” for the historical Jesus (5), followed by one each on Historical (6), Source (7), Form (8), Redaction (9), and Tradition Criticisms (10). Chapter 11 on Narrative Criticism and Gospel Genre rounds out Part 2. In addition to a Selected Bibliography (217-20), Subject and Scripture indexes (221-30) complete the book. It is this second part of the book that should give cause for concern to anyone who holds to the inerrancy of Scripture. On the positive side, Bock gives a brief but reasonable overview of the “history of the study of the historical Jesus” (an awkward phrase) in chapter 5, including a critique of “skeptical treatments of Jesus” (150-52). He sees his own work as being part of the Third Quest for the historical Jesus (152). In his overviews of various methodologies, Bock criticizes what he sees as weaknesses in Historical (158-62), Form (182-85), Redaction (192-93) and Tradition Criticism (202-3).

On the negative side, Bock believes that he can use critical methodologies, minus their skeptical elements, and still hold to an inerrant Scripture. With Source Criticism, for example, he rejects the idea that the Synoptics are independent narratives originating from eyewitness testimony (172) in favor of Marcan priority and the existence of hypothetical Q (173-78). He skirts around the major problem for this view, namely, that there is no credible external evidence for anything other than Matthaean priority in the composition of the Gospels (165-67). Nor is there any evidence in the text of the De Concensu Evangelistarum to show that Augustine of Hippo believed in a literary dependence relationship between the Synoptics, especially in anything remotely like the form in which it is held by most moderns. At the very most, Augustine is saying that the later Gospel writers were aware of what their colleagues had written earlier (De Conc. Evangel., 1.2.4). Bock further maintains that conservative scholars hold literary dependence views of the Synoptics “without any desire to deny or challenge the inspiration of the text” (179). But without any intent to do so, it is still possible to deny in a de facto manner the inerrancy of Scripture. Unintended consequences can be just as harmful as, or even more so than, intended ones. One need search no further than Genesis 3 to see this, but I would refer the reader to chapters 8-10 of R. L. Thomas and F. D. Farnell’s (eds.) The Jesus Crisis (Kregel, 1998) to see some of the (surely unintended) consequences when evangelical scholars adopt critical methodologies in Gospel studies.

Bock’s discussion of Form Criticism (185-87) illustrates the dilemma faced by evangelical practitioners of critical methodology. By eliminating the antisupernatural biases of the method as practiced by most Form critics, he is left with little more than nomenclature for certain types of incidents or sayings in the Synoptic accounts. That seems rather pointless, especially since wide disagreement exists among Form critics as to classification of form s. If, on the other hand, he were to use the method whole-heartedly, he would be forced to deny the historicity of portions of Gospel narratives.

In his treatment of Redaction Criticism, Bock examines several examples of how the method works. In one, he deals with Jesus’ baptism, where Matthew (3:17) records the voice from heaven as saying “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” while Mark (1:11) and Luke (3:22) have “You are my Beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” The two different statements harmonize easily if they were both spoken on the same occasion, the one indicating how God the Father directly addressed and affirmed His delight in His Son and the other (Matthew’s text) recording the testimony the Father gave of His Son to John the Baptist and (possibly) other bystanders (cf. W. Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, Baker, 1973, 215). Bock, however, maintains that Matthew changed the direct address in order to “highlight its historical significance. . . . In other words, Matthew redacted the tradition to stress that here was an event where God marked out and identified his anointed one as this one, by what he did. Both renderings are accurate historically and summarize what the content of the utterance was but with slightly different purposes. If this view of redaction is right, then Matthew gives us the vox, while Mark and Luke give us the verba” (194-95 [emphasis in the original]). The problem with such a treatment of the sayings is that both renderings are emphatically not accurate, unless both statements were made. No amount of appeal to the distinction between “vox” (i.e., the general tenor of an individual’s remarks) and “verba” (i.e., the precise words spoken) can justify such inaccuracy, unless one is willing to concede that in order to make his “theological point” Matthew has misled his readers. For in actuality, God said one thing, but Matthew records Him as saying another. It is difficult to believe that the apostles and early Christians were more interested in knowing someone’s understanding or interpretation—even an apostolic “someone”!—of what God meant than the precise words spoken by God. Why is it so hard to accept that God actually spoke both to His Son and about Him on the same occasion?

In addition, Bock’s study has several minor flaws. An individual from the Roman “middle class” is an equites, not an “equite.” The English adjective of this Latin noun is “equestrian” (48, with n. 4). The author is inconsistent in citing primary sources, when for the complex details of history from Alexander the Great to Antiochus Epiphanes there is not a single reference to an ancient work for seven paragraphs (86-88). If the material is mostly based on a secondary source, it needs to be referenced. The Roman senator Cassius, who fought against Octavian at Philippi in 42, was definitely not the same person as Crassus, who with Pompey and Julius Caesar was a member of the first triumvirate in 59 B.C. and was killed fighting the Parthians at Carrhae in 53 B.C. (96). The map o n page 99 is confusing since the shadings used to designate the territory of Philip and that of Archelaus are virtually indistinguishable. The Sea of Galilee is also known as the Sea of Tiberias, not Tiberius. The same is true of the town (111, with n. 17). Lastly, in these days of electronic data storage and retrieval, one is at a loss to understand why there should not be a complete bibliography.

In sum, this is both a useful and a disappointing book. It is useful in that it provides a brief but helpful survey of some detailed and complex literary, historical, cultural, and methodological material. The book is disappointing because it clearly demonstrates the inroads of negative critical methodologies into the ranks of even conservative evangelical scholarship on the Synoptic Gospels. In this respect the book is also disturbing.