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Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Methods and Sources

Intimate knowledge of the original community to which each gospel was addressed is not a requirement for understanding the key elements of a gospel's message, though where such can be determined helps us to grasp a gospel's message.

By Darrell L. Bock
Research Professor of New Testament Studies
Dallas Theological Seminary 

    As a student of the gospels who has long appreciated what detailed study of Jesus can yield, I have longed to write this kind of a book for my students. What I have desired is a work that briefly goes over the ground of the historical background to the gospels and a critical study of the gospels that reflects both the value and limitations of these various elements of gospel study: historical, source, form, redaction, tradition, and narrative criticism. I wanted to supply in one stop a basic student introduction to these areas with enough brevity to digest. I also wanted to give enough guidance to encourage further independent study. Only time will tell if I have succeeded. I do know that much of the material here has been used in one form or another in classes on New Testament Introduction and on Jesus as well as in a class I teach annually with my colleague, W. Hall Harris, on introduction to exegesis in gospel narrative. I have spent twenty years teaching the gospels in the classroom. I published the material knowing that up to this point it has helped many students get an initial grasp on many controversial themes associated with the study of the gospels. They urged me to make it more widely available. So this work is not extremely technical on purpose. It is a primer. My audience is the beginning student of the gospels who desires to begin to dig deeper into its depths. The book is scheduled for release this summer by Baker Book House.

Appreciating the Cultural Context of the Gospels

    It is hard to know if the gospel writers themselves were aware of the ultimate impact their writings about Jesus would produce. In fact, it is likely that if they knew the impact their works would come to have they would have been amazed at how God has used their writings. Their goal was to witness to Jesus and strengthen the new communities formed around him. They wrote about the Jesus they knew, the Jesus they preached, and the Jesus others needed to know. They succeeded far beyond what they likely intended. This is why studying Jesus as presented in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is so profitable. The impact these four gospels have had on the world can hardly be exaggerated. Whatever skeptical criticism of the Bible has tried to do with these gospels, there is no denying the importance of these four treatments of Jesus in the history of thought. It is a fact of history that whoever were the original recipients of these gospels, the eventual audience has extended far beyond those limits, making these gospels “classic” texts in every sense of that term.

    In fact, many details about the original audiences of the gospels are unclear. A common consensus among scholars is the idea that the gospels were written for one community or a set of local communities with the stories told in such a way that the account would be relevant to that specific community. That view is slowly being rejected; rather, the gospel writers wrote for whoever in the church would read it. In one sense, the gospel tradition as we know it circulated before there were gospels, indicating this tendency to preserve Jesus material not for one community, but for the community at large and circulate it. This is why Q was a collection of teaching material on many aspects of Jesus’ teaching and why there are hints that the Passion narrative and the outline of resurrection appearances were passed on in the tradition within years of these events. What this shows is that the earliest church was interested in the events of Jesus’ life, not just his teaching, and in the ways that they communicated to each other. Today we see that these texts have been given to the world at large through the gospels. Although their work might have begun in a given community, the point of the exercise was to get the word out about Jesus and spread it far and wide through what one author called “the holy Internet.” 1

    The implication of their intention to address the church at large means that what we do not know for certain about the specifics of each gospel’s original setting has little impact on our appreciation of the message of these gospels. Intimate knowledge of the original community to which each gospel was addressed is not a requirement for understanding the key elements of a gospel’s message, though where such can be determined helps us to grasp a gospel’s message more precisely.

    What does need to be appreciated is the general culture into which these works were written as well as the culture in which Jesus lived. This will help to explain why the focus of this book and the scriptural volume to follow will be on Jewish backgrounds.2 For Jesus was culturally a Jew who ministered primarily to Jews. Such cultural appreciation requires that one become aware of the sources, especially Jewish sources, that illumine the study of Jesus as well as the history and cultural makeup of the first century society in which Jesus lived and moved.

    There have been three historical quests for Jesus in scholarly study. One dated from the eighteenth century took a rationalistic world-view and attempted to strip the Jesus tradition of its dogmatic and supernatural elements. Albert Schweitzer correctly declared this effort a failure in the early twentieth century. A second quest commenced in the 1950’s, fueled by source, form, and tradition criticism and a belief that the study of the Hellenistic background to the Bible could allow us to cull later material from earlier material in the gospels. This kind of effort still goes on today and is reflected in the kind of results we see in the Jesus Seminar, but its claim to be able to strip out later material from earlier layers is viewed with skepticism by many New Testament scholars. So since the sixties, other scholars have worked hard on the Jewish roots to Jesus, trying to make sense of his mission to Israel and the other elements of Jewish background that help to explain his ministry. In general, such efforts have been less skeptical of the Jesus tradition, although there are points within it that they debate. My work represents an attempt to view the Jesus tradition from within the third quest. This approach possesses the best potential for understanding Jesus in his context as well as the movement his ministry spawned. One of my chapters in the book gives some detail to this history.

    My subsequent volume Jesus according to Scripture, out later this year, is not a historical Jesus book in the strict sense. Rather, it is written to take the reader through the gospel tradition in three parts: through the synoptics, then through John’s gospel while seeing how he connects to the synoptic portrait, and then through many of Jesus’ themes in the gospels, a kind of topical summary of the high points. The contention of this work is that we need a solid understanding of what we have in extant documents before we try to reconstruct what went on before or behind them. Nonetheless, my work fits into the perspective that is fueled by the third quest with its serious focus on understanding Jesus in his Jewish context.

    The introductory chapter in Studying the Historical Jesus has two goals: (1) to overview the most basic elements of what we know about the four gospels and (2) to trace the sources— biblical and extra-biblical—that give us insight into what the gospels are saying to us about Jesus. So we discuss in an introductory way the apocryphal material, the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Josephus, Philo, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah, Talmud, and other Jewish sources. We trace how one can look up and find this material since it has become much more accessible in the last twenty years.

    Subsequent chapters in Part 1 (Jesus In His Cultural Context) treat issues of the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence (chapter 1), dating the basic outline of his ministry as a sample of how historical method works (chapter 2), as well as the political (chapter 3) and social-cultural history (chapter 4) that inform his message and ministry. This section asks the question about what religious, political, and religious concerns did Jews have as Jesus arrived on the scene. Jewish history explains why Jesus was seen both as a hope and a threat to so many Jews. Understanding Jewish culture helps us appreciate the point and hard edges of Jesus’ message more clearly. A read through this chapter helps to explain why issues tied to fidelity to the Law and skepticism about relating to Gentiles existed in vast parts of the Jewish community, as well as making it clear that Judaism in the first century was not a monolithic faith, but an already diverse community with various takes on issues tied to Jewish identity.

    Then part 2 of our book (Jesus: Methods in Studying the Gospels) turns to a discussion of the various methods scholars use today to read and evaluate the gospels and their message. Here we treat the three historical quests for Jesus (chapter 5), historical criticism (chapter 6), source criticism (chapter 7), form criticism (chapter 8), redaction criticism (chapter 9), tradition criticism (chapter 10), and narrative criticism (chapter 11) as well as discuss the genre of the gospels. In this section, we will see a constant tension. On the one hand are those who have read the gospels skeptically to assess their “true” historical validity (often excluding huge portions of the material in the process). We try to explain how and why they do so, while raising questions about the validity of many aspects of such skepticism. On the other hand are those who have sought to read these sources carefully to see if the portrait of Jesus in the gospels can be unified (debating here and there how those details best hold together). The perspective of my volumes is that the second approach is a more fruitful way to read the text for reasons this book and the volume to follow on Jesus hope to make clear. Regardless of the view taken, however, no one can debate the significance these four gospels have had on major segments of Western society as well as many other areas of the world.

    So Studying the Historical Jesus covers the history of this discussion about Jesus, both of biblical criticism in general and of the three historical quests for Jesus that have grown out of it. It does so in about 200 pages and prepares the reader to understand how others write about and assess Jesus. It maps out the various “schools” of thought to which the various perspectives belong. It also surfaces the variety of ways in which these critical practices are undertaken. The goal is that the reader has a better appreciation for discussion about the historical Jesus as well as an ability to delve in on his or her own. This is accomplished when the student comprehends the historical context in which Jesus lived and taught. Such comprehension is enhanced when the student understands the historical lenses through which theologians and historians make observations about his unique life and ministry on behalf of God.

1 Michael B. Thompson, “The Holy Internet: Communication Between Churches in the First Christian Generation,” in Bauckham, The Gospels for All Christians, pp. 49-70.

2 Darrell L. Bock, Jesus According to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels. (Grand Rapids: Baker, forthcoming end of 2002).