What is the state of historical Jesus studies today? How has the landscape changed over the past few decades? Dr. Darrell Bock provides some remarkable insight about how historical Jesus studies have moved in a positive direction towards embracing many key facts surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Sean and Scott interview him about his journey to faith, his love for studying the historical Jesus, and what non academics can learn from academic research today.

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More About Our Guest

Portrait of Darrell Bock

Darrell Bock is one of the leading contemporary scholars on the historical Jesus. He is the Executive Director of Cultural Engagement and Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has written over 40 books and is a New York Times best-selling author. Dr. Bock is the editor of the recent book Jesus, Skepticism, & the Problem of History.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.

Sean McDowell: I'm your cohost Sean McDowell, professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Scott Rae: We're here today with our guest Dr. Darrell Bock, who is the editor and contributor to a fascinating new book that has just come out called Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History. Darrell is the senior research professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary and executive director for cultural engagement, the Hendricks Center for leadership and cultural engagement, also at Dallas Theological Seminary.

He's probably best known for his long time work on the historical Jesus. As an Evangelical, he has spent a lot of years in the trenches with all sorts of people with different views of the historical Jesus and has defended the historicity of the Gospels and the reliability of the New Testament writers, and the accuracy of the portrait of the historical Jesus for at least the last 30 years. So Darrell, welcome. Thank you for coming on with us and congratulations on the book. Although with the number of contributors to this, this must've been quite a job to edit this book.

Darrell Bock: Well, herding squirrels is something that you do in your spare time when you're an editor of a book. That's what we did. You forgot one very important credit and that's a long time friend of Scott Rae. So it's a real pleasure to be with you, and I'm looking forward to the conversation.

Scott Rae: Yes, Darrell and I actually, our listeners might not be aware of this, we actually grew up together. I think you are the only friend I have had for 60 plus years.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Scott Rae: We grew up literally down the street from each other in Houston and came to faith roughly around the same time period.

Darrell Bock: Well that's under describing. Scott is one of the first people to have shared Christ with me. He's probably one of the reasons I am a believer today. And our friendship predates all those dates and a lot of material has been erased as a result.

Scott Rae: Yes. Let's just say whenever we are in public together, we have a mutual assured destruction pact with each other because there's just way too much dirt we have on each other. So I think it's fair to say that Darrell's coming to faith happened more in spite of my sharing the gospel with him and not because of it. It's great testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing someone to faith.

Darrell Bock: Fair enough.

Sean McDowell: So Darrell, tell us-

Scott Rae: Since you've opened the door to that, tell us a little bit about your own sort of spiritual journey.

Darrell Bock: Well, I'll start where the story starts, which is when you got back from a Young Life Camp telling me I needed to know Jesus. And about the bulk of your presentation was: you need to know Jesus. You need to know Jesus. You need to know Jesus. And you could say it three different ways-

Scott Rae: Which I did over and over again-

Darrell Bock: Over again. Yes. And I thought you were absolutely crazy. But then over a long period through the sustained, consistent testimony of people's lives really, all the objections and other things that I had were dealt with. Not so much on a cognitive level, but just seeing the kind of life and the way life was oriented for people was the draw that the Spirit used eventually to bring me to himself. And I came to the Lord really between my freshman and... Now you shared with me when I was in ninth grade, I just want people to know how long this took. Okay. And I came to Lord between my freshman and sophomore year in college. So that was a sustaining testimony over about a five year period that we're talking about here. And sometimes it takes that long because some people are pretty stubborn.

Scott Rae: I prayed for you for a long time. I did. And I did have the privilege of-

Darrell Bock: I believe it.

Scott Rae: I did have the privilege of praying with you when you received Christ, which was-

Darrell Bock: Exactly right. So anyway, so this is really cool in a whole lot of ways.

Scott Rae: Yeah. So tell us a little bit about what motivated you to basically commit your life to the research that you've done on the historical Jesus.

Darrell Bock: Well I remember one of the first conversations we had after I became a believer, which went something like this, and I really have never in some ways never left this. And that is, I said to you, "Okay, I've come to the Lord, but I'm a Jesus guy. I'm not a Paul Guy." It's basically the summary of what I said. And really to some degree, even though I'm smiling and laughing as I'm saying this, because obviously the whole of scripture is important. There is a sense in which within the church, at least that I was circulating in when I first became a believer, the Epistles were far more significant in being dealt with than the Gospels were, and that always bothered me.

I thought that knowing about Jesus and what he was doing and what he was saying was a very important way of understanding our Christian faith. After all, it was called Christianity. And so I thought going back to the source was important. And so for all those reasons, I always was focused and fascinated by and committed to trying to understand what the Gospels were about. And then when I got pulled into, particularly into the gospel of Luke, Acts became a natural appendage to that concern. The early decades of the early church. And so that's really where my career has been focused.

Sean McDowell: You've been studying the historical Jesus now for a few decades. I'm curious just how you've seen historical Jesus studies change throughout that time?

Darrell Bock: Well, when I first started, there was a lot of work on what was called the criteria of authenticity and there was very high skepticism about what the Gospels gave us. There was a focus on figuring out what the titles of Jesus meant in particular. Much of that interestingly has changed.

There's a very much an awareness that Jesus belongs in historical Jewish context. There is much more regard for the way in which the Gospels work, the whole what's called Third Quest Movement. Locating Jesus in the context of Judaism has become much more important in the historical Jesus discussion. That has raised a lot of awareness that so much of the Gospels, even on the strictest historical standards offer us at least a pretty good glimpse of Jesus. And then the shift, and I think this is extremely significant, has gone from analyzing titles to taking a look at actions and the cultural scripts that stand behind them, so that when Jesus does something, he's also revealing who he is, even though it isn't coming in a sentence that's telling you what he's doing. The action is speaking in some cases louder than words, and so a lot of historical Jesus work recently has gone into seeing what those cultural scripts are, and what that message is, and it fills out what Jesus is either saying about himself or what people are perceiving about it.

Sean McDowell: It sounds like there's a real growth over the past few decades in scholarship giving confidence to what we can know about Jesus. How about you personally? And I ask because as I dove into a dissertation, in some ways, my confidence grew in one area, but on the other hand I realized, "Gosh, this is so complex and there's really smart people who disagree with me." How has this journey studying historical Jesus for decades shaped you personally and your confidence in the Jesus of the scriptures?

Darrell Bock: Well, I think what it's done is it has on the one hand disabused me of certain assumptions that I came in with about Jesus and about how things worked on some cases, and in many cases in a positive way even though it may have started with a question that involved doubt. On the other hand, it has significantly reinforced my confidence overall in what the scriptures are doing because it's... The deeper I dug, the more I began to find links, and this'll connect to something I said earlier, links between what you see Jesus doing and what you see happening in the Epistles.

Sometimes when people read the Bible, they'll read the Bible and they'll think, "Well, the gospels almost seem like they're on another planet than what I see going on in the Epistles. Why is that?" But the deeper you dig, the more you realize, no, they actually are very much on the same plane. It's just that the Epistles are picking up kind of the results and the residual of what's coming out of Jesus's life and ministry and where he was trying to take it, and they've picked up the ball and run with it.

Scott Rae: Darrell in the book, again, I want to commend this to our listeners, Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, you list some historical facts about Jesus that you claim are so well supported that even the vast majority of non-Christian scholars accept them about Jesus. What are some of those facts, and why do you think they are so well accepted?

Darrell Bock: Well, it took actually a page of bullet points to do this. I didn't count them up, but two, four, six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen points are on pages 22 and 23. And it starts from Jesus was born in six to four BC.

He was a Galleon Jewish man, grew up in Nazareth, native tongue was Aramaic, baptized in the wilderness by John in the Jordan, conducted an itinerant ministry through Galilee and neighboring regions followed by a group of disciples, both men and women, taught about the kingdom of God, often spoke in parables, reputed to be a wonder worker who cast out demons and healed people, I'm sure we'll come back to that, showed, preached compassion to people whom Jews commonly regarded as unclean or wicked, engaged a fair season debate over matters related to Jewish law, went to Jerusalem at Passover the week of his death, caused a disturbance in the temple a few days before his arrest, had a final meal with his inner circle of disciples that became the basis for what Christians call the Last Supper, arrested at the behest of the high priest in Jerusalem, crucified under Pontius Pilate in 30 or 33 AD, was believed by his disciples to appear to them shortly after his death in experiences that convinced them that God had raised him from the dead.

Every one of those points is, I think, now no longer in significant dispute. Now what you will notice is there's not a lot of content in that material as to what Jesus specifically taught, that's what gets debated. But the core outline of his ministry and particularly what led to his death is very much something that most everyone working in historical Jesus studies agrees on.

Scott Rae: How do you account for that change? Because I remember when I went to college, and we had some of these conversations, and I took religion courses at my secular university. Most of those things that you've listed were in significant debate, so what's happened to the field that has caused this kind of change?

Darrell Bock: What's happened to the field is this move into recognizing the Jewish backdrop and context of Jesus's ministry, and the coherence of you have to be able to explain one reality about Jesus, and that is what in the world got him crucified. And not as a theological problem, but strictly as a historical problem. And I make the distinction because Jesus is actually crucified for sedition. That's why you get crucified in the Roman world. And so you have to be able to figure out what got him there, especially since he didn't have an army. He didn't fight anybody in terms of violence or anything like that.

So what in the world would cause the representative of the Roman world to put Jesus to death for sedition? And you've got to be able to sort that out. And then you've also got to be able to sort out the Jewish opposition to Jesus, which is clearly in place, and it's also clearly in place by the time the apostles begin their work in Jerusalem. So all of that is in play, and so this outline begins to make sense out of that story. And then the harder issue, the next level of conversation, is to fill all that in. Now that we've got these 18 kind of points of reference in a template, and in a skeleton of what Jesus is life is about, how do you fill that in and what does that look like?

And then that's where the discussions tend to come in now. Whereas before, I think we were in a situation, well some people even doubted whether he existed at all, or if they did exist, they said, "Well we can't really know very much about them because we can't really trust the Gospels. They're prejudice sources."

There's also a lot of recognition. This is ironic in light of postmodernism, but I think what postmodernism did is it open up the idea that people do have biases and perspectives, but that doesn't necessarily close you off from understanding what they're trying to say. And so that combination of things I think has led to a redirection of Jesus studies, particularly in the third quest aspect. And frankly another factor is, is that a lot of conservatives who used to stay out of the historical Jesus discussion have come into it, and have participated in it, and have made the case for the trustworthiness of the Gospels. And although`, we haven't convinced everybody about everything, there are things that we have done that have made steps in a positive direction.

Scott Rae: So are you suggesting that for a college student today, who took that same... say that took a course on the life of Jesus at UCLA or Cal State Fullerton or a place like that, might hear something really different than the course that I took in college 30 years ago.

Darrell Bock: Conceivably, that would be very much related to who's teaching the class, and how good a job the professor in the class does to making the student aware of the full nature of the conversation. I'm aware of universities where there's almost a pretending that these discussions aren't going on and almost walling off a certain segment of the conversation. Those students wouldn't hear this, but if the professor really is reflecting the full discussion, and where it's coming from, and who's doing the writing today in this area, then they should be made aware of this shift.

Sean McDowell: That's a great perspective about where scholarship is at, and how that does or does not necessarily translate to the church for one or even to academia.

Let me ask you this. You have a section in the book where you talk about the Gnostic Gospels. What are they, how much do they offer us historically speaking of value, but then why is there so much scholarly enthusiasm about them today?

Darrell Bock: Well, that's actually quite an involved question, but let me start here. The reason people are intrigued by these gospels is that they have been reinserted into our attention by recent discoveries. Now by recent discoveries, I mean within much of our lifetime, by which I mean Scott's and mine because Sean you're a young guy, but back in the late forties which actually is before Scott and I were born-

Scott Rae: I appreciate you clarifying that.

Darrell Bock: ... the Nag Hammadi texts were discovered... And yeah, I'm going to be able to give our age here in a second. Anyway, the Nag Hammadi texts were discovered, which was our first chance to really get a hold of the mass of these texts, which we had known about from the report of the church fathers for a long time but couldn't actually get our hands on in a significant kind of way.

It opened up a whole area of study and fresh assessment, but the problem is these texts are light texts. They are second and third century texts for the most part. They're so they're a century removed from the earliest church. They are a hybrid theologically in that Gnostic Christianity is not Orthodox Christianity. Gnostic Christianity believes in a dualism that what is spiritual is good, what is earthly was flawed from the very beginning. That doesn't fit in with Genesis 1 and 2, that the creation was very good from the beginning, and the earliest Christianity came right out of Judaism with that theology at the core of its existence, that is its Christian existence.

So there's a disconnect there. The material is valuable for letting us know what Christianity is going through in the second and third centuries and beyond in those early centuries, but not for the first. And I tell people the only document out of this material that's really fascinating is the Gospel of Thomas, which is 114 independent sayings of Jesus, alleged independent sayings of Jesus, and you read it and about, Oh 50% of it is, you go, "That reads like the gospels." Because it does read like the gospels. You read another 25% of it and, "That's sort of like the gospels." And you read another 25% and you go, "That's not like the gospels at all. I have no idea where that came from."

And that's because that document has a foot both in the church tradition and in this extra tradition, this side tradition, that's growing. Now the way all this material has been presented to the public, in the context of culture, is they're the secret Gospels, the mystery Gospels, and everybody wants to know what the secret is. Or it's framed as history's written by the winners. We now have the voice of the losers, and the loser's history and genealogy goes back to the very, the claim is, to very earliest periods. So in the beginning, there wasn't an Orthodox Christianity. There were competing Christianities and orthodoxy eventually won. That actually I think is a false narrative, that in the beginning you had Orthodox Christianity that Christianity in some circles became combined with a Greek Neoplatonistic philosophy.

When that happened, it moved in the direction of Gnosticism, and in the second and third centuries you had these competing alternate Christianities that were operating from the second and third century on about what the true Christian faith was, but that was not the earliest faith of the first century, and it's misleading and anachronistic to project that all the way back into the origins of the Faith.

So I'm sorry I couldn't do that much more concisely, but that's basically what's going on with the Gnostic Gospels. The core point is this, when you boil it all down, the Gnostic Gospels are fascinating and important pieces of material for studying the early church and what was going on around it in the second and third centuries. But it doesn't help you with the first century, and the Christianity that we care about is the Christianity as it existed in the first.

Scott Rae: Darrell, it seems to me one of the major stumbling blocks to accepting the Orthodox view of the historical Jesus are the numerous accounts in the Gospels in the Book of Acts of miracles that were done.

How do you respond to the claim made by numerous critics, Bart Ehrman is probably the most current and most popular of those, that the miracles of Jesus are just, they're just simply outside the parameters of what we can study historically.

Darrell Bock: Yeah. This also is a complex question in some ways because there is what we might call an ontological naturalism. That's the idea that God doesn't exist and miracles don't happen, which automatically at the start kind of nullifies what the Bible is claiming. I always tell people the Bible has a problem with modern many and modern culture because it has miracles, and we are predisposed one way or the other to either accept the possibility of what's going on in the Bible or we have to have another explanation for what's going on in the Bible. The naturalist has to have another explanation for what's going on in the Bible. So someone who believes that God doesn't exist and miracles don't happen, they've got to explain what's going on in the text because the text is literally littered with miracles, not just in Jesus' ministry, but throughout the pages of scripture.

A second view, which is an attempt by some to try and be able to have a conversation in light of the different worldviews that God exists and miracles can happen or God doesn't exist and miracles can't happen is what is called methodological naturalism, which argues that history is not capable of addressing the question of God's presence and activity. So it's a limitation on history. So we can't go there.

The best we can do is we can't explain this on natural terms, but we can explain it. That's about as far as you can get. And frankly, some evangelicals embrace that view alongside skeptics. I actually think it's a mistake to do so because I think what you're trying to do when you're dealing with history period is asking the question what happened and who's responsible for it. And our worldview has to be either that God does or doesn't exist, and by bracketing him out of the discussion, you're actually closing off one of the possibilities, which doesn't seem to me to be a very responsible way to proceed.

So the best way to do this is to leave open the possibility that God can act or that the action doesn't have a naturalistic explanation, and do the best you can to try and persuade people who don't think that God exists, that maybe they've closed off the possibility before even taking it under consideration, and go from there.

Sean McDowell: I have a specific question for you related actually to Christmas, and now I lost my train of thought. One more time. Darrell, I have a specific question for you related to Christmas. I've had conversations with people, and they discover Jesus was probably not born on December 25th, get a little worried and start to suspect or wonder how many other seemingly Pagan things have crept their way into the Gospels. So my question is, why was that date even chosen and how much confidence can we have more generally in the birthplace and the time of Jesus?

Darrell Bock: Okay. And the short answer to this is, is that the reason that date was picked is because it was a Christian alternative to a Pagan celebration at the turn of the year. Christmas is basically you're worshiping at the time of the year when we go from death to life, when we go from the shortest day of the year and began to move into the season where we're going to get longer and longer days, it's the winter equinox.

So, and there was a festival called Saturnalia, which was celebrated on the 25th of December that led to that date becoming the Christian alternative. The fact is that because Jesus existed as a person, we know he had a birthday. So that part is a given. The fact that we don't know when exactly he was born is a reflection of the fact that this is an event coming out of the ancient world in which Jesus was born in a very obscure corner of the Greco Roman world, in a little town outside of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, et cetera.

And the reason we're confident about the rest of that is because Bethlehem is not the most natural place to have a transcendent figure be born. If you were just going to invent the story of Jesus being born as the deliver of Israel to begin with and the savior of the world on the other, and the Church were just creating this out of whole cloth, you would probably have him born... If you could pick a city in Israel, you probably have him born in Jerusalem. Of course, he's not born there. He's born in Bethlehem, a little village, maybe all of 500 people at the time, granted close to Jerusalem, but not Jerusalem.

So it doesn't look like it's the kind of detail that would be made up, and as such lends credibility because of its lack of credibility as something made up of being an authentic tradition. And like I say, we know that Jesus was born because Jesus lived and died, and to get to life and death, you've got to have a birth.

Sean McDowell: That makes a lot of sense. Good practical reasoning. I like that. Back to your book Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History, I'm curious how you navigate where the world of scholarship is on Jesus and the local church. Because, for example, through some of the criteria that you and other Jesus scholars will use, we can have more confidence in say the feeding of the 5,000 because it's in all four Gospels, as opposed to Jesus turning water into wine because it's just in the Gospel of John. How do you navigate from scholarship to the church community without people kind of freaking out and misunderstanding what's being said and what can be established historically versus what we believe by faith.

Darrell Bock: And you've just illustrated the gap that exists between scholarly work and the understanding of the early church by an appeal to one of the criteria which is called the criteria of multiple attestation. Multiple attestation does not mean what many people think it means, which is because it's mentioned in four Gospels, there are four witnesses to it.

What the criteria multiple attestation actually means is if you take the tradition strands that feed into the gospels, so this would be in most forms, the gospel of Mark as the first gospel, the teaching that Matthew and Luke share from Jesus that's not tied to Mark that is normally called queue for a teaching source, a teaching anthology source, that we feel like the early church used. The unique stuff tied to Matthew, the unique stuff tied to Luke, the unique stuff tied to John's Gospel. Each one of those counts as a single witness.

You don't get a double witness simply because the story is repeated because Matthew might've gotten it from Mark. Okay, so that's still just one witness. You're just reusing it. You only count multiple attestation when the teaching or the theme belongs to multiple levels of the tradition. And then the premise of that is the more widespread a tradition is across the various strands that are feeding the Gospels, the more likely you are to be dealing with something that Jesus taught or did. And so that's actually how the criteria of multiple attestation works.

Now having said that, in current study, and I'm a little bit in the weeds here, but in current study, a lot of people question the criteria in general that I sometimes use because they think they're not fail safe, which is actually technically correct. They're not fail safe proofs, but they are one tool that one can use in having this discussion a far better tool, and a far more important tool, is dealing with the cultural backdrop of the Gospels, and the overall cohesive story that the Gospels present about who Jesus is.

After all, if the premise of the skeptic is true, that what happened is people came along and added later and later and they added accretion levels to the story of Jesus, you wouldn't think that because that's being done from different people, from different places at different times that there would be a coherence to that linkage as the story moves through, but in fact the gospels do have very much a coherent story that doesn't look like the addition of multiple layers coming from different places and spaces, but actually an internally consistent ministry that fits in the cultural backdrop of the gospels.

That whole narrative is actually more important to making sense out of Jesus than any criteria one would put forward. Now having said all that, the local church doesn't hear any of that. Okay. They aren't even a part of that conversation. They don't even in some cases know those conversations are going on, but in the defense of what we have in scripture to a skeptical audience for whom inspiration is not a functional category, to be able to explain the texts on that basis can become an important conversation to have if we, in sharing with someone, they say, "Well, that inspiration stuff, I even questioned whether God exists. I don't even think that category exists." So how in the world are you going to explain what's going on in the Gospels to someone for whom that category isn't going to work? That's what historical Jesus study, at least from a more conservative point of view, is trying to do is to supply the answers to that question.

Scott Rae: Darrell, one last question for you. So give me the cut to the chase version of this. Why should the average person in the church believe that the Gospel records of the life of Jesus are accurate?

Darrell Bock: Well for the very reason that I've already suggested that is that they present a very coherent story set in context to explain not just the life and ministry and teaching of Jesus, but also, it gives an explanation for why the life of Jesus began and ended the way that it did, as well as what comes afterwards.

My key short answer to a question like that is, is that we never would have gotten a figure like the Apostle Paul if all this was made up after the fact. He was in Jerusalem at the time, knew what the official Jewish position was, et cetera. There would have been no place for him to go to have the belief that he had if the teaching of Jesus and the theology of early church wasn't as developed as the Gospels and Acts present it at the time at which his conversion took place, which is very shortly after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, within at most a couple of years.

So he's right up against the events with a knowledge of those events. That tells me that the Gospel material has the chance to be true. One other important factor here is the way in which stories got told in the ancient world. They get passed on primarily orally. You have multiple witnesses attesting to this material. You have the repeated tellings of core events that impacted people's lives and in that combination, the overseeing of that tradition, which then became the content for the Gospels.

You've got a tradition line or a tradition stream in terms of how that material is being overseen that guarantee the accuracy of what's going on. It's not the case of randomly retelling a story or experiencing an event and then 30 years of it later having to recall it. It's being retold again and again and again and again in between that period before it ever gets written down in a Gospel, and much like we would come to learn the words of the hymn by repeatedly singing it rather than trying to memorize those words, a person comes to know the story of Jesus in the ancient world by hearing what he did and said again and again and again and again until they get it.

Scott Rae: Thank you. That's really helpful. That's a very helpful summary of why people should believe that the gospel accounts are accurate. I want to commend in to our listeners again, this new book is really terrific, called Jesus, Skepticism, and the Problem of History. Darrell is one of the editors of this, and this is really special for me, Darrell, to have my longest term friend, and very dear, close friend on the program with us. So thanks for coming on with us. Thanks for just the investment that you've made in historical Jesus studies, and for all the great stuff you have going on.

Darrell Bock: Well it's my absolute pleasure. The joy is absolutely shared, and just let me commend the school out there, biola Talbot. It's a great school. It's one of the shining stars in our country for the Faith, and we just appreciate all the work that's being done there.

Scott Rae: Well, thanks my friend. It's been great having you on with us.

Darrell Bock: My pleasure.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Darrell Bock, and the book Jesus, Skepticism, and the Problem of History, and to find more episodes, go to by biola.edu/think-biblically. That's biola.edu/think-biblically.

If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.