Book Review: Darrell L. Bock, Jesus according to Scripture

Bock, Darrell L. Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2002. 704 pages, pb. $40.00  Link to Baker   Link to Logos

Darrell Bock has made many important contributions to the study of the Gospels and Jesus including a two-volume commentary on Luke in the Baker Exegetical series (1994-96) and a Theology of Luke and Acts (Zondervan, 2012). He also edited a major collection of essays along with Robert L. Webb (Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence, Eerdmans 2010).  His Jesus according to Scripture was written to serve as an introduction to the life of Jesus viewed as a whole, primarily from the Synoptic Gospels. He does include three chapters on John’s gospel, but the bulk of the book is a synopsis of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Jesus According to the ScripturePart one is a single chapter overview of the four gospels. Bock provides an outline and an overview of basic introductory questions (author, setting, etc.) along with some of the main interests of the book (prophecy fulfillment in Matthew for example). Bock’s introduction is very short in comparison to the rest of the book, and given the goals of the book this is a good thing. For every position he takes on date or origin, there are major competing views, but in order to keep the focus squarely on the “life of Jesus according to the scripture,” he does not engage opposing views.

Part two is the story of Jesus from the perspective of the Synoptic Gospels. This is the main section of the book and serves two purposes. First, Bock provides a summary of the events of the Gospels with some commentary on background features that will highlight the significance of these events.  Second, Bock will show how each of the three Synoptic Gospels offer a unique insight into an event. This synthetic approach means that Bock will cover the story of Jesus chronologically. Despite protesting that his intention is not to “merge the gospels together” (p. 49), the chronological approach will always appear to do just that. This approach will also frustrate anyone looking for a “historical Jesus” approach. In fact, Bock eschews this kind of study in his introduction to the second section of the book (p. 50). He does not engage in source criticism to determine which account was first and how it was edited by the later gospels, nor does he weigh the sayings of Jesus to determine their authenticity. He simply tells the story of Jesus in a way that reads more or less chronologically, from the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke to the resurrection stories in all four gospels.

In order to organize the story of Jesus, Bock divided the Synoptic Gospels into 294 units. A chart at the beginning of the book shows the parallel passages in each gospel (including John when applicable). In addition, there are 50 units that are only found in John. These numbered sections form the content of the part two, chapters 2-11 (pages 51-405). In the body of the text, each section is number and equivalent numbers are given in other Synopsis systems (Aland, Orchard, and Huck-Greeven). One advantage to reading the book in the Logos format is that clicking the index number link will take you directly to that place in the book, but the scripture in the columns are tagged as Scripture and will open in your preferred Bible. If you roll your pointer over the link (on the desktop version), the text will appear in a floating window.

For each unit, Bock provides a running commentary on the text, usually starting with Mark when available then commenting on any unique features in Matthew and Luke, when available. Reference is made to the Greek text (without transliteration), but this is not an exegetical commentary by any means.  What strikes me as very useful is Bock’s explanation of historical and cultural background. For the average reader, these comments will provide enough background to set the story into a cultural context. Bock does interact briefly with contemporary scholarship, but the footnotes are not overwhelming. The body of each chapter is meant to be read, so he limits these interactions to pointing out important work for students who want to explore more deeply. Each chapter offers a conclusion summarizing the units covered in the chapter.

Part three consists of three chapters devoted to John’s account of the Life of Jesus. The first chapter covers John 1 as a theological introduction to the book. The second chapter in this section covers the “book of signs” (John 2-12). The final chapter in this section of the book covers the “book of glory” (John 13-21). These divisions are natural and well-recognized in scholarship, although these two “books” make for very long chapters. Both John 2-4 and 5-10 are clear sub-units, and might have made this section more manageable for the reader. As with the Synoptic section, Bock is not very interested in critical issues. There is little said about some of the problems of John’s historical reliability. For example, the “cleansing of the Temple” appears in John’s gospel at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, rather than the end. Bock states that the event might have taken place twice, but it is at least possible it happened only once and John moved the event to foreshadow Jesus’ conflict with the leadership in Jerusalem. Either way, the issue is dispatched in two short paragraphs.

Bock does an excellent job showing the Jewish background for Jesus’ actions in John’s gospel, making frequent reference to the Hebrew Bible, Dead Sea Scrolls or other contemporary literature. For example, while commenting on the third sign, a healing on the Sabbath, Bock describes the problem the leadership had with the man carrying his mat on the Sabbath with several illustrations from the Mishnah and shows potential parallels between Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Philo’s view of the Sabbath and the Exodus Rabbah.

In the final chapter of the book, Bock concludes by tracing the major theological interests of this Gospels. The Gospels present Jesus as the “Uniquely Authoritative One in Act and Word.”  This 80 page chapter is a biblical theology of Jesus drawn from all four gospels, grouped into several sections. Bock’s method is to begin each subsection with a collation of all the verses that pertain to his topic and then offer a synthesis of that material. Again, here is an advantage of the Logos version of the book, since the reader can look at this long list of verses and click through to the verse in context. In addition, once could copy the list and create a “verse list” that provides all of the verses to read one after another.

Beginning with baptism and temptation, Bock shows that the Gospels present Jesus as the obedient Son of God. Bock offers a summary of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God as “as the expression of God’s dynamic rule and vindication of the righteous both now and yet to come” (565). He provides a list of the titles given to Jesus in the Gospels and surveys Jesus’ teaching on a variety of subjects (forgiveness, Sabbath, purity, etc.)

This theological chapter includes a very good section on the type of community Jesus was forming during his ministry, focusing on repentance and forgiveness. Here Bock deals with discipleship: what did it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What is the calling and mission of the disciple of Jesus? Oddly, it is in this section that he discusses the Parables since Parables represent teaching primarily for the disciples, to whom the mysteries of the kingdom were given. The chapter ends with a section on Jesus’ final week, his rejection by his own people, death, burial and resurrection.

Conclusion. As Bock states in his preface, this book was intended for use in a college or Seminary class on the Life of Jesus. The text is not overly technical; students and pastors ought to be able to use this text as they teach through the life of Jesus in a variety of contexts. Bock is an Evangelical and that is clear from this book. While he interacts with a wide range of scholarship, his commitment is to the inspiration of the text and the Gospel that is presented in the life of Jesus.

Despite the fact that this book is now more than ten years old, it still provides a useful overview of the life of Jesus. It is remarkable how much has developed in Jesus studies over this short time, but this introduction holds up remarkably well. Any survey text like this will occasionally frustrate the reader with brevity, but Bock has provided useful footnotes and bibliography for further reading and research.

Additional Note:  The book is available in the Logos library as a part of a Jesus Studies Collection from Baker. This collection offers eight books from Baker on Jesus, all of which are highly recommended. The Logos Library offers many advantages over other e-readers, especially highlighting and note-taking. Notes and highlights made on the book using the iPad or Android Logos app  are synced to your desktop. All scripture is tagged so you can quickly open a Bible while reading the book, and all abbreviations are tagged so the reader can quickly get a reminder what a particular phrase or title means. In addition, if you download the book to the iPad, footnotes appear at the bottom of the page (the way they should!) While I much prefer reading a real book, the Logos system makes for comfortable reading on an iPad or desktop.

NB: Thanks to Logos for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Darrell L. Bock, Jesus according to Scripture

  1. Thanks for the thorough review. It sounds like Bock, as he’s addressing an “in crowd”, does not deal with how Christians have claimed to know that either the Synoptics and/or John are historical, just moves on the working assumption that they are. That’s understandable for his apparent purposes. But since I see him looked to for more apologetic purposes as well, (e.g., Credo House/Parchment and Pen), do you find that in another work(s) he DOES deal with historicity, the nature of gospel genre, “the Synoptic problem”, the issue of Q and its potential implications, together with the Gospel of Thomas, etc.? If so, how satisfactorily (persuasively), do you feel?

    Or do you have another orthodox apologist you’d point to, maybe like Craig Blomberg, who you think handles these areas well from that point of view? (I can’t find anybody that is at all persuasive re. the overall points of the “tradition/traditional” view over against the basic “higher critical” view… recognizing all the variants of both… the only “big” scholar I’ve discovered who seems to work within a position somewhere in or near the “middle” is N.T. Wright (tho there is no clear middle, of course). I think there are a few others, tho names slip me at the moment. Who might you say? And how do you evaluate their work?

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    • Continuing on the above post for one thing: I imagine you may well point to Ben Witherington III, who I have looked at some, and so far found him not particularly thorough or persuasive. (I recognize that I’m now quite hard to “persuade” given my background and sophistication of study, but I just don’t see “traditionalists” either speaking to or adequately addressing, when they do a bit, the largely common-sense processes we can infer, and social/literary analyses that better explain the construction of the Gospels than does the traditional/divine authority view. “Progressive” Xn’s like me can and do still value the Gospels both for inspiration/guidance and for examining the development of Christian faith, while we also have grave concerns about certain effects of taking them overly literally or as accurate “eyewitness” accounts.)

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      • One other author I neglected, Dale Allison. I will be posting a review of his Constructing Jesus soon. That will intrigue you since Allison’s book is also published by Baker and is not “preaching to the choir,” although the choir ought to like what they hear.

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    • It certainly is addressing insiders since the book is published by Baker and intended for Evangelical seminaries. But the reason he overlooks the higher critical issues is that the book intended to be a Life of Jesus, a harmony really. Source Criticism and the Synoptic Problem would not naturally be a part of this sort of project, although I do detect a clear preference for Markan priority (he always addresses the Mark version first) and he clearly considers Matthew and Luke as working with Mark as a source.

      I think that Bock and Blomberg (and Witherington, since you named him as well) would all work within the Markan Priority / Q hypothesis, and although they all seem to come back to a “traditional” view on authorship,etc., I never have had the sense they are “defending the tradition” for tradition’s sake. If you have a chance to look over the volume from Eerdmans I mention above on the Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus, I think that you will find that the Evangelicals who produced those articles for the IBR meetings are every bit as thorough as any Jesus Scholar.

      Moving away from conservative, evangelical writers, N. T. Wright is certainly the Main Contender for the center of Jesus studies with Jesus and the Victory of God and the Resurrection of the Son of God, but I think that James Dunn’s Jesus Remembered is equally important. Maybe a bit less influential is John Meier, The Marginal Jew (now at four volumes). Meier would not be an Evangelical, but those books stand at the center of Historical Jesus studies of the 1980’s. Craig Keener has a fat book on HJ as well, although I have spent less time with it than the others. Although he does not have a single large volume on HJ, Craig Evans has produced or edited dozens of books that are significant contributions to HJ Studies (and as far as I know, he would not consider himself evangelical in the American sense of the word).

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  2. Thanks for the specifics, Phillip! I recall now that Allison has come up in a number of pertinent discussions… apparently regarded as the top (or near top) person, at least in some circles; I think I may have read a review of his Constructing Jesus, actually (things run tog. some when it’s not one’s field directly). Am a bit familiar with Evans (Brian LePort, who I interact with at Near Emmaus a fair amount, is starting his PhD under his supervision).

    I’m not that enamored or “into” HJ studies myself. I care more about the psychological, social and other implications of how people take the NT (and whole Bible) and “run with it” (whatever their take-aways are). Two I consider most dangerous:

    1) Exclusivist salvation via some undefinable “faith” in the “finished work of Christ” (note: of Christ, typically, not “of Jesus”). This I see coming from a combo of Paul’s inventive theology, supplemented strongly by John, and the Passion/resurrection narratives (the most questionable and unverifiable aspects of the Gospels, along with virgin birth). Much simpler/better: Be a “follower of Jesus” and take a more traditionally Jewish view of salvation, (as I believe Jesus did, not Torah legalism, btw), or true universalism.

    2) Extending to today/the future, the apocalyptic vision and hopes of Jesus and his disciples, as shared by Paul in part, combined with dubious (at best), patching together of “prophetic schemes” and such, to create a strange kind of geo-political/theological Zionism in Christian form. I’m far from the only one who fears, in this, the potential creation of a self-fulfilling prophesy of “Armageddon” (or something nearly as bad). I do think we MAY be past or nearly so, the worst of this threat for the near term… somewhat depending on the Iran situation. But if someone like Mike Huckabee were elected President??? Or Ted Cruz (God forbid!)? Who knows?

    Sorry… bit of a tangent… that kind of day for me, I guess!

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