Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Who Is Jesus? includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Dr. Darrell Bock. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Most people agree that a man named Jesus lived in the first century in the historical regions surrounding Jerusalem. But what about Jesus as one claimed to be the actual Son of God, the Savior of the World? Can anyone know the concrete truth about the Christ of faith? A significant way to crack the Jesus code, especially with those who have questions, Dr. Darrell Bock says, is to follow the rules—rules set not by the Church but by historians.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Have you had conversations about Jesus with people you know? If so, have you generally taken the “skeptic” side or the “believer” side in those conversations?
2. Discuss the title Who Is Jesus? and how it relates to the contents of the book. If a friend posed that question to you, how would you answer him or her?
3. Were you familiar with the quest for the historical Jesus before reading this book? How did reading this book change your perspective?
4. Do you think that studying the historical Jesus tends to deepen or weaken faith, or neither? Why?
5. What do you think might be the motivation of scholars who undertake serious study of the historical Jesus? To affirm the biblical account? To discredit it? Both? Neither? Does it depend on who is doing the study?
6. Review the Rules for the scholarly study of Jesus on pg. 16-25. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of these various Rules?
7. Discuss how archaeology, linguistics, and other fields of study have impacted the study of Jesus.
8. Why do you think some Christians might feel threatened or unsettled by serious inquiry into the historical Jesus? Do you think these concerns are valid?
9. Compare and contrast the church’s way of studying Jesus versus the historian’s way. Do you think there can be a middle ground between these two approaches? Why or why not?
11. Discuss the twenty-first-century view of oral accounts versus the first-century view. Does the fact that Jesus lived in a primarily oral culture affect the reliability of the Bible? Why or why not?
12. What role, if any, do you think that historical sources outside of the biblical canon should play in the study of Jesus?
13. Dr. Bock discussed twelve events in the life and ministry of Jesus. If you could sit down face-to-face with Jesus and/or one of the disciples, which event would you most like to discuss? What questions would you most like to have answered?
14. Has reading this book changed how you think about the Bible? About the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus? About the relationship between theology and history?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Think of someone in your life who is skeptical about Christianity. Imagine or role-play a conversation with them What might be their objections to Christianity? Rehearse some possible responses.
2. Pray for biblical historians who seek to honor Christ while pursuing rigorous research and scholarship. Discuss the issues and challenges that Christian scholars might encounter.
3. Of the twelve events in the life of Jesus discussed in the book, which one holds the most meaning for you, and why? Discuss your answers with your book club.
A Conversation with Dr. Darrell Bock
1. Who do you think should read Who Is Jesus?,
The book is for anyone who is interested in Jesus and how he is discussed in the public square. It takes a close look at the social context of his life and ministry as well as how certain key events should be seen that can help us understand him.
2. What inspired you to write Who Is Jesus?, What concerns or trends in the modern church do you hope to address?
I have many conversations with people who have honest questions about how the gospels present Jesus and there are many debates about him. This can be confusing for people who are interested by hearing an array of things about Jesus. So my book summarizes work on this question that involved several scholars over a decade worth of meetings and conversation. We wanted to give to everyone (not just people in the church) the best information we have about certain key events in the life of Jesus. These events show who he is and deals carefully with issues and questions people raise about those events.
3. How would you respond to someone who says the Bible is unreliable because it emerged from an oral culture and was not written until long after the events it depicts?
I would point out that one of the values of ancient oral culture was they regarded the living word as more important than a written word. So the church did not write the gospels until they began to lose those witnesses who could tell the story of Jesus. Also oral culture had ways of remembering that protected the core story and its accuracy, even as it often told and retold the same story with some variation. An example of this in the Book of Acts is Luke tells the story of Paul’s conversion three times. Each account has variation of detail, but the core story is the same. We see the same thing in parallel gospel accounts. All of this fits the oral culture and does not point to unreliability but the way they passed on material. One more thing, in terms of most ancient materials we have about ancient events, the length of time between the event and the writing of the gospels is not so great a distance in time, within a generation or two, where some people who experienced these events were still alive.
4. Discuss the rules of sound historical scholarship. Why is it important for Christians to adhere to these rules when studying the life and ministry of Jesus? What limitations does such study have?
The key element in sound historical work involve having an awareness of your sources, knowing the historical setting, and looking for corroboration. The rules of historical Jesus study look for such elements as well as for corroboration between the various sources. This also has its limits because a single source can have value. It is just that possibility cannot be corroborated. The value of the rules is that it can help in a conversation with those who have questions about the accounts. Here are rules set up by people who were skeptical about the sources. If an event can get over those hurdles, it gives an indication of the credibility of what is reported. Of course, the limits include the point that failure to meet the rules does not mean the event did not take place. It just means it did not meet the high standard of corroboration the rules seek to test.
5. What are the dangers of overlaying twenty-first century values onto first-century culture? Do you think some theologians and historians make this mistake?
The major problem is that the values and approach to things like passing on events do not reflect a written or digitally oriented culture, but one where most communication was oral. In addition, the way certain things were done in the flow of life was different. So we place our expectations on events or how they were told and can misread them. This is why we spent so much time discussing the cultural features that inform the meaning of the key events we treated, including pointing out what those sources are and what they tell us. These are the cultural scripts that inform the meaning of what was taking place and why. It is hard work. So some skip this step or do not give it enough attention. In other cases, they assume the meaning of an event is clear and so do not look to see if ancient practices and attitudes were different.
6. What approach would you take in discussing Jesus with a skeptic who doesn't trust the biblical account? What are some other resources you would recommend?
Well, that is why I wrote the book and why the scholars I worked with took the time to do a detailed study on Jesus. I try to point out why the telling of an event is rooted in good sources and face the questions and objections people raise much as we do in the chapters of the book that treat the events. I take these questions seriously because I shared that skepticism when I was younger. On Jesus, our full study, Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus has the full details about these key events. For more general issues tied to the Bible, a recent solid book is Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? (edited by James Hoffmeier and Dennis Magary).
7. In your view, how important is a strong intellectual life to the ordinary Christian? What can a non-scholarly Christian do to deepen and sharpen his or her intellectual powers and understanding of theology?
An intellectual life is vital to keeping the Christian faith fresh and alive, deepening one’s appreciation for what life is about as God designed it. With all the resources available, there is much opportunity to pursue such growth. It just takes the investment of time and energy to get there. To the non-scholarly Christian, I would simply note that there are plenty of resources written at a popular level to help them go deeper a step at a time. The place to begin might be with a solid study Bible. Some even focus on history and archaeology to give you notes about important relevant background to the biblical materials.
8. How have people responded to your teachings on the quest for the historical Jesus? Have you encountered resistance from the church or the academic community?
It mostly meets with fascination and appreciation. I often get the response of those details really give depth and a greater understanding to events and the way they connect. Resistance does come as well. Some on the church are nervous about using sources outside of Scripture to help understand it. Others ask if anything good can come out of something set up from a skeptical point of view. The book tries to show that can happen. Some more skeptical scholars also resist what we are doing, saying we always spin the material in a positive direction. This is why I engage questions and challenges directly in the book. That allows the reader to see what the actual conversation is between those who disagree about how we should see the events. So anyone can see for the case and assess its value.
9. What advice would you offer to a young Christian who desires an academic career? Will he or she have to set his faith aside in order to be an effective scholar? How would you advise him or her to prepare?
My advice is be prepared to work hard, think about things in fresh ways, listen well, and try to be fair to those you disagree with. I do not think one sets one’s faith aside, but one’s faith can be shaped by the work one does, especially correcting misconceptions one may have had about faith. The result is an enriched faith.
10. If readers take away one primary message from Who Is Jesus?, what do you hope it will be?
That in the to and fro of debate about key events tied to Jesus’ life there is a solid case for the events having been faithfully presented even in the midst of genuine skeptical questions about these events. This means reflecting on Jesus and his life as more than a historical matter. What he said and taught about life and God becomes as important a question as one can pursue. I hope that the book causes people to take Jesus and his unique person and message seriously in a cultural context that seeks to relativize him.
11. What other books or projects are you currently working on?
I am about to work on commentaries on Matthew and Mark respectively. I also will be launching a weekly podcast for the Seminary where I teach that will deal with an array of issues where God and culture link.