This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2007 vol. 164 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel StudyBaker Academic, Grand Rapids September 1, 2005
The title of this book indicates that the stories of Jesus recorded in the Gospels occurred within history. This book seeks to place the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus within their historical and cultural contexts through relevant excerpts from ancient literature. Jesus did not live in a vacuum. He lived in first-century Judea and Galilee, which were part of the Roman Empire. Thus a knowledge of first-century Judaism (especially within Palestine) in this context can shed light on the Gospel texts.
A major purpose of this volume is to provide a collection of the ancient nonbiblical texts cited in Darrell Bock’s Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002). Books such as Jesus according to Scripture necessarily cite many texts, but space limitations provide room for few quotations or discussions of many of these. Jesus in Context can serve as a companion to reading the Gospels themselves. Its arrangement and a provided guide to reading (see below) make its use with the Gospels simple and straightforward.
The introductory pages include several helpful items. First, a “canonical guide to the readings” is a chart listing Gospel passages in canonical order with references to sections and page numbers in this volume. Readers can use this chart to help find material relevant for passages of interest. Second, a cross-reference table identifies units in Jesus according to Scripture that have ancient nonbiblical texts cited in this volume. The units from Jesus according to Scripture are listed with the section and initial page number where the material can be found in this book. Third, a preface provides a brief overview of the type of material in this volume and instructions for using the book. The editors acknowledge that some material in this volume may be of doubtful relevance but is included because the texts are commonly associated with the passages under consideration. Fourth, in the acknowledgements the editors mention H. L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck’s work, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrash, 6 vols. (Munich: Beck, 1922–1928), a work to which this volume may be compared. Bock and Herrick describe their work as a “poor man’s Strack-Billerbeck” (p. 15). Fifth, an instructive introduction provides helpful summaries of the main material used in this volume with general instructions for their use.
The book is divided into four parts. First, “The Four Gospels: Distinct Voices” includes mainly later Christian texts about the Gospels. Second, “Jesus according to the Synoptists” follows Christ’s life from His birth to His resurrection as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Parallel passages are discussed together. Third, “Jesus according to John” generally follows the Gospel of John’s structure (however, in a few cases Johannine passages are discussed with the Synoptics). Fourth, “A Theological Portrait of Jesus” highlights a few theological themes in the Gospels.
The texts quoted in this volume help readers understand that the Gospels were not created in a vacuum. Many words, concepts, and places in the Gospels were part of the larger world of the first century. For example in order to illumine the charge made against Jesus that He cast out demons by the power of Beelzebul (Matt. 12:22–30; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:14–15, 17–23), Bock and Herrick include a selection of the Testament from Solomon (excerpts from 2.8–3.6; 6.1–9) in which Beelzebul is summoned and interrogated by Solomon, who questions him on his origins and activities (pp. 103–4). Such literature demonstrates that ancient Jews were familiar with a figure named Beelzebul.
The collection of texts in this volume provide a good background for Gospel studies. The focus on Jewish material is understandable. It would have been helpful to have a little more interaction with nonliterary material such as archaeological discoveries, inscriptions, and coins. Granted, such material may be less valuable than the literary texts provided. However, the volume would have benefited from discussions such as options for the coin Jesus used to illustrate His famous rebuttal of His opponents, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Though this matter is discussed in Jesus according to Scripture (p. 329), to have put information about coins here would have enhanced Jesus in Context.
The book concludes with a bibliography of the texts cited more than once, a helpful appendix on further reading including commentaries and other resources, a subject index, and an index of Scripture and other ancient writings. Jesus in Context is an excellent introduction to the world of Jesus.
—Joseph D. Fantin