Sean McDowell | October 8, 2019

The State of Historical Jesus Studies

One of my ongoing tasks as a professor is to stay abreast of scholarship in the range of fields that I research, teach, and write on. Since I helped my father update his classic book Evidence that Demands a Verdict (popular) and published The Fate of the Apostles (academic), and also teach the class In Defense of the Resurrection at Biola University, staying on topic of historical Jesus studies is particularly important for me.

For these reasons, and a few more, I love the recent book Jesus, Skepticism, & the Problem of History, co-edited by Darrell Bock and Ed. Komoszewski. In response to the charge that the “Jesus of faith” as believed by the church cannot be accessed historically, Bock and Komoszewski open the book with a compelling chapter encouraging the church to insist that “there is really only one Jesus and that we have genuine knowledge about him” (p. 21).

The Facts about Jesus

The editors list a range of facts about Jesus that are affirmed by virtually all historical scholars, including his birth about 6 to 4 BCE, teachings about the kingdom of God, reputation as a miracle-worker, his baptism by John the Baptist, and so on. Quite remarkably, they conclude,

There is not a single well-evidenced historical fact about Jesus that undermines the ‘orthodox’ view of Jesus. Nearly two and a half centuries of assiduous study, research, and discovery by archaeologists, historians, textual critics, and other scholars searching for an alternate Jesus have failed to turn up a scrap of evidence that contravenes what Christians have traditionally said about him” (p. 23-24).

Present Historical Jesus Studies

In the second chapter of the book, Craig Blomberg and Darlene Seal assess the current state of academic Jesus studies from a historical perspective. They note how focus is presently on the apostle Paul. And they also note a trend towards psychobiography, in which scholars ask questions such as, “What might have been the effect on Jesus of growing up without a biological father?” I am doubtful of how much we can answer this, but it is certainly an interesting question.

Living Witnesses to the Gospels

One of my favorite chapters, written by Paul Rhodes Eddy, assesses the survival of eyewitness testimony by the time the Gospels were written. Based on the populations of both Capernaum and Jerusalem, and the average age span of people in the first century, Eddy comes to a fascinating conclusion:

Conservative estimates reveal that of the approximately 60,000 eyewitnesses of Jesus’s ministry, death, or resurrection who were aged 15 years or older, at least 20,000 would likely have been alive 30 years later, and over 1,000 up to 60 years later” (p. 138).

Thus, we can confidently conclude that there were living witnesses of Jesus during the writing of the Gospels whose continued presence could serve to ensure what was recorded about him matched their actual memories. The Gospels were not written in a social vacuum.

Final Thoughts

The book includes chapters on textual criticism, the burial of Jesus, the resurrection, and a range of other topics related to historical Jesus studies. Some interested me more than others, but that is probably more a reflection of my interests than the chapters themselves.

Here is the bottom line: If you want a book that captures the present state of historical Jesus studies, this is the book for you. It releases today and you can order it here.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: