Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Dr. Blomberg. Can you briefly share a little about where you were educated and where you currently teach?
You are most welcome. Thanks for the invitation. I grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, part of the Quad Cities, right on the Mississippi River across from Davenport, Iowa. I went to a Division III Lutheran liberal arts college in my hometown, Augustana College. After teaching a year of high-school math on Chicago’s North Shore, I attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, where I met my wife, Fran. We were married in the summer of 1979, and we left shortly after that for my PhD studies in Scotland at the University of Aberdeen, which is where I became a Baptist.
My first job teaching New Testament studies and Greek was at Palm Beach Atlantic College (now University) in West Palm Beach, Florida, for three years. Then we had an opportunity to live and work in Cambridge, England, for a year, thanks to an invitation and a grant from the British wing of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. There I researched and wrote my first book, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, and finished (radically) revising my dissertation, which turned into my second book, Interpreting the Parables. We moved to the Denver area in the fall of 1986, where I have taught at Denver Seminary ever since.
The first edition of Jesus and the Gospels was published in 1997. With this second edition, what were some of areas you felt needed to be updated? Also, has your overall understanding of Jesus and the Gospels remained the same since you first published the book over 10 years ago?
The areas that were most updated explain a number of the critical methods that some use for studying the Gospels, especially literary and postmodern criticism, developments in the “quest for the historical Jesus,” claims and counterclaims about the significance of the Gnostic Gospels, and research on the historical reliability of John. Thanks to some devoted research assistants, especially Jonathan Waits (who is now a Baptist pastor in Virginia, and who sifted through a ton of secondary literature for me and identified the studies to which I needed to pay the most attention), the footnotes and bibliographies were very thoroughly revised and updated in every chapter.
I certainly didn’t have any “sea change” in my understanding of any significant topic, but I frequently found better ways of saying things, better support for my positions, and new research that enabled me to nuance my views here and there a little better. If anything, I learned how scholarship as a whole is recognizing more and more material, even in the Gospel of John, that can be accepted as historical, even without presupposing Christian faith. Unfortunately, this is not the scholarship to which the media pays nearly as much attention as it does to the novel and the eccentric.
Gospel scholars like Richard Burridge have argued that the Gospels are best understood as resembling Greco-Roman biography. Would you agree with Burridge—classifying the Gospels as biography—or do you find a better genre to place them in?
They very much are biographies, but some Greco-Roman biographies play somewhat fast and loose with history. So I would prefer to be more precise and call them historical biographies. Of course, we can’t think of either history or biography with contemporary expectations about comprehensiveness, complete chronological ordering, verbatim quotation, or dispassionate chronicle. But by the standards of the world in which they were written—which recounted episodes from people’s lives very selectively, sometimes ordering their material topically, paraphrasing others’ words in a world that had yet to invent quotation marks or feel any need for them, and assuming that the only parts of history that were worth retelling were those from which you could learn lessons—the Gospels would have been viewed as highly accurate.
In part one, you discuss the historical background for studying the Gospels. How does understanding Jesus’ historical context give us a better understanding of the message and theology of the Gospels?
The only way to avoid misunderstanding any writer from any time period is to understand the historical and cultural context in which that writer wrote. To understand fully what Jesus meant by “go the extra mile,” we need to know that Roman soldiers occupied Israel during the first century and could legally commandeer any civilian they came across to carry their equipment for them for up to a mile. But they couldn’t force them to carry it any further. Jesus tells his followers and would-be followers, however, to do so voluntarily, and the expression has made its way into English as proverbial for going “above and beyond the call of duty.” When Jesus is asked if he is the Messiah, one has to understand that Jews were looking for a military and/or political deliverer who would help them rid the land of the Romans. When Jesus seems reluctant to come straight out and say he is their Messiah, or when he tells people not to tell others that he is, it’s because he believes that spiritual liberation is more needed than physical liberation. He realizes that a straightforward identification with the kind of Messiah most of his kinfolk were looking for would lead to serious misunderstandings about his ministry. Countless additional examples could be given.
Since the publication of The Quest for the Historical Jesus, there has been tremendous speculation on the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. How does your work help inform the layperson about the quest(s) for the Historical Jesus?
I devote about two-thirds of one chapter to quickly and simply surveying the three main quests (or three phases of the quest), the strengths and weaknesses of each, and where we are today. I highlight the main portraits of Jesus popular in today’s scholarly literature, talk a little about why there is such a diversity of portraits, and outline what criteria various scholars use to determine what they will accept as historical. Then, in the section of the book that proceeds sequentially through the life of Christ, I include a short section near the end of each main topic on the principal historical reasons we can consider this collection of teachings or activities something that Jesus really did say or do.
Besides Jesus and the Gospels, what other resources would you recommend to someone who wants to study Jesus and the Gospels more?
That’s an almost unanswerable question. I would have to know first what specific areas they were most interested in, and then how much background they already have. Are we talking about a high-school student from a non-Christian background, a young adult raised in a church that emphasized teaching the Bible and especially the life of Jesus in their Sunday School curriculum, a Christian-college graduate who majored in biblical studies, or a pastor with a doctorate? Because people have such diverse backgrounds, each of my chapters closes with recommendations for further study divided into introductory, intermediate, and advanced resources, and I would refer the interested reader to those highly selective bibliographies.