We have developed a finite difference method that is especially adapted to the study of dynamic shear cracks. We studied a number of simple earthquake source models in two and three dimensions with special emphasis on the modeling of the stress field. We compared our numerical results for semi-infinite and self-similar shear cracks with the few exact solutions that are available in the literature. We then studied spontaneous rupture propagation with the help of a maximum stress criterion. From dimensional arguments and a few simple examples, we showed that the maximum stress criterion depended on the physical dimensions of the fault. For a given maximum stress intensity, the finer the numerical mesh, the higher the maximum stress that had to be adopted. A study of in-plane cracks showed that at high rupture velocities, the numerical results did not resolve the stress concentration due to the rupture front from the stress peak associated with the shear wave propagating in front of the crack. We suggest that this is the reason why transonic rupture velocities are found in the numerical solutions of in-plane faulting when the rupture resistance is rather low. Finally, we studied the spontaneous propagation of an initially circular rupture. Two distinct modes of nucleation of the rupture were studied. In the first, a plane circular shear crack was formed instantaneously in a uniformly prestressed medium. After a while, once stress concentrations had developed around the crack edge, the rupture started to grow. In the second type of nucleation, a preexisting circular crack became unstable at time t = 0 and started to grow. The latter model appeared to us as a more realistic simulation of earthquake triggering. In this case, the initial stress was nonuniform and was the static field of the preexisting fault.