Historian and former atheist: Craig Keener's journey

I'm becoming steadily more impressed with the work of the award winning historian Professor Craig S. Keener. Somehow I only heard about him for the first time earlier this year. In the past month I've gotten around to reading his GosJohn commentary. I'm almost through with volume 1, and ironically I've been seriously debating whether to start a new tome of his just recently released, before I've even finished his second (of 2) GosJohn volume!

That new release is The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. (From what I can tell, it's actually vol 1 of a 2-part series, too; the sequel will be about the miracles of Jesus.)

I'm a big fan of progressing systematic analysis, whether in metaphysics (my own forte) or historical studies. So I can't help but adore the layout of this book as indicated in the table of contents. (See the Amazon link above and Search Inside the Book for the ToC.) And I'm a big fan of footnotes: 385 PAGES OF ENDNOTES AND WORKS CITED!! In small point font. And in double columns for the index of ancient works cited. {gggggggg!} (His GosJohn commentary purportedly contains over 10,000 ancient and modern work citations. I can believe it.) I wish they were footnoted instead of endnoted (a definite plus to the GosJohn commentary), but oh well.

Most of all I'm a fan of evenhanded critical analysis of data--an ideal I sometimes fall short of, but one I wholeheartedly believe is worth aspiring to. From reading his GosJohn commentary, and from what I've thumbed through in this book so far (sigh... read now, or later? now, or later...?), I think I can agree with Anne Rice's description that they blurb on the dust jacket. (Yes, that Anne Rice. She reconverted to Roman Catholicism a couple of years ago.) "In seeking to discover and explain what we can know of Jesus in his own time, Keener... is unfailingly generous to other scholars and painstakingly careful in his own well-reasoned arguments."

That doesn't mean I agree with every single thing from the GosJohn commentary--I think he misses a couple of points in places--but I'm more than a little happy with his work so far, and I wanted to share. {s!}

In particular, I wanted to share a couple of pages from Appendix 8 to his recent work. (Edited to add: I had to type the whole thing from scratch, so there were a number of by-eye typos that crept in. I have now fixed them all, I think; if any remain, they should be considered a transcription accident, not part of the original text.) I've long maintained that there are lots of things in the Gospels that even an atheist could easily accept in principle as being good history; and as a former atheist himself, Prof. Keener having studied the data intensely now for years agrees with that assessment. He also has some cutting critiques to make of Christians that, frankly, I have to say I agree about, too. {lopsided g} So hopefully this excerpt won't be too annoying for our sceptical readers to wade through.

(I promise, I'll be putting up Part 2 of my Wolfenism article later, so you'll have something more annoying to gripe about. {g})

[pp 384-388]
My Own Journey
Many scholars today appreciate full disclosure of one's personal presuppositions, recognizing that all scholars have some. Like most scholars, I try to do my historical scholarship as a good historian. Many scholars working in historical Jesus research have personal religious commitments (Christian, Jewish, or other); others do not. But we all try to make a case that can be heard and engaged by others who may disagree with us. Having said that, some of us, myself included, would have gone into other disciplines without the element of religious interest in this particular figure. Before acquiring such interest, I did have enormous interest in the rest of the Greco-Roman world. Nevertheless, I was [at that time] reticent to study Jesus or even ancient Israel because historical study of these subjects connected to modern "religious" discussions in ways that reading about Germanicus or Nero Drusus (or even "the divine Augustus") did not.

When I was an atheist (largely for what I thought were scientific reasons), one of my central (albeit nonscientific) objections to believing anything about Jesus was that eighty percent of people in my country claimed to be his followers, yet most of them apparently lived as if it made no difference for their lives.

In an effort to be provocative, I might ask whether western Christians' frequent way of believing the resurrection is as consistent as most non-Christians' way of disbelieving it. Much of western Christendom does not proceed as if the Jesus of the Gospels is alive and continues to reign in his church. In practice, a gulf remains between their affirmation of Jesus' resurrection and their living as if he is humanity's rightful lord, so that a theological affirmation does not translate into their experience. Their "faith" constitutes mere assent to a proposition, rather than sharing Jesus' resurrection life as depicted in Paul's letters. Likewise, their devotional prayer to God often has little emotional connection to the Jesus of the Gospels; the experience of the early church that connected the Synoptics and Paul is not always their own experience. The experience of Christianity in some other parts of the world is more wholistic; indeed, in many locations Christians even show great interest in Jesus' example and teachings. At the time, however, I had personally witnessed that commitment from only a few persons, whom I thus treated as anomalous.

I reasoned that if I believed that there was truly a being to whom I owed my existence and who alone determined my eternal destiny, I would serve that being unreservedly. But whatever other religion might contain some truth, I concluded that if Christians did not really believe in Jesus, there was surely no reason for myself to do so.

When I later encountered the risen Christ in an unsolicited and unexpected personal experience, hence came to the conviction that he (not to mention the God with whom he was associated) was in fact alive, I understood that the reality of Jesus rises or falls not on how successfully his professed followers have followed his teaching, but on Jesus himself.

Such an encounter will naturally be dismissed as purely subjective by those disinclined to accept it, and admittedly, I did not have a physical "resurrection appearance". I offer this information as an explanation by way of full disclosure, not as an argument, since it functions outside the epistemological criteria used in normal academic historical Jesus work. Many historical Jesus scholars who doubt that Jesus is alive have in fact traveled the opposite direction, moving away from traditional Christian conviction. Some have done so as a result of rigid categories (so that rejecting parts of their earlier faith required rejecting the whole); others through accommodating dominant philosophical trends that made faith impossible; others because faith is often genuinely difficult (though, I think, all the more needed) in a world full of suffering; others for historiographic or other reasons. I can only recount my experience openly, as they are welcome to recount theirs, in the hope that we can dialogue further. Our experiences on both sides inform our presuppositions, for those inclined to skepticism as well as for those inclined to faith.

Concluding "Unscientific Postscript" to Appendix 8
Ending with an "unscientific postscript" runs the risk of having readers paint one's entire work and career as unscientific, especially for those who, scanning a conclusion, suppose they have reconstructed the primary theme of the entire book. (Distinguishing between the body of one's arguments and a concluding personal opinion is, however, why we normally reserve such material for a postscript.) For some readers, being able to pinpoint a scholar as Christian, Jewish, atheistic, or as holding some other view absolves the reader of the need to engage her or his arguments. Yet no scholar lacks personal perspectives, whether they are stated explicitly or not. I do not wish to conceal mine, as I believe that I came by them honestly (even if not in ways that would satisfy detractors), and as I believe that they motivate me to seek truth rigorously because I so esteem the subject matter.

But I also confine this discussion especially to the book's end-matter so as to keep the arguments in the main body of the book as rigorous and independent as possible. Some who will dismiss without consideration that research because they disapprove of my personal perspective have, if they would admit it, personal perspectives of their own.

I believe that there remains in some sectors of academia a prejudice against accepting claims about the reliability of many Gospel traditions, a prejudice that may sacrifice genuine objectivity for the sake of objectivity's appearance. Were the Gospels biographies of Greek or Roman religious figures, the prejudice against them would likely be less, but some assume that anything one tries to say about Jesus historically reflects a modern religious bias. I believe that I have highlighted sufficient evidence to show that there is plenty of historical information available about Jesus for those whose interest in studying him is purely historical, without religious considerations.

The concern about religious bias becomes most acute in the discussion of the resurrection, however. While the charge of bias might be leveled either way, that charge is often invoked before the evidence is even allowed to be weighed. Many explain the resurrection in terms of the disciples' visionary experiences; [and] such experiences can be described without prejudice to their objective content.

But if evidence seems to support the historicity of a more objective event, some view the presentation of such evidence as tendentious support for the claim of one religion (especially when an "act of God" seems the most plausible and parsimonious among proposed explanations). Academicians sometimes thus are predisposed to reject such evidence in the name of religious neutrality (and sometimes, with less pretense of "neutrality", a hostility toward supernatural religion inherited from the most extreme phase of the Enlightenment.)

If, however, our concern is with history rather than the religious use to which some may put it, we must ask first of all where the evidence points. At this point I will try to more explicitly separate the historical and theological questions, while at the same time showing where they bear on each other.

I have talked with a number of skeptics about Christian faith who, after extended conversation, admitted that their objections to the basic Gospel portrait stemmed from their concern that acknowledging more about Jesus historically would entail greater moral demands on their lives. This prejudice is not, however, the starting point of all skeptics, and was not my starting point when I was a skeptic. I was an atheist for what I felt were intellectually satisfying reasons; whether they were genuinely defensible reasons or not, they were not merely morally pragmatic ones. Because of my epistemological orientation at the time, I would have derided the intelligence of someone who rejected historical data out of moral convenience just as I derided most Christians (who I felt accepted their faith because of their upbringing or existential convenience).

I believe that, on historical grounds, an atheist could affirm most of the historical points we have established in this book. They are historical arguments, and I believe that most "neutral" observers would find them more convincing than not. As an atheist no less than subsequently as a Christian, I did desire to follow evidence, even if it crashed my own convenient philosophic system (which it ultimately did, especially the Neoplatonic part of it); I believe that I would have found arguments such as those in this book convincing.

When I was an atheist, however, my concerns were not the sorts of historical issues we have been addressing in this book. Admittedly, I believe that affirming the plausibility of the gospel narratives would have moved me to consider following Jesus in a much more significant way than I was then following various other thinkers (Greek philosophers and other sources). Yet at that point in my explorations, Jesus was an uncomfortable question I had deferred until later, and I knew Greek mythology far better than I knew biblical stories (I had read less than one chapter of the Bible--namely part of the first one, which from my cosmological standpoint revolted me). Although my primary objection to theism was that I thought that contemporary scientific philosophy could explain the universe without that hypothesis, my primary objection to Christianity in particular was that Christians did not seem to take it seriously. But because I esteemed truth as the highest value, I wanted to remain open-minded.

While one can believe many of the Gospel reports about Jesus without being a Christian, it seems to me more difficult to be a Christian while rejecting nearly all of the Gospel reports about Jesus. (Admittedly, this observation depends on how one defines "Christian". If one defines it broadly as "follower of Jesus", however, it is hard to follow the teachings and example of someone whose teachings and example remain virtually unknown.)

Historical Jesus research is a historical question; all researchers have biases, but academic dialogue allows us to challenge and probe one another's biases and seek some central, securely grounded information about Jesus. Because such conclusions usually include the minimum on which most parties can agree, they usually do not resolve (and often do not address) the question involved in religious or spiritual quests for Jesus. The approaches and goals differ, and the limitations of historiographic methodology are not limitations that must be embraced by these latter quests. Nevertheless, if the latter quests mean anything that is distinctive with regard to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, they do invite some historical exploration.

Some scholars have argued that the "Jesus" we can reconstruct from history is irrelevant to faith; others demur. While the historical method does not give us a complete picture of Jesus, however, it does call to our attention some emphases in Jesus' message and ministry that we might otherwise have overlooked. [Endnote 24: For example, McClymond notes that the sources provide not only the comfortable western interpretation of Jesus as "socially inclusive" or oriented toward "family values", but also "a homewrecker", one who favored the poor, "preached fire-and-brimstone" and "was a totalitarian".] Because churches and cultures have too often remade Jesus in our own image, going back to the sources helps to keep us honest. While academic "Jesus research" does this in a different way than pure study of the Gospels (which mostly lacks the former discipline's intractable problem of lacunae in sources), both approaches can highly important features of Jesus and challenge our biases.

Rumor has it that Prof Keener submitted an 8000 page volume on Acts, but was told to revise and resubmit. I kind of believe that rumor, too... {g!} (Though I suspect someone somewhere accidentally typed an extra zero. The GosJohn commentary, which involves both historical and theological Jesus studies, clocks in at 1600 pages more or less, by the way; this historical Jesus commentary, which focuses more on the Synoptics, only runs 393 pages. Plus endnotes, ancient and modern works cited; and the topical/authors indexes which I haven't counted yet. Yes, the apparatus to this book is approximately half its total length!)


Jason Pratt said…
Just a comment-tracking registration here.
Brad Haggard said…
I've seen a lot of these "defense of presuppositions" in conservative volumes of both NT and OT study. Are we protesting too much, or do we not need to worry ourselves with engaging in such obviously hostile arguments and positions? I don't know the answer, but it strikes me that every conservative scholar feels the need to clarify their method and bias.
Anonymous said…
Sounds impressive, but I wouldn't touch anything with 385 pages of footnotes with a 385 foot pole.
Ron said…
I think it's a great thing that conservative scholars do this. I think everyone hates the feeling of being manipulated by people who have a hidden agenda. With admissions like this, we can keep in mind the point of view of the author so that we can ask critical questions, especially if they happen to share our presuppositions. When we're all in it for truth we are all friends on the journey rather than intractable ideologues (which gets me to my beef with the current evangelical obsession with "worldview" which is another story altogether.)

Anyway, great post, Jason. I put both books on my wish list. I love history, especially history that pertains to the faith.
Jason Pratt said…
I totally agree with Ron. I do it myself whenever I'm writing book-length material, as a self-critical exercise more than anything.

A more cynical person might point out that Keener does this in the next-to-last-appendix of his book (buried in the middle of its actual page-count and not even at the physical end of it!) But he explains why it's there and not somewhere else. I've seen other authors put it in the preface or introduction (my own preferred method).


The only real problem with endnotes is when the author has a habit of including actual commentary there (which Keener does) rather than only connecting refs to other works. Then the reader has to flip back and forth all the time. In the past, it was understandable because that was easier for printers to set up. But we have these things called 'computers' that were recently invented with 'software' and stuff. They still can't index worth a hoot, but they're great at footnoting. {g}

Otherwise, you could just ignore the endnotes. In practice (such as with McDougall's Freedom Just Around The Corner and its sequel Throes of Democracy, which I happen to be finishing up as well right now) I tend to read for a while and then catch up on endnote commentary later. Those are histories of the United States from the arrival of the first colonial settlers, or before then actually, to the reconstruction period after the Civil War; and I highly recommend them for their detail and evenhandedness, too. The only downside is that now I want to start up another game of Forge of Freedom or For Liberty!, which are highly detailed strategic and tactical simulations of the American Civil War and Revolution (respectively). Or Birth of America 2, which despite not having a tactical component looks really really good and covers some obscure military engagements before and after the Revolution. It would be more fun if I had someone to play against other than the AI, but my brother won't likely have time until his girls are in high school or maybe college... {lol!}

And thus ends my rambling digression for today! {g!}

Ron said…

Whoa! Years ago I played a Civil War computer game that was real awesome but I lost the CD for it and forgot the title of it. I think it may have been that For Liberty! game you linked to but the game I played seemed older. Anyway, it was a game along those lines where you'd move regiments across the polygon spaces on the map and it would tell the fire power of your troops vs. the enemy. You could also upgrade your troops weapons after a battle (the money you get depends on if you won the previous engagement.) Whatever game it was, it was definitely awesome.

I'll be sure to check out the games you mentioned.
Anonymous said…
if the endnotes were only references, fine.
But no one is able to fill 385 pages with just references. So that's almost an additional book.
Jason Pratt said…

He has some commentary in the endnotes, too; but on the balance I think it's mostly particular refs to ancient and modern works on the immediate subject.

Keep in mind, my page tally of the endnotes also included his full list of modern works cited, and ancient docs cited.

When he footnotes for the GosJohn commentary, it isn't unusual for the actual text body on a page to run less than half the page-length. (Less than a third or a quarter every once in a while.)

While the actual comments sometimes contain some valuable parenthetical insight or information, they can be technically skipped. 385 pages of text-body isn't at all bad for a work of the scope he's aiming for. Check his table of contents by doing a Search Inside The Book at the Amazon link I gave. (I'm pretty sure that should work.)


Yep, that's the rumor I heard, too: down to 5000 pages. Yeek.


I'm certain it wasn't For Liberty, since that's about the American Revolution (and also the Prussian Revolution, I think, which was the original reason for the designers to make the game. They released that as a free demo, if I recall correctly.) Also the game engine sounds different; more like SSI's old Panzer General engine. I don't think SSI ever released a CivWar game with that engine, though. Hm... The way you describe it, it doesn't sound similar to the other big modern CivWar game currently on the market (AGEOD's American Civil War. Much better map and interface than FoF, but no tac battles; only strategic 'stack resolvement'.)

Ron said…

I guess it still remains a mystery then. In any case, the contemporary games you mentioned look just as good as that one did or probably better.
Jason Pratt said…
I am at this very moment holding a mental debate whether to work today on catching up on contributions over at the EU forum--which I'm pretty sure I ought to do--or free the slaves and protect my home states from invasion (by electronic fictional proxy) with FoF.

Oooookay: I did say I'm pretty sure I ought to do the other, didn't I? Ah, well. That'll be fun, too, sort of. {g}

Ross said…
Great post. My school's library has this book, and you've just convinced me to check it out immediately.

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