Craig Keener's Case for the Historical Jesus, Part I

In this series of posts I want to record some quotes from Craig Keener's The Historical Jesus of the Gospels which I have found of value in answering apologetic challenges. I have decided it would be most useful to post these excerpts in a Q&A format, allowing quotes from the book to directly answer questions people sometimes have about the reliability of the Gospels and how much we know about the historical Jesus.

Doesn't the fact that the authors of the Gospels were biased towards Jesus make them unreliable as sources for his life?

Contrary to what modern writers sometimes suppose, 'bias' did not make biographies into novels. We take bias into account when we read works of ancient biography or history, yet at the same time we depend heavily on these sources to understand the persons about whom they are written (both because they are the only sources available, and because comparison shows such works to preserve substantial information). If this is true for other figures of antiquity, why should it be any less true of Jesus? (p.72)
The Gospels seem to be very polished, intricate works from a literary point of view. Doesn't the decisive shaping of the narrative by the individual evangelists undermine our ability to detect accurate information?

Literary critics have demonstrated that in their present form the Gospels are relatively polished and intricate works. The consequent cohesiveness characterizes literary works in general, regardless of their more particular genre (e.g., novels, biographies, and histories)...To require an unimaginative choice between literary strategies and narrative cohesiveness on the one hand, and substantial genuine information on the other, is to impose categories unworkable in ancient literature (particularly historiography and biography). (pp.73-74)
Doesn't the presence of miracle stories in the Gospels indicate that we are dealing with mythography rather than sober history?

Whatever one thinks of the Gospels' accounts of healings and a smattering of other miracles, they remain a far cry from the entertaining, fanciful metamorphosis stories, fantastic creatures, divine rapes, and so forth in a compilation like Ovid's Metamorphoses. If some writers today treat the Gospels' reports of healings as similar to mythography, it is because of modern western cultural biases that coalesce diverse kinds of paranormal claims, not a matter of genre. Ancient historians often included reports of unusual phenomena, yet most focused on the real world that differed very significantly from mythographers' focus. Indeed, tens of thousands of people today claim eyewitness experience of supernaturally empowered recoveries, and whether or not we agree with their interpretation of their experience, the genre of their reports is not typically mythography. (p.76)
Are the Gospels novels?

Whereas the apocryphal gospels and apocryphal acts betray characteristics of novels...the four canonical Gospels much more closely resemble ancient biography. Ancient novelists did not usually seek to write historical novels; most focused on fictitious characters. A small minority of ancient novels built them around historical characters, but none of the examples typically cited involve persons from recent history. Moreover, the use of historical characters and even some historical information was a far cry from historical research and sources (such as Luke's use of Mark and Q in his Gospel) that characterized would be hard-pressed to find a novel so closely tied to its sources as Matthew or Luke is. Works with a historical prologue like Luke's were historical works; novels lacked such fixtures, although occasionally they could include a proem telling why the author made up the story...Further, novels typically reflected the milieu of their readership more than that of their characters, a situation quite different from histories and biographies that were readily adapted for readers but focused on historical content...Some novels were realistic, but many were inconsistent or uninterested in local color. By contrast, local color pervades the Gospels so thoroughly that we sometimes wonder how well Diaspora audiences understood some of the details...Finally, novels were written primarily to entertain rather than inform...Most ancient works sought to entertain; the question was whether they also sought to inform, which novels did not. (pp.77-78)
So what ARE the Gospels?

In contrast to novels, the Gospels do not present themselves as texts composed primarily for entertainment, but as true accounts of Jesus' ministry. Despite some differences in purpose among themselves, all four Gospels fit the general genre of ancient biography: the "life" (often just the public life) of a prominent person. Such biographies were normally written to praise the person and communicate some point or points to the writer's generation. (p.78)

What does the classification of the Gospels as ancient biographies tell us about the intentions of the evangelists?

[W]hile biography tended to emphasize encomium, or the one-sided praise of the subject, it was still firmly rooted in historical fact rather than literary fiction. Thus while the evangelists clearly had an important theological agenda, the very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to tell the story of Jesus indicates that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they thought really happened. (p.80, quoting David Aune)
But the Gospels sure don't resemble any biographies I've read recently. How come two of the Gospels don't have any information about Jesus' birth or childhood, and they seem to recount the same events but in very different order (for example, the Temple cleansing in the Synoptics vs. John)?

Ancient biography differed from modern biography in some respects...For instance, ancient biographies sometimes differed from their modern namesake by beginning in the protagonist's adulthood, as in many political biographies, the first-century Life of Aesop or in Mark's Gospel. In contrast to modern historical biography, ancient biographers also did not need to follow a chronological sequence; most felt free to rearrange their material topically. (pp.81-82)


Jason Pratt said…
Yay! I'm a big fan of Keener's, as you know. (In fact, I think I got around to reading him at last thanks to you in the first place... {wry g})

It's worth keeping in mind, for people who haven't heard of him, that Craig Keener was already a dedicated professional historian of the Greco-Roman era before he converted to Christianity (or even had bothered to study the Christian texts directly.) His commentaries are super-detailed; the particular book JD is talking about collects together information discussed in his other work, but it's also super-detailed in its own right: a little over 400 pages of analysis, plus almost 440 more pages of endnotes, indices and citation material. (Yes, his reference apparatus takes up more than half the book.)

His forthcoming (or threatened {g}) mega-tome on Acts looks set to take over Hemer (no slouch himself) as the premier detailed histiographic analysis on that text for the foreseeable future. I hope his publisher has enough sense to offer the original version of that work as a downloadable pdf or kindle doc. (They're having to trim it by half to save hardback production costs.)

JD said…
Look what else is coming soon...

Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts

Excuse me while I go get a mop to soak up the drooling all over the floor.
Jason Pratt said…
Oh good! He had said he was excerpting that material for its own book.


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