As promised, here is my first post on Craig Keener’s new book. Full disclosure: I know Craig and we both have interest in Acts and Greco-Roman literary genres. I was glad to accept his offer to send me a free copy. In this post, I will talk about the first chapter of the book but also some additional information that I think is important to consider if you’ve never delved into this area at all. I’d really appreciate some interaction. I hope you can tell that I’m not going to attack anyone who disagrees. I’d rather have a conversation or at least a message to tell me what you would like me to write about.
I wish more scholars were as careful as Craig Keener. In a month, I’ll be attending the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Diego. I’m bound to hear multiple papers that are some scholar shooting from the hip: undemonstrated and debatable a priori beliefs, inadequate argumentation, etc. In fact, in the biblical scholarship that I have read over the years, if jumping to conclusions were an Olympic sport, there are some biblical scholars who would get gold medals. I will digress for a moment and say that the Institute for Biblical Research, which always meets the same weekend at the same place, generally demonstrates much more care, and complaints about Evangelical scholarship are proved wrong every year. End of Digression. It just bothers me how Jivegeschichte is pumped out in the name of biblical studies.
In chapter 1, Keener provides the context for the book. He wrote a work several years ago he the quest for the historical Jesus. For readers who have not waded into that swamp, beginning in the late 18th century A.D., scholars, based upon the presuppositions of the Enlightenment—no supernatural—threw off any sense of sacred or special status to the Bible. They came to the canonical Gospels and began analyzing them to see what they could reliably take to be historically correct information about Jesus, his words, and his actions. Some sought to remove the supernatural from the gospels. For example, Jesus did not walk on water but was walking on a sandbar or was near the shore and the disciples mistook this for walking on the water. It was suggested that instead of miraculously providing bread to 5000 in the wilderness (which for Matthew and John, at least, portrays Jesus as a new Moses or greater than Moses), what actually happened is that when the little boy offered to share his food, everyone else got out their own, which they had apparently been hiding I guess. This quest has gone through multiple stages. The most recent stage, rejecting the earlier anti-Jewish perspective of many German scholars, has sought to recover Jesus as a first-century Jew and make sense of what the gospels tell us about him in a Jewish context. The, of course, there was the ridiculous Jesus Seminar, created by Robert Funk specifically to discount any purported information about Jesus in the canonical gospels. The result was inevitable: a Jesus who would not even show up on anyone’s radar but somehow got arrested and executed the Roman government anyway.
In my previous post about this topic, I talked about the choices for the genre of the gospels. Understanding the genre of something is very important because without it, l one can watch television sci-fi shows and take them to be portraying history. Among the main choices, while some still cling to the idea of the gospels as ancient novels, they fit much better into the category of biography as the Greco-Roman world understood that or as historiography. A key difference between these two is that an ancient Bios or “Life” focused on only one person. Keener sees the gospels as Greco-Roman biographies, which focus on the person of Jesus. The question then becomes, What should an historian expect from an ancient biography in terms of reliable, historical information?
Keener says the following about the genre and historical value of the gospels: “At the risk of ruining suspense, this study’s conclusion will favor the median approach for public scholarship: as a matter of probability, we should expect a significant historical core in the average reports in first-century Gospels except where evidence specifically points in a different direction. That is, neither the expectation of verbatim material nor a presupposed skepticism toward the historical core of the bulk of the material is warranted. This conclusion is consistent with what a majority of historical critics conclude based on other lines of research.”
Readers who are not aware of Craig’s other works might want to consult his two-volume work on miracles before thinking that this statement means Keener rejects the miracles in the gospels. He does not. However, his book is written with scholars in mind and if he came out and wrote in chapter 1 that everything the Gospels say about Jesus is true, much of his potential, expected/hoped for audience would close the book at that point, consider it too religiously biased, and stop reading. This is simply how one approaches such mattes in a scholarly context. For more on the quest for the historical Jesus, reads might want to consult Keener’s earlier book, The Historical Jesus in the Gospels. Be aware, however, that while I highly recommend both that book and this book, they could be used successfully for bicep curls. 😊
According to Keener, research has shown that “ancient biographers depended heavily on prior information in composing biographies,” a characteristic we would not expect in, for example, ancient novels (p. 15). I find myself mentally going “Yes” as I read these pages. I have not done anything close to what Keener has done in this book but I have researched this topic myself, both primary and secondary sources on Bioi and historiography. I cannot count the number nights in graduate school I was up at 1 AM translating Josephus, Lucian, or Thucydides from Greek. It was hard-earned knowledge!
Keener says that he is not going to analyze specific gospel traditions but mentions the important point in passing that any who want to study the gospels in-depth need a synopsis, a book that puts Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in four columns in order to show how each reports the same incident. I recall when I first read the gospels that by the time I was in Luke, I was thinking, “I know I just read that in another gospel.” I encourage students to not blend such parallel accounts together but to let each gospel writer have his own unique presentation preached or taught on as it is. Keener states that ancient biographies written within living memory of the subject, such as the gospels, can especially offer valuable historical information and tend to offer more detailed accounts.
Digression: We tend to think of historians as using texts to learn about the past. In the Greco-Roman world, not least the first century, it was considered far more valuable to get information from a living person who had witnessed or participated in the event(s) being narrated. Texts were of secondary value.
Keener states that with any particular account in the gospels, when there is neither evidence to corroborate the event nor show that it did not happen, we should take the approach of a more positive than negative assessment of the narrative. Keener says this more carefully than I have paraphrased it.
One issue with writing ancient biographies is that less information would be available after the biographee’s death and of those who had living memories of the individual. On the other hand, those written while the biographee was alive were sometimes suspected of bias and writing to avoid harm if the bographee was a person with power, such as an emperor. Biographies written in living memory but after the death of the biographee would not be as subject to these drawbacks. Therefore, the gospels, written within living memory of Jesus but after his death, as biographies, contain a good deal of information about Jesus and given accounts that cannot be corroborated or disproved, are most likely to contain valuable historical information.
Keener discusses historical narrative briefly and points out something very important. Much biblical scholarship, beginning in the 19th century, relied upon a Positivist understanding of history. A leading figure in this movement was von Ranke, who said that history should be reported exactly as it happened. I’ll spare you the original German. The reality, as pointed out by Postmodernist thinkers, is that this cannot be done. No one can write about the past without having a particular perspective on it. Not only that, but we don’t posses enough information to narrate every single thing that happened in any event. For example, most have heard of Napoleon’s defeat at the battle of Waterloo. What did he have for breakfast that day? Might it have affected his decisions? One scholar has suggested that Napoleon suffered from digestive system issues and perhaps these affected the battle. Besides that, someone interested in European battlefield cookery might want to know the full menu for that battle. Alas, we don’t have that menu nor any idea of what Napoleon’s breakfast entailed. Why? Writers of history, even if they know a lot, do not record it. Pick any famous person you want. Do you really want to know every single tiny detail of that person’s life or even of one day? She got up. She ate breakfast. She brushed her teeth… Boring!!
History, as Keener points out, is a selective narrative. The writer chooses events deemed significant, puts them into a narrative context, and shapes them to fit well into his or her historical account. The alternative is a chronicle that simply lists event after event after event with no context or regard for significance. All historical accounts are selectively chosen and shaped accounts. This applies not only to the gospels but to all historical accounts ancient and modern. There is no escape. Resistance is futile. Keener also records a humorous event with his wife while he was working on this book. You’ll have to read the first chapter to find it.
The last part of the chapter describes Keener’s method and what he is not writing on. As Craig has written elsewhere, even when he says what he is not covering, critics still complain that he left that topic out. I think that is pretty convincing to show that many critics are, as I’ve mentioned before, reviewing his books without actually reading them. I consider that immoral. I won’t review a book unless I’ve read at least most of it, usually all of it. Keener states that he is not going to focus on particular episodes in the gospels nor debate the issue of the historical Jesus. He is concerned with the genre of the gospels as Bioi and the implications of this for how we should read them.