Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A Major New Book on Jesus: Craig Keener's The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

Well, another SBL is come and gone, and I've spent the last week doing what I do every year the week after SBL: being torn apart between reading all the new books I bought and finishing up my semester of teaching work and finals grading.
This year, I have given in to temptation and can't stop reading Craig Keener's new book, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Eerdmands, 2009). I am currently about halfway through it, and, if all goes well, plan on doing a series of short posts on certain aspects of this very important new contribution to the historical study of Jesus.
Keener is one of the most learned New Testament scholars writing today, and one of the few historical Jesus scholars who has also penned full length commentaries on The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans, 1999) and The Gospel of John (Hendrickson, 2003), of which the latter is arguably the most exhaustive commentary on John penned in the last century or so. For the last few years I've recommended Keener's commentary on John to colleagues not least because the opening chapter on the introduction to John--a chapter which is 330 single spaced pages!--is simply the best introduction to the Gospel I've ever read. (It almost should have been a separate monograph). Anyway, Keener's familiarity with the exegetical issues surrounding the Synoptic and Johannine tradition gives him a special edge and makes his work a unique contribution to the field of historical Jesus research.
With that being said, there are three introductory points that you should know about this new book, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels:
1. Although the book looks formidably long, it is actually extremely concisely written. While it totals out at 831 pages, only 350 of those are actually main text. The rest are endnotes (Why?Why? Why?!!!) appendices, indexes, and an over 100 page bibliography. This makes the book much more accessible for a wide audience than it might appear at first glance.
2. The book is divided into two main parts:
a. Methodology of Jesus Research
b. A 'Reconstruction' of the Life and Aims of Jesus
I'm currently finishing up the methodology section, so I can't say much about Keener's analysis of Jesus' aims, except to say that Keener himself points out that the main contribution of the book is in the method section, where he draws on his unbelievably vast knowledge of ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman literature in order to situate the genre and writing of the Gospels in their historical context.
So far, this methodology section is simple stunning: the chapters on "The Gospels as Biographies," "Luke-Acts as History," "The Gospels' Written Sources," and "the Gospels Oral Sources" are worth the price of the whole book. I have never read in one place such a concise and earth-shattering reevaluation of the assumptions, methods, and sources of Gospel study that is so thoroughly researched and entirely rooted in ancient primary sources, both Greco-Roman and Jewish. Keener strides across the threshold to the door that Richard Bauckham opened in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2003), and does so in a way that is clear, concise, unbelievably erudite, and quite convincing, and which does not suffer from some of the weaknesses of Bauckham's case (e.g., the question of inclusio indicators of eyewitness sources.)
I cannot stress the point enough: any scholar or student who works in the historical study of Jesus needs to read carefully and reckon with Keener's arguments about the genre, historiographical characteristics, and oral and literary formation of the Gospels. If all I had were part 1 of this book, I would even go so far as to suggest that Keener's work represents something of a new stage in the historical study of Jesus, since it is the first major work to fully incorporate the advances that have been made into the literary genre of the Gospels as ancient biographies. Other works treat the Gospels like biographies, without fully discussing why (e.g., N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God), while other works note that the Gospels are biographies, but end up treating the Gospel material exactly like the form-critics who denied the biographical character of the Gospels (e.g., James Dunn, Jesus Remembered). Keener's work is different. However...
3. ...There's still one last observation, more critical than laudatory. There is a strange weakness in the book, which is frustratingly mis-titled. The title, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, gives the impression that Keener is going to build his reconstruction of Jesus' words and deeds from all four Gospels, not just the Synoptics. However, this book should have been called The Historical Jesus of the SYNOPTIC Gospels, for the Fourth Gospel is (virtually) nowhere to be found. Indeed, before we even get to page 1, Keener declares that he will abstain from drawing on the Gospel of John, for reasons of (1) length (the book is already too long); (2) previous publication (readers can find his thoughts on John in his commentary); and (3) avoiding controversy ("there are enough issues of controversy involved in the present discussion that it seemed superfluous to add another one" Keener, "Introduction," p. xxiv).
Although I can sympathize with these points, in the final analysis, they disappoint, for several reasons.First, the issue of length could have easily been solved by eliminating the 100 page bibliography. I'd have preferred 100 pages on Jesus and the Gospel of John from one of the foremost commentators on the Fourth Gospel rather than yet another bibliography. (For that matter, is there any real difference between an 800 page book and a 900 pager?)
Second, Keener himself states that the whole reason he wrote this book is because he overheard someone comment at a conference that "If you want those in the historical Jesus field to read your work, you don't stick it in the commentaries." Keener, p. xxix). In other words, the point of the book is to bring the results of his commentary work into the discussion of the historical Jesus. Why should this goal apply to the Synoptics and not to John? In my opinion, this was a real missed opportunity to have an expert in John allow his expertise to have a potential impact on the field of Jesus research.
Third and finally, while I can sympathize with the desire to avoid controversy and to pick battles that you can actually win, there is a serious methodological problem with using all of the first-century biographies written within the living memory of Jesus' disciples except John. At the end of the day, it is arbitrary, and by definition skews the overall reconstruction. What historical or methodological justification is there for eliminating an entire Gospel from your reconstruction, one which Keener himself regards as a first-century historical biography, written by an eyewitness? Why do this at a time when so many scholars (Keener among them) have recognized the historical value of John's Gospel on a number of points? (e.g., The SBL John, Jesus, and History Group) Again, it would have been very interesting to see how someone who knows John as well as Keener would have actually made use of his Gospel in a historical Jesus book.
Anyway, these criticisms aside, in my opinion, Keener's work, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, looks like it could be one of the most consequential books published on the historical Jesus in over a decade. He is to be commended for stepping out of the field of Gospel commentary writing and making such a momentous contribution to Jesus research.


Anonymous said...

This certainly looks like a thoroughly researched and intriguing book. I see it's for sale on

My only question is should faithful Catholics have any reservations about it's content and conclusions, given the author's Assemblies of God/Baptist/Bible Church Protestant beliefs and education? Does the book contain anything objectionable to Catholics?

Jeremy Priest said...

Very exciting.

I've used Keener's commentary on John and it's amazing: a little sparse in and around John 6 with the Eucharist! I wasn't as impressed with Keener's volume on Matthew's Gospel.

Perhaps Keener's aim with this monograph is somewhat apologetic in the sense that he does not want to tackle John b/c he knows that such a leap would be too much for some scholars?

Jeremy Priest said...

Keener teachers at Eastern University, right?

Timothy said...

Looks great! Another perfect opportunity for me to use the 25% off coupon from Barnes and Noble. Thanks for the post.

Chris said...

Great analysis of the book. So, would you recommend I pick up his commentaries to read before this book?

Is this just more of a synthesis of the commentaries (sans John)?

Brant Pitre said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly about Keener's treatment of John 6. His 'anti-sacramental' interpretation is, to say the least, far from convincing. Nevertheless, the introduction and exhaustive nature of his research more than makes up for any exegetical weaknesses in the book.

For example, although Keener argues for a metaphorical interp. of John 6:53-58, he ignores the fact that in the OT, all of the metaphorical parallels for "eating" someone's flesh and "drinking" someone's blood in the OT refer to persecuting or killing them! For a book with 20,000 ancient parallels, it's strange (to say the least) that he ignores all of these OT parallels, esp. when they are discussed by Raymond Brown at length in support of the traditional Catholic exegesis of John 6).

Brant Pitre said...


So far, there's nothing in Keener's book that I've read that's contrary to Catholic teaching on faith and morals, although by definition the exclusion of John (as well as certain other elements in the Gospels) will render his portrait incomplete from a Catholic perspective. There are a number of key points I disagree with; for example, Keener accepts the Q hypothesis (which I no longer do), and works with it as a starting point. However, these in no way undermine the overall value of the book; again, his discussion of the genre of the Gospels and historical method is invaluable.

As always, the answer is to read an author critically, taking what is good and leaving aside what is erroneous or unhelpful.

Brant Pitre said...


What you read first depends on your interest. If your interested in Jesus life and aims, read this book first.
if you want detailed verse-by-verse commentary to the tune of 800-1000 pages, then go read the commentaries. Though the conclusions are similar, the genres are different; I find historical Jesus books on a whole more interesting to read cover to cover, depending on the task at hand.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response, Brant. I will certainly keep all of this in mind when I eventually read this book.

I'm especially interested to read it and compare it to certain parts of the Pope's Jesus of Nazareth (Part I and next year's Part II) and Bauckham's book on the Gospels as Eyewitness testimony, as well as other works I've read.

Keep up the great work on this website!

Chris said...

Thanks Brant. I'll get the commentaries for general study and reserach, but can't so much see sitting down to read them straight through.

Great site. Looking forward to seeing you in Lubbock in February. We haven't met, but you know my Father-in-law, Deacon Waldo Martinez at St. Elizebth's in Lubbock. He turned me on to your site and gifted me the CDs of your presentations on Mary in Lubbock last year. Great stuff!!

God Bless

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