The Historical Jesus of the Gospels – Craig Keener (Review)

When books about the “Historical Jesus” appear, they are often making a clear contrast between the “Christ of faith” (as recounted in the theological texts of the Gospels) and the “Jesus of History” (which was the “real” flesh-and-blood Jesus). So, Craig Keener’s new book is meant to disrupt this dichotomy with a bold (?) assertion: I want to say something about the Historical Jesus OF the Gospels. Can that be done? Keener thinks so.

He does not handle this matter tritely – perhaps it is better to say he does not handle it “lightly” – he takes 831 pages to get his message across. Actually, the content of the book is less than 350 pages – you also get 400+ pages of footnotes, bibliography, and appended material. I have come to realize that I should only be surprised when Keener writes a book that is short!

Ok, so what is this book about. Here is Keener’s words: “to investigate how much we can know from the best sources available, and to offer examples of how these sources provide us more adequate information about Jesus than many scholars think we have.” (xxxvii)

While the book contains 22 (!) chapters, the outline of the book is quite intuitive and one can go to a particular section and find the information one wants to find rather easily. After an orienting introduction, Keener surveys the Quest for the Historical Jesus succinctly in 4 chapters. As one might expect, he shows the folly in de-Judaizing Jesus and labeling him a Cynic, as some scholars have been inclined to do. No, following people like Schweizer, Allison, Sanders, and Wright, Keener is more convinced that Jesus is best understood against a Jewish background and especially in reference to (but not solely) an eschatological prophet. He also discusses the non-Canonical gospels, arguing that they should not be seen to be superior resources for historical investigation.

Perhaps my favorite set of chapters in this book are those on the “Character of the Gospels” (chs. 5-10) which argue that the Gospels fit rather well into the category of ancient biography. Essentially he argues that the historical accuracy of this genre was not fixed. Some bioi were deadset on reporting facts and others took more “liberties,” if you will. Keener wisely argues that instead of appealing to genre, one must look at the content of the Gospels and decide on that basis, not purely on genre.

The last part of the book, beginning at p. 163 (chs. 11-12), deals with “What We Learn about Jesus from the Best Sources.” In these chapters, he deals with these subjects: John the Baptist, Jesus the Galilean Jew, Jesus the Teacher, Kingdom Discipleship, Jesus’ Jewish Ethics, Conflict with Other Teachers, Jesus the Prophet, Jesus as Messiah?, More Than an Earthly Messiah?, Confronting and Provoking the Elite, Jesus’ Arrest and Execution, The Resurrection.

It is a bit unclear what Keener hopes to accomplish in this last section, except to take the trust he has built in the Jesus of the Gospels, and show what kind of person we find there. In that sense, it feels like a bit of a “Life of Jesus” sort of book in miniature. As far as that goes, it is good and useful. But I think it could have been more effectively used towards the ends of the purpose of the book – to engage in issues pertaining to Jesus studies. I will admit, though, as a resource and reference work, I will turn to all of these pages often.

If I have one criticism, and it is one Keener acknowledges in the introduction, he chooses to leave aside the Gospel of John. While he claims that this is not because he considers it unhistorical or unreliable (and he points to his large two-volume commentary on historical issues in John), the reader can’t help but feel that its presence and contribution is missing. What does it mean to write a book about the Historical Jesus of the Gospels and leave out 1 of the Gospels – 25% of the set? Keener was concerned that he did not have enough space, but why John? He wrote a heavy commentary on Matthew. Why not leave out Matthew?

In the end, if he was going to leave out John for good reason (which I question), he might have more aptly named the book The History Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels – I do not offer this suggestion as a criticism, but to say that his title and his book do not match.

Another minor criticism is that his book conclusion was less than a page long. I feel that conclusions to books are very important. For folks like me who want to big picture and a nice de-brief after digesting a book, conclusions are critically necessary.

I do hope, though, Keener’s book will have a life in Jesus studies as another good contribution from a classically-minded theologian and historian who wishes to give a hearing to the canonical Gospels.



3 thoughts on “The Historical Jesus of the Gospels – Craig Keener (Review)

  1. Thanks for posting this. It is a very helpful review of a book that I would love to read, but probably will not have the chance to over the next few years as it is outside of my immediate field.

    As an aside, Dr. Keener sat in on a Biblical Theology Seminar that I was in last year. The day he came we happened to be presenting and critiquing paper topics for the semester, and it was surreal to have him in the room. His brain is amazing – he is a virtual walking encyclopedia of 1st c. historical data.

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