Monday, May 03, 2010

Guest book review: Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

With thanks to Eerdmans for a review copy, and to Nick Walsh for his review.

Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009 (ISBN: 978-0-8028-6292-1)

The 3 quests for "the Historical Jesus", Dan Brown's "the Da Vinci Code", James Cameron's "Lost Tomb", Philip Pullman's latest book "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" and many, many others all have one thing in common; they are searching for the real person behind the figure who has impacted history more than any other individual. Some are fiction based on dubious or fictitious sources whilst others are genuine scholarly attempts to get to the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth, and it is into this second category which this book slots.

The author, Craig Keener, is professor of New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University in Pennsylvania, USA and is known for his expertise in the early Jewish and Greco-Roman context of early Christianity. It is this expertise which Keener brings to bear in this work, the purpose of which he cites as working "to establish especially that the basic portrayal of Jesus in the first-century Gospels, dependent on eyewitnesses, is more plausible than the alternative hypotheses of its modern detractors" (pg. 349). Professor Keener seeks to engage with and disprove the hypothesis, assumed by many historical and contemporary works on the historical Jesus, that the 4 Gospels are not reliable sources for reconstructing Jesus. Having disproved this hypothesis he then seeks to show, with a focus on the synoptic, what can be reconstructed from the Gospels and how best to do this.

This book consists of 3 sections which are as follows:

Section 1: Disparate views of Jesus - This section sketches the history of 'Jesus scholarship' and examines characteristics of particular stages and ideas. Keener particularly focuses on the ideas of a couple of scholars who have either been pivotal in the discussion or have represent key ideas. These include Adolf von Harnack, Weiss and Schweitzer, Bultmann, Brandon, Crossan, Burton Mack, Marcus Borg, Geza Vermes and EP Sanders. He also examines some of the issues surrounding 'other Gospels' such as the Gnostic writings which have entered the public eye due to fiction like "The Da Vinci Code."

Section 2: The Character of the Gospels - This section seeks to examine subjects such as ancient literary practice, genre, rhetoric and sources. In this chapter Keener examines issues such as how ancients wrote biography and history, how this differs from modern styles and how the Synoptics fit into these categories, and a detailed look at what we can gather regarding the Gospel's sources - both oral and written.

Section 3: What we Learn about Jesus from the Best Sources - Having established that the Gospels are reliable, and indeed our best, sources, and a solid model for interpreting them Keener now moves onto exploring what we can learn from these sources. He begins this chapter by examining John the Baptist and then moves through a variety of aspects of Jesus identity including; Galilean Jew, teacher, prophet and Messiah as well as Jesus' model of discipleship, ethics, conflicts, arrest, execution and resurrection.

Additional information is included in the comprehensive endnotes (over 200 pages) and nine appendices.

Aspects of Keener's book which I found particularly helpful/positive were;

  • Explaining complex points and less common concepts.
  • Outlining ideas from his own previous or other writers works rather than just saying "covered in book X."
  • Positive treatment of other scholars even those he clearly disagrees with.
  • I was especially pleased with the inclusion of conclusions at the end of nearly all the chapters, this is a very useful resource.

    For the most part I very much enjoyed this book however I do have one major niggle:

  • Endnotes. This is not restricted to this book alone but is something which frustrates me a great deal, I can understand including references in endnotes, but including often lengthy comments about background or different perspectives is annoying. I found myself having to read a paragraph or section, turn to the back for several comments and then turn back and continue which really broke the rhythm of the book and made it more challenging to read than it should have been. By all means put references in endnotes but not comments or discussions, these belong in footnotes where they are more easily read (publishers take note!).
Ultimately "The Historical Jesus of the Gospels" is a very well written and accessible book which avoids the mistakes that some scholarly texts make - assuming that everyone is as literate and read as the writer - and is definitely not restricted to professors. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to seriously engage with the Historical Jesus of the Christian faith without sacrificing rigorous scholarship and honest history.

Nick Walsh

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