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


At 5/03/2010 1:20 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Thanks Nick, and I AMEN on the endnote problem. It sounds like this is a good course book text.

At 5/03/2010 1:33 PM, Blogger Mark Guest said...

Nick, thanks for the review. I always have a question in the back of my mind when I read more conservative works on the historical Jesus, namely that they invariably claim to know too much - to give "critical" credence for matters strictly beyond the scope of critical enquiry. If you understand my point here, do you think Keener is another example or do you think he negotiates these roads with more acumen?

At 5/03/2010 5:05 PM, Blogger Eliyahu said...

What about judging a book by it's cover. Since when does an effeminate white guy look anything like a Jewish Middle Eastern man. Have you ever seen a picture of a Middle Eastern Jew? The "search" for the historical Jzeus is the last gasp for Xtians who will not search for the historical Ribi Yehoshua ben Yoseph, the Torah teaching judge of the 1st century.

At 5/03/2010 5:08 PM, Blogger phil_style said...

Eliyahu, your comment proves exactly why there is a phrase "you shouldn't judge a book by its cover"...

At 5/04/2010 3:54 AM, Blogger Edwardtbabinski said...

The Jesus on the cover DOES look a little pale and Nordic, a Jesus an Aryan might love.

I'm just saying.

Don't crucify the messenger.

And I'm not judging the book, just the cover!

And maybe, just maybe, the way Jesus in art is changed to suit the culture, reflects the way the Jesus story itself evolved to suit the Hellenistic culture where it took root and spread the fastest. I mean the Gospels were composed in Greek, not the language of Jesus' Palestine, but the lingua franca of the Hellenistic world. That's where the stories were being passed around about Jesus and where they eventually wound up in print, in Greek. Didn't Paul come from a town named after a dying rising god with festivals in the town to praise that god? Didn't Paul claim that he learned the words that Jesus spoke at the Lord's supper directly via the Holy Spirit? Did't Paul used some terms that the mystery religions also used? And isn't the consensus of modern day Pauline scholars that Paul didn't even believe Jesus was equal with God? (See this month's book review section of The Biblical Archeologist, for a review of a book on Paul in which the reviewer makes that exact point.)

At 5/04/2010 9:35 AM, Blogger phil_style said...

We all know the painitng isn't representative of a first century Jew. But we all know who the painitng is supposed to be. That's the beauty of art. . . dunno why folks still get upset about this kind if imagery.

At 5/04/2010 9:01 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Chris - yep I'd certainly recommend it to Theology students

Mark - Yeah I understand what you mean, to be honest I think the same can apply to scholars from the other side of the spectrum too. I found that Prof. Keener avoided many of the pitfalls that more 'blase' (read an accent on the e!) scholars can, and is clear in places that some things are based on conjecture (as with all history sometimes that's all we have) but is clear about his 'workings'

Eliyahu and Edward - The painting on the cover is "Face of Christ" by Philippe de Champaigne, a famous Baroque painter which is well recognised as a painting of Jesus. It is I suspect chosen for two reasons (1) As Pstyle points out, it is easily recognised as Jesus; and (2) it provokes questions, such as "is that really what Jesus looked like" as it has here. Indeed one of Prof. Keener's key points is that Jesus was, if nothing else, a Galilean Jew.

Edward - You need to read this book, it will answer your points far better than I can. Suffice to say Prof. Keener (as do other scholars such as N T Wright) highlights the Jewishness of the Gospels telling of Christ - including events, parables, and use of language which only fully make sense in a Jewish context and are extremely unlikely to have been invented by Gentiles, even phrases which, when backward translated from Greek in Aramaic (although the Prof warns against the limitations of this as clear proof), reflect Jewish sayings and language conventions.

At 5/08/2010 9:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Endnotes made reading Campbell's book almost impossible...I do not know if I can read another 1200 page book with endnotes.

At 5/13/2010 5:44 PM, Blogger Eliyahu said...

Sorry I wasted space here,(reference wiping the dust off my sandals.) Hey I never heard that phrase "judging a book by it's cover," duh. You guys don't get it. Ribi Yehoshua is not your Jzeus. There is no connection to Torah and Torah rejection. You do this for fun?

At 5/16/2010 10:01 AM, Blogger Steven Carr said...

'Suffice to say Prof. Keener (as do other scholars such as N T Wright) highlights the Jewishness of the Gospels telling of Christ - including events, parables, and use of language which only fully make sense in a Jewish context and are extremely unlikely to have been invented by Gentiles....'

You mean these early Christians were very often Jewish?

Is this a widespread view?

At 5/16/2010 10:03 AM, Blogger Steven Carr said...

The Jewish background of the sayings of Jesus is very interesting.

When Jesus said to Paul 'It is hard for you to kick against the pricks',did this have a Jewish background, and so was unlikely to have been invented by Gentiles?


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