The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

HJG.pngKeener, Craig S.

The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009. Pp. xxxviii + 831. Hardcover. $60.00.

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With thanks to Lara Sissell at Eerdmans for this review copy!

You wouldn’t know it by looking at Craig Keener’s list of publications but he’s actually written quite a bit on the historical Jesus; he’s just hidden it in commentaries. In The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (hereafter HJG) Keener draws heavily from his previous commentaries on Matthew (Eerdmans, 1999; 2009) and John (Hendrickson, 2003) as well as his forthcoming commentary on the book of Acts (Hendrickson). In the preface he notes the role that Richard Bauckham and Craig Evans played in him finally writing this book. Knowing that people don’t generally read commentaries from cover to cover they urged him to publish his research in a book devoted specifically to the topic and so we have this massive tome which is sure to prove useful to interested non-scholars.

From the historical Jesus books that I’ve read I’ve come to expect one of two things: (1) the author will discuss the criteria of authenticity employed in historical Jesus research and then proceed to examine the various sayings attributed to Jesus in the canonical Gospels (and sometimes the Gospel of Thomas) in light of these criteria determining which are likely to have actually been uttered by Jesus and which were put in his mouth by later believers, or (2) the author will sketch his own narrative portrait of Jesus from the Gospels, sometimes focusing on each Gospel individually and providing a concluding synthesis, or sometimes crafting a harmony not unlike Tatian’s DiatesseronHJG doesn’t (merely) satisfy either expectation which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Keener presents his research in 22 chapters (not including introduction and conclusion) spread out over 3 sections with an additional 9 appendices and indices, notes and bibliography to match.  While many books proceed along the lines I mentioned above HJG advances beyond them; not in its presentation of Jesus—which is far from novel—but in its attention to detail when discussing topics like genre (the Gospels are biographies based on eyewitness testimony) and historiography or the thoroughgoing Jewishness of Jesus’ parables.  Keener’s encyclopedic knowledge of the ancient world really shines in these areas as he’s able to show the concerns of ancient writers (e.g., in crafting “a cohesive narrative more than a simple citation of facts” [p. 110]) and the expectations of ancient readers/hearers.  Pointing out the differences between ancient and modern historiography or the similarities and continuities of Jesus’ style of teaching with teaching that came before it is extremely helpful and will certainly help the beginning reader to avoid anachronism.

Throughout HJG Keener is concerned with nothing more than placing Jesus in his first-century Jewish context and given his predilection for Bible background material (see his The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament [IVP, 1993]) there’s hardly a better scholar to do this at a popular level.  There’s no Cynic or non-eschatological Jesus in the pages of this book but there is a good refutation of both of these views (and quite a few more).  The Jesus that we can know from our earliest and best sources (the Gospels) was an itinerant preacher/charismatic healer/exorcist/miracle worker who believed himself to have been commissioned by God to bring about Israel’s restoration.  He was an eschatological prophet who taught of a coming kingdom that he believed he would play a significant role in ushering in.  He envisioned his mission at least partly in messianic terms and called for radical discipleship, placing allegiance to himself along the lines that were reserved for God alone, hence there is good reason to see continuity between the extremely early emphasis on Jesus’ exalted status and Jesus’ own exalted self-awareness (see esp. chap. 19).  In short, the historical Jesus of the Gospels is the Jesus that the Church has traditionally proclaimed.

For as much praise as I’ve lavished on HJG I have a couple of withstanding criticisms.  I’ll begin with a bit of a rant: Keener, along with a good number of other NT scholars, puts a lot of stock in ‘Q’ although I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  He acknowledges that “‘Q’ is hypothetical – we have no actual manuscript of the document.” (p. 61)  The problem is that this assumes that ‘Q’ was an actual document without any concrete proof (it’s plausible that if such a source existed that it could have been oral).  But then he goes on to say that “if there is a ‘Q,’ it is one of our best sources for reconstructing Jesus’ teaching.” (p. 61)  I can’t be alone in seeing some kind of strange irony in saying that “if” it existed (which no one can prove) “then” it is (presently) one of our best sources.  How can’t this be?!!  The larger problem is that this comes in a chapter (chap. 4) that has looked at Apocryphal and Gnostic gospels and found them wanting because of their lateness and the ideas they represent.  But how can an alleged document for which there is no proof be a better source than documents that we can actually examine?  It might not be worse but it certainly can’t be better!  Having said that, Keener is right to focus on the historical Jesus of the Gospels.  The canonical Gospels, as Keener ably demonstrates, are our earliest and best witnesses for the life of Jesus.

The book’s biggest strength is at the same time its biggest weakness and that’s very obviously the 209 pages of end notes (pp. 994-603). Its strength lies in abundance of important information that these notes contain. Its weakness lies in the great inconvenience of putting your reading on pause to flip to the back of this very large (!) book and find the note. To be honest, I probably read maybe 1 out of every 25 notes, and that’s probably being generous. And lest you think I’m an extreme case, I’m not! Many readers will treat these notes in the same way.  I’d like to offer a word of advice for publishers who insist on using end notes: Don’t start renumbering with every chapter. Continuous numbering throughout the volume would make tracking down the end notes much easier since we wouldn’t be forced to look to the page’s header or flip through and look for chapter headings.

Throughout HJG we find exactly what we’d expect to find in a historical Jesus book written by Craig Keener. We find erudition which is displayed in his seemingly unmatched familiarity with primary literature of both the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds. We find interaction with a broad (although admittedly not exhaustive) range of secondary literature.  We find fairness in his representation of other scholars’ viewpoints and research even (especially) when he disagrees with them. We find respect in his correction/refutations of other scholars’ views whether they be on the fringes (e.g., Crossan; Mack) or in the mainstream (e.g., Jeremias; Dodd).  We find lucid arguments that support his (what some would call traditional) conclusions, and finally, we find honesty in his approach which is displayed in his admission of the limits of historical inquiry and his acknowledgment of his own presuppositions.  Most of all we find a fantastic introduction to the so-called historical Jesus of the Gospels that will greatly aid any undergraduate or interested non-specialist.  HJG will likely be rehearsal for the specialist, but from my experience, rehearsal only makes us better.


15 thoughts on “The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

  1. Bryan: Yeah. The main text itself, including appendices, is less than 400 pages. Like I said, I didn’t read all the notes because they were in the back. If I did that then I probably would have close to another week of reading.

  2. Keener has a problem with constantly trying to put his erudition into type. I wonder if this book (which is probably next on my list) is more the result of editors pushing topics into footnotes to minimize the actual content.

  3. Ranger: It’s possible. I wonder what the 3-volume Acts commentary is going to look like.

    And make sure to let me know what you think of this one after you’ve read it. I think for as big as it is it’s really introductory. Not because it gives surface level information or anything like that; but because it’s written in a way that laymen can easily understand. I’ve always enjoyed Keener’s prose though so maybe I’m biased.

  4. Mark Goodacre recently did some some stuff on his NT Pod about Q and it’s (non)existance. He opts for the Farrer theory, that Matthew knew Mark and Luke knew both rather than the existance of Q. He did a pretty good job of presenting the data and evidence for the different views on the issue.

    Keener probably likes Q because it would be another early source of Jesus’ teaching separate from Mark. This would increase the number of sources I suppose.

  5. Mapoulos: At the moment I’m pretty much in line with Goodacre’s thinking on the subject because it makes sense to me but I admit that it’s not something I’ve studied extensively. But I think the Griesbach theory has a lot going for it as well. Hopefully sometime this year or next I’ll be able to delve into the subject in some detail.

  6. Nick. Thanks for your review of this one. I’m part way through it myself right now. Content aside (and I’ve been greatly enjoying the book), your bring up again the interesting issue of endnotes. I work in academic theological publishing, in addition to being an avid reader. So I live on both ends of book production, I guess you could say. And I’m almost universally on your side when it comes to using footnotes (put them right there so I can see them!). But the books I usually typeset tend to have endnotes, for two reasons: one, to save time and expense, since endnotes are easier to typeset and easier to deal with reflow; a second, more marketing, to make the books more appealing to a broader audience. Technology has greatly simplified the practical one. But the second, audience appeal, still applies (somehow the general populace doesn’t go out of their way to read books with footnotes . . . hmm). And I must say, Keener’s book has actually changed my thinking a bit on this one. In this case, I may not have dived in if I had seen it was 700 pages of text (which it would have been with the endnotes mixed in). And, second, given the voluminous nature of endnotes, many of Keener’s pages, especially in the first half of the book, would be almost as much (if not more) note material than text (I think of Dunn’s Jesus Remembered here, for example). So anyway, that’s a long comment to say I share your love of footnotes but think Keener’s volume is an example where the endnote format works well. Especially since a lot (probably a majority?) of Keener’s notes are quite brief and deal with citations, either from classical works or modern secondary lit. Though it basically requires two bookmarks, and the back bookmark moves almost as fast as the front one.

  7. Oh, and for continuous numbering, it gets really cumbersome when the notes get into the thousands (the note callouts get so long they really obscure the text). Plus the potential for numbering and renumbering disasters is immense.

  8. Mapoulos: Yeah. His scheme says Matthew first, then Luke (using Matthew), then Mark (condensing Matthew & Luke). It’s counter-intuitive according to what we generally find in modern scholarship but there’s something to be said about going against the modern scholarly grain at times.

    James: As you know, I’m a purist when it comes to notes; give me footnotes or give me death! There are very few times when I find them acceptable, like e.g., with the recent Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary: OT. Footnotes would have had a serious affect on the aesthetic quality there. But Keener’s volume stopped caring about aesthetics with the cover (which is quite nice, btw). Your point is taken about the end notes numbering into the thousands. I hadn’t considered what that would look like in the main text. But there has to be a better way than the way it’s being done. Oh wait, there is, foot notes!

  9. I just finished a long book on Edward III’s wars, which used footnotes. I definitely prefer them to having to use two book marks.

    Early reports were that Acts commentary weighed in at 7000 typeset pages. I think I heard at least one publisher looked at it and said, “No thanks”, likely with the view that many readers would say the same. On the other hand, there are lots of us who think anything Keener does is great. It wil be interesting to see what happens.

  10. Chuck: Definitely! I actually had 3 bookmarks in Keener’s volume (main text, end notes, scripture reference)!

    Yeah, I heard the same thing. That’s massive and I’m sure at the very least 1/3 of it is footnotes. I don’t know how much use I’d have for a 3-volume commentary on Acts but I’m in the camp that loves everything that Keener does. His commentary on John is probably my favorite out of all the ones in my library (Fee on 1Corinthians coming in second).

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