Review of The Historical Jesus of the Gospels by Craig Keener

“The Historical Jesus of the Gospels” by Craig Keener is not your run-of-the-mill historical Jesus book. Mr. Keener comes jumps into it with high respect for his (our) sources. Not that he is not aware of the struggles with understanding the Jesus of history, but rather is willing to work with the sources to guide his creation while acknowledging their shortcomings.

Less denouncing, more formulating.

Keener’s primary field of work is in commentaries, of which he has written many. But through this work, he has done much research in regard to the historical Jesus. Making him an ideal candidate for writing about him. He was motivated, among other things, by a comment he overheard at a conference.

“He just writes commentaries. If you want those in the historical Jesus field to read your work, you don’t stick it in commentaries.”

Preface xxix

Therefore, Keener set out to write a book for those of us who are curious about the historical Jesus, and even those professionals who work in the field will read because we don’t read commentaries.

Guilty as charged. I don’t read commentaries, but I do read books about Jesus.

As he states in the introduction.

“How historically reliable are those “best” sources? That question is the primary subject of this book.”

Intro.xxxii

The sources are truly the main focus of the book; almost half of the material of the main content.

A little disclaimer here.

Keener has done an amazing job of end-noting and providing all his sources for his material. Setting you up if you wish to further your study.

But this does reduce the amount of reading book material a little. The main content of the book is only 349 pages, of the over 800. There are some value appendixes in the endnotes, and I found myself reading with 2 bookmarks.

One of the main content of the book.

The other was for the endnotes, which I would regularly check as I progressed.

All that said, let’s get into the main content of The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.

Overview Of the Book’s Content

After the preface and introduction.

Which are worth reading. We get into the views about Jesus.

1. “Disparate Views about Jesus” (pp. 1–69)

Beginning with a very brief history of the development of the study of the historical Jesus. Along with historical proposals of who Jesus was.

Good if you are new to the study of the historical Jesus. Plus, Kener goes over some popular presentations of Jesus from the past and their shortcomings.

If you want a more in-depth overview, The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer is an excellent start. Schweiter is often considered the father of the historical Jesus study because of this book and his incredible mind to analyze the many books regarding the life of Jesus.

But back to The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.

After the 30,000-foot birdseye view of the historical Jesus, Keener focuses in on a more current and popular view proposed by the scholars of the Jesus Seminar. Jesus the Cynic Sage. Evaluating its historical validity.

Followed by Jesus’ context in Judaism. Along with more popular positions of Jesus in such context.

“It is, then, the canonical Gospels to which we must look for our most secure information about the historical Jesus.”

P.69

Then, wrapping up this section, Keener provides a brief overview of “other gospels.” The non-canonical variety. Along with reasons why, our best sources for the life of Jesus our the 4 gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. With a focus on the synoptic.

2. “The Character of the Gospels” (pp. 71–161)

What you’re reading makes a difference in how you read it.

“identifying a work’s generic category guides the way the reader interpets a document”

p.75

This section is exactly that.

Keener argues that we need to view the gospels as ancient biographies, or as they called them, “lives.”

As Bond points out in The First Biography of Jesus, Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel has not always been the case, but most scholars are moving in that direction. Including Keener.

Followed by a chapter on Luke-Acts as history. Arguing why we can trust what he wrote.

A literature lesson about Ancient Historiography follows this.

Then, a more in-depth discussion about what the gospels writers sources were. The written and oral sources which they used to write the gospels. Spending much time explaining his view of the trustworthiness of ancient oral traditions.

This view is not new, often cited by evangelical apologists, historians, and theologians. Claiming how ancients were so much better than our current culture at remembering things.

I enjoyed the breadth of fresh air here.

Many scholars spend so much time analyzing and criticizing their sources. Talking trash about the material. Leaving you wondering if we can really know anything.

“The gospel writers did not wildly event material” though “they developed it, shaped it and directed it in the ways they wished.”

E.P. Sanders p.150

Keener is not ignorant of the challenges faced when studying ancient material. But offers that they are of value. Caution needs to be taken in how to best understand and evaluate the gospels, but there is hope that we can reconstruct a fairly accurate life of Jesus through them.

3. “What We Can Learn about Jesus from the Best Sources” (pp. 163–349)

This is the best section as we get to look at the life of Jesus.

Keener largely sticks to the material in the synoptic gospels as promised.

Starting where Mark starts with John the Baptist. Skipping over the birth stories in Matthew and Luke.

As Jesus alluded to (Matt.11:11, LK. 7:28), there are few characters more significant in the ministry of Jesus as John.

“We know of no other successor of John as popular as Jesus was.”

p.173

Keener does an excellent job presenting a good picture of John’s influence.

Then, he provides background to understanding Jesus’ context in Galilee. Placing Jesus with his Galiean peers in style, approach and many shared beliefs.

Portraying Jesus as a prophet, sage and Messiah.

“Jesus’ teaching more closely resembles that of the Pharisees than of the other “parties” mentioned by Josephus…yet disimilaritites are also striking.”

p.226

Similar to the synoptic, he gives a great deal of space for the passion week. Including Jesus’ confrontation with the elite, his trial and execution.

He also boldly includes a chapter discussing his resurrection, which many historians skip over because of its supernatural elements.

Rightly stating in his conclusion.

“a major historical impetus for the spread of Jesus’ movement after his martyrdom was a pivotal event that his disciples virtually unanimously …understood as his resurrection.”

p.348

Yes, the gospels have much to teach us about the life of Jesus, and Keener does an excellent job of bringing it to life.

Things I Like About The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

If you haven’t noticed already, I really enjoyed reading The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. During the day, I look forward to when I could pick it up again.

Part of that is his writing style. It was easy to follow even when he was discussing more academic material.

The thing I liked most was his view of our sources about Jesus, in particular, the 4 gospels of the Bible. Rather than endless declarations of how poor and untrustworthy they are. (Common among some of the more popular Jesus scholars). Keener provided insights into how to navigate ancient literature to understand them better. Along with essential background info. But consistently affirmed that they are “our best sources” to understand the historical Jesus.

“there is much we that we can know about Jesus historically and that the first-century Gospels preserved by the church remain by far the best source for this information.”

p.349

Secondly, background information.

Jesus did not live in a vacuum, and as Schweitzer pointed out, he can’t dwell in our time and world. The information surrounding his life in Galilee in particular, but knowing the world of Jesus helped me to understand his approach and life better.

And this background information cannot be learned simply by reading the gospels.

It’s becoming more trendy now, but for years, scholars seem to forget that Jesus was a Jew living in the Second Temple period. Keener’s knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean world, along with many references to the works of G. Vermes and E.P. Sander (his former mentor). Is extremely helpful.

So much so that I ended up ordering two of Sander’s works. We will see if he lives up to the hype.

What Disappointed Me About The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

I’ll join the choir of people complaining that most of the book was endnotes.

There were valuable to explore references and further study, but half the book?

I ended up having two bookmarks so I could flip back and forth.

I understand part of this is simply a problem of scholarly work. You can’t and shouldn’t say anything without reference to it.

It’s a double-edged sword. It was reassuring to see that Keener had thoroughly studied the topic. But cumbersome to work with.

“I have had to defer one major topic (questions concerning Gopsels reports of miracles) for a separate work.”

Intro. xxxii

Right off the bat, he shares that I will need to buy a second book, or should I say 2 books on miracles.

  • Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2 Volumes)

I understand his reasoning, but miracles play such a large part in our records of Jesus’ life. It would have been nice to include them as part of his study. Even if he did not address the elephant in the room of the validity of miracles in ancient text. But it’s possible, and I guess I will only know if I read his books on miracles, that the use of myths, etc., must be addressed before discussing healing and exorcism.

Assuming that is the main concern.

Should You Read The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

Yes, it is a good, solid read which combines many other studies and books about Jesus into an easy-to-read book.

Despite being possibly an academic subject matter, it is easy to read. Plus, the background information about Jesus’ life and times is well worth the time.

As I have already said.

Compared to the many scholars who think they have to tear down their sources to grab attention or make a name for themselves, it was a breath of fresh air to read a book that understands the challenges of studying ancient texts and people but can do so without trashing its sources.

“Keener proves why the Evangelists’ view of Jesus is preferable to most modern constructs: the Gospels, as ancient biographies, reflect eyewitness accounts of Jesus and provide the only valid sources for reconstructing the historical Jesus. . . . This book is exceptional for its breadth and its captivating prose.”

James H. Charlesworth — Princeton Theological Seminary

The focus on the gospels largely exclusively may be frustrating for some. But as Keener asserts, they truly are are best sources about the life of Jesus. Also, there is little to add drawing from second and third-century gospels.

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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