Book Review: The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

Review of The Historical Jesus of the Gospels by Craig S. Keener. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009. 831 pages. Review by Peter Scaer.

What can we know about the historical Jesus? Plenty, according to Craig Keener. Of course, you would already know that from the book’s refreshing title. For Keener, the historical Jesus—the real Jesus—is found not beyond or behind the pages of the canonical Gospels, but within the Gospels themselves. Believe what you want, Keener would say, but the best way to get know the genuine Jesus is through the pages of the Gospels, which are the best sources available and bear the marks of true history.

Keener’s basically conservative approach to the Gospels is sure to have its detractors but no one, I would wager, can doubt that he has done his homework. The book weighs in at book-bag breaking 831 pages, but its main argument takes only 393, leaving over half of the work to footnotes, bibliographies, and appendices. So if from time to time readers find Keener’s arguments less than compelling, they can check out the original sources and come to their own conclusions.

Keener begins by presenting “Disparate Views about Jesus” (1-69) in which the author traces the development of modern Jesus scholarship, reviewing the work of von Harnack, Weiss, Schweitzer, Bultmann, and others. Young students in particular will find this section helpful as they can learn here that even the most “academic” scholarship is biased and influenced by cultural tendencies of its time. Indeed, as Keener demonstrates, scholars have often concentrated their historical study on Jesus not for the sake of knowing the true Jesus but have “used respect for Jesus to promulgate their own ideology” (6). Thus the Enlightenment gave us a Jesus without miracles, the Romantic era offered up a Jesus of noble sentiments, von Harnack’s Jesus promoted a life of civility, and Bultmann presented a demythologized and “relevant” Jesus. What is striking about all these paradigms is how quaint and, in fact, irrelevant they appear today.

After addressing the older quests for the historical Jesus Keener turns his attention to his contemporaries, including Burton Mack, Dominic Crossan, and Bart Ehrman. To give an example, consider Crossan’s view of Jesus as a “Peasant Cynic.” Keener meticulously combs through the sources and shows that calling Jesus a Cynic is simply another example of putting a round peg in a square hole. Cynics were rude and asocial, essentially negative in their critique—hardly the stuff of a Kingdom Builder like Jesus. Moreover it is not right, Keener notes, to think of Jesus simply as a lowly carpenter’s son. To be sure, Joseph’s occupation was not especially prestigious but neither was it despised. Even more, Keener notes, “Carpenters were artisans, not peasants, and many assign them to the upper ten percent of nonaristocratic Galilean society”(21). What Crossan has done is create a Jesus in his image, a true sandal-wearing cynic, at home in any protest, carrying any billboard. (I suppose it would churlish to add that Crossan, the would-be-peasant and scourge of wealthy empires, has become every bit as wealthy as the capitalists and empire-builders he mocks.) Now, whether one wants to believe Keener or not, the footnotes are available and plentiful, and the reader can draw his own conclusion. What is nice, I think, is that Keener not only takes to task the heavy-hitters of liberalism but also may disabuse some of us of our own romantic notions of “Jesus the lowly carpenter.” Just because Jesus was born in a manger did not mean he lived in one.

Those enamored with the conspiracy theories of Dan Brown will be sure to appreciate Keener’s section on “Other Gospels?” As the question mark would indicate, Keener finds the Apocryphal and Gnostic gospels more akin to modern romance novels than to genuine historical documents. Written in the second and third centuries, Keener argues, the works as the Gospels of Thomas and Peter have little to tell us about who Jesus really was because they came too late to the party.

What about the canonical Gospels themselves? In what way do they present the history of Jesus? Here Keener spends some time demonstrating that Jesus and his disciples were born into a society that promoted both memorization and note-taking and, as Keener notes, “We should recognize a point that some skeptical scholars often neglect: during most of this period, Jesus’ closest disciples remained the Jesus movement’s leading teachers” (138). The manner in which Jesus taught and the way in which his disciples transmitted that teaching is consistent with high standards of historical reliability.

Having set the stage, Keener then walks the reader through the Gospel, and asks “What We Learn about Jesus from the Best Sources” (163-348). Keener’s argument is basically this: what we know about Jesus is congruent with what we know about ancient society; furthermore, the Gospel writers often include items that they never would have written if they were not true. One of Keener’s favorite tactics is to argue from embarrassment. The Gospels simply do not fit the paradigm of religious propaganda. As he writes, “No one would invent Nazareth as a background for Jesus”(182). Again, “No one would make up fishing villages as sites of a great person’s ministry” (182). And again, “No one would invent rural Galiliee, fishermen, or tax collectors” (183). This line of argument is carried through to the very end of the book where Keener underlines the resurrection’s plausibility by noting, “The witness of women at the tomb is very likely historical, precisely because it was so offensive to the larger culture – not the sort of testimony one would invent” (331).

Some would say that Keener’s work is unnecessary because, after all, we believe that the Gospels are God’s word. True enough. Yet the Gospels are also historical documents, written in time, and are just as open to scrutiny as, for example, the Koran or Book of Mormon. Keener is in no position to “prove” anything in the Gospels is true but he is very good at showing how negative claims are often little more than unfounded and biased criticism.

The meat of the book is found in Keener’s observations about various aspects of Jesus’ ministry. He speaks about Jesus as a Galilean Jew, a Teacher, a Prophet, and a Messiah. He addresses Jesus’ teachings on Discipleship and Ethics and explores the reasons for Jesus’ death. Any of these sections could be read separately and profitably.

I have yet to see other reviews on this book but I imagine that while some will find the book nearly exhaustive, others will find it simply exhausting. Keener’s work is not ground-breaking nor is it essentially original. What it is, though, is a sober-minded antidote to much of sensational biblical scholarship. Keener is a man who has done his homework. Before he became a biblical scholar he studied the classics and ancient history. As such he was well prepared for the task that became this book.

Towards the end of the work Keener speaks about his own personal journey from atheism to Christianity. As the author tells his story, he was at first put off from Christianity because of its supposedly shaky intellectual foundation. In some ways this book may be seen of a self-defense for his intellectual journey. For what it’s worth, Keener also includes this bit of spiritual autobiography: “When I later encountered the risen Christ in an unsolicited and unexpected personal experience, hence came to the conviction that he (not to mention the God with whom he was associated) was in fact alive, I understood the reality of Jesus rises or falls not on how successfully his professed followers have followed his teaching, but on Jesus himself” (385). Of course none of us have any access or way of knowing the nature of Keener’s personal experience. Be that as it may, Keener offers something more substantial: a well-grounded and reasoned assessment of the Gospels, through which Jesus continues to speak to all of us.

Peter J. Scaer
Fort Wayne, Indiana