Craig S. Keener has written a book 869 pages long entitled The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. The primary aim of this book is
to investigate how much we can know from the best sources available, and to offer examples of how these sources provide us more adequate information about Jesus than many scholars think we have. (p. xxxvii)
869 pages might sound a lot, and it does beat by a whisker the longest book by N.T. Wright (836 pages), but it still falls short of Volume 1 of Raymond Brown’s tome, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave (904 pages). (The only mythicist publication that comes close gets no closer than 814 pages so I guess the historicists have at least 55 pages of more arguments to make than the mythicists.)
The length of the book is a plus in eyes, because I like the thought that I am getting a thorough and detailed set of arguments and updates on what the academic community has to tell us what can be known about the historical Jesus. The main text is only 349 pages with most of the remainder being taken up with appendices and endnotes. That’s good — I often find the details I’m seeking in endnotes, bibliographies, etc. I think, too, that I was attracted by the erstwhile atheism of the author. Surely here is a work that will cover the basics and leave no stone unturned in the argument for Christianity beginning with a man called Jesus.
A profile of an historical Jesus scholar
Craig Keener introduces himself:
I try to do my historical scholarship as a good historian. . . .
When I was an atheist (largely for what I thought were scientific reasons), one of my central (albeit nonscientific) objections to believing anything about Jesus was that eighty percent of people in my country claimed to be his followers, yet most of them apparently lived as if it made no difference to their lives. . . .
I reasoned that if I believed there was truly a being to whom I owed my existence and who alone determined my eternal destiny, I would serve that being unreservedly. . . .
On a personal note, I cannot agree with a mind-set like that. It sounds robotic. I would first want to know something about such a being. Prima facie, from what I know of the world, I would suspect such a being was not worthy of unreserved service and it would be immoral to sell my soul to that being.
A Jesus scholar who believes Jesus is still alive today
When I . . . 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 that the reality of Jesus rises or falls not on how successfully his professed followers have followed his teaching, but on Jesus himself.
Such an encounter will naturally be dismissed as purely subjective by those disinclined to accept it, and admittedly, I did not have a physical “resurrection appearance.” I offer this information as an explanation by way of full disclosure, not as an argument, since it functions outside the epistemological criteria used in normal academic historical Jesus work. (pp. 384-385, my bolding)
I have problems with vague claims of religious encounters like this. Vagueness suggests to me a justifiable lack of confidence that others would be convinced if they knew the details. But this is an aside.
More to the point, what would the scholarly community think if one of their peers wrote a biography of Muhammed and explained that he was doing so after being persuaded of Muhammed’s place in history by an “unsolicited and unexpected personal encounter with” the now immortal Muhammed himself. Or substitute any name you like.
Surely such a biographer or historian must, at one level at least, be considered a bit cracked and his scholarship would be somewhat suspect. But in a Christian culture, even those scholars who do not believe in such post-mortem experiences engage with those who do as if there is nothing amiss with any of this — at least with respect to the study of Christian origins.
Presumably this is because Jesus was given an historical setting and an earthly career to explain the inauguration of his cult and to symbolize the tension between the divine and the human — much like the god Dionysus. (The counter argument here is usually that the Gospels were written within a generation of the supposed time of Jesus. This is nothing more than fanciful conjecture, however, based on the assumption that the earliest possible date must be the actual date they were composed. The earliest evidence we have for the existence of our Gospels is in the middle of the second century. Besides, there can be no problem with the idea of a fictional life forty years before the calamity being acclaimed as the reason for Jerusalem’s fall by anyone writing in the wake of that wholesale destruction.)
After all this time, still flirting with the mumbo-jumbo
Keener also engages at the end of his chapter titled, What Really Happened at the Tomb? Nestled in Keener’s opening paragraphs of this chapter is the following:
What happens when divine causation is the most plausible available explanation? While conventional rules for historical discussion may keep us from asking the question . . . . they do not mean (much less prove) that the question is philosophically illegitimate. (p. 379)
There follows the predictable / all too commonly printed essay on the arguments for and against methodological naturalism that concludes with the standard complaint that a rejection of a supernatural explanation comes down, ultimately, to unreasonable bias against the supernatural. N. T. Wright (who argues for a literal resurrection) makes a notable appearance in the discussion. Pinch yourself. This really is the twenty-first century.
So now you know where Keener is coming from and it is to his credit, as it is with other scholars like Borg, Crossan, Spong, Hurtado, McGrath et al., that he makes no attempt to hide the nature of his religious faith in Jesus. Historical inquiry has an obligation to take into account the arguments of friends and foes alike. It is a mark of integrity that each contributor makes his bias known. I do not denigrate Keener or any other scholar of Christianity because they are committed Christians. Nonetheless, it is also fair and right, when we find ourselves asking questions about the way they handle evidence and the sorts of questions they ask and don’t ask, to recognize that their faith may at times be clouding their judgment.
In this post I focus on Keener’s discussion of the written sources of the Gospels. Let’s see if his argument addresses all the evidence without confessional bias.
The Written Sources of the Gospels
The written sources of the Gospels are one of my favourite studies so I could not be Keener to learn more about what his chapter 9 (The Gospels’ Written Sources) had to offer.
Keener begins well. He raises awareness of scholars who lay aside “concrete evidence” and advance hypotheses about the Gospels “on the basis of relative silence”. What springs to mind here are the ten written sources (and those are “just the ones we know about”!) that Bart Ehrman is sure were used by the authors of our Gospels (see part 8 and part 9 of Doherty’s response to Ehrman.
But then Keener steps outside of New Testament studies and makes a very odd analogy. He points out that classicists recognize the weaknesses of their sources — and in a footnote he draws special attention to Livy and Josephus — without being overly sceptical. So Livy is known to be uncritical but classicists don’t throw his work in the bin because of that. Keener believes historical Jesus scholars “are at their best when they follow the same approach.”
He wants readers to approach the Gospels with the same balance between faith and scepticism that they would bring to a reading of Livy and Josephus.
Something interesting happens, however, if we ask Livy or Josephus what they might think of the admonition that the Gospels should be read in the same way as their own historical works.
Livy indeed tells us what he does think of such an idea on the opening page of his history:
The traditions of what happened prior to the foundation of the City or whilst it was being built, are more fitted to adorn the creations of the poet than the authentic records of the historian, and I have no intention of establishing either their truth or their falsehood. This much licence is conceded to the ancients, that by intermingling human actions with divine they may confer a more august dignity on the origins of states.
So works like the Gospels that mingle human and divine actions (miracles, spirits, prophecies) should be read like poetry, not history. Not even Livy would read such works as if narrating true events or false, but as something quite different from history.
It may be objected that Livy is confining his view to the stories inherited from long ago. But Livy, and likewise Josephus, rarely if ever writes of a supposed miracle or divine intervention without either expressing some reservation or appealing to reported eyewitnesses to justify his account. So after relating the miraculous accounts of the death of Romulus, and in particular of the report of his “post-resurrection appearance” to a follower, Livy remarks:
It is marvellous what credit was given to this man’s story, and how the grief of the people and the army was soothed by the belief which had been created in the immortality of Romulus.
The Gospels speak of miracles with a matter-of-factness characteristic of ancient novels and myths (e.g. While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” — Luke 24:36), a frequent difference being that the Gospel miracles can be explained as theological metaphors so they are not offered the benefit of narrative realism even by ancient standards. Compare, for example, the healing of the blind in the Gospels of Mark and John which are widely understood as metaphors for Jesus removing spiritual blindness (e.g. Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. — John 9:41) with two healings by the emperor Vespasian as told by Tacitus:
So Vespasian felt that his destiny gave him the key to every door and that nothing now defied belief. With a smiling expression and surrounded by an expectant crowd of bystanders, he did what was asked. Instantly the cripple recovered the use of his hand and the light of day dawned again upon his blind companion. Both these incidents are still vouched for by eye-witnesses, though there is now nothing to be gained by lying.
What about Josephus? I addressed what Josephus himself would think of such an idea — reading works like the Gospels with the same credulity as one might read his own historical narrative — in What Josephus Might Have Said About the Gospels.
Furthermore, Livy and Josephus write with “historical plausibility”. There is nothing plausible in the Gospel of Mark, however. God and demons are real (i.e. speaking) actors in the narrative, Jesus speaks to confuse his listeners but attracts a large following nonetheless, crowds who adore him in one scene are used to call for his lynching in the next, disciples who are told plainly what to expect are confused when it happens, Pilate who attempts to appease the crowd by killing Jesus places a sign above his body that would only have angered the crowd, and so forth and so forth. Scholars can only establish historical plausibility by getting rid of the Gospel story as it is writ. That’s not how they read Livy.
In previous chapters Keener argued that the Gospels were written as biographies within two generations of the events they narrate and thus “would” contain much genuinely historical material.
There is no way of knowing that the first Gospel really was written within forty years of the death of Jesus. Many scholars would argue that this is the earliest possible date for Mark (given that it speaks of the destruction of the Temple that occurred in 70 CE). But to leap from treating an earliest possible date as a near-certain date is an act of faith. The earliest evidence we have for a knowledge of the Gospels is the mid second century, as stated above. It is from this point that one must assess the most probable date. See Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels.
But stop and think even if it could be established that the first Gospel was written within two generations of the time of Jesus. That is a very long time as far as human memory goes. It is also a long enough time for stories to be fabricated (yet believed as true by some) even with the best of motives. Evidence today that emerges a whole forty years (even only twenty, or ten, years) after an event would normally be held suspect unless some guarantee of preservation and accuracy could be established.
Keener continues with an interesting discussion of the way ancient historians used various sources, especially written sources. This is all very fascinating and well worth bookmarking for a time when a student is looking for material on a related high school project about ancient historians, but the authors of the Gospels did not write as historians (they wrote theological tracts) and Keener can find only the most slender of links to make it relevant to the Gospels:
We should not underestimate the research sources available to ancient writers, especially since (as in Lk 1:1) they often explicitly mention the existence of such works. Clearly an abundance of contemporary sources existed then that are no longer extant; for example, Pliny the Elder . . . notes that he surveyed about two thousand volumes . . . (p. 129)
Just when we thought our author was about to speak of New Testament sources he reverts to Pliny the Elder’s testimony about his sources.
But Keener picks up that link again in the ensuing section:
One of the Gospels, Luke, openly attests to the existence of a number of sources available before he wrote. Luke’s original prologue (Lk 1:1-4) probably introduces the entire two-volume work . . . . At least for his Gospel, Luke claims the availability of “many” written documents covering the same events that he covers (Lk 1:1). (p. 129
Here is where the length of Keener’s book begins to disappoint. He does not justify the argument that the Prologues to Luke and Acts were original to those works beyond supplying an endnote to point out that this is “the majority view”. No doubt even a book this long cannot cover every aspect of every question.
But the whole question of whether Luke’s preface has anyting to do with eyewitness reports has been thrown wide open by John Collins: see What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See? I am not suggesting Collins himself suggests this, but it does appear to me from his article that the traditions to which Luke is referring are potentially ultimately from any source — their origins are impossible to know. The prologue has far less in common with those introductions of historians who made mention of their various sources than we have liked to think. See also Luke’s Prologue — Historical or Historical Illusion?
But worst of all Keener is sucked into the same black hole as nearly every one of his peers. He can see what, for instance, the author of 1 Esdras uses as sources, and I am sure he can see the sources used by the Flood story in Genesis. Thus he writes:
1 Esdras blends Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah with some midrash. . . . (p. 460, n. 24)
Historical Jesus scholars steeped in the conventional wisdom of their discipline can see when other writers are using known literary sources, and even writing creative midrash based upon known literary sources. They can even see when Matthew and Luke use another Gospel, Mark. But they cannot see when the same evangelists use other literary sources of which scholars and lay readers alike are so very familiar. They cannot see them using sources that are contained in the earlier books of the same Bible in which they are all bound as a single book.
Not all. There are exceptions. But many biblical scholars, particularly American ones (and conservative outposts in the UK), dismiss those exceptions as a wee bit “over sceptical”.
But of course the stories of Jesus raising the dead are adaptations of the Old Testament stories of Elijah and Elisha doing the same. Matthew’s nativity narrative is based on the story of Moses and Pharaoh. Luke’s is based on the tales of the patriarchs and heroes in Judges and 1 Samuel. John the Baptist is obviously cut from Elijah. (If there was an historical Baptist Josephus says he came on the scene some years later and had little in common with the Gospel character.) Jesus’ walk to the Mount of Olives is sourced from David’s similar walk there in his darkest hour. Jesus’ estrangement from his family and betrayal by a friend are straight from the Psalms. So also are many of the details of Jesus’ trial, suffering and crucifixion. The tomb burial is taken from Judges and Isaiah. The blind disciples come from the heard-hearted Israelites of old.
Certainly many, probably most, scholars would concede that the evangelists are influenced by the Old Testament in the way they craft their stories. But they cling to the unfounded belief that these literary trappings were used to clothe genuine tales from oral tradition.
That is, they are bound by the same outline as the Gospel myth itself declares. The source of the idea that oral tradition was the bridge between the historical Jesus and the Gospels is the Christian myth itself. It is the myth (again based on Psalms and the Prophets) that tells us the disciples went out preaching the word at the command of the Lord. (I am not disputing that there were preachers who did believe there were messengers from God, by the way.)
All most scholars are doing is paraphrasing — or retelling in their own way — the Christian myth itself.
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