Monday, December 28, 2009

The Historical Jesus of the Gospels by Craig S. Keener

I honestly thought that after reading The Historical Jesus: Five Views I wouldn’t want to read anything on the topic for some time. One of my Christmas presents, however, was Craig Keener’s new book The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. I started reading it just to get a feel for what Keener was going to present and was quickly captivated. In part because Keener is such a good writer. I finished section 1 which is titled “Disparate Views about Jesus.” In this section he covers a brief history of historical Jesus studies. He covers in particular the views of John Dominic Crossan and Burton Mack which hold that Jesus was a cynic. The evidence for this view is found woefully lacking. The lens narrows as Keener considers those among what’s called the “Third Quest.” Among these are Marcus Borg (Keener admits he could have easily grouped Borg with Crossan and Mack but because of his Jewish focus he kept him in the latter group.), Geza Vermes and E. P. Sanders. He finds himself most in agreement with Sanders but does not hesitate to correct some weaknesses. The last part of the section addresses the thorny but very popular topic today of the “Other Gospels.” Keener dismantles the evidence offered by Crossan and others as to the reliability and usefulness of the extra-canonical gospels. Of particular interest is his discussion of the Gospel of Thomas and Q. The former is found to be of almost no use to historical Jesus studies in spite of the efforts by Crossan. His discussion of Q is a model of sanity. While granting the existence of Q, Keener thinks any discussion that takes us to the “layers” of Q and the “Q community” are exercises in speculation far removed from any available evidence. To speculate on what a community believed or did not believe based on a mere seven pages of text is a flight of fancy. Still other scholars, like Mack, seek to find the original Q by removing elements like eschatology so as to make Jesus appear more like the Cynic he believes Jesus to be. Keener also takes a brief look at some “more dependable noncanonical sources” like Tacitus, Suetonius and Josephus but finds that they have little to offer and for good reason—Jesus was, quite frankly, not all that important to the point of their writing. Why should this surprise us? He notes, “Josephus claims to have been a Pharisee, and tells us much about the historic role of Pharisees. Yet he never mentions Hillel, founder of the Hillelite school revered in later rabbinic sources. Dio Cassius reports the Judean revolt of 132-135 CE without ever mentioning Bar Kochba—its leader! Similarly, we would not expect to find much interest in Jesus himself in contemporary Gentile documents, or in fact among anyone except his followers.” (68)

In the introduction Keener says he’s tried to “avoid technical jargon” and to keep the book “short and understandable enough to be useful to not only scholars but to students and former students of the subject, as well as others sufficiently interested in the topic to engage ancient sources.” (xxxiii) So far I would say he has met his goal. Some may question how well he managed to keep it “short” since it totals 831 pages. But consider this: 349 pages are the actual text. Pages 350 – 393 are appendixes. The remaining part of the book is footnotes, bibliography and indexes. So basically you’re looking at 400 pages of reading—not bad at all. For those looking for a good introduction to the topic this would be a great place to start.


Scripture Zealot said...

Is it mainly apologetic and looking at others' views as it sounds or is that just the intro? I'm looking more for books about Jesus than looking at the various views.

Louis said...

Hi Jeff!

The intro does give a brief overview of some different views but it is by no means the full focus. As for it being apologetic: I wouldn't describe it as such but people will find material suitable for a apologetics. I just finished the chapter on "The Gospels as Biographies" and he argues persuasively that the Gospels fit the genre of biography much more so than they do that of a novel, memoirs, drama or mythography. But he also notes how ancient biography differs from modern biographies. This is all ground work, as I see it, to build an adequate case for what we can reasonably know about Jesus. In other words he's demonstating that our canonical Gospels are reliable sources for what we know about Jesus. For that matter they're really the only sources of real substance. He chides the more "critical" scholars for too quickly dismissing the Gospels as reliable but then using the Secret Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of Thomas which offer far less evidence and credibility. The double standard is astounding. As I get further in to the book I'll let you know what I find. Perhaps then you will be better able to judge if it will fit the bill for what you are looking for.

Scripture Zealot said...

Thanks for taking the time.

I look forward to the future posts.