I finally finished section 2 of Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels and I couldn’t be more impressed. Clear writing combined with detailed research and a responsible handling of the evidence are the strengths of this volume. Each chapter is replete with notes to primary and secondary sources. (Unfortunately, they are endnotes so you are constantly going back and forth.) Since many of the notes are references to primary literature most can safely be skipped unless you are interested in looking them up.
This second section is devoted to evaluating the Gospels. Keener makes a strong case to show the genre of the Gospels is best seen as biography. Unique to the Gospels is Luke-Acts. This two-volume book is unique because while the first part is obviously biography the book of Acts more appropriately falls into the category of ancient historiography. He quotes Hengel and Schwemer as saying that “those who deny Luke-Acts as acceptable first-century historiography need to read more ancient historiography ‘and less hypercritical and scholastic secondary literature.’” (86) The next two chapters deal with ancient historiography as history and secondly as rhetoric. We learn that the ancients were very concerned with accuracy and the reliability of sources and eyewitnesses. They were not blind to biases and clearly knew the difference between history and fiction. Ancient historians often found fault with others for their inaccuracies and flagrant falsehoods. But historians were not only concerned with accuracy they were also concerned with presentation. Even here we learn that the more rhetorically oriented historians were most clearly seen in their treatment of speeches. The Synoptics do not show signs of this type of history. Keener says they “are sometimes less cohesive, sometimes with more evidence of their sources, and do not develop scenes with elaborate descriptions.” (110) He directly addresses the question of whether the Gospels are distorted by rhetoric and he finds the evidence lacking for such a charge. Luke-Acts would be the closest to this type of genre but even here the evidence is not convincing. Keener then explores how ancient history handled agendas: political, national, moral and theological agendas. But even here the presence of agendas does not preclude accurate history. As he notes, “All other ancient historians and biographers, like many modern ones, had agendas they considered important; they used history to shed light on their own time, no less than did the Gospels. But had the Gospel writers wished to communicate solely later Christian doctrine and not history, they could have readily chosen simpler forms than biography for this purpose.” (122)
In the following two chapters Keener looks at the sources of the Gospels: one chapter explores the written sources and another chapter considers the oral sources. On the former Keener works from what’s known in the field as the “Two-Source Hypothesis.” This view holds that Matthew and Luke used Mark as one source and another commonly termed simply as “Q”. Given the validity of this view we can see how Matthew and Luke used their sources and that gives us an idea of how they may have used sources we don’t have access to. This is a far better assumption than that of many critical scholars who assume that the Gospel writers simply invented material where we can’t check them out. This, says Keener, is “imagination run amuck.” (132) Next we come to the oral sources of the Gospels. Keener looks at oral cultures and the testimony of ancient writers concerning the ability of some exemplary people with impressive memory capabilities. In particular, he examines the rabbinic traditions and early Jewish education habits. He recognizes the legitimate complaint brought by some that “all the rabbinic evidence is later than the first century; but”, he responds, “it is hardly likely that this evidence would be discontinuous with all the other Jewish and Greco-Roman evidence that we do have, especially given the particular focus on it in our later extant sources.” (149-150) And in the endnote he further says that “many also observe that the later rabbinic method hardly arose ex nihilo after 70 CE. (475n.150) The memorization habits of the time period offer good evidence that the oral tradition prior to the written sources would be historically accurate when it came to the “gist” of the story. He quotes E. P. Sanders: “‘The Gospel writers did not wildly invent material,’ though ‘they developed it, shaped it and directed it in the ways they wished.’” (150) Form criticism comes under close scrutiny and he finds that while “scholarship as a whole has become less impressed with some earlier form-critical criteria like the criteria of dissimilarity . . . today it often emphasizes the continuity between Jesus and his Palestinian Jewish environment.” (161)
Keener has built a persuasive case that the Gospels should be viewed as historically reliable when their genre is considered and when compared with similar writings and standards of the day. He has not argued for any special treatment to be offered to them but simply to evaluate them on the same basis as any other document of the time would be treated.
Now having examined the primary sources; the next part of the book is entitled “What We Learn about Jesus from the Best Sources.” I can’t wait to start.