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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 59, 2011

CRAIG S. KEENER, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). Pp. xxxviii + 831. $US60.00.

The first thing that strikes the reader of Keener’s book is its structure. Of its 831 pages, slightly fewer than 200 are actually devoted to the narrative on the historical Jesus; nearly 160 pages are given to preliminary considerations, there are nine appendices, endnotes account for 210 pages and finally an extensive bibliography (110 pages), followed by indices of biblical and other sources. Keener is thoroughly at home in many aspects of historical Jesus studies but whether he needs to provide such an abundance of noted information is questionable. Keener’s aim is to defend the historical reliability of the traditions within the first three canonical gospels.

Section One (“Disparate Views of Jesus”) is divided into four chapters. After a brief review of historical Jesus studies, Keener launches into his primary criticism: Jesus cannot be understood except in categories that locate him firmly in the context of contemporary Judaism. As a result, the Cynic Jesus hypothesis receives no support. But even within the Jewish world a variety of interpretations have been given, and Keener makes it clear from the outset that he regards Jesus as best understood as an eschatological prophet (as against, for example, Vermes’ charismatic healer model). The section concludes with a chapter on sources: Matthew, Mark and Luke are our primary sources. Thomas and other non-canonical texts are later and of little value and John also is sidelined (164).

Section Two (“The Character of the Gospels”) consists of six tightly argued chapters focussing on biography and historical writing in antiquity. Here, Keener shows his breadth of reading in the literature of the ancient world. He argues that the gospels (especially Luke–Acts) should be understood within the genres of ancient historiography and biography. He demonstrates that ancient historians were indeed concerned for accuracy in the presentation of events, but that such accuracy did not preclude the use of the conventions of ancient rhetoric. Here, Keener makes a telling parenthetical comment: “(although Jewish storytelling conventions may have influenced John and Matthew)” (116). The reader is left to wonder what storytelling conventions were current in Judaism, how they differed from Graeco-Roman models, and whether, in fact, the Graeco-Roman models should be rigidly applied to at least two of the gospels. The section concludes with chapters on synoptic interrelationships and on the evangelists’ use of oral sources.

Section Three (“What We Learn about Jesus from the Best Sources”) commences with a brief chapter on John the Baptist, and then proceeds thematically through to a final chapter on the resurrection traditions. The treatment in this section was surprising and lacked strong thematic cohesion. The chapter on John the Baptist and his potential influence on Jesus was disappointing. There was no discussion of the locations of John’s ministry or any treatment of John 1:29–42 and 3:22–30 for our understanding of early Jesus. Finally, there was no consideration of the reasons for Jesus’ departure from John and his return to Galilee. And yet all of these are potentially important for understanding Jesus.

Time and again he defends (usually against Burton Mack, the Jesus Seminar, or Dominic Crossan, his primary bêtes noirs) the historicity of a logion or a report, but too infrequently does he proceed to ask the historical question as to its significance for Jesus’ life and ministry. For example, Keener acknowledges that Jesus “apparently avoided” the cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias (179), but fails to ask the obvious question: Why? Was it because Jesus was not comfortable with urban culture; was it because his vision of the kingdom of God could only accommodate traditional village society?

Keener is at his best in defending the historicity of individual texts and traditions, and to this end he marshals a multitude of primary and secondary witnesses to support his case. Where he is weak is in his failure to ask deeper and consequential historical questions. Keener is also not strong in his understanding of the impact of archaeological findings for our study of first century Palestine and the world of Jesus. For example, he seems to be unaware of the discoveries in the Mt Zion area of old Jerusalem and of their possible importance for our understanding of Jesus and the early Christian movement. In the end, this book fails to satisfy. Keener’s eschatological prophet thesis gets swamped in the plethora of detail defending this and that tradition. What it also lacks is a willingness to explore the questions that lie just below the surface of the texts. To that end, the major enterprises of Meier, Wright, Dunn and Theissen/Merz, as well as the multitude of other contributions (Sanders, Allison etc), will continue to be of abiding value.

Review by
Benalla VIC 3673