Reviews of

Christobiography

In Craig S. KEENER, Gospels, Historical Jesus, Narratology, Nathan Charles Ridlehoover on October 18, 2019 at 4:00 pm

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2019.10.13 | Craig S. Keener. Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019. ISBN 978-0-8028-7675-1.

Review by Charles Nathan Ridlehoover, Columbia International Seminary.

Scholars in the New Testament guild need no introduction to the work of Craig Keener. Keener has been one of the modern masters of long-form scholarship in the field of biblical studies. Following on the heels of his work on Acts and miracles, Keener returns to the question of the Gospels’ reliability and historical Jesus. The following volume is Keener’s efforts to situate the Gospels more precisely in the ranging spectrum of Greco-Roman biographies. Keener does not view his research as another volume in historical Jesus studies, but rather, a contribution to the epistemology of historical Jesus research. Since the publication of Richard Burridge’s groundbreaking study on the Gospels, there has been little question that their appropriate parallel is the Greco-Roman bios. Yet, the question remains, to what extent can one compare and contrast these works? Keener notes that a survey of the relevant contemporary literature evidences that few scholars have actually examined ancient biographies. To these ends, Keener turns his scholarly attention.

The book is divided into five parts. In each of these parts, Keener has arranged individual chapters highlighting key aspects of his argument. After an introduction situating his work in the field (ch. 1), part 1 begins with a look at biographies about Jesus. In this section, chapter 2 analyzes the question concerning the novelty of the Gospels. Chapter 3 offers an in-depth analysis of Greco-Roman biographies. Keener does his due diligence in analyzing biographies that stretch over the course of time, noting the changes and developments in the genre. Chapter 4 begins to ask: what sort of biographies are the Gospels? This chapter will be helpful for many because of its dialogue with some of the major studies that have preceded Keener’s work. Chapter 5 examines the expectations of the audience in regard to biographical reception. This aspect of audience reception leads to Keener’s part 2. In this section, Keener examines how biographies interact with history. Chapter 6 helpfully differentiates biography and historiography, while chapter 7 analyzes historical interests in antiquity. Keener addresses political and national agendas, the value of moral exemplars, and historians’ concerns for accuracy. These emphases are prefaced with sections on rhetoric in the ancient world. Chapter 8 focuses on the biographical history of Luke-Acts. Keener concludes that Luke-Acts fits nicely into the category of apologetic historiography. Chapter 9 reflects on the time between events and the subsequent recording of those events, dispensing with the comparison of the Gospels and ancient legends.

Part 3 begins to explore the range of deviation between historic accounts and gives case studies for examination. Keener begins these inquires with a sample of differences among the writings of Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch (ch. 10) concerning Otho. He concludes that biographers were free to include a general range of variations in details. This conclusion leads to his exploration of the flexibility in the Gospels (ch. 11). Included in this analysis is literary techniques common among ancient biographers and how those technique played a part in the recording of historical details. In part 4, Keener deals with two of the major objections against the Gospels drawing on historical information. These objections are the Gospels’ reporting of miracles (ch. 12) and the range of differences between John and the Synoptics (ch. 13). In chapter 12, Keener focuses his examination of miracles specifically on healings and exorcisms. Readers interested in more detail on the subject are directed to Keener’s 1,300-page treatment on the subject. The chapter concerning John focuses on the Gospel’s distinctiveness but not at the expense of the significant overlap with the Synoptics. By comparison, John is much closer to the Synoptics in terms of parallels although we can still confidently refer to it as the “maverick gospel.”

The last part of the book concerns memory studies (part 5). This section examines some of the major work being done with oral tradition and history. Chapter 14 engages the current field of study. Interestingly, Keener does not deal with the major scholars within memory studies but instead deals with various topics relevant to biographical recording. Attention to the footnotes will prove to be important for those wanting to get deeper into this growing field of scholarship. Chapter 15 deals with one of the most sure-footed memories within the Gospels—Jesus was a teacher. Chapter 16 explores the space and sources between Jesus’s life and the recording of the details in the Gospels. This period of time is considered the oral period. Keener cuts through some of the counterarguments to the Gospel’s reliability and shows the importance of living memory for imposing controls on the transmission of information during this time period. Chapter 17 concludes the volume with implications of the study. Bibliographies and indexes occupy the last 200 pages.

One of the ingenious aspects of this book is the title. Keener acknowledges his insistence on the title in the introduction, and I love the choice. Sure, one can simply pick up the book and think it is a great play-on-words, but after working through the argument, one will become even more convinced of its genius. Keener is chiefly concerned that the reader understand that the Gospels are primarily concerned with telling the story of Christ through the medium of ancient biography. This nomenclature may seem obvious to some, but the word choice reminds the reader of the book’s main point, and Keener does not want that to get lost in the details.

Another aspect of the book that is commendable is its breadth. In addition to the treatment of the Gospels, Keener has extensive interaction with the primary literature. One aspect of the Gospel interaction that I would have liked to see more would be an individual section devoted to Matthew. In various ways, Keener uses subsections to deal with Luke-Acts, John, and Mark, but does not devote any extended sections to Matthew. Keener has provided two commentaries on Matthew, but these treatments are more focused on individual passages and not the bird’s eye studies evident in Christobiography.

Lastly, the book shows the inherent vulnerability of Keener’s scholarship. He acknowledges at various points where he falls on the various spectrums of biblical studies question. One will see Keener identify himself as “conservative” in contrast to other scholars. In the flow of the book, these definitive moments read less as a dogmatic stance on an issue and more as someone who has thoughtfully moved through the arguments and sources. Scholarship of this sort is difficult because of the two requisite skills. One must be both (1) fluent in ancient sources and (2) capable of analyzing those sources. No one will question Keener’s knowledge of primary sources. He has demonstrated throughout his writing career a mastery of sources from the ancient world. The major push back to the following volume will come in the form of those disagreeing with his analysis of the data. Yet, in spite of these differences, the book is highly recommended to all as an introduction to the topic of memory and the Gospels as well as those already well-versed in this growing field of Gospel reflection.

Charles Nathan Ridlehoover
Columbia International Seminary
nathan.ridlehoover [at] ciu.edu

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