A Feature Review of
Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
“Are the Gospels really reliable?” is a simple question that has sparked countless pages of written reflection over the past 2000 years. Responses to that question range broadly. From skeptical dismissal to uncritical embrace, scholars and popular writers have wrestled with how to categorize the Gospels in terms of literary genre, when exactly they were written, what sources the authors used, the biases and edits that may have impacted the writing process, and ultimately whether or not a modern reader can trust them to provide reasonable information about the man we call Jesus of Nazareth.
Occasionally, in the midst of unending debates in which scholars, bloggers, and popular-level writers rage back-and-forth, an academic work is released with such impact that response from anyone serious about the reliability of these New Testament documents is demanded. Examples of such paradigm-shifting scholarly work from recent decades include (but are not limited to) the writing of E.P. Sanders, Crossan, Meier, Wright, and Bauckham, all of which have moved the boundaries of the conversation in important, and sometimes controversial, ways.
Craig Keener, already a well-established figure in New Testament studies, has released an opus of such scope and extensive research that may well prove to be the next watershed publication in the ongoing historical study of the Gospel accounts.
*** Top 10 New Theology Books
At the risk of over-simplifying Keener’s deep and nuanced study, the core argument of Christobiography can be understood as such: 1) the literary genre of the Gospels can be identified as ancient biography; 2) the Gospel writers followed the current biographical writing conventions of their time; 3) these conventions existed in the broader Greco-Roman culture and involved collecting and compiling information from the communal “living memory” (oral tradition) of the biographical subject’s life; 4) such oral tradition was necessarily based on communal memory, which (counter to current, popular skepticism) given what is known of the oral culture in the Ancient Near East, is in fact historically reliable.
One of Keener’s clearest objectives in this work is to help the reader see the Gospels anew in their context. As stated in the concluding section, “traditional skeptical and fundamentalist approaches to the Gospels have generally committed the same error: judging the Gospels by standards foreign to their original genre.” (497) Much of the book, then, (9 of 17 chapters) is devoted to carefully defining the genre of ancient biography. Keener’s methodology includes scrupulous study of extra-biblical examples of biography from the same time period the Gospel accounts were written, contrasting the Gospels with literature that clearly isn’t meant to be historical in nature, and proposing expectations for what readers in antiquity would have expected from biographical writing.
Any prospective reader who is still interested in Christobiography at this point should understand three things. First, this study is not a commentary on the Gospels, nor is it exegetical or interpretive. Keener regularly employs scriptures as examples to support his historical research, or as comparison points to other ancient literature, but he repeatedly and frequently directs the reader to commentaries for further reading as these specific scripture passages are referenced. Second, while his findings may certainly be used for apologetic purposes, it is not primarily an apologetic work. Keener rarely engages in polemics, though he does offer an occasional sharp critique of other academic studies. The primary aim of Christobiography, rather, is deep historical methodology and research, and the presentation of findings. Third, and perhaps not surprising if you are familiar with Keener’s previous writings, the level of research that went into this study is staggering (multiple chapters contain over 300 footnotes, and the bibliography of secondary sources alone is nearly 130 pages long) and the book does presume a certain level of familiarity with the ongoing “historical Jesus” conversation, as Keener regularly interacts with other secondary literature and responds to well-known arguments and perspectives within the scholarly milieu of Gospels research.
This is not to say the writing style of Christobiography is unnecessarily obtuse at all, as it is actually quite accessible for the level of academic rigor Keener brings, but readers who have no desire to comb through hundreds of footnotes, or those looking for a more explicitly-apologetic tone should wait until other writers build off the impressive work that Keener has done here, as is almost certainly going to happen in years to come.
For those willing to put in the effort, however, much is to be gained from this study of the Gospels, and the specific angle Keener brings to it. His mastery of the primary literature of the relevant historical period lends significant credibility to his proposal that the Gospels are, in fact, ancient biographies. Chapter 3, for example, provides a survey of comparable ancient biographies from writers like Philo, Josephus, Tacitus, Plutarch and Suetonius. Chapter 4 includes an enlightening discussion of ancient biographies of sages (esp. the work of Diogenes Laertius), as Jesus is commonly categorized as a sage-like figure, even by skeptical scholars. All this comparative research lays crucial groundwork for understanding the placement of the Gospels in the genre of biography, as well as granting some insight into the motives of the writers themselves. As Keener argues, “The Evangelists could have chosen exclusively liturgical forms, such as hymns, to honor Jesus (as in Rev 5:9-13), but for the Gospels they chose to write especially in biographic form.” (160)
After establishing the ancient-biographic form of the Gospel accounts, Keener utilizes further comparative study of Jewish and Greco-Roman literature to clarify what readers of the time would have expected of such documents. Subjects like research bias, chronological conflation, encomium (accounts written solely to praise the character of the subject), rhetoric and preservation of speech, and literary techniques are all surveyed and discussed in chapters 5 through 11. Chapter 10 includes a particularly fascinating section, in which 3 separate, but contemporary, biographies of Otho (an emperor of Rome) are compared side-by-side. On pages 271-284, the accounts of Otho’s life as written by Suetonius, Tacitus and Plutarch are compared beat-for-beat. The result is a clear portrait of how the same historical subject matter, in this case the biography of a well-known political leader, could be edited and arranged while still remaining historically reliable and intact. Observing how certain plot points of Otho’s life are emphasized in one historian’s account, while chronologically re-arranged or entirely missing from another, places the discrepancies in the four Gospel accounts in a startling new light.
A brief section addresses two common criticisms of the historicity of the Gospels that are not directly related to literary genre or the writing process: the presence of miracles and the seemingly stark contrast between the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and John. These two chapters (12 and 13) are the closest Christobiography gets to scriptural commentary, but Keener still recognizes those questions as largely outside the scope of his particular study, pointing the reader to other, pre-existing works for deeper reading.
Finally, Christobiography ends on a discussion of the role of memory in the formation of these ancient biographies about Jesus. Chapters 14-17 include discussions of the formation of memories, especially how formative memories are preserved in the traditions of communities, the question of “living memory,” as well as the possibility of the disciples’ illiteracy, the implications of Jesus as a teacher (who would have trained and instructed his disciples specifically to pass on his teachings) within the Jewish culture of the first century, and the more general nature of the oral culture in the Ancient Near East. The inclusion of this section sets the book apart from many otherwise similar studies of the reliability and transmission of the Gospel texts, and provides much food for thought for the engaged reader.
Christobiography is an easy recommendation for academically-minded ministers, scholars of classics and ancient literature, or even those who are skeptical of the New Testament documents. Keener is unapologetically conservative in his own historical opinions (and indicates as such in the opening chapter), and while those on the skeptical end of the conversation may not be swayed by his arguments, his thorough and rigorous research deserves to be examined and responded to with equal care and thoughtfulness. His work is a gift to all who care about pursuing the truth of history, and the ongoing historical research of the Gospel accounts is in debt to his careful study.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com