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“Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels” by Craig S. Keener

Published Wednesday, July 1, 2020 By John J. Bombaro

Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels
by Craig S. Keener
Eerdmans, 2019
743 pages (hardcover), $37.99

The question of the reliability of the canonical Gospels has been a central debate in New Testament studies since the advent of the German higher critical movement. Every twenty years or so, the debate resurfaces with renewed vigor in a new generation of scholars. The issue has surfaced again, but with recent scholarship suggesting that many of the usual flash points may be missing the mark by neglecting the genre of ancient biography that, in many ways, explodes both liberal critiques and fundamentalist defenses of the evangelists.

Furthering the central theses within Michael Licona’s landmark work Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography, Craig S. Keener, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, demonstrates the reliability of the canonical Gospels by evaluating Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John within the conventions of ancient biographical composition. Studies such as Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels suggest that the battle lines in the reliability debate are being redrawn decidedly in the favor of Christian orthodoxy.

Keener fairly and reasonably argues that the authors of the Gospels were intentional in how they utilized historical information and sources, following the literary methodology of ancient biographers in close proximity to the time of the evangelists. In other words, they chose an established, existing genre that best transmitted the historical person and events that comprise the Gospels. And so, based on the standards for reliable historical accounting at the time of composition, the Gospels were received as reliable testimonials about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. The character and marks of ancient biography are borne throughout the Gospels that, so far from detracting from their reliability (when levied against modern biographical conventions), actually augment the degree of accuracy in recounting the life and work of Jesus.

The core argument of Christobiography’s seventeen chapters finds articulation through five interrelated parts. First, the literary genre of the Synoptic Gospels is identified as ancient biography. Keener situates the Synoptics in the second half of the first century, and he demonstrates the similarities and differences between biographical compositions of the time and the Gospels. The author concludes that, unlike fiction, the Synoptics strongly resemble the biographies of real historical sages or philosophers.

The second part furthers Keener’s presentation by evidencing that the evangelists followed the biographical conventions of their time, including employing acceptable flexibility in narrating historical events. To be sure, these are historical not confected events that receive special highlighting, magnifying, emphasizing, and restructuring through a variety of compositional devices to achieve certain ends, not the least of which are theological. In Keener’s evaluation, these devices, although disagreeable to modern standards, comported with the expectations of first- and second-century readers of fair and honest reporting or testimony.

In the third part of the book, the author engages with the challenge of variations in details and chronologies within the Gospel accounts, addressing these issues by way of the aforementioned devices. Using biographies from Otho, Philo, Josephus, Tacitus, Plutarch, and Suetonius, Keener shows that existing conventions within the broader Greco-Roman culture entailed collating information from the communal “living memory” (oral tradition) of the biographical subject’s life. The third part of the book alone is worth the purchase price.

In part four, Keener then considers two objections to the Gospels as historical biographies. The first objection is that the miracles recorded in the Synoptic Gospels evidence discontinuity with existing ancient biographies. Keener argues in response that because the Gospel writers thought they were writing about Jesus the Son, God’s Messiah, some discontinuity with existing biographies seems reasonable. Something must set Jesus apart from all others. Second, he addresses the objection that the dissimilarities of John with the Synoptics raise major problems for his thesis. This challenge takes more space than the first, with Keener concluding that the Gospel of John, in terms of genre and purpose, is really no different from the others.

The fifth part takes up a subject referenced in the subtitle: memory—specifically, memories about Jesus before the evangelists penned these memoirs. Psychological studies regarding memory and recall, as well as eyewitness testimony, set the stage for evaluating the reliability of such source information about Jesus. Keener says that psychological studies and human experience evidence that, despite inexactitude on points of detail or an ability to quote verbatim, oral cultures accurately convey the gist of an event. That is, such testimony accounts for the facts. All this may sound like hedging or downgrading the Scriptures, but Keener beckons consideration that Jesus’ disciples came from a culture whose capacity for memorization was far greater than our own; that they likely collaborated with one another for precision in quotation, because of the subject himself and his subject matter; and Jesus repeated many of his sayings with an element of variation, themselves recounting with a degree of permissible variation.

It bears emphasizing that Christobiography is neither a Gospel commentary nor an exegetical or theological interpretive work. Keener also does not intend this book to be a work of apologetics, although it clearly has value in that regard. Rather, it argues that contemporary readers consider the text within its accepted compositional context. Indeed, it is an argument that the Gospels were regarded as reliable accounts of historical events and a real biographical subject because the genre was known and understood to be trustworthy. Consequently, the need to mitigate all variations and differences in the Gospels would have been, in those centuries, completely unnecessary. This is why the author writes, “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).

It should also be emphasized that Keener’s findings do not undermine the divine inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. Rather, under divine inspiration and through the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, the biblical authors employed the legitimate literary conventions that were in existence and trusted by their audiences. Biblical scholars have long recognized this with respect to New Testament epistolary studies. Keener’s work lobbies all to do the same with the Gospels.

Christobiography is copiously footnoted to substantiate scholarly opinion to reinforce its major themes, and at the same time it provides many avenues for further exploration. Additional studies, for example, could further bolster this work by substantiating afresh the transmission of historical memory with commentary on its receptivity and prevalence. Likewise, having reasonably established the reliability of the Gospels within the parameters of ancient historical biography, the next conversation may entail the validity of the Gospels. This would entail a different spectrum of modalities ranging from possibility to probability to necessity.

It is one thing to say that, indeed, these are reliable accounts of the historic figure, Jesus of Nazareth; but it is another thing to say that the telic dimension—the purpose—of these accounts of Jesus is also plausible. Reliability is a prerequisite to validity but does not sufficiently establish it. More is required. Here the critique relates not to conversion (that is, the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit engendering faith/trust in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Redeemer-God of the world), but to the next level of argument: Why would they write thus? What renders them not just reliable as a genre, as history, but plausible, especially in relation to the theology and metanarrative of the Hebrew Bible?

Despite the scope and nuance of his erudite study, Keener’s posture remains modest: The most skeptical scholars who view the Gospels as pure fiction will reject correlation with ancient historical biography. Likewise, he believes that literalists will permit no variance or elasticity to the evangelists’ chronologies, much less to Jesus’ words. Notwithstanding, the importance of this work cannot be ignored or overstated. Craig Keener, along with Michael Licona, has redrawn the battle lines. This work is of such academic importance regarding methodology as to be hailed a watershed publication in the ongoing historical study of the Gospel accounts. As such, Christobiography comes with the highest recommendation to scholars of all relevant disciplines, as well as to pastors and seminarians who have interest and investment in the historical Jesus and the truth of Holy Scripture.


John J. Bombaro (PhD, King’s College, University of London) is the associate director of Theological Education for Eurasia, based at the Rīga Luther Academy in Latvia.

  • John J. Bombaro