08 April 2010

the historical Jesus of the gospels

Craig S. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

Books on the historical Jesus continue to abound, with many scholars giving their own synthesis and hypothesis of the gospel material. Certainly, much of this comes from years of teaching and researching on the life of Jesus, and many of these books no doubt represent the particular challenges and inquiries which individual scholars have encountered along the way. Although I appreciate the volume which Craig Keener has produced here, one should not expect any groundbreaking material form this work. It is a definite extension of the top-teir scholarship that the biblical studies community has come to expect from Keener, though it does not represent a new direction in historical Jesus research.

And it was not intended to be such.

The best summary statement is perhaps found in the book's Conclusion, "In this book, we have worked to establish especially that the basic portrayal of Jesus in the first-century Gospels, dependent on eyewitnesses, is more plausible than the alternative hypotheses of its modern detractors" (349, emphasis mine). Indeed, this is intended to be a book which introduces one to the historical research surrounding Jesus, and familiarize the reader (perhaps student) with the broad strokes of the life of Jesus. And this will also prove to be the two-edged sword which comes back to frustrate some readers.

There are many times throughout the book where Keener admits that his limitations of space do not allow for him to explore various issues further. Often this means that discussions are left without resolution, coming at the cost of the text not interacting with important and legitimate discussions or points-of-view which are prominent in the overall debate on the historical Jesus. The level of frustration which this will present to the reader will certainly be a matter of familiarity with Jesus research - the casual reader or introductory reader will not notice this as much as those who have read Jesus research and keep up with various issues in the debate. It would have been a great addition to the volume if it had more direct interaction with, for example, Tom Wright's portrayal of Jesus in JVG . . . there are certainly many points at which the two intersect and diverge, and a more intentional explanation would have proven beneficial.

However, this should be considered a minor quibble with the book as a whole. For those who are interested in jumping in to the historical Jesus discussion, this is certainly a worthwhile volume. One of Keener's greatest strengths as a biblical scholar is his command of the background material, both the original context and setting of the biblical text but also his familiarity with the ongoing scholarship. The first section of the book is given to an introduction of historical Jesus research, and Keener writes it well - I enjoyed reading through parts and having another perspective on the pros and cons of previous scholars given in a different light - this is a solid effort to bring one into the world of Jesus research.

Also of note is the 195 pages of endnotes given to the 348 pages of primary text (then there are a few appendices, with their respective endnotes). Thus, while the reader does not get Keener's direct interaction with many of the points which omits for the sake of space, the book does become a useful tool of gathered research for continued study and evaluation. Again, this plays off of Keener's strengths as a biblical scholar and raises the importance of having this volume on one's shelf.

In the end, Keener presents a solid overview of the historical Jesus as can be known from the source materials - especially the gospel texts. What emerges is an evangelical portrait which does not pull away from serious question or debate in trying to get at the historical Jesus. I would recommend this book to those interested in learning about the historical Jesus, especially those who are beginning their journey. It is an accessible and serious tool for those who desire to follow the conversation.

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