The debate about the biographical genre of the Gospels is alive and well, with several major books coming out at the moment. Here’s my review of Craig Keener’s massive Christobiography, just published in Theology.
Back in the late 1990s, I started to receive books with personal dedications in a spidery scrawl, saying nice things about my work having inspired the author! In fact, Keener’s first commentary on Matthew (IVP, 1997) was one of the first (if not the first) to include a section on ‘Matthew as Biography’ in his introduction, while his larger commentary (Eerdmans, 1999) has a major detailed discussion of ancient biography and Jewish sources with regard to historical accuracy. This commentary was republished ten years later (Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Eerdmans, 2009) with the addition of an extended discussion of ‘Matthew and Graeco-Roman Rhetoric’, which begins with the importance of the genres of ancient biography and histories.
These three books alone demonstrate the shift in scholarly consensus about the genre of the Gospels as ancient biographies which has taken place over the last 25 years – and Keener has been at the forefront of that sea-change, not just with commentaries on Matthew, but also his detailed two-volume commentary on John (Hendrickson, 2003) and his magnum opus on Acts in four huge volumes (Baker Academic, 2012-2015), both of which stress the importance of genre for the interpretation of the Gospels.
Finally, a recent collection of essays edited by Craig Keener and Edward Wright (Biographies and Jesus: What Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies? Emeth Press, 2016) is a collection of sixteen contributions of new groundbreaking research from a team of internationally diverse scholars, many of whom are working under Keener at Asbury Theological Seminary.
Thus, this major new work about what he terms ‘Christobiography’ is no surprise, building upon the last two decades. Keener has two extreme approaches in his sights: ‘Traditional skeptical and fundamentalist approaches to the Gospels have generally committed the same error: judging the Gospels by standards foreign to their original genre.’ (p. 356). He begins with an introduction about ‘default expectations’ about the Gospels, while the first main part considers ‘Biographies about Jesus’, in which he outlines the debates which led to the new consensus about the Gospels and ancient biographies.
The second part explores the vexed relationship between ancient biography and historiography, noting the flexibility and ‘overlapping’ of neighbouring genres, and considers the ancients’ expectations about historical information, with particular reference to Luke-Acts as what Keener calls ‘biohistory’. Part 3 tests the ‘range of deviation’, drawing on Keener’s own detailed work on the accounts of Otho and Galba by Tacitus, Suetonius and Plutarch, and analysing the ‘flexible’ use of literary techniques in ancient biographies. Part 4 then considers the particular issues of miracles and a detailed study of the similarities and distinctiveness of John compared with the synoptic gospels.
Finally, Part 5 discusses ‘memory studies’, bias, verbatim recall, note-taking, and the kinds of memories which tend to be preserved, all of which are applied to Jesus as a teacher and his disciples as eyewitnesses in the light of ancient education. After some 400 pages of detailed argument, he concludes with some ‘implications of this study’, making it abundantly clear how important the biographical hypothesis is for his work: ‘I believe that my two most essential primary points are difficult to dispute: in the early empire, normal biographers writing about recent figures attempted to recount historical information (normally for edifying purposes); and biographers could exercise a degree of flexibility in how they recounted that information’.
This very important book repays careful study, especially with regard to the key question of historical reliability. Interestingly, Keener himself warns in his second sentence that ‘this book is not about the historical reliability of the details of the Gospels’ – although the publisher’s jacket says that he concludes that the Gospels ‘are historically reliable ancient biographies’! Keener is absolutely correct that comparing the Gospels with ancient biographies has implications both for fundamentalists (who accept everything) and sceptics (who accept nothing) alike.
The biographical genre does not automatically answer all our questions about the Gospels, but, especially when taken together with studies about ancient memory, does gives us a ‘more historically sensitive approach… that these biographies written within living memory of Jesus do in fact succeed in preserving many of Jesus’s acts and teachings.’ (p. 497). I warmly commend this book, not just for students and scholars, but for all who teach and preach the canonical Gospels.
Craig S Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels (Wm. B Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2019).