Skeptical scholars have long insisted that the four gospels are a type of mythology or folklore rather than reliable historical accounts. Popular skeptics, as well, typically adopt this view and claim that Jesus’ life and teachings were fabricated in whole or in part by his followers.
In his groundbreaking new book Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels, Craig Keener, a professor of biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, sets out to demonstrate that the gospels are ancient historical biographies, comparable to biographies written by contemporary Greek and Roman historians. As a result, they should be treated as serious historical sources rather than works of fiction.
Christopher Reese spoke recently with Keener about his 700-page exploration of gospel studies.
Studies on oral tradition and memory play a significant role in discussions about the formation of the gospels. Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus’ words and actions were faithfully preserved orally before being set down in writing?
Certainly it is very reasonable. I begin with a caveat, since some might assume “faithful” preservation to extend beyond substance to exact wording. Just as biographers could frame accounts in their own words and with their own emphases, so did prior traditions. No one, then, is claiming that the gospels typically report Jesus’s words verbatim (not least because he usually taught in Aramaic, and the gospels usually report his words in Greek). Simply comparing one gospel with another over the span of several parallel passages should disabuse us of expecting verbatim agreement.
But then, ancient readers did not expect verbatim agreement. In fact, the synoptic gospels actually come closer to verbatim agreement than was common in ancient biography and historiography. Short aphorisms, or proverb-like sayings, can be preserved close to verbatim, and ancient disciples often rehearsed them to this end. Parables and other similar material, however, could be paraphrased so long as the essential story line remained the same.
Given what we know about disciples in antiquity, and given the relatively brief span of time between Jesus’s public ministry and the first written accounts that we know about, historians should expect genuine reports of events and teachings of Jesus to dominate in the gospels.
As a Christian, I personally affirm more than that, but I believe that even on purely historical grounds, we should expect most accounts in the gospels to reflect genuine events in Jesus’s life or genuine teachings of his.
How do oral historians talk about these challenges?
Early twentieth-century form critics attempted to compare material in the gospels to folk tales passed on for centuries, but that model cannot fit first-century gospels. Oral historians distinguish between oral history, which depends on reports from within living memory—while some of those who knew the eyewitnesses remain alive—and oral tradition. Oral tradition can preserve a historical core of events, but oral history preserves more than subsequent tradition does. On any first-century date for the gospels, we are dealing with oral history.
On average, scholars date Mark’s gospel around four decades after Jesus’s public ministry. Some, including myself, support a somewhat earlier date, and others a somewhat later date. But just to work from the average, some eyewitnesses of events that Mark reports on were probably still alive at the time. Peter was probably still alive ten years earlier.
By way of illustration, I ask my students how many of them remember some events from four decades ago. A few do. A larger number were not yet born. Then I ask how many of them know reliable witnesses who can remember events from four decades ago. All of them do. Ancient disciples normally learned their teachers’ teachings well. Then philosophic schools, schools of Torah teachers, and so on, often propagated those teachings from one generation to the next.
Of course, those who passed on the teachings had their own interpretive grids, but these grids were often also shaped to a great extent by what they learned from their teachers. The skepticism with which many scholars approach the gospels appears less persuasive when we consider analogies in the real world outside it, from antiquity or sometimes even from today.
If the gospels are comparable to other biographies in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, what does that tell us about their reliability as historical sources?
If we apply these genre expectations to the Gospels, we should affirm that, at least on average, most accounts in the Gospels reflect actual events in the life of Jesus. Now, those of us with theological commitments to the text may believe more than that, and those with ideological commitments against the text may affirm less than that, but at least this approach can get us all into the same historiographic ballpark. Most events and themes in the Gospels reflect relatively recent memory of Jesus. Thus the figure that we meet in the Gospels, despite different emphases from one Gospel to another, is the figure of Jesus.
How do we know that the gospels don’t fall into the category of mythology or a related fictional genre?
Novels and collections of mythography did not deal with real persons of the past generation or two. Most ancient novels are purely fictitious romances; the minority of novels that use historical characters are set in the distant past. Moreover, they do not cleave closely to their sources the way Matthew and Luke obviously do. Since the dependence of Matthew and Luke on prior sources shows that they clearly are interested in prior information, and since they use Mark with such confidence as a reliable source—Matthew tweaks Mark, but includes more than 90 percent of the events he reports—and since they wrote fairly soon after Mark, and were in a far better position to evaluate Mark’s reliability than are modern scholars, it seems clear that they are writing information-based works, quite different from ancient novels.
Popular skeptics often claim that we can’t trust the gospels as historical sources because they were written by Christians. How would you respond to that charge?
Our most useful information about Socrates comes from his followers; does that invalidate these sources? Most who wrote about Caesar had strongly felt opinions about him, pro or con. We know nothing about the Qumran community’s founding figure, the Teacher of Righteousness, apart from works by his followers. We know almost nothing about Muhammad (as opposed to Islam more generally) apart from the traditions of his followers. It is normally those most interested in a figure, often his or her followers, who preserve the most useful information about the figure. Excluding their voices leaves us with little knowledge about them. Those who wrote most about Jesus, who were most interested in him, were naturally his followers.
Granted, we have to take into account writers’ commitments; but these commitments do not require us to suppose that they make up the information that they include. The Gospels come from the historiographic apex of ancient biography, the period of the early empire—in contrast to accounts of Socrates, when biography was just beginning to take shape.
Do the supernatural elements in the gospels discount them as historical sources, as skeptics tend to claim?
I have written more extensively on this subject in my book on miracles. I have made no secret of my belief that God does perform miracles, but in terms of documenting historical events, the question at hand is less whether such events are divinely-worked miracles (which I believe is the best explanation) than whether such events appear in our earliest and most reliable sources. Some rule out extraordinary events in the Gospels on the principle of analogy: they claim that such events do not occur today.
But suffice it to say that we have ample documentation for most kinds of events that appear in the Gospels also appearing today. Scholars divide regarding the causes (many deny that the causes are supernatural), but to deny that eyewitnesses report anomalous cures in intensely religious contexts—cures including healed blindness, deafness, inability to walk, and resuscitations—is to ignore massive amounts of data. There are cases with medical documentation attesting to some of these cures. There are multiplied millions of eyewitness claims today, however one explains them.
Meanwhile, every layer of historical tradition acknowledges that Jesus’s contemporaries experienced him as a healer, exorcist, and so forth; even his detractors did not deny these experiences, although they reframed them negatively. If some scholars today are tempted to deny the multiple lines of evidence supporting this characteristic feature of Jesus’s ministry, it’s not because we lack historical evidence for it. It is because of philosophic assumptions about what is possible. And again, these experiences are well-documented, so regardless of one’s explanatory grid for them, no one should deny that they are possible.
Tell us about the history behind the Christobiography book.
In the past, when I wrote that the gospels are ancient biographies—the general scholarly consensus—and expected that other scholars would recognize the historiographic implications of that claim, I quickly discovered that not only did many not recognize those implications but most had not actually read ancient biographies.
In response, I resolved to demonstrate the implications more overtly. I published a detailed study, and then in a class, some of my doctoral students partnered with me on another preliminary project, so that we could all build on one another’s work.
In this project, I note that the sorts of biographies comparable in form to the gospels and written in the same period as the gospels, were primarily information-based. That is, however biographers of this period may have framed or adapted their information, depending on the particular authors involved, their role as biographers entailed reporting prior information, not simply inventing stories. When they wrote about recent figures, their information was likely substantially reliable.
Sometimes scholars assume that if you cite any evidence favoring events in the gospels, you must be religiously biased. But it appears to me that some New Testament scholars work instead with an anticanonical bias. We all have presuppositions. But it should move discussion forward if we examine comparable works from antiquity to see what the expectations were. It appears to me that the closest analogies suggest a real interest in historical information.
Of course, like the gospels, these other works also sought to edify; but what distinguished biographies from, say, direct exhortations is that biographies did so based on information that the biographer found in preexisting sources.
Christopher Reese is a freelance writer and the managing editor of The Worldview Bulletin. He co-founded the Christian Apologetics Alliance and is general editor of The Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (forthcoming from Zondervan, 2021).
This interview was adapted from an interview in The Worldview Bulletin. Used with permission.