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 ...1
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