The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

by Craig S. Keener

The earliest substantive sources available for historical Jesus research are in the Gospels themselves; when interpreted in their early Jewish setting, their picture of Jesus is more coherent and plausible than are the competing theories offered by many modern scholars. So argues Craig Keener in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.

In exploring the depth and

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The earliest substantive sources available for historical Jesus research are in the Gospels themselves; when interpreted in their early Jewish setting, their picture of Jesus is more coherent and plausible than are the competing theories offered by many modern scholars. So argues Craig Keener in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.

In exploring the depth and riches of the material found in the Synoptic Gospels, Keener shows how many works on the historical Jesus emphasize just one aspect of the Jesus tradition against others, but a much wider range of material in the Jesus tradition makes sense in an ancient Jewish setting. Keener masterfully uses a broad range of evidence from the early Jesus traditions and early Judaism to reconstruct a fuller portrait of the Jesus who lived in history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.
-- Catholic University of America
"With critical acumen, Craig Keener presents a comprehensive account of the study of the historical Jesus. It will be a boon for all readers -- inquisitive laypeople, pastors, students of the Gospels, and biblical colleagues."

James H. Charlesworth
-- Princeton Theological Seminary
"Keener proves why the Evangelists' view of Jesus is preferable to most modern constructs: the Gospels, as ancient biographies, reflect eyewitness accounts of Jesus and provide the only valid sources for reconstructing the historical Jesus. . . . This book is exceptional for its breadth and its captivating prose."

Gerd Theissen
-- University of Heidelberg
"Historical Jesus research has developed in the last decades from a 'postminimalism' concerning the authenticity of Jesus traditions to a new 'moderate confidence' in the historicity of the Gospels. Craig Keener's book is both a milestone and a boundary stone in this development. By contextualizing the sources of Jesus research and Jesus himself, Keener succeeds in increasing the historical plausibility of the Gospels to a degree that is exceptional among critical exegetes. Therefore this book must be read and taken seriously -- both by those exegetes who are reluctant to support this 'historical-critical maximalism' in Jesus research and by those reluctant to contextualize Jesus in such a way. But both will enjoy reading what Keener has written with an open and critical mind."

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The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

By Craig S. Keener

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2009 Craig S. Keener
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6888-6

Chapter One

The Development of Jesus Scholarship

Each of the next three chapters offers only the briefest summary of views, by way of introducing some of the diverse ideas about Jesus in the past few centuries of academic discussion. Although outsiders sometimes think of scholarship as monolithic (depending on how many books on the subject they have read), "historical Jesus" research has proved to be anything but monolithic. The "assured results" of one generation or school are usually challenged in the next.

John Dominic Cross an put the matter well nearly two decades ago: "Historical Jesus research is becoming something of a scholarly bad joke," due, he noted, to "the number of competent and even eminent scholars producing pictures of Jesus at wide variance with one another." Consensus has been elusive, as our summary of views in these next three chapters is intended to illustrate.

Likewise, whereas outsiders often think of scholarship as dispassionate and objective, scholarship is in fact often driven by scholars' assumptions, which are in turn often the product of the ideas dominant in their own era. Biographers and historians addressing other ancient figures might interpret their subjects sympathetically, but Jesus scholarship has developed this tendency more than most. In an era that emphasized Christian ethics, writers about Jesus often portrayed him as the epitome of such ethics. In a setting that emphasized a form of existentialism, some scholars presented him as existentialism's greatest voice. Today, too, we have our variety of contextually packaged, readily marketable "Jesus" figures.

While such mundane contextualizations are to be preferred to the Third Reich's "Aryan" Jesus, they still run a serious risk of distorting and malforming what we know about Jesus. Indeed, if we are interested in the Jesus who lived and died in first-century Galilee, we would do better to read him in the very context that the Reich Church most abhorred—Jesus' Judaism.

Earlier Modern "Historical Jesus" Studies

The current quest—today almost a market—in "Jesus" research builds on a long modern tradition. Some of that tradition bespeaks the courage of inquirers willing to suffer for their convictions (whether against the hostility of theologians or that of skeptics); some of it warns of authors pandering to their market niches in the most profitable manner.

The Renaissance emphasis on a return to the sources invited scholars to look for the "original" Jesus behind the portrayals of Medieval dogma. While this inquiry initially remained a pious quest, it was inevitably shaped by the presuppositions about the nature of history with which its scholars worked. Thus sixteenth-century English Deists worked with different presuppositions about what was "possible" than did those of more traditional Christian persuasion.

The radical Enlightenment's prejudice against divine or supernatural causation eventually shaped much of Jesus research. Although the reason that Albert Schweitzer's famous history of the Jesus quest starts with Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) may be that Reimarus fits the trajectory Schweitzer wished to emphasize, Reimarus offers an adequate beginning for our summary. Reimarus' work was a polemic rather than an objective historical study, and his work circulated openly only after his death. Today scholars regard most of Reimarus' views as wrong, but we can appreciate at least his emphasis on Jesus' Jewish context (introduced by others before him).

Yet once Reimarus' work pried open previously repressed academic possibilities, some others soon joined attempts to explain the gospel tradition without regard to the miracle claims so offensive to the radical Enlightenment understanding of "reason." Thus Karl Friedrich Bahrdt wrote of Essenes as a secret society that offered medical and psychosomatic cures. They and Jesus accommodated superstition, Bahrdt supposed, merely to communicate rational truth. Likewise, Karl Heinrich Venturini opined that Jesus healed with medicaments, always carrying his medicine chest as he traveled around. Both Bahrdt and Venturini seem to have conveniently overestimated ancient medical capabilities.

More influentially, David Friedrich Strauss (1808-74) endeavored to "demythologize" the gospel portrait of Jesus, seeking to recover the original story behind the later descriptions by stripping or explaining away what he deemed impossible. The "Jesus" such writers produced was a modern rational Jesus amenable to their own tastes. Schweitzer contends that scholars in this "rational phase" of Jesus research sometimes made historically irrational choices (such as preferring John's testimony to that of the Synoptics) to achieve their portrait.

Shaped by Romanticism, most nineteenth-century authors of "lives of Jesus" produced a romantic Jesus, a Jesus of noble sentiment who appealed to like-minded audiences (and, coincidentally, helped sell many of the authors' books). (Schweitzer complains that one of the most famous of these authors, Ernest Renan, was more interested in his literary public than in scientific objectivity.) Although writers produced a vast number of these "lives," their basic character remained substantially the same.

An Example: Adolf von Harnack's Civilized Jesus

One of the last great works in the tradition of nineteenth-century "liberal" lives of Jesus was that of Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), one of the most revered academicians of his era. Harnack's work on the "essence of Christianity" (now available as What Is Christianity?) offered essentially an apologetic for liberal Christianity, that is, a Christianity that could accommodate the claims of his era's modernity. Thus he sought to present the "gospel" in a form relevant to his own time, addressing objections posed by his milieu. He placed heavy emphasis on cultural religion, regarding Protestantism as a notably German contribution to civilization.

In keeping with the spirit of his day, he reduced the essential gospel to ethics, and demythologized Jesus' message of the kingdom to God's rule in the individual heart or religious enlightenment. Producing a Jesus in keeping with the values of his day, he notes that the true kernel of Jesus' teaching was far more modern than the ancient husk through which it came. This quest for the true (modern) kernel seems to constitute his historical criterion for establishing the "oldest tradition" about Jesus.

Harnack does view the more Jewish portrait of Jesus as earlier and more authentic to Jesus. Nevertheless, he argues that the goal of Jesus' teachings, while nurtured in Judaism, is safely beyond it. Accommodating "modern" perspectives, he regards the belief that life has vanquished death as more important than anything that might have happened historically at Jesus' grave; like many after him, he distinguishes between an objective, historical resurrection and the Easter faith. Yet whatever Harnack's view of the matter theologically, his interpretation of the evidence is quite different from that of the "primitive" apostolic church he in some other respects valued. Historically, they did not separate their Easter faith from the claim that Jesus returned from the dead; mere hope in afterlife or returned spirits offended almost no one and would not have provided a defining boundary for the movement. Unfortunately, divesting the Jesus movement of such elements foreign to modern thought appears to have been part of the price of eliminating the offensive Jewish eschatology of Jesus and his first followers. While Harnack notes that Jesus and his disciples were bounded by their time, it seems also the case that, despite occasional forays against the assumptions of his milieu, Harnack was no less a child of his own, and unapologetically so.

For all the positive elements in Harnack's perspectives, he could not have guessed the dangers that such enculturated Christianity would lead to with the "Aryan Christianity" of the Reich Church a generation later. Individualistic, inward religion may have its value, but it proved more malleable to the cultural demands of anti-Semitic nationalism than respect for a first-century Jewish sage would have. This is not to blame Harnack or his peers for an outcome they could not have foreseen; it is to object to a vision of Jesus so wedded to our own cultural settings that we lose sight of Jesus' original historical (Jewish and Middle Eastern) setting. Harnack's optimistic Jesus, designed for modern western readers, perished in the bloodshed of the first world war.

The Apocalyptic Jesus of Weiss and Schweitzer

In 1906 Albert Schweitzer's survey and devastating critique of previous modern Jesus scholarship put an end to much of the "Jesus" industry of his day. (Schweitzer was also a good marketer: he presented his own view as the natural product of the evolution of sound thinking.) Although Schweitzer's survey of previous Jesus research was selective and somewhat tendentious, it was sufficient to establish his central point regarding the history of scholarship. His point was that Jesus scholars had produced a Jesus in their own image, to their own liking. Not unlike some preachers and perhaps a few scholars today, they had used respect for Jesus to promulgate their own ideology.

Schweitzer's own portrait of Jesus drew from recent work by Johannes Weiss (1863-1914), who had argued, against his nineteenth-century predecessors, that Jesus proclaimed the world's imminent end, a prediction that then failed to occur. His emphasis on the future character of the "kingdom" Jesus proclaimed, based on Jesus' early Jewish context, offered an important challenge to his predecessors' "liberal" lives of Jesus. Weiss was not ignorant of his era's scholarship; rather, he addressed particular questions precisely because these questions were being answered differently in his milieu.

Eschatology (emphasis on the impending end of the age) was central in Weiss's reconstruction of Jesus' teaching. For example, he notes that Jesus' expression "Son of man" is eschatological imagery;38 this perspective coheres with Jesus' proclamation of God's end-time kingdom. Weiss believes that Jesus expected the kingdom to come immediately (cf. Mk 13:32) or in the next generation.

Granted, Weiss sometimes overplayed eschatology. For example, he sometimes may play down too much the rarer texts that could emphasize the presence of the kingdom; for example, "entering the kingdom" in the present becomes for him merely "entering the way that leads to the kingdom." Like some other "Jesus" scholars, Weiss sometimes draws the net of context too narrowly, in this case exploiting only apocalyptic background. Thus, for example, he traces Jesus' messianic consciousness to his consciousness of his sonship in an apocalyptic context, even though God's Fatherhood is a pervasive theme throughout Jesus' Jewish environment.

Like Weiss, Schweitzer drew on Jesus' Jewish, and especially eschatological ("end-time"), environment to portray a more Jewish Jesus than the one embraced by some of his contemporaries, who were generally more interested in "relevant" theology or preaching. Similarly, Schweitzer shared many of the critical assumptions of his era's biblical scholarship, though like Weiss, not always consistently. He regards Jesus as apocalyptic rather than as a modern rationalist, and observes that an eschatological outlook often suggests the authenticity of early traditions. Unfortunately, like Weiss, he defines ancient Jewish perspectives too narrowly in terms of apocalyptic pseudepigrapha. Nevertheless, scholars have often observed that, regardless of their excesses, "there is no going back behind Weiss and Schweitzer."

Yet Schweitzer's own conclusions seemed disillusioning for both his own faith and that of many other liberal Christians: Jesus was a deluded (if heroic) apocalyptist dreamer. Of course, Schweitzer found a friendlier way to put this: Jesus' spirit, in his useful teachings, lives on among his followers. Schweitzer's emphasis on eschatology or Jesus' Jewish context would not necessarily have the same effect today. Whereas his generation had little use for eschatology, two world wars, rampant genocide and other factors have since reinvigorated it; oppressed people naturally often resonate with the hopes of a better world more than content people do. This was not, however, Schweitzer's milieu, and his emphasis on Jesus' eschatological framework was for him an act of brutal academic honesty. Eschatology did not "preach" well in his circles.


For some time after Schweitzer's critique, scholars generally showed much less interest in producing "lives" of Jesus or even producing much scholarship about Jesus' life. Schweitzer's argument had decisively altered western liberal Jesus scholarship by producing a Jesus that seemed less useful to the theologians who made Jesus their primary concern. No longer did it appear possible to deny that Jesus' worldview was apocalyptic; yet liberal western academia deemed the apocalyptic worldview no longer relevant. (In fact this worldview was flourishing outside those circles, especially since the spread of dispensational premillennialism in the U.S.; but when academia took notice of such circles, its notice was not positive.) How could theologians reclaim a Jesus whose message was deemed so irrelevant to good theology?

Rudolf Bultmann sought to find a way. He employed the critical tools of his day (though, like most of his predecessors, he did use material in addition to "Q" and Mark). Nevertheless, he remained deeply interested in relevance. Whereas the "Aryan Christians" had tried to make Christianity relevant to a German nationalism recovering from international abuse after the first world war, Bultmann sought a different tack. Bultmann's apologetic strategy was to demythologize Jesus' message to make it "relevant" for his day. Yes, the form of Jesus' message was apocalyptic, but the real nature of that message was existential: God coming as the demander.

The Existential Jesus

While acknowledging Schweitzer's apocalyptic Jesus, Bultmann theologically circumvented it. Perhaps insufficiently heedful of Schweitzer's critique of nonapocalyptic Jesuses made in the interpreters' image, Bultmann created a Jesus relevant to the reigning philosophic paradigm of his own day, especially at the University of Marburg, where he taught. His Jesus preached an existential message akin to that of the university's renowned philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Bultmann could then accommodate historical skepticism to the fullest, welcoming skeptics to the fold, because he had nothing theologically to lose from it. History could not affect Jesus' existential message, and this translation for Bultmann's secular audience could make his Jesus appealing even to those for whom philosophic assumptions had rendered traditional faith impossible.

Bultmann felt that realized eschatology (the future promises fulfilled in the present) within the New Testament itself showed that the delay of Jesus' "return" had already led to this process of reinterpretation in the first century. The problem, of course, is that in most NT documents this realized eschatology stands alongside and anticipates future eschatology as well (see e.g., Rom 8:23; 1 Cor 2:9-10; 15:50-54; Phil 1:23; 3:20-21). Bultmann often deployed a form of "content criticism" in which texts that disagreed with his interpretation were declared in conflict with the genuine spirit of New Testament theology.

One danger in producing a Jesus relevant primarily to one's own era, whether "conservative," "liberal," or something else, is that this Jesus is ultimately not very relevant to other cultures or other eras. It has not surprisingly proved much easier to recontextualize the Jesus of the Gospels for other settings than to recontextualize Bultmann's Jesus. Indeed, Bultmann's largely skeptical approach to history did not even leave enough information about the "original" Jesus for scholars to rework. Bultmann's critics complain that the existential approach to Jesus "dehistoricizes" Jesus, taking him out of his first-century context; the relevance of an existential Jesus has naturally faded with the marketability of existentialism. Many have argued that Bultmann was obsessed with a now out-of-date worldview.


Excerpted from The Historical Jesus of the Gospels by Craig S. Keener Copyright © 2009 by Craig S. Keener. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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