The Historical Jesus of the Gospels: An Interview with Craig Keener

Craig Keener is not only a friend, but he’s among my favorite NT scholars. Recently, I had the chance to interview Craig on his mammoth work, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

This colossal book weighs in at 831 pages. 393 pages make up the actual text; the rest is endnotes, indexes, and the bibliography. Nevertheless, it’s quite readable so don’t be intimidated!

Enjoy the interview.

Who is the target audience of your book, and what motivated you to write it?

Craig Keener: In part, I was growing annoyed at some of the nonsense about Jesus that was circulating on the popular market, and wanted to provide a popular-level response. I wanted to document my arguments well, however, so the book would be useful for scholars as well.

I tried to write the book so that if a person who is not a scholar is familiar with current debates they could get what they needed from the book; they could just skip the endnotes. I was planning to be writing a commentary on Romans, and delayed that plan a bit to contribute this book because I felt that an additional voice for reason was important.

How does your book differ from other books on the historical Jesus that are still in print?

Craig Keener: My approach is partly as a Gospels scholar—I have written three commentaries on the Gospels—and partly as a specialist in ancient literature. The skeptical way some people approach the Gospels just would not work with analogous literature from the ancient world. Ancient biographies were not meant to be novels; they used information. Ancient biographies about persons who lived just a generation or two before the writer depended on very substantial information.

Why should some scholars be so skeptical about the Gospels? Likewise, ancient sources attest the great care given to memorization of oral sources in the ancient world. This care was especially relevant for disciples of teachers, who carefully passed on their mentors’ teachings in their schools. Why should some scholars think that Jesus’ disciples were especially careless or incompetent? I wanted to offer a fresh contribution based particularly on my research in ancient sources.

You go into some detail on the Gospels from many different angles. Some scholars (like Scot McKnight) are averse to the word “biography” when it comes to Jesus. Others scholars like Ben Witherington think the word is fine in this context. In what sense are the Gospels “biographies” of Jesus, and in what sense are they not?

Craig Keener: The Gospels are not written like modern biographies, but if you ask how ancient hearers would have approached them, or with what they would have compared them, the most obvious answer is biographies. Any one-volume works about a single, historical person was a biography, with the exception of a handful of historical novels; and I know of no historical novels about characters who lived only one or two generations before, the situation we have with the Gospels. (Most scholars date Mark to about forty years after Jesus’ public ministry, give or take about six years.)

Ancient biographies did offer moral, political and theological lessons—indeed, far more often than novels did. Charles Talbert, David Aune and others started making this case a few decades ago, but Richard Burridge’s work with Cambridge University Press in 1992 really advanced the argument in the academy. It is the majority view in Gospels studies, which actually returns to the historic views of the church and academy up until about 1915.

Share your opinion on the passage about Christ in the writings of Josephus. Do you think it’s authentic? Why or why not?

Craig Keener: With most scholars, I accept part of the passage about Jesus in Josephus. It is in Josephus’s style and differs from Christian language. Apparently Josephus knew about Jesus as a teacher and worker of “wonders,” a term Josephus elsewhere applies to miracles.

Also with most scholars, I believe that the part of the passage about Jesus being the Messiah was added by later Christian scribes—Josephus certainly does not act like a Christian elsewhere, and his Roman sponsors would not appreciate references supporting a Jewish king! Interestingly, an early translation of Josephus into another language exists with precisely these words missing.

Do you subscribe to the Q Theory? Why or why not? If not, what theory of Gospel compilation do you hold to?

Craig Keener: It’s clear that the Gospel writers had sources, whether oral or written (just as other first and second generation biographies depended on oral or written sources). In his preface, Luke mentions both kinds of sources (Luke 1:1-2). That is good news for us historically: it means that they were not inventing their stories. The discussion gets a bit less clear when we ask what the sources were.

Comparing Matthew, Mark and Luke makes clear that they overlap quite a bit. Most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s shorter narrative, and also shared other material in common where they overlap. The other common material is typically called “Q,” short for the German word for “Source” (how is that for a creative title?) Some scholars have speculated wildly about Q, but at basic minimum claiming the existence of “Q” is just claiming that Matthew and

Luke share a common source (or sources) besides Mark. Because it’s often in the same sequence in both Gospels, it looks it is at least often a written source. (Matthew and Luke are not always in the same sequence, and Matthew sometimes differs from Mark’s sequence also; this is no surprise, since ancient biographies often arranged their material topically rather than chronologically.)

The primary alternative to this view is that Luke used Matthew. Yet when you read Luke’s infancy narrative or his account of Judas’s death, it looks like he would have explained some more details if he had Matthew in front of him. (For example, he doesn’t leave much space in his infancy narrative for the visit of the Magi after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. That is not to say that he contradicts Matthew: both are summarizing and neither is obligated to recount every detail.

But if he expected his audience to know Matthew’s account, he could have accommodated that more clearly.) There is another possibility, however. Based on the early church father Papias, some scholars think that Matthew composed a collection of Jesus’ sayings in Aramaic, maybe even before Mark wrote. Luke and our current Gospel of Matthew may have both drawn on Greek translations of that earlier source (Matthew’s Gospel developing it most fully). The Greek translation of that source would then be what we call Q.

How does your work on Jesus differ from N.T. Wright’s work?

Craig Keener: I have great respect for Tom Wright and we enjoyed some good conversation at a conference two months ago. Mentioning the differences is not intended as a criticism. Tom is more synthetic: he brilliantly pulls together a vast array of ideas and sees how they fit together. I do some of that, but I think that I am more of a detail person: I spend a lot of time poring through individual ancient texts and seeing where the evidence leads me. Tom is often more directly theological; I am when I preach, but in some of my scholarly work spend a lot of time on historical details.

I think Tom also focuses more on reading the New Testament through the lens of the Old Testament. I affirm that lens—that is the most certain lens through which the New Testament authors were writing and their audiences hearing them. At the same time, I want to contribute what modern readers would not be able to get otherwise, so I try to provide as much material as possible from other Greco-Roman and early Jewish sources. I am somewhat caricaturizing us both, because it is not as if either of us neglects the other concerns. But we have somewhat different gifts and skills.

You have a section called “Life in Galilee.” What are some of the highlights from that section regarding life in first-century Galilee that many Christians would find helpful or most interesting?

Craig Keener: For one example: some people today have portrayed Jesus as something like a Cynic Greek philosopher. The problem is that we don’t know of any Jewish Cynics, and certainly would not expect to find any in conservative Jewish Galilee. Nazareth was a very conservative Jewish village. Nearby Sepphoris, by contrast, was much more cosmopolitan.

Jesus would have had contact with Sepphoris growing up, because it was being rebuilt during his childhood and there was a great need for carpenters—like Joseph, his stepfather. Sepphoris had a theater and other features of hellenistic urban life. Nevertheless, Josephus shows that even the people of Sepphoris observed the Sabbath, and excavations show that residents did not eat pork there so long as it remained a fully Jewish city. Jesus’ upbringing probably would have been more conservatively and traditionally Jewish than that of the Sadducean aristocratic priests who controlled the temple at that time.

Why would your book be important for the Christian who is very interested in knowing Jesus in the here-and-now? Put another way, what bearing does studying the historical Jesus have on following Jesus in the Spirit today?

Craig Keener: When we read the Gospels, it is important for us to remember that we are reading about our Lord who came in the flesh. This is the Jesus to whom the Spirit bears witness (1 John 4:2). When we see Jesus’ compassion on the broken, Jesus’ anger toward religious people who neglected the broken, Jesus’ absolute submission to and trust in His Father, we learn more deeply the heart of the high and lofty one who has come to dwell with us.

Ancient Platonist philosophers tried to meditate on “the deity” abstractly; we, however, have seen God’s face in Christ, and most deeply in the ultimate sharing of our humanity, in His passion and death for us. In Exodus 33—34, Moses saw part of God’s glory, abounding in grace and truth, but even he could not see the fulness of God’s glory. In John 1:14-18, John declares that the disciples saw all of God’s glory unveiled, the fulness of grace and truth, in Jesus in the flesh. Ultimately God’s glory was most deeply revealed in the greatest expression of grace and truth, when He died for us (John 12:23-24; 13:32-33).

Of course, I am speaking here as a Christian who trusts God’s revelation to us in the Gospels. I was not raised in a Christian family—I was converted from atheism through an encounter with Christ. But let us look at the connection historically. The Jesus of history matters because that is the same Jesus whom the disciples witnessed alive from the dead. Jesus not only rose from the dead, but they proclaimed Him the exalted Lord of the universe, enthroned at God’s right hand. It’s the Jesus who lived in history, about whom we can read much in the Gospels, who is now glorified and is our Lord. To forget that connection is to be like some later Gnostics, who severed the “real” Christ from the human Jesus.

I am personally interested in knowing how long it took you to write this book (from the time it was conceived in your mind to write the project and you began putting pen to paper).

Craig Keener: That is a difficult question. The actual writing of the bulk of the book perhaps took just four months, but it depended on fresh research, plus on a massive amount of material researched for my earlier Matthew and John commentaries and my forthcoming Acts commentary. (I finished the Acts commentary before I wrote this book, but Acts still is not out yet.)

I have been collecting all my research on ancient Greek, Jewish and Roman sources and the New Testament for about three decades, and I have access to all of that material any time I write a book. So one could say that some of the research goes back three decades! But I conceived of this project at the Princeton-Prague Symposium on the Historical Jesus, where I was presenting a paper on Luke-Acts and the historical Jesus in 2007. I finished the book perhaps seventeen months later, not including some material added later.

Who are the top 5 most influential Christian scholars that have proved the most valuable to you in your historical Jesus studies? And what specific areas have they helped you with the most?

Craig Keener: Again, this is a difficult question—I may have cited some 2500 works in this book (again, mostly in the endnotes). Craig Evans, Peter Flint and Richard Bauckham influenced me personally by encouraging me to write the book. Among the recent cutting-edge books on the subject have been scholarly works by Richard Bauckham, Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, and James D. G. Dunn. Much of what I said in the book I had already argued in earlier commentaries, and the six-volume work Gospel Perspectives by JSOT Press, edited by British scholars R. T. France and David Wenham, was influential (with contributions by many good scholars).

But on a personal level, I learned a great deal from my doctoral mentor D. Moody Smith, from E. P. Sanders, who was also one of my mentors at Duke; from my friend (and soon colleague) Ben Witherington, who took me under his wings when I finished my graduate work and first introduced me to Eerdmans, my publisher for that book. In terms of written work, I have perhaps been particularly influenced by mainstream historical Jesus scholarship from E. P. Sanders, Gerd Theissen, Geza Vermes, John Meier, James Charlesworth—where does one stop?

By the way, although it is out of most individuals’ price range, the most thorough work on historical Jesus research is a multivolume work just released by Brill and edited by Stan Porter. While by no means limited to conservative biblical scholars (it does include them), it includes a range of voices in mainstream scholarship as opposed to concentrating on the radical skepticism circulating in some circles.

Imagine a reader who has just finished your book. What is the main thought you’d like them to walk away with after having read it (other than, “Craig is a great author!” or “this book can stop a freight-train”) :-) Seriously, what do you want the impact/effect to be on the minds and hearts of your readers after finishing it?

Craig Keener: I want readers to recognize that, by the normal canons we use for history, the Gospels are our best sources for knowing historical information about Jesus. Years ago I met with a freshman whose faith had been shaken by a Bible professor who consistently presented only the most skeptical position on biblical texts. That professor was hardly objective; once he admitted to me that he would not believe in God even if someone were raised from the dead in front of him. I spent four hours answering her questions from her class notes, refuting point-by-point what her professor said.

Not only had he virtually dismissed the existence of committed Christian or Jewish scholars; he usually presented positions that were extreme and ignored the mainstream of secular biblical scholarship. At the end of four hours, she broke down and cried. She confessed, “I threw away my faith for nothing!” and started growing in her faith after that. I want the hostile skeptical scholars to stop pushing believers around. We have very good grounds for what we believe. From my own research, I personally believe that we have much stronger grounds for trusting the Jesus we read about in the Gospels than skeptics have for doubting Him.

Order The Historical Jesus of the Gospels on Amazon (hardcover)

Order The Historical Jesus of the Gospels on Kindle


Interview with N.T. Wright

Interview with Ben Witherington

Interview with Scot McKnight

Interview with Christian Smith



  1. Judy Gale says

    I especially appreciate the last paragraph of this interview, since I work at the University that employs fellow journeyman Bart D. Ehrman! : )

    • says

      Judy: thanks for commenting. Yes, Keener and N.T. Wright, among others, have dismantled BE’s arguments pretty thoroughly. I’m curious how you found this blog (?).

  2. Kelly Deppen Bridges Revelatory Ministry says

    Buying this now…
    It is an important ministry to present the convergence of the Jesus of the Time Line and the Jesus Who set time in motion.

  3. zoecarnate says

    Thanks for this interview, Frank. I haven’t read Keener yet; I’ll have to check him out. I find it refreshing when scholars who believe in the integrity of Scripture can speak freely about earlier sources, composites, et al., without seeing it as compromising our faith. I think part of the reason that we’re in some of this conservative vs. liberal mess these days is because ivory-tower academics and clergy, for the longest time, didn’t think that the person in the pew could be ‘trusted’ with the ongoing dialogue and questions being asked in their world. Now we’re realizing that God’s people are indeed capable to handles such honest discussion. Imagine that!

    This is a timely interview, as for the past six months I’ve been reading historical Jesus books continuously – they’ve been like devotional reading for me. All of them are to be taken as enlightened, educated guesses, with the requisite grain of salt. It always amuses me, for instance, when scholars from the more ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum confidently assert what Jesus can and can not have really said or done, and what must have been later editorial flourishes. As if the writer of the Gospel can make a parabolic point by, say, having Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days to parallel Israel’s 40 years, but God could not have been the author of such cleverness. :)

    With that caveat, I just finished – and highly recommend – Rabbi Jesus by Bruce Chilton. Chilton’s look at Jesus reads like a novel; he’s probably the most skilled at writing of any historical Jesus scholar I’ve known. His book illuminates the Jewish character of Jesus, as the title implies, and also sheds some much-needed light onto the possible spiritual and devotional practices of Jesus.

  4. Otto Beich says

    This was a great post. I’m going to buy this book! I am now reading ‘Jesus in His Own Words” and love it. Thanks all the great reccomendations.

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