How should we assess the accuracy of the gospel record of the life of Jesus, since the conventions of history writing were somewhat different in the ancient world compared to today. In his massive study, Christobiography, NT scholar Craig Keener compares the gospel record to the way ancient biography was written. Keener insists that the gospels should be regarded as historically accurate biographies, not historical novels, as some critics have maintained. Join us for part two of this conversation on this critical topic.

More About Our Guest

Portrait of Dr. Craig Keener

Dr. Craig Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of 28 books, six of which have won Christianity Today awards, in addition to numerous journal articles.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. We're here for Part Two today with our guest from last week, Dr. Craig Keener, who holds an endowed chair in Biblical Studies, and he's also a historian by training, but his endowed chair's at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He's a prolific new Testament scholar and historian and has written a new book called 'Christobiography'. Don't let the title scare you because he's talking to this about the conventions of ancient biography and what the readers of the gospel writers would have expected, in terms of historical accuracy with the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So Craig, thanks for joining us for Part Two on this. It's really a pleasure to have you with us.

Craig Keener: It's always great to be with you, Scott, whether for the podcast or anything else.

Scott Rae: Well, hey, we ended up our last episode on this talking about the words of Jesus and you'd maintain that the conventions of ancient history, they didn't have tape recorders, they didn't have television cameras to record this verbatim. And what the gospel, the readers of ancient biographies and the gospel readers would have expected were not the exact words of Jesus, but rather a faithful rendering, getting the gist of what Jesus taught. So let me at the risk of stepping on a few toes here, how does that view of the gospels and ancient biography fit in with a very common thing today when we read a Red Letter Bible?

Craig Keener: I actually liked the Red Letter Bible cause it's easier on my eyes to have some contrast. And of course from a Christian perspective that the problem with the Red Letter Bible as we believe it's all inspired, not just Jesus' words, but yeah, it's not, they didn't have quotation marks in Greek and in Hebrew. So it was, it was understood. This was just part of the convention. It's the way people wrote. They would put things in their own words. They were supposed to paraphrase that was, I mean for them not to paraphrase could almost be seen as plagiarism at least at an elite level. But I don't think the gospels in a popular level would've been accused of plagiarism. You know, the words of Jesus are community property, not just out of a single author, but it is, it is true that wouldn't be expected and it could, it could not be expected. I mean, after all the gospels are written in Greek and even though most of lower Galilee, including where Jesus lived, would have been bilingual. So Jesus probably did speak Greek in some settings. He probably mostly gave his teachings in Aramaic especially

in Galilee.

Scott Rae: And a variant, a close variant of Hebrew.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: Okay, so he would, so you were, the gospel writers were essentially translating

Craig Keener: Yeah.

Scott Rae: Jesus from, from Aramaic degree.

Craig Keener: Yeah. It was probably depending on translations that have been made. And when you make a translation, I mean there's more than one word often you can use more than one way. You can configure that. The wording. So, I mean, nobody would expect it to be verbatim on, on any level.

Scott Rae: And that doesn't take away from the fact that we, we still have the inspire, we have the exact [foreign language 00:03:36] words that God intended us to have.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: By inspiration.

Craig Keener: Exactly.

Scott Rae: But they might not be the exact words that Jesus uttered on any given occasion.

Craig Keener: And if they were those who don't understand Aramaic very well, wouldn't understand it.

Scott Rae: When you have a big, a very, that'd be a very big problem.

Craig Keener: The point is not simply to recite, you know what I mean? That's, that's a Quranic view of inspiration. I respect, [crosstalk] Muslims who are so devoted, they want to memorize and recite. But you know, that's not our Christian understanding of inspiration. Our Christian understanding is we want to hear the message. We want to hear the meaning. We want to understand Jesus' point so we can live by it.

Scott Rae: But we would also say that because we believe in verbal inspiration. The exact words that God intended us [crosstalk] for us to have do matter.

Craig Keener: Yes. Yeah, yeah. It, we, we get to hear what God wanted us to hear.

Scott Rae: And even though in, in the historical conventions of the day, because we don't hold to a dictation view,

Craig Keener: Right.

Scott Rae: I mean the Gospels are not like the 10 Commandments.

Craig Keener: Yeah.

Scott Rae: That case were [crosstalk] carved in stone and were handed down from on high.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: They would be the process of inspiration or this may not be aware of this. It's probably worth taking a second to spell this out.

Craig Keener: Sure.

Scott Rae: But the process of inspiration was not at all like dictation.

Craig Keener: Right.

Scott Rae: I mean there, I mean the times and the profits for example, when they say, "Thus says the Lord",

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: We might expect that that's more literally dictated.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: But most of the Bible is not like that.

Craig Keener: Right.

Scott Rae: So the process of inspiration is the activity of The Spirit, but the human author's...

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: contribution was an important and meaningful one.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: So how, I mean, how, how do you, how should we understand the inspiration of the Gospel accounts? Even though we might not have the exact words, which we probably don't have the exact words of Jesus that he uttered say on the Sermon on the Mount.

Craig Keener: Yeah in Aramaic. [crosstalk] And so the point is that God gave us, the message, gave us the meaning gave, us the point that we should have. I often wish we had more. I'd love if we discovered some, Luke mentions many accounts, so we've got Mark, we've got some material that Luke shared with Matthew. But man, I would love if we discovered some others, but that's the historian in me.

Scott Rae: Right.

Craig Keener: Because just because we discovered the others, I mean, maybe that person's memory, the Holy spirit wasn't, so it doesn't make it inspired, even if it's historically accurate. I mean, lots of you can read lots of history that's not historically inspired. But so here I'm distinguishing from what say any historian would, would look at from our view as Christians. As Christians, we believe because Jesus embraced the old Testament as God's word, he commissioned those who would carry on his message. We believe that God has given us the message that he wants us to have. God has inspired in 2 Timothy 3:16 speaks of that as being theopneustos.

Scott Rae: God-breathed,

Craig Keener: God-breathed, yes. So in, in and actually doing something else on this [inaudible 00:06:57]. In Greek circles, inspiration including prophetic inspiration, often they would think that that entailed that this is exactly what the deity wanted. The person was completely possessed by the deity. Of course, we would say they were possessed by something else often, but,

Scott Rae: Sure.

Craig Keener: but in any case. But some, some Greeks didn't, didn't think it entailed that. So you know, some Greeks they felt free to criticize things that they considered to be inspired. But what we see in Jewish circles, including Jewish circles from the first century, like Philo of Alexandria and Josephus and various other Jewish writings, they considered that inspiration meant "No, this is God's word and this is going to be completely true". And, and I think that in second Timothy when he's talking about the scriptures, so you Jewish material, when he talks about inspiration there or similar ideas elsewhere in the New Testament, we can assume, take for granted that he's, he's doing that in a Jewish context where it's understood this is, this is God's word, this has God's message.

Scott Rae: And the gu..., The writers in the new Testament, for example, were not, they were not scribes taking dictation.

Craig Keener: Right.

Scott Rae: I mean they were genuine. We would call it genuine authors.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: So, and the role of The Spirit, would it be fair to say that they, the spirit gave sort of supernatural supervision,

Craig Keener: Yeah.

Scott Rae: to the Gospel accounts,

Craig Keener: Yeah.

Scott Rae: to ensure that they were free from error?

Craig Keener: Yeah but it's...

Scott Rae: It's clear that their personalities come out,

Craig Keener: Yeah.

Scott Rae: their emphases come out.

Craig Keener: And even the way God spoke to profits, I mean, Son of Man, Ezekiel is called that by God all the time. But, but that's a nickname God had for Ezekiel. He doesn't call the other profits that. So even sometimes in the profits, we have different styles when, when, when you know it's directly from, from God in a more direct form.

Scott Rae: Yeah so even these even stylistic differences there.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: That's very interesting.

Craig Keener: Yeah, no. In the Gospels though, often Jesus' teachings, we do have a certain style that comes through, even though you know this is translation Greek, so to speak. I mean, "Amen, I say to you, truly, I say to you". We didn't know anybody else in antiquity who went around talking like that. So there're certain things that, you know where we, where we're getting, we're hearing even the idioms of Jesus.

So we're meeting Jesus in the gospels. But you know, anybody who's reading in translation is not reading him in the original. And even if you're reading them in Greek, it's usually not the original, but it's the message, you're meeting Jesus there.

Scott Rae: Let me go back to at the end of the Gospel of John. John basically says there's a lot more I could have written down.

Craig Keener: Exactly.

Scott Rae: There's a lot more than I had available to me, but I picked and chose basically what I thought was most relevant to make the point about Jesus being the Son of God.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: And that's pretty typical, I think because you know, the Gospel writers didn't record everything.

I mean there's,

Craig Keener: Right.

Scott Rae: there's large, as you know, large blocks of Jesus' life that there's virtual silence about.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: So is it, would it, would it be fair to say that the Gospels still fit that genre of ancient biography even though they were very, I mean, they were very selective.

Craig Keener: Oh yeah.

Scott Rae: With the material that they have, there's 20 years, 20 plus years, which there's nothing about and disproportionate amount on the final week...

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: of the life of Jesus. So obviously selections taking place.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: Why? Why is that not, is that, do ancient biographies do the same kinds of things...

Craig Keener: Absolutely.

Scott Rae: in the way the Gospels do?

Craig Keener: Yes, absolutely. I mean, most of them don't have such a disproportionate amount for the equivalent of the passion week. But sometimes they do, especially if the person's death is particularly significant; they died as a martyr Socrates or something like that. So...

Scott Rae: So the same, much the same disproportion...

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: in the biography Socrates.

Craig Keener: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it again, it depends on which biography of Socrates, but in his death was considered so significant. In ancient biographies, they normally were selective. Sometimes they had a lot of material in the biography is larger than some others, but sometimes they didn't have much material to work with. But usually even where they, they were pretty large, they had to be selective. I mean with Alexander the Great, there was so much that could be said. Arrian does it in five volumes most. Plutarch has to get it in one volume. So they had to be very selective.

Scott Rae: Why? Why doesn't there, I mean, you can see people saying today, "Well, if you're being selective, you're, you're giving a biased view of the person's life". How does this, the fact that these historians were selective and the Gospel writers were selective, how does that not compromise their object, objectivity in presenting the ancient biographer or in as it pertains to the life of Jesus?

Craig Keener: Well, whenever we preach, I mean, we don't read all four Gospels, just everything in the Gospels. I mean we're being selective automatically when we preach. When we, when we recount any stories from the Gospels, we're being, we're being selective and the Gospel writers had to do the same thing. I mean it's impossible to... I'm not a deconstructionist by any means, but one thing that literary deconstructionists pointed out is you can have a virtually infinite mass of information. Nobody's going to include all of it. You have to, you have to select from it. And what they would say, and their successors and literary criticism would say is that by being selective, you are imposing a certain perspective on the text. That's inevitable. That's unavoidable. Otherwise, you can't have a narrative without doing that.

Scott Rae: Yeah, and I think again, I want to remind our listeners of one of the points you made in our, in our discussion last week. Yes. That just because they have an agenda.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: Doesn't compromise the historical reliability factor. I think you concluded that it actually augments the historical reliability because they don't want their account to be divided.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: The message is so important. They don't want it to be debunked.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: You know, one of the criticisms of the Gospels is that we can't expect the memory of the sources who are recounting these events to be perfect. I mean, we've played, everybody's played this telephone game before where you know, where you go around a circle and, and you tell the same story to different people around the circle and it comes back to where it started almost unrecognizable. What's to prevent the Gospels from falling victim to something like the telephone game?

Craig Keener: Now as Christians, we would add from John 14:26 that the spirit of God comes and inspires that memory, bringing to remembrance what Jesus taught and helping them understand what Jesus taught. But just from a purely historiographic perspective, what we're talking about from the period of the Gosp..., well from the period of Jesus to the period of the writing of the Gospels is within living memory. It's often defined as roughly 40 to 80 years. Not the writing of the gospels I mean, but the period of living memory is often defined as that. It's defined, especially as the period when, when people who knew the eyewitnesses are still alive, it provides kind of a control. So after living memory, wild things can start happening. But during the period of living memory, that's usually not even called today, oral tradition. That's called oral history.

So the divide between oral history and oral tradition, oral history...

Scott Rae: And therefore presumed to be accurate.

Craig Keener: Well presumed to be more accurate. Again, if we're not talking about the Holy Spirit's inspiration, we're just talking about what normally happens. People can make mistakes, but this is not like the telephone game. I mean, and Barry Schwartz and other memory theorists have actually debunked to that illustration, as memory theorists. The telephone game is like, if, well, let's say there are a hundred people in the room instead of just doing me. So I say something to you, you say something to the next person and so on. By the time it gets back to me, somebody is going to have messed it up maybe more than one person. So it's going to, it's going to get distorted. But that is what memory theorists called change transmission as opposed to net transmission where something is stated openly in front of a number of people.

Normally with that case, I mean it's like if we teach in a classroom and our students go out and they're going to prepare for an exam, well disciples, back then it wasn't necessarily exams, but some, some schools of disciples, they actually were supposed to repeat back everything they were taught.

Scott Rae: So their memory was trained,

Craig Keener: Their memories...

Scott Rae: In ways that ours is not.

Craig Keener: Yeah and some people say, well that's just for literate people. That's not true. You look at what we know of ancient schools, some of them emphasize learning texts, some of them emphasize learning oral material. And, and so you had people who were illiterate who could become disciples and learn things orally. So the question of, of whether the disciples were literate or not as a moot point, especially since disciples were often expected to publish their teachers' teachings, so they could either do it themselves or they could dictate it.

I mean, Jesus had a number of disciples. Well they had a whole lot of people listening to them. And so even if only 2% of of people in Judea and Galilee were literate, which is how low some people estimate other people estimate much, much higher than that. It certainly Matthew as a tax collector would've been literate if we know anything about ancient tax collectors, they kept records, right? So, but if only 2% were literate, I mean they've got more than a hundred followers. They've got somebody who can write this stuff down. So you know, memory studies show that short, well you've got short term memory. Those things often don't stay very long. You're going to remember the gist longer than the verbatim memory; things that are significant to us. After a year we will have forgotten a lot of the things we consider significant. After five years maybe we've forgotten 50, 60% but other things we remember after five years, that there were significant enough to us to make that kind of impression that we remember them, most of those seem to persist for decades after that. And consequently it's not surprising.

I mean how much, how many things would you have to remember to fill a Gospel and you know, the first time you see somebody raised from the dead, that's probably going to be a memorable.

Scott Rae: [crosstalk] Yeah I think that's going to stick.

Craig Keener: Either after the first few times maybe it gets you know, to normal, but I mean the first few times you're going to think, "Oh, that made an impression".

Scott Rae: Okay, so, so the significance of the event, how sort of, how earth shattering it might...

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: would have been or the audience determines a lot about how vividly it's remembered and how long it's remembered that's a really enlightening part of this because the stuff that sticks for five years is likely to stick for,

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: the next 30 to 40 years.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: Which takes us right into the timeframe of,

Craig Keener: Yeah.

Scott Rae: you know when the first Gospels were written.

Craig Keener: Yeah and Robert MacIver has pointed this out, that MacIver, Bochum and others have dealt with this in terms of psychological memory. In terms of social memory, again we're in the period of oral history, so you're not going to have the major kind of distortions you get after that. I mean, all the other Gospels we have, I wish it weren't so, but all the other Gospels we have available today, like Gospel of Thomas is probably the earliest of the other ones.

Scott Rae: Be uninspired apocryphal Gospel to be clear.

Craig Keener: Yeah, the apocryphal Gospels. I'm not talking about the first century Gospels. These ones after the first century are not within living memory and so it's not surprising that you've got them developing in different ways. But all the first century Gospels are, by definition, first century. They're from within living memory of Jesus teaching.

Scott Rae: That's really helpful I think, to highlight how significant that is, that they were written down within living memory. As opposed to other ancient biographies that we take is generally historically accurate,

Craig Keener: Yeah.

Scott Rae: That were much, much farther out,

Craig Keener: Yeah.

Scott Rae: from the life of the person that they're writing about.

Craig Keener: Yeah.

Scott Rae: Now, Craig, you maintain in your book that there's maybe more than a handful of difficulties in the scripture that are resolved by seeing the Gospels as ancient biographies and holding and holding the gospel writers to ancient historical, standards of historical accuracy, not modern. What are some of the, what are some of the difficulties that you think are resolved by seeing the Gospels as these ancient, as this ancient biography genre?

Craig Keener: Yeah. I actually, I don't see most of them as difficulties, but that's because I've been reading them this way so long that I'm not used to seeing them as difficulties. But you know, that some people see as difficulty, sometimes it's the arrangement. Sometimes it's the wording, like we talked about earlier. Now there are others where this doesn't, this approach doesn't answer all the questions. So I mean there's still things like Jesus' genealogy. I don't know the answer for that and I can give suggestions for that and I've heard some, some good suggestions, but I don't have an answer for that based on this approach. But most things I think that people bring up. When I, when I first started reading the Gospels, I had just been converted from atheism, so I knew nothing. I did read ancient sources. I mean I had read already a number of ancient historians, had read Tacitus.

I'd read as coming kind of as a late comer to the New Testament. But when, when I started into the Gospels, cause people told me, this is God's word, I had my certain idea of what that should look like, which was kind of more like I mentioned, [inaudible] He said Jairus' daughter gets raised three times. So I'm reading the gospels, I get to the end of Matthew, I'm fine with it. I get to the end of Mark and I'm like, "wait, this is the second time he's getting crucified. That doesn't make sense" and I didn't know how to read them yet.

But rereading them over and over again early in my Christian life, I found if you read 40 chapters of the Bible a day, you can get through the new Testament every week or through the Bible every month. I had a lot of catching up to do, I mean the little kids in Sunday school knew more about the Bible than I did. So eventually you get, you get familiar with the kind of narration you have in the Gospels and the way that Jesus taught and kind of what, what the meaning, what the impact of that should be.

Scott Rae: Right. So Craig, one last question. How has your confidence in the Gospels grown by this study of ancient biography and then the writing that you've done on this?

Craig Keener: It's certainly grown a lot. Certainly from way beyond when I got to the end of Mark that first time. But even since then, I mean, as a Christian, I knew, okay, I take this for granted. This is God's message to us, but how do I read it? How do I understand it? And then in my first doctoral course in the Gospel, it was of course of Mark and I already knew that. I mean I already understood the Gospels as ancient biographies. This was in the, it was around 1987 I think actually I think it was 1987 and the professor said the Gospels are,

Scott Rae: Watch that memory.

Craig Keener: Oh yeah, no it was, I know it was 1987 cause it was my first year, my first semester of my doctoral work. So the professor said the gospels are ancient biographies, ancient biographies were fictitious and therefore the gospels are fictitious.

And I guess that that is almost a Genesis of, of this, this quest. I said, "but it's my understanding that ancient biographies were essentially historical works", and I cited Plutarch and Suetonious and what they were doing. And at the end of my, giving some of the, some of the stuff I've talked about today and giving some examples, the professor responded by saying, "I don't know. I don't know anything about ancient biography. I read it in a book".

Scott Rae: Really?

Craig Keener: I think I found,

Scott Rae: Well God bless him for doing that.

Craig Keener: Yeah. That was, most professors were, I mean, most professors weren't saying that the Gospels were fictional there anyway, but this professor was, but I, I guess for that reason, I've paid more attention to, to this question and have to keep reminding myself that not everybody has, and I have to keep going back over the basics again because I mean, people will make these statements like, "well, ancient biographies were, we're like this", but they're thinking about, they're throwing together the historical novel with these biographies from the early empire.

They're throwing together proto-biographies with them. They're throwing together other stuff that it's dissimilar. I mean, we don't have any historical novels about recent characters. Everything within the Gospels gives us reason to believe there, they want to communicate to us the real story, of course, from their perspective. But you know, as Christians, we believe it's inspired. But you know, from a purely a new, well, I don't know if it's neutral, but secular historical standpoint, we can say these are biographies within living memory from the apex historical biography. Hey, we ought to take this seriously. We know a lot about Jesus. We don't know as much as we want to know, but we know so much more about him than New Testament scholars, in particularly certain groups of New Testament scholars say the Jesus seminar and certainly the Jesus Smithers, we knew a whole lot more about Jesus than a lot of scholars are ready to take into account.

Scott Rae: I think that's, I find that very, not only very encouraging, but also really insightful as a really nice summary of how to answer some of the critics of the Gospels who say, "Well, they just can't be trusted. They had an agenda. They're not a historical. It's ancient history". I think the word is to the critics of the Gospel, be very careful how you throw around those accusations because the conventions of ancient biography tend to paint a very different picture,

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: of the Gospels.

Craig Keener: Yes.

Scott Rae: And I'm very grateful for all the work that you've done in this area to bring this to light.

Huge thanks to our guest today, Dr. Craig Keener. I hope you've enjoyed the second of these two parts on his book, 'Christobiography'. It's great stuff, great material, and I think very encouraging as to the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts. So Craig, thanks so much for being with us. Not only this time, but the week before as well.

Craig Keener: Thanks so much, Scott. It's always great to be with you.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Craig Keener, and to find more episodes, go to It's If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.