Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels

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Craig S. Keener
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    , August
     496 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels, Craig Keener explores the “degree of historical intention” in the canonical gospels based on comparisons to other ancient biographies (1). Although most scholars agree that these gospels are ancient biographies, they often do not examine ancient biographies to understand the implications of this conclusion. To rectify this issue, Keener provides a thorough discussion of ancient biographies, explores several Greco-Roman and Jewish counterparts to the Gospels, and concludes with an assessment of human memory. Based on his analysis, Keener suggests biographers from the early imperial period, including the Gospels, sought to be historically accurate in their portrayals of their subjects, particularly if they were writing about well-known people shortly after their deaths.

Keener notes the foundation of his argument is not new; most New Testament scholars agree that the canonical gospels are biographies. Moreover, many scholars agree that ancient biographies about historical persons (rather than legends) have a historical core. The real question, then, is how large the historical core of material is—and Keener seeks to show it is larger than often perceived. According to Keener, biblical scholars would do well to emulate historians who presume a greater degree of historicity with their sources, regardless of their differences and the miraculous and supernatural events they narrate.

In parts 1–4 of his book, Keener provides the close examination he finds lacking in the field. He traces the development of ancient biographies, noting a growing concern for historicity that reaches its peak in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. According to Keener, attention to historical reliability contributed to authors’ extensive use of sources rather than their creation of new material. Despite variations in chronology, arrangement, wording, and rhetoric, Keener finds these biographies have a central historical focus. Moreover, ancient audiences expected reliable information from these writings. While Keener agrees that there is no way to remove authorial biases in writing history, he argues the consistent belief that history taught important moral lessons helped to rein in significant departures from the truth.

When Keener turns to the Gospels, he finds similar historical concerns. To compare use of sources and the presence of variation, Keener explores the writings about Otho by Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch. Although there are differences, the general arch of Otho’s life remains the same in all the sources, which Keener suggests is a helpful comparison for how the Synoptic Gospels developed their biographies of Jesus. While the Gospels vary in the details, they retain the “essential events” of Jesus’s life story (327). In this way, the Gospels replicate patterns of writing for ancient biographies, and, therefore, one should expect the same amount of historical intention.

The final section of Keener’s work shifts to discuss memory, bridging the gap between the Gospel authors’ intentions of historicity and the reliability of what they produced. This section reads much like Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus (Baker, 2010), noting people remember gist over details. While elements of historical events are certainly lost, people retain important components, particularly if memory is highly valued, as it was in the ancient Mediterranean world. For Keener, then, the implication of calling the Gospels ancient biographies is they are historically reliable accounts. Scholars, therefore, should use them in reconstructions of the historical Jesus. He concludes:

In contrast to the position of radical skeptics that the burden of proof rests on any claim in the Gospels, a more historically probable starting point is that these biographies written within living memory of Jesus do in fact succeed in preserving many of Jesus’s acts and teachings, even for many events that are not independently attested in multiple sources. (497)

As Keener notes, his book is informative, rather than offering brand-new material. It does provide a valuable collection of comparative material for learning more about ancient biographies and their connection to the genre of the canonical gospels. Overall, the book is written in an accessible and colloquial style, and individual chapters could easily be excised for use in classes. For all its extensive research, however, Keener’s work is focused on the Synoptic Gospels, despite having a chapter devoted to the Gospel of John. This is unfortunate since the genre of the Gospel of John is a point of some debate, especially with its comparison to drama and philosophical writings. The chapter on John, as Keener admits, is an add-on to his main argument, but it is an important part of the data. John’s Gospel appears nowhere in the concluding chapter of implications, raising the question of how it fits into his scheme.

Keener’s work will be most persuasive for those inclined to view the Gospels as historically reliable, but it will benefit those who have more critical views as well. It is a helpful conversation partner for those seeking more background on ancient biographies alongside their exploration of primary source materials. The work does, however, rely on the premise that Greek and Roman historians largely assume the reliability of 1st- and 2nd-century biographies. While this is perhaps true, it does raise another question: Should they? If Keener’s argument is that New Testament scholars should treat the Gospels more like historians treat ancient biographies, why should we not ask the reverse? Certainly, all 1st- and 2nd-century sources should be open to critical analysis, even if they have historical elements at their core. As Keener acknowledges, the biases of ancient authors necessarily affected their versions of history; but Keener seems less concerned about the degree to which these biases regularly silenced marginalized populations. If one returns to uncritical readings, one risks silencing again these voices that are just now finding a way to tell the stories so often overlooked in official records. Instead of exchanging methods, then, it seems better for historians and biblical scholars to allow for a cross-pollination of ideas that respects sources’ potential for historical reliability while acknowledging and investigating their limitations, whether these were intended by ancient authors or not.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alicia D. Myers is associate professor of New Testament and Greek at Campbell University Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
March 12, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Craig S. Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.



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