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Christobiography: Memory, history, and the reliability of the Gospels by Craig Keener

24 April 2020

Robin Griffith-Jones engages with a debate about the Evangelists

MOST of us, as readers, choose books of the type or genre that we know we enjoy: history or theology, poetry or drama, crime novels or comic novels; the list goes on. Among Graeco-Roman elites, such categories were as familiar and as useful as they are today. They overlapped, then as now.

In Christobiography, Craig Keener locates all four canonical Gospels, on a Venn diagram of such genres, within the circle of biography. “The main point of genre classification is finding a culturally intelligible category that generates audience expectations concerning how to understand a given work.” Luke is also a historian, Matthew a preacher, and John a maverick; but they are all, first and foremost, biographers.

The Gospels were famously identified as biographies nearly 30 years ago by Richard Burridge in What are the Gospels? His argument has been widely accepted. Why does Keener return to the theme? Several Graeco-Roman biographies, together with (some of) their own sources, have reached us. We can see for ourselves the restraint with which they adapted those sources.

Contrast the restraint of Plutarch, Suetonius, or Tacitus with (say) Philostratus’s rampant inventions in his biographical novel about Apollonius of Tyana. Novelists freely wove stories; biographers did not. The Evangelists were biographers; we can, therefore, be reasonably confident that they were as responsible and restrained, in their sources’ adaptation, as were their distinguished Graeco-Roman peers. The Gospels’ biographies of Jesus, finished within living memory of Jesus himself, are surely as reliable as the work of Suetonius on the recent Caesars or that of Tacitus on his own father-in-law, Agricola.

Keener mounts his case with impressive clarity and care, and with unfailing good grace to those with whom he disagrees. It is a long book, with a text of 500 pages, a bibliography of 130, and indexes of ancient and modern writings and of subjects. The list of contents is a useful guide in itself to the book’s topics, almost page by page. As ever, Eerdmans has produced a handsome volume that is a pleasure to read. Non-specialists will have to take a lot on trust, about the biographers and novelists whom they may not have read; but Keener attractively mixes details with overviews in the expansive chapters on the Gospels themselves.

There is, none the less, something disconcertingly circular in Keener’s process. All fantasticated Lives are defined as novels or romances, not biographies. The Gospels are defined as biographies. Then surely — just look at all those other biographies! — the Gospels are not fantasticated. This would raise suspicion, even if everyone agreed which Lives to push overboard from the biographical ship. But they don’t. Philostratus’s Apollonius is for Burridge a biography, for Keener a novel. This is disconcerting. How was the book’s genre then to manage audience expectations, if two such scholars now do not agree what that genre is?

There is a larger question to raise: whether, for the Gospels’ genre or genres, the most telling alternative to biography is not the novel at all. “The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ”, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ”, “In the beginning was the Word” at the start of a page-long, mantric hymn on creation old and new — such openings set an extraordinary, numinous tone. They were designed, if not to be performed in a liturgy, at least to evoke it.

Mark and John flicker with theophany. Its hints are not just described: they are revealed — in the text as in the life of Jesus. Watch Jesus walk on the water (Mark 6.47-52). Who alone can tread the waves and control the primordial chaos? Who “passed by” Moses and then Elijah at the great moments of disclosure? Answer: the one who names himself “I am”. The glimpse of the divine flashes past Mark’s audience, as cryptic and elusive as the glimpse offered to the frightened disciples.

We can expand the point. The loveliest of all Gospel stories might seem to challenge Keener’s claims. Luke’s infancy narrative, the raising of Lazarus, John’s Easter morning — all of them have surely been drastically expanded and refined over the decades. But this, if so, was to create not novels, but revelations. No wonder the late, great John Ashton described John’s whole Gospel as “an apocalypse upside down, inside out, back to front”.

The Evangelists disclosed in their texts, as Jesus had in his person, the intersection of heaven and earth. This created a new genre, at once biography and apocalypse, description and disclosure, an intersection of human truthfulness and heavenly Truth, the presence in words of the Word.

The Revd Robin Griffith-Jones is Master of the Temple, at the Temple Church in London and Senior Lecturer in Theology at King’s College, London.


Christobiography: Memory, history, and the reliability of the Gospels
Craig Keener
Eerdmans £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50

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