When beliefs are at odds with available data, it is easier to ignore the data than it is to alter beliefs. Presuppositions, as Craig Keener argues, often determine the outcome of an inquiry. Nowhere is this more evident than in the enterprise of historical Jesus studies. All Jesus scholars approach the materials with their own varied notions of what is plausible and what is not. Keener is no different in this regard, nor should anyone expect him to be.
Keener readily acknowledges his own set of operating assumptions. He is a self-proclaimed born-again Christian, converted from the atheism of his youth. Thus, he approaches the evidence concerning the historical Jesus from a perspective of faith. Accordingly, born-again readers who seek academic arguments to validate their faith will receive Keener's book with enthusiasm, as many of the 5-star reviews on this page attest.
This book consists of 400 pages of main text, and a whopping 200 pages of endnotes in small font. The remaining 230 pages consist of bibliography and indices. Physically, it is an impressive, heavy volume that reinforces the sense of academic gravitas. This book is worth reading as all well-crafted works on the historical Jesus are worth reading. Exposure to a variety of perspectives including Keener's is immensely valuable.
For me, Keener's book is less satisfying than it might otherwise be due to its persistent apologetic undercurrent. Keener's theological orientation causes him to perceive the sources through an evangelical filter, which is understandable. However, the result is that he is often less critical of the texts than most scholars would normally be. For example, Paul offhandedly tells of the resurrected Jesus appearing to "more than 500 brothers at one time." (1 Cor 15:6). This sounds like a truly astounding event worthy of additional comment. But Paul does not elaborate. There is no indication of when this happened, or where, or what Jesus might have said to the crowd. Was this appearance a corporate spiritual vision, or did the 500 recognize him in concrete bodily form? Most scholars would wonder whether this was an historical event at all, since it is not mentioned in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, or Acts. If such an appearance had happened, why was it universally ignored by the gospel writers in their resurrection accounts?
Yet Keener does not ask such questions. He merely accepts Paul's claim as a historical fact, and states, "An event like hundreds of people claiming to have seen their miracle-working teacher alive from the dead, and being prepared to die for this claim, was fairly unique at the time. Yet few would deny that this was in fact the experience of these people, however we explain it." (p. 380) Few historical Jesus scholars would think to comment on the text in this manner. In my view, Keener too frequently fails to analyze the materials with a critical eye.
Despite missteps such as this one, Keener's overall approach to much of the source material is rather conventional. Like most Jesus scholars, he relies heavily upon Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and gives scant attention to John. He believes Mark was the earliest, and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source. He believes the double tradition material in Matthew and Luke was drawn from Q. All of this is consistent with conventional thought among scholars today. Meanwhile, unlike some notable Jesus scholars, he discounts the importance of second century materials like the Gospel of Thomas. My impression is that he appears to be on solid ground in this regard.
Keener opens his preface with the statement that historical Jesus studies are heavily influenced by the sources one chooses to rely upon. This is most certainly true. Thus, it is a mystery that Keener declines to consider the Gospel of John as a significant source. He says he believes in the "likelihood of substantial historical information in the Fourth Gospel." (p. xxxiv). But he says it will be ignored due to space restrictions, and the fact that readers can access his writings on the subject elsewhere. Since John paints quite a different portrait of Jesus than do the Synoptic gospels, and since John often seems to be the more credible of the two traditions when they disagree, a study entitled "The Historical Jesus of the Gospels" which discards John as a key source is, in my view, methodologically flawed from the outset.
Though Keener does not have the space to consider John's Gospel, he has the space to address the Resurrection. This is an oddity. Most historians decline to address the Resurrection, viewing it as a theological concept beyond the bounds of historical inquiry. But Keener goes boldly forward, diving headlong into the alleged historicity of the Resurrection, and ends up demonstrating the wisdom of his colleagues.
According to Keener, the missing body is a key bit of historical evidence that demands an explanation. He argues that the reader should be willing to admit the possibility that God acts in history, and thus could have acted in history to accomplish the Resurrection. Keener claims that those who do not accept this premise are presupposing an atheistic or deistic world view. This is false. One might easily believe in a God that influences human history (say, for example, to assure the victory of the Allies over the Axis powers in WW2), but did not cause Jesus' body to rise from the tomb; not because he couldn't, but merely because he didn't.
Keener trots out the improbable explanations for the Resurrection--the swoon theory that Jesus did not actually die but was resuscitated after being removed from the cross; the stolen body theory, in which the disciples remove the body to fake a resurrection. After arguing the improbability of these theories, he concludes that Christianity's claim that Jesus was resurrected by God is the most rational explanation of the evidence. Keener uses the fallacious logic of setting up straw men, knocking them down, then arguing that his preferred explanation is the most compelling solution.
The problem is that Keener remains silent on the most viable explanation for the missing body. John's Gospel states that a new tomb where no one had yet been laid was selected because it was conveniently close at hand, and sundown was fast approaching. Rock hewn tombs designed for multiple internments were the private property of wealthy citizens, reserved as final resting places for the owners and their families. Thus, depositing Jesus' body in such a tomb on the spur of the moment simply because it was close at hand, though expedient, was not a long term solution. It would have been the responsibility of those who appropriated the tomb (Joseph of Arimathea and the Pharisee Nicodemus according to John) to relocate the body for more appropriate burial after the conclusion of Passover. It is reasonable to suppose this could have happened prior to Mary's arrival at the tomb. Since it is easy to envision a natural explanation for the removal of Jesus' body from the tomb, the missing body does not, in itself, suggest a supernatural Resurrection. Keener skates onto exceedingly thin ice as a scholar and historian by pressing this claim. He opens the Pandora's box of the "Resurrection as history" debate, but does not follow through with a convincing treatment of the subject.
In the end, Keener's effort is undermined by his less than critical analysis of some of the materials, and his unwillingness to rigorously engage the Gospel of John. The Fourth Gospel's radically different perspective on Jesus, even in the narrative portions of the text that are not highly mythologized, offers information that warrants close scrutiny by Jesus scholars. Keener, like many scholars, is too exclusively dependent on the Synoptic Jesus as a foundation for historical research.
Nevertheless, Keener's book is worth reading for students of historical Jesus studies, whether they approach Jesus from a perspective of evangelical faith or secular historical inquiry. The former will find their faith reinforced; the latter will gain an appreciation for how an informed evangelical Christian interprets the source materials. As Keener argues from the outset, one's presuppositions will determine the outcome of the inquiry.