Can You Trust the Witness of the Gospels? Craig Keener and Christobiography

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1601

This post is for those who are skeptical or curious about the historical reliability of the Gospels (as well as those who might be curious to learn a little more about me).

I’ve tried to keep it concise, readable, and interesting for anyone who had ever pondered such a question.

Personal Prelude

I’ve never been one to just take what people tell me at face value.

I don’t think it’s really that I’m a skeptic; it’s just that, to me, it seems like a lot of people haven’t really thought through the things they believe very well.

Personally, I can’t really believe people who don’t have a good reason for what they believe, and I’ve always disliked it when people give me the textbook answer rather than a conclusion that they’ve arrived at through careful study and thought.

However, I don’t want to say that having faith is bad. Yes, “faith” can lead to all kinds of terrible things, depending on what your faith is in. However, as a Christian, faith is obviously very valuable to me. It is the great leveling ground in the Christian world. If you have faith and trust in Jesus, then he will give you a loving and pure heart. This is the measure of a Christian. Knowledge doesn’t make for superiority, and without love it is worthless. 

And all of us—no matter how rational we are—need to have faith. We can’

Here’s a small window into my strange story of becoming a Christian. Back when I converted in college, I started reading through the Bible seriously. But here’s the thing—I didn’t actually know whether I could trust what the Gospels said. I remember for a long time having this voice in the back of my mind, asking What if some of this stuff about Jesus was just made up?

Eventually, I came to the realization that if I was going to be a Christian, I wanted to investigate the hard questions about faith and the Bible. Maybe you don’t know, but there is a lot of skepticism about the Bible. Were the stories mostly just made up? Maybe the real Jesus looked very little like what his later followers wrote about him. Maybe people put words into Jesus mouth to validate their own beliefs. Maybe people just didn’t have very good memories when they wrote about him. Maybe over time, the stories changed like in a game of telephone. These sorts of positions are pretty common both in the popular and academic world.

Personally, I couldn’t just have a blind faith that ignored these questions. I needed to investigate whether there was a reasonable basis for trusting the Gospels. If the skeptics were right, I didn’t want to waste my life believing in something that didn’t have a good claim to being true. However, if there was a reasonable basis for Christian claims and worldview, then I shouldn’t be afraid of seeking it out. Perhaps I could even help others out who were facing the same challenges and questions. (At risk of spoiling the ending, there’s a very good basis for trusting the witness of the Gospels.)

Eventually, everything comes down to faith, in a way. Whatever you’re going to believe, you’re going to have to accept a lot of things that you can’t prove. It’s just the nature of our existence. That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t still seek good reasons for trusting what you trust.

A Very Brief Summary of Christobiography by Craig Keener

That’s the long introduction to get to my main point, which is that I just finished reading Christobiography by Craig Keener.

At its essence, this book is a historical investigation into the genre of the Gospels, ancient literary conventions, and human memory.

The world of antiquity had genres of literature just as we do today, and there were expectations for how works in a certain genre would be written and what sort of material they would contain.

Keener suggests that the Gospels are in the genre of historical biography (and it’s not just him that believes this; it is the majority scholarly opinion). In the ancient world, historiography (history writing) reached its peak in the first-century Roman world. During this time, there was a greater expectation of historical accuracy than there was either before or afterwards. This is especially true of biographies that were written within living memory of their subjects. The category that the Gospels fall into is just this, first century historical biographies written within living memory of their subject.

Keener next investigates what authors’ and readers’ expectations were in writing and reading biographies. It turns out that authors relied heavily on source material. They did not feel free to just make things up out of thin air. When historians had multiple conflicting sources, they would do their best to critically asses which was most likely to be historically truthful. Moreover, there are examples of historians calling out other historian for not being historical and unbiased enough. This shows that there was an expectation for them to be as unbiased as possible, although it does not mean that they always lived up to the expectation.

Because of the limitations of the time, ancient historical writing is not as precise as we expect it to be today. This is partly because memory played a much more significant role in the historical process, and human memory does not naturally record things verbatim. Instead, human memory records the gist of things. Therefore, speech in ancient biography is generally not verbatim, but gist. This is perhaps why the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are similar, but not exactly the same. They get at the gist of Jesus’s teaching, but do not record it verbatim. (And perhaps they are summaries of teachings that he gave many times over, each time a little different.)

Additionally, ancient historians were not expected to record things in chronological order. They were allowed to put stories in a different order than they actually happened, and therefore, we shouldn’t expect the Gospels to tell the story of Jesus in the exact order that everything happened. Yet, this doesn’t invalidate the essential truth about Jesus’s life and ministry in the Gospels.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Keener’s work is his analysis of oral history and the transmission of memory in community.

It was expected for a teacher’s disciples to intensely devote themselves to memorizing their teacher’s teaching. (And so, there might be good reason to see a lot of Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels as not merely just getting at the gist, but close to what he actually did say.) Therefore, the disciples of Jesus most likely actively learned and memorized the teachings of Jesus.

Memory studies show that memories that persists for five to ten years are likely to last for decades longer, and we can expect that Jesus’s disciples were discussing and rehearsing his teaching among themselves during Jesus’s lifetime, reinforcing their memory of it.

Furthermore, soon after Jesus’s death, his disciples would have been preaching and rehearsing stories about him, further reinforcing their memories of him.  This community memory serves as a control on the way stories are told about Jesus.

Made-up stories that differ from these memories likely wouldn’t survive—this is a scientific, sociological observation. If a made-up story survived in the community’s memory about Jesus, it is probably because it was very in character with something that Jesus would have actually done or said.

Memory studies also show that if a person is remembering an event long after the fact, they do not make up what they don’t remember. People only report on what they remember.  

Sociological studies show that oral history (that is, history that is directly related to eyewitnesses) can persist reliably in a community for about 80-110 years after an event. The time between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels is well withing this timeframe, and therefore the scholarly assessment of the “truth” of the stories in the Gospels should be much more positive than it often is.

In summary, a number of factors go to show that we can have significant positivity in assessing how truthful the Gospels are about Jesus. First, the conventions and expectations of the Gospels’ genre leaned towards historical accuracy, with limits of allowable embellishment, as in the order of the events or in speech. Second, based on the practices of the first century, the disciples would have been expected to devote significant effort to memorizing and internalizing the teachings of Jesus. Third, memory studies show that the writing of the Gospels were well within the timeframe for reliable community transmission of memory.

Now, none of this gives incontestable proof about anything. However, what it shows is that you don’t have to be irrational or unreasonable to trust the witness of the Gospels. The intense skepticism that you might find in the academy or in the popular world is often not very well warranted. Moreover, there’s actually a good historical case for accepting them as generally historically reliable, whether or not you believe Jesus’s and his followers’ claims!

Author: Tyler F Nunley

My thoughts on God, the world, and the Bible

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