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CHRISTOBIOGRAPHY: MEMORY, HISTORY, AND THE RELIABILITY OF THE GOSPELS: A Book Review

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Abstract

The 17 chapters of Christobiography are organized in five parts. Keener aims to document the reliability of the gospels. He explains the nature of biography in Jesus’ day and compares the gospels to other biographies. He devotes considerable attention to what readers might reasonably expect based on first century documents, oral cultures, and recent memory research.
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CHRISTOBIOGRAPHY: MEMORY, HISTORY, AND THE RELIABILITY OF THE
GOSPELS by Craig S. Keener. Eerdmans, 2019, pp. 743. ISBN: 978-0802876751 $54.99.
Reviewed by Geoffrey W. Sutton (Springfield, MO).
Note: This is the final copy of a review accepted for publication in the Journal of Psychology and
Christianity on 16 September 2019. The published version should be consulted for editorial
changes, volume, and page information.
Sutton, G. W. (in press). [Review of the book Christobiography: Memory, history, and the
reliability of the gospels by C. S. Keener]. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, XX,
pp-pp. Accepted for publication September 16, 2019.
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It’s the second word in the title, memory, that first grabbed my attention. Like many
clinicians, I’ve administered many memory tests. And, as a Christian thinker about integration, I
wondered about the scant attention given to the role of memory and reliability in understanding
the interplay between biblical texts and psychological science. So, I come to Keener’s latest
cornucopia with considerable curiosity. Craig S. Keener is professor of New Testament at
Asbury Theological Seminary. Together, his works have sold over a million copies.
The 17 chapters of Christobiography are organized in five parts. Keener aims to
document the reliability of the gospels. He explains the nature of biography in Jesus’ day and
compares the gospels to other biographies. He devotes considerable attention to what readers
might reasonably expect based on first century documents, oral cultures, and recent memory
research.
Part 1: Biographies about Jesus
Keener examines the differences and similarities among documents written close to the
time of the synoptic gospels, which he places in the middle to late first century. He concludes
that the gospels are more like ancient biographies than ancient novels. More specifically, the
gospels are similar to biographies of sages, which contain many anecdotes. A positive degree of
reliability is accorded the gospels because they were written within living memory of those who
witnessed the life of Jesus.
Part 2: Biographies and History
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After examining early historical manuscripts, the gospels bear some relationship to
historical works because they refer to historical events; however, the focus on one historic person
links the gospels to the genre of ancient biographies rather than the genre of ancient histories.
There is some flexibility accorded historians and biographers in their presentation of historic
material, but first century readers would expect that the historic events did indeed occur. Then as
now, the writer-reader contract includes an expectation that history is presented in a fair and
honest manner, although the authors were free to structure the content in their narratives. Among
the gospels, Luke has much in common with contemporary histories, though it too qualifies as
biography.
Part 3: Testing the Range of Deviation
Keener assumes his readers have an acquaintance with the variations among the gospel
accounts in terms of details and chronologies. He demonstrates such text variations were not
uncommon in ancient biographies by looking at three biographies of Otho (c 32-69 CE). A
reliable biography is one that is true in the sense of reporting about events that really happened.
A quote delineates the concept true: “True” did not mean that audiences would expect
chronological precision, verbatim recall, or precision on minor points.” (p. 259).
Part 4: Two Objections to Gospels as Historical Biographies
In this section, Keener addresses two objections from skeptical scholars: The miracle
stories and the differences between John’s gospel and the synoptics. Keener acknowledges the
lack of ancient biographies of miracle workers before the gospels. He offers several arguments
about the accounts of healings and exorcisms such as long-standing beliefs in many cultures of
miraculous healings and exorcisms common in the ancient world and continuing to the present
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time. To paraphrase Keener, different understandings about the causes of a reported miracle do
not mean that the event did not occur. Keener takes time to detail many similarities and
differences between John’s gospel and the synoptics. He argues that despite John’s differences,
the fourth gospel still appears to be an account of events similar to those expected in ancient
biographies.
Part 5: Memories about Jesus: Memories before Memoirs
In part five, Keener demonstrates his acquaintance with relevant psychological studies
documenting the fallibility of human memory and particularly the problems of eyewitness
testimony, which is the likely source of information about the works and sayings of Jesus
presented in the gospels. Keener argues based on experience and research that what people
accurately remember and pass along in oral cultures and ordinary experience is the gist of an
event. Dialogue may be paraphrased or reconstructed but is rarely verbatim. He notes an
exceptionanecdotes uttered by a revered teacher, such as Jesus, may very well be verbatim.
Keener asks readers to consider that disciples, who had great respect for their teacher, might be
more attentive to learning what Jesus taught than would be a casual observer. He also notes that,
in primarily oral cultures, students were expected to pass along a sage’s teachings as spoken.
Storytellers may have some liberty in retelling an account, but an audience would not tolerate
variations on essential details. Once again, the gist remains the standard for stories in a reliable
biography.
Conclusion
Keener’s Christobiography does not disappoint. The lengthy work is relevant to clinicians and
psychological scientists interested in the integration of faith and science. Keener is clearly a
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conservative religious scholar, but he fairly addressed many of the reasonable questions one
could ask about the reliability of the gospels given what we know about the unreliability of
eyewitness testimony and other limitations of human memory (e.g., he presents intelligent
readers with a nonnumerical reliability value for the gospels indicating one can depend on the
accounts as nonfictional presentations of real events in the life of Jesus). He appropriately
disabuses readers of the notion that the dialogues are verbatim transcripts of Jesus and his
interlocutors yet invites us to consider the veridicality of various anecdotes. And we are advised
to give the authors slack when it comes to actual or perceived variations in details and
chronologies because such variations were true of other writers at the time. He allows for
flexibility in how to interpret various supernatural phenomena such as miraculous healings and
exorcisms without denying that the ancient writers presented the events based on their
understanding of causes within their culture. As a psychologist, I would have preferred seeing
more primary references to memory research. He does cite Loftus, Nucci, and Hoffman (1998)
but seems to rely on summary sources (e.g., McIver, 2012).
Given Keener’s qualitative assessment of reliabilities pertaining to different contents
within the gospels, the next step seems to be an assessment of the validity of the texts. This
would seem a more demanding exercise because we make speak of different validities depending
on the purposes to which some aspect of the text may be employed. Given the penchant for some
to construct doctrines and dictate moral principles based on the meaning of a particular word or
turn of an ancient phrase, we may at least suggest that spiritual humility requires a sizeable
confidence interval when a given pronouncement has the potential to rupture the body of Christ,
produce moral injury, or constitute spiritual abuse and its attendant pain and suffering.
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References
Keener, C. S. (2019). Christobiography: memory history and the reliability of the gospels. Grand
Rapids, MI: Erdmans.
Loftus, E. F., Nucci, M., & Hoffman, H. (1998). Manufacturing memory. American Journal of
Forensic Psychology, 16, 6375.
McIver, R. K. (2012). Eyewitnesses as Guarantors of the Accuracy of the Gospel Traditions in
the Light of Psychological Research. Journal of Biblical Literature, 131(3), 529546.
https://doi.org/10.2307/23488253
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Manufacturing memory
  • E F Loftus
  • M Nucci
  • H Hoffman
Loftus, E. F., Nucci, M., & Hoffman, H. (1998). Manufacturing memory. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 16, 63-75.