Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 28, 2017

The New Testament as Literature, A Very Short Introduction (2008), by Kyle Keefer

This week ABC Online is featuring an article titled What history really tells us about Jesus’ birth, pointing out that the inn, the shepherds and animals; pretty much everything we think we know about the Christmas Story is historically wrong.  So, yes, Christmas is as good a time as any to take a closer look at the New Testament, not for religious reasons, but for the importance it has in Western literature.   So in between doing festive season stuff around the house, I’ve been taking short breaks to read The New Testament as Literature, a Very Short Introduction, by Kyle Keefer.

As Keefer says in this interesting VSI, scholarly interpretations of The New Testament have been around for centuries, and the book has been read by more groups and individuals than any other book ever written.  It is not only read for religious reasons by Christians, but also for cross-cultural interfaith understanding, as well as by people of no religion who want to discredit it.  But for many, it’s the NT’s place in literature that matters, whether that’s in books with explicitly Christian themes like Paradise Lost or The Pilgrim’s Progress, or books like Ulysses of Absalom, Absalom! that allude to biblical language and themes undogmatically. 

Keefer, who is Assistant Professor of Religion in the Bible Belt of the USA, is interested in the intersection of the Bible and the arts, and so am I.  Although I don’t have a religious bone in my body I love looking at early religious art, illuminated manuscripts, Russian icons, and stained glass windows.  Church architecture is sublime, and the music written for religious purposes by the great composers, is, I think, among the most beautiful that there is.  And although I strongly disapprove of monarchies of all kinds, I am inclined to be more tolerant of the dead ones in Europe because, even though they did it for their own aggrandisement, they commissioned such beautiful art works – which (in mature democracies that have abolished the monarchy) are now accessible to the public.

Despite not having a baptismal certificate, here I am making my confirmation when everyone else did, mainly so that I could wear The Family Tiara and A Long White Dress.  BTW this was the last time any of us wore this tiara.  We were all too Bolshie to wear it for weddings in the 70s.

But it is the influence of the Bible in literature that interests me most.  Seriously, if my parents (one an atheist and the other an agnostic) hadn’t sent me to the same order of nuns for the purposes of ensuring a consistent education across three continents, I would not know the Biblical stories that constantly crop up in books and poetry.  What I have found most interesting to learn from this VSI, is that I only know scraps of the NT – bits and pieces of the gospels, the parables and a few exhortations from the Epistles…

The first thing to know is that the Gospels are not anything like biographies.  Keefer has a somewhat old-fashioned idea of biography, claiming that readers expect them to be straightforward chronological accounts of childhood, adolescence, adulthood and death, with a bit of psychologising thrown in.  Clearly he hasn’t been keeping up with modern experiments in biography, but still he has a valid point.  Anyone expecting a Life of Jesus is going to be disappointed, and there’s no attempt to explain his motivations or the influences on his life either.

Other things to know:

A. That all four gospels were written sometime between 65CE and 95CE, at least thirty years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
B. That all four were originally anonymous and that the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were added later.  These author names serve as convenient fictions [i.e. the author of the first gospel ‘Matthew’ is not the apostle known by that name].
C.  That none of the gospel writers witnessed the events recounted in the gospels.
D. That each writer was dependent on sources, both written and oral.  (p.20)

Both Matthew and Luke use the much more terse Mark as a guide, but made a choice to interpret things differently.  And what transpires in these three gospels actually paints a very different Jesus to the one I thought I knew.  In Mark, he gets frustrated with the disciples and their amazing ability to misunderstand his message.  Keefer notes that Mark encourages admiration and even worship of Jesus – and readers might take his sidover the stupidity of the disciples – but since readers might be just as puzzled as the disciples were, they might feel sorry for them instead and not like the way they are treated.  The way Keefer puts this is quite a surprise to me:

It must be said, however, that although Jesus explains very clearly that he is going to die, he never spells out why his sufferings must occur.  While other books in the New Testament fill in this gap, in Mark the purpose of Jesus’ suffering and death remain opaque.  It is not surprising, therefore, that his disciples – perhaps not the brightest students to begin with – recoil at Jesus’ strange insistence on his death. The crucifixion becomes one more parable that they do not understand.  (p.29)

In fact, says Keefer, in the gospel of Mark the only human character to understand is the centurion who presides over the execution.  (That seems a bit odd, doesn’t it, for a book that’s supposed to have been divinely inspired as the Word of God?)

In Matthew, there’s a (probably not widely-known) key to identifying the loyalty of the characters.  Those who follow Jesus always call him ‘Kurios” which means Lord or Master in Greek.  Those who are hostile to him use ‘teacher’ instead.  So when Judas addresses Jesus as Rabbi, that’s a hint of his perfidy.  Keefer says that this stylistic feature denotes Matthew’s sharp dualisms. The narrative divides the world into insiders and outsiders, using symbols such as

the narrow and the wide gates (chap.7), the house on the rock and the house on sand (chap.7), the parable of the wheat and the weeds (chap.13), the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids (chap.25), and the allegory of the sheep and the goats (chap.25). In each of these cases Matthew divides humanity into neat pairs, those who listen to Jesus’ words, and those who do not. (p.31)

Whereas Mark’s gospel blurs the line between insiders and outsiders, Matthew’s is unequivocal.  His approach is all-or-nothing and his dichotomies offer either reward or punishment.  Matthew is much more sure about things (and the disciples in his gospel are not dunces!)  However, this black-and-white world has made Matthew’s gospel the one has been used by anti-Semites because some of the most virulent statements in all the New Testament against Jewish authorities occur in Matthew (e.g. when he harangues the Pharisees). 

Luke, also the author of Acts, is most like a modern biographer.  He tells the story of the birth, he includes a lot about Mary, and he frames his story as the fulfilment of the prophecy. Many of the well-known biblical stories come from Luke, and he portrays a more forgiving Jesus with more concern for others, especially the downtrodden in society.

Among the gospel writers, Luke presents the most sympathetic and likable portrayal of Jesus.  He exhibits a strong irenic quality in his characterisation, highlighting those aspects of Jesus’ words and deeds that are most appealing while downplaying antagonistic qualities. (p.39)

When I read on to learn that Luke’s Acts are the most entertaining composition of the New Testament, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that ‘Luke’ – whoever he really was –  was the best author of the lot.  Keefer compares the gospel of John to the poetry of William Blake because it’s superficially simple but actually very complex conceptually.   The reader needs to get used to specialised vocabulary and may need to read in a circular way, returning to earlier pages to make meaning of it.  There are no parables, and none of the familiar scenes of birth, exorcism, Eucharist or temptation in the desert.

John’s Jesus does not suffer like Mark’s Jesus, rarely teaches like Matthew’s Jesus and has little concern for the marginalised as does Luke’s Jesus.  This gospel differs most from the Synoptics, however, by presenting the reader with a literary challenge. (p.50)

(Later on, in the final chapter ‘The New Testament, bound, Keefer makes the point that although the NT tends to be read as a whole, none of it was intended to be collated in this way.  It was gathered together into a canon in the 4th century, and when people read its component parts, they tend to be aware of the other parts as well and may be disconcerted by the inconsistencies e.g. in the representation of Jesus.  He says that these inconsistencies should not matter if we view the NT using the metaphor of painting, which provides multiple portraits showing different aspects of the same person.)

The John who wrote Revelations that have cropped up so often in my reading, is apparently not the John who wrote the gospel.  Since I have to confess that I have never actually read any part of the NT in its entirety, I find that what Keefer has to say about Revelations makes me most tempted to do so.  He posits Revelations in a rich literary history of epics, citing the Iliad and the Aeneid and a Babylonian epic called Enuma Elish, all of which are stories of great civilisations emerging from great wars.  The epic struggle between good and evil still plays out in modern works such as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter… (I could also add Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series to this list).

The elements of all three creations have striking commonalities.  The characters in these sagas find themselves in the midst of a world disturbed by the emergence of an overwhelming evil power (Darth Vader, Sauron, and Voldemort).  All sentient creatures must ally themselves with either the force of evil or the counterforces of good.  Those who oppose evil seem drastically inadequate to the task.   Their numbers are few, fate seems to work against them, and the powers they wield pale in insignificance compared to those of the dark side.  Even the most potent powers of good (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, and Dumbledore) suffer defeat and death when they try to oppose the sway of oppressive evil. (p.78)

How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and NowI can tell you, I was not expecting this kind of analysis in a book about the New Testament!  I found this chapter fascinating, and I recommend this VSI to anyone considering the place of the Bible in literature.   I’ve had How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now (also pitched at secular readers as well as believers) on my TBR for ages now, and I will read it one of these days, but this little VSI has certainly sparked my interest in a way that I wasn’t expecting…

Author: Kyle Keefer
Title: The New Testament as Literature, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Very Short Introductions Series, 2008
ISBN: 9780195300208
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: The New Testament as Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)


  1. I was surprised when I looked it up a few years ago that there was no census in any year near Jesus’ birth and that in any case it would not have been held mid-winter. I was baptised and confirmed in the C of E but have no intention of ever reading any part of the bible.


    • AH, C of E. They have the best hymns, I think. What’s that one about sailors on the sea?


      • The Naval Hymn apparently, it’s 50 years since I was willingly in a church, and the best mum could mange after 85 years of weekly attendance was “Oh, I know the one she means”.


  2. Thanks for posting. I just watched the Xmas day programming on CNN that attempted to balance the science and the religion. Also went to Wikipedia and read 2 entries on Josephus (bio + Josephus & Jesus).

    I did take one course years ago on Higher Criticism of the N.T. And did a bit of the history of the Early Church, e.g., Paul convinces the Judaeo-Christians to convert Greeks — forget about insisting on male circumcision or the ban on pork — thus

    forever splitting off the Christians from Judaism.


    • That’s interesting – I always thought that the ban on pork was because the Jews (being smart) had worked out that undercooked pork was linked to food poisoning. And I wouldn’t have thought that that problem would have been resolved until much later than Paul…


  3. Beautiful review, Lisa! Loved reading your thoughts on this book! I read the whole Bible when I was in school (I studied in a Christian school), but I can remember the finer details except for the major stories. It is so surprising the the Matthew, Mark etc. who wrote the gospels were not the disciples! I didn’t know this! This is so fascinating! I will need to read the Bible again and then read this VSI alongwith that. One of the surprising things about this VSI is that though it is about the New Testament as literature, it seems to analyze it from a historical perspective. Does the book also talk about the literary qualities of the New Testament – the beauty of the language in the original Greek and how it has been preserved in later translations like the German and French ones and the King James version?

    Thanks so much for the review, Lisa. Can’t wait to read this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] The New Testament as Literature, A Very Short Introduction, by Kyle Keefer #BookReview […]


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