Friday, August 15, 2008

Fridays with Craig Keener ... Part One

When I was boy growing up in a small Pentecostal church, biblical commentaries and seminaries were looked upon with suspicion. What did we need with all that readin'-and-learnin' if we had the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth?

In fairness, a lot of commentaries and seminaries back then were not worth owning or attending.

But thankfully, there have been great strides made in both; plus, many believers have come to realize that the better commentary writers are simply part of the teaching ministry of church --- a ministry gift of the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Craig Keener, who is a professor of New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary, is one of those commentary writers giving that enterprise a good name. [UPDATE: Craig is currently a professor of biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary]

He is the author of a one-volume commentary on the background of the New Testament. And to date, four more of his commentaries (covering five NT Books) have been published. [UPDATE: the background commentary has been revised and is available both for sampling and for purchase here. He has also written more commentaries, including a much-praised exegetical commentary on the book of Acts.]

Craig is charismatic in both belief and practice. However, that does not mean that he endorses the health-and-wealth gospel advocated by some charismatics. He wrote in his book, Gift & Giver: The Holy Spirit in the Church Today, "I would rather abandon the title than risk anyone thinking that I advocate such teachings!"  

For next few weeks, Fridays on this blog will be devoted to an interview with Craig that largely covers his commentary writing.

JR: Your commentaries on Matthew and John were massive (1,040 and 1,636 pages, respectively). How long do you work on commentaries so detailed? And tell us about the work routine you follow when writing commentaries.

KEENER: When God called me to the ministry of His Word, I did not know what that would involve. I assumed I would just go out and preach. He gave me such a hunger that I began reading through the New Testament once a week, or the Bible once a month (though I did not keep that full pace up regularly). One way this changed me was that it forced me to read verses in their context--both of the immediate passage and of the argument of the entire book in which they appeared.

But as I was diving into the Word, I began to notice that passages often assumed customs and situations that the biblical writers didn't need to explain, because their original audiences understood them. I realized that while we had translations to try to make the original Greek and Hebrew message clear to us, we lacked much of the background. Once I realized that we needed background, I started reading a book here and there, only to discover that they did not always agree on details.

Eventually my hunger for the Word became hunger for background, too, so I could understand the Word always better, in greater detail. (There is no spiritual life in the background per se, but once one has it, many biblical texts jump alive in fresh ways with clarity of meaning. Only later did I realize that God had been preparing me for this task even before my conversion. As a boy I was reading Homer, Tacitus, Plato, and various other ancient works. After my conversion, I dropped these things and read only the Bible; when I started working in background, I started with Jewish sources, yet later began to realize that I could use these other sources, too, to help me understand the world that Paul and others were sent to reach.)

That brings me to the answer to your question. Over the years I collected about 100,000 index cards of information, before I began just typing new data into the computer. So I had a massive amount of background information (and information on scholarship) already available. As I collected it, I filed it under the verses where I thought it would be most useful, and also arranged the background material in my mind according to the framework of Scripture. Once I started on a commentary, I would go do more research on what other scholars said about that book (I had already looked through the older commentaries, but would try to get up to date; also, I had already translated and exegeted the book, but I would normally do that again as well). Then I would begin writing, one passage at a time, arranging the background information around the points in the passage that it would help us understand.

I could have actually gone into much more detail in the John and especially Matthew commentaries. I was simply summarizing information, to keep them from getting longer. For example, I might cite five ancient references in a footnote, but those references might represent five different index cards with a full paragraph each going into some detail on what those ancient passages said, plus (if it wasn't something that I would remember offhand) the dates of the speakers (e.g., whether a rabbi was from the second or fifth century can make a difference in how much weight I give to a reference).

As for the work routine: I take out significant time for prayer, for my family, for my students, for eating and sleeping, plus keeping the sabbath. But in the deepest part of my work on a book, most of the rest of my time goes into it; I have to sacrifice a lot of other potential ministry to do it, so I have to keep praying and feeling convinced that God is in this. During times when school is not in session, I might spend as much as sixty hours in a week working on a commentary. John took a number of years (not including the previously collected research; my dissertation was also on John). Acts, recently finished, took roughly six years of full-time work. Even when teaching, I usually try to put in close to 40 hours a week (but most days I don't keep exact count, so maybe it just FEELS like that many hours--smile).


johnmarkharris said...

Thanks, this is very helpful. We're using Keener's John commentary in an upcoming PhD seminar over Johannine Lit. I'm looking forward to it.

Jon Rising said...

Thanks for your comments JMH.

You may want to be in prayer for Craig. I got an e-mail from him the other day and he is in Cuba ministering.

Also, Craig has an article in the current issue of Charisma magazine. The August issue, that is.