Book Reviews

Jesus against the Scribal Elite

The Origins of the Conflict

Chris Keith Grand Rapids 2014-04-15

Chris Keith, who has written extensively on the issue of literacy and the historical Jesus, explores the contours of the conflict between Jesus and the first-century Jewish text-brokers. Keith argues that an important part of the division between Jesus and the legal teachers had to do with how they perceived Jesus’s social standing; namely they viewed him as illiterate, which would have undermined his position as an authoritative teacher. Most within the first-century Jewish context would have considered carpenters, like Jesus, as illiterate, regardless of their ability to read. Jesus ben Sirach highlights the distinction—in order to become a scribe one must have leisure time—leisure time that day laborers do not have (cf. Sir. 38:24–39:1). This class distinction would have been a point of contention raised by the religious leaders. In short, part of the debate would have focused on Jesus’ credentials as a legitimate teacher of the Scriptures.

The significant passage for Keith is Mark 6:3—the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth. His designation as a “carpenter” was the basis of the crowd’s rejection. Keith argues that the rebuttal revolves around the fact that Jesus was a member of the working class, not the scribal elite, and therefore perceived as illiterate and unable to speak on the things of the law. They rejected him on the grounds of his credentials. Keith maintains that outside of Mark 6:3, the tradition dampens any hint that Jesus was illiterate. In the Matthean version of Jesus’s rejection, the people refer to him as the “son of a carpenter.” Papyri 45, which includes Mark 6:3, inserts the Matthean redaction calling Jesus the “son of a carpenter,” creating distance between Jesus and the working class. In a similar manner, Origen denies that Jesus was a carpenter in his response to Celus’s criticism that Jesus was a carpenter, implying that he was illiterate. The Lukan version (Luke 4:16–30) moves beyond denial and explicitly describes Jesus as literate; he looks the passage up in the scroll and reads it. Luke goes on to describe that the crowd rejects Jesus’ message, that blessing will come to the Gentiles, not his social standing.

The question about Jesus’s literacy provides a launching pad for Keith to discuss issues of historical method. He rejects the form-critical approach to the historical Jesus, which relies on the criteria of authenticity to separate authentic from inauthentic traditions. Keith states that “of the criteria approach’s many deficiencies, its severing of the past and the present is perhaps its most historiographically irresponsible feature” (p. 81). An approach that utilizes memory, or how the earliest followers perceived Jesus is more valuable. By approaching the past through the memory of the earliest disciples, Keith is able to account for the competing pictures of Jesus. Since both the scribal-literate class and the illiterate working class made up Jesus’s audience, they most likely would have perceived Jesus differently. Keith states that “a completely illiterate farmer and a scribe from the temple could have witnessed the exact same event in Jesus’s life and come to precise opposite conclusions about his scribal-literate status” (p. 105). A mixed audience can account for a mixed perception regarding Jesus’ literacy.

Scribal Elite provides an excellent foray into some of the more pressing methodological questions for historical Jesus study today, specifically how different groups could perceive Jesus differently. Keith concludes that Jesus was “most likely not a scribal-literate teacher” (p. 89). He bases his conclusion on two arguments: 1) the low literacy rate suggests that Jesus himself did not have the literacy level of the scribes; and 2) the way that the tradition consistently moves toward describing him as a member of the scribal class (pp. 89–93). Keith’s conclusions undermine his approach. Without calling these criteria of authenticity, Keith’s argument sounds similar to the criterion of embarrassment or the criterion of historical plausibility. A more judicious conclusion might be that different groups remembered Jesus’s literacy in different ways and that his literacy formed a point of contention. Despite Keith’s attempt to move past the use of the criteria of authenticity, in some ways he still relies upon them.

This is a minor criticism of a solid book. First, Keith provides excellent analysis of the literacy rates within first-century Palestine as well as a helpful discussion on the various levels of literacy that could have been achieved. Second, Keith’s work shows that interest in how various groups recall events has had a significant impact on historical Jesus studies with no signs of slowing down. Scribal Elite is a helpful presentation of how to apply social memory to the Gospel traditions.

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Benjamin I. Simpson
Dr. Simpson joined the faculty in 2006 as the registrar. In 2011, he moved to Houston to work with the Houston campus. In 2016, he and his family moved to Washington DC where he continues helping external students complete their degrees while positively influencing their ministries. His research interests include Jesus, the Gospels, and hermeneutics. He is married to Amber and they have two children: Madison and Eli.
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