Chris Keith’s “Jesus Against the Scribal Elite” (Gupta)

Scribal EliteRecently I finished reading Chris Keith’s new volume Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Baker, 2014). I am not going to do a full-blown review (you can find Steve Walton’s helpful review here). But I do want to offer my own appreciation for Keith’s work, as it is clearly written and brings a nice contribution to the scholarly realm as well as some helpful thoughts about Jesus in his context to the classroom.

First things first – the question I was wondering when I first picked up the book – who are the “scribal elite?” Keith uses this language to refer to those people “who could read the text [of the Hebrew Scriptures] in its original language and whose knowledge of the text translated into interpretive authority” (p. 27). Thus, this would include not only “scribes,” but also people within groups such as priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law. 

A major plank in Keith’s overall argument about the nature of the conflict between Jesus and the “scribal elite” (SE) is that they felt threatened by his independent teaching and many around Jesus assumed he had scribal literacy. But did he in fact? Keith is open to the possibility, but finds it unlikely (see pg. 98). 

More important (in some ways) than the historical question about whether or not Jesus was SE is the matter of why it appears there are two diverging portrayals of Jesus in the Gospels on this matter. 

Already in the first century, Christians portrayed Jesus as someone whose audiences questioned him as a scribal-literate teacher (John 7:15), rejected him as a scribal-literate teacher (Mark 6:3//Matt. 13:55), and accepted him as a scribal-literate teacher (Luke 4 and throughout). (pg. 65)

Perhaps one of Keith’s strongest cases for believing that Jesus was probably not SE is the nature of the development of the Christian literature regarding Jesus’ literacy. There seems to be a tendency overtime in early Christian literature to extend to Jesus more scribal literacy. 

But I was especially appreciative of Keith’s major point that, though we really cannot know if Jesus was scribally literate, it is interesting to see how perception of Jesus’ literacy by the people around him led to many assumptions. Ultimately, one of the reasons why Jesus’ enemies were out to get him was because he was someone from outside their circle who criticized the status quo and threatened their authority and reputation. There is a really fascinating socio-historical layer that Keith’s study adds to historical Jesus discussions.

I will not say more about the book except to encourage you to read it if you haven’t done so. 

By the way, for another take on Jesus and the literacy question, check out this essay by Craig Evans on “Jewish Scripture and the Literacy of Jesus.” 

Jesus in Contemporary Culture: Part One (Skinner)

This semester I am team-teaching a new course entitled, “Jesus in Contemporary Culture,” with my colleague, Dr. Hollis Phelps. We have a class of 30 students from diverse backgrounds and we anticipate that substantive discussion will shape a great deal of the course content and experience. We have structured the course around five Jesus films (The Passion of the Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus of Montreal, The Book of Life, and The Life of Brian) and we will be looking at a host of topics including masculinity, the glorification of suffering, cultural and comic book superheroes, and humor as it relates to the Jesus tradition.

Since this is a new class, I wanted to spend some time posting about it so that (1) I could share the experience with others; (2) I could learn from what others have done in similar courses; and (3) I could gain some new insights and/or fresh ideas from those who read the blog. Today I wanted to post briefly about our first conversation last Friday.

We began the first session with two questions: (1) Who is Jesus? and (2) When you hear the name “Jesus,” what thoughts or feelings arise? The discussion was fantastic, and as you can imagine, the whiteboards were filled with incredible responses. One thing in particular stood out to both of us was that even though roughly half of the class indicated no particular commitment to any form of Christianity, it took about 15 minutes of conversation before anyone identified Jesus as a human. Students threw out the typical exalted titles of Jesus–sacrificial lamb, son of man, son of God, messiah, etc.–but the thought of Jesus as a real, flesh and blood human didn’t immediately jump to mind. I think this experiment confirms something I have observed for some time. In our modern discourse about Jesus, and especially in the Church, there is a pervasive tendency to lapse into an almost docetic understanding of Jesus. This understanding accounts for a lot of the problematic dialogue we have.

Today, we will be attempting to “problematize Chalcedon” by looking at the Chalcedonian definition and then getting students to think about what it means to be human and what it means to be divine. Then we are going to go back to the views of Jesus in the canonical gospels and work our way forward. I can’t wait to see what today’s discussion holds. I’ll be saying more about this in the coming days.