Recently 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.”