Symposium Introduction

Chris Keith’s book, Jesus against the Scribal Elite, defends the claim that two factors are intimately related, namely a) Jesus’ status as an illiterate teacher and b) his conflict with scribal authorities. This is to say that conflict arose between Jesus and the scribal elite because of “how various groups within Second Temple Judaism would have perceived Jesus, a scribal-illiterate carpenter, upon his occasionally occupying the position of a scribal-literate authority” (155).

To unpack this I will overview Keith’s argument under five headings:

1) The origins and nature of the “controversy narratives” (or “conflict stories”)

Keith points out that the cause of the “controversy narratives” (if accepted as involving some level of historicity) is usually elided too quickly into their end, namely the crucifixion of Jesus on a Roman cross. This means that the early conflict narratives tend not to be examined on their own terms. And when they are analysed on their own terms, scholars tend too quickly to import debates surrounding a combination of the miracles of Jesus (including his healings and exorcisms) on the one hand, and the content of Jesus’ teaching on the other. It is this combination that, so many have proposed, is the cause of Jesus coming into conflict with his various interlocutors. This is the scholarly consensus that Keith seeks to correct, or at least complete. But to understand his proposal, we turn to the second matter.

2) Illiteracy and scribal literacy

Keith is an expert on literacy in Christian antiquity, and his first chapter deserves close reading. He argues that, in terms of the task of teaching, there were two groups of people. On the one hand, there were “authoritative members of the minority scribal elite class who had received a literate education” (14), and who were as such appropriate teachers. On the other hand, there was everybody else, all those not part of the scribal elite.

3) Contradictions in the Gospels regarding Jesus’ literacy

Turning to the Gospels and their portrayal of the literacy (or not) of Jesus, Keith observes the following. John’s Gospel (at least in its version before the insertion of 7:53-8:11) equivocates on the matter of whether Jesus was illiterate or not. It evades answering the question when it would have been appropriate to be more definitive. Mark’s Gospel, however, is reasonably clear that Jesus belonged to the illiterate working-class, a conclusion drawn via exegesis of Mark 6:3. What becomes clear is that Jesus, despite his illiteracy, provoked controversy with the scribal-literate quite simply because he was occupying their social space as a teacher. Matthew, working with Mark, attempts to clean up the potential embarrassment caused by the conclusion that Jesus was illiterate, by making some important changes to Mark (Jesus becomes the “carpenter’s son”, as opposed to being the carpenter himself – compare Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55). Against all of this, however, Luke’s Gospel stands in disagreement. For Luke, it is very clear that Jesus was literate (see in particular Luke 4:16-17).

4) Form-critical or memory approaches to the historical Jesus

So we are left with contradictions in the Gospel traditions handed down to us and the big question is Which is correct? Was Jesus a member of the illiterate working-class, or was he one of the few literate scribal elite? The common way of adjudicating the historicity of particular Gospel traditions is to examine particular texts in light of the so-called “criteria of authenticity”. These methods, deriving from form-critical roots, aim to assess the historicity of this or that individual saying or story by running them through criteria, such as embarrassment, multiple attestation, coherence, Semitic influence, and so on. Keith, one of the editors of the important collection of essays, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity,1 is clear and forthright in his denunciation of the criteria and its problematic link to form-critical assumptions. Instead he pursues a memory approach. He will not seek to get behind these early Christian memories found in the Gospels (as approaches rooted in form-critical assumptions attempt), but rather offer explanations and historical proposals of these memories, seeking to explain how these interpretations arose.2

5) Drawing it all together: Keith’s historical explanation

We are now in a position to understand Keith’s constructive proposal. In a nutshell, conflicting early Christian memories, concerning the status of Jesus’ literacy, can be explained by the following scenario: Jesus was illiterate (Mark was correct), but Jesus nevertheless entered the social space of the scribal elite and debated with them, giving rise to the notion that Jesus was indeed literate. Precisely this proposal explains an underlying cause of the early controversy narratives. It maintains that the controversy narratives are rooted in a situation where the scribal literate were offended by the simple fact that Jesus was teaching (as an illiterate), and not just in light of what he was teaching. It also explains the development of the conflicting Gospel traditions, how these two different memories emerged.

A few controversial aspects of Keith’s argument can be noted, which relate both to historical and theological matters. Two historical concerns can be mentioned. First, and contra a long history of scholarship, Keith proposes, as “perhaps the most important contribution of this study” (156), that the conflict narratives in the Gospels can indeed plausibly be traced back to the ministry of Jesus. This is to say that these narratives are not later Christian inventions reflecting a period of conflict between Christians and non-Christian Jews. They will no doubt have been shaped by that (later) context (or Sitz im Leben, to use the jargon), but they likely relate to events in the life of Jesus himself. Second, considerable scholarly debate will surround Keith’s endorsement, and therefore application, of a memory approach to the historical Jesus, particularly as this is set in contrast to the traditional “criteria of authenticity.”3 This is a hotly debated area and Keith’s book provides a model for what a different approach to historical questions, separated from form-criticism, might look like.

As far as theological matters are concerned, some will no doubt find the claim that Jesus was illiterate, problematic. Indeed, precisely this point is discussed by Skinner in his response to Keith.

Keith’s interlocutors in this symposium raise a number of others concerns as well. But all are united in praising Keith for an immensely readable, creative, discussion-stimulating, and learned monograph. Keith’s thesis moves scholarly dialogue forward. For this reason I finish by observing that it is inadequate simply to dismiss his constructive proposal in the name of form-criticism’s legacy, theological purity, or in light of this or that detail. If one wishes effectively to critique Keith’s main argument, this will require also the proposal of an alternative explanation for the development of differences in the Gospel traditions relating to Jesus’ literacy and the nature of the early conflict stories.


Dagmar Winter

Tobias Häegerland

Christopher Skinner

Jason Lamoreaux

About the Author

Chris Keith (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is professor of New Testament and early Christianity and director of the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He was a 2010 recipient of the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise for his book The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus and was named a 2012 Society of Biblical Literature Regional Scholar.

  1. Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (London: T&T Clark International, 2012).

  2. On the issues involved here, see now Eric Eve’s helpful volume, Behind the Gospels: Understanding the oral tradition (London: SPCK, 2013).

  3. See, for example, Paul Foster’s spirited, if arguably problematic, essay, “Memory, Orality, and the Fourth Gospel: Three Dead-Ends in Historical Jesus Research,” JSHJ 10.3 (2012): 191–227.



Put into Perspective By an Illiterate Jesus

IT IS A PLEASURE to read this book by Chris Keith. It is well written, in elegant simplicity, with clear lines of argument and helpful summaries and conclusions. So first of all I would like to thank Chris for writing a book which makes fine scholarship accessible to a wider circle and which serves to stimulate much thought.

Firstly, it demonstrates a well-reflected methodological approach which picks up on the concept of plausibility of context and effects, and takes this further with a social memory approach. The fruits of Keith’s work secondly have bearings on our image of the historical Jesus regarding his literacy, his teaching and his position within his social context. Finally, I am challenged to consider what Jesus’ illiteracy means for the church’s mission in the twenty-first century.

My first critical point homes in on the methodology Chris employed. I naturally warmed to his very clear and transparent way of making his historical judgements on the basis of likelihood and historical plausibility, and treating the whole question of historicity not as one of atomised verses and issues (upholding the positivist fiction of some obtainable raw pure authenticity) but on the basis of anticipating a comprehensively plausible historical picture.

This begins with the plausibility of historical context and it is good to see the fruitful working out of contextual plausibility and contextual distinctiveness for this topic of Jesus’ literacy and learning: Jesus’ illiteracy is contextually plausible yet his way of teaching is also contextually distinctive. Social history studies are invaluable to underpin this contextual understanding and approach.

Likewise, Chris used the concept of Christian traditional plausibility which honours the intermediaries who have brought us the Jesus tradition rather than seeing them as noise and annoyance—in other words seeking not reconstruction but representation of the past. Thus the multiplicity engendered in the tradition finds its explanation, i.e., why Jesus is considered both scribally literate and not. The social memory approach is a particular tool at this stage which is most usefully employed here.

This is a brief point I am making here and I neither disagree nor do I want to press Chris further, but the brevity of the point is in no way proportional to its significance since I do deem this to be a most outstanding piece of work, based on his earlier study, which methodologically shows the way for much further Historical Jesus scholarship.

As Keith observes, the question of Jesus’ literacy is not a major topic for scholars and can have a “novelty” ring to it. Given the importance of Jesus’ teaching role, this is quite astonishing. One of the key contributions of Keith’s work is his opening up of the differentiated meaning and understanding of literacy in general and scribal literacy. While in many ways it is not news to locate Jesus among the poorer people who had no access to primary education and were quite separate from the scribal elite, reflecting on this puts an important piece of the jigsaw of Jesus’ life and teaching into place. In addition, I wonder whether more could be explored about the location of teaching: There is good evidence in the Gospels that Jesus did a lot of his teaching outdoors. This location in itself, away from the place where rolls of Scripture were kept, would have carried a clear message. Does this not mark him out more clearly than Chris would have us believe vis-à-vis the scribal elite? Were their “pedagogical activities” not presented quite differently and in a quite different space, even if there were occasional exchanges between them and Jesus which led people to seeing him as on a par with a scribal-literate person?

I agree with Chris that it is important to distinguish the early from the later conflict of Jesus with his Jewish contemporaries. However, it is surely at an early stage of Jesus’ ministry that he implicitly undermines the scribes’ authority by taking the focus away from the Scriptures they treasure and authoritatively interpret, even teaching in places physically detached from rolls of Scripture, thus implicitly or explicitly throwing down the gauntlet to the scribes. I would see it then as a matter of degree rather than a massive gear change that the conflict becomes a deathly one for Jesus.

Given that much of the interpretation of the conflict between Jesus and his contemporaries has had an unhappy antijudaist history, it would be interesting to see where Keith’s argument leads in the depiction of Judaism. The social context classist interpretation has the potential of quite unwittingly reviving some old chestnuts about Jewish learnedness. Where does this leave the Pharisees who seek in their own way to make religion accessible to the hoi polloi with whom they live cheek by jowl? Moreover, is the term “scribal-literate authorities” really helpful and does it not conjure up a level of organisational structure and learning that was hardly borne out by reality at the time in Galilee?

And finally, I was left musing where Jesus’ understanding and “learning” did come from, even if it was not “literate learning.” It seems highly likely that a school in Nazareth neither existed nor would have been affordable if it existed in the first place. So what did Jesus’ faith learning build on? Was it simply the collective acts of religious observance which familiarized Jesus with key elements of faith? To what degree did Jesus’ parents, John the Baptist, or even Qumran play a part in shaping Jesus’ thinking about God and the kingdom, what might have been key points of their teaching?

Chris’s book is dedicated to Anthony Le Donne and Christopher Rollston who each in their way have had to deal with issues of conflict and Scripture. It highlights the contested space that exists to this day around the authority for scriptural interpretation and teaching within the faith community. So I would like to push Chris a little further in reflecting on how his findings might relate to us in our day.

What does Jesus’ illiteracy mean for our emphasis or otherwise on the reading of Scripture? Clearly matters changed quickly for the early church as it grew into literate circles. The church’s passion for education and literacy, especially in order to read the Scriptures, has continued ever since, even though throughout church history there have been scribal elites anxious to hold on to or to restrict their exclusive privilege of access to the Scriptures.

The question today remains, especially though not exclusively among some of the more narrowly defined churches, of who has the authority to teach and to interpret. Rather than scribal literacy, the new criteria employed can be shibboleth issues (i.e., depending on whether you have the “right” answer, you are accepted, regarding, e.g., creationism/intelligent design vs. evolution or homosexuality / gay marriage or women’s headship) or where you have done your theological/biblical training, i.e., training institutions deemed to be acceptable.

It remains striking that in Jesus we have a Teacher who was viewed suspiciously by the scribal elite but who was subsequently embraced by a scribal elite of a different hue. Large chunks of his teaching, especially when he was not responding to literate scribes, did not directly expound passages of the Torah (though undoubtedly they are understood to pick up on its spirit) but spoke to largely illiterate people of the importance of God and integrity of life through images and stories of everyday. Jesus’ teaching is based on a widespread particular religious understanding among the population though I remain intrigued by the question of how or from whom he learnt.

In our day, biblical literacy has shrunk to a minimum and I would be interested to know which conclusions, if any, Chris draws for today from Jesus’ teaching style which is distinctive from a scribal elitist one. It would certainly seem that the restrictions placed on some biblical scholars today, in order to control particular interpretations or hermeneutical approaches, are put into perspective by an illiterate Jesus.

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    Chris Keith


    Jesus, Scribal Illiteracy, and Conflict: In Grateful Dialogue with My Respondents


    I wrote Jesus against the Scribal Elite for several reasons. One reason was my conviction that, in an earlier book, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, I had not said all that I had to say about the significance of literacy and social status when it came to Jesus of Nazareth. Although that book concluded with an opinion about Jesus’ scribal-literate status, namely that he was not a scribal-literate teacher but was likely often perceived as one, I wanted to pursue the fuller significance of this conclusion for our interpretation and understanding of Jesus’ conflicts with other teachers. Jesus against the Scribal Elite provided the opportunity to pursue this question.

    Another reason I wrote the book was that there was strong interest (sometimes too strong) in the topic of Jesus’ literacy from a lay and student audience but significantly less interest in reading Jesus’ Literacy, which was written as a monograph for other specialists in New Testament studies and Jesus studies. Some potential readers wanted to know more directly about Jesus and the Gospels, not every single known reference to “knowing letters” in Second Temple Judaism, and I cannot blame them.

    Yet another reason I wrote the book, and specifically as a textbook, was that its focus on the early period of Jesus’ career as a teacher seemed, to me, to be something distinct among textbooks in terms of chronology and topic. In terms of chronology, I was unfamiliar with any book-length study specifically focused upon the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry and how he went from being a presumable “nobody” to being a recognized teacher. In terms of topic, and to be blunt, many scholars considered (and still consider) the issue of Jesus’ literacy and education to be a joke of a topic. I was convinced otherwise, that Jesus’ literate status was directly linked to the controversy surrounding his emergence onto the authoritative pedagogical scene. Far from being a joke, I saw the topic as quite a crucial aspect of his ministry. I thus wrote Jesus against the Scribal Elite to fill these lacunae in both student and specialist discussions of Jesus.

    Collectively, then, my goals were admittedly broad, insofar as I wanted to write a book that was accessible to a lay and student readership but also made a scholarly contribution. This Syndicate symposium gives me encouragement that I have accomplished the latter goal. Regardless of their assessments of Jesus against the Scribal Elite, that scholars such as Dagmar Winter, Tobias Hägerland, Christopher Skinner, and Jason Lamoreaux would take the time to read and respond to the book indicates that the topics it addresses are indeed worthy of more scholarly attention than they have previously received. I confess, however, that I am also quite pleased that their respective assessments of the book were largely complimentary. I am equally pleased that their more critical comments have helpfully spurred me on to consider ways in which I could have strengthened my arguments or at least stated them with more clarity. Each of the essays addressed methodology in some form or another, and other common topics were the connection between the beginning and end of Jesus’ career and the implications of some of my arguments for both the church and the academy. These issues are perennial topics in Jesus studies, and are so because they are important. It is a pleasure to discuss them here with the respondents.

    Ancient and Modern Scribal Elites: A Response to Dagmar Winter

    I am honored to have Dagmar Winter comment upon Jesus against the Scribal Elite. She is a genuine trailblazer who carved out a methodological path in Jesus studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s that was wide enough for me and many others to follow. At my very first SBL annual meeting, as a young seminarian, the sole book that I purchased was her and Gerd Theissen’s (then) newly-translated The Quest for the Plausible Jesus: The Question of Criteria. At the time, it was way over my head. But I eventually caught up to it, with my studies in sociological approaches to memory giving me a new appreciation for exactly what Winter accomplished in that book. She is correct that the methodological approach that I take in Jesus against the Scribal Elite is indebted to her criterion of plausibility since it “honours the intermediaries” of the Jesus tradition rather than “seeing them as noise and annoyance.”

    Jesus, Outdoorsman

    I appreciate Winter’s effort to highlight the fact that, although the topic of Jesus’ literacy can have a “novelty” ring to it, it is actually an important part of Jesus’ status as a recognized teacher in Second Temple Judaism. Along these lines, Winter wonders whether I could have made more of Jesus’ outdoor teaching and whether this pedagogical location could have marked him apart from the scribal elite “more clearly than Chris would have us believe.” Undoubtedly, I could have said more on this topic, although I did note that Jesus never steps foot in a synagogue after he is rejected in his hometown in Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels (pp. 49, 51) and mentioned briefly some outdoor teaching locations in arguing that Jesus’ mixed audiences would have led to mixed perceptions of him as a teacher (p.104). Social construction of space is a crucial issue, as many social-scientific studies of the biblical periods are demonstrating. Winter is right that teaching outdoors could have separated Jesus from teachers who primarily taught in synagogue, just as Jesus’ positive reception in synagogue likely aligned him with such teachers. Hopefully the volume captures the likelihood of this variety of perceptions of Jesus, even if I could have emphasized the significance of Jesus’ outdoor location more.

    Class-Based Interpretations

    Winter also asks pointedly about the significance of my arguments in light of the “unhappy antijudaist history” of scholarship on Jesus’ conflicts with other Jewish teachers. She states, “The social context classist interpretation has the potential of quite unwittingly reviving some old chestnuts about Jewish learnedness. Where does this leave the Pharisees who seek in their own way to make religion accessible to hoi polloi with whom they live cheek by jowl?” She then asks whether “scribal-literate authorities” is really helpful since it “conjure[s] up a level of organisational structure and learning that was hardly borne out by the reality at the time in Galilee.”

    Let me say, first and foremost, that Winter is correct that we must guard against class-based interpretations if they feed into problematic larger constructions of the ancient world, especially constructions of “Judaism” versus “Christianity” in the time of Jesus. I suspect that she at least has in mind the ways in which some previous interpreters have used the construction of rules-obsessed official “Jewish” teachers as a foil for a more love-driven “Christian” Jesus. In addition to other serious problems, this presentation unfairly juxtaposed Judaism and Christianity in a way that hardly reflected historical reality in the time of Jesus. I affirm, then, that we should not use the category of social class in order to foist upon the ancient world a structure that was foreign to it.

    We also, however, would not want to pretend that social class and power were modern inventions and rob them of any warranted aid they can offer modern interpreters in understanding a complex ancient Judaism that was, in many ways, a world of haves and have-nots. In this vein, I obviously do think that “scribal-literate authorities” is a helpful term and one fully justified by the evidence. Palestinian Jews did not use these precise words (or any other English words, of course) to describe each other, but they did often explicitly and implicitly refer to the literate status of various individuals and the social esteem (or not) attached to that status. This reality is borne out as clearly in the literary texts of Ezra-Nehemiah, Sirach, Josephus, and Philo, as it is in the documentary papyri of the Bar Kokhba era, to speak of only a few sources within relevant ancient Jewish contexts, though the comparative evidence is no different on this matter. Furthermore, later Christianity similarly evinced this social phenomenon—the Christianities of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and others attest the literate few among the illiterate many.

    Although the “potential” of “unwittingly” making a misstep when it comes to class-based interpretations should therefore never be disregarded, that potential also should not stop us from confidently saying what we can say, so long as we do so with appropriate caution and nuance. On this basis, I must reject the notion that a term like “scribal-literate authorities” “conjures up a level of organisational structure” that was foreign to first-century Galilee, at least in the sense that I have used it. She asks about the Pharisees who lived alongside “the many,” but my argument did not depend upon where they resided physically. I defined “scribal-literate authorities” quite specifically in terms of literate abilities and with many qualifications so as not to be restrictive at the individual level or too inflexible for exceptions (p.29). The extent of social “structure” that I affirm in the book is simply that few people were literate, many people were illiterate, and that much power therefore resided with the literate few, especially when it came to sacred texts.

    The Scribal-Illiterate Jesus and Modern-Day Scribal Literates

    Winter’s final observation, regarding the modern significance of a scribal-illiterate Jesus, is perhaps the most fascinating of her remarks. I have thought about this issue much over the past ten years while I have been simultaneously researching ancient literacy and watching a particular anti-intellectual crisis rear its ugly head in some streams of modern (especially American) Christianity. Noting my dedication of Jesus against the Scribal Elite to Anthony Le Donne and Christopher Rollston, Winter observes that many church cultures have replaced literacy as the means of controlling authoritative interpretation with “shibboleth issues” such as creation/evolution, homosexuality/gay marriage, women’s roles in the church, or even academic pedigree. She places a challenge before me in light of the non-scribal Jesus for whom I have argued in this book:

    I would be interested to know which conclusions, if any, Chris draws for today from Jesus’ teaching style which is distinctive from a scribal elitist one. It would certainly seem that the restrictions placed on some biblical scholars today in order to control particular interpretations or hermeneutical approaches, are put in perspective by an illiterate Jesus.

    Indeed they are. And there is a part of me that would like to run with this stream of thought and lash out about the decisions that led Anthony, Christopher, and many others in similar positions out of their positions.

    But there is another issue at play that perhaps takes us beyond the parochial waters of American Christian subcultures and into the deeper waters of multi- and non-faith biblical scholarship, wherein scholars often function as interpretive authorities in whatever communities they find themselves. To speak personally as someone who belongs to faith-based communities in addition to non-faith-based ones, the irony is not lost on me that I have taken years and years to study the biblical texts, gained proficiency in dead and modern research languages, pursued and attained multiple degrees, submitted myself to rigorous peer criticism, moved internationally multiple times, asked my family to make great sacrifices on my behalf, written books and articles, presented at learned conferences, hung out with people who wear bow ties, and essentially made myself—like all scholars do—into a modern-day scribal-literate authority . . . only to publish a book arguing that the founder of the religion I profess, a religion that calls me to be as much like that founder as is possible, not only was not a scribal-literate person like me but started his famed teaching career in dispute with such figures. Stated otherwise, some time ago it became impossible for me to read the Gospel narratives without realizing that, with all my privilege, education, knowledge, interpretive authority, and debates with other people like me, I would be cast alongside the antagonists in the story of Jesus.

    At this point, I cannot do anything about that fact. I can, however, try to be conscious of that status and keep some perspective about the relative value of being a scribal-literate interpreter. At least one conclusion that I would draw for today from Jesus’ impact as a non-elite teacher is therefore simple: Without being dismissive of the seriousness of our task as interpreters, let us also not take ourselves too seriously. No matter how important education, honor, power, and “being right” are—and let us not kid ourselves, they are often very important—those who hold such things at any given time do well to remember that they do not hold them alone and they do not hold them forever. Equally important, our knowledge always pales in comparison to our ignorance. Humility is thus always in order, particularly when interpreting the Bible. I think this is something that we should affirm whether we look to Jesus as kyrios, look to Jesus as just a good ancient teacher, or do not look to Jesus at all.



Text-Brokering and Social Upheaval

WHAT CHRIS KEITH DOES in Jesus against the Scribal Elite is not merely to make the argument of his earlier book Jesus’ Literacy more readily accessible to a broader readership, but also to pick up where that book ended and place the question of the historical Jesus’ status as a teacher within the larger framework of the gospels’ controversy episodes.1 While careful to point out that his proposal does not rule out that other factors such as Jesus’ teaching, healings and exorcisms played a decisive role in the development of conflict, Keith suggests that one reason why the scribal elite took issue with Jesus during the earlier phase of his career was his infringement on the prerogative of the scribal-literate authorities. Jesus, as Keith argues compellingly, “was a scribal-illiterate carpenter who at times occupied the social space of a scribal-literate teacher” (108), thus violating the code of conduct that denied to uneducated artisans the right to engage in authoritative interpretation of the written text of Scripture. The conflicts were publicly assessed competitions for honor, where Jesus challenged the standing of the scribal-literate authorities by entering into their social space, and they responded by attempting to expose him as an imposter.

I will not object to Keith’s point that cultural values of honor and shame were at stake in those controversies—he is undoubtedly right that they were. On the other hand, perhaps this conclusion leaves out something quite essential from the picture, that is, the socio-political implications of scribal-illiterate people’s engagement in scriptural interpretation, and the possibility to view the scribal elite’s ambition to prevent it as a rational measure to maintain social order and political stability. The gospels’ frequent accusations of “hypocrisy” against the establishment naturally invite us to think of the scribal elite as primarily concerned with their own appearance. From their point of view, however, it is more likely that their resistance towards Jesus and other popular “text-brokers” was motivated by care for the greater good and by anxiety to preserve a functioning society. And this may be the common denominator between, on the one hand, the Pharisaic conflicts with Jesus in Galilee, and on the other, the priestly aristocracy’s successful determination to incriminate him in Jerusalem. Let me develop these suggestions in a little more detail.

The Political Danger of Scribal-Illiterate Text-Brokering

Apart from the gospels, there is no other literary or documentary evidence of a scribal-illiterate person who assumed the role of a scribal-literate teacher in the synagogue, as Keith remarks (147). At the same time, there were scribal-illiterate “text-brokers” who competed with the scribal elite for the allegiance of the masses in other contexts. Keith briefly considers the case of Theudas, who in the middle of the 40s CE duped a crowd into believing that he would reenact some of the biblical prophets’ miracles (29).2 Other examples reported by Josephus include “the Samaritan,” “the Egyptian,” and a number of unnamed prophets in the decades leading up to the fateful year of 70 CE. These prophets have been variously designated as “sign prophets” and “action prophets,” but from a sociological point of view, Robert Webb’s label “leadership popular prophets” is preferable.3 Josephus, himself a scribal-literate person with a claim to prophetic abilities, is strongly dismissive against all these figures and manifestly considers their “text-brokerage” a massive, destructive hoax.

This, however, is not merely because of their belonging to the scribal-illiterate majority, but also—primarily, perhaps—because of the social unrest caused by their popularity. Josephus’s quite different evaluation of the solitary prophet Jesus son of Ananias is illustrative. Characterizing this Jesus explicitly as an uneducated brute (tōn idiōtōn agroikos), Josephus records his oracles of doom against Jerusalem and the Temple as clearly inspired by the book of Jeremiah (Jewish War, 6.300–301). The son of Ananias is portrayed as a scribal-illiterate “text-broker”; yet, Josephus does not scorn him, but tells his story as one of the terrifying portents that foreboded the fall of the Temple. Is this simply because what Jesus son of Ananias prophesied turned out to come true? It seems more reasonable to me that Josephus found it easier to tolerate a solitary figure who did not aspire to be a leader of the masses, even if the behavior and the message of such a figure bordered on insanity. The fanatic interpretations of scribal-illiterate people need not be a problem as such, unless those interpretations encouraged the masses to join large, potentially subversive, movements.

Was this not also the problem with Jesus of Nazareth? Motives of honor and shame would certainly be involved, but would they be important enough for scribal-literate authorities to travel from Jerusalem to Galilee to investigate the matter (141–42)? Is it not more plausible that the establishment’s ultimate concern was to prevent the Jesus movement from growing into an uncontrollable factor that threatened the political stability of the society, including of course the elite’s place within that society?

Conflict in Galilee and Jerusalem

Keith doubts that an “unswerving line of connection” can be drawn between, on the one hand, the origins of the controversy between Jesus and the scribal elite, and on the other, the resolution of that controversy. It was not Jesus’ challenge against the scribal authorities’ honor that resulted in his crucifixion, although that challenge provoked tensions that later escalated into the determination to eliminate Jesus (156).

To question the gospels’ picture of a direct line between the conflicts in Galilee and those in Jerusalem is inherently sound. Memory and commemoration tend to narrativize events and circumstances into coherent, linear plots. As is well-known, there is evidence that suggests that different groups were involved in the controversies around Jesus; Pharisees, while dominating the Galilean disagreements with Jesus, seem to have played a marginal role at the most in the final clash that led to his execution, and the Roman authorities had no reason to be concerned about Jesus as long as he stayed in Galilee. Still, it might not be unjustified to look for a common denominator in these conflicts.

Could this common denominator be the elite’s fear that the scribal-illiterate prophet’s success would lead to social upheaval? The Gospel of John has the Jerusalem establishment reason along these lines, as “the high priests and Pharisees” voice their concern that “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our [holy] place and our people (ethnos)” (John 11:47–48). Similarly, the wish to avoid turmoil is reflected in the decision of the Markan “high priests and scribes” not to have Jesus arrested during the feast (Mark 14:1–2). I see no reason to doubt that these passages represent the motivations of the establishment in an essentially accurate way.

Thus, both in Galilee and Jerusalem the opposition from the elite may be derived from their wish to avoid social instability and forceful Roman intervention. Jesus’ “text-brokerage” was in the radical vein typically associated with scribal-illiterate people and therefore dangerous. His provocative entering of the symbolic spaces normally serving to reinforce the strict social boundaries between the scribal-literate elite and the scribal-illiterate populace—that is, the synagogue in Galilee and the Temple in Jerusalem—further heightened the conflict. Is it not an understatement, then, that Jesus’ infringement on the domains of scribal-literal authorities put him on the establishment’s radar? Was it not exactly his activities as an uneducated “text-broker”—and the positive response of the crowds to those activities—that made him a politically dangerous person?

  1. See Chris Keith, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, LNTS 413 (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2011).

  2. Keith adopts the term “text-broker” from H. Gregory Snyder, Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World: Philosophers, Jews and Christians (New York: Routledge, 2000).

  3. Robert Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Socio-Historical Study, JSNTSup 62 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 307–48.

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    Chris Keith


    Understating the Significance of Jesus’ Success: A Response to Tobias Hägerland

    Tobias Hägerland’s response to Jesus against the Scribal Elite is as clear as it is compelling. Unfortunately, at least for those who may be reading this dialogue in the hopes of seeing some fireworks, I can only note my overall agreement with him. (Such readers will be pleased to know that our disagreements are on display elsewhere, however!)

    Hägerland has made his own important contributions to historical Jesus research with his Jesus and the Forgiveness of Sins. He also knows well the important social implications of education in the ancient world, as he is currently working on the significance of the apostle Paul’s educational background. I was pleased to see that, with regards to my arguments about Jesus’ education and social status, as well as the general contours of the initial conflict with the scribal elite, Hägerland finds my arguments persuasive.

    Social Upheaval and a Successful Jesus

    On this basis, however, Hägerland asks whether I have perhaps left out something “quite essential” from my consideration of Jesus’ conflict with authoritative teachers—“the socio-political implications of scribal-illiterate people’s engagement in scriptural interpretation, and the possibility to view the scribal elite’s ambition to prevent it as a rational measure to maintain social order and political stability.” In making these observations, Hägerland pushes further into the open air of discussion something that I mentioned only briefly in the book, which is that, at least on occasion, Jesus was regarded as successful in his debates with the scribal elite by some of his audiences (p.107–8). This success would inevitably have contributed to the rising conflict.

    Hägerland also, however, asks us to think about this situation from the perspective of the scribal elite. In resisting Jesus and other scribal-illiterate teachers who attracted followings, the Jewish scribal elite were possibly “motivated by care for the greater good and by anxiety to preserve a functioning society.” To put this in the language of Lenski, the scribal elite teachers were simply trying to function well in their capacity as the retainer class. In their own ways, John’s Gospel and Mark’s Gospel portray the Jewish authorities as being conscious of the broader social implications of the unrest associated with the Jesus movement and, as Hägerland notes, there is no good reason to doubt these portrayals. Hägerland is furthermore correct that the Gospel narratives have predisposed their readers toward seeing the Jewish authorities as the historical villains rather than seeing their decisions as pragmatic. From the pragmatic perspective, the bigger problem with Jesus was less his lack of credentials and more his success: “The fanatic interpretations of scribal-illiterate people need not be a problem as such, unless those interpretations encouraged the masses to join large, potentially subversive, movements.”

    In retrospect, I am surprised that I did not make this point more, and more clearly, in Jesus against the Scribal Elite. Clearly, it strengthens my argument. In defense, I did argue that Jesus’ success was a key component in the growing hostilities. I very willingly concede to Hägerland, though, that Jesus’ success played a more prominent role than I have indicated. I would offer a slight qualification, however, in answering the following rhetorical question regarding my attribution of the conflict to issues involving honor and shame: “Is it not more plausible that the establishment’s ultimate concern was to prevent the Jesus movement from growing into an uncontrollable factor that threatened the political stability of the society, including of course the elite’s place within that society?” Yes, that is highly plausible, but such factors do not operate outside of concerns for honor and shame. Happily, then, our perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Hägerland’s suggestion also has the added advantage of asking us to think about Jesus more generally in light of other scribal-illiterate teachers and messianic figures of Second Temple Judaism.

    A “Common Denominator” between the Beginning and the End

    More importantly, Hägerland is, I think, right to identify elite concerns about the social upheaval associated with the Jesus movement as a “common denominator” between the beginning of Jesus’ conflict with the scribal elite in Galilee and the end of that conflict in Jerusalem. He thereby reiterates a criticism of Winter, which is that I could have perhaps connected the beginning of the conflict and its end even more strongly than I did. Hägerland’s careful language here is important and good, for a “common denominator” explanation does not assume a direct cause-and-effect relationship. It was the latter type of explanation, or at least an overstated version of it, that I was attempting to avoid in my study.

    I purposefully concluded Jesus against the Scribal Elite by noting the necessarily preliminary nature of its main argument (p.155). To conclude this response to Hägerland, therefore, I thank him for his careful reading of that argument and willingness to carry it further into the larger socio-political realities of Second Temple Judaism.



Literacy, Iconoclasm, and a Maddening Portrait of Jesus

WE ARE FIFTEEN YEARS into the new millennium and books about Jesus continue to proliferate at a rate seemingly on pace with the productivity of the so-called “first quest.” While there is a certain level of controversy attached to many attempts by scholars to situate Jesus in his historical, social, and religious contexts, few contemporary reconstructions of Jesus in recent memory have had the potential to raise the ire of both academics and contemporary Christians like the one offered by Chris Keith. His 2014 book, Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict, is the final volume in a trilogy of works devoted to examining a series of interrelated questions including (1) whether Jesus could read and write, (2) perceptions about those abilities by his contemporaries, (3) the relationship between Jesus and Jewish religious teachers, and (4) the implications these discussions have for our understanding of the various ways in which Jesus was remembered and passed on by earliest tradents.1 These three works fit within a much larger career project in which Keith seeks to dethrone the criteria of authenticity2 while making use of what he refers to as the Jesus-memory approach.3

The main argument of the present book is that Jesus’ status as a teacher and his conflict with the Jewish religious authorities were interrelated. Keith claims that Jesus was not a scribal literate teacher though the way he taught often gave outsiders the impression that he was.4 This brought Jesus into direct conflict with the religious elite, who not only possessed scribal literacy but also knew that he did not, and therefore sought to discredit him on that basis. He further suggests that the controversy between Jesus and the religious elite, rather than being a literary fiction, is rooted in a historical conflict, a fact that is often overlooked by scholars. Two major considerations that must be taken into account are the different levels of literacy that existed in the ancient world and the disagreement—even within the NT—about whether or not Jesus was a learned teacher.5 Whereas Mark and Matthew depict rejections of Jesus’ scribal literate status (Mark 6:3 / Matt 13:55), John has audiences question his scribal literacy (John 7:15), while Luke clearly presents him as a scribal literate teacher (Luke 4). What are we to make of this disagreement among the evangelists? Despite this disparate presentation in the NT, Keith insists that all four gospels root the conflict between Jesus and the religious elite in the related contexts of Scripture and authority.

Whether intentionally or not, Keith’s argument accomplishes something that I refer to in my own teaching as “problematizing Chalcedon.” The Chalcedonian definition (451 CE)—responsible for dogmatizing the position that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine at the same time—set the lines for “orthodox” expressions of Christology within traditional creedal Christianity. To problematize Chalcedon is thus to overemphasize the humanity of Jesus at the expense of his divinity or vice versa. To be sure, many moderns regularly problematize Chalcedon unknowingly. Much like early Christians with a Docetic Christology,6 many Western Christians, including those who regularly confess the ecumenical creeds, quite naturally conceive of an exalted Jesus without giving serious thought to his humdrum human existence. Perhaps because of this persistent cultural myopia, Keith’s argument has the evocative power to compel some into thinking critically about and in some cases responding viscerally to such concerns. Keith’s work has also successfully drawn the attention of a handful of prominent Jesus scholars whose scholarship is rooted in the assumption that the criteria can get us back to the authentic words and deeds of Jesus.

The glaringly obvious question is, if Jesus was not able to read the Scriptures—the interpretation of which lies at the heart of his controversies with the religious authorities—then how could he have had any authority as a teacher? Keith’s contention that Jesus did not hold scribal literacy and his skepticism over the value of the criteria have brought about the strongest objections from detractors. However, in my estimation, these two elements of Keith’s thesis are compelling and have something to offer both historical Jesus research and contemporary Christianity. A closer look at the intentional and unintentional iconoclasm in Keith’s argument will help us parse out the potential value of this argument going forward.

Intentional Iconoclasm

There can be little doubt that Keith’s most intentional iconoclastic arrows are directed at the grand enterprise of historical Jesus research, and in particular its historical positivist slant. Nearly a century of Jesus research has proceeded under the assumption that the criteria of authenticity can get us back to a historical window through which we can view a more-or-less reliable picture of the past. Such conceptions do not regard the end result of the historical task as a subjective reconstruction but rather an objective representation.7 This approach fails to recognize the inherently idiosyncratic nature of both history as narrativized unity and historiography as a limited and socially-located scholarly pursuit. While other scholars have made similar assertions about the failure of the criteria, Keith has done the most far-reaching critique of how form criticism—the basis for the criteria approach—is unable to get us to an objective portrait of Jesus and is, to quote Morna Hooker, “the wrong tool.”8 Keith believes that incorporating the assumptions of form criticism as a means of getting back to the authentic words and deeds of Jesus is where the historical Jesus enterprise has failed, and I largely agree with him.9 I would probably stop short of jettisoning the criteria altogether and take a more nuanced stance, especially since I am not completely convinced that embarrassment—if not the criterion, then certainly the idea—is completely devoid of value. On that point, I am not satisfied that Luke’s presentation of Jesus as a scribal literate teacher isn’t rooted in an embarrassment at how Jesus is presented elsewhere. How else might we explain Luke’s very different portrait of Jesus, with his ability to unroll a scroll, locate, then read from Isaiah 61 (Luke 4:16–20), compared to his presentation elsewhere? I am not saying here that we should use the criterion of embarrassment to deliberate on the historicity of this event, only that we should consider the possibility of Luke’s own embarrassment at an illiterate Jesus. At the end of the day, however, recovering the “authentic” Jesus through these criteria or through some other method is simply not realistic given the vagaries of our historical knowledge. This is not to say that there is no such thing as “what actually happened,” but rather that there is no unmediated access to “what actually happened.” This is one reason why I think Keith is on to something important with his Jesus-memory approach.

In response to (or perhaps reaction against)10 using the criteria of authenticity to isolate a seemingly pristine version of the historical Jesus, Keith, along with several other recent scholars, has helped to pioneer the social memory approach within historical Jesus studies.11 In so doing, Keith aims to redefine the historian’s task as one of careful, limited, and subjective reconstruction of the ways in which Jesus was remembered. According to this model, memories about Jesus were socially constructed, narrativized, and passed on, and these constructions, rather than the Jesus-qua-Jesus, are what we can access today. While there has been enthusiastic support for this approach from some corners of the academic world, there has also been a more negative response ranging from strong critique to outright rejection.12 Having read some of these latter critiques, especially those from senior scholars who have been employing the criteria for decades, I am left wondering if certain objections to the social memory approach are more about attempts to preserve an academic legacy and less about a legitimate search for the most valuable conception of the historian’s task. Perhaps it is neither charitable nor fruitful for me to express the matter in this way, but who doubts that our egos are inextricably bound up in what we research and write about? In making this point I am not absolving Chris Keith (or myself for that matter) of the desire to carve out an academic legacy, which is at least one reason why we must all balance our reverence or distaste for old arguments with our perennial desire to say something new.

Unintentional Iconoclasm

It is lamentable that the conclusions of sound scholarship rarely make their way down to the non-specialist and when they do, they often lack the author’s original nuance so as to be beyond recognition. For some non-specialist readers this book will be about nothing more than why Jesus was unable to read and write—something many simply cannot abide. This is where Keith’s thesis is unintentionally iconoclastic but still, I would contend, in a way that raises questions the non-specialist, and especially the Christian non-specialist, must be made to think about.

About eighteen years ago when I was beginning my graduate studies, I worked on a construction crew with a man of devout Catholic faith. He was aware of my area of study and engaged me on the topic of Jesus; in particular, he wanted to know what language Jesus spoke. When I responded that Jesus “most probably spoke Aramaic,” the man was strangely pleased and displeased at the same time. His was a trick question, so he was unhappy with the content of my answer but thrilled with the opportunity he now had to correct and instruct me. He went on to inform me that Jesus was divine, and that as such he knew all languages of all time, including those that had yet to develop during his life on the earth. While Aramaic would have been his preferred language insofar as this would have allowed him to speak to his contemporaries, we should not attempt to place limitations on Jesus the divine Lord. As awkward and off-putting as this encounter was for me at the time, it ended up being a powerfully enlightening experience insofar as it reflected a pervasive attitude about Jesus that presently exists among Western Christians.

For those who approach discussions about Jesus with either an inability or an unwillingness to conceive of Jesus as a real person, the assertion that he was unable to read and write will be disconcerting indeed. From my own personal conversations with Chris Keith over the past few years, I know that he has had far too many objections to his work from individuals with this mindset, believing his to be a deeply troublesome portrait of Jesus. It does not surprise me that educated and privileged Christians living in the Western world cannot tolerate the concept of an illiterate Jesus. Much of the reaction against this idea is tied up in a matrix of issues that includes the judgment that educated people are inherently more valuable to society and to the world at large. Here it is also important to note that educated elite men have determined the formal development of Christian theology for two millennia. How can these servants of Christ be deemed more learned than the one they serve? Interestingly though, I have witnessed a similar reaction to this thesis among people from a very different demographic.

I currently live in North Carolina, where the public education system consistently ranks among the worst, least effective, and most underfunded in the United States. Further, I live in the eastern part of the state where there is a church on every corner and because agriculture is the dominant industry, a large portion of the population does not pursue formal education after high school. In short, this is a highly uneducated area in which most people would self-identify as “Christian.” And even in this context I have found strong reactions to the idea that Jesus could not read or write. For Jesus to be their “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” he must know everything, which includes far more than but certainly does not preclude being formally educated. To state the matter more bluntly: even among uneducated people and those who do not appear outwardly to value formal education, there is still a high value placed upon a Jesus who could read and write. All of this leads me to wonder if Keith’s contention that Jesus was not a scribal literate teacher will ever truly earn a hearing among people of faith.


For now we are left with two problems that must be addressed whether we agree with Keith’s assessment or not: (1) the gospels do not agree on Jesus’ literacy; and (2) form critical assumptions cannot get us back to the authentic Jesus. Some Jesus researchers may wish to dismiss Keith’s argument as too radical of a break from the conventions of historical Jesus research. Some contemporary Christians may wish to label this as a “liberal” (or “skeptical,” or “unbelieving”) attempt to denigrate Jesus. However, neither of these responses actually engages with the substantive issues raised here. This book is a call to reenvision our understanding of Jesus and, in particular, the certainty that has attended our reflections about him, whether scholarly or devotional. So, in that light I ask those involved in Jesus research to hold loosely the “assured results of modern scholarship” that have emerged over the past century, and I beg those steeped in creedal Christianity to begin taking seriously the all-too-human existence of Jesus.

  1. The other two books in Keith’s three-part project are The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus (NTTSD 48; Leiden: Brill, 2009); and Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee (LNTS 413; London: Bloomsbury / T. & T. Clark, 2011).

  2. Decades of historical Jesus research have relied upon the so-called criteria of authenticity to reconstruct and provide a purportedly “objective” portrait of Jesus’ life and teachings. Perhaps the most notable project to make use of the criteria is John P. Meier’s multivolume work, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, 5 vols. (New Haven: Anchor Yale, 1991, 1994, 2001, 2009, 2015); for a detailed exposition of the most commonly used criteria, see chapter 6 of Meier’s first volume, which is entitled, “Criteria: How Do We Decide What Comes from Jesus?”

  3. In addition to the works listed in n1 above, other works in which Keith pursues this agenda include a volume coedited with Anthony Le Donne, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (London: T. & T. Clark, 2011), and several articles including, “Social Memory Theory and the Gospels Research: The First Decade (Part One),” Early Christianity 6.3 (forthcoming 2015); and “Social Memory Theory and the Gospels Research: The First Decade (Part Two),” Early Christianity 6.4 (forthcoming 2015).

  4. Against the all-to-common tendency to lump many different types of abilities under the category of literacy, Keith is very careful in chapter 1 to distinguish between different types and various levels of literacy. A lack of precision in discussing literacy can easily cloud readers’ perceptions about Keith’s claims.

  5. Here Keith highlights six factors that demonstrate the complexity of literacy and the scribal culture during Jesus’ time: majority illiteracy, degrees of literacy, reading and writing as separate skills, multilingualism, scribal literacy, and social perception of literacy; see 20–37.

  6. Most scholarship on the Johannine epistles regards this Christological dispute as the situation that gave rise to their composition. The author of these letters is concerned to demonstrate that Jesus was in fact human while those who have left the Johannine churches appear to have rejected the idea that Jesus “came in the flesh” (cf. e.g., 1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). The notion that Jesus was divine and only seemed to be human was eventually labeled “Docetism” (from the Greek word dokeō, “to seem”) and condemned as a heretical teaching at the council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. Strangely, many Western Christians disregard the idea of Jesus’ humanity in a manner similar to the early Docetists, while focusing exclusively on Jesus’ divinity.

  7. To quote Keith directly, “Postmodern historiography . . . has shown conclusively the erroneous nature of historical positivism, which assumes that we can attain an objective reconstruction of the past. In the most recent developments of this stream of historical Jesus research, the attempt is not to reconstruct the past over against the Gospels, but to represent the past in light of the Gospels” (Jesus Against the Scribal Elite, 71).

  8. Morna Hooker, “On Using the Wrong Tool,” Theology 75 (1972) 570–81.

  9. On this assertion he has elsewhere written: “From the perspective of social memory theory, scholars in search of authentic Jesus traditions might as well be in search of unicorns, the lost city of Atlantis, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only are there no longer Jesus traditions that reflect solely the actual past, there never were. In other words, there is no memory, no preserved past, and no access to it, without interpretation. The Jesus-memory approach therefore agrees with the criteria approach that the written Gospels reflect an interpreted past of Jesus; it disagrees, however, with whether there are, in the midst of those interpretations, un-interpreted Jesus traditions that one can separate from the interpretations (Jesus’ Literacy, 61).

  10. I would contend that this is a subtle but important distinction. Whereas response is often more nuanced, reaction has a tendency to overcompensate, often in an attempt to say something new. For my part, I do not think Keith’s response goes too far though I do think it is important for us to recognize that part of doing work that is perceived by our peers as “cutting edge scholarship” carries with it the often unreasonable expectation that we say something genuinely “new,” whatever that might mean.

  11. See, for instance, Rafael Rodriguez, Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance and Text (Library of New Testament Studies 407; London: Bloomsbury / T. & T. Clark, 2010); Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009); idem, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). See also the book edited by Keith and Le Donne, which takes aim directly at the criteria of authenticity: Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (London: T. & T. Clark, 2011).

  12. See, for example, Brian J. Wright’s largely unsympathetic review of Jesus Against the Scribal Elite; in particular the final paragraph (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57.4 [2014] 814–16). A more pointed comment about Keith’s overall agenda is offered by Michael Thate (Remembrance of Things Past? Albert Schweitzer, the Anxiety of Influence, and the Untidy Jesus of Markan Memory [WUNT II/351; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013], 17): “Though certainly promising on many counts, the purported post-criteria approach adopted here cannot escape the erotics of ‘authenticity’ or the gaze of the originary. This is a quest for the pure genre; the authentic genre; the real genre. As such, this amounts to little more than the criterion of authenticity in drag.” See also Craig Blomberg’s tepid review of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (http:/C:/dev/home/, and Craig Evans review of the same book in Evangelical Quarterly 85.4 (2013) 364–66. For further critical engagement with Keith’s work, see most recently, Ernest van Eck, “Memory and Historical Jesus Studies: Formgeschichte in a New Dress?,” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 71.1 (2015) 1–10.

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    Chris Keith


    Embarrassment and the Unpalatably Illiterate Jesus: A Response to Christopher Skinner

    Christopher Skinner is one of the most insightful (and productive) Gospels scholars around, so it is a pleasure to dialogue with him about Jesus against the Scribal Elite. With the exception of a quibble over the criterion of embarrassment, Skinner is complimentary of the book and focuses more upon its reception among academic and church culture alike.

    A Quibble about Embarrassment

    I will first address Skinner’s quibble because he makes some important observations about the usefulness of the “idea” of embarrassment that provide me an opportunity to clarify some points where I think I have sometimes been misunderstood and misrepresented, though not by Skinner. While “largely agree[ing]” with my criticisms of the criteria of authenticity, Skinner states:

    I would probably stop short of jettisoning criteria altogether and take a more nuanced stance, especially since I am not completely convinced that embarrassment—if not the criterion, certainly the idea—is completely devoid of value. On that point, I am not satisfied that Luke’s presentation of Jesus as a scribal literate teacher isn’t rooted in an embarrassment at how Jesus is presented elsewhere.

    Recognizing that this is indeed a minor quibble between Skinner and me, I have three brief responses. First, I must defend myself and state that my jettisoning of the criteria of authenticity is also a nuanced stance. I raise this point because, in offering a reply to my arguments in the form of stating basically that I have gone too far, some critics (again, not Skinner) have not appreciated or represented the nuance with which I have forwarded those arguments. Second, and in basic agreement with Skinner, I have never denied the usefulness of the concept of embarrassment. In Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee and subsequent work, I have made it a point to defend the usefulness of embarrassment as a “category,” but not embarrassment as a “criterion of authenticity.”1 Some may think I am here splitting hairs here between a hermeneutical category and a historiographical criterion, but they are important hairs to be split. My concern is not with the notion that early Christians could have been embarrassed about things and that this embarrassment could help scholars conceptualize the historical Jesus. Of course they occasionally were embarrassed. And I think Skinner is correct that Luke could have been embarrassed about the idea that Jesus was rejected as a synagogue teacher because he was a tektōn (“carpenter,” “artisan,” “workman”). My full argument about Luke’s revision of Mark’s presentation of Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue, whereby he removes that identification of Jesus, downright requires this notion and prompted my earlier defenses of the category of embarrassment.

    Third, then, and more substantially, Skinner’s quick distinction between the “idea” of embarrassment and the “criterion” of embarrassment carries substantially more significance than may first appear. The language here is important; for I have not jettisoned “criteria” in the general sense of historical methodology but specifically criteria of authenticity. Using “embarrassment” as a hermeneutical category that describes some early Christians’ position vis-à-vis the past, a position that requires a historical explanation but does not dictate the contents of that explanation, is not methodologically or epistemologically the same thing as using “embarrassment” as a criterion that substitutes for a historical argument and automatically yields the “authenticity” of an un-interpreted past reality.

    To state the previous point more bluntly, just because a given early Christian (1) could have been embarrassed about something but (2) left it in his account of Jesus, does not necessarily mean that it really happened. In some cases, a given tradition can suggest this course of events and thus the criterion of embarrassment can have a veneer of helpfulness. For example, it is true that, in light of the social stigma of crucifixion, it is highly unlikely that early Christians invented Jesus’ crucifixion. It is thus likely that Jesus really was crucified and early Christians simply dealt with it as best they could. But scholars cannot afford to allow examples like this to lead us to assume that early Christians responded monolithically to a potentially embarrassing past and necessarily had their hands forced by the historicity of that past. Examples such as Luke’s removal of Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22:1 from the cross or the aforementioned traditions where Luke has removed Mark’s identification of Jesus as a tektōn (Mark 6.3//Luke 4:20-22) and as someone who was unlike scribes (Mark 1:22//Luke 4:32), indicate that early Christians were fully capable of not having their hands forced by the inherited past—when they wanted to remove a potentially embarrassing element, they did so.

    My point, simply, is that early Christian embarrassment is one, and only one, factor for which scholarly assessments for the historical Jesus must account. But it did not necessarily work the same in all instances, which means that the relationship between “what really happened” and embarrassment is never predictable, even if it is occasionally understandable. (I should add that Rafael Rodríguez has convinced me that it is less understandable than scholars often assume.) Even after noting the potential for early Christian embarrassment in a given presentation of Jesus, the scholar always has work left to do, in the form of narrating a plausible historical scenario, before connecting that presentation with the historical Jesus.

    All in all, therefore, I agree with Skinner that the concept of embarrassment is not “devoid” of value and have never suggested otherwise. We should not, however, pretend that the historical task is as simple as just noticing that early Christians could have been embarrassed about something, much less that “authenticity” is even available in the first place. Skinner, I think, agrees.

    Drawing the Ire of the Academy and the Church

    The bulk of Skinner’s assessment of Jesus against the Scribal Elite addresses its capacity to draw the ire of both the academy and the church, or at least certain sections within each. With regard to the academy, Skinner “wonder[s] if certain objections to the social memory approach are more about attempts to preserve an academic legacy and less about a legitimate search for the most available conception of the historian’s task.” I have “wondered” similarly and am fairly well convinced that at least some responses do indeed have this protective impulse at base. Along these lines, one particular response that has intrigued me, which I mentioned already, is the charge that I have gone to an extreme by stating that the criteria of authenticity are broken beyond repair. Although perhaps I should be, I am not too concerned with this critique. Of course, in principle it is possible that I am wrong and have gone too far. I have made mistakes before; I am certain that I will make them again. At the same time, whenever one person charges another person with operating at an extreme, it is simultaneously a move to place him- or herself at the center. It is not as if I am unaware of the rhetorical nature of such language or the way in which it privileges safe conclusions that recycle received knowledge.

    Aside from these observations, all I can say is that I honestly do not think that the “authenticity” that the criteria approach seeks (un-interpreted past reality, for this is indeed what those who designed the criteria sought with them)2 is available to the historian and, if this is the case, then the historian’s task must be re-thought. If others want to continue to use the criteria approach, that is their business. I am certain that the field will still learn much from such scholars. But the rest of us are not obligated to follow them methodologically solely on the basis that this is how “we” have done it for a hundred or more years.

    The criticism from the church that Skinner notes has been more personal, and I wish to be careful with my language here. On the one hand, no one who writes about Jesus should be under the illusion that he or she will escape criticism, whether that criticism comes from the high-brows of the academy, the pew-sitters of the church, or the keyboard warriors of the internet. They may not like what you have to say because you are wrong. They may not like what you have to say because you are right. But rest assured—someone somewhere will not like it for some reason or another. That is the nature of the discussion.

    On the other hand, Skinner is correct that there are some, particularly within the ecclesial contexts, and even more particularly ecclesial contexts of the first world, who respond viscerally and unjustifiably to the idea of an illiterate Jesus. I once watched a dinner to which my family was invited with other families devolve into Lord of the Flies when the host mentioned that I was writing a book about Jesus being illiterate. And at a previous employer, I had a senior colleague tell people in my church that I was a “heretic” simply because he had heard that I argued that Jesus was illiterate in a book that he had not read and had never discussed with me. (The book had not yet even been published.) Strangely, it seems that some Christians are perfectly fine with Jesus’ eyewitnesses having asked questions about his literacy (John 7:15), but not contemporary scholars. Regardless, I tend to think that words that carry as much weight as “heretic” should be used a bit more responsibly.

    The problematizing of Chalcedon is part of it. The ethnocentrism of modern Western Christianity, wherein the vast majority of Christians are literate, is another part of it. I had to explain that I was not claiming that Jesus was stupid so many times that it became tragically comical. Anyone with any familiarity with the non-industrialized world knows that literacy and intelligence are not always tied together, but that does not stop many others from reading their socio-historical contexts onto Jesus. It seems that historical Jesus scholars are not the only ones who stare down the well of history in search of Jesus and see themselves looking back.

    On account of this, Skinner wonders if “Keith’s contention that Jesus was not a scribal literate will ever truly earn a hearing among people of faith.” I suspect that Skinner has judged correctly when it comes to some people of faith and incorrectly when it comes to others. Thankfully, the anti-intellectual elements in Christianity do not have a monopoly on the church’s brain.

    1. Chris Keith, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee (LHJS 8/LNTS 413; London: T&T Clark, 2011), 169n.16; “The Indebtedness of the Criteria Approach to Form Criticism and Recent Attempts to Rehabilitate the Search for an Authentic Jesus,” in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (eds. Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne; London: T&T Clark, 2012), 47–48.

    2. Most fully on this point, see Chris Keith, “Die Evangelien als kerygmatische Erzählungen über den irdischen Jesus und die ‘Kriterien’ in der Jesusforschung (Käsemann, Bornkamm, Hahn),” in Jesus Handbuch (eds. Jens Schröter and Christine Jacobi; Theologen-Handbuchen; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), n.p.



Will the “Real” Jesus Stand Up?


AS A PAULINE SCHOLAR, I was apprehensive about commenting on an open forum about a book entrenched in the conversations surrounding the historical Jesus and what that entire scholarly world entails. That is not to say that I am not familiar with the enterprise given my training, but I do not publish in this arena and my research is far afield, currently looking to the art and remains of Philippi and Corinth. Where I do readily engage this material is in my classrooms and that is primarily where my mind went while reading through Keith’s careful argument concerning the controversy stories and their relationship to scholarship on Jesus. Let me say a little about my teaching context. I teach at a state school but the majority of my students are evangelical or identify as “conservative” in one way or another. Their concerns, when confronted with the different versions of Jesus in scripture, are at the forefront of the discussion in my classrooms and Keith’s work touches on many of the points brought up in that setting (more on those points below). Further, as one who primarily engages in social-science interpretation as a primary tool, I found Keith’s attempt to fill out the context to be prescient. Clifford Geertz used the term “thick description” in his attempt to note that the business of analyzing culture must be robust and, here, Keith moves the conversation forward by pointing to gaps in an either/or argument, bringing nuance and “thickening” the description in the process. To clarify, the “either or argument” centers on whether to disregard the controversy stories in the Gospels completely or to accept them wholesale as historical. Before moving on to particular issues, I think it best for me to sum up the core intent of Keith’s work as I understand it.

Keith’s intention in the book is not necessarily to disregard or argue against other analyses of the controversy stories in the Gospels. He intends to further the conversation based on Jesus’ status as a peasant (a word he states he quibbles with yet makes no extended argument against) given that most analyses seem to talk about the situation as if Jesus is on equal grounds with the religious elite. He notes that it cannot just be a difference in teaching style or content. Clearly, there were other teachers that would have disagreed with the central authorities as well but we hear nothing of their battles with them. Therefore, the issue must be found in Jesus’ status (12). The question for Keith is why Jesus’ authority was acknowledged at all. If he was a part of the manual labor force, why even bother to engage in debate with him in the first place (12–13)? Therefore, the issue is connected to whether or not Jesus is a valid teacher, recognized by the scribal elite. Their public attempts to discredit him as their equals are central to Keith’s argument. This, of course, begs the question of Jesus’ scribal literacy and whether or not Jesus could even read (20). He notes that the Gospels indeed see Jesus in different lights on this topic. For Mark, Jesus is a carpenter (Mark 6:3) and, therefore, a member of the working class. In Mark’s memory, Jesus is illiterate (44–47). On the other hand, Matthew remembers Jesus as the “son of a carpenter” (Matt 13:55), redacting Mark 6:3 and removing Jesus slightly from being a member of the working class himself (50–56). Luke removes all references to Jesus’ working class status, notes he is the son of Joseph, and elevates him to a scribal literate person (Luke 4:16–30) (59–64). Scholars often opt for Mark’s take on Jesus and note that he is most likely an illiterate carpenter from Galilee. Mark is understood to be the earliest Gospel, but Keith challenges the standard idea that earlier texts are always a good measure of historicity. Therefore, because of the reliance on earlier texts, many scholars understand that later redactions of Mark must be a fabrication by the early Jesus followers in order to advance some agenda which was their own concern (i.e., that Jesus was literate and therefore of the same status of the scribal elite). This leads Keith to challenge these assumptions not based on the criteria for the search for the historical Jesus but rather in current advances in memory theory and social scientific interpretation.

Keith posits a challenge to the cynical nature of some Jesus scholars in their attempt to disregard the controversy narratives with the scribal elites as entirely fictional. He rightly notes the form critical roots of the enterprise surrounding Historical Jesus research (74–76) and suggests that later constructions of the criteria used by scholars are hamstrung given their form critical base and assumptions (76–81). The all-or-nothing approach of some historical Jesus scholars is, indeed, ripe for criticism. Is Mark correct and representative of the historical Jesus in his assessment of Jesus’ illiterate status or is Luke, holding a seemingly contradictory view, correct in his assessment that Jesus is indeed on par with the scribal elite in terms of skills? To return to my pedagogical issues, my students often claim that the Gospels each represent a “perspective” on Jesus. What they often mean by this is that each perspective gives us a picture of a “whole” Jesus they can somehow reconcile between what seem to be contradictory claims in the Gospels but really aren’t contradictions at all because they see them as puzzle pieces to a larger historical “Jesus.” After going through the documentary hypothesis, issues surrounding culture, and looking at parallels and redactions, the students often come away with a sense of dissonance they didn’t have before, and rightly so. If one begins with the notion that the Gospels, and all of scripture, are coherent, how can one reconcile the disparities? Many of my students abandon the notion of coherence for a more sophisticated understanding of redaction, history, perspective.

Keith’s analysis is helpful in some respects in discussing ideas surrounding perspectives about Jesus from a different point of view. My only concern here is the possibility of the analysis being viewed as another “Humpty Dumpty” approach in which Jesus is stitched together from different viewpoints. Keith states, “If one is to use the Gospels as historical sources, then, one must consider not just who Jesus was but also who he was perceived to be by those around him” (102). He goes on to state, “Despite whatever later developments of the tradition occurred at the hands of the tradents, the origins of the tradition reside in Jesus’ interactions with his contemporaries and his contemporaries’ interactions with each other” (102). For me, and my students, the question becomes “if memory is unreliable or is a matter of perspective, then how can we know which perspective even has a kernel of history in it?” This, I think, is the center of my critique of Keith’s work as well as, paradoxically, praise. This leads me into the central question I often pose in my classrooms about Jesus and the four canonical (and many non-canonical) Gospels.

I often begin my discussion on Jesus in my class with the question “Would the real Jesus please stand up?” This seems to be part of what is at stake in Keith’s arguments about the kind of teacher Jesus was in the first century. At stake in the controversy stories was honor and how Jesus interacted with the elite since he was probably moving in circles above his station (148–51). Bruce Malina, Jerome Neyrey, and Richard Rohrbaugh have argued this point in many of their publications. Although this is the case, Keith sorts out the issue in the controversy stories through the issue of literacy, which I find helpful. One could be literate at the level of a scribal elite, able to find places in scrolls where texts begin and end and able to adeptly read and interpret the text that is. But these skills are not the only things that marked out one as a scribal literate person. They sit in seats of honor at banquets, they teach groups of students and crowds, and people may pay them respect in public spaces. All these occurrences could create the idea that a person is indeed literate at the scribal level whether or not literacy was indeed practiced in front of the person for whom the impression is made. Further, a person may be able to copy text but not read it. To a peasant who cannot write at all, the person who can simply copy would seem like someone who is, indeed, literate. To a scribal elite, the person who could only copy text would not be considered literate in the slightest. Keith’s point is, perception must be taken into account when assessing whether Mark or Luke’s Jesus was historical (32–33). I do not want to belabor the point here about the history of literacy, nor do I have space to discuss Jesus as a reader in a synagogue, which Keith addresses at length in the volume. My question becomes, why do we need the “historical” Jesus at all?

Keith states, “I also note that I will not be arguing for the historicity of every account of controversy, or even for any one in particular. Rather, I will affirm that debates of the sort occurred” (8). I do not want to give an extended critique of Keith’s attempts to accomplish what is said in this statement, but I found myself questioning what space/time of historical inquiry was being analyzed at different places throughout the book. In doing so, the book evoked a number of questions I think are helpful to me as a teacher and to my students within the context of a classroom. Once my students understand manuscript evidence, historical occurrences leading up to the writings of the New Testament, when and who might have written each book, and how the canon is formed, what is the object of our historical inquiry as we move throughout the semester? More pointedly and more in line with Keith’s work, who is Jesus in all of these discussions and why does it matter which questions we ask? Is it important that we find a historical Jesus and “know” what he did and said exactly? Can we know such things? If not, can we piece together at least a shadow of his historical self from the Gospels? Is that even meaningful or helpful? For my confessional students, is it enough to study the Jesus of the texts and leave it at that or does the Jesus of history have to reveal himself for their confessional lives to matter? Or is our object of historical inquiry simply the authors of the texts and their recipients? The “perception” that Keith uses in his analysis and the memory theory that he proposes point to the authors as the primary locus of historical inquiry. Is this sufficient?

Keith’s analysis, although at times moving fluidly between discussing the perception and memories of authors themselves and the historical events about which these authors were writing, brings to the table a middle ground which fills in gaps using culture—what we know of literacy—and evokes questions about the larger nature of text, historical occurrences, memory, and even meaning. Thinking pedagogically, Jesus against the Scribal Elite provides a way to pose questions for my students in order to push them as they grow into a more critical interpretive framework.

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    Chris Keith


    “Perspective” and the Debateable Legitimacy of Putting Humpty Dumpty Together Again: A Response to Jason Lamoreaux

    Jason Lamoreaux’s response to Jesus against the Scribal Elite helpfully brings the dimension of pedagogy to this symposium. I appreciate this focus because the book was, after all, written as an upper-division and graduate textbook. Lamoreaux comments especially upon the book’s usefulness for his state university students who come from an evangelical or conservative background. One should not be deceived by the simplicity of his focus on the classroom, however. For, by the end of his brief essay, he has moved swiftly from his classroom to questioning the usefulness of historical Jesus research altogether. I could not possibly address all of his penetrating and interesting questions in the limited space afforded, but I will do my best to answer three of his most important questions, all of which involve the significant issue of “perspective.”

    Should all the king’s horses and all the king’s men put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

    Lamoreaux states that “the center of my critique of Keith’s work as well as, paradoxically, praise” concerns the usage of social memory theory in order to highlight “perspective” when considering the Gospels and the historical Jesus. He rightly notes that this emphasis stems from, among other places, the sociological studies of Clifford Geertz, who was very influential upon Barry Schwartz, the leading scholar of social memory theory in English-speaking scholarship, who has been influential on me. Applied to the issue of Jesus’ conflict with other teachers in the Gospels, such an approach, in my study, respects the presence of different views of Jesus in the Gospel narratives and the inherent likeliness of different views of Jesus among those who were witnesses to his life and teaching. Lamoreaux also rightly notes that, in my work, such an approach is meant to stand against an “all or nothing approach of some historical Jesus scholars” who simply label traditions in the Gospels as either authentic or inauthentic.

    Lamoreaux agrees in general that an all-or-nothing approach is “ripe for criticism.” Yet, and although he commendably does not attribute such a motivation to me, Lamoreaux is slightly uneasy about such an approach based on his experiences with students. He states:

    My students often claim that the Gospels each represent a ‘perspective.’ What they mean by this is that . . . they can somehow reconcile between what seem to be contradictory claims in the Gospels but aren’t contradictions at all because they see them as puzzle pieces to a larger historical ‘Jesus.’

    Therefore, although Lamoreaux praises my emphasis on varying perspectives about Jesus, his “concern . . . is the possibility of the analysis being viewed as another ‘Humpty Dumpty’ approach in which Jesus is stitched together from different viewpoints.”

    Lamoreaux attributes these claims to his students but I have heard them also from credentialed scholars who are usually striving to maintain some view of inspiration (such as inerrancy) that precludes the idea of disagreement among biblical authors. I addressed this issue briefly in the book (p.69n.3) but it will be useful to state matters explicitly here as well. Lamoreaux’s students are correct that the Gospels each represent a “perspective.” (How could it be otherwise?) Furthermore, I would affirm that all work in historical Jesus studies is a “Humpty Dumpty approach” in the general sense that a given scholar is always trying to do the best he or she can with fragmentary evidence.

    Lamoreaux is correct, however, that one cannot use this insight to fuse different perspectives together uncritically. In addition to other matters, sometimes the “perspective” of one author is deliberately designed to contradict the “perspective” of another author. As I detail in Jesus against the Scribal Elite, Luke not only offers a “different perspective” on Jesus as a synagogue teacher, he flat-out intends to communicate that Mark’s account is wrong about Jesus’ scribal-literate status. For Luke, it simply is not the case that Jesus was not like the scribes (per Mark 1:22) as a tektōn (per Mark 6:3), so he removes both indications in Luke 4:32 and 4:22 and outright attributes to Jesus the ability to read publicly in synagogue in Luke 4:16–20, claiming it was his custom in Luke 4:16 (cf. Mark 10:1). In other cases, the Gospels may offer complementary “perspectives” on Jesus, but in instances such as these, we are dealing with competing perspectives, not complementary ones.

    I cannot help but wonder, however, if, in attempting to assert rightly a concern about uncritical usage of “perspective,” Lamoreaux has perhaps slightly overcompensated. He cites with some concern my claims that the Jesus traditions have origins in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and those who knew him. He fails to mention, however, that I argue that some of those perceptions were historically inaccurate. Yes, I think that the Jesus tradition begins with eyewitnesses of Jesus, their perceptions, and their retellings of the past; but those eyewitnesses must have misunderstood things sometimes and transmitted those misunderstandings.

    Similarly, Lamoreaux states that “the question becomes ‘If memory is unreliable or is a matter of perspective, then how can we know which perspective even has a kernel of history in it?’” Although I think I know what Lamoreaux is ultimately getting at with this question, I have some concerns with its phrasing. My first issue is the juxtaposition of “unreliable” with “a matter of perspective,” which seems either to treat the terms as synonymous in some way (“memory is unreliable, that is, a matter of perspective”) or posit an either/or between them (“memory is either unreliable or a matter of perspective”). I am not certain of Lamoreaux’s meaning and perhaps it is neither of these two possibilities. To state matters frankly, however, memory is a matter of perspective, and that holds true regardless of whether that memory is historically reliable or historically unreliable. Stated otherwise, in observing the perspectival nature of both individual and group memory, we have not yet taken a step toward demonstrating the memory’s historical reliability one way or another.

    As a minor second issue with the phrasing of Lamoreaux’s question, I would object to using the phrase “kernel of history” because, whether or not Lamoreaux was using it in this sense, it carries heavy historical-positivist connotations. The phrase was a favorite of the form critics and their heirs precisely because it conveyed the idea that there was a core of un-interpreted historical reality surrounded by “interpretation.” As I argue in the book, understanding the historical task as peeling back layers of interpretation until one gets to an “authentic” objective past is, in my opinion, misguided.

    I think, however, that Lamoreaux is simply asking how we go about having the historical discussion at all if all memory is perspectival. If this is the case, the answer is simple and probably more boring than we would like: We forward arguments about what best explains the evidence that we have. I understand that some readers may think that answer is too elementary or perhaps too broad to be helpful. After all, who doubts that we must forward arguments? The point, however, is that we must get away from a one-size-fits-all mentality that prescribes how we must approach the historical Jesus. In my opinion, the criteria approach inculcates this mentality—we simply submit individual traditions to a battery of criteria and we can trust whatever survives the procedure. In addition to other matters, such an approach fails to recognize that not every issue involving the historical Jesus can be treated the same way in light of the vagaries of the evidence, the varying levels of confidence we may have in our answers to different questions, and in general our need to formulate hypotheses about what we can know in light of everything that we do not know. We therefore do not need our methodology to straitjacket our investigations.

    That is not to abandon methodology, of course, for this is not a free-for-all, and I hope that my articulations about which questions I was attempting to answer and how I was methodologically attempting to answer them are sufficiently clear in Jesus against the Scribal Elite. But the nature of our sources and the nature of our questions mean that the theorist, not the theory, must be in control of our efforts to make claims about the historical Jesus. So we must forward arguments and in any given instance, the question we seek to answer and the evidence that we must explain will shape how we forward that argument. Importantly, however, explaining the evidence we have is paramount, not dismissing that evidence based on its status as a biased perspective on the past. The perspectival nature of memory is therefore not a hindrance to asking historical questions; it is a precondition.

    Why do we need the ‘historical’ Jesus at all?

    Based on his concerns, however, Lamoreaux goes straight to the heart of the matter with another question: “My question becomes, why do we need the ‘historical’ Jesus at all?” My first response to such a question is to ask who “we” is. Lamoreaux’s conservative students? Historical Jesus scholars? Lamoreaux? Me? I think I know why confessional Christians find value in the idea of the historical Jesus. I think I know why many scholars, regardless of religious status and needing no further justification than mere curiosity and the desire to have a career in studying ancient history, find value in the idea of the historical Jesus. In reality, however, there are many people interested in the historical Jesus for many different reasons. I thus find it difficult to respond to such a question with a single answer. I am not sure that there even is a single answer.

    An easier question to answer, at least on the surface, is the following from Lamoreaux: “Who is Jesus . . . and why does it matter which questions we ask?” We could expand the question. Why study the New Testament? Why study the Jewish and Christian Scriptures? Why study religion? To a certain extent, the answer to any of those questions would apply to the others.

    Lest the reader think I am being facetious, let me state clearly that I am not. In answering why our questions about Jesus or Christianity or religion in general matter, a real motivating factor can and should be the dangers of not asking questions, the dangers of asking the wrong questions, or the dangers of offering the wrong answers to the right questions. It is a well-known fact in historical Jesus scholarship that some Nazi New Testament scholars asserted that Jesus was an Aryan. They got Jesus wrong, dreadfully wrong, and it had tragic consequences since this Jesus was then co-opted into their version of Christianity, a version that legitimated one of the worst atrocities in human culture. Yes, that is an extreme example, but extreme nature of the circumstances in which this Jesus scholarship participated does not make it any less real. It simply highlights the ever-present truth that, as long as terms like “Jesus,” “Christianity,” “God,” and “Bible” have cultural power into which we can tap, there is the potential for abuse of that power. We scholars cannot pretend that we are immune to that power’s appeal, but as people who have trained to be authoritative interpreters, it is our responsibility to make sure that the questions are asked and answered in a responsible and critical way. The need for accountability for our own thoughts is why peer review and criticism, including a symposium such as this one, are intrinsic to our ability to fulfill these responsibilities.

    The Sufficiency of Perspective

    Finally, I would like to address some of Lamoreaux’s observations on “perspective” and the nature of historical research. After asking, “Is the object of historical inquiry simply the authors of the texts and their recipients?” Lamoreaux states, “The ‘perception’ that Keith uses in his analysis and the memory theory that he proposes points to the authors as the primary locus of historical inquiry.” He then asks, “Is this sufficient?”

    Sufficient for what? I ask this counter-question because scholars sometimes ask such questions in order to shift New Testament scholarship away from its traditional center of the historical-critical method, which is not a single method but several methods that share the assumption that “what really happened” or the “author’s intended meaning” are the only true and legitimate foci of scholarly efforts. I am not sure whether this is the rhetorical point of Lamoreaux’s question, so I will not attribute to him this motive. If it is, however, I can say that I agree with him. I share the desire to see the traditional boundaries of New Testament scholarship expand beyond just asking “what it meant” or “what it means,” even if I think such questions are still legitimate ones to ask.

    Perhaps, however, Lamoreaux is very politely accusing me of using a new methodological veneer for a very old procedure. If that is the case, I have to plead both guilty and not guilty. As I hope Jesus against the Scribal Elite demonstrates, I do not think that a memory-based approach is similar to older historical research when it comes to aims, methods, and, generally, its view of the proper task of the historian. At the end of the day, however, I am still interested in asking boring old historical questions about what most likely happened. Some other New Testament scholars using memory theory have criticized me on this point. They would have me wave the white flag on historical questions. But I still think, as was just stated, that asking such questions and proposing answers, however tentatively, are useful and important. In this sense, whether proceeding on the basis of perspectival memory is “sufficient” is, for me, dependent upon one’s goals. I find it sufficient for the task that I asked it to perform. Whether it is sufficient for other tasks is another matter.


    I have spent much of the proceeding dialogue trying to defend or explain minor points of correction and disagreement between the respondents and me. It has probably unfairly given the impression that disagreements between the respondents and me were great when they actually are not. Each respondent has raised important points about the argument of Jesus against the Scribal Elite in the context of offering praise for it as well. I am grateful for both the corrections and the commendations and thank Dagmar Winter, Tobias Hägerland, Christopher Skinner, and Jason Lamoreaux for helping me to consider more thoroughly the origins of Jesus’ conflict with authoritative teachers. It has been a privilege to learn from them. They have, thankfully, proven correct my claim that the early stage of Jesus’ teaching career is worth scholarly attention in its own right (p.155).

    In addition to the respondents, I thank Chris Tilling as editor of this volume of Syndicate and Christian Amondson, editor at Cascade.

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