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.
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.
Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (London: T&T Clark International, 2012).↩
On the issues involved here, see now Eric Eve’s helpful volume, Behind the Gospels: Understanding the oral tradition (London: SPCK, 2013).↩
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.↩