I want to wrap up my review of Chris Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict. In my usual manner, it will take more than one post to accomplish this wrap-up. But first, let’s revisit what we have covered so far in parts one and two of my review.
Keith’s book considers the importance of Jesus as a synagogue teacher. By my count, there are at least 16 different Gospel references to Jesus teaching in synagogue, though some of these references are different tellings of the same synagogue teaching, and others are single accounts of multiple teachings, so we shouldn’t fixate on the number 16. Regardless of the number, it’s clear both that Jesus spent considerable time teaching in synagogue, and that this is a way he was remembered by the early Church.
In my last post, I began my review of Chris Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict. In this book, Keith examines Jesus’ role as synagogue teacher, arguing that this teaching put Jesus in “the position of a scribal-literate authority,” even though (per Keith) Jesus lacked scribal reading and writing skills.
I spent most of my last post detailing Keith’s argument about Jesus’ lack of scribal literacy. I concluded there that Jesus was “more-or-less” illiterate, which from a certain perspective begs the point: how much more, and how much less? Well … as Jesus was not a member of the elite Jewish society that could afford the cost of formal private education, nor a member of a profession that required literacy, it’s entirely possible that Jesus could not read a word. But as I admitted in my post, it’s also possible that Jesus might have been able to read a little, or maybe even more than a little. Maybe he knew the Hebrew alphabet well enough to sound out a few words (a challenging thing to do, what with the Hebrew of his day being written without vowels or punctuation, and perhaps without spaces between words). Maybe Jesus read a bit better than that. It’s possible. We can’t say for certain. Keith’s argument is simply, whatever Jesus’ reading ability, it could not have been up to the standard expected of a scribe.
I get asked a lot, why am I so interested in Jewish-Christian dialogue and the early history of Christianity? I think that a few of my Jewish friends hope that this is just a stage I’m going through, and once I’ve explored these topics to my satisfaction, I’ll return to a more kosher focus on my own Judaism. I understand this hope. Frankly, I once shared it.
But so far, roughly 12 years into this project, my amateur and casual study of early Christianity continues its fascination for me. For one thing, there’s the mystery of who Jesus was – as we’ve discussed, scholars and wannabe scholars have drawn a wide variety of different Jesus portraits. But also, the examination of Jesus’ story provides a view into first century Judaism that is available to me in no other way.
Those things that fascinate me about early Christianity are on display in Chris Keith’s terrific new book Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict. In this book, Keith looks at an important part of Jesus’ life: the role Jesus played as teacher, and in particular the teaching Jesus did in synagogue. Granted, if the topic of Jesus’ life comes up on the game show “Family Feud”, I don’t think that “survey” would say “Synagogue Teacher.” But the Gospels tell us: Jesus taught in synagogues. You can see it here, and here, and here, and here.
I wrote a series earlier this year about The Quest for the Historical Jesus, and I had occasion to mention a phrase coined by Luke Timothy Johnson: “The Jesus Business”. For Johnson, the “Jesus Business” is the “profitable trade in Jesus by a variety of publications that by creating a commotion in both the academy and the church also create a media-fed demand for more of the same.” I personally think that the Quest for the Historical Jesus has produced many terrific books, but I have to admit: I’ve purchased more than my share of Jesus books that fit Johnson’s description. The latest of these books is the current New York Times best-seller, Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth.
Aslan’s book (and in particular, the nasty way he was interrogated on Fox News) has created something of a firestorm. Aslan is a prominent voice for Islam in the United States, and evidently there are people who question why a Muslim would want to write a book about Jesus. In case it isn’t obvious, I’m all in favor of non-Christians writing good books about Jesus, and for the record I’m also in favor of Christians writing good books about Jesus.
The problem with Zealot is that it’s not a good book.
This is the final piece in my series about the historical Jesus. You can read the first four parts of this series here, here, here and here. In this last part, I’m going to sum it all up, not just how we understand the historical Jesus, but how we can talk about him in interfaith dialog. I will do this with a discussion of Anthony Le Donne’s book Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?
But this isn’t going to be easy.
For one thing, Le Donne is a thorough-going, card-carrying postmodernist, and postmodernists are a pain in the neck to write about. One reason postmodernists are a pain in the neck is that they’re having more fun being postmodernist than you’re having trying to understand them. Think of postmodernism as Groucho Marx playing the college president in “Horse Feathers”, mocking the faculty with what may be the best song in the Marx repertoire:
Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
And even when you’ve changed it
Or condensed it
I’m against it!
Let’s conclude the series here on the Quest for the Historical Jesus. We’ve looked at Quest history, some common Quest portraits of the historical Jesus, and the criticism leveled at the Quest by its most determined recent critics. We have two posts left to go. In these last posts, I’ll look at a technique that has emerged in recent studies of the historical Jesus: the effort to understand Jesus history as a product of human memory.
Your response here might be a resounding “d’oh!” Of course history is a product of memory – it’s impossible to imagine a history of something that no one remembers. Moreover, even if things other than memory can be used to create a history — audio and video recordings, original documents in archives and libraries, stuff dug up by archeologists – we’d still need access to things remembered in order to complete the history, fill in the gaps and explain the other source material.
Let’s continue our discussion of the Quest for the Historical Jesus. In part one of this series, we considered the history of the Quest, and in part two I described some of the work produced under the current “Third Quest”. Throughout this series I’ve referred to Quest critics who deride the “profitable trade” in sensational and supposedly controversial material about Jesus. In response, I’ve suggested that diverse portrayals of the historical Jesus reflect our rebellious religious personality. At least in the United States, many of us are religious questers by nature, so the Quest will go on, no matter what the critics say.
But let’s look a little deeper at the criticism directed at the Quest by recent scholars. Here, I am indebted to a terrific book edited by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, “Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity”, that includes chapters by Dale Allison, Mark Goodacre and other leading scholars of early Christianity. But for the Quest critique, I’ll rely mostly on the book’s introduction, written by Morna Hooker.
In my last post I sketched out the history of The Quest for the Historical Jesus (yes, that history has a history of its own!). You may have wondered why I spent so much time describing what’s come before … one reason is that this history helps explain what we see now, in the present-day Quest.
Let’s talk about the present day. We are in the midst of what the scholars call the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus. Characteristic of the Third Quest is an effort to understand Jesus within the context of first century Palestinian Judaism, and to ask how the historical Jesus led to the rise of early Christianity. In this way, the Third Quest is a change in direction – the criterion of double dissimilarity (discussed in my last post) led earlier scholars to judge as authentic the acts and sayings of Jesus that differed from Judaism and the early Church.
I have been giving this blog a hard think. I’ve received positive critical reaction to this blog, but I have not received as much reaction as I had hoped for. I’ve heard from some that this blog is too intellectual, too hard to follow, and perhaps not personal enough. I’m thinking about what to do to make this site a friendlier place for people to speak their minds.
In the meantime, on the Earliest Christianity site, I’ve had on and off discussions with Bgglencoeok, a man of considerable intellect and great passion. Our discussions there have focused on the “Quest for the Historical Jesus”. At my invitation, Bgglencoeok has posted a comment here, and I promised to write a post to go with his comment. You’ll (soon) find his comment below. Perhaps this is a metaphor for how to build a blog audience! First you comment, then I post.
So here goes. What follows is a summary of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus.”