Let’s conclude my long-running review of Chris Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict. I won’t try to summarize everything I’ve written so far – you can read it in all of its wordy detail here, in parts one, two and three. But briefly: Keith argues that Jesus’ teaching in synagogue drew comparison to the Jewish scribes, because it generally fell to Jews who were scribal-literate to read and explain Torah in synagogue. But Jesus was not scribal-literate (according to Keith), and this raised questions about his ability and authority to teach in synagogue. This questioning eventually became pointed and hostile and grew into full-blown conflict, with the result that Jesus wound up on the “radar” of the Jewish authorities as a potential troublemaker. Keith is quick to point out that he is looking at the issues that first brought Jesus to the attention of the authorities, which are certainly not the same issues that precipitated Jesus’ execution. Or as Keith bluntly put it, Jesus was not crucified “because of confusion over scribal literacy and scribal authority.”
I’ve already posted that I don’t fully agree with Keith’s take on “the origins of the conflict.” Nevertheless, I’m enthusiastically positive about Keith’s subject matter and the way he approaches it. Why? Because the topic of “Jesus Against the Scribal Elite” addresses one of my big New Testament questions: what’s so terrible about being a scribe?
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.
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.