Book Review: Chris Keith’s Jesus v. Scribes (Part 1: Why Jesus Can’t Read)

jesus-reads-in-synagogue1I 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.

Keith’s central point in his book is this: what first created conflict between Jesus and Jewish leaders was Jesus’ status as a Jewish teacher. From the standpoint of these leaders, the problem wasn’t just what Jesus taught or how he taught it; the central part of the problem was that “Jesus did not have the right to be teaching in the first place.” To be a teacher (and in particular, a synagogue teacher) in Jesus’ world required scribal literacy – not merely the ability to read and write, but to read, write and interpret Scripture on one’s own, with the kind of mastery that came only with an elite education. Keith points out that at Qumran (the Jewish community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls), one could not read Torah publicly unless they could do so without having to “sound it out.” The standard for scribal literacy was not so definitely stated elsewhere in the Jewish world, but nevertheless “a scribal-literate line divided authoritative teachers from everyone else.”

So when Jesus taught, it was natural for his listeners to question his qualifications. This is well-illustrated by the reaction to Jesus’ teaching in John 7:15, translated by Keith (also by Craig Evans) as “How does this man know letters when he has never been taught?” By teaching in synagogue, Jesus presented himself socially “in the position of a scribal-literate teacher” – his doing so, and his being challenged for doing so, naturally led to conflict.

But I prefer not to jump immediately into the question of conflict. I have some preliminary questions first. For example: just what was Jesus teaching when he taught in synagogue? Here, surprisingly, the Gospels tell us very little. That is to say, the Gospels give us the substance of Jesus’ teaching on mounts, on plains, in private houses, even at the Temple in Jerusalem, but not in synagogue. For the most part, the Gospels merely report that Jesus “entered the synagogue and taught” or “preached in their synagogues.”

True: the Gospel of Luke gives us a reasonably detailed description of one of Jesus’ synagogue teachings. Problem is, Keith doubts that Jesus taught in synagogue the way Luke describes it. Here’s Luke’s description:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke’s description sounds plausible enough to a Jew like me who spends time in the present-day synagogue: we hear someone read Bible texts, and then someone (usually a Rabbi) leads us in a teaching and discussion of what the text means. (We don’t typically hear that the text has been fulfilled in our presence … but that’s a matter for another day.) So, why then is Keith skeptical about the historicity of Luke’s account? Well … Luke presents Jesus as being able to read the text, and Keith doubts that Jesus would have been able to do that up to synagogue standards. Before you ask, “How could this be?” – be warned: Keith is probably the leading expert on the question of Jesus’ literacy. He wrote the book on the subject, appropriately titled “Jesus’ Literacy”. Here, and in Jesus v. Scribal Elite, Chris makes the following points:

  • There wasn’t anything like widespread literacy in Jesus’ world. The best known study of literacy in the ancient world, that by William V. Harris, claims that the literacy rate in the first century Roman Empire was less than 10%. Jewish literacy in Roman Palestine was probably considerably lower – perhaps around 3% of the Jews in Jesus’ environs. Worse: the standard used to define “literacy” in these studies is low: perhaps just the ability to read a few words and write one’s own name.
  • Literacy requires education, but there was nothing like a school system in ancient Palestine in Jesus’ day. The image we have (particularly we Jews) of all little Jewish boys studying their aleph-bet in Yeshivas is based on fact, but it also based on a system of post-Temple Rabbinic education that post-dates the time of Jesus by hundreds of years. Without evidence of a publicly funded system to teach people to read, there’s no reason to think that people like Jesus could read. This is a big part of Harris’ study, as Keith explains it in Jesus’ Literacy: “Every culture on record that attained mass literacy did so via a widely diffused publicly funded elementary education system, and there is no clear evidence indicating the existence of such a system that reached a mostly agrarian ancient world.”
  • The question of funding is an important one. Public schooling is expensive: you need a place to teach, and you need to hire teachers, and you need books. Here’s something that escapes us as moderns (and this is something I don’t remember Keith talking about): in the ancient world, books were expensive items, written by hand, mostly on parchment (specially prepared animal skins). It’s hard to say how much a book cost back then, but one influential work estimated that the cost to produce one of the apostle Paul’s letters ranged from $100 (for a short letter like Philemon) to over $2,000 (for a longer letter like Romans or First Corinthians). If this seems a little pricey, consider the cost for the acquisition by a town like Nazareth of an entire Torah scroll (covering the first five books of the Bible). Jews still prepare Torah scrolls in much the same way we did back in Jesus’ day: by hand, and on parchment. Today, it takes a scribe about a year to prepare and finish a Torah scroll, and the typical cost of such a scroll is around $20,000 to $40,000. How many such scrolls do you think that a small, poor town like Nazareth could afford to buy? And once Nazareth obtained such a scroll, it would have been specially protected, so that it could last a long time. It was not going to be trotted out so that Jesus and his boyhood playmates could have something to read.
  • The cost of books in Jesus’ day raises another point, another I don’t think Keith reached in his work: compared to our world, Jesus’ world was comparatively textless. Try this as an experiment: pick an hour during your day when you’re not “reading”: no newspaper, no internet, no curling up in a corner with a good book. Pick just an “illiterate” hour of your day … and see how much text you encounter! I’d have to enter wilderness to find a place where my eye does not naturally encounter text. Then consider that Jesus never read the ingredients on a cereal box, or encountered a billboard, or thumbed through an instruction manual. If Jesus had somehow learned to read, what would he have read? How would he have maintained this skill? It’s possible that there were little pieces of text in Jesus’ neighborhood: road signs, public inscriptions, the little pieces of parchment contained in a mezuzot and tefillin. But really, how often would Jesus have run into these pieces of text? Remember, the little scrolls in a mezuzah or in tefillin stay in their enclosures – they’re not frequently removed to be read.
  • The synagogue was one place in Jesus’ world where text mattered. But one did not need to be literate in order to participate in synagogue. It’s likely that Jews prayed in synagogue, but in Jesus’ day there may not have been a written prayer book – it’s more likely that prayers were memorized, or that a reader prayed aloud and the congregation responded with the familiar “Amen.” But the better-documented form of first-century synagogue worship was the Torah reading. As Keith notes, the historian Josephus wrote that Jewish men assembled weekly “to listen to the Law and to obtain a thorough and accurate knowledge of it.” Note Josephus’ words: what was required of each Jewish male was to hear the law read, not to read it. Scholar Lee Levine writes that the synagogue Torah reading was often accompanied by sermons and readings from a targum or translation of the Scripture text into Aramaic, the common language of Jesus’ day. It’s clear from Levine’s work that the Jews in Jesus’ day needed help understanding the Hebrew of the Torah, even when this Hebrew was read to them.
  • Relying on Josephus and scholars like Levine, Keith stresses that synagogue worshippers were divided into two groups: a handful of readers, and a vast majority of listeners (of course, these listeners might also have asked questions and participated in discussions – these were Jews, after all). But who was it who read and wrote in Jesus’ day? Rich people. The wealthy could afford the cost of sending their children to school, or hiring private tutors. They didn’t need to keep their children at home on the farm, to help the family scratch out the subsistence living that was probably the lot of the vast majority of first century Palestinian Jews. Literacy in Jesus’ day was so connected to wealth and status, Keith that figures people would doubt Jesus could read in synagogue just by looking at him. A Torah reader would look and dress like a wealthy man. We get a hint of this in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus tries to teach in the synagogue of his home town Nazareth, only to encounter the objection, “Is this not the carpenter?” Carpenters don’t read. Not, in any event, in a synagogue where he’s known to be a carpenter.

Need more proof? Keith points to the reaction Jesus received to his synagogue teaching. Even when the reaction is favorable, the synagogue congregants report that Jesus doesn’t teach the way they’re used to. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Please don’t ask me what I think Mark means here by “one having authority” – for purposes of this argument, I’m just noting that the folks in the pews noticed a difference between Jesus and other synagogue teachers. He didn’t teach like a learned, literate scribe … because? Because he was not scribal literate. Does this help explain why the Gospels don’t relate much of what Jesus taught in synagogue? Because the point was not what Jesus taught in synagogue, but that he taught in synagogue?

Does all this sound something less than certain to you? It should. There’s plenty of room here for folks (likely Christian) who are determined to believe that the man who inspired the world’s largest religion must have been able to read and write. There’s plenty of room here for folks (likely Jewish) who are determined to believe that universal Jewish education (at least for boys) must have existed from time immemorial, going all the way back to Noah’s son Shem. One of the great pleasures in reading Keith is that he does not overstate what he knows, or what we know. Writes Keith: “one could fill library upon library with the information scholars do not know about the literary culture of first-century Judaism.” Amen to that.  Keith’s not telling us what to think. He’s looking at Jesus’ Jewish context, and giving us the most plausible explanation for Jesus’ literacy.

And that most plausible explanation is this: Jesus wasn’t literate, or at least, he wasn’t literate like the scribes who typically taught in synagogue. It’s not out of the question that Jesus might have read a little, that he knew the Hebrew letters, that he could recognize common Hebrew phrases on his own. But in the absence of universal public education, without continual practice, without a quantity of books available to read on a regular basis, the most plausible thing we can say about Jesus’ literacy is that Jesus didn’t read up to the standard of the scribes he so frequently derides in the Gospels.  It’s possible to believe that Jesus was a better reader than this, though to believe otherwise is against the weight of the evidence and largely a matter of faith.

As a Jew, I rather like the portrait of Jesus as a more-or-less illiterate Jewish teacher. It puts Jesus into a long-standing Jewish conversation. We Jews respect our genius scholars like the Vilna Gaon, who supposedly had memorized the Hebrew Bible by the age of three. But we also love our Rabbis like Akiva, who came from a humble background and supposedly first learned his ABCs at the age of 40. Of course, sometimes the elite learned scholars come into conflict with those Jewish leaders with more common roots. The Vilna Gaon is widely known for his opposition to the Baal Shem Tov, who was another Jewish leader of humble origins who founded the Hassidic movement. For the Vilna Gaon, the Hassidim didn’t take study seriously enough. “God desires the heart,” the Baal Shem Tov famously said, seemingly in reply.

It is interesting to think about Jesus as part of a Jewish world that both revered elite education and sometimes turned for leadership to those of humble origins. Thinking about Jesus in this way makes him seem more Jewish to me. He is a forerunner of those Rabbis who, after the Temple fell, insisted that all Jewish boys must learn to read. He is a part of the democratizing strain of Judaism, which is ever-present and goes hand-in-hand with all of the elite learning. Still, the idea of an illiterate Jewish teacher is a little strange to me. Rabbi Akiva may have come to education late in life, but even later in life he is purported to have run a Yeshiva with thousands of students. The Baal Shem Tov may have come from humble origins, but at least he had a normal childhood Jewish education, and he worked as a teacher’s assistant before becoming a famous Rabbi.

Can you now begin to see why a Jew like me is so interested in early Christianity? Just look at all the Yiddishkeit I needed to check out in order to write this blog post! I not only had to read about Jewish literacy patterns, but I also had to examine what we know about the early synagogue, learn a little about the history of the Jewish liturgy, and try to figure out where the Baal Shem Tov went to school.

In my next post (not sure when it will be, given that tomorrow night is Passover), I’ll dive a little deeper into Keith’s book, and explore the nature of the conflict Keith describes between Jesus and the scribal elite.

  • Larry, thanks for such a thoughtful assessment of the book. I think I can say with others contributing to this interreligious discussion that it’s wonderful to have a reviewer not only give careful attention to the claims, but also give careful attention to what is not claimed. You’re entirely right, also, about the costs of education in terms of scrolls, ink, etc. This also underscores the degree to which scribal activity was a “trade” in its own right.

    • lbehrendt

      Chris, one of the great things about your book is how it immersed me into Jesus’ world, which I regard as my world, 2,000 years removed. What did it mean back then, to be able to read, or NOT to be able to read, or to fall somewhere in the middle? What WAS there to read? How much of what was available to read was in a language that Jesus could speak? And perhaps the $64 question, how good a reader did Jesus need to be in order to be who he claimed to be? For me, doors fly open when I consider (with help; I need the help of books like yours) that these questions did not have be answered then in the same way we’d answer them today,

  • How is it that Luke has this ‘anachronism’ of a scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth? Was Luke written in the mid 2nd century CE so that assumptions then colour his story? I suppose that Philip would not have been able to read to the Ethiopian either. So who believed these reports? I appreciate the cost of reading and schooling, but I find the evidence for total absence of literary capacity too stretched.

    • lbehrendt

      Well … perhaps someone else will weigh in here. But your points, in the order you raised them: (1) What anachronism? All I’ve seen indicates that Jews read from the prophetic writings in synagogue in the first century. (2) There are scholars who date Luke into the early-to-mid second century, see for example here, but I don’t see anything in what Keith is arguing that requires us to date Luke to the mid-second century. (3) Correct me if you think I’m wrong, but isn’t it the Ethiopian eunuch who does the reading in Acts 8:26-40? (4) Great question about who believed Luke’s reports of Jesus’ literacy. Keith addresses this question with duecare, and I’ll try to get to this question in the next post. (5) Keith is not arguing that Jesus was totally illiterate, merely that he did not possess the kind of scribal literacy I tried to describe in my review. There are many degrees of literacy, and it’s possible that Jesus had some abilities with text — for example, to recognize familiar prayers, or to read text that he’d previously memorized.

      • Thanks Larry, I will look forward to your next post. I am glad you are enjoying his book. I think I may be missing some nuance here. My own reading in this area is Alan Millard’s Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, (Sheffield 2000). In any case, whether read or heard and memorized, It is clear to me that the culture of Israel in the intertestamental period before the destruction of Jerusalem must have been saturated in the scriptures and for many good reasons.

        I have been thinking about the cost of learning if not of reading. For me much of that cost was borne by my mother. And I was reading the newspaper before I went to school. Granted no newspapers in Nazareth but also no need for magic for a person to learn letters.

        My own detailed work is on the psalms, one of many very popular parts of the scriptures given the abundance of manuscripts at Qumran, and one continuous question to me is ‘what did Jesus learn from the Psalms’. The sermon on the mount, for instance, is saturated with the message of the Psalms. E.g. this post where I explore it a bit.

        • lbehrendt

          Bob, please understand that for my own reasons, I’d like to believe in early universal Jewish education. I’m with you on this: if we Jews are “people of the book,” doesn’t that mean that we were readers? It’s hard to get past my 21st century mind-set, where (at least in the Western industrial world) literacy goes hand-in-hand with respect for texts. Putting it another way, to be illiterate in our world implies a fundamental lack of respect for learning and the life of the mind. But I think (and I think I’m following Keith and others here) that if we want to understand life in the first century, we have to unbundle some concepts we naturally tie together today: back then, there was a distinct difference between (1) revering text, or as you aptly described it, being “saturated in the scriptures,” (2) being able to read those scriptures, and (3) respect or reverence for those skilled in the reading of scriptures. Keith describes this as the difference between literacy and textuality, and for a present-day example illustrating the difference, he talks about how few of us today are literate in Biblical Hebrew or Greek. (From the post you cited, you seem to be one of the exceptions!)

          Present-day scholars are doing some of their best work understanding the oral nature of ancient cultures. This orality was not in opposition to text, but went together with text. For example: I think the right way to approach Paul’s letters is to imagine their being read aloud. In the ancient world, text was not read privately nearly as much as it was performed publicly. We can even imagine that the small percentage of literate folk in the Roman world would have experienced most text by hearing it rather than reading it. This was not merely due to the scarcity of literacy, but also due to the scarcity of text. But this listening-rather-than-reading is HOW Jews were saturated in Scripture. It’s not an argument for the contrary.

          The Gospels present Jesus as a man who had memorized a lot of Scripture, as he could argue from Scripture “on his feet,” without having to look it up. We all know people who can do this today; they are literate people who spend a lot of time reading. Folk like Jesus would have memorized text by spending a lot of time listening.

          Like you, I learned to read before I went to school. I can’t say I was “literate,” but I could read. Then again, I lived in a literate world, where my parents and nearly everyone else were taught literacy in school, where people read to me, where I had access to the books they read to me, and where there was text in context everywhere I went. It WOULD be something like magic for Jesus to teach himself to read in a world where nearly everyone he knew was illiterate, where he was read to rather infrequently (more likely, he initially heard his Bible stories mostly from those who told them from memory) and where access to text was comparatively rare. Imagining that Jesus could teach himself to read is a bit like imagining that he could teach himself to play the piano. Even if Jesus was a child prodigy, he’d still need access to a piano.

          From this perspective, we don’t diminish Jesus by imagining him to be illiterate, or lightly literate. We enhance him, really. How great a feat would it be for Jesus to hold his own in an argument against scribes if he were educated as a scribe? How much greater a feat if he did not possess this education?

          I’ll have to dive more deeply into your post about Psalms when I have a little more time. Thanks for that.

          • Larry – thanks again for the interaction. Yes it would be magic to imagine that Jesus would teach himself piano. But I don’t think in the area of letters that it would take magic for someone to have taught him something. If I take my own piano learning, I would have learned better if I had come across the right teacher at the impressionable time. Most of my colleagues – say 600 at a rough estimate – both child and adult were either unmusical or undisciplined or if musical, unable to teach. And I came across the right, maybe 3, teachers at the wrong times! And remained somewhat illiterate and unreliable as a musician – but it was not my life as it is the life of two of my children. To carry the analogy and environment back to the time of Jesus, how many people would he have to have met and interacted with in his home town to learn the Scriptures of the elect nation? If there were 600 in his village, were there 3 that he might have met and learned from? And somehow, it seems that teaching was to be his life, his ‘profession’. So I think motivation and opportunity are not impossible – equally I concur that they were entirely necessary as far as ‘literacy’ goes since there was likely much memorization.

            I looked up Millard’s use of Luke 4:16, and he simply assumes that some scrolls were available (p 160), Isaiah, Torah, Esther for Purim. He notes also reading Torah and Prophets every Sabbath in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:15) and assumed of all the Diaspora (Acts 15:21).

            As for the phrase ‘the people of the book’ – I have come to dislike this phrase. It is not just reading and interpreting that is problematic. Though I love each letter and each word – it is not for their own sake. The phrase that defines the Jewish people for me is ‘a people of his own possession’. This is a people that belongs to, what word shall I write – – Hashem … I.e. more than a book. As a Christian, which I remain in spite of the internal tribal confusion, I don’t consider this tribe either as a people of the book (and many of us are literate but still cannot read). This tribe also shares the calling to be a royal priesthood and a holy nation. In other words to act with mercy and compassion as Hashem acts – and here I would point to the summary of actions in Psalm 146:6-9.

            I don’t usually try to define these things – let me not be in any way discouraging. Your writing has opened my eyes – specially your last alternative tour of Jericho. My wife and I took an alternative tour of Bethlehem in 2010 – also an eye-opener.

  • David

    Interesting post. We really do take for granted how much text we encounter constantly. The other thing that occurs to me is that the idea of being “illiterate”, while today we often equate the term with low intelligence, or at the very least a very poor education, back in the Biblical heyday so much of life and knowledge was based on oral transmission that you could be a great intellectual, a scholar, a genius, and yet be completely illiterate. In fact, I’d venture to guess that our reliance on text has “dulled” our brains somewhat, similar to using a calculator for simple problems rather than working them out in our heads – and that hampering our ability to think these things through on our own.

    • lbehrendt

      You raise an interesting point! For certain, we’re talking about a culture that was more oral than anything we can imagine now. But as for being an illiterate scholar … I’m not sure about that. I think it’s central to Keith’s point, that in order to possess scholarly authority in the first century Jewish world, one needed the independent ability to read and interpret text. Hence the power and status of the scribes, which as Keith makes clear, was valuable in both an economic and religious sense. It’s our rough understanding that the scribes functioned both as lawyers and in a proto-Rabbinic sense, to resolve religious disputes and to teach the law through their skill with written text.

      But if this is the case, Jesus is an example of a different kind of religious authority, one who does not derive his authority from direct access to the written word. There may have been a number of illiterate Jewish holy men like Jesus. But the thing is, the tradition we received from the early Rabbis (mostly in the Talmud) appears to take literacy for granted, and I don’t know of any case of an authoritative Jewish sage who supposedly could not read. I think of someone like Honi the Circle Drawer, who is known for how G-d answered his prayers. Such a person may have been holy because of his perceived piety, and not because he mastered texts. But was Honi illiterate? I can imagine many places in the Jewish world where this question would not be welcome!

      I imagine that there was tension between the rich elites who could afford to educate their sons to be scholars, and the vast majority of working poor who resented scholarly authority being concentrated in the aristocracy and sought to “democratize” religious authority by championing poor and unlettered holy men. But I have no evidence that any such thing went on, nor am I aware of anyone who has looked at the “class struggle” issue (sorry for the anachronism) within Jewish religious authority. Do you know of anyone who has considered this question?

      • David

        Not sure. But the Sadducees are considered to have been part of the aristocracy, while the Pharisees by and large lived more simply and produced most of the rabbinic scholarship. (At least that’s the way it’s typically portrayed.) So there might be something there.