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.
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.