Book Review: Chris Keith’s Jesus v. Scribes (Part 2: What We Remember)

jesus-teaching-scrollIn 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.

In making his case, Keith addressed the picture of Jesus’ literacy provided by the Gospels of Mark and Luke. The contrast in perspectives offered by these two Gospels is most easily seen in their narration of the same event, Jesus’ appearance in the synagogue at Nazareth. In Mark, Jesus does not get to complete his teaching – the text tells us that Jesus “began to teach” when he is interrupted by protests from many of those present. “Where did this man get all this?” the protestors asked in astonishment. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” Keith reads this passage as does Mark scholar William Lane: “Is he not a common worker with his hands even as the rest of us are?” Or putting it more succinctly, “Where does this guy get off pretending to be a scribe?” Working class Palestinian Jews were not scribal literate, and were not supposed to step into roles that belonged to the scribal literate.

In contrast to Mark, Luke 4:16-21 shows Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue as a scribal-literate authority, with the ability to find his place in a scroll of the Book of Isaiah, read the text and explain it. In Luke, Jesus gets to complete his teaching, and no one accuses him of being a carpenter or (as in Matthew) the son of a carpenter. In Luke, Jesus expertly handles a manuscript. Luke describes synagogue teaching as “Jesus’ custom.” The contrast with Mark is obvious.

As I discussed last time, Keith thinks that “Mark was right” and that Jesus was not scribal-literate. But does that mean by implication that Keith thinks Luke was wrong about Jesus’ literacy? Not exactly. Keith argues that both Mark’s and Luke’s images of Jesus “were anchored in Jesus’ life.” But how can this be? How can Luke’s account of Jesus’ literacy be “anchored in Jesus’ life” when Luke thought that Jesus was scribal-literate even though he wasn’t? The answer lies in the way Keith views history and how it should be written.

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog (all three years of it), you may remember a piece I wrote about Anthony Le Donne and the new “memory theory” of writing history. Keith is also a proponent of this memory theory. Perhaps the central tenant of this theory is that all history begins with memory, and that our memory is always interpreted. We simply do not mechanically “record” events in memory as if we were human video recorders. The process of remembering anything (even as an eyewitness) includes a process of interpretation. For Keith and Le Donne, this is a universal rule: “no aspect of past reality survives into the present in an uninterpreted form.” That means that every historical tidbit we find in the Gospels is an interpretation … or to put it bluntly, every tidbit has its own spin, or bias. Objectivity is impossible. Subjectivity is the rule.

Historians like Keith and Le Donne are trying to correct what they see as a mistake made by many (perhaps most) of the historians that preceded them. It has long been believed by historians that some of the traditions we’ve received about Jesus, including those in the Gospels, were changed by early Christians to meet the needs of the early Church. Let’s take Luke 4:16-21 as an example. An old-school historian might say that Luke changed the Jesus story in order to present Jesus as something of a scholar. Our old school historian might thus reject Luke 4:16-21 as “inauthentic,” and search instead for Jesus stories that weren’t changed by the Church. (And what techniques might a historian use to figure out which stories were changed and which were not? I discussed these techniques here, and criticized them here.)

Keith takes a different approach. Like most historians who follow memory theory, Keith argues that all of the Gospel stories were interpreted – or if you prefer, “changed” – by the people who told them. But Keith also argues that all portrayals of the past are “related to the actual past in one form or another.” So, nothing in the Gospels is “inauthentic.”  For Keith, all Jesus stories (even Luke 4:16-21) have something to tell us about who Jesus really was.

And what does Luke 4:16-21 have to tell us? Something very important: while Jesus was not a scribal-literate teacher, “many of his contemporaries thought he was, and they did so as a result of his pedagogical [teaching] activities.” Jesus’ teaching activity confused people. By teaching in synagogue, Jesus led some people to believe he was a skilled reader and writer. Wow! Notice what Keith’s adoption of memory theory allows him to do: rather than dismissing Luke 4:16-21 as a later church invention because it misstates Jesus’ literary ability, Keith can argue that Luke 4:16-21 tells us something about Jesus precisely because it misstates Jesus’ literary ability.

You might wonder whether it is possible to give someone a false impression of your scribal literacy. I can assure you, such a thing is possible.  At my synagogue, there’s a guy named Joe (well, that’s not his real name) who is as nice as they come. Joe frequently reads from the Haftarah during Shabbat services – the Haftarah contains texts from the Biblical books of the prophets, and it is read in synagogue following the reading from the Torah. Like the Torah, the Haftarah text is read with a cantillation: a sort of chanting or “singing to speech” that goes along with a proper reading of the text. Joe can read Haftarah with the right cantillation, in a way that looks and sounds perfect to me.  I mean, I don’t read Hebrew well, but when I read along he seems to get all the words right. He appears to pronounce the words correctly and confidently. He doesn’t ask for help, and no one (not even the Rabbis present) offers corrections. When he finishes, the congregation always congratulates him. Yasher Koach!

So, imagine my surprise a couple of years ago, when I entered our synagogue’s “Introduction to Biblical Hebrew” class, and Joe was one of the students! It turned out that Joe’s ability at Hebrew was no better than mine (which, I assure you, is not very good). So, how could Joe manage to read the Haftarah so well? Two answers: first, he must have rehearsed thoroughly, perhaps with the help of a more skilled Hebrew reader, or online tools. Second: he seemed like a skilled reader to me. I didn’t know in advance that Joe hadn’t spent years studying the Bible in a Yeshiva! And I’m no expert in what a skilled reader is supposed to sound like.

This is Keith’s point: it’s possible for someone who is not scribal-literate to appear to be scribal-literate in front of an audience that is not itself scribal-literate. There need be no chicanery involved. So, Jesus might have successfully taught in synagogues in Capernaum and elsewhere in Galilee without raising a ruckus. He wasn’t known in those places to be a common carpenter. He seemed like he had the skill to teach in synagogue. He was probably regarded in those synagogues the way I used to regard Joe in my synagogue. But in Nazareth, Jesus was known. People regarded him a bit like how I look at Joe today, now that I know his Hebrew is a work in process. “How is he doing that?” Of course, the reaction of the congregants in Nazareth was stronger, something closer to “What gives him the right to do that?”

Keith is on to something important here. He sees that Jesus provoked controversy not merely by what he said, but also by the fact that he said it in a place and context where (at least according to some) he was not supposed to say anything at all. By assuming a role reserved to the scribal elite, Jesus provoked a conflict with the authorities of his day …

… or did he? The issue of conflict between Jesus and the scribes deserves a longer discussion. I will try to get to that discussion in my next post.  

  • What a delight to hear about Joe! Like you I don’t read Hebrew well, having only started about 8 years ago – but I read every day and how I wish I had a human teacher. I have recently written a program to interpret the cantillation marks according to the deciphering key derived by Suzanne Haik Vantoura in the last century. There is a shared pile of music XML files with some PDF and PNG examples – e.g. here where I note my finishing of the final two sections of the Song of Solomon. Maybe I should be singing them – but I am an old and somewhat wobbly tenor!

    • lbehrendt

      You are ahead of me. I merely wobble.