Book Review: Chris Keith’s Jesus v. Scribes (Part 3: Angry Scribes)

downloadI 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.

Keith argues that merely by teaching in synagogue, Jesus drew comparison with the Jewish scribes, because the reading and explanation of the Torah and other sacred scripture in synagogue was something of a scribal prerogative in Jesus’ day. Those attending synagogue expected their readers of sacred scripture to be highly literate, with the ability to independently read, understand and interpret Biblical Hebrew (a language which was not the everyday spoken language of first century Jews). This skill was possessed only by the scribal-elite, a small cadre of highly educated Jews born into families wealthy enough to afford to give their sons an expensive private education. But Jesus was no one’s wealthy son. He likely received no formal education whatsoever, meaning that Jesus likely could not read at all. If Jesus could read, he probably read only a little bit. Regardless, he was no scribe.

I want to consider here something I haven’t addressed in my earlier posts: how do we know that Jesus did teach in synagogue in a way normally reserved for scribes? Then as now, the synagogue was a multi-purpose facility. Yes, the synagogue was a place for the reading and teaching of sacred text. But it was also a banquet facility, a community center, a town hall, even a hostel, and whatever schooling took place in a first century Jewish town almost certainly took place at the synagogue. “Synagogue” is a Greek word meaning “assembly”; the Hebrew term for synagogue is “beit knesset,” meaning “house of assembly.” The synagogue is a place Jews went to assemble with other Jews. Given that Jews do lots of different things when they assemble, it’s possible that Jesus taught in synagogue in ways that didn’t require him to be scribal. He might have spoken in synagogue about his time with John the Baptist, or about things he’d seen in his travels through Judea and Galilee. He might have taught using parables – the Gospels indicate that Jesus did not speak without using parables, and it’s certainly possible to teach in parables without being able to read. So, why does Keith assume (and why do I agree) that Jesus must have taught in synagogue in a way that drew comparison to how scribes taught, in a way that (as I discussed in my last post) actively confused some people, leading them to think that Jesus was a skilled reader and writer?

In my last posts, I focused extensively on the Gospel retelling of Jesus’ synagogue teaching in his home town of Nazareth, the only teaching related in the Gospels that Jesus is not able to complete successfully. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus’ teaching is interrupted by an “offended” congregation, who identify him as a carpenter, the son of the Nazarene Mary. In other words, Jesus is just a local boy, rough and unlettered and uneducated, just like all (or nearly all) of the population of Nazareth who had assembled in synagogue to hear him teach. Who does this guy think he is, coming here to teach us Holy Scripture as if he were a true scribe? Or so Keith reads the story, and I agree with his reading. The objection of the Nazarenes in Mark and Matthew is not about what Jesus teaches in synagogue, but that he teaches in synagogue at all. There would be no ground for this objection if Jesus came to synagogue merely to teach in parables. The objection makes sense only if Jesus was teaching in a manner associated with scribes, i.e., from sacred text.

The reaction of the Nazarenes to Jesus’ synagogue teaching is one of the two reactions preserved in the Gospel accounts. With Keith as our guide, let’s consider the second (and probably the more frequent) reaction. In Mark 1:21-22, Jesus teaches in the synagogue in Capernaum, and receives positive reviews. Mark reports that the Capernaum congregation was “astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Matthew reports a nearly identical reaction to Jesus’ teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. I admit, I’ve always read these passages to say that Jesus’ teaching was nothing like that of the scribes … but Keith has convinced me that this is the wrong way to read these passages. We compare X to Y only when X and Y have something in common. This is true even when we say that X is nothing like Y. For example: if I listen to a modern opera by Philip Glass, I might react, “This opera is nothing like Puccini!” (At least I might react that way, if I knew anything about opera.) My reaction says two things: one is that Glass is different from Puccini, and the second is that what Glass and Puccini do is close enough to invite comparison. I do not leave a Glass opera and say, “That was nothing like Stephen King,” or “That was nothing like Jerry Seinfeld.”

I can think of no reason why the crowds compared Jesus’ teaching to that of the scribes, except that he was teaching in a way comparable to how the scribes taught. I don’t think the comparison could have been based on the substance of the teaching, simply because there is nothing in the sources specifying a unique or distinct substance taught by the scribes. A scribe might have followed Hillel or Shammai, and might have been a Pharisee, a Sadducee or an Essene (indeed, the Gospels mention one scribe who even offered to follow Jesus). So when the congregation said that Jesus didn’t teach like the scribes, it couldn’t have been because the scribes all taught in accordance with one particular ideology or “school,” while Jesus followed a different philosophy or school. There had to be something else that all scribal teaching had in common that was both like and unlike the way Jesus taught. But the only thing I think all scribal teaching had in common was that all scribal teachers shared scribal status.

Jesus was like the scribes in that he sometimes taught in their place; Jesus was unlike the scribes in that he wasn’t scribal-literate. Keith’s explanation here is so elegant, it makes so much sense, that I should simply pause for a moment and say “Well done!”

[suitably long pause]

If Keith’s book had ended with this, with an explanation of Jesus’ synagogue teaching and the reactions it received in terms of Jesus’ scribal literacy, I think I’d have no complaints. But that’s not where Keith ended. Keith’s thesis is more complicated. Keith has a bone to pick with E. P. Sanders and other scholars who downplay the amount of conflict that existed between Jesus and Jewish authorities near the outset of Jesus’ ministry. Sanders and others have written that sharp and heated contention between Jesus and the Jewish authorities likely did not arise until Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, and that the Gospel testimony to the contrary is likely a reflection of the tension that existed between Jesus’ followers and other Jews at the time the Gospels were written (40-80 years after Jesus’ death). Keith acknowledges that the Gospel authors may have amplified the early conflict between Jesus and Jewish authorities, but (typical of Keith and the new memory theorists) Keith does not think that the Gospels invented this early conflict out of whole cloth.

Instead, it’s Keith’s argument that “Jesus’s early career led to the emergence of the conflict,” and in particular that Jesus’ synagogue teaching was “a point of origin” of this conflict. As I’ve acknowledged, Jesus taught in synagogue in a way that raised questions about his lack of scribal literate status. Keith argues that this lack of status was tantamount to a lack of authority to read sacred text in synagogue and make pronouncements there about the text’s meaning. I agree. Keith proceeds from here to argue that Jesus’ teaching in synagogue without scribal qualifications “naturally” resulted in the Jewish authorities following up and asking questions. Initially, these questions may have been innocuous, but as Jesus’ responses were pointed and confrontational, the questioning grew more hostile, and the interaction between Jesus and the authorities blossomed into “full conflict.”

(Before going further, let’s make clear what Keith is not saying. He’s not saying that Jesus got crucified because he taught in synagogue, or over confusion about scribal authority – nothing like that. He’s not saying that the people who were concerned about Jesus’ synagogue teaching were the ones involved with his arrest and his being turned over to Pilate. He’s not saying that there weren’t other issues between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.)

I can’t buy into Keith’s argument that Jesus’ synagogue teaching led to important early conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. My first objection is, the Gospels themselves reveal no such conflict. Of course, the Gospels do report many disputes between Jesus, on the one hand, and scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, high priests and elders on the other hand. Restricting my focus for the moment only to the scribes, and moving chronologically backwards through the story told by the Gospels, there were scribes who mocked Jesus on the cross. There were scribes present at his trial and among the Jewish leadership that turned Jesus over to Pilate. There were scribes who argued with Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. There were scribes who grew angry at Jesus’ miraculous deeds, who accused him of being in league with Satan, and who thought that Jesus’ pronouncement of the forgiveness of sins was blasphemy. In short, there is Gospel conflict galore between Jesus and the scribes. But what we don’t see in the Gospels are scribes objecting to Jesus’ teaching in synagogue. If the conflict between Jesus and the scribes arose because of Jesus’ synagogue teaching, why do we see no such conflict between Jesus and scribes in synagogue, and so much such conflict elsewhere?

I should point out, my disagreement here with Keith is narrower than it might appear. For example: I do not claim (indeed, I’d be crazy to claim) that Jesus never argued with scribes over the meaning of scripture, nor that he ever challenged their ability to interpret scripture. Here’s just one example, taken from Keith’s book: when scribes and Pharisees challenged Jesus because his disciples did not wash their hands before eating, Jesus recites in reply portions of Isaiah 29:13, Exodus 20:12 and Exodus 21:17. But note that while Jesus is arguing here from scripture, he’s not doing so in a way that requires scribal-literacy. He’s not reading Exodus and Isaiah to the scribes. He’s quoting (or more likely, paraphrasing) scripture from memory … and there’s nothing I see in Keith’s argument that would have precluded an ordinary, common, illiterate Jew from doing so. Scribes may have held something of a monopoly on the reading of Torah in synagogue, but never on the Torah itself. Jews argue with Jews about scripture; so it was and so ever shall it be. Jesus participated in this ongoing argument; that’s not the same as saying that he usurped scribal prerogative. And again, significantly, we cannot locate any such argument between Jesus and scribes within a synagogue.

At least as far as Jesus’ squabbles with the scribes, the synagogue appears to be a relative place of peace. There’s only one instance I can find in the Gospels when a scribe is reported as even being present in synagogue while Jesus taught. Let’s expand the scope of our inquiry past the scribes and include in our purview the entirety of the Jewish leadership. Perhaps all Jewish leaders actively objected to anyone other than scribes teaching in synagogue (I’m not sure that this is Keith’s argument, but let’s try it out anyway). If so, we have to contend with the fact that the Gospels record no such objection raised by anyone identified as a Pharisee, Sadducee, high priest or elder. There’s simply no story in the Gospels where a Jewish bigwig comes up to Jesus and says he shouldn’t teach in synagogue (and that’s the case even if we consider arguments between Jesus and the authorities that took place outside of synagogue). Remember, the congregants in Nazareth who objected to Jesus’ teaching in synagogue were ordinary Jews, not elites. Their objection was that Jesus was no better educated than they were, and not that they were well-educated elites and Jesus was not.

Do the Gospels record any objections made by Jewish leaders to what Jesus did in synagogue? Yes they do. In Mark 3:1-6 (the story also appears at Matthew 12:9-14), there are Pharisees present in synagogue when Jesus cures a man with a withered hand. Jesus defends his action against charges that he’s done work that is prohibited on the Sabbath. Jesus tells those present in the synagogue, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Following the cure, “The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” Is this conflict? You bet it is, even if the “conspiring” took place outside of synagogue. But note: this passage makes no mention of scribes, nor does Jesus do anything scribal during this incident. He doesn’t read from a text, or consult a text to make his argument. Scribes had no special prerogative to cure synagogue attendees. No one said that Jesus was unqualified to do what he did. The logic of the objection to Jesus here is that no one — not a scribe nor a priest nor any other stripe of Jewish leader — is permitted to cure on the Sabbath. Mark 3:1-6 is simply not an example of early conflict resulting from Jesus doing something that only a scribe was supposed to do.

In order to buy into Keith’s thesis that Jesus’ synagogue teaching was a source of the conflict between Jesus and the scribes, I would have to imagine that the scribes cared about how scripture was taught in synagogues throughout the Galilee, that they sought to preserve for themselves the exclusive right to perform all such teaching, and that they actively discouraged non-scribes from performing this scribal role. To my knowledge, we have nothing in our sources indicating that the scribes thought or behaved in any such manner. It’s not likely that highly trained scribes were always available in synagogues in places like Capernaum and Nazareth, so these synagogues probably had to rely (at least sometimes) on the most talented non-scribal teachers they had available. Indeed, if there were highly literate scribes positioned throughout the Galilee to teach at every little synagogue where the law was read, it would have been unlikely that a relatively undereducated guy like Jesus would have been given the opportunity to teach in synagogue in the first place.

This is a good point to pause. I’m not blind to the fact that this post is an enormous display of chutzpah on my part. My guess is that for every day I’ve spent thinking about Keith’s thesis, Keith spent a year researching and writing it. I don’t imagine that there’s anything I’ve written here that Keith has not already thoroughly examined – in fact, there are a number of good counterarguments that Keith or others can cite from his book that I haven’t had time to address here.  I’ve written two and a half posts indicating broad agreement with Keith, and I consider my disagreement with Keith in this half-post to be relatively narrow. I agree with Keith that Jesus taught in synagogue in a way comparable to how scribes taught, but without the scribal literacy. It’s just that I can’t agree that Jesus’ synagogue teaching put Jesus on anyone’s radar, that it alone raised any significant ire, or that it precipitated significant conflict.

But as long as I’ve gone this far, I’ll go much further. I have a hypothesis to suggest to Keith, one that I think better accounts for the evidence he amassed AND supports something like 99% of the argument he made in this book. My hypothesis is this: Jesus’ synagogue teaching did not provoke conflict with Jewish scribal authorities. Instead, Jesus sought conflict with the scribes from the moment of the inception of his ministry. Much of Keith’s thesis becomes clear to me, so long as I envision Jesus on the offensive, taking the fight to the scribes rather than the other way around. I will try to argue that Jesus’ program was in important respects anti-scribal, that he taught in synagogue in place of the scribes to prove that scribes weren’t necessary in synagogue, or anywhere else for that matter. Jesus had come to proclaim a Kingdom of God that would be free of scribes (a little like some of my neighbors might view utopia as a country free of lawyers!).

What are the chances that my hypothesis falls flat on its face? Pretty good! Stay tuned, and in my next post I’ll do my best to support my hypothesis and integrate it with the one made by Keith. In the meantime, if you want to see a summary I prepared of the Gospel references to Jesus teaching in synagogue, click here.

  • Larry, thanks again for your careful and considered reading of my book. I’m out of the country and stealing some moments from other matters right now, but let me say two things. First, I agree that Jesus likely took the fight to the scribal-elite in various situations and discuss some such texts in the book. Second, you’re deftly shifting between “scribes” proper in this blog post and “scribal-elite.” I use the latter term in the book consistently unless I’m discussing a text in the Gospels that uses a particular term, and sometimes I still use the general “scribal-elite” anyway in light of the Gospel authors’ proclivities for exchanging the various terms with each other. The Second Temple sources speak more broadly of “elders,” priests, etc. running synagogues, and so I think this also requires the more broad term/category. In short, your argument seems to be specifically with my posing of Jesus versus scribes proper who were in synagogues, but that’s not my argument. My argument concerns Jesus and any members of the scribal-literate class who were there. But this is nitpicking and, like I said, I’m very appreciative of the close reading of the book you’re doing.

    • lbehrendt

      Chris, I like your critique of my critique. I had not carefully considered the difference between a “scribe” and a member of the “scribal elite” … or, for that matter, a person who might not be a “scribe” or an “elite” but who still possessed “scribal literacy.” For certain: there were scribes who were not elites, non-elite scribes that did not possess scribal literacy, and scribal literate people who were not scribes. But, the NT lists scribes as one of the categories of people within the Jewish community that opposed Jesus. I figured, if it was good enough for Mark and Matthew …

      I don’t think my critique depends all that much on the status label we’d give to Jesus’ opponents. Let’s say that it matters not at all that the Gospels fail to identify scribal opposition to Jesus within synagogue. The statused opponents Jesus faced in synagogue did not say in synagogue that Jesus lacked the status to teach there (it was the ordinary folk in Nazareth who raised this objection). The high status types were there, they raised other objections, but they failed to raise this one. The same failure is evident when Jesus faced statused opponents outside of synagogue. These opponents used Jesus’ lack of status as a way to undercut Jesus’ authority to argue against them. That’s true, as I admitted above. But they never said, in so many words, that Jesus’ lack of status disqualified him to teach in synagogue. If this was the origin of the conflict, I might have expected to hear a scribe (or a Pharisee, a Sadducee, a priest or an elder) say this out loud.

      Granted, the Gospels do not preserve everything that happened in Jesus’ life in a way that serves my interest in arguing small points! If I assumed that there WAS a sharp conflict between Jesus and elites early in Jesus’ career, I think I’d be hard-pressed not to point to the synagogue as a place where the conflict got started. The POTENTIAL for conflict arising there is obvious. But I’m looking for ACTUAL evidence of this sharp early conflict, and the synagogue does not seem to provide a Gospel context showing this actual conflict. Not to me anyway.

      Anyone reading here want to dive in and give us their thoughts?