Book Review: Chris Keith’s Jesus v. Scribes (Part 4: Lay Piety)

grahambotterilLet’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?

What do you think of, when you think of a scribe? My image of a scribe is the one at the beginning of this post: a man, beleaguered, hunched over a musty book of ledgers, copying lists of figures with a quill pen. He is gentle and long-suffering. His boss is mean and stingy; there is not enough coal to heat the office where he works, not enough oil to provide the office with adequate light, not enough pay to keep the scribe’s family fed.

Yes. When I think of a scribe, I think of Bob Cratchit from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And when I first read the New Testament (as an adult), one of my first thoughts was, what is it that Jesus has against Bob Cratchit?

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus says not once, twice, but five times in the Gospel of Matthew. “Beware of the scribes,” Mark has Jesus say. Both Mark and Matthew have Jesus predict that it will be the scribes, along with the chief priests and elders, who will cause Jesus to undergo great suffering, and who will condemn Jesus to death. There is a rare scribe or two who gets a favorable mention in the New Testament, but for the most part the scribes are portrayed as dangerous hypocrites and Jesus’ determined enemies. But what, exactly, explains Jesus’ opposition to scribes? What’s so terrible about being skilled at reading and writing?

Let’s start by asking, exactly what was a scribe in the first century? As it turns out, this is a surprisingly difficult question. As John Meier points out in Volume III of his opus A Marginal Jew, the word “scribe” had a wide range of meanings in the ancient Mediterranean world. Many scholars compare the ancient position of “scribe” to the modern position of “secretary.” A secretary today might be a lowly clerk typist, or a trusted and well-paid “executive secretary,” or the Secretary (a lofty position) of a corporation, or the Secretary of State of the United States. In similar fashion, a scribe in ancient Israel might be a poorly educated man scratching out a meager living in a Galilean backwater, writing marriage contracts and personal correspondence for villagers. A better trained scribe might find employment in a bigger city or even Jerusalem, preparing tax records, military musters, government annals and even literary works for the educated elite. A few scribes might end up as close advisors to a king or high priest, or even in a position of direct and exalted authority.

But being a scribe in ancient Israel must have meant more than it did elsewhere in the Roman Empire. Anthony Le Donne described this importance in the chapter he contributed to the book (co-edited by Keith) Jesus Among Friends and Enemies. In a Jewish culture that valued sacred text but where few people could read, “To be a scribe was to be a guardian and authoritative interpreter of the sacred tradition.” The scribes would have read and explained Torah, which was not only religiously important, but also governed day-to-day life: “how people farmed, ate, traveled, worshipped, etc.” In short, Jewish scribes “mediated power.” That is to say, of course, that some scribes mediated power, and these are likely the scribes that Jesus didn’t like.

With what we now know about scribes, let’s layer in our best general understanding of Jesus. We’ve explored this idea here before: the predominant scholarly opinion is that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. One of our greatest living scholars of the historical Jesus, Dale Allison, describes Jesus’ apocalyptic worldview as follows in his book Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History:

Although G-d created a good world, evil spirits have filled it with wickedness, so that it is in disarray and full of injustice. A day is coming, however, when G-d will repair the broken creation and restore scattered Israel. Before that time, the struggle between good and evil will come to a climax, and a period of great tribulation and unmatched woe will descend upon the world. After that period, G-d will, perhaps through one or more messianic figures, reward the just and requite the unjust, both living and dead, and then establish divine rule forever.

Part and parcel of this apocalyptic outlook is Jesus’ characteristic preaching of a coming Kingdom of G-d. Today, Christians (and I suspect, many Jews) think about the Kingdom of G-d in terms of heaven and the afterlife: bad things may happen to good people in the here and now, but our temporary existence on Earth will be followed by an eternity where goodness and justice will prevail. But what is characteristic of first century Jewish apocalypticism is the belief that the Kingdom of G-d is coming here, to planet Earth, more specifically to Israel, and that its coming establishment is imminent. Or as Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of G-d has come with power.”

What would the Kingdom look like? One characteristic of the Kingdom is, as Allison puts it, “profound discontinuity between the present and the future.” Or in plainer terms, everything is about to change. Helen Bond describes some of these changes in her terrific book The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed: there will be an “ingathering of the scattered people of Israel and the reconstitution of the twelve tribes. Israel’s enemies would be judged, foreign overlords cast out and G-d alone would be king.”

Much of what we find in the Gospels comes into sharper focus when we factor in Jesus’ apocalypticism and his view that the Kingdom of G-d is almost here. In an article in Reform Judaism Online, my teacher Josh Garroway describes how many of Jesus’ ethical teachings can best be understood apocalyptically. For example:

Jesus encouraged his followers to renounce material or cultural attachments, presumably to focus on the repentance and radical love required for the impending kingdom of G-d. The rich were to discard their wealth (Mark 10:23–25), the powerful their authority (Mark 10:42–44). Even families were to be abandoned if they interfered with one’s preparation (Luke 14:26). Corresponding to this ethic of renunciation was a celebration of the poor and downtrodden, whose status would be dramatically reversed under G-d’s rule. The poor, meek, and ostracized were to be blessed, since the hierarchies of the reigning order soon would be stood on end—the last would be first, and the first last (Matthew 5:3–5; Mark 10:31).

Take particular note of what Garroway says about the first being last. Who were among the “first” in Jesus’ day? Scribes. Among the first of those first would be those Jews with what Keith calls “scribal-literate” authority, those scribes that Le Donne describes as “power brokers.” What would these scribes experience in the Kingdom? Presumably, a reversal of fortune, followed by a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth. The “1%” of Jesus’ day would have “received their reward in full,” before the coming of the Kingdom; but once the Kingdom arrives, this reward would fall to ordinary Jews.

From this understanding of Jewish apocalypticism, I think we can finally understand what Jesus had against the scribes. The scribes (or at least, those elite scribes described by Keith and Le Donne) were Jesus’ eschatological opponents: Jesus would have looked at their elite status, and pegged them as in league with the evil forces temporarily in control of the world. But once the Kingdom comes, there’d be no place for the scribal elite. Perhaps once G-d’s rule was firmly established, there would no longer be scribes in Judaism – people would have the Torah inscribed in their hearts, so to speak. Or perhaps in the Kingdom, all people would enjoy the leisure to study, and would learn to read and write. Perhaps the Kingdom would be a Kingdom where all would be scribal-literate!

At this point, I hope that at least some of you are raising objections. Did Jesus imagine a Kingdom free of scribes, or a Kingdom where all would be scribes? Those are two very different outcomes. Which one did Jesus say was coming? Indeed, did Jesus say anything, at any time, about the fate of scribes and literacy in the Kingdom of G-d?  Well … no … he didn’t … and that is a problem. We cannot say for sure that Jesus had scribes or literacy in mind when he proclaimed the coming Kingdom of G-d. But if Jesus did think about scribal literacy and the Kingdom, it would answer a number of questions that might come to mind while reading Keith’s book.

Here’s one such question: why did Jesus teach in synagogue? The answer to this question may seem self-evident to Christians who have grown up with the Gospel stories. Of course Jesus taught in synagogue; why shouldn’t he have taught in synagogue? But Keith has already undermined this commonplace answer: teaching in synagogue was the province of the scribal elite, and as Jesus was either barely literate or completely illiterate, Jesus didn’t belong as a teacher in synagogue. Jesus could (and did) teach nearly everywhere else – one did not need to be literate to teach on a mount, or a plain, or even at the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus had ample opportunity to teach – why teach in this one place that required scribal literacy, where Jesus’ credentials were weakest, where his authority could be most easily challenged?

My guess is, Jesus chose to teach in synagogue in order to directly challenge the authority of the scribes. My guess is that from the first moments of his ministry, Jesus selected the scribes as a target for attack. Why? Because doing so was logically mandated by his apocalyptic program. By teaching in synagogue in place of an elite scribe, Jesus was giving his fellow Jews a sneak peak of what the Kingdom of G-d would be like: in the Kingdom, there wouldn’t be elite scribes teaching in the synagogue. Common folk will teach there instead. And the teaching would be better, as Mark described the reaction to Jesus’ synagogue teaching in Capernaum: “They were amazed at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

OK. I’m not a scholar, just a blogger, and this is merely an outline of an idea I had while I was reading Keith’s book. But for me, this idea helped me process what Keith had to say. Was Jesus’ synagogue teaching the “origin of the conflict” between Jesus and the Jewish authorities? I don’t think so. I think that the “origin of the conflict” was Jesus’ apocalypticism, and that the synagogue was a key battleground selected by Jesus where he could wage his apocalyptic conflict. This idea helps me understand why none of Jesus’ elite opponents ever challenged Jesus’ right to teach in synagogue. In fact, from this vantage point, it’s not even necessary to imagine that the Jewish authorities were particularly troubled by Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Indeed, why should they have been troubled? In comparison to other Jewish “troublemakers,” Jesus’ following seems small and relatively harmless: just a dozen poor disciples, some women patrons, and a few well-wishers, all following a poor Jew from an unimportant Galilean town who preached a message of peace and love.

Instead of Jesus being on the “radar” of Jewish authorities from the early days of his Galilean ministry, it may well be the case that Jesus flew under this “radar” until his last days in Jerusalem. Borrowing a page from Keith’s playbook, we can consider this in terms of memory. If Jesus took on the “power brokers” of his day, then it would be natural for Jesus’ followers to remember this in terms of sharp and protracted conflict, even if those Jewish “power brokers” experienced Jesus as no more than a minor annoyance. This is in the nature of power relationships: when a big guy bloodies the nose of a little guy, it may only be the little guy who remembers the experience as a “fight.”

Instead of focusing on “the origins of the conflict,” I hope that Keith turns his scholarly attention to the broader meaning of Jesus’ teaching in synagogues. I would love it if Keith picked up a suggestion made by historian Gerd Theissen in a book edited by his friend Anthony Le Donne:

We may … say that Jesus represents a Judaism of laymen, not of priests or scribes, a Judaism that has its role in life (“Sitz im Leben”) in the synagogue and in everyday life. Jesus is not at all an exotic Jew but in many regards the representative of lay-piety. [emphasis added]

In this sense, we might say that Judaism did remember Jesus, or more accurately, that Judaism remembered the lay-piety that Jesus represented. Within 40 years after Jesus’ death, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. Along with the Temple, large portions of the Jewish elite (in particular, the Sadducees) disappeared from the scene. The Rabbis that eventually became the new leaders of the Jewish world instituted a system of mandatory public education for all Jewish boys, making the Jews the most literate people in the Middle Ages. In this important sense, we can say that the Rabbis helped realize a portion of Jesus’ apocalyptic expectation. While the Jewish world continued to rely on the “elite” education of the Rabbis, it also became a place where most men could read, write and participate actively in synagogue Torah-based literate worship.

Funny, isn’t it, how Jewish and Christian paths unexpectedly intersect?

  • The problem for me with all this very interesting discussion of what people believe or believed (and by implication what it is that I as a Christian am assumed to believe) is that these writings never quite seem to cover my questions. When it comes to life after death, my first question is “what is ‘after’?”. And any question that involves time-dependent words must submit itself to what little or much we know about time. Science can demonstrate that time is both relative and a human construct.

    I am much more at home with the Domain of the Rule of G-d being here and now, i.e. in all the time we have, and in our memories made present. So then what is G-d like? A despot, a tyrant, a spouse, an oligarch with self-interest, or One who teaches (Kimhi) and gives life to the world (Psalm 104). Then the world to come is any when in which there lives a rule of learning and mercy (חסד), and not a rule of ‘me first.’ This is of course troublesome to me because I am neither inherently merciful nor easy to teach. (Be not like horse or mule – Psalm 32).

    I haven’t read all these books that you refer to though I have read about them and have read comments by their authors, but it seems to me that Jesus who they write about and who ‘gives his life for the life of the world’ is more in the character of the-One-who-is-remembered-by-the-Name-revealed-to-Moses as depicted in the Psalms than any other example I can put my mind to. Before I had said that, I abandoned my study of the New Testament to research the Psalms. And now I can’t get out of the Tanach. Nor can I read the NT even close to ways I might have read it 30 years ago. This is how I have intersected a limited part of Jewish tradition.

    • lbehrendt

      Bob, great comment! To clarify, I won’t go near the question of what Christians are supposed to believe.My Christian friends frequently remind me that there’s nothing like unanimity of belief among the world’s 14 million Jews, so why should I imagine that I can assume what is typical among the world’s 2.2 billion Christians.

      Your point about time is interesting. I think that what science says is that time is an objectively real (not exactly a “human construct”) part of the observable fabric of space-time, though the distinction between “real” and “imaginary” time might well be a human construct. And yes, the G-d we seek and who seeks us may not exist within space-time. G-d may not be bound by the flow of time as we experience it (where causes precede effects), and certainly G-d is not bound by our idea of what is “imminent.”

      It’s a complicated question, what to do now with New Testament apocalypticism and Kingdom expectation. I explain this to myself that from a Christian perspective, the Kingdom must be here in some sense and not here in other senses, that fulfillment and expectation are compatible even if there is some tension between them. Personally, I am not apocalyptic in outlook, but I see both fulfillment and expectation present in my Jewish worldview.

      I remain fascinated by your deep dive into Psalms and the questions it has raised for you. You appear to be experiencing what I experience when I encounter Christianity through the lens of what I call the Jewish-Christian intersection. For me, it feels like a broadening (and possibly destabilization) of perspective, almost like introducing another dimension into my religious fabric. I look forward to hearing more about your experience.

  • Larry, thanks again for giving my book so much careful consideration. I appreciate your taking time to read it, much less comment on it and discuss the thoughts that it prompts for you. It’s clear to me that you’ve given it a charitable reading. To respond to this post, though, (or at least certain parts of it), I have to say that, for me, there are several problems.
    The first and biggest one is that there’s a false choice running through this discussion that I was careful to avoid in the book. Specifically, you pose the issue as the origin of the conflict being EITHER over Jesus’ status/authority OR his apocalyptic teaching. Why can’t it be both? I state several times in the book that my argument is not that there are not other factors, including the content of Jesus’ teachings (i.e., apocalyptic viewpoint, etc.), his reputation as a miracle-worker, or his cohorting with known “sinners.” My argument is that his own status/authority is an overlooked contributor to this cocktail of factors. Since you yourself end up arguing essentially the same point, that Jesus was a representative of non-elite teaching (I confess I’m confused about how you think I should focus my “scholarly attention” toward this issue when I’ve written two books on Jesus not being part of the scribal elite), I’m not sure that you can avoid the impact of this issue yourself. Where else in Second Temple sources does a non-scribal teacher teach in synagogue?? Surely the matter of who has authority is going to relate to who can speak officially for Jewish tradition and texts. I’ve cited lots of sources, including, e.g., Josephus and Sirach, from Second Temple Judaism where this type of divide is clearly reflected. Or, to state it another way, in one of only a handful of passages where Jesus’ apocalyptic perspective brings him into conflict (the Sadducees in this case, arguing over resurrection), Mark 12.18-27, the conflict starts with the text claiming that “chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” asked Jesus specifically about his “authority” (Mark 11.27ff). This text points out another issue that I think deserves attention–Jesus’ teaching on resurrection basically reflects the position of Pharisees and lots of other Jews as well. He was clearly not unique in this respect, and his teachings about the coming apocalypse were also not unique. So what made him worthy of attention? Again, I think there’s something to the claim that the scribal-literate class asked specifically about his authority. But my claim is not that this is the case because Mark says it’s the case. My argument right now concerns the grounds upon which we can or should cleanly separate Jesus’ authority from the content of his teachings. If Mark (even if making it up) is able to conceptualize Jesus’ teachings leading to questions about his authority ca. 50/60 at the earliest or 70/75 at the latest, should we not be hesitant about separating the matters too quickly?
    Second, and going back to a previous post of yours, you point out that you don’t agree with my argument because no text shows Jesus in conflict over his synagogue teaching with the scribal elite. Yes, but this slightly misrepresents my arguments. (In addition, I don’t think that’s correct. Jesus’ healings and exorcisms in Sabbath–conceptualized as a “new teaching” in Mark 1:27–bring him into constant conflict with scribal authorities.) My argument, however, starts with the different representations of Jesus as a synagogue teacher in the first-century texts. Mark and Matthew present him as someone who is rejected in his hometown based on his manual-labor status (Mark 6.3//Matt 13.55). He never again goes in a synagogue after this . . . so further conflict with the scribal elite is a moot point. He’s not in the synagogue for further conflict to happen there. Luke portrays Jesus as a fully scribal-literate person . . . so one should not expect conflict over Jesus’ status/authority in Luke’s Gospel. Again, my argument starts with asking about the best historical explanation for this first-century disagreement and concludes that Jesus’ own status was likely perceived variously. THEN I argue that this likely accounts for why Jesus and the scribal-literate elite argue specifically over Jesus’ authority and over Scripture. I think you’ve misconstrued my argument just a bit here, and note that you haven’t really here attempted any alternative explanation over why Scripture itself figures so prominently in the controversy narratives, and lots of Scripture that has nothing to do with an apocalyptic perspective.
    Third, you seem to assume that scribes were in charge of synagogues. This is not widely defended anymore because it seems to stem primarily from the Gospels. To my knowledge, the only texts that speak very clearly about scribes in particular featuring in synagogues are Mark 1:22 and Matt 7:29. In most Second Temple sources, priests, elders, etc., are portrayed as teaching in synagogues. This is all the more reason why I think it’s important to focus upon Jesus’ conflict with a particular class of teaching (scribal elite), not scribes proper. (BTW, we don’t need Meier to tell us about the diversity of Second Temple scribes. Christine Schams’s work is the classic.)
    At the end of the day, I don’t think there ‘s a good reason to separate Jesus’ authority from other issues concerning him. Indeed, I can’t see how this wouldn’t be an issue if he is, as you suggest, a representative of lay piety taking on the representatives of scribal authority. Is it possible that (a la Sanders) Jesus’ conflict with the elite started ONLY upon his final trip to Jerusalem? Sure, that’s possible. I’m convinced that there would have been other forms of conflict even sooner, however.
    I’m sure it looks like I just vomited a response after giving your previous posts short schrift. It’s just that I’m back in the office now and I was previously out of the country! I suspect that, in the final analysis, we’re in much more agreement than disagreement. And please let me underscore once more how much I appreciate your careful and considered analysis. I always benefit from the dialogue, especially with friends!!

    • lbehrendt

      Chris, thank you for this. It’s quite an honor to get such a detailed response, not to mention that it’s the purpose of this blog to get people talking. To go to your last point first: I agree, we are in 95% agreement, and if you ask those who have experienced my “contrary” nature, this is as close to 100% agreement as I’m able to manage!

      Taking up your points in order:

      I did not intend to suggest the “false choice” you describe. I agree: all conflicts have multiple sources of origin. If I made it sound like apocalypticism trumped status/authority, then let this serve as a corrective: I imagine that Jesus was an apocalypticist from the first moment he entered historical memory, meaning that he saw himself from this first moment in conflict with elites. So, the conflict did not arise through his synagogue teaching – instead, Jesus sought out the synagogue as an arena for a conflict he thought was already full-blown. Of course, there’s a “false choice” in what I’ve written so far in this paragraph! There’s a dynamic interplay between these ideas of apocalypticism and status/authority – the two ideas are intimately related, and one would not produce the other, but each would be affected by the other. This is an important point you’re making, one that adds depth and texture to what I was trying to say. So, thanks! I would simply add that I think a discussion of apocalypticism adds something to your discussion of scribal elite authority and status.

      You ask, “Where else in Second Temple sources does a non-scribal teacher teach in synagogue?” Well … I don’t think anywhere else. Then again, it’s not like we have the names of dozens of first century Palestinian synagogue teachers, and can identify Jesus among this multitude as the only teacher without scribal literacy! Isn’t Jesus the only such synagogue teacher we know by name? But in part from your own arguments, I doubt that Jesus was the only non-scribal elite person to teach in a first century Palestinian synagogue. First, there’s your point that there weren’t that many scribal-literate people in ancient Palestine, and most of those people would have been concentrated in larger cities. It’s reasonable to conclude that there weren’t always scribal-literate people available to teach. Second, there’s the ambiguous nature of what the Gospels mean when they refer to Jesus “teaching” in synagogue. While I agree that Jesus sometimes taught in ways associated with the scribal elite (“reading” from sacred text and then explaining the meaning of the law), I imagine that he sometimes taught in synagogue in the non-scribal literate ways described in the New Testament (for example, via parables). Third, you made the point that the scribal elite would have looked different from ordinary Jews – they would have dressed like rich people! This means that Jesus’ lack of scribal literacy would have been apparent “on its face,” and the confusion you described in your book over his scribal-literacy would have arisen after Jesus had begun to teach (he didn’t look like a scribal elite, but he did a convincing job at doing what the scribal elite do). I think the confusion you describe is one of the most exciting parts of your book! But in this scenario, Jesus could never have stood on the bimah to confuse anyone unless the synagogue was willing to entertain a non-scribal elite (i.e., somewhat scruffy looking) teacher in the first place.

      So, I find it difficult to base an analysis here on what made Jesus unique. I don’t think that scruffy-looking teachers were all that unusual in small Galilean synagogues (or perhaps even in a large Galilean synagogue, and the synagogue in Capernaum might have been relatively large). I also agree that Jesus’ teaching is a particular expression of what other Jews were also teaching at the time. This is part of the effort that you and other historians are making to get us to see Jesus as thoroughly Jewish – much appreciated, by the way! My own take (based largely on my reading of Jesus’ parables) is that Jesus was uniquely skilled as a teacher. But this is a subjective judgment. It’s probably better to avoid the “false choice” here also: Jesus could be both typical and exceptional, and we don’t have to locate Jesus’ uniqueness in any single thing he taught or did.

      Yes … the question of “authority” is a big one, in the Gospels, and indeed anywhere where there’s an argument going on. There’s a lot of “you don’t know what you’re talking about” explicit or implicit in the debates between Jesus and his opponents, expressed on both sides. There is a ubiquitous quality to the issue of authority that makes it hard for me to grabble with specifically … but I agree with you, the question of Jesus’ authority is central to his debates with his opponents. I did not mean to imply otherwise. What I’m not seeing is anyone identified as scribal elite tell Jesus that his lack of scribal authority disqualifies him from doing anything he does – it may undermine the truth he wants to teach, but it’s never described (at least, I don’t think it’s described) by an elite as a bar to teaching in general, let alone in synagogue.

      You point out correctly that the scribal elite objected to Jesus’ healings in synagogue, but that’s not because Jesus lacked elite authority – the objection was that no one was allowed to heal on Shabbat, not even kings and high priests.

      I agree, it IS significant that in Mark and Matthew, Jesus’ last teaching in synagogue is his interrupted teaching in Nazareth. But I’m not sure what it signifies. I’m taught not to take too literally the chronology of events in the Gospels – the order of events may have gotten scrambled as they were remembered and interpreted. But let’s assume that Jesus’ last synagogue teaching was in Nazareth. Is this evidence for your thesis? Well then, let’s ask this: if Jesus had continued teaching in synagogue after Nazareth, would that be an argument against your thesis? I don’t think so.

      I see a jump between your explanation for the “first-century disagreement” between Mark/Matthew and Luke (an explanation I largely accept) and your argument that this agreement likely accounts for the arguments between Jesus and scribal-literate elites over questions of authority and scripture. If indeed there was an early conflict between Jesus and Jewish elites (which I’ll assume for purposes of argument), then the Gospels preserve the memory tradition of only one side to that conflict. I would argue that we don’t have evidence of how the other side remembered this conflict, or indeed, that the other side remembered this conflict at all! This means either that we’re recounting only the history of how one side saw the conflict, or that we have to attempt a reconstruction of how the other side saw the conflict. In either event, it becomes difficult to describe the origins of the conflict – or indeed, to determine that there WAS a conflict. I don’t think this excuses us from making the effort, and I think yours is a good one … but I think we must at least account for the likelihood that Jesus’ elite opponents saw these questions in ways that might not have been preserved in what became Christian memory, and that their view of the conflict’s origins (or whether they even perceived a conflict) may not be known to us, or even knowable, not even within degrees of plausibility.

      Where do I assume that scribes were in charge of synagogues? To make it clear: I don’t assume that, and I don’t mean to imply that I even think that. I don’t have a clue how the first century synagogue was run. I imagine (without any basis) that there was some sort of synagogue control over sacred synagogue functions, such as Torah reading/teaching, and that Jesus needed some sort of advance approval to teach in synagogue. But maybe he taught in synagogue by volunteering on the spot, or being the guy who brought the Torah scroll to synagogue. I don’t have a clue, to be honest.

      How could you focus more attention on Jesus’ “lay piety”? Perhaps I sound greedy, asking for more! But in my posts here, I raised questions that I hope will attract your scholarly and authorly attention. I agree that the FACT that Jesus taught is at least as important as WHAT he taught, but this importance is not limited to the question of “the origin of the conflict.” Or putting it better, there may be a broader conflict here, one between lay piety and scribal elitism, one between two conflicting strains of Jewish authority, one that persists throughout Jewish history and provides some of the dialectical tension that’s made our thing go, and last. Certainly, this conflict is not unique to Judaism, but as it has played out in Judaism in a way that’s unique to the question of literacy, I think there’s more here to explore than what speaks specifically to questions of the historical Jesus.

      Yes to what you said about friends. That has to be the ultimate point. I’m just a humble blogger (!) and even you as doctoral professorial authority won’t have the last word on this or any other subject. But the friendship can endure.

  • Chris Eyre

    Larry, thanks for this review. I haven’t read Chris’ book, so I didn’t comment earlier. But a few things have sprung to mind since you started this review (apart from the fact that I need to promote the book from my wish list to my waiting to read pile…).
    You probably answered one line of my thinking earlier. I also learned to read before going to school; my mother has a favorite story of my pestering her to learn, being told by the school that they preferred children not to be taught reading before the school got them, but of my brightly commenting from my pram “Dat says “Esso”” as we passed a garage, at which she pushed the school to suggest texts, and they relented. I’ve tended to consider that Jesus could well have been significantly brighter and more precocious than I was, and might have managed to glean reading competence without formal tuition. There is, after all, a story of him “writing in the dust”. However, I grew up in a seriously literate household full of books, and you rightly pointed out that books would have been very expensive and in short supply (as would Esso garages…).
    But that leads me on to a question: we know the Rabbis instituted a system of mandatory male public education after the fall of the Temple, but how much of this was foreshadowed in the Second Temple period on a more voluntary basis? Particularly without governmental authority (such as, in England, the various Education Acts), and, of course, in a much less generally literate surrounding culture, it seems to me that it would probably take longer to institute than it did in England, and it took something like 100 years here. 25 years before it was compulsory, 95% of children of appropriate age were in fact being educated, as well.
    I also have some thoughts about “scribal elite” attitudes. I tend to see the very literate as largely loving to teach those children who show a burning interest in it (thus it becomes slightly more possible that Jesus might have cajoled or bullied a local scribe into teaching him), but on the other hand as frequently being less impressed when someone without the relevant qualifications challenges them (and in this respect I feel obliged to point out that I too not only lack a doctorate but that my slightly lower level qualifications are in entirely irrelevant subjects, so as to avert any possible wrath…). I would therefore expect that if Jesus had made anything like a habit of teaching in synagogues where he would be likely to encounter members of the scribal elite, there would have been conflict. Unless, of course, he was an extremely able autodidact, which takes me back to my first point…
    I have, however, encountered several people who have managed to persuade schools that they could read through an entire school career without actually managing to do that, often by having a (to me) incredible aural memory. Sometimes employers as well. They probably give social memory theorists conniptions!

    • lbehrendt

      Chris E, social memory theorists do not get conniptions. They are cooler than school. They wear thin ties while the rest of us wear fat ties, and vice versa.

      We don’t seem to know much about Second Temple educational opportunities. I agree that teachers love bright and eager students, and that Jesus probably had opportunities to learn from a variety of people, a few of whom may have been literate or even scribal-literate. But Keith’s argument is strong: literacy requires more than casual education. And even if Jesus somehow learned to read, he still lived in a world where he would have had relatively few opportunities to read; whatever reading skills he might have managed to obtain would have eroded. In contrast, scribes learned to read, and then retained that ability by making their living as readers.

      It wasn’t just that the post-Second Temple Rabbis instituted public education; they also changed the fabric of ordinary Jewish life by immersing it in text. Men learned to read, then kept reading. This effectively changed Jewish economic life, as Jews moved into urban settings and occupations where their literacy could be practiced, and where the social expense of universal male public education could be made to pay off.

      Keith might interject here that we should not confuse textuality with literacy. Second Temple Judaism was textual – even though the culture was largely oral, it was “inundated with texts and writing” (and here I’m quoting from Keith’s book “Jesus’ Literacy”). Second Temple Jewish life had text usage at its center. Texts were read publicly, and discussed, and their contents were known. Portions of texts may have been widely memorized, and frequently consulted. Textuality can exist even if relatively few people can read the texts.

      Excellent points about the effort to establish mandatory public education in relatively recent times, in an industrialized society.

      Keith will be happy to have you agree with his assessment that Jesus’ synagogue teaching inevitably led to conflict! I’m just not seeing what you two are seeing. We know of no formal first century system of training or ordaining Rabbis, nor do we know of any formal synagogue liturgy or ritual at that time. There were probably a number of practices followed more or less informally by most synagogues, but as we imagine that first century Judaism was itself varied and sectarian, there’s no reason to think that every Galilean synagogue operated in the same way and enforced the same standards for teachers. Moreover, there’s no reason to think that every Galilean hamlet had a trained scribal literate teacher ready and willing to lead Torah services, and no reason to think that scribal elites policed synagogue practice in Palestine or elsewhere. Finally, I think it’s reasonable to guess that Jesus did not such show up at synagogue on Saturday, grab the Torah, interrupt the goings-on and teach. I think it’s likely that in most cases, he was asked to teach, or received permission to teach, or volunteered to teach. In all this, was there a “challenge”? To be sure, but it’s not necessarily a challenge that would have led to conflict.

      But I suspect I’m missing something. What am I missing?

      • Chris Eyre

        Yes, literacy requires more than casual education, and however textual (in the sense that a lot was based on text) the society was, there don’t seem to have been a vast number of texts actually lying around for the reading. I’m just thinking that I sometimes joke that if there’s nothing else to read, I’ll read and reread cereal packets just because they’re what’s actually there and readable – I joke about it, but it’s in essence true. No cereal packet (or noticeboard, or warning notices) likely in 1st century Judaea, so no practice. Unless I’m missing something myself.

        I should mention that part of my thinking is influenced by a splendid Rob Bell talk called “Covered in the Dust of the Rabbi”. As it assumes that something like the later Jewish education system applied in the First Century, my current suspicion is that it’s anachronistic. However, some of the insights Bell gets from this assumption do make an awful lot of sense in terms of the bits and pieces of scripture he pulls out to support them; hence my wondering to what extent this system might already have been growing on a voluntary basis way before it became compulsory.

        It would seem to me that this education system must have functioned as a massive tool of social cohesion (the Rabbis were no doubt fully aware of this) and must have become particularly attractive after the fall of the Temple. But then I think that the fall of the Temple was a catastrophe in Judaea, but how much difference did it actually make for the far-flung diaspora communities? The impulse, in a textual society, to use this in the diaspora must have existed significantly earlier – and it seems to me from all the evidence that despite Galilee actually being in Palestine and not all that far from Jerusalem, it operated more like a diaspora location than like an integral part of the Judaean polity.

        It was on this basis that I was musing about the time it took here to move from education only for those going into the clergy (call them “scribal elite”?) through patchy provision of free public education to universal urban provision to near-universal rural provision to compulsory education. In England, the gap between near-universal voluntary urban provision (and I’m thinking Sephoris here) to compulsory education was near 100 years. Pulling out the other side of my heritage, in Scotland they had compulsory education in 1561, over 300 years before the English – in theory. In practice, it took some 200 years before that was a practical reality, and even then not in the Highlands (small isolated rural communities, somewhat tribal).

        I don’t, of course, know how early the system of Jewish education can be regarded as “universal”, to give a point from which one can extrapolate backwards to establish when the system first started being used something like popularly (and probably there in urban centres). But I have to assume that a popular movement promoted by the Rabbis would have moved slower than a governmental initiative (i.e. England or Scotland).

        Then I wonder about a child with my proclivities in a society which was seriously textual. I’d have moved heaven and earth to get to know this “reading and writing” business, including importuning the people who knew (let’s face it, I did…), and my instinct is that those who knew would have been likely to help such a child. But would the society have produced such a child? I don’t know; both my parents would qualify as “scribal elite” and had text lying around the house, and Jesus’ fairly certainly didn’t. I had, when younger, a near-eidetic memory for text (I don’t have it any more, due to age and abusing the machinery for years); that might have translated into an aural memory in a society which was text-based but had few opportunities for actual reading.

        Moving myself forward some years and having a “scribal elite” education (I think you can describe a legal education as that), I can see my reaction to laymen who attempted to tell me what the law was (and I was tolerant by the standards of most in the profession). It was distinctly adverse. So, assuming that Jesus did teach in synagogues (which I think is highly probable), what are the chances of him running into scribal elite individuals? There, I lack the required information. If he did, though, I can see social memory recording conflict.

        As I’m doing this through personal anecdote, remembering that I’ve no formal education in Christianity beyond about 14, and not a lot beyond about 11, I recall being asked (as a result of making a few chance comments at a church event) to go to a bible study group and talk about the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, and in particular the implications of the use of the term “logos”. So I did that for about 15 minutes (I could have gone on a LOT longer – I hadn’t even got to chokhmah and memra) – and was then asked if I was a vicar. Shades of “son of the carpenter” there? “What is your authority?” Obviously I replied that I was an enthusiastic amateur, but didn’t back down from my interpretations…

        • lbehrendt

          Chris, great comment! Thanks for prodding me to finally encounter Rob Bell on YouTube. I watched 20 minutes. Man, is he charismatic. I’ve previously run into this modern American evangelical selective super-reverence for ancient Jewish education. It’s wonderfully romantic nonsense, particularly since Bell seems to imagine the Virgin Mary also memorizing Tanach. Please don’t get me wrong, Bell is spellbinding, and he couldn’t possibly have described Jesus’ Jewish context in more flattering terms. He’s just neglecting to point out that Jesus lived in an agrarian subsistence economy, heavily taxed by Rome, where just about everyone’s time was devoted to the work required to scratch out a meager survival. Managing one day’s rest out of seven was quite an accomplishment (one that the Romans noted; they thought the Jews were lazy; imagine what Rome would have said if the Jews poured most of their productive energy into having every child master the reading and writing of scripture, AND having them memorize it to boot!).

          Bell’s fantasy is built in part on Josephus, who in all likelihood is either exaggerating or describing the kind of elite education HE received (probably both). But it’s mostly built on the Talmud, and I can say simply that the Talmud was written 200-600 years after Jesus was a boy, and no one seems to believe that it reliably describes the educational system of Jesus’ place and time.

          Your last comment wanders into some fascinating side alleys. Funny, but it was in reading a cereal box that I started to think about how much text I confront daily.

          Agreed that a system of childhood education could provide considerable social cohesion (though at considerable social cost, see below). But I doubt this kind of cohesion was needed in Jesus’ first century Palestine, when the Jews had a land and a Temple. Yes, granted, things may have been different for Jews in the diaspora, though I doubt it was dramatically different – it seems counterintuitive to me that Jews were highly literate everywhere except Judea! It certainly would be surprising if (per your speculation) Galilee was considerably more literate than Judea. It’s clear from the sources that Judeans generally regarded Galileans as country bumpkins.

          Remember that in Jesus’ world, the dominant institution was the Temple, and there was nothing about the Temple that would have required ordinary Jews to read. Remember also that the power elites in this Jewish society were scribal elites, and that scribal elite skills helped confer elite status. The power elites would have been undermining their own status and authority by mandating or providing any serious sustained system of public education.

          As for how Jewish mandatory education developed under the Rabbis … I’m looking forward to reading Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein’s “The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492.” Botticini and Eckstein look at the question of Jewish literacy primarily from the standpoint of economics – so long as Jews earned their living pretty much like everyone else (agriculture), there was no way to make universal education “pay.” They also argue that Jews remained farmers for centuries after Judaism’s post-70 CE transformation into a literate religion … with the result that the Jewish population suffered significant decline between the fall of the Temple and the sixth century. The authors posit that during this period, many Jews abandoned Judaism to avoid the costly (and then, economically unprofitable) requirement of childhood education. I suspect that it took a lot longer than Botticini and Eckstein imagine for the Rabbis’ educational requirements to take hold … your points about how long this took in England and Scotland are terrific! Still, the general point remains: universal education was something that ancient agrarian societies would struggle to afford.

          Like you, I’ve considered Keith’s arguments in light of my experience as a lawyer, and my guild’s prohibition on non-lawyers practicing law. My guild takes this very seriously, making it an ethical duty for me to assist in preventing the unauthorized practice of law. And of course, we’ve made certain that there are laws restricting the practice of law to lawyers. This is my point: I don’t see where Jewish scribal elites were taking systematic, organized action to prevent the teaching of Torah by non-scribal elites. Remember, since lawyers today have a monopoly on legal practice, we also have an ethical obligation to see that everyone has access to a lawyer when needed (we do a terrible job of this, but it’s still a requirement). In order for scribal elites to impose a monopoly on Torah teaching, they’d have to make elite scribes available in one-horse towns like Nazareth, and it’s not clear that they cared enough to do this. Instead, the scribal elites seemed content to have the authority to be the last word on matters of text and Torah … or putting it another way, since Jesus’ Jewish world was highly sectarian, the scribal elites probably spent considerable time arguing with each other and trying to establish some authority over less educated Jews who did not see their relative lack of education as an obstacle to stating an authoritative opinion. I doubt that Jesus was unique in posing a non-scribal challenge, though he may well have been uniquely good at it.