Let’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?