Book Note: Keith's Jesus Against the Scribal Elite

Chris Keith, Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

On the way to and from San Diego for AAR/SBL I read Chris Keith's thought provoking and insightful Jesus Against the Scribal Elite. In this book he addresses the question of whether or not Jesus was literate. This isn't an easy "yes" or "no" question as Keith shows by displaying the various stages of literacy known in the ancient world. There is a difference between being part of the scribal elite, able to read and write with fluency, those who are more or less copyists with some reading/writing skills, those who can do basic writing for economic and social purposes, and so on. 

Keith argues that Jesus was not part of the scribal elite and this is central to his conflicts with them. Many other scholars (notably Keener) have given attention to the conflict between Jesus and the elite, but not their origins. Keith's argument suggests two basic points for the origin of Jesus' conflicts with the elite of his society: (1) Jesus wasn't a part of their social strata, but his teaching was as if he was a part, and this led many people to understand him to be so and (2) in and honor-and-shame society perception is worth much, so that if Jesus' teaching "with authority" convinced the crowds that he was more knowledgable that those who were scribal literate, these acts of shaming would have led to much opposition for Jesus.

Keith's exploration of the Gospels shows that there is ambiguity between the four earliest Gospels (which he takes to be Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) as to whether Jesus was scribal literate. Keith's conclusion is that Jesus wasn't scribal literate, but that this isn't something made up out of thin air because Jesus' teachings were likely perceived by many to have to have come from a person with scribal literacy. Therefore, Keith argues that while Jesus was likely illiterate, the roots of these differing perspectives are actually grounded in perceptions of Jesus from his own own lifetime, not just the invention of his later followers.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the question of Jesus' literacy. It makes a good, solid, well-stated argument that is bound to provoke thought and hopefully further discussion. Also, for those wondering what "difference" it makes to approach a subject like this from a criterion or memory studies angle, I found this to be a good case study.

This book was received in exchange for an unbiased review from Baker Academic.