Baker Academic

Friday, January 9, 2015

Recent Reviews of Jesus against the Scribal Elite: Appreciation and Interaction—Chris Keith

I was honored to see recently that Nijay Gupta (George Fox University) named Jesus against the Scribal Elite an honorable mention for his best new Jesus/Gospels book for 2014.  He had reviewed the book back in August on the Crux Sola blog that he authors with Christopher Skinner.

As Anthony already noted, Greg Carey wrote a thoughtful and careful review of the book at Christian Century, for which I am grateful also.  I especially liked this line:  "Keith writes with the charm of an excellent classroom teacher: always clear, occasionally hip, and sometimes a little geeky."  I'm honored at such a description.

I'm also appreciative of the review that Horacio Vela of University of the Incarnate Word published in Choice 52.5 (2015).  He highly recommended the book and, though (rightly) noting that there might be disagreement over the "memory approach" methodology, says:  "Keith creates a plausible account of a conflict rooted in Jewish social and religious practices that culminated in Jesus' death at the hands of Roman authorities.  This book serves as a great introduction to studies of ancient literacy and historical Jesus research for theology/religion courses at the undergraduate/graduate level."

There was also a critical review appearing in the most recent volume of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society by Brian Wright, a PhD student at Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry.  I raised my eyebrow a bit when Wright told his readers that I've previously written two monographs arguing that the historical Jesus was "not a scribal-literate teacher," since my first monograph has nothing to do with the historical Jesus and argues that the author of the story of the woman caught in adultery seems to think Jesus was literate.  Wright praises aspects of Jesus against the Scribal Elite, but faults me for having failed to include some bibliographical items and not responded to prior criticisms of my other books in this book since it deals with some of the same content.  I suppose that's fair enough, but those criticisms hadn't changed my mind on the pertinent issues and I didn't think a textbook was the place to engage in line-by-line response anyway; otherwise I'd never have gotten on to the book itself or kept it at the level it was intended.  I have addressed and am actively addressing those criticisms in other contexts, such as here, here, and here.  He also seems frustrated that, from the pile of publications that have come out since my last monograph, I cited positively Anthony Le Donne and Rafael Rodriguez.  I'm not sure if he's trying to create the impression that I only cited my buddies, but he failed to note that I also include Dagmar Winter, Dale Allison, Loren Stuckenbruck, and Mark Goodacre, most all the contributors to Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity.  The really odd criticism, though, was when he faulted me for not interacting in this book with Von Rom nach Bagdad, a Mohr Siebeck book on ancient education that was published in August 2013.  As anyone who has published a book knows, though, a book comes out anywhere between (usually) 8 and 12 months from when you submit the final form to the press.  In the case of Jesus against the Scribal Elite, it was actually 14 months.  I submitted the book to the press at the beginning of February 2013 and it was published in April of 2014.  So I submitted the manuscript six months before Von Rom nach Bagdad had even been published.  What can I say?  Yes, indeed, I did fail to cite a book that had not yet been published.

I remain grateful to Wright for highlighting some positives of the book, though, as well as his constructive suggestions, and thank the other reviewers along with Wright for taking time to read the book in the first place.


  1. COME ON KEITH!!!! How do you not know the future and what is going to be printed??? I guess you are not the scholar I thought you were!

  2. In several ways this is a typical PhD student review. I wrote some reviews like it when I was a PhD student - showing off by citing some obscure (in this case extremely implausible) meaning of a word which the author didn't reference; and showing off a bit more by referring to some big German book of tangential importance to a side point to one of the chapters. At the same time basically ignoring one or two of the big issues. I apologise,

    1. Peter, I think your comment may have cut off a bit early there, but I had much the same reaction, that this was a typical PhD review. And I too wrote some of those as a student and wish I could do them over now, at least wording them differently.

  3. Thanks for the Review, I'm always looking forward to learn more about Jesus

  4. Chris –

    Happy New Year!

    Thanks for noting my review and offering a few comments. Since I don’t have a blog or website to clarify a few things, I hope you don’t mind me briefly throwing out a few here.

    Looking back, you were right to note that one of the seven works/authors I jotted down as examples of more recent scholarship was not available for you to interact with when you submitted your manuscript. Sorry for the oversight on my part. I do know about the book publishing lag, even if I only have one to my name. Of course, I don’t think that takes away at all from my main point or impression of the book.

    As for noting your “two” monographs in relation to your present work, I don’t think it was as egregious of a mistake as you made it sound. Your 2009 work did pertain to the literacy of Jesus, the present work, and used much of the same terminology I noted (e.g., scribal literate); not to mention you note it in the preface and throughout the work. At the same time, you are the author, and if you say it had nothing to do with this work, then so be it. I can see, however, how someone may be confused with how I worded it, and they may assume that you were solely/mainly arguing that Jesus was not a scribal literate teacher in that work, and I agree you were NOT doing that as you mentioned. The main reason I included it is because even though your main argument was that the author of the pericope claimed he was literate, you certainly seemed to make known (and did again in this work) that you do not think he was. Nevertheless, I have no problems accepting the fact that I could have worded it better and more clearly. Though, again, I don’t think it should distract readers away from the rest of the review.

    Lastly, it seemed to me that you suggested that I was erecting a standard of doing a “line-by-line response” to all your critics. As I specifically mentioned in my review, I was merely looking for “some level of response.” In other words, in my excitement to read your book, I found myself disappointed in the lack of interaction with opposing views, and that almost every newer work—albeit less than a dozen—were written by your “buddies” (your word, not mine). So again, I think my main point stands.

    All in all, I hope my review does not put distance between our future dialogs, but brings them closer. I look forward to your future work, and I hope to have more things in print in the next year or two so I can join those of you who have opened yourself up to critical feedback such as the one I attempted to offer. Thanks for taking everything in stride, and since you noted that you still stand by your book despite prior and current criticisms, I will end by saying I still stand by my review;-).


    Pete Head – I just noticed your comment, thanks. Although Chris didn’t mention it, I only noted the figurative use because I think he could have had some fun with it somewhere in his work (NOT because I think it’s plausible). Chris seems like a man who likes a good laugh, and I assumed he would enjoy that one given the topic. Of course, I couldn’t put a smiley face in review, so sorry if it was taken the wrong way. But here you go anyway…:-). Oh, and I didn’t note a German work to strut my stuff. Heck, I’ve been in prison the last five years. The last thing I’m trying to do is size up. But your main point as a seasoned scholar looking back on previous reviews is worth its weight in gold, so thanks again, I plan to keep that in mind going forward:-)!

    1. Dear Brian,
      Thanks for this response and of course I always welcome the dialogue. Happy New Year to you as well. I understand that you want to stand by your review, and as to whether the review stands despite the inaccuracies I'll leave to others to decide. Let me offer a few responses, though.

      I appreciate your acknowledgement that you were wrong to say that I'd written two books arguing that Jesus was not a scribal-literate teacher. But you then justify having included the point by saying that, in my first book, I "certainly seemed to make known . . . that [I] do not think he was [literate]." Where do I do this? Let me quote from that book: "For the sake of clarity, the argument of this book does not concern the Historical Jesus" (6n.13). Nowhere in that book do I give any indication about what I thought about the historical Jesus's literate status. Indeed, I hadn't worked out a full answer to that question until after the second monograph, which focuses strictly upon that question. I don't deny the overlap in topic, but the focus and argument of each book was different. And, although you want your reader not to let this distract them from the rest of your review, I have to note that it has the effect of starting the review with the impression that I'm unoriginal and have somehow convinced two major presses (Brill and T&T Clark) to let me publish the same book twice. Also, all of this is perfectly clear in the preface of Jesus against the Scribal Elite, which you mention, where I elucidate how the various books relate to each other. It's very obvious there that only the second book deals with the historical Jesus.

      Your "main point" about my failure to engage critics doesn't really stand, in my opinion, because you state that they represent "an alternative view." They don't represent a single alternative view, however. You have here, as far as I can tell, simply listed anyone who had anything even mildly critical to say in a review of any of the books I've published. They have not all disagreed, though, and where they do disagree they have disagreed over different things and for different reasons. Again, I reiterate that I could not have possibly responded to them all and kept the book at the size and tone for which it was designed. As to me citing Le Donne and Rodriguez, I think this is just wrong also. It's true I cite them. It's true I also cite quite a few others. And it's further true that the section (I think) you're discussing is clearly shown as a short description of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. In the rest of the book, I engage throughout with alternative viewpoints on any number of issues. Also, I'll say again that I have indeed responded to some of those critical points in reviews, but not in this context. On that note, I can see how you think that my dismissal of Foster was too quick. I would state it otherwise--whether he is a top scholar is irrelevant, he's wrong in his description of social memory studies (a point made also recently by Porter's recent JSHJ article). But I can see how it could come across as too quick. I have had a two-part article responding more thoroughly to that issue (in the context of a much broader discussion) pending since 2013. It should be out later this year in Early Christianity.

      As a last comment, I do indeed like a laugh and perhaps we could have a beer at SBL and chat through some of these exciting issues more thoroughly. We might not agree, but that's no reason not to be friends. Of course future dialogue remains open and I wish you the best in your own work. And again, thanks for your comments on the positive aspects of my work.

  5. Fair enough. And beer sounds great, my treat:-)!