Baker Academic

Thursday, March 3, 2016

RBL Reviews of Jesus against the Scribal Elite—Chris Keith

Many thanks to Cornelis Bennema and Albert Lukaszewski for their reviews of Jesus against the Scribal Elite in the most recent Review of Biblical Literature.  Both offer ultimately very positive reviews of the book, for which I am grateful.

Bennema has, in my opinion, best understood and represented the book.  His critical feedback is helpful.  Enlisting Jeremias, he suggests that it might just be possible for an illiterate manual laborer to have climbed the educational ladder and eventually progressed to become a scribal-illiterate person, though he acknowledges that more evidence would be needed in the case of Jesus.  He's right about it being technically possible, though I never denied that (Rabbi Akiva is said to have climbed up from poverty, but by marrying into wealth), and also right that more evidence would be needed to see Jesus this way.  He also wonders if the association of Jesus with wisdom could have pointed to more educational qualifications on Jesus' behalf than I'm inclined to see.  Bennema also asks if Luke really presents Jesus as a scribal-literate teacher.  My answer, of course, is an unequivocal "yes" based on the fact that Jesus is portrayed as a reader in Luke 4, but Bennema appeals to the role of the Spirit and thinks it might not be as clear.  I'm very honored that Bennema notes many positives in the book and concludes that it is "a very fine piece of work."

Lukaszewski also offers an ultimately very positive review, describing the book as "persuasive" and "the most innovative approach to the question."  There are also a few things that need correction in his review, however.  First, he criticizes me for placing Samuel in the Ketuvim.  He does this because I mention 2 Sam 7//1 Chron 17 as a general background to the debate over Psalm 110 that Jesus initiates in Mark 12:35 (p.118).  But I nowhere claim that Samuel was in the Ketuvim (because it wasn't), and only three pages before that discussion explicitly placed Samuel in the Nevi'im (p.115).  Second, Lukaszewski claims that my presentation of memory theory is "overly general and . . . insufficiently comprehensive."  I'd respond further, but there is no more specific criticism offered (other than that it is postmodern), which sure leaves this author feeling like the shot fired by his reviewer was also "overly general and . . . insufficiently comprehensive."  Third, Lukaszewski butchers my claims about historical method and assumptions.  He says, "[Keith] first states that he is assuming or affirming the historicity of the pericopae he discusses (8), then that the would accept the gospels as historical sources (102), then that he assumes that the actions of Jesus contained therein are historical (103), then that the historicity of the accounts is not important for his argument (111-12).  This signifies methodological ambiguity that is unclarified in the present work."

Well, no, no it doesn't.  The ambiguity is only in this muddled presentation of my claims.  Let me take these in turn:

"He first states that he is assuming or affirming the historicity of the pericopae he discusses (8)...."

What I actually state on p. 8 is that I'm not arguing for the historicity of every single, individual conflict narrative, but rather "that debates of the sort occurred."  It's precisely the historicity of each pericope that I don't discuss.

". . . that he would accept the gospels as historical sources (102) . . . "

I don't even know what to say about this one.  Here's what I really say:  "If one is to use the Gospels as historical sources, then, one must consider not just who Jesus was but also who he was perceived to be by those around him."  So, yes, I do imply that I'm going to use the Gospels as historical sources in the sense that one would use any ancient text as a historical source.  If Lukaszewski just doesn't think historical research is possible at all with the Gospels, fair enough.  He should say that, though, instead of misrepresenting me as naively taking the Gospels as historically reliable.

" . . . then that he assumes that the actions of Jesus contained therein are historical (103). . ."

Again, I don't assume that he did everything attributed to him and don't say that.  What I actually say on p.103 is more nuanced:  "I here take it as a safe assumption that Jesus did at least some of these things in addition to teaching in synagogues."

". . . then that the historicity of the accounts is not important for his argument (111-12)."

Annnndddd, again, not . . . exactly . . . what . . . I . . . said.  Here's what I actually say:  "The historicity of each of these accounts is not important for my argument. . . . My concern is with the general claim of all four Gospels that the conflict between Jesus and the scribal elite centered predominantly on two issues:  Scripture and authority."

So, in reality, I am consistent throughout the book that I'm not focusing atomistically on the historical value of individual pericopae but am looking at the historical value of broad claims that Jesus was in conflict with scribal authorities.  One can, of course, disagree with those claims, but those are my claims, not what Lukaszewski reports.  His failure to understand the memory approach does make a little sense in light of these misrepresentations, though.

At any rate, you can't win them all and I remain grateful for the attention given to the arguments by Bennema and Lukaszewski, and for their overall very positive reviews.  I'm especially glad that both noted that the book is enjoyable to read.


  1. I guess it's long been acknowledged by the vast majority of scholars, for more than 60 years, that many things said about Jesus were not historical. But what interests people now, who do not have any church commitments,is taking that old idea one step farther. If say 95% of the Biblical Jesus seems false or ahistorical, then it increasingly seems to many that it would be time to more seriously entertain the thesis that it was ALL false.

    Anthropology and History have seen false gods aplenty, before. From Ahua Mazda, to Zeus, to Odin.

    So today the word "historicality," increasingly references the position that there was no historical Jesus whatsoever. This usage seems to explain the more critical review, above.

    1. Anonymous, no serious scholar of early Christianity thinks that there was no historical Jesus. It's a joke of a position. And this has nothing to do with commitments to the church, whatever you imagine that to be. Here's Bart Ehrman, not a Christian, addressing the matter:

  2. Chris, Bennema summarizes three of your books like this:

    This book is the last of Chris Keith’s trilogy on Jesus’s literacy. In his published PhD dissertation, The Pericope Adulterae (Brill, 2009), Keith contends that this story presents the claim that the Johannine Jesus is literate. In his second monograph, Jesus’ Literacy (T&T Clark, 2011), he argues that the historical Jesus was not “scribal literate” (see below for a definition of the term), although people even in Jesus’s lifetime disagreed on the issue of his literacy. This third book goes on to look at the early stages of Jesus’s career and the emerging conflict with the scribal elite of his day. Keith presents a compelling argument that Jesus, as a scribal-illiterate teacher, occupied the social space of a scribal literate teacher (in the synagogue and near the temple), thus triggering a conflict with the scribal elite about his status as a teacher.

    It is always instructive to see how others summarize one's work. But I wonder how you would summarize these books. How are they related? Perhaps this is a question to be dealt with in a new post. Or do you think that Bennema's summary is sufficient?



    1. Anthony, it's a good question. Bennema gives an accurate representation of my claim about John 8.6, 8, in so far as I do "contend" in that book that Jesus is presented as grapho-literate. I suspect that you paused at this description for the same reason that I did, which is that my first isn't *really* about whether Jesus was literate at all but rather how that claim of John 8.6, 8 relates to the transmission history of the Pericope Adulterae. But, in so far as Cor was trying to contextualize how the line of argumentation about Jesus' literacy in that book relates to the subsequent studies, it's sufficient. As opposed to the other reviewer, Cor read the book and understood it, so I'm not inclined to argue too much about that.

      The other reviewer was the real strange one to me. He criticized me as if he knew historical Jesus research and social memory theory but, as far as I can tell, he's never published a single thing on either issue. I've never even heard of him and the institution that he's listed as affiliated with (looks like a Catholic Bible college of some sort) doesn't have him listed on their staff, or anywhere on their website. So I'm really, really confused about how this person came to be one of the people that RBL chose to review a book about memory theory and the historical Jesus. Needless to say, I didn't take his problems with the book too seriously.