Book Review – Jesus Against the Scribal Elite by Chris Keith

I remember the first time I was publicly put to shame… Lets just say it isn’t easy being a Jr. Higher in a school filled with High Schoolers. I bring this up because High School/Middle School is one of the few social settings in the West that operates with honor and shame as a central feature. During these adolescent years students are trying to gain honor for themselves or their friend group while at the same time avoiding shame. Honor and shame in high school is a lot more than about how one feels, honor and shame act as social realities that one can gain or lose. We know that Jesus lived and operated in a culture much like the one I just described. In Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict, Chris Keith argues that Jesus’ early conflict with the scribal elite is best understood in the context of this honor/shame setting and that the core of the argument revolves around how Jesus was treading upon this social classes’ precious realm of authority.

What was it about Jesus that caught the religious leaders’ attention? Was it his healings, his exorcisms, or the content of his teaching? According to Keith these were important reasons, but none of these reasons ignore one crucial factor, namely Jesus’ reputation as a teacher. You see, Jesus healing, exorcising, or teaching different views about the law or the Kingdom wouldn’t have necessarily drawn so much attention from the religious leaders, after all there was a great variety of teaching and actions coming from other 2nd temple religious leaders. According to Keith what caught their attention was the fact that somebody from the “working class” was acting as though he were actually part of the scribal-literate class.

What was it about Jesus that caught the religious leaders’ attention?

Keith develops this argument in several steps. First Keith illustrates what sort of teachers existed in 2nd temple Judaism – he describes what qualifies somebody to be called literate and explains that scribal literacy is very much tied with social power and status. Keith goes on to show that the four gospels all portray Jesus as acting within the ranks of the scribal elite, however Mark and Matthew portray him as existing outside of this class, Luke portrays him as a member of this class, and John’s Gospel is ambiguous about this. Keith takes this textual ambiguity and makes a very interesting argument that the differences between the gospels is best explained in terms of context and perception. In other words, those who were outside of the scribal-literate class would have seen Jesus as one of the scribal-literate teachers (after all he acts as though he has the same authority as them and he sure seems to know Scripture, he even beats the scribal elite in debates!) however, the members of the scribal elite would have seen Jesus as a fraud who was overstepping his social role. In making authoritative interpretations of scripture, Jesus acted outside of his culturally established social role. Eventually, Jesus began to confront these leaders about the interpretation of scripture. This led to conflict in which the scribal elite attempted to expose Jesus as an imposter to the position of scribal authority, however as these conflicts occurred they had the opposite effect, the leaders themselves were put to shame by somebody who didn’t even belong to their social class.

Assessment

Many have written about the controversies that eventually led to Jesus crucifixion (i.e. his temple actions) however very few have addressed how the controversy actually began; Keith’s book fills this void.

Jesus Against the Scribal Elite is an interesting and important addition to the discussion regarding Jesus and 1st century literacy. Here are some of the most important features of this book:

  1.  It introduces his readers to the issues revolving around 1st century literacy
  2. It clearly explains the differences between the scribal elite class and the class which included manual laborers (see Sirach 38)
  3. It explains how the context of a shame/honor culture affected the conflict between Jesus and the scribes
  4. It makes a convincing argument for why perception about Jesus literacy varied
  5. It presents a plausible story for why the scribes and religious leaders were initially interested in Jesus

If you haven’t ever read about the literacy of Jesus or you are interested in the reasons behind Jesus’ conflict with the leaders of his day the I recommend that you pick up this book.

(Note: I a review copy of this book from the Baker in exchange for an impartial review.)
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