Jesus against the Scribal Elite, by Chris Keith

Chris Keith sets out to answer two questions. Most basically: What lay at the heart of the conflict that led some religious authorities, the “scribal elite,” to seek and win Jesus’ death? In Keith’s estimation the explanation leads to a second matter: Was Jesus literate, and how did he relate to Israel’s scriptures? Keith maintains that Jesus did not possess anything like scribal literacy but that early Christian memory tended to enhance Jesus’ literacy as time progressed. Jesus’ status as an authoritative teacher, especially as an interpreter of scripture, lies at the heart of the conflict that led to his death. Other factors, such as the nature of Jesus’ teaching, his relationship to messianic expectation, and his reputation as a wonder worker, would have been secondary.

Keith writes with the charm of an excellent classroom teacher: always clear, occasionally hip, and sometimes a little geeky. Any reader who has completed a basic curriculum in the Gospels will enjoy this book, while professional scholars will recognize immediately that Keith is a primary contributor to academic debates. He has earned a reputation as an influential emerging voice in historical Jesus research and an expert on ancient literacy.

Keith’s basic argument comes down to two elements. First, Jesus was not a scribal-literate teacher, but some of his contemporaries believed he was. Second, these split perceptions led to conflict between Jesus and the scribal elites. Jesus provided compelling interpretations of scripture, but the elites assumed that only highly literate persons were qualified to offer such teaching. When the scribal elites sought to expose Jesus as a pretender who lacked the credentials to read and interpret the Law, Jesus fought back and occasionally won the struggle for public esteem. The elites’ attempts to embarrass Jesus amounted to an attempt “to put out a fire with gasoline.”