“Jesus Against the Scribal Elite” by Chris Keith – First Thoughts

Chris Keith is a new author for me so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw his new book Jesus Against the Scribal Elite. When I saw endorsements from both Bart Ehrman and Craig Keener (among an impressive array of others–see below) my interest was really piqued.

The question/issue driving Keith’s proposal is simple: “The scribal authorities likely disagreed with what he taught and how he taught it, but a central part of the problem was that, from their perspectives, Jesus did not have the right to be teaching in the first place.” (6) When readers of the New Testament, myself included in this group, read about the conflict Jesus had with the scribes we think of this as just another example of the Pharisees and Sadducees debating or the intra-Pharisaic debates. Keith says this is not always the case and offers an analogy.

“These other debates within the Judaism of Jesus’s day were akin to public debates between two university professors who disagree, although both are credentialed with PhDs and recognized as experts in their fields. Some texts in the New Testament portray Jesus’s debates with the authorities along these lines, but other New Testament texts portray them quite differently. They describe the situation that is more like a scheduled debate between two university professors when only one has arrived on time. While waiting for the other expert to arrive, the school’s janitor–without credentials or recognized authority and armed only with his reputation for janitorial services–strides to the podium, takes the tardy expert’s place, and commences the debate by correcting publicly a point or two in the punctual professor’s research and publications. The analogy breaks down on multiple levels, but the important point remains–the ensuing discussion between the recognized expert and the recognized janitor would involve not only the janitor’s ideas and criticisms but also his qualifications for voicing them in such a context in the first place.” (12)

The natural question arises “Why?” “Why did the authorities care at all what Jesus thought or did? Why did they not dismiss him as a harmless madman? Or why did they not dismiss him in the style of the Pharisees of John 7:49, who dismiss the opinion of ‘this crowd’ by claiming that it ‘does not know the law’?” (13)

The target reader is “upper-level students as an introduction to the early period of Jesus’s ministry.” (7) This is an important work and as Keith writes, “to my knowledge, this is the first book-length treatment of the origins of the controversy between Jesus and the scribal elite.” (7)

Jesus Against the Scribal Elite is from Baker Academic. It is a paperback with 208 pages and sells for $22.99.

Chris Keith (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is professor of New Testament and early Christianity and director of the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He was a 2010 recipient of the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise for his book The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus and was named a 2012 Society of Biblical Literature Regional Scholar.



Jesus Against the Scribal Elite


“Chris Keith is one of the leading scholars of literacy in Christian antiquity, especially as it relates to the historical Jesus. In this new contribution, he makes his views accessible to the nonspecialist who is interested in knowing, was Jesus a well-educated teacher who could read and write? And if not, why did he fall afoul of the powerful scribes–the readers, writers, and teachers of his world–leading to his demise? Clearly written and coherently argued, this will be a book for scholar and layperson alike.”

Bart D. Ehrman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“Well informed by current academic discussions of historical Jesus research, memory, orality, and literacy, Chris Keith adds a very important social dimension to understanding the conflicts between Jesus and other teachers of his day. This fascinating book makes a new and welcome contribution to the discussion.”

Craig S. Keener, professor of New Testament, Asbury Theological Seminary

“With a readable style, deep engagement with other scholars, and an impressive grasp of the particulars of the ancient cultural situation, Keith offers a stimulating and creative proposal about the origins of tensions between Jesus and the scribal elite. Keith emphasizes Jesus’s social status as a key contributing factor in these tensions. Along the way, Keith addresses questions about the historicity of the Gospels’ portrayal of controversies with scribes and Pharisees, and a number of other issues, making this study well worth reading.”

Larry Hurtado, emeritus professor of New Testament language, literature, and theology and Honorary Professorial Fellow, New College, University of Edinburgh

“This is a fresh and fruitful approach to a key aspect of the historical Jesus by one of the more creative younger scholars in the field.”

Richard Bauckham, professor emeritus of New Testament studies, University of St. Andrews; senior scholar, Ridley Hall, Cambridge

“This work is a well-researched, well-written, and significant contribution to the discussions of literacy and conflict in Jesus’s ministry and to discussions of the nature of the Gospels. Even if one disagrees with some of the conclusions, it offers a new perspective worthy of analysis and reflection.”

Klyne Snodgrass, Paul W. Brandel Professor of New Testament Studies, North Park Theological Seminary


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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