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Book Review: Chris Keith, Jesus’ Literacy

August 20, 2013

I have just finished reading Chris Keith’s book, Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee (LHJS 8; LNTS 413; London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2011) and I must say, it is a page-turner. This is now the third of Keith’s books that I have read and there is little doubt in my mind that, of the scholars I have read in recent years, he is among the best at taking complex subject matter and writing about it in an engaging style that keeps you interested. Many of us have had the related experiences of having to fight to remain interested in a scholarly monograph or struggling to trace the flow of a book’s argument because of a given scholar’s obtuse writing style. I had neither of those problems while reading this book. Below is a brief review of the book’s contents followed by a few closing thoughts.

Introduction: Keith begins the book by briefly introducing the problem of Jesus vis-a-vis reading and writing as it has commonly been conceived. That is to say, the history of research has largely concerned itself with the fact that Jesus did not author any writings. Questions about whether Jesus could actually read and write seem to be largely settled in the minds of those who have written about the issue. On one side are those who insist that Jesus must have been illiterate since most individuals who fit into a demographic similar to Jesus in 1st century Palestine were illiterate. On the other side are those who insist that Jesus must have been literate since “most Jewish boys attended some kind of school.” This contemporary divide taps into a major concern that Keith addresses later in the book: Just as there are competing theories as to the level of Jesus’ literacy among contemporary scholars, there were also ancient disagreements over Jesus’ literacy, and one need look no further than the canonical gospels to find these competing views.

Chapter 1 (Jesuses Literate and Illiterate): While noting that historically, scholars have tended to favor the conclusion that Jesus was literate (however that is defined by a given scholar), Keith covers in detail the various arguments for and against Jesus’ literacy. Most of these studies, it appears, have missed the point (although apart from Keith’s treatment, it’s doubtful that I would have seen this). In what follows, Keith attempts to abandon the overly simplistic dichotomy between “literate” and “illiterate” by discussing Jesus in the context of a range of literate abilities.

Chapter 2 (Jesus Tradition, Memory, and What Really Happened): I found this chapter to be a helpful review of some of the more recent reading I have done on the historical Jesus. Last year I read (then blogged about) the book that Keith and Anthony LeDonne co-edited on the demise of the criteria of authenticity. Much of what is affirmed in that volume finds expression in this chapter. The net result of the discussion is that, inasmuch as the criteria are rooted in form-critical assumptions, they are unable to isolate genuine material that goes back to the historical Jesus. So here, Keith presents and then rejects the criteria approach to Jesus research and lays the foundation for his methodology, the “Jesus-Memory approach.” In one of my favorite paragraphs from the chapter, Keith writes:

[F]rom the perspective of social memory theory, scholars in search of authentic Jesus traditions might as well be in search of unicorns, the lost city of Atlantis, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only are there no longer Jesus traditions that reflect solely the actual past, there never were. In other words, there is no memory, no preserved past, and no access to it, without intepretation. The Jesus-memory approach therefore agrees with the criteria approach that the written Gospels reflect an interpreted past of Jesus; it disagrees, however, with whether there are, in the midst of those interpretations, un-interpreted Jesus traditions that one can separate from the interpretations (p. 61).

This is not to say that there is no such thing as “what actually happened,” but rather that there is no unmediated access to “what actually happened.” This chapter continually reminded me of the old Chesterton line: “There is no history, only historians.” Keith does an admirable job of selling his social memory approach and showing its value for the present dicussion.

Chapter 3 (Scribal Culture in the Time of Jesus): I found this chapter to be one of the most helpful if, for no other reason than that I was largely ingorant of most of the contours of Keith’s discussion. Here Keith covers six characteristics of Second Temple Judaism within Palestine most critical to our understanding of early Christian potrayals of whether or not Jesus was literate. These are (1) widespread illiteracy; (2) widespread textuality; (3) literacy spectrums; (4) scribal literacy; (5) the acquisition of biblical knowledge; (6) the perception of literacy. This chapter demonstrates the numerous complexities associated with Jesus’ literate context, from the different levels of literacy (including the various levels of ability to read and/or write; the difference between scribal literacy and craftsman’s literacy, etc.). Of signal importance to the remainder of Keith’s thesis is his definition of “scribal literacy.” He writes:

In text-centered communities, “scribal literacy” refers to literate skills that allow some educated individuals to function as authoritative interpreters of texts. Although these could be bureaucratic scribes associated with the necessary written documentation of civil government, scribal literacy can also refer to religious authorities who are experts in texts that are determinative for the group’s identity. Thus, some scholars also speak of “sacred literacy,” “high literacy,” or “religious literacy.” With regard to the first-century Palestinian Jewish context, scribal literacy and its benefits belonged to socially recognized authoritative readers, copyists and teachers of the law, in contrast to other literates who were responsible for writing marriage contracts, land deeds, or bills of sale, and so on (pp. 110-11).

Overall, I think this chapter adds necessary nuances to ongoing discussions of Jesus’ literate status and shows that the situation is much more complex than scholars have often portrayed in their analyses of the issue.

Chapter 4 (Jesus’ Scribal-Literate Status in Early Christianity): As I mentioned above, Keith is at pains to demonstrate that even in the earliest material we have, there is disagreement over whether Jesus held the level of literacy that could be described as “scribal literate.” This is the chapter in which he begins, in earnest, to discuss this dispute. He begins with evidence from the Synoptic Gospels followed by a discussion of the Pericope Adulterae. He then surveys a host of other non-canonical writings that address, to some degree, Jesus’ ability to read and/or write at that level.In short, there is very early contradiction (viz., even within the canon) regarding Jesus’ scribal literate status. Mark presents Jesus as lacking scribal literacy where Luke seems to say just the opposite. Further, the Pericope Adulterae pictures Jesus as having some level of grapho-literacy. (I especially liked Keith’s argument that the insertion of 7:53-8:11 was a later attempt to answer a question about Jesus’ literacy that is raised earlier in John 7).  In the end, an awareness of these early disputes is key to helping establish the argument of chapter 5.

Chapter 5 (Jesus and Scribal Literacy): In this chapter Keith makes the case to which the previous four chapters have been building: (1) Jesus was not a scribal-literate teacher; and (2) he was nevertheless able to convince some of his contemporaries that he was. I found the argument of this chapter to be the most interesting of any in the entire book. I know that Keith also has interests in textual criticism, and though he doesn’t explicitly identify it in this chapter, his argument regarding the directional development of early Christian Jesus-memories strikes me as a variation on the old text-critical canon: “the reading that best accounts for the emergence of other readings is more likely original.” Is it more likely that early Christian memories of Jesus held him to be illiterate and this was later corrected, or vice versa? Keith is in favor of the former, though he argues that Jesus had rhetorical abilities that allowed him to engage in debate successfully with others who were scribally literate. This ability would have given some (especially in a mixed crowd) the impression that Jesus held scribal literate status.

Chapter 6 (Concluding Remarks: The Controversy of Jesus the Teacher): Here Keith provides a very brief review of what he regards as the unique contributions of the book.

Concluding thoughts (in which I speak about Chris by first name rather than last name….mainly just because I want to):

In this brief review, I am sure that I have missed something of importance (and no doubt, Chris will point that out if I have), though I have tried to highlight what are, to my mind, the most critical contours of the discussion. I leave you with a few thoughts:

1. One major strength of the book is that it continues to point out both the complexity of the issues surrounding literacy in the ancient world. In a highly literate, post-Gutenberg world, we often fail to add the necessary nuances to our thinking about how education would have functioned in a first century Palestinian Jewish context. While reading, I kept running across various insights and thinking, “Of course. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this  (or said this) before? It seems so obvious now.” Chris continually places his finger on ideas or ways of conceiving of the issues that have not but should have occurred to those of us who think and write about such issues.

2. I found myself highlighting and making notations even in the footnotes. One footnote in particular still stands out. Having read all of the essays in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, (and thereby witnessing Chris’ disdain for the criteria of authenticity) I found it interesting that, at one point, Keith actually refers approvingly to the concept of embarrassment within the transmission history of Jesus memories (fn. 16 on pp. 169-70). The ability to take the best assumptions of previous models and apply them within the context of his own Jesus-memory approach is sign of the careful thinking that seems to have attended the writing of this book.

3. (This might just be my own nerdy interest), but another strength of this volume is Keith’s attention to the textual apparatus. I tell my Greek students that we often find in the textual apparatus, the earliest commentary on the NT text. In his treatment, Chris evidences a careful attention to the history of textual transmission. This will likely be overlooked or unappreciated by those reviewers without an interest in NT textual criticism.

4. In my estimation, the WHAT of this book is not as important as the HOW. Here’s what I mean: Keith’s research topic (viz., did Jesus hold status as a scribal literate teacher?) is likely not as earth-shattering as some other questions we could ask about the historical Jesus (though I do believe he has demonstrated its importance relative to other questions). Rather, the strength of what Keith has done in this book is that he has provided us with a very good model of how to do responsible Jesus research on a specific issue using a social memory approach. Aside from his conclusions (which I think are plausible), I believe that the employment of his method is the greater contribution of the book.

So there it is. Chris Keith is the Jon Jones of historical Jesus research….he does it well and makes it seem easy! Jon Jones

21 Comments leave one →
  1. August 20, 2013 8:40 pm

    Thanks for this, Chris. I wanted to see how much this would cost and when I looked at the Book Depository I found a paperback copy for about half the price of the hardcover.

    • August 20, 2013 9:15 pm

      Judy, I actually got the paperback too. I love LNTS but their hardbound volumes are simply too expensive.

      • August 20, 2013 9:29 pm

        Yes, but it’s good that they do also offer paperback. The distance education book that I have a chapter in costs $175 for the hardcover version, they don’t offer a paperback and the ebook is the same price as the hardcover!!

  2. August 20, 2013 10:26 pm

    What is missing here: (I mean with the topic of Jesus’ literacy) this author fails to mention or the reviewer doesn’t cover?

    Why speak of demographics when we have the evidence of Jesus’ contemporaries. James the half brother of Jesus, Matthew, John, Peter, Mark all wrote fairly complex materials. Did they all just go to school after the resurrection to become literate? Seems like a superfluous topic.

  3. August 21, 2013 1:28 am

    Thanks so much for this very thorough review. I don’t think there’s anything of importance that you’ve left out and I’m very appreciative of a reviewer taking time to understand the actual claims of the book. I did mention the analogy with textual criticism at the end of Chapter Two, so you’re dead on about that.

    “squeaky2”: I’m not entirely sure that I understand your statement/question about my failure, but the issue of authorship and literacy is not that simple in the ancient world. Even if all those authors were responsible for the texts attributed to them, authors often wrote through the hand of others. This is true for non-biblical tradition as well as biblical tradition (Pauline letters, Petrine letters, patristic tradition of Mark’s Gospel as the written form of Peter’s teaching, etc.). Thus, one cannot take attributions of authorship automatically as affirmations of literacy.

    • August 21, 2013 3:32 am

      Hi Chris,

      Its not that it is necessarily a “failure” but more the direction of inquiry. I mean for my money, I would choose another avenue to tread. Why the artificial construct of “literacy?” I’m struggling to find the point.

      What did you mean: “through the hand”? This “hand” was only one who took dictation not an editor in any sense. Jesus’ disciples were Spirit empowered communicators in preaching and dictating their letters. Again “literacy” is irrelevant. Mark never grew to become a seasoned Christian to write what he wrote no matter the influence of the apostle? Again, the point?

      I did not think that it even became a question if they (Jesus and his band) were scribe-like. They were not scholars is what the text says.

      Being a scholar by itself is never a necessary component for spiritual pursuit. If “literacy” is an uncalled for construct to seek why put Jesus under this lens?

      The teachers of the law from Jesus’ day were really brilliant yet they were murders. So much for literacy!

      • Chris Keith permalink
        August 21, 2013 11:44 am

        Squeaky2, several aspects of this response show a lack of familiarity with the issues and an ignorance of my book. I think you should read it first before dismissing it.

      • August 21, 2013 5:07 pm

        If you you cannot tell me the purpose succinctly, I will pass on further following rabbit trails.

      • Chris Keith permalink
        August 21, 2013 5:21 pm

        If you cannot tell the purpose from Dr. Skinner’s helpful summary of the book, ceasing to follow further is probably a wise decision.

  4. Scott m. permalink
    August 22, 2013 2:08 am

    As a somewhat learned layperson, I think this provides a very succinct “bait” to reel one into reading the book. The question of Jesus literacy has been a part of understanding how his message was passed down to his followers as well as understanding some of the basis for his teachings. Further exploration of the issue has usually provided more depth and understanding to the gospels and the teachings, both authentic and dubious. I appreciate the review and hope to soon appreciate the book.

    • August 22, 2013 12:53 pm

      Scott, be sure to look for the paperback version of the book. If you do intend to read it, the paperback is much more affordable.

      • mojodev1 permalink
        August 28, 2013 1:11 pm

        Will do. Thanks. And my wife and children thank you for the reminder as well!

  5. Robert permalink
    August 22, 2013 1:38 pm

    “Mark presents Jesus as lacking scribal literacy”

    Is this really true?

  6. August 26, 2013 12:02 pm

    Chris, helpful review. This book has been on my radar, you just bumped it up the queue for me. For some reason, I thought I saw another publisher (like Baker or Eerdmans) pick this up for a second edition. I must have been looking at Keith’s 2014 book. Am I wrong on that point?

    Your last point did it for me. Jesus’ literacy is largely immaterial, but I’m interested in Keith’s method.

    • August 26, 2013 12:56 pm

      Ben, I think Chris’ new book is called, Jesus Against the Scribal Elite, and is with one of those publishers you mention.

      I agree that the level of Jesus’ literacy is essentially a minor issue, though as I said in the review, Chris does a decent job of showing the significance of his subject to other concerns within Jesus studies.

      I think that Chris and Anthony (LeDonne), Chris’s blogmate, are helping to usher in a new way of doing Jesus research. I have learned a great deal from reading their books. If you haven’t seen it, Anthony’s book, The Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It, is also quite good.

      Hope you are well, brother.

      • August 26, 2013 9:55 pm

        Agreed on all points. I picked up LeDonne at SBL the year it came out. That helped clear some thinking for me on the historical Jesus project as it relates to postmodernism. I think considering the historical Jesus project in modern terms has some real difficulties. I like what LeDonne did in the Historiographical Jesus as well.

        Thanks for the review Chris. Very thoughtful.

        We’re doing well. The semester breaks loose for me this Thursday. We’ll see you in Baltimore DV.


  1. Whether there is a Holy Spirit: an early interpretation of Acts 19:2 | NEAR EMMAUS
  2. Reflections on Literacy | Judy's research blog
  3. Nine Books I’m Currently Reading (Skinner) | Crux Sola
  4. My Review of Chris Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite (Skinner) | Crux Sola
  5. Reviewing Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Last Supper, Part Two (Skinner) – Crux Sola

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