Monday, May 14, 2012

Was Jesus Literate? An Interview with Chris Keith

Chris Keith, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Lincoln Christian University, is one of the brightest up and coming Historical Jesus scholars on the scene today. Historical Jesus studies has waned a bit over the years, but Chris Keith (and others) are proposing new ways forward in making sense of Jesus and the first-century world in which he operated.

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Chris's latest book, Jesus' Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee . He also graciously agreed to an interview concerning this book. So, without further ado, on to the interview.

  1.  Could you discuss some of the factors that led you to write Jesus’ Literacy?

Jesus’ Literacy was a natural outgrowth from my The Pericope Adulterae, theGospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus.  In that study, which was my PhD at the University of Edinburgh, I argued that the references to Jesus “writing” in the ground in John 8.6, 8 were indeed claims that he could write.  Of course, in discussions about my thesis, people always asked whether I thought he really could.  I always answered vaguely—“Well, that’s not what the study is really about.”  I realized, though, that no one has really addressed the historical Jesus in terms of literacy in a systematic manner—there was no book on it.  Furthermore, most of the scholarly discussions treated the issue like a novelty topic.  From my earlier study, though, I was convinced that the issue of Jesus’ literacy actually mattered in a core way to historical Jesus studies, because it relates to how Jesus fit within the socio-cultural context of Second Temple Judaism and his career as a teacher within that context.  So, I decided I would turn and write a book on this topic.

  2. Scholars often appeal to the same texts and describe the same cultural enviornment, yet come to opposite conclusions regarding the issue of Jesus' literacy. Is this due to common misunderstandings of literacy in the ancient world?

Yes, I think so.  The misunderstandings are common for a reason, though.  Literacy in the ancient world is substantially more complex than most people think.  I think this is one reason why some scholars treated (and still treat) the topic of Jesus’ literacy as a novelty topic.  They read Crossan say that Jesus was illiterate and either agreed or disagreed, thinking that the terms “literate” or “illiterate” were relatively straightforward.  If one reads, however, Catherine Hezser’s work on literacy, or Raffaella Cribiore’s discussion of the school papyri of Greco-Roman Egypt, or even William Harris’s classic monograph, one realizes that literacy manifested in many contexts, languages, and skills.  There was nothing straightforward about it, and yet it was extensively tied into the social and political systems of the ancient world.  Current studies, like Sang-Il Lee’s Jesus and Gospel Traditionsin Bilingual Context, are only making clearer just how complex Jesus’ environment was in terms of language and literacy.

   3.    Form criticism and the criteria for authenticity have stood behind the various quests for the Historical Jesus. Describe why these methodologies are flawed and how does social memory theory provide a way forward.

They are flawed for the simple reason that there is no such thing as past-without-interpretation, or at least access to it.  The criteria, in their dependence upon form criticism, attempt to reach or reconstruct an entity that stood behind the interpretations of the Gospels.  That’s fine and good and, even if ultimately impossible, still the work of historical Jesus scholars in one form or another.  The problem is that they tried to reach or reconstruct that past entity in contradistinction to the interpretations in the Gospel narratives, again revealing their form-critical roots, since form criticism tried to reconstruct the oral tradition behind the Gospels by breaking units of tradition from the interpretations in the texts.  The interpretive frameworks of the present that give meaning to the past—i.e., enable the articulation of the past at all—are the only means in which the past survives.  Thus, the attempt to understand or reconstruct the historical Jesus should begin with the interpretations of the Gospels rather than in spite of them.  The criteria do the exact opposite.  Social memory theory, however, takes the complex interaction between the past and present seriously and provides a platform to understand various interpretations and, in some cases, posit a development.  At the end of the day, the criteria and social memory theory differ in their conceptions of the role of interpretive frameworks in historical reconstruction; the criteria dispose of them, social memory approaches work with and through them.

   4.    A distinction that you are careful to make in Jesus’ Literacy is the one between literacy and textuality (87-88). Could you comment on the importance for scholars to recognize the differences between the two when reconstructing the past?

Well, the clearest example of scholars not being careful of distinguishing the two is when they assert that literacy in Judaism was most likely higher than the rest of the ancient world because they were committed to a holy text.  One does not follow from the other, though.  Knowledge of a text, even intricate knowledge, does not require the ability to access that text for oneself.  That was even more common on the ancient world, where people held and even died with contracts that they were incapable of signing (for example, Babatha), than it is in our culture; and it’s common in our culture.  Lots of church- and synagogue-attendees know their holy texts intricately, but most are incapable of reading it in the original language themselves.  Rather, they are dependent upon what H. Gregory Snyder aptly calls “text-brokers.”  Thus, although texts were everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, it doesn’t mean that everyone could read them.  And, in many cases, the precise authority that the minority literate has is due to the fact that the majority illiterate esteem a text highly.  (Brian Stock’s The Implications of Literacy details this very well.)

5.   Discuss the importance of texts such as Mark 1:22// Matt 7:29; John 7:15 when discussing Jesus’ teaching authority vis-à-vis scribal-literate status.

What this group of texts claims is that Jesus’ audiences did assess his teaching career in light of known scribal-literate authorities.  That is, the theme of how Jesus’ own scribal abilities “stack up” against known authorities is a theme in the Gospels.  According to the first example, Mark 1:22//Matt 7:29, Jesus was “not like the scribes.”  And according to John 7:15, Jesus’ audiences questioned whether he was literate.  (The Greek literally reads, “How does this man know letters when he’s never been taught?”)  In short, these texts are significant because they show that questions like “Was Jesus a scribal-literate authority?” were not just questions for modern-day scholars—they were active questions in the first century CE.

6.  One of the key issues involving Jesus’ literate status is the differences portrayed in the Synoptic accounts. Could you talk about these differing portrayals and how John’s Gospel contributes to this debate?

I argue in the book that Mark and Luke have differing opinions as to Jesus’ social class.  Mark 6 claims that Jesus’ hometown rejects him as a synagogue teacher because he is a tektōn, typically translated “carpenter,” but a member of the manual-labor class.  (Matthew 13 follows Mark, but has Jesus as the son of a tektōn.)  Luke agrees that Jesus’ hometown rejected him, but it’s because of his statements in the synagogue, not because he’s a member of the manual-labor class.  Luke, in fact, removes the reference to Jesus being a tektōn, has the audience call Jesus simply “Joseph’s son,” and attributes to him scribal-literate skills of reading and handling a manuscript, even finding the location of a text in scriptio continua.  So, in short, there’s a difference of opinion within our first-century sources as to which class Jesus was in.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  John 7:15 says that Jesus’ own audiences were confused about whether he fell in the scribal-literate class or scribal-illiterate class.  Their question “How does this man know letters?” implies that Jesus was in the scribal-literate class; but their qualification “when he’s never been taught” implies that he was not.  “The Jews” of John 7:15 thus find Jesus to be a conundrum—he teaches like a scribal-literate person but they know he’s not because he wasn’t educated.  Importantly, the narrator never claims Jesus was “not like the scribes” as do Mark and Matthew; he claims only that Jesus is the type of Jewish teacher who made his audiences confused on the issue.  I think this claim on the part of the Johannine narrator has a very high degree of historical plausibility.  And if different audiences of eyewitnesses came to different conclusions about Jesus’ scribal-literate status and authority, and I argue in this book for the likelihood that they did (just like some members of his audience attribute Messianic status to him and others rejected it), we should not be surprised that this tension is present in our first-century sources as well, particularly if we believe that these sources do have some relationship to some form of eyewitness testimony.  (If I can raise the issue of “eyewitnesses” without being too nuanced about the details, since it’s a complex matter.)

7.    One of the key points you make in your work is that confusion about Jesus’ literate status in the early church can be attributed to Jesus himself. What are some of the key factors that helped you arrive at this conclusion?

The main factor that contributed to this issue was a preliminary methodological commitment, based on social memory theory, that the various images of Jesus must factor into an overall theory about the historical Jesus.  In other words, it wouldn’t be appropriate historiography simply to choose Mark’s scribal-illiterate Jesus or Luke’s scribal-literate Jesus, then dismiss the other image from the historical task altogether.  Whatever theory one proposes, it must explain how we already have differing images in the first century.  Once I started thinking about how both images could have already emerged in the first century, another issue came to the surface, which had its roots in my original work on literacy at Edinburgh.  Throughout the ancient sources, different social positions, and concomitant literate abilities, are viewed differently.  For example, a completely illiterate farmer may view a village scribe as a literate and honorable person.  At the exact same time, truly elite members of society saw village scribes as barely-literate, indeed, from their perspective illiterate, “wannabes.”  This secondary factor was instrumental because I realized that no one prior had asked whether different sections of Second Temple Palestinian culture might have interpreted, e.g., Jesus’ debates with known scribal-literates, differently.  That is, the role of perception in associating literate abilities with particular social roles led me to consider that Jesus’ own actions likely created the differing images of him.  If he was a scribal-illiterate person but did things—like teach in synagogue and debate Pharisees in public—that were typically the actions of scribal-literates, he inevitably contributed to the production of different receptions of him. 

8.  What implications do you foresee your work having on any future work done on the Historical Jesus, namely, the controversy narratives that occur between Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees?

I think Jesus’ Literacy has serious implications for how we interpret the controversy narratives because Jesus and the authorities are constantly arguing over Scripture and authority, and these two issues were hard-wired into scribal-literate culture.  Whether one considers Jesus as scribal-illiterate or scribal-literate changes how one understands those battles.  Were they attempts to expose Jesus as an imposter?  Or were they debates between two equally-authoritative teachers?  (And that assumes that the controversies are not the figments of later Christian imagination.  The majority of scholarship thinks this, but I’ll be arguing on the basis of my argument in Jesus' Literacy that something of the like had to have occurred.)  I’m working on this project currently in a book tentatively entitled Jesus the Controversial Teacher.  I’m arguing, in other words, that Jesus’ status as a teacher was a central factor (not the exclusive factor, of course) in why there was a controversy in the first place.  BakerAcademic is publishing this volume, and it should be out by 2013, but I’m cutting it close!


Brian LePort said...

Great makes me want to read the book now!

Matthew D. Montonini said...

Hey, Brian!

Thanks for stopping by. It is an excellent volume, hard to put down, and Keith is eminently clear writer. A joy to read really, and a good education on ancient literacy to boot.

Bill Heroman said...

Wow, wow and wow. Impressive indeed.

Although *very* late to this party, I have to underscore my personal enjoyment of this, as a "wannabe" floating nearby a conversation between two mighty scribes. ; - )

In all seriousness, I think I know *just* what Dr. Keith is on about. For instance, I have facebook friends who have publicly called me "a brilliant scholar", and I have facebook freinds from the scribe class who visibly scrunch up their faces when I try asking them questions.

That literacy is relative, I had considered before. The atomic bomb here is Keith's shift from literacy to class and status. Jesus' middling status is a way to explain differing perceptions of him. Absolutely amazing historical work.

This book just moved right up to the top of my buy list. Especially since the paperback's on the way.

Thanks, Matthew, for the great interview. And thank you, Chris Keith, for being so open about sharing details in this interview. That itself, also, is a nice breath of fresh air.