Chris Keith: “The Contested Authority of Jesus”

“The Contested Authority of Jesus”
by, Chris Keith

Jesus against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict really came about as a result of my monograph Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee (T&T Clark 2011). In that book, I argue that Jesus was most likely not from the scribal-elite class and thus did not receive a scribal-literate education. At the very end of the study, I state that this conclusion has implications for how we understand Jesus’s interactions with other teachers of his day. Shortly after finishing Jesus’ Literacy, I received an invitation from Emmanuel Christian Seminary to deliver the Frederick D. Kershner Lectures in New Testament, and I decided to pursue the topic further in the context of those lectures. Those lectures formed the basis of Jesus against the Scribal Elite, where I take my prior arguments to the controversy narratives and ask what historical and exegetical implications might result from the idea of a historical Jesus whose status as a teacher was under question during his ministry.

Cover ArtAs such, Jesus against the Scribal Elite is—to my knowledge—the first book-length study of the earliest period of Jesus’s ministry. It focuses specifically on the question of how and why conflict first emerged between Jesus and authoritative Jewish teachers. Scholars typically attribute the origins of the conflict to Jesus’s reputation as a miracle-worker and exorcist or his alternative views on Torah. Although not dismissing these important insights, this book argues that one must go further, since Jesus was not the only person regarded as a miracle-worker or exorcist in Second Temple Judaism, and he was most definitely not the only teacher who took a non-Pharisaic approach to the law. Complementing these earlier proposals, then, I argue that Jesus’s status as a teacher itself was debated. That is, the problem was not necessarily what he taught or how he taught it but whether, from the perspective of the authoritative teachers, he had the right to be teaching at all. This overall argument emerges from several more specific arguments.

Drawing on my previous arguments in Jesus’ Literacy, I argue that Jesus was not a member of the educated scribal class and thus not able to read the Hebrew Scriptures on his own. As part of this argument, I detail that the first-century Gospels in the New Testament attest a debate among early Christians over this issue. Mark and Matthew place Jesus outside the scribal-literate class in the manual-labor class (Mark 6:3//Matt. 13:55) and state explicitly that Jesus was “not like the scribes” (Mark 1:22//Matt. 7:29). Luke, on the other hand, places Jesus directly in the scribal-literate class, attributing to him the scribal-literate skill of public reading in synagogue (Luke 4:16–20). Luke removes the claim that Jesus was a manual laborer (Luke 4:22) and also removes the claim that Jesus was not like scribes (Luke 4:32). Also related, the Gospel of John claims that some of “the Jews” questioned Jesus’s scribal literacy as a result of hearing his teaching (John 7:15). I argue that the best explanation for this variety of opinions is that Jesus was not a scribal-literate teacher, but, in light of the complex ways that literate skills were perceived in the ancient context and perceived differently by different classes, some of Jesus’s audiences likely believed he was a scribal-literate teacher.

I argue that this complex of events led the true authorities to engage Jesus publicly in order to expose him as an imposter to the position of scribal-literate teacher, and so emerged the initial stages of conflict. The only problem is that if Jesus ever managed to turn the tables on them and was perceived as the winner of a debate with them, it made their problem worse, because it gave some members of the audience further reason to consider Jesus an authority in his own right. Note, however, that my point is only that some members of the audience would have thought this. It’s my opinion that if a farmer visiting Jerusalem for a festival and a scribe from the temple overheard Jesus arguing with Pharisees, the farmer and the scribe could have walked away with differing conceptions of Jesus as a teacher. The farmer, illiterate and not versed in the intricacies of scribal authority, could have believed that Jesus must have been one of the teachers himself because he seemed to hold his own. The scribe, fully aware of the intricacies of scribal authority and culture, could have believed that Jesus was doing the best with his limited abilities but clearly was not an educated authority himself. Of course, in the Gospels Jesus pitches a shutout and wins every single argument. We might rightly question whether Jesus always won an argument, but I’m prepared to accept that he at least on occasion was perceived as the winner of debates with scribal elites.

The overall implication of this argument, then, is not only that Jesus’s authority itself was an important element in the rise of the conflict, but also that the general claim that Jesus was engaged in conflict with elite teachers of the law over Scripture and (Jesus’s) authority has a very high degree of historical plausibility. Indeed, if it is the case that Jesus himself was not a scribal-literate teacher but occasionally was perceived as one, we should expect that the true authorities would have challenged Jesus on precisely these issues. Of course, the conflict between Jesus and other teachers quickly spiraled beyond these issues and became more complex. The contribution of this book, however, is to establish that these were important issues at the very beginning of the conflict.


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.

For more information on Jesus against the Scribal Elite, click here.