Jesus against the Scribal Elite

The Origins of the Conflict

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How did the controversy between Jesus and the scribal elite begin? We know that it ended on a cross, but what put Jesus on the radar of established religious and political leaders in the first place? Chris Keith argues that, in addition to concerns over what Jesus taught and perhaps even how he taught, a crucial aspect of the rising conflict concerned his very status as a teacher.

Addressing an overlooked aspect in Jesus studies, this fresh and provocative work is the first book-length treatment of the origins of the controversy between Jesus and the scribal authorities. It exposes the broader significance of Keith's highly regarded technical work on the literacy of Jesus.

Introduction: The Teacher from Galilee and the Origins of Controversy
1. Teachers in the Time of Jesus: Scribal Literacy and Social Roles
2. Jesus as Teacher in the Gospels: Questioning, Rejecting, and Affirming the Nazarene
3. Assessing the Texts: Authenticity, Memory, and the Historical Jesus
4. Jesus and Scribal Literacy: Possession and Perception
5. The Content of the Conflict: Scripture and Authority
6. The Emergence of the Conflict: Its Origins and Nature
Concluding Remarks: The Beginning, the End, and the Beginning of the End


"In this book, as lucid and accessible as it is compelling, Chris Keith exposes the issues that lay at the very heart of Jesus's engagement with the scribal elite. This is written for upper-level students, but scholars too will find much to consider in this excellent treatment."

Helen Bond, senior lecturer in New Testament and director of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins, University of Edinburgh

"This well-written study by Chris Keith puts Jesus as a public teacher into new light. The attention this book devotes to Jesus in relation to the social context of his day not only challenges assumptions about what it means for Jesus to be God's Messiah and Son of God but also offers a fresh way to understand what it meant for Jesus to have given instructions at all and to have debated them with his Jewish contemporaries. Readers with any interest in the historical Jesus will have a hard time putting the book down."

Loren Stuckenbruck, professor of New Testament and Second Temple Judaism, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

"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

"Building on extensive research in oral culture and collective memory, Chris Keith helpfully contextualizes Jesus's debates with the scribes and other experts on the Jewish Scriptures within the media culture of Roman Palestine. His readings of the Gospels offer new insights on those texts and on Jesus's teaching career, adding greater clarity to the ways that Jesus confronted the religious authorities of his own time and, ultimately, the reasons for his death."

Tom Thatcher, chief academic officer, professor of biblical studies, Cincinnati Christian University

"In Jesus against the Scribal Elite, Chris Keith provides a distinctive angle to the controversy narratives by focusing on how the scribal elites perceived Jesus's literacy and authoritative status. Keith's research complements older approaches to the controversy narratives and their focus on the law, miracles, and exorcisms. The book is convincing, carefully argued, well-documented, and remarkably easy to read. It will surely prove its worth both in the classroom and in the ongoing quest for the historical Jesus."

James Crossley, professor of Bible, politics, and culture, University of Sheffield

"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

"Christianity was birthed from debate, conflict, and bitter rhetoric. Jesus against the Scribal Elite offers a realistic, often disturbing portrait of how this all began. Built from sound scholarship and great respect for the biblical Gospels, this book confirms what most New Testament scholars already know: Chris Keith is the best and brightest scholar of Christian origins in the field."

Anthony Le Donne, United Theological Seminary; author of The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David

The Author

  1. Chris Keith

    Chris Keith

    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...

    Continue reading about Chris Keith


"Keith favors a 'memory approach' over traditional criteria of historicity employed in previous historical Jesus quests. Thus, he argues that Jesus was remembered for assuming scribal authority and controversies with the scribal elite, even if the stories reflect the evangelists' contexts. Though scholars might disagree with his methodology, Keith creates a plausible account of a conflict rooted in Jewish social and religious practices that culminated in Jesus's death at the hands of Roman authorities. This book serves as a great introduction to studies of ancient literacy and historical Jesus research for theology/religion courses at the undergraduate/graduate level. . . . Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through researchers/faculty."

H. Vela,


"[This volume] takes up the relatively ignored question of how the conflict between Jesus and the scribal elite of his day began. To do so, it delves into the spectrum of and sociological influences on first-century literacy in Galilee and Judea. It further engages deeply with the plethora of both modern scholarship and ancient sources--the former in critique, the latter for support. It does all this in a lively, engaging--even conversational--style. . . . [It] presents the most innovative approach to the question of how Jesus came into conflict with the scribal elite for some time. The argument of the work is persuasive. . . . The work moves the scholarly discussion of the historical Jesus forward significantly and is reasonably accessible to students and the general readership for whom it is intended."

Albert Lukaszewski,

Review of Biblical Literature

"Even though the book is designed for upper-level students, shown by its lucid and accessible style, it makes a significant scholarly contribution. . . . The unique contribution of this book lies in its focus (Jesus's early career in the Galilean synagogues) and its explanation for the origins of the conflict between Jesus and the scribal elite (Jesus's debated status as a teacher). The book is also a good example of how the theory of social memory can be applied to texts that show conflicting evidence. Keith's argument is original, attractive, and persuasive. . . . This is a very fine piece of work."

Cornelis Bennema,

Review of Biblical Literature

"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. . . . This book includes several examples of remarkably insightful biblical interpretation, particularly when Keith examines the distinctive ways in which each Gospel treats Jesus' relationship to literacy."

Greg Carey,

Christian Century

"Engaging the work of such influential figures as E. P. Sanders on Jesus, Keith's new book deserves the consideration of anyone keenly interested in understanding Jesus' ministry in its historical context."

Larry Hurtado,

"Keith begins with the sources as they are and explains the conflicting memories regarding Jesus' scribal literacy from the fact that a scribal-illiterate member of the manual-labor class presumed to function as an authoritative teacher. Keith argues persuasively that this in itself would have been sufficient to lead to all sorts of questions and conclusions about his scribal-literacy and authority, and to bring him into direct conflict with the scribal elite. In addition to probing a neglected factor in historical Jesus research, Keith illustrates how social memory theory opens up new possibilities for the field. As a result, this concise, clear, and convincing analysis will serve both scholars and students equally well."

Jody A. Barnard,

Journal for the Study of the New Testament

"This book is engaging, well written, well researched, and contains numerous useful teaching illustrations. . . . I highly recommend it for non-specialist readers, teachers, and scholars. Chris Keith has done a service by making his important research available to a wider audience."

Christopher W. Skinner,


"Keith argues his thesis clearly, and he convincingly demonstrates the benefits of the emerging methodology of memory approach. This book will be a model for others who wish to implement memory approach to other issues of historical Jesus research."

Steven J. Stiles,

Expository Times

"Directed towards upper level students and those who possess some familiarity with biblical and historical studies, the book is readable, and Keith's line of argument is clear. He addresses a worthwhile question, and his discussion of form-critical approaches to the historical Jesus versus memory-centered approaches helpfully complicates the enterprise of historical reconstruction. . . . For those keenly interested in the historical Jesus and how we read and engage the text as history, Keith's book will be of genuine interest."

Holly Hearon,


"This interesting study attempts to discover the origin of the conflicts between Jesus and the Jewish scribal authorities. . . . This is a helpful study, supplying a lot of information about literacy and scribal traditions in first-century Judaism."

Donald Senior, CP,

The Bible Today

"Scribal Elite provides an excellent foray into some of the more pressing methodological questions for historical Jesus study today, specifically how different groups could perceive Jesus differently. . . . Keith provides excellent analysis of the literacy rates within first-century Palestine as well as a helpful discussion on the various levels of literacy that could have been achieved. . . . Keith's work shows that interest in how various groups recall events has had a significant impact on historical Jesus studies with no signs of slowing down. Scribal Elite is a helpful presentation of how to apply social memory to the Gospel traditions."

Benjamin I. Simpson,

Bibliotheca Sacra

"This book is well-researched and persuasively argued. Keith writes with a casual, inviting tone that makes the material accessible to students and any interested reader. The book could be used effectively in an undergraduate course on the Gospels, and chapter two would make an excellent stand-alone reading in a Gospels or NT course. His summary of the memory approach would make for a good introduction to contemporary strands of Historical Jesus research. Keith's contribution to our understanding of Jesus and early Christian representations of him is well worth reading and thinking with."

Cambry Pardee,

Stone-Campbell Journal

"A valuable contribution to the field of Historical Jesus research, not only for its conclusions, but also for Chris Keith's insistence upon nuance in an age marked by bombastic claims intended to appeal to a conspiracy-hungry market. The book provides a critical consideration of current scholarship without resorting to in-group jargon, and is thus as readable to the novice student as it is engaging to the advanced scholar. Chapter three alone would make an excellent resource for an undergraduate course on current trends in Historical Jesus research."

Joshua Paul Smith,

Review and Expositor