Jesus and the Scribal Elites…A New Treatment

The following is a helpful intro by Larry Hurtado on a new monograph about Jesus and the scribal elites, which suggests there really is a historical basis for the controversy stories about such a conflict. BW3

Jesus and the “Scribal Elite”: Chris Keith’s Latest
by larryhurtado

In the latest tome from one of our most prolific recent PhDs, Chris Keith offers an argument about the initial causes of tensions/conflicts between Jesus of Nazareth and what Keith terms “the scribal elite,” i.e., the formally trained class of Torah-interpreters of his time: Jesus against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Baker Academic, 2014).

In Keith’s own words,

“I will argue that Jesus was not a member of the authoritative scribal elite class, but acted in some ways as though he were, and managed to convice some of his audiences that he was. Among other reasons, this blurring of social categories prompted attempts to expose him publicly as clearly not part of the authoritative elite, thus beginning a controversy that soon spiralled beyond these initial concerns and ever close to a Roman cross outside Jerusalem during Passover.” (6).

Without denying that other factors were involved in the escalating conflict in which the person of Jesus was central (e.g., Jesus’ healings & exorcisms, and features of his teaching, perhaps esp. his claim to be the spokesman and vehicle of the coming “kingdom of God”), Keith insists that “Jesus’ reputation as a teacher” was also a factor, and one too often overlooked.

One effect of his argument, as Keith notes, is to regard the “controversy stories” of the Gospels as more likely based on actual conflicts with “scribal elite” figures (even if in their present form these stories have been adapted to make them more meaningful to the intended readers).

Intended to be accessible and useful for “upper-level students as an introduction to the early period of Jesus’ ministry,” the book is also aimed to elicit scholarly reviews and responses. 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.


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