January 19, 2013

Chris Keith, Relative Literacy & Scribal Status

If one sticks with a haystack long enough, one may indeed find, eventually, a few needles. Such uniqueness, I daresay, belongs to this impressive discussion about Jesus' Literacy, a book that just moved to the top of my buy list. What impresses me most, even aside from the very impressive results of the author's actual study, is the method.

Just from this interview, it would appear that Dr. Chris Keith has successfully (1) embraced differences in the four Gospel accounts but (2) avoided the trap of attacking those differences - either by tossing out his own less preferred details, as do many critics, or by smoothing over those details creatively, as do many apologists & harmonists. Instead, (3) Keith seems to care deeply about finding the most plausible way to actually account for what material we do have... not by accepting some bits and rejecting others... and not by brushing things under the rug, or by timidly suggesting something 'really' means something else... but rather by attempting to account for the reality of variance in human perspectives, and thus treating the material respectfully. Also, that pomo stuff about "social memory theory" apparently helps a great deal as well! ; - )

Here's Chris Keith describing this 'new' angle, in his own words:
...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.
For more on the method, again, see the interview.

Now, the concluding hypothesis / explanation that's eventually presented is, of course, what really and ultimately validates his entire method. In short, Keith discovered that just as literacy is a relative aptitude, so was scribal status a bit relative by perception.

I think I may understand this point a bit better than most. As a "wannabe scholar", I am very much like what Keith describes from his thesis. My friends among the village folk, who both know me and like me, will occasionally describe me to others as something of a scholar. On the other hand, the Jerusalem Scribes with whom I try to interact sometimes struggle politely to make sense of my overall presentation. Even if I'm correctly observing some particular point, my verbal manner and conversational stylings aren't quite right. Or sometimes my logic presents itself well, but my field knowledge displays large gaps, which is automatically troubling to specialists. While it's very obvious I'm kinda smart and I've read some stuff, it's equally obvious that I'm not properly trained in the ways of the Force. Uh, I mean, in the ways of the Academy.

All of that, to say nothing of the personal aspect that I usually happen to be coming from left field, with my own unique questions. (That's not bragging unless you think unique = better, which it does not.) And we know Jesus himself, as it only so happened, seemed to come at these guys from surprising perspectives. So there's that. (I'll trust you now to understand where this comparison starts and ends.) But enough of me using myself to illustrate someone else's thesis!

The eye-opening point is that Jesus must have seemed differently abled to various perceivers. Country folk thought he was a rock star caliber Rabbi with high level educational knowledge & skills. Jerusalem's scribes got a distinctly different impression. Something like this, at least, is what Dr. Keith has concluded, and I find it a brilliant suggestion, all personal empathy aside.

The entire discussion, by the way, is expressed in terms that are highly field specific. I'm kind of glad that I didn't get to read this interview last May when Matthew posted it. Having met Dr. Keith at the Jesus Criteria conference in Dayton last October, having listened to him present and interact, and having recently read and re-read his contributions to the atomic bomb of an icebreaking book that accompanied the conference... the discussion was much easier to follow with speed than it might have been otherwise.

Nevertheless, I will be going back soon to read and re-read this blogpost over at New Testament Perspectives.

If you want to learn something about developments in the field which I think are extremely promising, I encourage you to go read, and re-read, and (if necessary) re-re-re-re-read the interview, as well.

Finally, the book's like $100 in hardback, but I heard recently they're soon releasing a paperback. When that's accomplished, I may post more here in time.

Thanks for reading my wannabe scholar blog post!  XD

(A big H/T also to Christopher Skinner whose old blog posts I was skimming, which reminded me to finally go read that interview. The new job is wonderful at helping me catch up on missed reading, but it wouldn't work nearly as well without the excellent and helpful curation. So many thanks to Chris, Matt & Chris also, just for continuing to blog.)

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton