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Jesus’ Literacy. Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee. With a foreword by D. C. Allison, Jr.
London u. a.: T & T Clark International (Bloomsbury) 2011. 242 S. = The Library of New Testament Studies, 413. Geb. US$ 100,00. ISBN 978-0-567-11972-8.
In his monograph Chris Keith applies what he calls the »Jesus-Memory approach«, a methodology based on social memory theory, to the question of Jesus’ literacy. K.’s study, impressive in both its precise exegetical analyses and compelling argumentation, is divided into five analytical chapters with a short introductory chapter and a concluding summary: Chapter 1 (8–26) presents the history of research and highlights that scholars claim both that Jesus was literate as well as that he was illiterate by appealing to biblical texts or the socio-historical context of first century Galilee. In Chapter 2 (27–70) K. expounds his methodological approach to the problem of the literacy/illiteracy dichotomy with the help of social memory theory over against the dominant approach of de-fining criteria of authenticity. The author specifically highlights the central aspects of his approach for the question of the histori-city of Jesus material and the role of the Jesus historian. Chapter 3 (71–123) provides an overview of the different forms of literacy prevalent in Second Temple Judaism and especially focuses on six aspects: widespread illiteracy, widespread textuality, literacy spectrums, scribal literacy, the acquisition of biblical knowledge and the perception of literacy. With a view to the key issue discussed in this study K. concludes that the sources do not allow one to argue for or against Jesus’ literacy but rather address whether he held scribal literacy. Chapter 4 (124–164) analyzes the primary New Testament passages dealing with early Christian memories of Jesus’ literacy: Mk 1:22/ Mt 7:29; Mk 6:3, Mt 13:55; Lk 2:41–50; 4:16–30; John 7:15; 7:45–52; 8:6,8. K. argues that two streams of social memory co-existed in early Christianity concerning Jesus’ scribal-literate status: Mark and Matthew question Jesus’ scribal literacy, whereas Luke affirms his status within scribal-literate culture. The debate is also reflected in the Johannine gospel texts as a debate actuated by Jesus’ public teaching. The portrayal of Jesus as a scribal-literate teacher was then received and became predominant in later, e. g. apocryphal Christian tradition.
K. concludes that »from the first century, the early Church remembered Jesus, sometimes vigorously, as someone who did not have scribal literacy, someone who did, and someone who was able to blur the lines between scribal literacy and scribal illiteracy « (164). Chapter 5 (165–188) presents a reason for these inconsistent memories in the assumption that »Jesus’ own life and ministry produced conflicting convictions about his scribal-literate status « (165); based on the socio-historical context and the development of tradition the author then argues that »Jesus was a scribal-illiterate teacher« (174) although he managed to convince his audiences that he held scribal-literate status and that »later Christian portrayals of a scribal-literate Jesus are departures from the most likely historical reality« (174). The concluding summary (189–192) addresses perspectives and implications of K.’s findings for the study of the historical Jesus.
The application of the »Jesus-Memory approach« to New Testament texts testifies to a new historical consciousness and a decisive turn in New Testament Studies. While the criteria approach is based on tradition-historical and form-critical conceptions of the development of Jesus tradition and hence adopts methods for gett ing »behind« the text (30) in the search for »authentic« tradition (28), the Jesus-Memory approach focuses on the final text of the New Testament writings. Therefore, it looks for Jesus memory »in« the texts and not »behind« the text, thus granting a high significance to the recorded textual material and integrating it positively into the exegetical endeavour.
The Jesus-Memory approach embraces the growing dissatisfaction with the criteria approach in New Testament Studies and offers a different methodology of interpreting New Testament texts by drawing attention to the fact that tradition is not representation of empirical events of the past but individual or communal memory and hence a product of perception, construction and interpretation (64–66). It promises new insights into early Christian remembering processes and memory strategies and thus into the formation and transmission of oral tradition as well as into the transmission from oral to written media. However, some important aspects of memory theory are not taken into account: K. ’s application of the approach focuses on the content of Jesus memory (125) while the remembering process, memory strategies as well as media and forms connected to the remembering process are discounted.
As K. maps out, one of the tasks of the Jesus-Memory approach is to explain which socio-historical conditions led to the production of the Jesus memory found in the New Testament texts. Hence the socio-historical context of the early tradents of Jesus memory has to be reconstructed, as it allows for »inferences« or an educated guess concerning the most plausible historical explanation for the New Testament memories of the historical Jesus. While the reconstruc-tion of the context in order to »establish an appropriate background for understanding the diverse claims for Jesus’ literacy in early Christianity’s corporate memory« (71 f.) seems a worthwhile endeavour which can provide an explanation for the different as pects of Jesus memory present in the New Testament texts, the Jesus historian has to be aware that any reconstruction is heavily based on the assessment and view of the interpreter. The ensuing evaluation of the historical reliability of the different strands of Jesus memory in the New Testament texts seems equally problematic: it relies on a reconstructed context and the precise criteria for evaluating the plausibil-ity of historically reliable memories remain obscure.
When K. proposes that »we are only able to access the remem-bered Jesus, but how Jesus was remembered allows informed speculations about the historical Jesus who produced those memories « (64), this does not necessarily imply that (possible) historical facts have to be inferred from those historically reliable memories. The memory approach itself offers a new paradigm for interpreting the New Testament text material, and it seems that any pursuit of fur-ther inferences reverts to the effort of getting »behind« the text to the historical facts that can possibly be found »behind« the memories. Jesus historians may therefore focus on interpreting their liter-ary sources with a view to reconstructing the remembered Jesus of early Christian social memory, without attempting to harmonize the differences between memories and memory traditions and without pursuing inferences arising from their reconstruction(s) of memory concerning the historical reality behind the texts.