When magician Ricky Jay performs an amazing card trick, people will often ask, “How do you do that?” He always answers, “Very well, thank you.”
Such masters of prestidigitation rarely, if ever, give away their secrets. Sometimes they take their arcane methods with them to the grave, leaving even their fellow conjurers to wonder for eternity, “How did he do that?”
Of course, it isn’t supposed to be that way in scholarship. We should be able to look at a paper’s abstract and have a fairly good idea as to the author’s thesis, methods, terminology, etc. And yet, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the works of the Memory Mavens and wondered to myself, “What are they getting at?”
Worse than that, I’m frequently left wondering how the scholar, after many pages of legerdemain, leaves us with a portrait of Jesus left on the table — which is exactly the one he predicted (and hoped) he would find. What was his method? “How did he do that?”
A New Methodology?
The Memory Mavens often spend a great deal of time expounding upon the deficiencies of the criteria approach. In Chris Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origin of the Conflict he says it “represents [an] ill-conceived historiographical method that is essentially stuck in historical positivism.” (Keith, 2014, Kindle Locations 1539-1540) He writes:
. . . I consider it irreparably broken and invalid as a historical method. The issue for the scholarly agenda now is to define a post-criteria quest for the historical Jesus. (Keith, 2014, Kindle Locations 1559-1561, emphasis mine)
As far as Keith is concerned, we can take the criteria of embarrassment, dissimilarity, coherence, and all the rest, and throw them right out the window. They aren’t just broken; they’re fundamentally flawed.
In his concluding essay to the volume, Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels, Keith notes with disdain that relying on criteria “mistakenly” assumes we can extract the “real” Jesus hidden behind the text. He notes that more and more scholars are abandoning this approach.
Since the criteria of authenticity are built upon this assumption, and devised as a means of separating one from the other, this abandonment problematizes the usage of criteria of authenticity. (Keith, 2011, Kindle Locations 6314-6315, emphasis mine)
I hate when things get problematized, and I’ll bet you do, too. So the best thing, clearly, would be to set them aside.
Keith advocates a different methodology, one based on “memory theory research.” (He always says those three words together, and I salute his discipline.) In his book, Jesus Against the Scribal Elite, he has a good opportunity to try out this new approach. He argues that we have two conceptions of Jesus within the gospels — one as a scribal-illiterate teacher versus one as a scribal-literate teacher — because people who watched him preach and who witnessed his disputes with scribal authorities came away with different impressions.
In order to get to that point he must first build a case establishing the historical probability that:
- Jesus actually existed.
- Jesus was a teacher (viz., an itinerant teacher from Galilee).
- Jesus engaged in disputes with scribal authorities (Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, etc.).
- Jesus was not literate, at least not sufficiently literate to read the texts under dispute.
Having established these foundational points, he will then proceed to argue how some people remembered Jesus as a literate teacher while others thought he was not.
Did Jesus Exist?
Obviously, this item is just a placeholder. You’ll have to imagine NT scholars engaged in an honest discussion about Jesus’ basic historicity. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Well, there is something I suppose we could mention with respect to Keith’s point of view. He has no patience with people who are “overly skeptical.” He rhapsodizes about Barry Schwartz’s views on anti-presentism.
The fact that a narrative carries symbolic value in a later period (such as Jesus in the controversy narratives symbolically representing later Christians and his enemies in the narratives symbolically representing their enemies) does not automatically render that narrative ahistorical or useless for historical research. While indicting this type of overly skeptical Jesus scholarship, Schwartz provides an apt counterexample from American history: “John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, Boston, connects him to the beginning of the American Revolution, but this hardly means that he was not born in Boston.” (Keith, 2011, Kindle Locations 420-424, emphasis mine)
In one sense, Schwartz and Keith are correct. We shouldn’t discard the idea that JFK was born in Boston simply because it connects him to memories of Lexington and Concord. On the other hand, just a few seconds on Google (at the risk of being labeled “overly skeptical”) shows us another, better reason to discard the idea.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was not born in Boston.
As Ed-M pointed out in a comment from Neil’s post “Does Social Memory Theory Advance Historical Jesus Studies?“:
Actually, John F. Kennedy wasn’t born in Boston. He was born in Brookline, Mass., which never was a part of the City of Boston, and still isn’t, even unto this very day.
Now, “born at Boston”, or “born in greater Boston”, has a ring of truth to it, instead of being just truthy while actually being a falsehood!
Unlike many of the surrounding communities that Boston has annexed over the years, Brookline has remained staunchly independent since 1705. They’re proud of their native son and would be disappointed to know that some scholars are giving Boston all the credit. Inadvertently, Keith has helped demonstrate an apt, ironic example of scholarly credulity and faulty memory. People will believe what they want to believe, including people with PhDs.
We “know” some things
Keith, for example, wants to believe that the baptism and the crucifixion definitely happened. In a Biblical Studies Online interview, he says:
. . . [A]t one point in time I realized I was defending myself against questions about whether I thought that we could know anything about the historical Jesus. [Chuckles.] I was getting asked whether he was really baptized or whether he was really crucified. Of course those things happened! I have no problem saying that. [Chuckles] I think, as I said, I think we can know a lot about the historical Jesus. (Keith, 2015, 17:10-17:30)
If you’ve followed NT scholarship for any length of time, you’ll recognize the preceding as a confession aimed not so much at us slobs, but rather at his colleagues, which explains why he giggles and his voice raises two octaves when he says, “Of course.” Note that where an actual historian might be content to say “we can be reasonably certain,” Keith says “we know.” One does not wander too close to the third rail of NT studies without some degree of trepidation; the best way to stay safe is to confess quickly and loudly.
How and why does Keith “know” these things? Well, partly because he believes social memory theory shows that certain kinds of events in the past constrain how people remember them in the present. James Crossley, right on schedule, brings up the Holocaust (citing Hayden White). Keith responds:
So, part of it is semantics, of course, and all scholarship is, but I think that, you know, what you noted about Hayden White and the Holocaust is a classic example of this. Now, no one is saying that real things didn’t happen in the past. The question is how we know about those things, how we come to make judgments about those things, and whether we can access the raw, uninterpreted past. You know, I adhere to a particular stream of social memory theory research that insists that in some instances like the Holocaust, or I would say like the crucifixion of Jesus, the past forces itself upon the present. There’s only so many things you can do hermeneutically with really tragic, atrocious events. You’re limited . . . The past actually constrains the present interpretive activity. So, of course the past really does come to us, but it never comes to us in an unpackaged reality. (Keith, 2015, 19:45-20:41, bold emphasis mine)
If you’ve been reading along with the Memory Mavens series, you’ll recall that Maurice Halbwalchs essentially said the exact opposite: that it’s often the most traumatic events that lead to deep reflection and heavy reinterpretation. Jan Vansina vindicated those earlier insights while studying oral tradition in the field, concluding that: “The memory of oral tradition is more dynamic at all times than individual memory.” (See Part 1 of this series.)
Was Jesus a Teacher?
Like any NT scholar worth his salt, Keith needs to build his case on a sure foundation. I was looking forward to watching that process unfold. He had whetted my appetite for this new memory-theory-research-based approach that could replace or at least begin to replace the criteria of authenticity, and I really wanted to see it in action.
Let’s be clear: Keith says we absolutely must do this, because the old methodology is “hopelessly broken.” He explains his position in great detail in his essay, “The Indebtedness of the Criteria Approach to Form Criticism and Recent Attempts to Rehabilitate the Search for an Authentic Jesus” (in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity):
I must pause to note the significance of these conclusions, with which I agree and have elsewhere defended at length. The assumption that scholars can establish “authentic” tradition as something in contrast to, and recovered from, early theological interpretation is the foundational basis of the criteria approach. It is the soil from which all further logical developments—such as using “dissimilarity,” “embarrassment,” or “multiple attestation” in order to perform the separation and extrication of the tradition—grow and have their sustenance. Once that foundation crumbles, the criteria approach is irreparably broken. If there is no such thing as past-without-interpretation in gospel tradition, there is no such thing as “authentic tradition” as the criteria approach defines it, and therefore nothing for the criteria of authenticity to extricate. (Keith, 2012, p. 40, bold emphasis mine)
Not only do the criteria of authenticity have form-critical cooties all over them, but, he explains, the whole idea that we can separate authentic tradition from the NT is misguided.
Good old-fashioned arguments
But don’t despair. Keith thinks historians can still “make arguments” to determine whether or not something probably happened. In his interview with Crossley, answering the question, “What do you do now?” — or more specifically how historical Jesus study is now done, without reliance on criteria, he says:
Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s one, frankly, that I’ve kind of come to despise when it gets asked kind of at conferences, and after papers and what not. You know, because the implication is: “Oh, you’re taking this away, and you’re not putting anything it its place.” And I think it just — that type of question, not the way you asked it, but the way that I get asked it sometimes, just shows the — in many ways the fact that historical Jesus research has become so accustomed to letting the criteria of authenticity make our decisions for us. You know, “Well, if you take away this, how do we do anything?”
Well, the quest for the historical Jesus has always been much bigger than the criteria of authenticity; they’re not the only game in town — and never have been. I really like what you did in your most recent book in saying that what we’re really looking for is we’re back to kind of this — you used this phrase — it’s kind of an old-fashioned argument, you know, making arguments about collective weight, what carries the most weight, what’s the best argument that we can make? But it has to be done on a case-by-case basis.
You know, the important thing about, for me, the implications of social memory theory for what replaces the criteria of authenticity is that social memory theory itself doesn’t make determinations about historical value it only kind of provides a context in which you can make those, but scholars have to go about making them themselves. In other words, we have to do what scholars have always done, which is forward arguments about likely scenarios — why we think that that’s most likely or what’s not most likely, and then let our peers judge it, but it’s up to us to make those arguments. (Keith, 2015, 28:39-36:18)
I am at a disadvantage here, since I can only hear what Keith is saying, unable to watch his hands wave convincingly. However, in a nutshell, I gather that one makes arguments without the use of criteria by making arguments. (You might want to write that down.) Just go out there and make an argument, young scholars. And how do you make that argument? By explaining why.
A post-criteria argument?
Now that we’re properly armed for the task ahead, let’s watch how a professional does it. Keith argues that Jesus was a teacher. I will reproduce his argument below in full.
According to Matthew, Mark, and John, Jesus’s followers often referred to him as “rabbi,” a word used in Aramaic and Hebrew that technically means “my great one” but functioned as an honorific title for pedagogical figures.  Thus John 1:38 translates the transliterated rabbi for its readers as “Teacher” (didaskalos).  Didaskalos appears in all four Gospels in reference to Jesus.  The Gospels, therefore, collectively affirm that those around Jesus recognized him as a rabbi and teacher, and there is no reason to doubt this portrayal.  (Keith, 2014, Kindle Locations 555-561)
Endnote 1: Matt. 26: 25, 49; Mark 9: 5; 11: 21; 14: 45; John 1: 38, 49; 3: 2; 4: 31; 6: 25; 9: 2; 11: 8. Rabbi never appears as a title for Jesus in Luke’s Gospel.
Endnote 2: See also John 20: 16, which translates the related term rabbouni also as “Teacher.” Rabbouni occurs elsewhere in Gospel tradition only at Mark 10: 51.
Endnote 3: Matt. 8: 19; 9: 11; 10: 24, 25; 12: 38; 17: 24; 19: 16; 22: 16, 24, 36; 23: 8; 26: 18; Mark 4: 38; 5: 35; 9: 17, 38; 10: 17, 20, 35; 12: 14, 19, 32; 13: 1; 14: 14; Luke 6: 40; 7: 40; 8: 49; 9: 38; 10: 25; 11: 45; 12: 13; 18: 18; 19: 39; 20: 21, 28, 39; 21: 7; 22: 11; John 1: 38; 3: 2, 10; 8: 4; 11: 28; 13: 13, 14; 20: 16.
Endnote 4: Dale C. Allison Jr., Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 24. Consider also Keener, Historical, 186, who notes that Jesus’s identity as a sage is something “the majority of scholars today accept regardless of their views on other issues.” Further, Leander E. Keck, Who Is Jesus? History in Perfect Tense, SPNT (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000), 65, claims, “To a considerable degree the history of the quest [of the historical Jesus] is the quest of Jesus the teacher.”
Endnote 5: Bruce Chilton et al., “Rabbi as a Title for Jesus,” in A Comparative Handbook to the Gospel of Mark: Comparisons with Pseudepigrapha, the Qumran Scrolls, and Rabbinic Literature, ed. Bruce Chilton et al., NTGJC 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 561. In sharp contrast, Martin Hengel, The Charismatic Leader and His Followers, ed. John Riches, trans. James C. G. Greig (Edinburgh: T& T Clark, 1981), 50, argues that on account of the lack of clarity for the meaning of “rabbi,” “we should desist altogether from the description of Jesus as a ‘rabbi.’”
In the first sentence we learn that three of the four gospel writers refer to Jesus using the term “rabbi.” The second sentence shows that the author of the Fourth Gospel equated the term “rabbi” with “teacher” in Greek. The third sentence tells us that every gospel uses the term didaskalos (διδάσκαλος). Therefore, given its multiple attestation in the gospels, we have no reason to doubt the fact that Jesus was a teacher.
Hang on. What’s that again? Multiple attestation? I thought the Memory Mavens had tossed the criteria into the bin marked Irreparably Broken. Wasn’t Keith going to use the context of “memory theory research” in order to argue his points? I’m confused. Perhaps that last sentence will clear things up: “The Gospels, therefore, collectively affirm that those around Jesus recognized him as a rabbi and teacher, and there is no reason to doubt this portrayal.”
Well, that looks like multiple attestation to me. What’s worse — Keith doesn’t even take the time to establish any kind of source independence, which is a problem, because if all the other gospels have copied from Mark, then the argument has no weight. Remember how we were going to make old-fashioned arguments that have weight?
And what’s with the “no reason to doubt” tagline? I get rather edgy when people say that, because it implies that the default position is to believe something is true, that it’s up to overly skeptical skeptics to produce evidence to the contrary, and that I shouldn’t even waste my time doubting it because “there is no reason.”
In endnotes 1 and 3 Keith provides a list of every occurrence of rabbi and teacher in the gospels, though I can’t imagine who wouldn’t just refer to a Greek concordance of the NT for that task. And in fact, if we check a concordance for appearances of the Greek words meaning teacher, instruction, teach, etc., we find an abundance of them in the gospels — nearly all applied to Jesus himself. Yet the remaining New Testament books have few, if any.
Surely we must consider both facts remarkable. The epistles contain far fewer occurrences of these words, and when they do, they almost always refer to human teachers of the gospel and to instruction about Jesus. As you recall, in part 6 of this series, we asked: “How Did Paul Remember Jesus?” We noted the stark differences between Jesus’ and Paul’s gospels.
Word usage as keys to Paul’s conception of Christ
To these differences we must add a more pervasive, more fundamental difference: Paul’s conception of Christ. In the previous post we wondered why Paul would reject or disregard “the teachings of the disciples who supposedly knew and learned from the greatest teacher who ever lived.”
However, a further study of the terms he used in his letters suggests that Paul simply did not conceive of Jesus as a teacher who imparted instruction to disciples. He assiduously avoids these terms. Instead, Christ is their Lord who (however infrequently) dictates commands that are relayed by apostles. Consider, for instance, one of the very few places in which Paul seems to be passing on teaching from the earthly Jesus:
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband. 1 Cor. 7:10 (ESV)
Instead of “charge,” some English translations use the word “instruction” or “commandment” here. The underlying word in Greek is παραγγέλλω (paraggéllō), whose etymology we can trace to the military practice of passing orders through the proper chain of command. Hence, Paul is telling us that the Lord, through him, has given them an order not to divorce.
Anyone who insists that Paul knew of the tradition about Jesus’ teaching concerning the proscription against divorce should at least try to explain why Paul, a supposed Pharisee who would have felt completely at home in a structured discussion of the Torah that would prove Jesus’ point, dropped it completely. Not only does Paul tell us he had received training in the law as a Pharisee, but he also analyzes the Torah in his own epistles to extract proofs to further his own gospel.
We have two choices, either of which is damaging to the case that we have “no reason to doubt” that Jesus was a teacher:
- Paul knew of the tradition and ignored it.
- Paul had no knowledge of the tradition.
Note that we aren’t just talking about semantics. Paul doesn’t simply prefer some words over others; rather, he conceives of Christ differently from the portrayal of Jesus in the gospels. Paul’s writing about Jesus lacks the words teacher, instruction, and disciple, because these conceptual categories do not exist in Paul’s gospel.
I honestly can’t think of any argument to explain the first choice above (i.e., Paul disregarded Jesus’ teaching), that isn’t ad hoc, and that doesn’t pretend “to get behind the text.” Was Paul so pigheaded that he wouldn’t listen to Jesus’ disciples? Was he so jealous of his own converts that he refused to give anyone else credit? Did Paul simply forget to mention in every one of his letters that Jesus was the ideal teacher and that followers of Christ are heirs to a great and important body of teaching?
Let me offer an alternative explanation. For Paul, the categories of teacher and prophet are distinctively human categories, incompatible with his Christology. Teaching, prophesying, along with speaking in tongues and other gifts of the spirit emanate from God through Christ to humans.
Teachers are people (men) who are like us, except that they have knowledge along with the gifts of learning and teaching. Prophets are humans who experience brief, fleeting contact with the divine realm in order to relay messages from that realm. But Christ is in perpetual union with the divine realm. Paul considers himself a teacher. Christ (his Lord) cannot be in the same category. Jesus is the proclaimed. Paul and his coreligionists are the proclaimers.
Furthermore, while the other apostles may have objected to the way Paul had expanded the movement to the Gentiles, they did not correct him on his basic conception of Christ. Why? The simplest answer is that they conceived of Jesus in exactly the same way. More to the point, while they had misgivings about Paul’s views on ritual law, circumcision, dietary restrictions, and other cultic issues, they also envisioned a celestial Lord, an exalted Christ.
References to teaching in the Johannine epistles
As we consider the appearances of “teaching” [διδαχή (didaché)] outside the gospels, our eye is drawn to the second letter of John. In it we read:
Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ [τῇ διδαχῇ τοῦ Χριστοῦ], hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. (2 John 9, KJV, emphasis mine)
At first it seems this passage is clearly referring to teaching or doctrine from Jesus. In fact, most modern translations render the term as “teaching of Christ.” But as you may know, the range of meanings covered by the Greek genitive is quite broad. Depending on the context, it can refer to the subjective, the objective, or the plenary. Simply stated, we could translate the text in three different senses:
- Objective Genitive: Teaching about Christ.
- Subjective Genitive: Teaching from or of Christ.
- Plenary Genitive: An ambiguous combination of senses 1 and 2.
We can’t really say with any degree of certainty what the author meant unless we consider the rest of the letter. And when we do, we see that his purpose is to warn against incorrect instruction.
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. (2 John 7, ESV, emphasis mine)
He wrote the letter in order to warn against false doctrine about Jesus (probably docetism) and to encourage his readers (listeners) to cling to the true doctrine. This “true” teaching or doctrine holds that Jesus came in the flesh to endure crucifixion, to perish, and to rise again. Hence, just as 2 John 7 refers to a “false” doctrine about Jesus, 2 John 9 refers to the “true” doctrine about Jesus.
References to teaching in other non-gospel writings
The epistles and John’s apocalypse concern themselves with post-Easter instruction (doctrine) about the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, while the gospels focus on teaching transmitted by Jesus himself while on Earth. And yet most of us would probably agree that the letters, at least those by Paul, were written many years before the gospels.
Some non-gospel writings in the New Testament come from a period in which the authors’ conceptions about Christ were well entrenched, and in which threatening, rival doctrines were emerging. We learn of “anti-Christs” in the Johannine epistles. And in the letter to the Hebrews we read:
Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings (NASB, 13:9a)
And in Revelation we find:
But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. (NASB, 2:14-15)
In case after case throughout the rest of the NT, we find teachings about Christ, but no teachings from or by Jesus. It is unfortunate that Keith appears to be uninterested in this conundrum, since memory theory research might give us insights into how these writings came about. Did social memory factors cause Paul to forget everything about Jesus’ life? Did other social memory factors produce fictional memories of Jesus, perhaps inspired by the war with Rome, the siege of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple?
Social memory preserves what it wants, erases what it doesn’t want, and generates what it needs. Sadly, the mavens are almost exclusively interested in its capacity to preserve, enlisting the power of memory theory in that time-honored apologetic exercise of harmonizing the writings of the NT.
Blinders against other witnesses
If Chris Keith wants to backslide and use irreparably broken criteria, that’s his prerogative, but why does he limit our witnesses only to the gospels? Keith presents the thesis that two conceptions of Jesus exist side-by-side in the gospels: one as literate and the other not literate at the scribal level. He argues that these conceptions go all the way back to “memories” in the actual life of Jesus. Ultimately, he will conclude that Jesus was not scribally literate, although he acted in ways that led some members of his audience to think that he was.
But right out of the gate, our myopic maven restricts his scope. He ignores New Testament writings — very early writings — whose conception of Christ excludes the category of teacher altogether. Even when he chooses to embarrass himself by taking E. P. Sanders to task for being “overly skeptical” in Jesus and Judaism, he stays tightly focused on what Paul taught and what Jesus taught. He ignores the elephant in the room. He cannot bring himself to ask, “What in Paul’s letters would lead you to believe that he thought Jesus was a teacher of any sort?”
End of Section 1
I had hoped to wrap up my critique of Chris Keith’s scholarship in a single post. However, I’ve only scratched the surface. We still have many things to cover, not least of which is how social memory theory has virtually no impact on Keith’s arguments concerning Jesus’ literacy and how his followers and later Christians conceived of him as a teacher. And for all the talk about not wanting to use outmoded words like “authentic,” when referring to Jesus’ words and deeds, it’s remarkable how often he is willing to argue that we know certain things actually happened and that the text as we have it today looks the way it does because of real witnesses to a historic (presumably authentic) Jesus.
Jesus against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict, Baker Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2014
Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels, Editor with Larry Hurtado, Baker Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011
“The Indebtedness of the Criteria Approach to Form Criticism and Recent Attempts to Rehabilitate the Search for an Authentic Jesus” in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, with Anthony Le Donne (Editor), Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012
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