Tuesday, December 29, 2009

scribes and audiences

I've finally found some time to get back to Chris Keith's, The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009). I've finished the first four chapters, and to this point I've found very little to argue with. In fact, I've been somewhat surprised at the extent of the overlap between Chris's research interests and my own; for example, had I known about his argument regarding the identity and function of "the scribes" [οἱ γραμματεῖς; hoi grammateis] in the New Testament, I would have cited it in my own discussion of the relation between scribes and Pharisees in the synoptic accounts of the Beelzebul controversy (Structuring Early Christian Memory, pp. 180–185). If anything, the main point of difference between Chris's work and my own, I think, concerns his very intense focus on "text-brokerage" (by which the contents and significance of sacred texts are mediated via a small group of literate individuals to a largely illiterate [or insufficiently literate] populace) versus my own interest in the relation between tradition and the texts that embody that tradition. But even here we're both circling around a similar set of questions; namely, How do texts/traditions function within their wider social contexts?

But Keith's fourth chapter, "Scribal Literacy in the New Testament World: The Scribes (and Pharisees) as Text-Brokers," raises a slightly different sent of questions for me than those he pursues. In his comparison/contrast between the synoptic gospels' and Josephus' portrayal of "the scribes," Keith rightly recognizes that the social contexts in which the scribes are portrayed affects how they are portrayed. At one point Keith says,

Even the texts that could possibly be addressed to a predominantly Gentile audience (e.g., Gospel of Mark or Luke-Acts) presume a level of familiarity with a Jewish worldview, as indicated by the fact that these stories are replete with allusions to and direct quotations of the Jewish Scriptures. (Keith 2009: 108)

I like Chris's agnosticism here regarding the gentile make-up of Mark's, Luke-Act's, or even any of the NT texts' audiences. At the very least these texts "presume a level of familiarity with a Jewish worldview." I rather think that the texts posture their audience as a Jewish group regardless of their ethnic composition. For example, I think the author of 1 Peter does address predominantly gentile Christian groups, particularly on the strength of 1 Pet 4.3–4, which says explicitly that 1 Peter's audience used to pursue "the gentiles' desire" [τὸ βούλημα τῶν ἐθνῶν; to boulēma tōn ethnōn]. But 1 Peter also spends considerable time and energy reframing its audiences in Jewish terms, describing them as aliens and strangers, God's elect, a stone set in Zion, a chosen genos [race], a royal priesthood, a holy ethnos [nation], and even as the prophet Hosea's children (see esp. 1 Pet 2.9–10). In other words, when 1 Peter addresses a gentile audience, it takes special measures to address them as Jews.

I don't see any similar special measures in the gospels. Perhaps the difference is generic: The gospels are narratives that don't explicitly address their audience one way or another; 1 Peter, an epistolary text, does identify and address its audience. But more is going on here, I think. To come back to Chris's discussion, Josephus does write narrative (see his Antiquities of the Jews and Jewish War), but his narratives are couched in a rather different symbolic universe:
Josephus portrays scribes according to his 'aim to explain Jewish society in a more intelligible way to his Greek non-jewish audience.' For the Greek audience Josephus addresses, scribes were functionaries whose grapho-literacy [= ability to write] did not translate into sacred literacy [= ability to read/recite/interpret/apply sacred texts]. . . . Contrary to the writings of Josephus, the Synoptic Gospels aim to portray Jewish society (in this respect) on its own terms, even if portraying it as such for the benefit of Gentile readers. (Keith 2009: 109; citing Christine Schams)

Chris focuses narrowly on Josephus' portrayal of γραμματεῖς [grammateis; "scribes"] and the brokers of Jewish sacred texts (e.g., the "sophists" [σοφισταί; sophistai] at War 1.649). But he raises in my mind the question of how Josephus and the evangelists connect their intended (or at least imagined) audiences and sacred Israelite tradition. I don't have sufficient knowledge to speak authoritatively here (not that that usually stops me), but my impression—uninformed as it is—is that Josephus is demonstrably aware that Torah and the prophets are foreign texts vis-à-vis his audience. The gospels, on the other hand, nowhere demonstrate this awareness. The closest they come, unless I'm missing something, is their translation of Aramaic terms or their explication of (certain) Jewish customs (e.g., Mark 5.41; 7.3–4). But this is a long way from what I think we see in Josephus. Perhaps this is an area for further research.

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