This short essay seeks to answer the question: “Did Jesus act more like a scribe or a prophet (or both)?
Martin Hengel concludes his careful exploration of Jesus’ identity stating “Neither the misleading term “rabbi” nor the designation “eschatological prophet,” which is likewise open to misunderstanding, can adequately characterize his activity. Jesus’ “charisma” breaks through the possibilities of categorization in terms of the phenomenology of religion.” Still, faced with the question above, there is ample evidence that Jesus, at times, acted in ways that would fit both the categories of scribe and prophet.
Jesus the Eschatological Prophet. A. Schweitzer demonstrated that Jesus saw himself as a prophet announcing the great turning point of history, and he himself would usher it in through his impending suffering and death. Jesus played the prophet as he called Jews of his day to repentance, urged them not to miss the time of God’s visitation, and warned them of God’s impending judgment if they insisted on violent revolution.
Like Jeremiah smashing a pot in the Temple, Jesus too staged powerful symbolic acts that signaled God’s judgment on the corrupt system (i.e. Temple incident, cursed fig tree, etc.). He made prophetic predictions about coming cataclysmic events and their significance in God’s plans (Mark 13). When Jesus asked how others viewed him, many thought he belonged in the long line of prophets: “They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matt 16:4).
Jesus himself accepted the title ‘prophet’ for himself without hesitation, for example when he compares himself to Elisha in Luke 4: “Truly I tell you,” Jesus continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land…”
Ultimately, Hengel concludes his study of Jesus’ self-identity by quoting H. Conzelmann: “In the last analysis only the call of the Old Testament prophets by the God of Israel himself is a genuine analogy” to Jesus sense of authority and vocation. So, there’s ample evidence that Jesus acted like a prophet, was viewed as a prophet by others, and he accepted the title for himself.
If the “eschatological prophet” best describes Jesus when considering the big picture of his ministry—that of bringing Israel’s story to its long-awaited climax and fulfillment in and through his ministry and death—what title captures Jesus when we zoom the lens in and watch him in his conflict-ridden interactions with the religious elite of the day? Here we see Jesus taking on the role of a scribal authority or rabbi.
Jesus the Scribe of the Kingdom. Did Jesus act like a scribal teacher? R. Bultmann clearly thought so:
“If the the gospel record is worthy of credence, it is at least clear that Jesus actually lived as a Jewish rabbi. As such he takes his place as a teacher in the synagogue. As such he gathers around him a circle of pupils. As such he disputes over questions of the Law with pupils and opponents or with people seeking knowledge who turn to him as the celebrated rabbi. He disputes along the same lines as Jewish rabbis, uses the same methods of argument, the same turns of speech; like them he coins proverbs and teaches in parables. Jesus’ teaching shows in content also a close relationship with that of the rabbis”.
Jesus gained the reputation as a rabbi figure bringing his own interpretation of the law to the common people. According to Everett Ferguson, Jesus, like the Pharisees he so often butted heads with, “saw Torah as a developing, dynamic social force” and “sought to keep the law of Moses from becoming a dead ritual and give it new meaning and life.” Jesus accepted the title ‘rabbi’ throughout his ministry, such as when Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (Jn 3:2). Elsewhere he self-identifies with the title of teacher/master/rabbi but carefully differentiates himself from other teachers:
They love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others. “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah (Matt 23:7-10).
Jesus seems to embrace the role of a scribal expert or rabbi, and surrounds himself with his own students loyal to their master’s yoke.
In his book Jesus Against the Scribal Elite, Chris Keith looks at the social world of Jesus to better understand why Jesus got into such hot water with other scribal authorities. He argues that “the scribal authorities likely disagreed with what he taught and how he taught it, but a central part of the problem was that, from their perspectives, Jesus did not have the right to be teaching in the first place.”
Looking at Jesus’ social class and educational background, Keith suggests that “Mark and Matthew portray Jesus as someone who assumed the role of a synagogue teacher despite being a member of the manual-labor class,” and therefore a “scribal-illiterate”; while “Luke portrays Jesus as someone who legitimately took the role of a synagogue teacher since he was a member of the class of scribal-literate interpreters of the law.”
We are left with mixed opinions of Jesus in the NT accounts and subsequent memory of Jesus by the early church. On the one hand, some remembered Jesus as scribal-illiterate who nevertheless went toe to toe with scribal-literate law experts, thus offending them by his audacity to even dare to challenge their authority.
On the other hand, others (like Luke and the early church) remembered Jesus as a legitimate scribal-literate authority because when he did take on the role of a scribal-literate person, he met all the expectations of a person in such a role, and gave others the perception that he must therefore be scribal literate.
Either way, for our purposes, we can clearly conclude that Jesus acted, at times, the part of the scribe as well as the prophet.