(how to tell the biblical story
in a way that makes a difference)

Review: Richard Horsley, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel (part 1)

I have read a fair bit of Richard Horsley’s work on the social and imperial background to the New Testament. It’s always been interesting stuff, but my impression is that he has been more interested in the critique of political and economic injustice in the abstract than in the particular Jewish-historical reaction to pagan empire that, in my judgment, shapes the emerging Christian narrative. I haven’t read his (2010), but this review by Kevin McCruden suggests that he presents Jesus as a prophet of covenant renewal primarily against a background of economic exploitation. That seems to me a less valuable perspective, on the whole, than the argument of the present book, (2012), which considers the historical Jesus in the light of a revised understanding of Jewish apocalypticism.

The first part of the book deals with the debate over the apocalyptic Jesus, which in Horsley’s view has dominated study of the historical Jesus since Schweitzer. It is presented as a neat oscillation between two misguided scholarly positions taken with respect to the apocalyptic content of the Gospels, and I will do little more than summarize his analysis here. The second part, which I will review in a separate post, presents Horsley’s own account of Jesus as a prophet of renewal.

I should point out that Horsley tends to use the words “apocalyptic” and “eschatological” in a final sense, with reference to a cosmic-level catastrophe, whereas I have got into the habit of using them with reference to decisive transitional crises in the history of the people of God.

From liberalism to apocalypticism

Reacting against the prevailing nineteenth century liberal view of Jesus as a teacher of personal ethics and piety, Schweitzer (and later, in effect, Bultmann) argued for an apocalyptic Jesus who predicted the imminent and cataclysmic end of the world—a scenario ‘utterly independent of any “national movement” or current historical events or even a general eschatological movement’ (11).

From apocalypticism to neo-liberalism

The apocalyptic Jesus dominated twentieth century scholarship until neo-liberal scholars of the Jesus Seminar—Funk, Borg, Crossan—began to put forward an alternative construction. Jesus was not a wild-eyed apocalypticist. He was a serene, level-headed sage, a teacher of wisdom, whose later misfortune was to be abducted by an early church influenced by the apocalypticism of John the Baptist and of Judaism generally. Horsley quotes Robert Funk:

We can understand the intrusion of the standard apocalyptic hope back into his [Jesus’] gospel at the hands of his disciples, some of whom had formerly been followers of the Baptist:… they reverted to the standard, orthodox scenario once Jesus had departed from the scene. (16-17)

Against this view Horsley argues, on the one hand, that the sayings of John “attest not an apocalyptic judgment of a vengeful God, but prophetic declarations of God coming in judgment and deliverance as sanctions on the covenant renewal of the people of Israel”; and on the other, that the supposedly apocalyptic “son of man” sayings point to a figure who is an “agent of deliverance or ingathering of the people” (25).

From neo-liberalism to neo-apocalypticism

More recently, according to Horsley’s analysis, the pendulum has swung back towards the apocalyptic pole. He discusses the work of Dale Allison in particular, who thinks that many scholars “remain confident that the eschatological Jesus must be the historical Jesus’, which means that “we are back with the conventional paradigm of Jesus as eschatological prophet” (27).

Briefly, Horsley critiques the major themes from which Allison’s (and to a lesser degree Bart Ehrman’s) apocalyptic account is constructed. He dismisses the evidence for the view that Jesus predicted an imminent eschatological—by which he means final or cosmic—judgment and a general resurrection of the dead. He accepts that Allison has added the restoration of Israel motif to Schweitzer’s apocalyptic scenario, but maintains that he minimizes its significance and fails to deal with the resulting tension between the historical and eschatological narratives. He argues that the language of cosmic catastrophe and tribulation quite naturally refers to “what were repeated historical experiences of the Judean and Galilean people under Roman rule for more than a century leading up to the great revolt and the Roman devastation in 66-70”, and to the sufferings endured by a prophetic movement (33-34). Finally, there is no reason to apply the “imminence” sayings to an eschatological—that is, final—event.

Horsley’s arguments are not fully convincing—he seems to me to downplay the motif of imminent judgment on Israel, for example; and he relies too much on the exclusion of sayings reckoned by scholars not to have their origin in Jesus’ own teaching. But I think that his negative conclusion at this stage is more or less justified:

The sayings of Jesus simply do not provide evidence that he was preaching an “apocalyptic scenario” focused on imminent eschatological tribulation, (leading/prior to) the eschatological judgment, and establishment of a supra mundane life of resurrection and eternal life. (36)

From end-of-the-world to end of (the) empire

To varying degrees interpreters on both sides of the debate have taken it for granted that the end-of-the-world apocalypticism which was either preached by Jesus or foisted upon him is to be found widely in the texts of contemporary Judaism. The theme of the texts which predate the destruction of Jerusalem (mainly Daniel 7-12 and 1 Enoch) is not the end of the world but the termination of imperial rule and the restoration of the people of Israel. So for example, Daniel 12:2 refers not to a final resurrection but to the resurrection of “your people”, the Judeans:

the division of “to everlasting life” and “to everlasting contempt” is evidently between those who have remained faithful to the covenant and those who have not. (47)

Even the post AD 70 texts, such as 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, which have to struggle much harder to maintain the belief that God has not abandoned his people, do not clearly support the cosmic apocalyptic construct. The emphasis is on the defeat of the evil “Babylon”—that is, Rome—and the inauguration of a new, idyllic age. The conclusion:

…apocalyptic texts, both those that address the historical crises posed by imperial rulers’ attacks on second templje Jerusalem and the later ones struggling to deal with the destruction of Jerusalem and the people, focus on the future judgment of oppressive empires and the restoration of the people of God. (52)

So the end-of-the-world scenario presupposed on both sides of what Horsley calls a “diversionary debate” is a construct of modern scholars. The texts are not “alienated” from history; rather, “they are focused on how imperial rule has become intolerably oppressive and increasingly violent in suppression of the traditional Judean way of life” (58). They are an attempt to understand how history has spiralled so “out of control”. At the heart of the crisis is the division between the high priestly ruling class, which has been “cooperating with imperial rule in violation of the covenant”, and the scribal community which authored the texts, which resisted to the point of martyrdom. The resolution of the crisis would come not with the end of the world but with the end of the imperial aggressor in an act of divine judgment. The best known account of this judgment is found in Daniel 7:

“the one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven” is a visionary symbol that is explained as referring to the granting of dominion to “the people of the holy ones of the Most High,” i.e., the Judeans (Israel). (59)

These texts, Horsely argues, constitute important sources for the historical context of the Gospels.

The scribal visions-and-interpretations “reveal” that the overarching, determinative reality in late second-temple Judea was Hellenistic and then Roman imperial rule. (62)

However, the scribal authors of the apocalyptic texts belonged to a tiny educated elite, which despite its resistance to Hellenization, probably had more in common with the high priestly rulers than with the ordinary people of Galilee and Judea. The Gospels are virtually unique as sources for a popular Jewish movement, but they have to be assessed carefully and critically, which I presume—I haven’t actually read it yet—is what Horsley will do in part two.