Review: Richard Horsley, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel (part 2)

In the second part of [amazon:978-0802868077:inline] Richard Horsley first discusses a number of methodological issues, then outlines his view of Jesus as a prophet leading the renewal of Israel against the rulers of Israel. I will give a quick summary of his arguments and then briefly discuss the failure of the reconstruction adequately to take account of the theme of the coming of the kingdom of God, which seems to me to be the major shortcoming of the book. The first part of the review can be found here.

Precedent and performance

Whereas study of the historical Jesus has usually proceeded by reducing him to an isolated individual communicating in isolated sayings, Horsley insists, first, that it is the overarching narrative and the extended speeches found in the Gospels that determine the shape of his mission, and secondly, that “he can have become a significant historical figure only through interaction with and leadership of other people in a concrete historical situation” (74).

In chapter seven, therefore, Horsley examines the historical circumstances that gave rise to a large number of popular renewal movements in Judea around the time of Jesus, which

indicate the currency, indeed prominence, among the people of Israelite heritage at the time, of cultural patterns that included role-models that leaders could adapt and followers respond to, or perhaps project onto a leader. (94)

And in chapter eight he suggests that if we take the Gospel of Mark and the Q speeches as whole literary units and not merely as collections of sayings, the “overall program” of the Jesus who emerges is the “renewal of Israel against the rulers of Israel” (103). This argument is backed up by appeal to the study of “multiple oral performances”, which suggests that the overall shape of an oral tradition—the big story—is likely to be more reliable than any particular part:

If we extrapolate from these studies to the composition and early repeated performances of the Gospels, it is clear that we should look for stability or consistency in the principal sources for the historical Jesus in the overall Gospel story or series of Q speeches, and not in particular lines and verses…. (110)

The prophet of renewal

In chapters nine and ten we have Horsley’s substantive reconstruction of this Jesus. He is a prophet leading a movement. The healings and exorcisms are manifestations of the renewal of Israel. The Twelve are representative of the renewal of Israel, and the “commissioning of envoys is an implementation of Jesus’ mission of the renewal of Israel” (121). The mission focuses on the renewal of the “village communities that formed the fundamental social form of Israelite society” (122). At the centre of the mission is covenant renewal:

Jesus demands that they recommit themselves collectively to the covenantal principles and commandments of mutual cooperation and support in the village community. (127)

The movement of renewal, finally, is aimed against the rulers of Israel—the scribes and Pharisees, on the one hand, who are condemned “for the debilitating effect of their political role on the people, particularly in regard to their advocacy of rigorous tithing, on top of taxes and tribute, and failing to use their scribal office to relax the burden on the people” (133); and the high priests, on the other, who “were the very face of Roman rule in Judea” (144).

So, according to Horsley, Jesus was a prophet-leader of a movement of grassroots renewal, which would find expression especially in the renewal of rural community life, on the basis of the covenant, in resistance to a national leadership which ultimately served the interests of empire and not of God. In the end, he died a martyr’s death, which spurred on the movement he had generated to carry his teaching beyond the “frontiers of Israelite territory” (149).

Two questions about kingdom

As far as it goes, I find this reconstruction mostly compelling. Horsley’s willingness as a historian to take his bearings from the whole narrative of Mark (and the whole speeches of Q) is refreshing; and the insistence that Jesus must be understood in relational terms as the leader of a historical movement is an excellent antidote to the reductionism not only of much modern Jesus scholarship but also of the reigning popular theological paradigm. But there are two related questions that I think need to be asked. What has happened to the kingdom of God? And what has happened to the king?

First, the phrase “kingdom of God” occurs rarely in the book and serves as little more than a label for the grassroots covenant renewal of Israel (36). This seems to me to misrepresent quite badly the nature of Jesus’ mission. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God is the expectation of a dreadful national crisis—a storm and flood that will strike Israel, leaving very little standing. The mission was not the surprisingly conservative one of “renewing the village communities that formed the fundamental social form of Israelite society”. It was a call to repentance in the light of impending judgment (cf. Mk. 1:15; 6:12). Repentance, of course, entailed social transformation, but even as a prophet Jesus needs to be seen a something more than a social reformer or community organizer.

We must also wonder what sort of message would have been carried beyond the frontiers of Israelite territory if Jesus was seen by his followers as little more than a prophet of the renewal of Israel. Neither Acts nor Paul suggests that such a campaign was at the heart of the preaching of the first churches, and it is difficult to see what use they would have had for the categories of apocalypticism if social renewal—rather than the prospect of judgment, restoration and rule—was the driving force behind the mission.

Secondly, for reasons which are not entirely clear Horsley discounts the traditional “synthetic Christian construct” of Jesus as “Messiah” and “Son of Man” and shapes his Jesus, instead, according to the pattern of “leadership roles attested in contemporary sources” (116). So he stresses that in Mark’s Gospel Jesus “rejects the disciples’ misunderstanding of him as a popular king leading a revolt against the Roman imperial order”, but I’m not sure that the rebuke of “Satan” in response to Peter’s protest in Mark 8:27-33 really makes this point.

Horsley also dismisses Jesus’ response to the high priest’s question in Mark 14:61-62 as unclear. When asked if he is “the Christ, the Son of the Blessed”, Jesus replies, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). But no good reason is given to exclude from Jesus’ self-understanding the belief that his martyrdom would lead to vindication and rule at the right hand of God as Israel’s king.

Finally, a great deal is made of Jesus’ action in the temple because it neatly illustrates the thesis: in the time-honoured tradition of biblical prophecy he dramatizes God’s condemnation of the corrupt and oppressive temple system. But there is barely a mention of the no less prophetic event of the entry into Jerusalem (Mk. 11:1-10). Mark does not have the interpretive reference to Zechariah, but Jesus is royally acclaimed, nevertheless, with the words: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mk. 11:9–10). Jesus can hardly have been oblivious to the implications of his action.

Horsley connects this with Luke 13:35, which is addressed to the Pharisees. They were not about to welcome him as one “who comes in the name of the Lord”, therefore they “are about to be refused/forsaken by God” (141). But although the entry is a prophetic action, what Jesus enacts is his own future kingship: the crowds welcome him not as a prophet but as a potential king; the Pharisees reject him not merely as a prophet of reform but as potential king.

So the historical question we are left with is how does a prophet leading a movement of renewal become the king who is proclaimed among the nations? Horsley’s account is unable to explain this development because he is reluctant to integrate the Son of Man motif into the story. The prophet Jesus deliberately plays the part of one who has been given authority to judge, forgive, restore in anticipation of the vindication that he will receive beyond martyrdom.