by Richard Horsley
Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 161 pages
Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet, who together with Paul and the early Christians mistakenly believed in an imminent and cataclysmic end of the world — as Albert Schweitzer asserted over a century ago? Or was he the Jewish cynic sage preferred by the Jesus Seminar, whose message was distorted by his followers to fit into their own apocalyptic scenario? This has been one of the central debates in New Testament studies for over a generation, especially among scholars of the so-called “historical Jesus.”
Richard Horsley, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, concludes that the entire debate has been a “diversionary” exercise distracting us from understanding Jesus’ true purpose. Drawing on recent studies of late Second Temple-era Judean texts and first century history, Horsley asserts that the entire “apocalyptic scenario,” derided by liberal scholars and defended by neo-Schweitzerians, is a modern scholarly construct that misreads the Gospel texts. Horsley’s aim in the present work — the culmination of a prolific career — is to shift the scholarly debate and invite a fresh reading of these so-called apocalyptic texts.
The central scholarly misstep in historical Jesus studies, in Horsley’s view, has been to scrutinize individual Jesus sayings for their “authenticity,” stripped of their historical and literary context. Horsley suggests that this atomizing approach is like trying to understand Martin Luther King Jr. through analysis of individual speeches and letters without reference to the larger civil rights movement, the black church, and American civil discourse of which he was a part. Employing what he calls a “relational and contextual” approach, Horsley aims to read the Gospels not as a sequence of individual sayings and episodes, but as sweeping narratives that depict Jesus in interaction with an actual community of followers in first century Galilee.
What emerges is a portrait of Jesus as leader of a mid-first century Jewish movement of renewal and resistance, squarely in the tradition of Israel’s prophets, against Roman imperial rulers and the high-priestly establishment in Jerusalem.
Horsley is more oblique about whether Jesus’ followers understood him to be a messianic figure, or how his followers are to understand him in the 21st century. Jesus’ pronouncements against the rulers of Israel, and especially his disruption of the Temple, constituted a direct challenge to Roman imperial order in Judea, and led to his crucifixion. Jesus thus became a martyr to the cause of the renewal of Israel under the rule of God. It was this, for Horsley, that led some of his followers to believe, after the rulers killed him, that God had vindicated him in resurrection and exalted him as Lord and Messiah.
JEFF KREHBIEL is pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington and author of “Reflecting With Scripture on Community Organizing” (ACTA Publications).