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Review of Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and the Powers

Author: Robert J. Meyer
Published: February 2011

MD 2.1

Article Type: Review Article

Richard A. Horsley. Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010. 248 pp. $29.00.

Richard Horsley’s most recent work builds on his prolific writing concerning the socio-political context of first-century Palestine. In Jesus and the Powers, Horsley refutes various anachronistic assumptions that lead recent biblical interpreters to discount or ignore the struggle against oppressive powers depicted in the Gospels. He seeks to show that Jesus led a socio-political prophetic movement that culminated in a direct challenge to the Roman authorities resulting in his martyrdom. This catalyzed an alternative social order that grew exponentially despite the real possibility that his followers might also face crucifixion. For Horsley, the core of the gospel message is Jesus’ renewal of the Mosaic covenant whose socio-economic principals give hope to the poor.

Horsley’s first three chapters set the backdrop for Jesus’ life and ministry. Citizens of ancient empires offered their labor and produce to the imperial order out of fear of the superhuman powers whom the rulers represented. This scheme perpetuated the wealth of the powerful and the subjection of the peasants. The Israelites defined themselves as an alternative society, free of imperial powers and sustained by the “principles of social-economic policy” in the Mosaic covenant. The kingship developed as a provisional means of defending independence. Prophets arose to protest against subsequent kings, beginning a tradition that grew as Israel fell under the control of other empires again. Under the Romans and their client kings, a number of scribes and peasants led protests or revolts deeply rooted in prophetic traditions.

The last five chapters examine Jesus’ movement in this context. Jesus sought to renew the socio-economic practices of the Mosaic covenant in order to restore family and community relationships that were disintegrating under Roman oppression. Jesus’ message empowered the people with the hope that through solidarity they might meet one another’s needs. Jesus also engaged in direct political resistance by declaring God’s judgment against the temple and the high priests who were propped up by the Roman rulers. He posed a significant threat to the Roman order. He entered Jerusalem at a politically charged time in a politically evocative way to make a forcible demonstration in the temple itself. Jesus’ crucifixion was the decisive event for the eruption of active resistance by his followers.

Jesus and the Powers pulls together much of Horsley’s previous work and offers an excellent initiation to or summary of his perspective. His illumination of Jesus’ socio-political context is provocative and enriches one’s reading of Scripture. Horsley’s themes change little between volumes and those familiar with his work will find much overlap. He refers to his earlier writings often and rarely adds new insights to the more rehearsed parts of his arguments. Chapter five, on Jesus’ healings and exorcisms, does reflect more recent research, and his discussion of Jesus’ crucifixion is fresh.

Horsley clearly has an agenda in Jesus and the Powers that does not include an assessment of opposing views. At several points he relies heavily on other individual studies, especially political scientist James C. Scott’s analysis of peasant communities and Norman K. Gottwald’s history of Israel. He does not balance these perspectives with alternative proposals, instead focusing on the research that bolsters his own conclusions. He turns to medical anthropology and studies of spirit possession in modern Africa for comparisons to Jesus’ acts of power because “information on spirit possession in ancient Palestine is limited and fragmentary” (114). This peculiar turn seems suspect, as Horsley makes little use of what limited information does exist. Horsley argues persuasively for his thesis, but the evidence seems skewed in his favor at crucial points.

Most alarming is Horsley’s use of Scripture. For Horsley, the Gospels are primary sources for understanding the early Christian movement, but they are not the inspired Word of God. Therefore we need to “read between the lines” so that we may disregard later additions that buoyed the editors’ imperial agenda (44). The biblical authors exaggerate (106) and embellish (183), though sometimes they also “tone it down” (172). The earliest gospel sources (Mark and Q) are most reliable, but even these reflect only how Jesus was remembered by his followers (201). The passion narratives are the least historically reliable parts of Scripture (158). These assertions allow Horsley to mold Scripture to fit his historical reconstruction.

The strength of Horsley’s work is also its weakness. In many cases he reduces Jesus’ concerns to the socio-economic realm and removes any religious dimension to his teaching. For example, Horsley asserts, “Only people who have become rich by defrauding the poor are interested in ‘eternal life’ ” (143). Thus in Mark 10:29–30, Jesus referred only to the restoration that comes with covenantal economic relations. The final phrase about eternal life is a “throwaway line” or an “oh, by the way” (143). But in this Horsley oversimplifies the poor. People living in poverty show concern for life after death, as evidenced, for example, by their often elaborate funerary rites.

More troublesome is how Horsley minimizes the resurrection to give greater prominence to Jesus’ crucifixion. According to Horsley, the resurrection, “the most prominent theological construction of Christian origins . . . effectively reduces or even eliminates the historical (social-political) significance of Jesus’ crucifixion as a force in the dynamics of his movement” (194). He devalues the religious significance of the passion narratives to the point that belief in Jesus’ resurrection is unnecessary and even contrary to the rest of the gospel. Can Jesus’ life and ministry not have two foci? Could his actions have significance both for this age and for the age to come? Horsley himself insists that acts with political implications may also have religious significance. But he errs at the opposite extreme of his antagonists by rejecting the key religious event for fear of sacrificing political force.

Despite these criticisms, Jesus and the Powers still holds great value for the attention Horsley draws to an often overlooked dimension of Scripture. Horsley challenges us to consider carefully the political and economic ramifications of the gospel we preach. Ministers and missionaries of all kinds engage in Jesus’ mission of bringing renewal to communities. We ought to share the gospel in a way that is more conscious of its economic currents so that we can help others overcome the fatalism that often characterizes those trapped in poverty. We must shed light on the gospel’s political context so that we can give hope to those surrounded by oppressive governments and corrupt patron-client relationships. In so doing, we help lay the groundwork for the radical, alternative communities to which Christ called us.

Robert J. Meyer



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