Book Review: Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine

jesuspoliticspalestineTitle: Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine

Author: Richard Horsley

Bibliographic info: 212 pp.

Publisher: University of South Carolina Press, 2013.

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With thanks to the University of South Carolina Press for the review copy!

I enjoy reading books by Richard Horsley because his work is always provocative, stimulating, and iconoclastic towards traditional historical Jesus research. A key feature in Horsley’s rendition of the historical Jesus is that he was not apolitical. It is not uncommon for Jesus to be understood as a religious figure, with the political ramifications of this being underplayed. Yet this picture is due to our modern partition of religion and politics into two different spheres, while Horsley sees the socio-political world as inseparable from the religious world in Jesus’ day. This, in a nutshell, is what Horsley discusses in Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine.

This book is comprised of seven chapters: Chapter One discusses how the field of historical Jesus studies tends to lack a focus on the politics of Jesus and the emphasis on an individualistic paradigm for viewing Jesus and the Gospels. Chapter Two then examines the political-economic-religious life in Palestine in the first century. Chapter Three provides a look at other messianic/prophetic movements that occurred in the first century. Chapter Four discusses demonic possessions and the link between demons and illnesses. Chapter Five contains Horsley’s understanding of Jesus’ mission for a renewed covenant community. Chapter Six then discusses the relationship between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees in the Gospels. Chapter Seven contains Horsley’s understanding of how Jesus’ crucifixion empowered the fledgling Jesus movement.

Horsley sees historical Jesus research as being misdirected by a form of social individualism, seen in how historical Jesus scholars attempt to find individual sayings of Jesus that can be authenticated by various criteria, in the process divorcing the sayings of Jesus from the narrative of the Gospel account. Horsley says:

Individual sayings of Jesus may be precious artifacts to the scholars who sort them out and categorize them. As isolated artifacts, however, they do not have or convey meaning, and they beg the question of context. The result is Jesus as a dehistoricized “talking head”, devoid of life circumstances.

Instead, Horsley sees the Gospels as “represent[ing] Jesus not primarily as a teacher and healer of individuals but rather as a teacher and healer in the context of village communities”, and he offers up an alternative which is to see the sayings of Jesus in light of the entirety of each Gospel in which they are found. When this is done, Horsley finds (among other things) that Jesus vilified the Scribes and Pharisees due to their serving the temple-state whilst mistreating villagers. This criticism that Jesus directed against the Scribes and Pharisees is based on a message of “Mosaic covenantal commandments” that Jesus preached, which was a “discourse of justice rooted in the Mosaic covenant into a program of renewal of local village communities.”

Parts of this book I particularly enjoyed were the author’s discussion on the socio-cultural pressures that Judeans faced in light of the Roman occupation, Jesus’ miracles and exorcisms, and his mission of covenant renewal. For instance, in regards to Jesus’ miracles, Horsley examines them in light of anthropological studies. An intriguing point he makes is that demon possession was a means for villagers to protect themselves to imperialism (seen in the rise of demon possession in Africa during its colonization by Western powers). One aspect of this study that I found particularly problematic is the final chapter on crucifixion. Here he attempts to argue that it was the crucifixion of Jesus which really set in motion the early Christian movement, which seems to make the belief in Christ’s resurrection of no importance for the vigorous rise of the early Christian movement. Even though the death of a notable figure by an oppressive power could spark a movement, is it really appropriate to point to the ignominious death of Jesus being crucified as the impetus for the early Christian movement over the belief that God resurrected him from the dead? Horsley’s position seems counter-intuitive and didn’t convince me.

Overall I quite enjoyed this latest offering from Richard Horsley, though I wish he had of spent more time explaining how he arrives at his position regarding the authenticity of Jesus traditions to be found in the Gospels. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in historical Jesus studies. Horsley is one of the more interesting authors in New Testament and historical Jesus studies and he delivers a thoughtful and provoking study in Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine.

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