A Brief Review of Richard Horsley’s
Jesus in Context: Power, People and Performance.
Review by Chase Roden.
Richard A. Horsley has spent his career complicating the Bible — or at least prevailing interpretations of it. In this collection of ten reworked and expanded essays, the professor emeritus presents an overview of a few aspects of his work, looking back at the fragmentation of biblical studies of the last few decades while suggesting avenues of advancement for future scholars integrating literary and sociological approaches to the Bible.
The book’s sub-title alludes to Horsley’s particular areas of interest — “power” referring to dynamics between the ruling class and commoners in the biblical era, “people” to Horsley’s desire to reveal the stories of common people in Mark and Q (the hypothetical source for large sections of Matthew and Luke’s gospels), and “performance”
to the idea that Mark and Q were primarily transmitted orally. Horsley works these themes into arguments against several notions common to biblical studies of the last 50 years, such as the idea of a monolithic “Judaism” from which Jesus sought to break away, the dominance of the verse or “saying” over the larger story, and the assumption of general literacy among the early church.
The book’s strongest sections deal with Mark and Q as “people’s histories” of the Jesus movement. Horsley attempts to separate the narratives of the “great tradition” — that is, history as dictated by the ruling classes — and the “little tradition” of the common people,
presenting a compelling portrait of Judea and Galilee of antiquity as a political landscape of oppression by foreign occupiers and the “temple-state complex.” The author believes that modern biblical-historical scholarship has created anachronistic divisions among economics, religion, and politics, which the ancients would have seen as one in the same. The Jesus movement is then less about founding a new religious system than it is a peaceful peasant uprising seeking just treatment from the ruling class, which includes religious authorities.
Horsley builds his argument for Mark and Q as people’s histories on the idea that literacy was extremely limited in the world of the Bible; written sources such as Josephus and even much of the Hebrew Bible are generally suspect, as the very act of writing places an
author in the ruling class. Horsley finds evidence of oral transmission in Mark and Q and thus finds it possible that we have in these writings a rare example of a written history sympathetic to the peasant class.
The primary shortcoming of this book is that it does not interact significantly with Biblical scholarship of the last 20-30 years. Horsley argues against J. D. Crossan’s portrayal of Jesus as a Cynic-like sage — stating that Crossan presents a Jesus with no cultural memory and no Israelite identity — but then seems to assume naively that Biblical scholars persist in seeing Jesus’s mission as one of starting a new religion over and against a monolithic “Judaism.” Horsley also seems only vaguely aware that Biblical scholarship has largely moved away from interpretation on the “micro” level of individual verses and “sayings” and into the realm of the full narrative and canonical criticism.
This book would best be used in an undergraduate-level class or an advanced adult education class in a church with a teacher willing to explain the terms and concepts to a lay audience.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
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