Jesus and Empire (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  May 19, 2011

Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder
By Richard Horsley
3 Stars (out of 5)

If you’v read this book you would have very little reason to read “Jesus and the Powers” (reviewed in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3), and if you’ve read Jesus and the Powers, as I have, you would have very little reason to read Jesus and Empire. While the emphasis is slightly different (Jesus and the Powers pays closer attention to Jesus’ actions in relation to the Mosaic Covenant, whereas Jesus and Empire looks more closely at Jesus as playing the liberating role of prophet), there is significant overlap throughout.

Richard Horsley is one of the best scholars available when it comes to the first century Greco-Roman context of Palestine. He’s also a first rate scholar – in my opinion – when it comes to how the synoptic Gospels relate to the world-view of first century Judaism.

Jesus and Empire examines the first century context, brings to light the “shared narrative” of Galilean peasants and then looks at the actions of Jesus in light of that. Like many other scholars today, Horsley has reminded us of the dangers of ignoring the actions of Jesus and treating his words as a series of timeless prepositions plucked from their historic context. The question on Horsley’s mind is first, “what is Jesus’ message in it’s historical context?“, and only after that are we in a place to ask how that message may apply to us today.

For that reason, for how Horsley goes about communicating this point and for what you will learn from this book about the first century context, I highly recommend this book. But for other reasons I have to withhold that high recommendation and rather suggest you read it with caution.

Richard Horsley does not strike me as a theologian. Nor do I think he believes in the Resurrection. There is no discussion in this book of the role Jesus played as the “Second Adam” and I get the strong sense that the covenant narrative the people of Galilee lived in had no place for “spiritual things”. It’s been pointed out often that the common narrative of first century Palestine was that the people re-interpreted the “Babylonian” exile to be one of a “spiritual” exile. While Horsley acknowledges this, he sees all of Jesus’ actions purely in light of the socio-political situation.

However, it is important to point out – as Horsley does – that in ancient times people did not separate socio-politics with religions beliefs. In fact, as others pointed out, “religion” in the ancient world did not have its own category. This means that as there is great value in reading Jesus and Empire, and then interpreting the many great points made their in light of the meta-narrative of scripture, which ultimately has more to do with how God is restoring and renewing creation through the act of the representative of Israel who in turn is the representative of Adam and thus all of humanity, then just about Jesus’ protest against Rome.

I recommend this book, but I do so with caution.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Morgan Guyton

    I hope that in my lifetime Christians will somehow wrest ourselves out of the binary opposition between the “political” Jesus and the “spiritual” Jesus. It sounds like this book has a little bit of understated polemic against evangelical Christology. Perhaps a historical perspective is inherently going to be anti-“spiritual.” I don’t need any convincing that Jesus is the anti-Caesar, that his followers were poor, that he subverted the definition of kurios by making himself a diakonos, etc. Is there anything new that this book offers that would deepen my faith?

    • Derek Ouellette

      Hi Morgan, the angle of this book is not so much to speak of Christ as the anti-Caesar or that he subverted the kurios of his day. At least not directly. It more looks at the actions of Jesus in light of the narrative in which Galileans were living which is based on the meta-narrative of the Old Testament. It looks, for example, at how Jesus fit the role of Moses and at how he fit the role of Elijah et cetera. It’s a great resource for a deeper understanding of first century Jewish(<-- plural) expectations. If there is an understated polemic in this book, it seems to target 1) the Jesus Seminar who want to selectively cut out certain sayings of Jesus and ignore his actions altogether, and 2) a common Evangelical treatment of the Gospels which uses Jesus' "sayings" as a series of timeless prepositions. If coming to a deeper understanding of Jesus' message in it's historical context will help deepen your faith (as it does mine), I'd say yes. But I think it depends on where you are at. If there is nothing new in this book for you, then probably not.

  • Morgan Guyton

    Sounds like it might be worthwhile. Obviously we’re not first-century Jews so we’ve got our own canonical appropriation of what Jesus said and did, but it might give me more to work with in terms of my preaching to have some of these archetypes in my imagination.