Jesus and the Powers (In Review): Part 1

Derek Ouellette —  December 10, 2010

Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant and the Hope of the Poor
By Richard A. Horsley

4 Stars (out of 5)

In Jesus and the Powers, Richard Horsley has written in response to the contemporary and popular trend of “de-politicizing Jesus”. People tend to throw back onto the historical Jesus modern agendas which endeavor to separate him from his Judeo-Greco-Roman context and turn him instead into a “mystic” or purely “religious” leader of a purely “religious” movement. Some want to turn Jesus into a “humanitarian”, others a “vegetarian” and still others want to make Jesus out to be a “socialist”. We live in an era where separation of “church and state” or “religion and politics” is the norm:

Western culture generally, assumes that religion is separated from politics (and economics). Jesus is considered a religious figure.” p.4

Another assumption common to Western thinking is “individualism” in which “religion itself has been reduced to individual faith or belief”. But in ancient agrarian culture’s, faith and religion were corporate matters in which the very survival of the community depended upon their commitment to their god[s] for food and for defense against their enemies.

To address these issues Horsley dives into a study of the classical world, beginning in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, before turning to the fundament belief[s] common or diverse among first century Palestinians. His purpose in this is to show how belief in the god[s] was fundamentally tied up in daily politics and was essentially communal. Everything from food, war, occupation, worship and even “the games” were all linked to the god[s] so that to fail to pay proper due to the god[s] would result in punishment from them. Furthermore, because the ancient world was pantheistic, they held the belief of “may the most powerful god[s] win”. It is this belief which allowed the Greeks to capitulate to the Romans whose might was so iron-clad that it was obvious that the Roman gods were more powerful then the Greek gods.

In contrast, the Jews held as a fundament belief that their God was “God Almighty”. If Israel was under the suppression of foreign rulers, it was because God had allowed it (for whatever disputable reason), and God would one day vindicate Israel by defeating the political powers which suppressed them. In this way politics and religion were inseparable. To defeat the Romans was to defeat the Roman gods; and to defeat the Roman gods – by, say, performing exorcisms – was to defeat the Romans. In this context it is easy to see why one of the fundamental beliefs shared by Jewish peasants was in relating to their ancient ancestors in Egypt, where the prophet Moses defeated the Egyptian power by defeating the Egyptian gods in the ten plagues. (We’ll return to this in a moment.)

In the historical setting of the first century it is important to note the relationship the high priestly families had with Rome. Doing so helps us understand a major thrust of Jesus’ message – so Horsley’s premise goes.

In the first century BC Roman rule was exercised indirectly through Herod the Great who in turn used the importance of the “Temple cult” in Jerusalem to his advantage. He did this by deposing the high priestly family of the Hasmonean, and replacing them with four high priestly families of his own choosing. After Herod’s death Caesar exercised his rule in Judea through a governor stationed in Caesarea and since the governors usually exercised the power to appoint the high priest, “it was incumbent on the four high priestly families from which the high priest might be appointed to maintain close collaboration with the governors.” [p.36] In other words, the high priestly families and the temple guard were on Caesars payroll so that, “besides offering the traditional sacrifices to God, the priests also performed sacrifices in honor of Rome and Caesar” [p.35]. What did the average peasant living in Galilee and Judea think about this situation?

It’s often said that we cannot know for sure what the average person in the ancient world thought or believed because they were all typically illiterate [p.36]. But there are certain contexts in which we can know with confidence what the illiterate believed. For example, when a “prophet” named Theudas persuaded a large group of people to gather their belongings and follow him to the river Jordan where “at his command the waters would be divided to allow them an easy crossing” [p.84 cf. Acts 5:36]; the fact that four hundred peasants did just that tells us something about the story they believed in and cultivated within their communities (echoing Israel’s’ entry into the promised land led by Joshua). And when a “prophet” from Egypt went to Judea, the masses from the surrounding countryside and villages followed him to the Mount of Olives just opposite Jerusalem where he declared that the walls would fall so that they could make an entrance into Jerusalem (echoing the destruction of Jericho, the first city taken by Joshua). And when one Simon Bar Giora led a movement effectively liberating portions of Judea from Roman rule prior to 70 A.D. and declared a cancellation of debts and release of slaves (playing the role of a messianic King fulfilling the “jubilee” obligations of Torah), the movement was taken so seriously by the Romans that when Simon was captured he was executed as “the king of the Jews” in the great Roman ceremonial triumph. [p.83] By these and many other stories Horsley effectively draws out of writers like Philo, Josephus and others, we can be quite sure that the populace were quite discontent with their situation; that they saw themselves as living “in bondage” similar to their ancestors in Egypt, and that they were waiting for a prophetic/messianic leader to liberate them from their oppressors; both Rome and those in Judea who collaborated with them.

What this entailed, it is important to note, is God ruling Israel thus ushering in the Kingdom of God. And this, consequentially, entailed a renewal of the Covenant or Law of God. Not just the Ten Commandments, but everything which extends from them including Gods social programs established in the Torah – his concern for the poor, the oppressed and those who cannot take care of themselves especially.

In light of this context, Horsley sees Jesus’ actions in a similar light as those other prophetic/messianic movements of the first century. Where Jesus quotes often from the Torah, where he reenacts the “exodus” event, the crossing of the Jordan, the forty days in the wilderness, all of these things were meant to depict Jesus in a prophetic roll of declaring the Kingdom of God and the renewal of the Covenant.

But what this involved was a direct confrontation with the “powers of the present evil age”, i.e. Rome’s representative authority in Judea – the high priestly families, and their accomplices; the scribes. In this light, Jesus’ actions against the elite were seen clearly as actions against Rome itself. The casting out of demons, the declaration that his authority comes from God himself (unlike the high priest who merely receives his authority form Caesar), and statement that all things – even Caesar and his empire – belong to God (“render to God the things that are God’s” – everything).

In light of this contextual background, how does Richard Horsley see Jesus’ crucifixion and “resurrection” with the start of the “Jesus Movement”? Was Jesus “Israel’s Messiah” or just a prophetic figure? Did the Jesus Movement actually begin at “Pentecost” or was it well underway even before the “resurrection” happened, yet after the crucifixion? Did the “resurrection” have any significant effect upon the “Jesus Movement” or are the stories of his “appearances” merely superfluous?

I think it is here where Horsley makes some mistakes in his historical interpretation of the events. I don’t think he takes the writings of Paul seriously enough and I don’t think he grasps the significance of a “resurrected” Jesus in light of the meta-narrative found in the Jewish scriptures. And it will be to these questions that we will turn in the next post.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • James Livingston

    This sounds very close to the ideas that John Howard Yoder develops in The Politics of Jesus, except Yoder looks at Paul much more as well and discusses the political nature of the resurrection as well. I would definitely suggest it to supplement some of the missing parts that you mention of Horsley’s thoughts.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Thanks James… I’m going to look into Yoder’s book. :-)

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