Jesus and the Powers (In Review): Part 2 The Resurrection is Unnecessary?

Derek Ouellette —  December 12, 2010

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

4 Stars (out of 5)
Review Part 1 Here

Richard Horsley’s book Jesus and the Powers is superb until he reaches the part of the story covering the trial, death and resurrection of Jesus. Up to that point Horsley does a fantastic job of placing Jesus in the context of both first century Judaism and within the broader context of the Roman Empire. Where his analysis falls short, I believe, is that he fails to take the final step back to see – not just the large picture of the Roman world – but also that much larger picture of the story which the Old Testament scriptures tell and which Jesus places himself within. Finally Horsley fails, in my opinion, to consider the possibility that Jesus would fulfill the Covenants in a way in which no one would expect. As a result the “resurrection” is placed on the peripheral of the story as an unnecessary afterthought.

An Imperial Threat, Not a Religious Fanatic

First, Horsley (rightly?) concludes that there is no way the Romans would have crucified Jesus unless he posed some sort of threat to the Empire:

The point bears repeating that, to have been crucified, Jesus must have gone up to Jerusalem and posed a significant threat to the Roman imperial order. – p. 168

The Jews could not have persuaded the governor to crucify Jesus over merely religious disputes. We know this for two reasons: 1) there was another Jesus in the first century whose prophetic antics were very reminiscent of that of Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus – Jesus son of Hananiah – was prophesying against Jerusalem and the Temple. The high priest saw him as a threat and attempted to agitate the Roman governor to execute him. However, the Roman governor did not see Jesus son of Hananiah as a real threat to Roman imperialism (and this, just prior to 70 A.D.!) but merely saw him as a “raving maniac”. The governor simply had him beaten and then released whereupon he continued his dirge against Jerusalem [p.171]. And secondly, the accusations lodged at Jesus of Nazareth were that he forbade people to pay “taxes to Caesar” and that he claimed to be “Christ, a King”. (Luke 23:2).

Crucified As a Prophet, Not a King

So far so good, but then – oddly enough – Horsley seems to scurry back on some major thrusts of his book, that Jesus’ central message was the Kingdom of God, in order to take the position that Jesus saw himself as a prophet and not “a/the Messiah”. In fact, says Horsley, when Jesus was held up by his disciples as being a/the Messiah (Mark 8:29), he explicitly rebuked them and sternly warned them to tell no one, “stop spreading gossip, I am not a/the Messiah” (Mark 8:30).

First Horsley claims that “there is little textual evidence for a standard Judean expectation of ‘the Messiah’”. But, however Jews may have variously understood and coming Kingdom movement let by a/the messianic figure, what scholars do know for sure was that there were many messianic expectations – as Horsley himself states many times in this book [see p.81 ff]. So this argument does not amount to much. Because there were no “standard” Jewish messianic expectations, there were nonetheless Jewish messianic expectations.

Next, Horsley states that:

After closer examination… it is clear, first, that while some disciples may have pictured Jesus in the role of a popular king, Jesus pointedly rejects such a role; and, second, that Jesus’ arrest and execution are the rulers’ responses not to his or his followers claims of messiahship, but to his actions and pronouncements as a prophet. – p.190

In response I need to point out that Horsley’s selection and interpretation of the texts are highly suspect. He takes Jesus’ words in Mark 8:30 as Jesus rebuking Peter for the suggestion that “you are the Christ”. However, not only did Jesus not accept the peoples claim of him being merely “one of the prophets”, but the phrase, “He strictly warned them that they should tell no one about him” on the heels of Peter’s declaration seems to indicate in an obvious manner that Jesus accepted the term “Messiah”. To say, as Horsley does, that “Jesus sharply rejects the whole idea of a kingship” seems agenda driven without proper due to the text.

Secondly, Jesus’ actions cannot be separated either to his own messianic identification or that of which his disciples made of him. As is clear from Luke 23:20-22 (among other prominent texts), Jesus’ identity as a “king” was in fact a primary factor in his crucifixion; and what could be seen as more threatening to Roman imperialism then another king rising up in an already tumultuous land?

The Crucifixion, Not the Resurrection, Is What Made the Jesus Movement

So this leads us – from a classical Christian perspective – to another question: Was Jesus’ mission to liberate national Judea and the region of Galilee from Roman imperial order, or to liberate mankind from “Satan”, “Sin” and “Death”? The first is accomplished by way of a crucifixion (a martyred leader is a great way to begin a liberating movement!), the second by resurrection. Richard Horsley downplays the resurrection of Jesus to such an extent that belief in it is wholly unnecessary, and even contrary to the story. However, it seems more accurate to say that resurrection faith is contrary – not to the story which the Gospels tell and which the Old Testament points too – but to the premise which Horsley is building upon. He writes:

The resurrection faith, effectively reduces or even eliminates the historical (social-political) significance of Jesus’ crucifixion as a force in the dynamics of his movement. – p.194

For Horsley, to have “resurrection faith” effectively undermines his entire book!

In arguing his case Horsley makes (another) remarkably agenda driven statement: “the Gospel sources simply do not offer any hints or memories of the disciples being devastated after the crucifixion” [p.195]. The implications of this should be clear: the Jesus Movement was already underway as a result of the crucifixion, Jesus’ mission was a success, and a resurrection faith is unnecessary. Next Horsley argues that “the concept of or belief in ‘resurrection’ in ‘Judaism’” is a modern construct. That Jews in the first century were not anticipating a resurrection of a person’s body – but rather a national resurrection [p.196].

To the first, one wonders how it is Horsley could get it so backwards. In reality there is not a hint of a “Jesus Movement” well underway prior to the resurrection. What we do not see is the core disciples anywhere near their leader after his crucifixion. What we do not see are the leaders of the “Jesus Movement” preaching to thousands in the Temple or on the streets in Antioch. What we do not see are miracles and healings. What we do not see, in fact, is an active Jesus Movement.

What we do see – and I cannot emphasize this enough – is a greater twist then could ever be imagined by any Hollywood visionary. “Why do you seek the living” asked the angel, “among the dead?” It was the twist to end all twists. It was contrary to anything anyone could have anticipated.

I do, on that note, need to address the charge that first century Judaism did not envision a resurrection of the body. First, as it is well know, the Pharisees did in fact believe in a resurrection of the body. Secondly, Jewish scholar Jon Levenson in his book Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel has shown that Jews of the intertestament period did believe in a resurrection both of the nation and of the body of persons. Not only that, but regarding the resurrection, Paul hardly gets a mention from Horsley [p.197] even though the writings of Paul are much early then that of the Gospels and probably reflect more accurately the early Christian traditions. Paul did not live in a vacuum. It appears, as Krister Stendhal has show without a doubt, that the resurrection of the Messiah forced Paul to reinterpret his theology of a “one time resurrection of Israel” into a surprising one resurrection event divided between the “first fruits” (when Christ rose), and the later harvest (when the people of God will rise) [1 Cor 15:20 ff).

So how, might I ask, is it possible to maintain Horsley’s premise while also having “resurrection faith”? I suggest that the element Horsley missed was the very spiritual element which he appealed to earlier. Earlier in his book Horsley speaks of the link between politics and religion. You’ll recall in the last post Horsley holds that to defeat the Romans was to defeat the Roman gods and vice-versa. In a chapter on exorcisms, Horsley suggests that exorcisms was the way a suppressed people “fought back” as it were against the political forces which suppressed them. Why does Horsley abandon his premise when discussing the death and resurrection of Jesus? I don’t know. But I will suggest that Horsley has the emphasis backwards. He always emphasizes the social-political realm, and only the spiritual as a “superstitious” response to the physical reality. But if the emphasis is to fall on the bigger picture of humanity’s problem which in the first century was embodied by the empire of Rome; maybe in was the social-political context of Rome which is the shadow of the reality.

In the next post I’ll present my overall opinion of Jesus and the Powers which – you may be surprised – is rather positive.

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Derek Ouellette

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

    After reading the second part of your review on this book I have to re-recommend The Politics of Jesus. Yoder develops in that book, and in others as well, the fact that it is the resurrection itself that is the most political statement of Jesus earthly ministry because it was in resurrection that he showed the tools of the powers of this world to be useless against God’s people. In conquering death he took away the Roman Empire’s last way to supress those that dissented, death.

    One would only go through the trouble to try and supress resurrection belief if it was in your agenda to do so before you began writing because the resurrection is probably the strongest point of arguement for what appears to be the rest of Horesley’s over-arching thesis.

  • Derek

    Thanks James… I have it on order