How Modern Readers Should Read the Gospels: Richard Horsley

Derek Ouellette —  May 10, 2011 — 3 Comments

Richard Horsley gives some well to do advice on how modern readers ought to read the story of Jesus in the Gospels. When people often talk about the actions of Jesus they commonly marvel at his miracle and then focus on his words. But his actions are more profound than that, and often they go unnoticed by modern readers.

In Horsley’s analogy he puts his finger on the significance Jesus’ actions would have had on first century Galileans.

“Hearing (on the radio or TV) even a brief sound bite of Martin Luther King’s voice saying, in his inimitable preaching style, “I have a dream,” evokes memories of the whole civil rights era for Americans who lived through the 1960s. For those who were deeply involved in the struggle for civil rights, hearing King’s voice may even evoke profound feelings, vivid memories of particularly tense confrontations, and a recommitment to the values represented by the freedom movement…

“The key to how the text resonates with the hearers by referencing the cultural tradition is that a part stands for the whole, metonymically, “I have a dream” evokes the whole African American struggle for civil rights. When the Gospel of Mark tells of Jesus making sea crossings and performing feedings in the wilderness when no food was available it evokes in those hearers the whole Israelite tradition of Moses leading the exodus and the arduous journey of Israel through the wilderness toward their land… the portrayal of Jesus making sea crossings and wilderness feedings, by referencing the hearers’ shared Israelite cultural tradition, evokes in the audience the confidence or trust/faith that Jesus was another prophet like Moses who was carrying out a new deliverance of Israel from foreign oppression…

“This suggests that the key for modern readers’ understanding of Gospel materials is to become as familiar as possible with Israelite tradition (as well as the context) out of which the historical audience (implied in the text) heard the text.”[1]

We should guard against any reading of the text that jumps right to the cross and treats Jesus’ ministry actions as merely subtext. Or that sticks to the words of Jesus but pays little attention to his actions. In doing so we risk distorting even the message of the cross which is tantamount to distorting the Gospel.


[1] Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, (Minneapolis MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 69-70.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000259010675 Kyle Pitts

    One thing we cannot let go of is the timelessness of the Gospel and Scripture. Scripture was written in different times and contexts but authored by God. If God is in fact omnipresent and know the end from the beginning then the Bible that He wrote is timeless.

  • Charles

    I agree,

    ““This suggests that the key for modern readers’ understanding of Gospel materials is to become as familiar as possible with Israelite tradition (as well as the context) out of which the historical audience (implied in the text) heard the text.””

    And I would add to that the reality that believers must see themselves as having been grafted in to Israel, now fellow citizens, if they are going to walk as Jesus walked. Otherwise, “us and them” seems to inevitably lead to sin.

  • Martin Davies

    Great post Derek. Keep ’em coming. Your post reminds me of a fantastic book in the UK, that was pointing out this symmetry between Christ’s miracles and miraculous events in the OT (and how learned Jews would have been aware of this). Michael Symons Roberts points to the similarity between the calming of the storm and the language/imagery of Psalm 107 23-52 for instance.