Book Review: Richard Horsley and Tom Thatcher, John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel

Horsley, Richard, and Tom Thatcher. John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2013. 201 pp. Pb; $20.00.  Link

Richard Horsley is well-known to New Testament scholars for his studies of Jesus that set Jesus in the social and historical world of the first century. Tom Thatcher has already contributed several excellent monographs on the Gospel of John (Greater than Caesar: Christology and Empire in the Fourth Gospel, Fortress, 2009). Both scholars are often associated with using the insights of economic and social sciences for understanding the world of Jesus as well as so-called “anti-imperial” research.

Jesus, JohnThis new book intends to treat John’s gospel as a “coherent narrative” that comes from a formative community” (p.4). As such, the authors are not interested in the so-called high-Christology that occupies most studies of John’s Gospel in the last two centuries. While there may theology gleaned from John, Horsley and Thatcher are interested in reading Jesus against the background of the first century both religiously and politically. The authors indicate in their introduction that this book is only a “provisional sketch” of what might be a much larger project. Indeed, and under 200 pages of text with limited interaction with other scholarship, this book is clearly introductory.

While John’s gospel is not a source of theological reflection on the life of Jesus, it is also not a source for “tidbits” of historical information gleaned from a comparison with the Synoptic Gospels. While there is an interest in the historical Jesus, Horsley and Thatcher do not engage in the tedious application of criteria of authenticity. Rather, they have a general acceptance of John’s gospel as having the ring of truth. The Gospel as a “verisimilitude,” even if that cannot be verified via historical methods. In fact, the details of Jesus’ life in the Gospel are simply treated as real events set in a particular time and place. Since the goal of the book is a study of John’s presentation of Jesus as a social and political figure, what the “real historical Jesus” may have said or did is less important. The book includes a brief epilogue dealing with historical issues, but the bottom line is the general story of John is historical, although examination of every detail must wait for a more technical book (p. 178).

The book is also not interested in any sort of theory of composition of John. These theories can be complex and often distract attention from the text of John in favor of a critic’s theory. Whether there was a complex history of composition or not is not an issue for Horsley and Thatcher since they intend to read the whole gospel as a narrative.

Three reasons make a short book like this possible. First, the rise of narrative criticism over the last thirty years has shifted scholarly attention away from source and form criticism. More recent studies of John are willing to hear the whole story of the Gospel rather than fret over potential sources and redactions. Second, there are a host of recent studies on how an oral culture remembers and preforms traditions. Combined with a narrative approach to John’s Gospel, Horsley and Thatcher will argue that John presents the memory of Jesus’ mission as a “historical story.”

Third, there has been an increase in the study of the world of Roman Palestine in the first century. This study is historical, but the insights of other social sciences have been used to place the story of Jesus in an economic and political context. Richard Horsley has been at the forefront of this movement in the study of the Gospels, especially his Jesus and Spiral of Violence (Fortress, 1993); Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (T&T Clark, 1999); and Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Westminster, 2001). John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel owes much to those earlier works.

The first two chapters of the book develop the first step of a suggested method for studying John (or any New Testament text, presumably). The historical and cultural context must be properly understood if the reader is going to understand John’s story of Jesus.  In order to do this, chapter 1 surveys the history of Roman Palestine. Much of this material is condensed from Horsley’s earlier work, but there is enough detail to show that the area in which Jesus did ministry was divided culturally, politically, and economically. This divide is evident in several popular revolts and social disruptions threatening the elite in Jerusalem as well as Rome. Chapter 2 develops these  themes further by sketching the hope for restoration found in some streams of Second Temple Judaism, from the Hasmoneans to the Sicarii.

The second stage of the study is to examine the literary aspects of a gospel. In order to do this, chapter 3 focuses on oral communication and how oral cultures communicated “historical stories. Chapter 4 begins with Mark’s gospel and Q as a sayings source in order to demonstrate how to “hear the whole story” (the title of Horsley’s 2001 monograph). Horsley and Thatcher argue that modern readers of John ought to “take the gospel stories as a whole” and “to focus on their overall portrayal of Jesus’ mission” (p. 63). This means careful study of Jesus’ interactions with his followers as well as the leaders of the people in Roman Palestine.

The third stage of the study is to bring the insights of the first to stages to bear on the actual story John tells. Chapter 5 is a brief overview of the content of the Gospel with an emphasis on setting, characters and plot. Chapter 6 then argues that the Gospel “fits the historical situation in which it was set” as far as can be determined.  The story is grounded in an accurate picture of the economic and political world of first century Roman Palestine.

The chapter’s title is instructive: “Verisimilitude vs. Verification.” While it is ultimately impossible to verify every detail of the Gospel, the story reflects real historical realities in a way that does not raise suspicions. I do not think that this conclusion will please everyone, since more conservative readers will want to hear that John’s Gospel is absolutely historical, and less conservative readers will want to hear that the Gospel is full of anachronisms.  Like the theology of the book, Horsley and Thatcher choose not to get bogged down in that kind of a study and simply state that the book is a fair representation of the mission of Jesus as it was recalled by the author of the John.

In the last stage of the study, Horsley and Thatcher describe what they see as John’s presentation of Jesus’ mission in Roman Palestine. Chapter 8 draws several inferences from Jesus; demonstration in the Temple to argue that Jesus is presenting his ministry (or, himself) as an alternative to the Temple in Jerusalem. They argue this from two angles. First, they examine the Temple action itself in the Johannine context (early in Jesus’ ministry as opposed to late). This means that the John intended Jesus’ mission to be understood through the lens of the Temple action.  Second, there are a number of texts in John that present Jesus as having the same function as the Temple. It is well-known in Johannine studies that John 5-10 associate Jesus with the major feasts in Jerusalem, but in each case Jesus is a kind of alternative to those feasts. Third, the triumphal entry is described by Horsely and Thatcher as a “messianic demonstration.” Jesus proclaimed himself to be the messiah in this action and attempted to take a leadership role in a renewal of Israel. This is ultimately the reason for the execution of Jesus: Rome did not tolerate popular resistance movements.

Conclusion. This book is frustrating in its brevity. Horsely and Thatcher only sketch their method with a few examples, leaving the reader wondering about the details. But this is not a problem because the goal of the authors was simply to give an outline of a method that can serve as a template for further study. I was bewildered at times by the sections of the book devoted to Mark and Q, since the book is expressly about the Gospel of John. These sections are foundational, of course, and are drawn from Horsely’s prior work in Mark. It is rare that one reads a book on the Gospel of John as history, especially one that makes serious comparisons between Mark and John. As such, this short book might serve well as an auxiliary textbook for a college or seminary Gospels or Historical Jesus course where John’s Gospel usually receives less time than it deserves.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Richard Horsley and Tom Thatcher, John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel

  1. Thanks for the good review, Phillip. I was unaware of this book and it looks like a fascinating one. I much enjoyed an earlier one co-authored by Horsely, I think with Silberman.

    It raises a number of questions, at least some of which it sounds may not be addressed much in the book. One would be what they see as some of the implications of John varying so far from the Synoptics on so many points (not just of fact but theology, really, as tied to what is selected for inclusion in the narrative). Perhaps central re. that would be why the point, in John, of Jesus making such clear and repeated claims of deity, way beyond possible implications of it in the Synpotics? Or don’t they read that in the text? Maybe that gets covered in dealing with the cultural setting and such… E.g., post-war Israel was in quite a different place, on many levels, than it had been in Jesus’ time.

    But overall, if it’s taken as “historical story” doesn’t that still run into the difficulties of conflicts with the probably “historical stories” of the Synoptics? Not minor detail variations, but things like the one-year vs. 3 or 4-year ministry of Jesus, and also what you mentioned they deal with as to the timing of the “cleansing of the Temple” incident. If the Synoptic picture is basically factual, then it sure appears to be the immediate provocation, right following the kingly entry (even if on a donkey), of his arrest. Not so if it happened at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and confusing if merely placed there to cast the setting for the narrative…. What else, then, might be put in or left out for similar reasons? In other words it doesn’t yet sound to me (and I probably won’t get to read the book for some time) like they have avoided the problems they apparently tried to.

    Not sure the following is directly tied, but certainly within Horsley’s area of specialization. It came up in discussing “Zealot” by Aslan on Amazon reviews of that book (mine of which is a portion of my longer review on my blog). Something dawned on me to explore that I’d not thought of quite this way and honestly would like some informed input on (or being pointed to who might speak meaningfully to it): If Jesus indeed remained committed to a non-violent course in the attempt to bring in the Kingdom (despite some confusion as to how absolute he was on that, within the Gospels), might he have thought there was some possibility that a popular movement of support for him COULD, indeed, lead to the replacement of Herod Antipas with him as King of Israel, and that NON-violently?

    I do think he probably expected God to intervene at some point also, but it certainly does appear he both intended major earthly reform AND to not use violence (at least not deadly force) to provoke it. He doesn’t appear to have been solely a dreamer (wholly unrealistic) NOR to have been solely after transformation of individual’s hearts and behavior. So what may we infer WAS his hoped-for mechanism of bringing in the Kingdom? In all I’ve read surrounding this subject, I don’t recall anyone addressing this specifically. Some probably have, as there is a LOT of even major books I’ve NOT read…. The most I recall it being addressed, perhaps, is Schweitzer in “The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity” but I read a library ed. so can’t easily check. (I found that book very insightful.)

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