Book Review: Richard Horsley, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel

Horsley, Richard. The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel: Moving Beyond a Diversionary Debate.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2012. 161 pp. Pb; $20.00.  Link to Eerdmans 

Richard Horsley is well known for his work on Historical Jesus. In this book he summarizes two issues perennially debated by Historical Jesus Scholars. First, Horsley does not find the dichotomy between “Jesus the apocalyptic prophet” and a “Jesus the sage” particularly helpful. Second, he does not think the focus of Historical Jesus scholars on the individual sayings of Jesus is the right method and has the result of obscuring Jesus’ actual teaching by narrowing down the teaching of Jesus to a series of “one-liners” disconnected from their literary context.

Horsley, The Prophetic JesusIn the first section of the book, Horsley discusses the problem of an Apocalyptic Jesus. In the first chapter is gives a brief overview, summarizing the apocalyptic scenarios of Schweitzer and Bultmann, although his main target in this section is Dale Allison as a “reassertion of the apocalyptic Jesus.” The third chapter interacts with Allison’s Jesus of Nazareth extensively. Although his Constructing Jesus came out in 2010, Horsley apparently did not have access the extensive argument for an apocalyptic Jesus in the first chapter of that book. Horsley summarizes Allison’s argument under several headings (the eschatological judgment, resurrection from the dead, restoration of Israel, eschatological tribulation, and imminence). He then checks these categories against apocalyptic texts in Second Temple Judaism, discovering that there is very little evidence in these texts to support Allison’s categories. He blames this on the Jesus’ scholar’s “relative unfamiliarity with Judean texts” (39). Allison and others have, according to Horsley, imposed their assumptions about Jewish apocalypticism on to Jesus and therefore misunderstood his teaching.

There are several things in this first section I find problematic. His dismissal of those who read Jesus as standing in the tradition of Jewish apocalyptic as ignorant of Second Temple Judaism is simply not the case. What is at issue is the interpretation of these texts. Horsley is inclined read this literature as lacking an “apocalyptic scenario.” This is likely true if one expects to find a dispensational timeline of the tribulation period embedded in 1 Enoch or 2 Baruch. But I am not sure any Historical Jesus scholar thinks this way. The apocalyptic teaching of Jesus resonates with Second Temple Judaism, it does not conform to it. It is telling that Horsley cites Daniel extensively, but always leaves out Daniel 9, one of the texts best supporting an apocalyptic Jesus. In addition, he rarely deals with the eschatology of the Qumran Community, despite the fact that they can be fairly described as “apocalyptic.”

A second problem with this section is the idea than apocalyptic means “end of the world.” Horsley makes this explicit when he describes the eschatology of the Similitudes of 1 Enoch as “’imminent but not apocalyptic’ as the end of the world” (49). To me, this is a misunderstanding of Apocalyptic literature. This material does not describe the “end of the world as we know it” so much as the transformation of this present world into kingdom God intended from the beginning. (In fact, Horsley says something very close to this in an interview concerning the book. He would rather drop the description “apocalyptic” because it has come to mean “end of the world.”)

In the second section of the book, Horsley deals with the sources for understanding Jesus. In these chapters Horsley describes Jesus in the tradition of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. These prophets were social critics who challenged the status quo and were often in conflict with the governing authority. Rather than an apocalyptic prophet predicting the end of the world, Jesus was a revolutionary prophet who demanded social change. This led to a decisive confrontation with the authorities resulting in the execution of Jesus. Here Horsley builds on his previous work, first in describing the political volatility of first century Galilee and then by showing Jesus is consistent with several uprisings in the first century that eventually led to the first Jewish revolt.

He argues the sayings of Jesus must be taken in their literary contexts, with a heavy emphasis on the strata of Q. Horsley does not interact with recent proposals that dispense with Q, although in fairness some of these challenges have only been developed recently. In addition, this section of the book could be strengthened by some of the recent developments in memory theory and oral tradition (Dunn, Bauckham, LeDonne, etc.) I frankly found chapter 8 to be a bit dated, even though the book was published in 2012.

The last two chapters of the book are the best in my view. For Horsley, Jesus is a revolutionary prophet with the goal of reforming Israel around the Mosaic Covenant. Jesus wanted to renew Israel and call them back to covenant faithfulness in exactly the same way that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible did for Israel and Judah. Jesus and his followers were formed by “Israelite tradition, the deeply rooted memory of Moses and Joshua, the founding prophets of Israel in the events of the exodus and the coming into the land” (117). Everything Jesus did and said was designed to call to mind what Israel was meant to be in the first place; even his healings and exorcisms called to mind Elijah and Elisha.

Because he was leading a prophetic movement, Jesus naturally came into conflict with the ruling authorities, and this resulting in his execution (145). For Horsley, Jesus was a threat to the Roman Imperial order as well as the ruling Temple-state. Because he prophesied against the Temple during the Passover, the aristocratic priesthood moved against him. Jesus was “more than a raving ‘maniac’ uttering mournful laments of doom over Jerusalem,” he was understandably a threat to Rome and the ruling Temple-state, and he therefore became a “martyr to the cause of the renewal of Israel under the direct role of God” (149).

Conclusion. This short book is a good primer for reading Horsley. I have always found Horsley to be stimulating and thought provoking, and this book is exactly what I expected from him. But there is nothing particularly new in the book and there are numerous instances where he cites chapters in previous works for a more developed argument. Since the purpose of the book is in fact to highlight two problems and offer a brief solution, the book is successful. The reader is prodded towards other monographs and articles for the details.

NB: Eerdmans has a nice interview with Horsley talking about the book on YouTube. I bought this book myself, but this did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

One thought on “Book Review: Richard Horsley, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel

Leave a Reply