The Political Historical Jesus

Much of the quest for the historical Jesus has been shaped by one question:

Was Jesus apocalyptic (or not)? What do you think? Yes or No? Not the point?

Thus, most historical Jesus scholars propose either an apocalyptic Jesus (J. Weiss, A. Schweitzer, E.P. Sanders, D. Allison) or a non-apocalyptic Jesus (Jesus Seminar, M. Borg, J.D. Crossan).

Much of the quest for the historical Jesus has also been shaped by reconstructing what Jesus was really like on the basis of individual sayings of Jesus, which are then almost always detached from their contexts in the Gospels and read over against the Jewish world of Jesus.

Richard Horsley, in his new book, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel: Moving Beyond a Diversionary Debate, levels charges against both of these dimensions of HJ studies and proposes an alternative. Whether or not Horsley’s approach is as distinct as he suggests is one thing, but the impact of Horsley’s studies is a kind of social, political Jesus. His Jesus is a distinct proposal in the marketplace of HJ studies. He is accurate in seeing too much of a de-historicized or unrealistic Jesus at work among scholars; he’s right to show the importance of politics and social movements; he’s right to pose Jesus over against the Roman rulers of Galilee; his approach to the sayings of Jesus in their Gospel context sheds some fresh perspectives; whether or not he’s overcooked his side of the story and undercooked the theological will be determined as readers of his stuff interact with him and render judgment. He’s a breath of fresh air at times; at other times an irritant; and yet at others I think he’s missing some important elements.

First, he argues the apocalyptic scenario that is assumed for locating Jesus as an apocalyptic figure (and the reactions are rooted in the same scenario) is not to be found in the literature cited. In fact, he would argue this is a modern construct of a Jewish apocalyptic scenario. The major elements of that scenario include: Jesus’ and Jewish eschatology were the same, kingdom message was end of world message, the apocalyptic movement was not a political, national, historically-grounded movement. But even more there are these features: the eschatological judgment, the resurrection of the dead, the restoration of Israel, the great eschatological tribulation and a sense of imminence. His accusation is not only strong, but incredibly overstated: “neither the liberals nor the neo-Schweitzerians appear to have looked closely at Judean texts usually classified as ‘apocalyptic’ to determine whether and how they attest the standard ‘apocalyptic scenario’ they both accept as historical” (37). One could say a dozen things here but I’ll say this: the apocalyptic Jesus is rooted in sound scholarship on Jewish apocalyptic texts, and no one should ever accuse Allison of not having looked at the Judean texts.

Horsley, in fact, proposes these texts are responses to concrete Jewish political movements [he never seems to concede that HJ scholars are not only aware of this but have done work like this on Jewish apocalyptic texts]. Horsley proceeds to argue the construct of moderns is just that — a construct — and no apocalyptic text has that scenario completely. He has a point here; the issue is how widespread these major ideas were. Widespread enough for a general construct? Probably. Horsley thinks the major themes were the judgment and the renewal of Israel (on earth); there’s no doubt these two themes were at work. He wants to make them radically concrete and this-worldly.

Apocalyptic texts are about oppressive empires; so Horsley de-theologizes or de-mythologizes the apocalyptic scenario into a more concrete set of hopes and expectations. He sees a scribal resistance movement on the part of the populace against the imperial rule because it threatened the traditional way of life. Horsley, in other words, has shaped empire criticism today.

The second way of doing HJ studies is to focus on individual sayings and Horsley ties this to individualism in modern culture. (I see no need for that deconstruction to be needed, but it’s interesting.) Horsley proposes learning to read the sayings of Jesus in the context of the literary flow of each of the Gospels — and on this he is a breath of fresh air — but I will say straightaway that he therefore “begs” historical questions that are at work in historical work — find your sources, establish what is trustworthy, construct a model. HJ scholars know of his approach but think it by and large naive about historiography. Once one relies on the portrait of the Gospels one is now doing redactional theology and not HJ work. He skips around this issue with a sophisticated theory of texts in their context as the only clue to Jesus.

So he offers his own construct for understanding Jesus better: “We can thus attempt to understand how (1) in the particular historical conditions of Roman domination that had created a crisis for the Judean and Galilean people, (2) working out of Israelite cultural tradition in which those people were rooted, (3) the uprooted Galilean artisan Jesus of Nazareth emerged as a leader (4) by adapting the social role of a prophet like Moses and Elijah (and/or a popular king like the young David) (5) in interaction with Galilean villagers who responded by forming a movement of renewal of Israel [at the local community level] that expanded rapidly after his crucifixion by the Romans, partly because (6) he had become a revered martyr whose cause was (believed) vindicated by God” (75-76). The construct here is how social movements with charismatic leaders emerge.

This short book provides a later defense of his earlier studies on Jesus, including Jesus and the Spiral of Violence and his Jesus and Empire.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.rethinkingao.com Mike Beidler

    I suggest we wait until Dec 22 to make a more solid determination. ;-)

  • Tyler

    I’m kind of new to the Historical Jesus pursuit. Had to read “Jesus and Empire” for class, now I’m intrigued with this and empire studies.

    What are some of the major sources for apocalyptic writing outside of the bible? All I can think of would be the War Scroll. And how do apocalyptic writings play into this? Simply to see “how” or to what degree the things Jesus said were apocalyptic?

    Also, a lot of source criticism seems to play into this debate. I’m curious to see how it affects the conclusions of these different scholars.

  • scotmcknight

    Charlesworth has a two-volume collection called OT Pseudepigrapha; that’s the place to begin.
    On the concepts of apocalyptic, the standards are Hanson, Rowland, and Collins.

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    “Once one relies on the portrait of the Gospels one is now doing redactional theology and not HJ work.” Scot, a good summary sentence. Does Horsley do much with John’s Gospel on this theme?

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    Was Jesus apocalyptic? has to be asked in the context of Was Judaism of his day apocalyptic? Yes, I think there is massive documentary support for deeply-entrenched apocalyptic energies at work in the various factions of 1st century Judaism. Was some of it concretely socio-political? Yes, but no entirely. ‘Empire’ did not drive Jewish apocalyptic, Yahweh’s (OT) promises did?


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