John, Jesus & the Renewal of Israel -- A Review

JOHN, JESUS, AND THE RENEWAL OF ISRAEL By Richard Horsley and Tom Thatcher.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.  201 pages.

            When we seek to answer the question “who is Jesus?” we will likely turn first to what are commonly called the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  There is a commonality to these stories of Jesus that has led scholars to focus on them.  Because the Gospel of John seems so different, so theologically focused, many scholars do not consider it a viable source for discerning who the historical Jesus is.  In part this is due to the way John tells the story of Jesus, and also due to presuppositions taken by the scholarly community.  This is especially true of the Jesus Seminar, which seeks to reconstruct a historical Jesus who is the teller of aphorisms and parables, neither of which appear in John.  John is, as Clement of Alexandria opined in the second century – a spiritual gospel.  Of course, for Clement that made John the most valuable gospel.  With a modern focus on the historical, John recedes into the background.  It may have helpful theological material, but in terms of recording authentic statements and actions of Jesus it is of little use. 

To a great degree my own view of John has been formed by the scholarly consensus, even if I don’t follow the Jesus Seminar’s opinions.  I turn to it for theology, but not history.  But, what if John does contain important historical elements that could revolutionize our vision of who Jesus was in life?  Such is the contention of authors Richard Horsley, emeritus professor of liberal arts at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Tom Thatcher, professor of biblical studies at Cincinnati Christian University, in their recently published book John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel.  I have known about Horsley for some time, knowing of his interest in the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ ministry.  As for Tom Thatcher, this is my first introduction to his work, though I’m intrigued by the fact that one teaching at a rather conservative Christian college has taken up this study. 

As one who has some training in biblical studies, but not being a specialist in the studies of the gospels, I am not completely able to speak to the intricacies of the argument made by these authors.  But the argument in support of the idea that John is a significant historical source for understanding Jesus and his ministry that they lay out seems quite compelling.

The book is written in response to the basic presuppositions of the current consensus that looks to textual fragments, especially the sayings of Jesus, to determine the identity of the historical Jesus.  The assumption rests on the belief, which they affirm, that Mark is the earliest Gospel and that Matthew and Luke make use of a separate tradition of sayings and speeches commonly called Q.  John is considered the last Gospel written and that John, even if knowing of these documents, makes little or no use of them.  In seeking to reclaim John as a historical source, the authors seek to elevate the gospel as a whole rather than its parts.  Whereas the traditional assumptions are rooted in privileging the written documents, they seek to hold up the importance of the orality of the gospels.  Rather than focus on an “author,” they focus on the stories as they develop and are told with significant integrity.  Whereas moderns tend to think in terms of the telephone game when thinking of orality, in a non-literate culture orality is key, and there is great care taken to keep the story together.

In this book the authors seek to focus not on the theological or the spiritual, but on what they call the mundane – the account of Jesus’ travels and engagements with his context, especially the conflicts that erupt between Jesus and the leaders of the Temple State in Jerusalem.  Thus, their methodology rests on two three premises:  First, the gospels are stories, and need to be taken as such, that focus on “a Galilean villager who was acclaimed as a prophet and/or anointed one, who interacted with Galilean and other peasants of Israelite heritage, whose followers formed a movement in early Roman Palestine, and who was crucified by the Roman governor of Judea.”  The second premise concerns the focus on orality, and the third seeks to reconstruct the general history, not just the religious history of Roman Palestine.

The goal of the book is to portray Jesus as a prophet/messiah from Galilee who seeks to reclaim and renew Israel.  With this goal in mind, the authors lay out their effort in four steps.  They first focus on the historical context of John’s gospel centering on the division within Roman Palestine between the elite and the ordinary.  Secondly, they look at how the scholarly reconstruction of the historical Jesus has proceeded – offering a literary analysis of Mark and Q.  The third step focuses explicitly on John’s story of Jesus and his mission.  Part of this requires understanding the realities separating Judea from Samaria and Galilee.  In the fourth and final section of the book, they focus on the way in which John portrays Jesus’ mission of renewal of Israel in opposition to the Temple-State leadership in Jerusalem.  That is, the high priests, scribes, and Pharisees, who are serving Rome as client rulers.  Then in the epilogue they offer some thoughts on the implications of this new vision of John’s story. 

In writing the book, Horsley and Thatcher make it clear that it is a provisional sketch.  It is a starting point for expanding the conversation as to how John fits into the broader picture of Jesus.  While they offer it as provisional, it seems to this reader, that it offers a pathway that we need to follow.  If John holds within its story clues as to who Jesus was and what he was up to, it could revolutionize how we see ourselves, especially we who are followers of Jesus.     

To understand John’s gospel and Jesus in particular, we may need to rethink the way in which we understand the people Jesus was engaging with.  Horsley and Thatcher insist that first century residents of Roman Palestine didn’t separate the religious from the social/political.  Thus, we shouldn’t think of Judaism as a religion here, but Israel as a people.  They remind us that for centuries, until the expansion of the Hasmonean kingdom in the second century BCE, Galilee and Samaria had lived independently of Judea in the south, and in the lifetime of Jesus, these two regions were ruled separately from Judea, which was administered by the Temple State.  Jesus is portrayed, almost from the beginning, as a northern provocateur, who was seeking to reclaim Israel as an entity separate from the Temple – thus the conversation with the Samaritan woman regarding worshiping God in Spirit and Truth.  It is a reminder that non-literate Galileans understood themselves very differently from the literate Temple elite in Jerusalem.  The reason for the crucifixion then is this challenge to the Temple authorities who rule on behalf of Rome.  While John portrays Jesus in messianic terms – that is as a popularly anointed king (in contrast to Mark’s focus on Jesus the prophet), Jesus’ methods were non-violent, though he did impede commerce at the Temple.  The religio-political leadership determined that he had to go because he was gaining favor with the common people across the regions that had once formed ancient Israel.       

            Anyone interested in the life of Jesus as a historical person will want to explore this book.  Even if the Horsley-Thatcher proposal doesn’t win the day, they have brought John back into the conversation.  They raise questions about regional issues, including resentments felt by Galileans and Samaritans toward Judea, and most especially the ruling class in Judea.  Regarding these regional relationships, they provide a compelling explanation for John’s continued use of the term “the Jews” regarding Jesus’ enemies.  This unfortunate usage is based, they argue, on a mistranslation of the Greek hoi Ioudai.  It should be rendered in regional terms as “the Judeans,” and in most cases refers to the High Priestly leadership. 

This is a relatively short, readable, even fascinating book.  In my estimation it deserves our attention, and I look forward to seeing how others respond to the proposal – especially those who are commenting on John and on the quest for the historical Jesus.  It has certainly opened my eyes to the possibilities that this often neglected gospel has for illuminating my understanding of Jesus and his mission – then and now.


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