Jesus in Context: Power, People and Performance

By Richard A. Horsley
Minneapolis, Minn. : Fortress (2008). 274 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Trevor Craigen
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 273-275

Theologians dealing with Christology cannot afford to ignore the NT exegete in his studies of the Gospels. “Will this book contribute to my understanding of Christ?” is the question being asked. The ‘blurbs’ on the back of the dust-jacket, alert the reader that this book comes from the standpoint of oral tradition and historical criticism. The yellow light of caution immediately switches on and the reader proceeds with care. Horsley, one colleague advises, has overturned historical criticism’s assumption of the centrality of the Gospels as written texts. The Jesus traditions are proposed as coming from popular traditions and transmitted through oral performance and not through the textual work of a scribal elite. The major areas which he addresses are “People’s History,” “Oral Performance,” “Social Memory,” and “Hidden Transcripts, the Arts of Resistance, and Moral Economy.” The data provided from these studies will not leave Jesus detached from His culture, vis-a-vis the Jesus Seminar, but will show Jesus and the early Jesus movement as firmly rooted in Israelite social memory (127).

“During the last three or four decades a combination of new questions, fresh perspectives, borrowed methods, and expanding research has dramatically changed the way we approach and interpret biblical texts” (127). Horsley, much earlier in the introduction under the heading “New Directions,” issued an invitation to join him in exploring new approaches to those questions and challenges which were not anticipated by “better-established” approaches. In the long term he sees this as culminating in a richer appreciation of the Gospels (10). Hmmm!

Any exegete/theologian readily welcomes more “facts and figures,” expanding the knowledge of the historical, cultural, religious, political, and philosophical background of any particular time in Bible history. The motivation should always be to understand the text better in a perfectly normal and straightforward fashion. It is not information by which to formulate a methodology for establishing some fresh interpretive principles which appear to be a challenge to the integrity of the text. It was slow at first to follow along as various bits of information came together in those major areas mentioned above. As Horsley puts it, “Our approach will be eclectically multidisciplinary and self -consciously critical when adapting a given model for a particular purpose” (34). He gives attention to the impact of Imperial Rome on the regions like Judea and Galilee. The Romans did carry out periodic repression on Jesus movements after Christ’s crucifixion and undoubtedly such repression may very well have influenced the way of life by the peoples of that period. No single individual lives in a vacuum untouched by anything in this world. A problem addressed by Horsley is that of limited literacy in an environment of oral communication (57-63). Questions arise, however, when the sociopolitical analysis is done and is then is used to determine how to interpret the biblical text, as well as why the different writers or editors changed what was written down beforehand. In fact, now it is recognized that there were no stable texts of Mark, Matthew and Luke or John in late antiquity (224). “Unstable” means that the documents kept changing and developing because oral communication predominated, even in literate circles. Is it not better to recognize that oral tradition is notoriously unstable? Proposing that the written NT documents have no stability seems to this reviewer to be a less than favorable look upon inspiration, infallibility, and authority of the Gospels, written down by the men whose names they bear.

The consistency with which Q is cross-referenced and mentioned is unbelievable. Soon it became rather irritating that so much energy was being directed to a document as yet unseen. Chapter three takes thirty-two pages to cover the subject of “Oral Performance and Tradition in Q” (52-88). It would not be wrong to assert that the author and the writers and scholars he cites and to whom he refers, appear to have had a greater respect for this elusive Q document than they did for the biblical text. Anyone standing, as it were, on the outside looking in, would find the practice of honoring Q an instance of the emperor’s new clothes.

As for the answer to the theologian’s opening question, “Little, if any new data on the person of Christ came to light, but as an immediate follow-up a more serious study of Bibliology is definitely in order.” Recommend or not? Obviously, if one is interested in Q, then he will look on this book with favor, but if not, he will look upon it with disfavor.