Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine

by Richard Horsley (2014), review by Vern Ratzlaff

Horsley outlines the force of culture and the historical context of Jesus’ time that puts new perspective on the Roman occupation. The major conflict was not between Judaism and Hellenism, but between the Romans and their client Herodian and high priestly rulers on the one hand, and the vast majority of people living in villages on the other. “Jesus was catalyzing a movement based on the village communities that constituted the fundamental social form of Galilean and Judean society” (p x).

Horsley summarizes the popular movements in Judea, Galilee and Samaria that came into open conflict with the Romans and the temple authorities, the “messianic movements and popular prophetic movements” (p 39). He also points out the difference between what subordinates and superiors say and act, the difference between public transcripts and hidden transcripts (p 40). Peasant compliance was “a mark of acquiescence, not of support, and considerable discontent with Herod’s temple and the high priests had been building up precisely as the people acquiesced in Temple ceremonies and requirements under Herodian rule” (p 41).

In the context, Jesus’ words are not just “teachings” but speech acts (“performative speech”) that make something happen. Jesus’ call for renewal of Israel under the direct rule of G-d, in the tradition of the prophets, marked a politics of resistance and renewal, .ie., the religious political festival of Passover was the occasion and context for speaking truth to power (p 52).

Horsley outlines Jesus’ role in healing, in restoring sufferers to their supportive families and village communities; he cogently distinguishes between “disease” and “illness” (p 84), and emphasizes illness (response to disease) as related to political perspectives. His outline of the nature of Jesus’ disagreement with scribes and Pharisees, and the impact of the crucifixion  is powerfully developed. “Jesus’ execution was transformed into a symbol of renewal of the people in what was now a public opposition to the imperial order” (p 167).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.