Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant and the Hope of the Poor

by Richard Horsley (2011), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Horsley looks closely at the gospel accounts from the perspective of Jewish covenantal life. He sees the gospel stories as being full of conflict, as portraying Jesus carrying out a renewal of Israel, and as detailing a struggle between opposing powers (Herod, Caesar, high priests, temple system, unclean spirits and demons)(p1-3). He stresses the need to read the gospels as ‘whole stories’, to see the ‘individual sayings as components of speeches or of dialogue episodes on particular issue; to see that the conflict in the gospels is political-economic-religious (between Judaean, Hellenism and priestly) and details the ‘many resistance movements among the Judean and Galilean people against the Herodian and high priestly rulers as well as against Roman rule’ (p 8).

Horsley emphasizes the crucifixion as the key event that ‘transformed the power that was to intimidate and dominate in the power that inspired commitment and solidarity in forming an alternative social order’ (p 199).  Jesus’ renewal movement regenerated the  power of local solidarity, challenged the rulers publicly in Jerusalem(political/religious capital for Israelites and the Roman power in Judea (p 209).

The movement formed in response to Jesus’ mission provided an alternative society under the direct rule of G-d (the kingdom), expanded the movement in resistance to the power that sought to determine the conditions of their lives (demons, client kings, Roman forces). Horsley’s book emphasizes that Jesus’ followers continue their opposition to the imperial order (to the powers) in imitation of Jesus, so that the Roman instrument of terror became the way to see the Jesus way against the powers.

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