John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel

by Richard Horsley and Tom Thatcher (2013), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Interpretation of John’s gospel has traditionally focused on its unique Christology, a spiritual gospel (according to Clement), meaning that John’s story is less Jewish than what we see elsewhere. Horsley and Thatcher argue that “the Gospel of John portrays Jesus engaged in a renewal of the people of Israel against the rulers of Israel, both the Jerusalem authorities and the Romans who placed them in power” (p 1). They also articulate that religion was inseparable from political-economic life. The gospels are about all of life, life that is “inseparably political-economic-religious” (p 6).

We need to understand John’s story in its historical context. The fundamental social form in Roman Palestine was the village community, comprised of many multigenerational families. Rome ruled through a succession of client kings (Herod and his sons) or of religious collaborators (the Judean priesthood).

While Galilee was under the control of Herod’s son, Judea was under the control of the temple and its priesthood. During the lifetime of Jesus, Galilee and Judea were under different administration, but each had stories of resistance to the Romans. “There was a cultural divide that corresponded to the political-economic tradition, and the scribes and Pharisees who served the temple state” (p 33).

The authors point out Jesus’ talk with the woman at the well, saying “the worship of G-d in spirit and in truth is the alternative to the politically-economically centralized celebration of festivals in the Jerusalem (or Samaritan!) temples. It is a declaration of independence from rules and their  centralized institutional base in the temple” (p 179).  The authors also call on John’s modern interpreters, rather than looking for G-d in theological statements, to focus on” Jesus’ renewal of Israel in conflict with the rulers” (p 180). “The broader meaning of  Jesus’ actions resonated with people deeply rooted in the ancient Israelite tradition” (p 181).  A striking new perspective on John’s story.

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