The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel

by Richard Horsley (2012), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Horsley sketches the major problems in current discussions of the historical Jesus:  the apocalyptic Jesus and the Jesus of individual sayings (the results in a Jesus as wisdom teacher, and the separation of religion from political-economic life).  Horsley’s attempt is to show Jesus as a prophet generating a movement of renewal of Israel over against the rulers of Israel (p 5).

He presents a contextual Jesus, identifying the context of the historical figure; the particular historical situation, the situation of crisis, personal circumstances and qualities, role of leadership, leader’s interaction with the people, decisive confrontation of the leader with the dominant order.  Reading the gospels thus yields a multifactored historical situation (p 26).

Horsley sketches the renewal movements in Israel, elucidating Jesus’ mission, the roles he adapted and the movement that focused on him (p 83); he places Jesus in the role of prophet, pursuing independence from imperial rule and the renewal of Israelite society in justice under the direct rule of its G-d (p 94).  Horsley looks at the gospels, especially in Mark, to detail the contextual perspective. Jesus’ overall program was the renewal of Israel over against the rulers of Israel, and particular episodes of healing, exorcisms, controversies and confrontation were particular components of the agenda (p 103).

We need to take the gospels whole, and not isolate text fragment (e.g., the Jesus seminar, looking at Q [the hypothetical document containing material common to the first three Gospels] apart from the whole).  Jesus’ followers, who cultivated the Q speeches and the gospel of Mark, continued to understand Jesus primarily as the prophet who launched the renewal of Israel against the rulers of Israel, drawing on the memory of the Mosaic covenant.

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