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Understanding Jesus in fuller socio-cultural context

Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder
Author: Richard A. Horsley

RICHARD A. HORSLEY criticises current approaches to the study of the historical Jesus that ignore the real historical context which projected the image of a “depoliticised” Jesus of Nazareth.

He advances what he calls the relational-contextual approach to understand Jesus in a fuller and more adequate socio-cultural context. The different studies on, or quests for, the historical Jesus have been based on the New Testament writings too exclusively. But these writings are in essence religious interpretations of the life and ministry of Jesus and the early Church.

In examining more closely the Gospels and the Pauline letters we find that the writers even then were mindful of their historical context which was about 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.

This new context, which was different from that of Jesus’ day, had to be taken into account. The people were still under the domination of Rome. The second-generation followers of Jesus had distanced themselves from Judaism. They had established their distinct identity as a Christian movement with more joining them from the Gentile rather than the Jewish community. The Roman Empire was still dominant. Therefore one has to read the New Testament accounts from this historical perspective which was different from Jesus’ time.

Scholars like Horsley study more intentionally the history and culture of the people at the time when Jesus worked. They explore the socio-political and literary context which must have conditioned the life and teaching of Jesus. This relational-contextual approach of Horsley considered five inter-related aspects – the historical conditions that created a crisis for the people, Israelite cultural tradition of those people, emergence of Jesus as a leader, His social roles, and His interaction with the followers.

Under Roman rule in Jesus’ day there was a sharp division between the ruling class, including the priests, and the ordinary people. The vast majority of the rural people were engaged in agriculture and fishing and they were exploited by the landlords, taxed heavily by the rulers and the priests. Widespread social unrest erupted, leading to protests and revolts which were suppressed by those in power.

So it was a turbulent time when Jesus appeared on the scene to begin his teaching, preaching and healing ministry. Leaders of religious movements had no choice but to respond to the villagers who had lost their land and driven to hunger and debt. The Galilean villagers were illiterate and it was through oral communication in the form of stories, laws and customs that they developed their history and tradition. They were familiar with the traditions of Israel. They were reminded of their history of how God delivered them in the past.

Horsley feels that along with the proclamation of the Kingdom of God “Jesus spear-headed a programme of renewal of the people. He also pronounced God’s judgement on the people’s rulers, on the Romans themselves as well as on their Jerusalem rulers … ”

Those to whom Jesus preached expected such a response. Jesus marched into Jerusalem and condemned the high priests and the scribes and announced the destruction of the Temple. Jesus drew upon the Israelite tradition of opposition to imperial and oppressive domestic rulers. His teaching of the Kingdom of God or His agenda was that of “independence from Roman imperial rule so that the people can again be empowered to renew their traditional way of life under the rule of God”. This was the hope for the restoration of David’s Kingdom.

History recorded that two prophets named Jesus preached against Roman rule in the mid-first century AD. The high priest aristocracy turned them over to the Roman governor for execution. Yeshua ben Hananiah went around preaching and the governor, convinced that he was not a threat, ordered him beaten and released him. Yeshua ben Joseph (Jesus of Nazareth) was regarded as a serious threat because he had followers in a popular renewal movement. The Roman governor ordered this Jesus to be beaten and executed by crucifixion, which was the practice for rebels and slaves. He was guilty of the charge of assuming to be the “King of the Jews”.

The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, made the decision to crucify Jesus because He was a threat to the political system.

Horsley comments further on the contemporary situation when he draws the parallel between the Roman Empire and the current American Empire. The Galileans and Judeans in the New Testament period reacted to the “new world order” of Rome in the way that people respond today to the “new world order” of America, which is perceived now more as a New World Disorder. As Rome was the superpower of its day so is America the only hyper-power in today’s world.

Horsley fears the “ideology of the United States as the new Israel, God’s chosen people with a historic mission, and as the new Rome destined to bring civilisation, law and order to the whole world”.

It is precisely and precariously in Iraq, classically known as Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation, that the United States is engaged in bringing about salvation and a “new civilisation”.

Jesus and Empire is a provocative book written by Horsley, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. It is a new book published in 2003 and is available from the All Saints Memorial Collection at the Trinity Theological College Library.

The Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, a member of the Methodist Message Editorial Board, was the first Asian Bishop of The Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore.