Review: The Message and the Kingdom

In The Message and the Kingdom. How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World, historians Richard Horsley and Neil Silberman “attempt to reconstruct the social history of early Christianity from a wide variety of newly available evidence drawn from recent studies of ancient Roman culture and from archaeological discoveries throughout the Mediterranean world” (chapter 1). Their argument, in summary is:

1. The Roman Empire was an oppressive presence for the majority of the population in the first century Mediterranean world, maintaining an elite in a state of luxury and power by imposing heavy financial burdens on an impoverished peasantry. Rome was creating a new political and economic order in which the emperor was depicted as Saviour of the world, local subsistence economies were transformed to extract surpluses for local political elites and Rome, and dissent was crushed with ruthless violence;

2. Jesus and Paul challenged the narrative of Empire by articulating an alternate vision of how the world could be (“the kingdom of God”) and crafting communities that embodied this alternate vision. This made their message inherently political, directly and intentionally challenged the power, prestige and source of wealth of the State and consequently brought them into conflict with the authorities;

3.Jesus presented to Israel as a prophet calling for a renewal of the ancient covenant between God and the people. Where Roman occupation had turned indebted and impoverished villagers against one another and demanded their assimilation into the political economy of Empire, Jesus called people to turn away from the Roman political economy and to build village communities marked by mutual support, love and sharing. Indeed this was how God was creating his Kingdom.

In the first phase of his ministry Jesus focussed on the villages of the Galilee and in the second turned to Jerusalem to extend his movement nationwide. As in Galilee he called people to turn away from the Roman political economy and its demands. He mocked the imperial pretensions of Antipas by entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Jesus was not staking a claim to kingship but parodying it), challenged the payment of tribute to Rome (‘render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are God’s’ assumes that people will answer that all things are God’s) and prophetically enacted the judgement of God on the temple, which had become an instrument of exploitation. The State could not ignore such a challenge and Jesus, who underestimated the power of Rome, was executed by crucifixion;

4. After Jesus’ death, his followers continued the Renewal Movement, believing it was bringing in God’s kingdom. In this early period the narrative of Jesus death, resurrection and commission of a global mission was not known among members of  the Galilean Renewal Movement. Rather Jesus was remembered by key sayings as reflected in the Q (sayings) sources.

In Jerusalem the Twelve told of post death appearances of Jesus, which were seen as vindicating his cause as a righteous martyr, providing assurance of the victory over Rome and signalling the first step in the general resurrection – the era of Israel’s salvation was already inaugurated. The values of the village renewal movement (sharing, reciprocity, independence) were applied to urban life and the Jerusalem community adopted the mission of extending the renewal to the diaspora communities. As the movement spread it also attracted non-Israelites who found in the Jesus movement an alternative community and identity.

5. Paul created communities that rejected patron-client relationships as the paradigm for community and instead embodied the Spirit led ideals of mutual support, love and sharing. Paul’s communities focussed on Christ as the Lord whose resurrection made a mockery of Roman claims to power (crucifixion was Rome’s violent and public means of enforcing its rule, but Christ had proven greater than Rome) and who would soon return to destroy Roman power, judge the nations and establish God’s kingdom on earth. Paul’s collection for the famine stricken Judaean Christians was intended as a powerful expression of the independence from Roman rule that communal solidarity could bring for it would free Judaean Christians from  dependence on wealthy patrons. The offering in Paul’s mind would fulfil the prophetic vision of representatives from all the nations bringing gifts to Jerusalem and would usher in the return of Christ. But rather than ushering in the return and reign of Christ, Paul’s journey to Jerusalem issued only in his death and the continued oppressive presence of Rome;

6. The Christian movement began to adapt to the continued presence of Rome. The values of mutual support, love and sharing were embodied internally in the institutions of the Christian community but the State came to be seen as as a power with which the Christian faith could coexist until the return of Christ, and by the fourth century State and Church were integrated.

At the heart of the book is the argument that the Jesus movement was  a call to renewal of the covenant and its vision of communities of mutual sharing and that this was intended as a response to Roman violence, oppression and ideology. The thesis is convincing with regard to covenant renewal and its vision of community and presents some important insights. For example, Horsley and Silberman argue that Jesus’ call to love ones enemy is directed to the enmities among villagers as their communal life broke down under the weight of indebtedness, dispossession and poverty. Similarly, “forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us” reflects a call for mutual release from debt as envisaged in the covenant law. With Jesus’ teaching framed in this light Horsley and Silberman argue that the renewal of covenant community was the way God was establishing his kingdom.

The argument that the renewal movement was constructed as a deliberate response to Roman rule is less convincing. Yes, Jesus’ called people to a vision that was radically different to the demands of Rome and was seen as seditious, but by arguing his message was crafted to challenge Roman rule Horsley and Silberman over interpret the biblical text, demanding that everything Jesus (and Paul) teaches amounts to a call to rebel. This leads to some questionable exegesis. For example Horsley and Silberman demonstrate quite superbly how Jesus entry to Jerusalem on a donkey was a stark contrast to the extravagant processions of Herod Antipas but reject the Gospel’s suggestion that Jesus was staking a claim to a different kind of kingship in favour of the notion that he was enacting a parody that mocked Antipas and any claim to kingship.

The book also contains reconstructions of Jesus and the early Christian movement that require rejection of the historicity of the Gospel narratives (for example, a non-eschatalogical Jesus who saw himself as no more than a prophet and proclaimed a kingless kingdom) – and assertions that are entirely speculative (eg the suggestion that the Galilean renewal movement knew nothing of the stories of Jesus’ resurrection and that Paul thought his offering would usher in the parousia).

Despite these weaknesses the book provides wonderful insights into the social world of first century Mediterranean societies.  Horsley and Silberman provide a lucid account of the political and economic dimensions of life under Rome, of the lifestyles of the elites and of the social impacts of the socio-political-economic systems on everyday people. This makes the biblical texts come alive, provides important insights into biblical discussions of poverty, wealth, power and community, and should inform any study of the New Testament documents.For me this is the main benefit of the book.  Alongside this Horsley and Silberman’s interpretation of a number of New Testament texts and themes deserve close attention. For example, the interpretation of Jesus time in Jerusalem as filled with provocative prophetic acts of defiance is worthy of consideration; the analysis of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) is among the most convincing I have read; and the discussion of Paul’s plea that Philemon free the slave Onesimus demonstrates that this doesn’t show an ambivalence about slavery but challenges the institution as a failure to understand the nature of the kingdom.
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