Richard Horsley’s "Jesus in Context"

Richard Horsley’s Jesus in Context is an apologetic of sorts; defending the jewishness of Jesus, the “living” tradition of antiquity, and the early church itself. Horsley implores his readers to re-evaluate their understanding of Jesus by examining the communities of the patristic age. In an age where events are taken at face value, Horsley argues for a new understanding of Jesus. This new understanding would take into consideration the cultural tradition or “social memory” of the early church and how it’s efforts paint us a better image of the life of Jesus Christ.
Horsley outlines his book by dividing it into four separate, but equally important parts. He begins by introducing the differences between “standard history” and “people’s history.” After defining the nature of history best suited for the Gospels, Horsley then looks at the Gospels as oral performances and the implications therein. Keeping the theme of oral performance, Horsley then investigates “social memory” and it’s role in the Jesus tradition. Finally, Horsley ends his quest by examining the role of the state as a “dominator” where Jesus is a “resistor.”
To evaluate the Gospels from a standard historical standpoint leads to non-linear understandings of the life of Jesus Christ. Standard history is often only concerned with the ruling elites who were involved with important events; the ones who “wrote” history. Horsley argues that therefore “the meaning of history, turned out to be the meaning for the elites.” When evaluating Christianity in the light of standard history it can thus be inferred that this history was “written” by the bishops, theologians and church councils. Interestingly, Christianity did not exist in time of the New Testament period as an identifiable religion; most books in the New Testament have no references to Christians or Christianity. Horsley therefore advocates for an understanding of the Gospels from the lens of “people’s history.” When evaluating historical events from the “people’s” perspective rather than the “standard,” one is able to see everything from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Ordinary people are the focus rather than the elites, all aspects of life are taken into consideration rather than the political events at the top, and there is an interdisciplinary approach rather than leaving it solely in the realm of History.
Now looking at the Gospels from the “people’s history” Horsley raises two key facts: 1) the major difference between the “elite” culture and the “people’s” culture was literacy, and 2) literacy was not used in most social and economic interaction (certainly not among the ordinary people). Jesus, throughout his entire ministry, spoke to the “ordinary people” of ancient Judea. Unsurprisingly the leaders of the early Christian communities were ordinary people; the disciples James, Peter, Andrew and John were all fishermen, and Prisca and Aquila (Christian followers in Rome) were poor artisans. These key figures undoubtedly lived in an environment of limited literacy where oral communications ruled the field.
According the Horsley modern scholarship has concluded that literacy in the Roman Empire was “limited to a small percentage of the population.” It was during this era that the Gospel narratives were passed on, leading scholars to conclude that the traditions had been remembered orally. Horsley argues that the relationship between a text and its audience must be reconsidered in a society where the vast majority was illiterate. He compares the text of the New Testament to other texts of antiquity, which were also performed orally (ancient Roman/Greek poetry).
Another major problem with writings of antiquity stems from the availability of written texts. Papyrus was the preferred medium at the time and proved to be quite expensive, cumbersome, and nearly impossible to read from (especially since the majority of the population could not read). These different factors all led to the Gospel tradition being performed orally. Horsley writes: “considering that (the Gospels) story was performed before communities in a particular historical context, the key questions to ask may be not what is meant by the words or verses … but how the performed text resonated with the audience.”
Modern biblical studies have neglected the influential role of memory with regards to the oral tradition of the Gospels. With new efforts by scholars, social memory is beginning to take hold as a major concept of tradition. But before one can understand the social memory of the early church, one must deconstruct some preconceived notions. Horsley believes that standard study of the gospel tradition has led scholars to believe that Jesus was trying to break away from Judaism. When, in fact, Jesus himself lived and died a Jew. Standard study has led scholars to posits that the Gospels were stable written texts, whereas in reality the Gospels were a living tradition only to be fully concreted in the end of late antiquity. Because the gospel narratives were performed and heard countless times, in different places, the exact wording becomes less important compared to the overall meaning and events of a story. The Gospel of Mark comes out then (when looking from Horsley’s perspective) as a mix of episodic and speech materials sophisticated in the social memory of Jesus’ movements.
The last section of Horsley’s book deals with the notion of dominance and resistance as themes of the New Testament. The New Testament itself acted as a commandment to those who reigned superior to engage in colonial rule. It helped legitimize the domination of people in order to help (Christianize) them. But the Bible also played a historical role for those being oppressed, such as when African slaves associated their slavery with that of the Israelites in Egypt during the Mosaic period. Horsley calls his readers to appreciate the subtleties of the “hidden” transcripts of the Bible to see its call for resistance by subordinated peoples.
Richard Horsley’s main attempt at placing Jesus in the proper context comes to fruition throughout the book: the memory and traditions of Jesus were performed orally before being written down, and the written texts were continually developed throughout the late patristic period. Horsley forces his reader to re-examine preconceived notions about Jesus by providing new and engaging scholarship to further his point that we can “trust” the Jesus of the New Testament.

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