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Historical Jesus Theories: Richard Horsley

The purpose of this web page is to explain and explore some of the theories offered up by contemporary scholars on the historical Jesus and the origins of the Christian religion. Issues include the nature of the historical Jesus, the nature of the early Christian documents, and the origins of the Christian faith in a risen Jesus Christ.

Richard Horsley

Horsley describes his view of the historical Jesus in these words (Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp. 207-208):

Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs:  Buy at! The focal concern of the kingdom of God in Jesus' preaching and practice, however, is the liberation and welfare of the people. Jesus' understanding of the "kingdom of God" is similar in its broader perspective to the confident hopes expressed in then-contemporary Jewish apocalyptic literature. That is, he had utter confidence that God was restoring the life of the society, and that this would mean judgment for those who oppressed the people and vindication for those who faithfully adhered to God's will and responded to the kingdom. That is, God was imminently and presently effecting a historical transformation. In modern parlance that would be labeled a "revolution."

The principal thrust of Jesus' practice and preaching, however, was to manifest and mediate the presence of the kingdom of God. In the gospel traditoins of Jesus' words and deeds, we can observe the kingdom present in the experience of the people in distinctive ways. Jesus and his followers celebrated the joys of the kingdom present in festive banqueting. In the healings and forgiveness of sins and in the exorcisms, individual persons experienced the liberation from disease and oppressive forces and the new life effected by God's action. Jesus' interpretation of the exorcisms, moreover, points to the broader implications of God's present action among the people. That is, since the exorcisms are obviously being effected by God, it is clear that the rule of Satan has been broken. But that meant also that the oppressive established order maintained by the power of Satan (according to the apocalyptic dualistic view of reality that was shared by Jesus and his contemporaries) was also under judgment. The old order was in fact being replaced by a new social-political order, that is, the "kingdom of God," which Jesus was inviting the people to "enter."

Indeed, Jesus was engaged in catalyzing the renewal of the people, Israel. Far from being primarily a "teacher" of timeless truths or a preacher of cosmic catastrophe calling for authentic "decision," Jesus ministered "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." He summoned the people to recognize the presence of the kingdom and to enter the kingdom, but if they did not respond to the historical crisis, he did not hesitate to pronounce judgment. It is precisely in the pronounced woes against whole villages or against the whole (sinful) "generation" that we can discern that Jesus was not simply addressing individuals but was calling for collective, social response.

While not saying that Jesus was antifamily, Horsley says that Jesus called for "renewed local covenantal communities conceived of in nonpatriarchal familial terms" (op. cit., p. 240). Unlike Cynics, Jesus' disciples "focused their activities on the revitalization of local community life" (op. cit., p. 231). These communities were called to be egalitarian. Horsley argues that there is no evidence for a continuous "Zealot" movement founded in 6 CE but rather that the Zealots themselves emerged only in the middle of the Jewish revolt. Attempts to use Zealots as a foil for an apolitical Jesus are misguided. Horsley argues that the passages in which Jesus associates with tax collectors and sinners are apologetic inventions against the false charge that Jesus consorted with the wicked. Because all belonged to God in Jewish thought, the "render" saying of Jesus in Mark 12:17 was ostensibly noncommital while actually advocating nonpayment of tribute. Jesus called for a social revolution in which the people "the people were to enter a new spirit of cooperation and mutual assistance, even in relation to their local enemies" (op. cit., p. 325), while in anticipation of the political revolution to be effected by God.

Please enjoy exploring the varied Historical Jesus Theories offered by these authors through the links below.

Jesus the Myth: Heavenly Christ

Jesus the Myth: Man of the Indefinite Past

Jesus the Hellenistic Hero

Jesus the Revolutionary

Jesus the Wisdom Sage

Jesus the Man of the Spirit

Jesus the Prophet of Social Change

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

Jesus the Savior

For more information on the debate over the historical Jesus, visit the Christian Origins web site.

Go to the Chronological List of all Early Christian Writings

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Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.