Posted by: Dan | April 23, 2006

Jesus as "Prophet": Part III

Jesus as Social (Leadership) Prophet: Crossan, Thiessen, Horsley, Kaylor & Herzog II

Within this section we will examine several prominent scholars who focus upon Jesus as a leadership, rather than an oracular, prophet. We will begin by studying John Dominic Crossan, who does not fit too comfortably here, but whose work has been influential upon others in this category. We will then examine the work of Gerd Thiessen, Richard Horsley, R.D. Kaylor, and William Herzog II, before critically reflecting upon this perspective.

John Dominic Crossan: Jesus as Prophetic Magician and Itinerant Cynic Sage

John Dominic Crossan is difficult to locate within a typology that examines Jesus as prophet. With his emphasis upon Jesus as sage, he fits well with the position of the Jesus Seminar — of which he is a member, albeit one that is rather distanced from, and arguably well beyond, most of the other members. Similarly, with his emphasis upon Jesus as a magician, rather than as prophet, it could be argued that he better belongs within the group that understands Jesus as a charismatic. However, this paper has located Crossan here because his work has borne much fruit, and functioned as a springboard to others who locate Jesus as a radical social prophet.

Although Crossan avoids the title “prophet” and prefers to call Jesus a “Jewish peasant Cynic”, he argues that the Cynics embodied a lifestyle and mindset that was opposed to the cultural heart of Mediterranean civilisation. As a Cynic Jesus espoused “a way of looking and dressing, of eating, living, and relating that announced its contempt for honor and shame, for patronage and clientage”. Thus, Jesus, rooted thoroughly in the tradition of the Jewish peasantry, sought to develop a religious and economic egalitarianism by announcing the “brokerless kingdom of God”. Therefore, Crossan argues that Jesus better fits the type of “magician” than “prophet” for the magician is one who “can make the divine power present directly through personal miracle rather than indirectly through communal ritual”. Jesus follows the model set by Elijah and Elisha who both combine oracular political prophesy with popular individual magic and thereby functions as a “magical prophet” or, better yet, a “prophetic magician”. Jesus thus espouses a different ideology than the powers that be, for his life and actions raise the question of the validity of other authorities. Therefore, the conflict that Jesus encounters is that between the magician as the personal and individual power, versus the priest or rabbi as the communal or ritual power. Thus, according to Crossan, Jesus was subversive, but was more sophisticated than radical in his form of subversion. Yet Jesus planted the seeds of what could become a much more radical form of subversion.

However, like the previous group, Crossan continues to drive a wedge between this historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, and he therefore argues against the resurrection, or the notion that Jesus was divine. Thus he writes:

If those who accepted Jesus during his earthly life had not continued to follow, believe, and experience [Jesus'] continuing presence after the crucifixion, all would have been over. That is the resurrection, the continuing presence in a continuing community of the past Jesus in a radically new and transcendental mode of present and future existence.

The resurrection is simply a handy metaphor employed by the early ecclesiastical authorities in order to legitimate their authority and the direction they provide the Christian community.

Crossan avoids calling Jesus a prophet, and limits the subversive nature of Jesus' ministry. However, several other scholars have developed this picture of Jesus in a much more radical manner and rooted it in a more thoroughly prophetic tradition, and it is to these scholars that we now turn.

Gerd Thiessen: Jesus as a Charismatic (Prophet?) Renewing the Poor

Gerd Thiessen also tends to avoid calling Jesus a prophet, and prefers to see him as an itinerant charismatic but because of his emphasis upon Jesus as a social radical, he fits this category better than the others offered in this paper. As part of a radical socio-ecological Jewish renewal movement, Jesus is an itinerant who calls for separation from pagan cities and espouses an ambivalence towards Jerusalem. Thiessen argues that Jesus was thoroughly rooted in the margins of society, and in opposition to the rulers. Within Jesus' ministry economic distress, religious unrest, and political resistance are all interconnected. Thus, through actions like healing the lower classes and the outcasts, Jesus comes into direct conflict with the authorities. Through this conflict Jesus was hoping to bring about the kingdom of God, which would result in the poor coming “into their own”. Jesus was hoping to bring about a “revolution in values, a takeover of upper-class attitudes by the lower class”. Consequently, Jesus dies a political death, just as John before him died a political death.

Richard Horsley: Jesus the Revolutionary Prophet

It is with the writing of Richard Horsley that the notion of Jesus as a radical social prophet really begins to reach its full expression. Here, Jesus is seen as an oracular and leadership prophet at the head of a “grassroots movement of Galilean peasant protest”. Jesus is emphatically not a cynic or a wandering charismatic, but is a social prophet like the Old Testament prophets. He is a revolutionary siding with the oppressed over against the oppressors. Thus, when approaching Jesus as an oracular prophet, Horsley emphasises the need not to take apocalyptic literally, but argues that it must be read within its context and understood as an act of subversive remembering by oppressed groups. Apocalyptic motivates resistance and demystifies the present social order. From this perspective talk about the kingdom of God, is all about rejecting the rulers for the communal solidarity of the traditions of Israel — it has nothing to do with the future or with a detached spirituality. Therefore, the key to Jesus' approach, as a social prophet, is resisting exploitation by the rich and powerful without surrendering Israel's egalitarian traditions or resorting to violence. The society that this Jesus envisions is one of radical equality, living within the “kingless kingdom of God”. It is a community that is co-operative, non-hierarchical, defined by solidarity, mutual service, and the absence of all authorities, and all authoritative institutions.

Because this Jesus envisions such an egalitarian society, he focuses upon those who were “utterly excluded” and pronounces judgement on the rulers. Like an Old Testament prophet, he opposes those who oppress the poor, and he therefore targets the temple and the high priests because they were the true power and the client rulers for Rome. Indeed, Horsley sees all of Jesus' actions as an assault on Rome. By exorcising demons, which, significantly, go by names like “Legion”, and by healing wounds caused by imperial power, Jesus claims victory over Rome. Because Jesus challenges the authorities so explicitly when he comes to Jerusalem (first by mocking all messianic pretenders by riding into Jerusalem on an ass, and then by overturning tables in the temple), he dies the death of a rebel and a prophet. Yet this provides the renewal movement with the impetus to live on in his name — and those today who resist the idolatry of power will inherit the kingdom of God.

R.D. Kaylor: Jesus the Social Prophet of the Here-and-Now

R.D. Kaylor largely follows the thesis of Horsley. Jesus was a prophet renewing Israel through a return to the social standards set by the covenant. He was political, with a political agenda, and was killed as a political subversive who saw the spiritual significance of seemingly mundane things like food, clothes and shelter. Kaylor also continues to argue that the focus on Jesus as a social prophet requires a move away from eschatology and spirituality. The kingdom of God, according to this Jesus, was all about the here-and-now, it was all about earthy politics. In this picture there is little room for such things as transcendence or a future coming kingdom.

William J. Herzog II: Jesus as Prophet of the Justice of the Reign of God

Finally, it is worth examining the significant contribution of William Herzog II. Like Wright, Herzog follows Webb's thesis by differentiating between first century clerical, sapiental, and popular prophets, before arguing that Jesus is most similar to, but not identical with, the popular prophets. Popular prophets, Herzog argues, tapped into deep wells of popular discontent, and worked towards delivering the people from foreign or corrupt domination. Thus, Jesus is quite political, albeit in a way that in not necessarily immediately obvious to the twentieth century Western reader. Active politics was one of the defining characteristics of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus fits well with the example they provide, for, like them, Jesus also upholds Torah, and came into conflict with “court prophets” who supported the existing regime. Thus, Jesus embodies what is common to all prophets.

Combining these three elements (Torah, politics, and conflict), Herzog argues that Jesus connected faith and theology based on a reading of Torah that saw God's land as a haven for justice in an unjust world, and this reading clashed with those who co-opted Torah for the purpose of political advantage. Therefore, Jesus attacks the temple system because it had become a place of economic exploitation and a means of legitimating the state and establishing dynastic claims. By attacking the temple system, Jesus also attacked the notion of a clear hierarchy of holiness with distinct boundaries that existed at all levels of Jewish society. The levies and taxes kept the people perpetually indebted to the temple and therefore in a constant state of uncleanness and vulnerability. Therefore, Jesus did not seek to cleanse the temple, he sought its destruction, based upon the desire to replace it with something different. As Herzog says, “The destruction of the oppressive institution that the temple had become was one step toward the coming justice of the reign of God”. In his assault on the temple system, Jesus also drives a wedge between the temple and the land, when he talks about the fruitfulness of the land apart from the temple system. This Jesus argues that the people were poor, not because the land was not producing, but because the people were being exploited and oppressed by tributes, tithes, and taxes.

In his conflict with the Pharisees, Herzog's Jesus counters the “Great Tradition”, that legitimated the powers and the then existent socio-political and economic order, with the “Little Tradition” of the dominated peasant masses. This is essentially the clash between religious traditions which support hegemony and religious traditions which challenge hegemony. These traditions can be traced back to two codes that exist within the Torah: the debt code, and the purity code. These codes do not coexist on equal terms but one becomes focal while the other becomes subsidiary and is mediated through the first. Thus the Great Tradition starts with the purity code while the Little Tradition begins with the debt code.

As a social prophet of the Little Tradition, Jesus is a herald of the kingdom of God, announcing it, articulating its meaning — justice for the oppressed — and mediating its power. Indeed, Jesus' healings and exorcisms are all a part of this conflict and part of Jesus' political strategy. Jesus never performed miracles just for the sake of performing miracles, rather the miracles revealed who channelled God's power, who mediated God's power, and on whose behalf God's power was exercised. All of this meant a rather damning judgement against the socio-political and economic powers, and it required the cancellation of debts, and the redistribution of resources.

Critical Reflection

What then are we to make of Jesus the social prophet as he is presented by these scholars? Crossan's Jesus will be examined first, and then Thiessen's Jesus, before some summary comments are made about Jesus the social prophet as he is reflected in the works of Horsley, Kaylor, and Herzog.

Crossan's magical Cynic Jesus has faced rather damning criticisms from several New Testament scholars. First of all, Crossan has imposed a more romantic and sophisticated type, that of Cynic, upon Jesus — but it is a type that would not likely be familiar to a first century Jew from Galilee. Although Crossan does attempt to distinguish between Greek Cynics and the followers of Jesus, there does not seem to be any significant evidence that the Cynics were a known presence with the Galilee of Jesus day. Secondly, if Jesus was the type of Cynic that Crossan describes, it becomes quite difficult to comprehend why anybody would want to kill this Jesus. Furthermore, the notion of Jesus as magician is rather suspect, not only because the term “magician” would be considered quite derogatory within Second Temple Judaism (hence, we discover that it is Jesus' opponents that apply this title to him in the Gospels), but also because Jesus' methods do not align with those of a magician. First century magic was “ritual and practices used to coerce the gods and spirit powers” and magicians tended to rely on material aids and magic formulas, while Jesus does not use aids or formulas and primarily operates through touch or simple commands. Magicians were regularly doing these deeds for money, they were magicians for hire, and Jesus certainly does not fit this model. Examining Crossan's model of Jesus helps us to realise how much more appropriate the prophetic type is, and so we can conclude with James Dunn that “there are parallels which can be pressed to affirm Jesus as magician, Jesus as Cynic. But is either case a good example of solid historical evaluation? I think not”.

Gerd Thiessen's model of Jesus — more socially radical than Crossan's but still not explicitly prophetic — has faced some criticisms from others within this section, especially from Richard Horsley. Horsley argues that Thiessen's move away from the prophetic type to produce an itinerant charismatic Jesus results in a Jesus that is far too removed from politics. Thus, according to Horsley, Thiessen does not do justice to Jesus' context of dislocation, conflict, and distress. More could (and should) be said about Thiessen's model of Jesus but further criticisms of the charismatic type will be reserved for the next section of this paper.

Examining the work of Horsley, Kaylor, and Herzog (and the elements that overlap in the work of Crossan and Thiessen), one finds much that should be affirmed. These scholars are absolutely correct to emphasis the socio-political and economic priorities of Jesus' mission, and of the prophetic vocation in general. One cannot engage with these scholars and still retain any doubt that Jesus was political and was at least subversively, and perhaps revolutionarily, so. Especially important in this regard is the insight that the miracles Jesus performed were done with a political and eschatological end in mind. As a first century prophet, Jesus' socio-political stance is firmly rooted within the traditions of Israel, and thus in the works of Horsley, Kaylor, and Herzog, the result is a convincing historical portrait of Jesus.

However, there are at least three criticisms that need to be raised against this perspective. The first is that these scholars tend toward an over-realised eschatology. In this sense, Ben Witherington is correct to argue that these scholars are often right in what they affirm, but wrong in what they deny. By stressing the social/leadership element, these scholars too quickly discard the apocalyptic/oracular element. Certainly Horsley makes a valiant effort to account for apocalyptic or eschatological elements within Jesus teachings, but he stresses that the eschatology all refers to events in the present, not in the future. Too much of the religious is lost in an overemphasis upon the notion that the kingdom is fully here, fully now, and not future at all.

This leads to the second criticism levelled at these scholars: they confuse the ultimate enemy that Jesus is fighting against. For all of these scholars the enemy is the corrupt leaders in Jerusalem and, ultimately, Rome. From this perspective it becomes difficult to understand why Jesus did not resort to violence (apart from the argument that asserts that Jesus was trying to break the cycle of violence — an argument that sounds quite nice to a twentieth century audience but could well have brought a lot of blank stares in a first century audience). Thus, it seems that Tom Wright's thesis, that Jesus understood his ultimate enemy to be Satan, is far more convincing. The exorcisms and healing may reveal secondarily that Rome's days are numbered, but they first and foremost reveal that Jesus is waging war with Satan. Jesus wins the initial skirmishes, and he goes to Jerusalem to (among other things) win the final battle. These scholars, with their move away from all things spiritual, have difficulty accepting this thesis, yet, if we are to do justice to the worldview of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets, it must be retained.

The third criticism confronting these scholars is that they also separate the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history, and reduce Jesus to only a prophet (albeit a very good one). In this regard these scholars fit within the neo-liberal school (although they hover on the radical fringe) as they deny any Christological elements or claims of Jesus, as well as denying the resurrection. Once again, this is the result of a too-realised eschatology driven by an overemphasis upon the here and now. If we are to do justice to Jesus as prophet, the apocalyptic and social elements, the oracular and leadership elements, must be kept together, not driven apart. Apocalyptic must be both heavenly and political, and the kingdom must be both now and not yet.

Finally, it should be noted how different this social prophetic Jesus is from the prophetic type that is common in the contemporary charismatic prophetic movement. Contemporary charismatics are generally apolitical, which really means that they support the current state of affairs. For someone to do this, and claim to be a prophet while doing so, is a total betrayal of the whole history of the prophets from the Old Testament through to Jesus. Having said that, let us now examine the more explicitly charismatic prophetic type as it is applied to Jesus.

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