A Gerd Theissen

To Gerd Theissen must go the credit for making the first effective attempt to study NT texts from a sociological perspective.131 With regard to Jesus, he argued that 'The sayings tradition is characterized by an ethical radicalism that is shown most noticeably in the renunciation of a home, family, and possessions'.132 In a larger sequel he broadened his perspective from a sociology of literature to a study of the sociology of the Jesus movement, whose objective he defined as 'to describe typical social attitudes and behaviour within the Jesus movement and to analyse its interaction with Jewish society in Palestine generally'.133 The resultant picture is broader too, with a chapter on 'the wandering charismatics', but one also on their 'sympathizers in the local communities', thus providing a more balanced portrayal than in the earlier lecture. Nonetheless, the focus is still on the former, the tone set by the opening claim of the chapter on the wandering charismatics: 'Jesus did not primarily found local communities, but called into being a movement of wandering charismatics'. The local communities in turn 'are to be understood exclusively in terms of their complementary relationship to the wandering charismatics'.134 The primary importance of these radical itinerants is further emphasized in that it was they who shaped and handed down the earliest Jesus tradition. The nearest parallels to this 'movement of outsiders' were the numerous wandering Cynic philosophers and preachers.136

As is the case with many ground-breaking contributions, Theissen's socio

130. See particularly J. Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth (ET Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993).

131. 'The sociology of literature investigates the relations between written texts and human behaviour' — the opening words of 'Wanderradikalismus: Literatursoziologische Aspekte der Überlieferung von Worten Jesu im Urchristentum', ZTK 70 (1973) 245-71; ET 'The Wandering Radicals: Light Shed by the Sociology of Literature on the Early Transmission of Jesus Sayings', Social Reality 33-59 (here 33). There followed a sequence of studies on Paul (1 Corinthians) which had a similar impact on Pauline studies; see further vol. 2.

132. 'Wandering Radicals' 37-40.

133. Soziologie der Jesusbewegung: Ein Beitrag zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Urchristentums (Munich: Kaiser, 1977), ET The First Followers ofJesus: A Sociological Analysis of the Earliest Christianity (London: SCM, 1978) = Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978) 1.

134. First Followers 8, 22.

135. First Followers 8, 10.

136. First Followers 14-15; also 'Wandering Radicals' 43-44.

logically determined reconstruction of Christianity's beginnings is vulnerable to heavy criticism.137 In particular, he has given the tradition of Jesus commissioning his disciples in mission (Mark 6.6-13 pars.) a definitive role for the Jesus movement as a whole.138 He fails to ask about the rhetoric of various passages on the cost of discipleship (e.g., Luke 14.26) and interprets them too literally.139 His interpretation is at times rather tendentious; for example Matt. 19.28 indicates that the task of the twelve 'lay among the twelve (scattered) tribes of Israel'; and Acts 13.1 shows Antioch to be 'the "home" of a group of wandering charis-matics'.140 And his understanding of tradition as kept alive by wandering rather than in and by settled communities seems to owe more (unrecognized) to a romantic conception of wandering bards than to a sociology of community tradition (see chapter 8 below). In short, it is only by setting various sayings of Jesus into the context which Theissen proposes that he is able to interpret them as he does. Whereas, as we shall see, such sayings do not diminish in radical force when understood as a call to reshape the social conventions of Jesus' day. Nevertheless, Theissen's reconstruction of an earliest stage of the Jesus tradition kept alive by homeless itinerants, with clear parallels in world-renouncing itinerant Cynic philosophers, has had far-reaching influence, particularly on the Jesus to be described below in

Shortly following Theissen, John Gager's Kingdom and Community made a substantial stir, but its treatment of Jesus was too much dependent on an analytic model drawn on the template of later millenarian movements (particularly Melanesian cargo cults) to be of lasting significance.142 Other works have been

137. For a critique from a sociological perspective see particularly J. H. Elliott, 'Social-Scientific Criticism of the New Testament and Its Social World', Semeia 35 (1986) 1-33; R. A. Horsley, Sociology and the Jesus Movement (New York: Continuum, 1989, 21994) 30-42. Hors-

characterizes Theissen's presentation of the Jesus movement as 'a modern domestication of the Gospel materials' (39).

138. Theissen is also overly dependent on Didache repeating the mistakes made in the debate about Charisma and Office (Charisma and Amt) occasioned by the publication of the Didache at the end of the nineteenth century (see my Theology of Paul 566-67); Crossan, The Birth of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998) Part VIII, pushes still further down the same line (see below, chapter 14 n. 72). Similarly, his concept of 'charisma' owes more to Weber than to Paul, for whom charisma was an essentially community function (Rom. 12.4-6; 1 Cor. 12.427).

139. See further Horsley, Sociology 43-50; 'this uncritical use of individual texts in support of contentions that most in fact do not attest' (45).

140. First Followers 9.

141. See below, chapter 7, n. 96. Theissen was to some extent anticipated by P. Hoffmann, Studien zur Theologie der Logienquelle (Münster: Aschendorff, 1972, 21975) 332-34.

142. J. G. Gager, Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity as significant for their influence on contemporary use of the Gospel portrayal of Jesus, particularly in terms of liberation theology, as they have been for their contributions to the 'quest of the historical Jesus' as such — if not more.143

b. Richard Horsley

The other most important voice in calling for a realistic historical sociology of the Jesus movement has been Richard Horsley. Reviving an emphasis which has surfaced periodically in 'Life of Jesus' research,144 Horsley protests vigorously against the depoliticisation of Jesus and his mission and questions the theological presuppositions which have dominated most previous discussion.145 In particular, traditional interpretations of Jesus individualized his teaching and assumed that 'religion' and are two quite separate categories; whereas the tradi tion for Jesus was that of the political prophets, Elijah and Elisha, and he was executed as a political agitator or criminal, charges of which he was hardly entirely innocent.146 In Jesus' teaching, the kingdom of God should not be understood in terms of the older apocalyptic eschatology as the end of the world ('cosmic catastrophe'), but as 'a political metaphor and symbol' of the restoration of society and the renewal of social life; Jesus' concern was for nothing less than 'the renewal of Israel' conceived in 'some fairly definite and distinctive patterns of social relationship'.147 What was in view, then, was not particular groups or wandering charismatics, but local communities, conceived in familial but non-patriarchal terms (Mark 3.35), communities without hierarchy (Matt. 23.8-9) whose members took economic responsibility for one another ('forgive us our

(Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975) 20-37. It also worked with a conception of Jesus as a millenarian prophet (28-32) which was just about to go out of fashion among those from whom Gager might have expected support (see further below, §4.7).

143. Notably L. Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator: A Critical Christology for Our Time (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1978); J. L. Segundo, The Historical Jesus of the Synoptics (1982; ET Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985); E. Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983) 105-59; see also her 'Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation', HTR 90 (1997) 343-58. They regard traditional dogmatic concerns as a cloak for colonial and patriarchal oppression.

144. From Reimarus (§4.2) to S. G. F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity (Manchester: Manchester University, 1967).

145. R. A. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987).

146. Horsley, Jesus 151-53, 156-57, 160-64; also ch. 10.

147. Horsley, Jesus 168-72, 192-208. Horsley has deeply influenced R. D. Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet: His Vision of the Kingdom on Earth (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox., 1994) particularly ch. 3.

debts') and willingly helped one another, even the local adversary ('love your enemies'), communities which worked out conflicts without resort to the courts (Matt. 18.15-22) and regarded themselves as independent from the Temple and the attendant political-economic-religious establishment (Matt. 17.24-27) and without obligation to pay Roman tribute (Mark 12.17).148 'The kingdom of God apparently had no need of either a mediating hierocracy or a temple

Horsley has restated and buttressed his arguments in a sequence of further studies,150 but the main thesis and its principal components were already clear in the initial statement. Its egalitarian utopianism is certainly attractive for anyone dismayed by the longevity and persistence of traditionally oppressive hierarchies, and the thesis is more soundly based than Theissen's portrayal of Jesus' first followers as itinerant charismatics. But its very attractiveness inevitably raises the question whether Horsley has been able to avoid the mistake of those old Liberals who projected on Jesus their own priorities in portraying him as a social reformer. Some of the same problems arise. Like the Liberals he remains ambivalent about the references in the Jesus tradition to a future coming of God/the Son of man in judgment and full realization of the kingdom,152 And as with the Liberals, the transition to the expanding mission of Paul remains problematic to envisage, since the Jesus tradition takes us only to continuing Galilean village communities. Moreover, it is difficult to avoid the impression of special pleading at some key points: particularly in the suggestion that Jesus' exorcisms implied that 'the days of Roman domination were numbered', and in the surprising tour de force against the consensus view that Jesus associated or ate with tax-collectors and sinners. Nevertheless, Horsley's warning not to abstract Jesus' teaching from the religious-social-political context of his time must be heeded, and Hors-ley will inevitably be an important dialogue partner in the following pages.

148. Horsley, Jesus chs. 8-10.

149. Horsley, Jesus 325.

150. Particularly Sociology; also Archaeology, History and Society in Galilee: The Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis (Valley Forge: Trinity, 1996); R. A. Horsley and J. A. Draper, Whoever Hears You Hears Me: Prophets, Performance, and Tradition in Q (Harrisburg: Trinity, 1999).

152. Horsley. Jesus 175-77, 320.

153. The problem becomes clearer in the two later volumes (n. 150 above).

154. Horsley, Jesus 181-90 (here 190), 212-23. See also below §13.5 and n. 216, chapter 15, n. 279.

155. Pertinent, however, is the observation ot'L. E. Keck, Who Is Jesus? History in Perfect Tense (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2000), that 'today's sense of the task is no longer that of locating second-temple-era materials that illumine aspects of Jesus but rather that of first reconstructing as fully as possible the Galilee that he knew and then detecting where Jesus should be placed in it so that he becomes an integral part ofit' (36).

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    What are the strengths of Theissen portrayal of the context of Jesus’ time?
    7 months ago

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