Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Horsley's hierarchies

I've begun reviewing Richard Horsley's recent book, Jesus in Context: Power, People, and Performance (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008). I met Horsley in Boston at last year's SBL Annual Meeting, and I can honestly say that no established scholar has been as nice to me on first meeting as he was. I have enjoyed Horsley's scholarship since my first exposure to it in 2000 (when I read his edited volume, Paul and Politics (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000). Though he and I have some significantly different conclusions, he asks almost exactly the same questions I'm interested in pursuing.

Which leads me to one of the ironies I've always found at the heart of Horsley's scholarship. On the one hand, he has made it a regular feature of his research to examine and question established assumptions driving NT scholarship (especially the divide between religion, politics, and economics; the assumption of stable, printed, widely available written texts, etc.). On the other, his own assumptions have created a number of problems, whether because he continues to be influenced by the assumptions he has already undermined (e.g., his interest in Q despite that hypothetical document's dependence on literary theories Horsely elsewhere denounces) or because he applies similar logic as those assumptions to new ones (e.g., his bifurcation of "people's history" from "standard history" despite evidence that both approaches, in isolation from the other, distort our analyses).

With this ambivalence in mind, I point out two references, relatively near to each other, from Horsley's most recent publication:
Anthropologists and social historians, drawing on comparative studies of agrarian societies, have moved well beyond the problematic old two-tier model of aristocratic culture and folk culture. In most situations there is an interaction between a "little tradition," the "distinctive patterns of belief and behavior . . . valued by the peasantry," and the corresponding "great tradition" of the elite. (2008: 28)

There was thus no standardized Scripture that operated as the authority even in the scribal circles and the priestly circles who controlled the Temple. It is highly unlikely therefore that the Hebrew Scriptures were known to Judean and Galilean peasants. Scrolls, which were extremely expensive and cumbersome, were more or less confined to scribal circles. (2008: 29)

Let me say that, in broad strokes, I agree with the main thrusts of both comments. But (and here's the point), Horsley is too restrictive in his view of written texts as weapons wielded by elite power interests to oppress the lower class(es). Written texts—both their contents and the symbolic currency of their material existence—also participated in the "interaction between a 'little tradition' . . . and the corresponding 'great tradition' of the elite." After all, even the gospel texts themselves, which Horsely rightly identifies as rooted in and expressive of a form of little tradition in opposition to Judean great tradition, are written texts. They are also "more than" written texts, inasmuch as they embody a larger, contextualizing tradition that transcends the written texts. But they were never less than written texts.

Here, I think, Horsley has allowed his thinking to be governed by hierarchical structural dynamics, even though he has shown himself to be such a prolific expositeur of other well-established but ultimately inappropriate hierarchies. Horsley is clearly not uncritical. His work is, rather, a useful location for realizing that the social environment into which we learn to read the biblical text exerts massive influence, and the work of distancing ourselves from our heritage in order to understand that heritage is never complete.


Don said...

If you are every in the mood to read someone who has a view of the cultural context of Jesus and His ministry (think less "geopolitical/socioeconomic" and more "worldview") and has no theological axe to grind, look up Kenneth Bailey. I am reading Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, and find it fascinating. Bailey lived among the Beduins for years and has a unique understanding of the culture that is enlightening. He also assumes the canon of scripture to be trustworthy. Good reading for homiletics, particularly.

Rafael said...

Thanks, Don. I have Bailey on my shelf, and the recent revival of his model of informal controlled tradition in James Dunn's massive book, Jesus Remembered, has made him more visible than he was ten years ago. People like Bailey are helpful, among other reasons, for challenging us to strive to get "outside ourselves" in order to hear people of another culture.

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