This post surveys the evidence and questions the conclusions of Richard A. Horsley (with John S. Hanson) in Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus (1999) concerning messianic hopes and movements among the common people of Palestine up to the time of Jesus. It is some years since I first read this book, and my own views have since been modified by my studies of the contributions of “minimalism” (mainly through Thompson, Lemche and Davies) to what we can securely know about the history of Palestine in the centuries up to the Christian era. So it is interesting to return to Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs with that new understanding and to read the arguments again through more informed – and more critical – eyes.
In a couple of recent posts I shared Horsley’s presentation of the evidence we have for the understanding of literary elites on the concept of “messianism” (and “Davidic messianism”) up to the early first century CE. Horsley rightly stressed the “other-worldly” theological nature of these ideas and how removed they probably were from the masses. While Horsley emphasized that these ideas were unrelated to popular ideologies, I am now embarrassed to have to say I did overstate his position on what the peasant masses did have on their minds. I had allowed by the subsequent reading of ‘minimalist’ methodologies to interfere with what I recalled of his argument, and I have to now confess that he really did claim that the masses did have some “dormant” messianic hopes after all that were activated around the time of Jesus. (I will have to return to my earlier posts and re-write a few lines.)
But in my defence I will show in this post that Horsley’s assertion here is comparable to the assertions of scholars who concede that the gospels are so overlaid with myth, theology and literary artifices that they bury from view any historical Jesus, but we have to believe there was a historical Jesus behind it all just the same. Horsley’s evidence for popular messianic hopes supposedly unlike anything we find in the elite literature of the period rests squarely upon the assumption that the Old Testament stories of Judges and Davidic Kings were genuine historical eras. The link Horsley attempts to forge between those times and the period of Jesus is, I will argue, unnatural, speculative and without unequivocal evidence.