Horsley's work strongly defends his thesis that Jesus was a prophet leading a community of social and economic renewal of Israel. He carefully considers the economic and social environment of the day in Palestine and compares it to the Mosaic tradition and law that had been cultivated over centuries by the prophets. His primary argument is that the historical tradition was a legacy of God working for the poor and the oppressed, the "orphan and the widow", opposing the exploitative empirical construct of the ancient world. In the tradition of Moses who freed the Hebrew people from the enslaving Egyptians, and of Elijah who called for a restoration and renewal of the Israelites to their covenantal God, Jesus assumed the role of a new herald of renewal for the people. Another example not mentioned is the book of Daniel, which predicted the destruction of the Seleucid kingdom of Antiochus IV Ephiphanes in the 2nd century BCE, and its replacement with the kingdom of God, one of justice and peace. Horsley depends to a very great extent on the tradition of the prophets to justify his interpretation.
Horsley is most successful when he abolishes the myth that Jesus or his fellow Jews had any notion of separation of religion from state. Such an idea would have been incomprehensible nonsense at the time, as alien as the theocratic government of Iran is to modern day Americans. There was no such separation: renewal of the covenant meant the renewal of political life as well as economic and social life. Horsley uses the gospel of Mark and Q (by way of Luke) as evidence for his argument. Juxtaposing these documents with the Israelite covenantal tradition, he lays out his evidence from both the actions and speeches of Jesus as understood by his original audience. Jesus proclaimed "blessed are the poor, the hungry, and the mourning; woe to the rich, the full, and the laughing." He was turning the social, political, and economic reality upside-down. His was a harsh judgment of the status quo represented by the imperium of Rome and the collaborating high priests. The raw evidence in its context demonstrates that, similar to other popular prophets of the time, Jesus posed a great political threat to Rome. His crucifixion, his teaching to the rural poor, his denunciation of the Jerusalem elites, and his exorcisms all point to this antagonism towards Rome. Exorcisms? Jesus exorcised "2,000 demons" named "Legion" who possessed two men, cast them into a herd of pigs who rushed headlong into the sea, drowning. His hearers would understand. A "legion" was a 2,000-strong Roman military garrison, symbolically cast into pigs, an unclean animal to Jews, and thrown into the Mediterranean Sea whence they had come, vanquished. Just as Yahweh had thrown the enslaving Egyptians into the Sea of Reeds and drowned them as they pursued the liberated Hebrews. The advantage of Horsley's approach is that it coheres with the Israelite tradition of the divine being on the side of the oppressed and against their rulers, makes sense of his crucifixion (a distinctly Roman execution), and comprehends his teachings. His resurrection confirmed to his disciples that God was not on the side of the strong and powerful, but the poor, weak, and oppressed. In their view, God had the final word.
His arguments make sense, even if they are incomplete. It has been said many times that scholars always find a Jesus that coheres with their own personal political, economic, and/or social ideology. I have generally found this to be true. I have generally determined that they all reveal some truth but obscure the whole truth. It is a noble attempt, bringing a revered, but ancient figure into the modern world and fashioning a model that is intelligible to a postmodern, educated, and sophisticated culture. Ultimately, none of them can do so. Jesus was a 1st century Jewish prophet, he was not a 21st century anything. To a very large extent I believe that his essential person is unintelligible to us today. I see Jesus not as a 21st century economic liberal or a 21st century moral traditionalist, but something combining both of these elements, in an intensified form. Jesus prohibited divorce (a key insight to his moral worldview) and called for the renewal for a communal (read: communist), egalitarian economic and social life featuring mutual sharing and generosity towards friend and enemy alike. Our postmodern society has separated these ideas into vastly different paradigms and placed them on opposite sides of the political spectrum. The society Jesus lived in didn't separate economy from morality. It was all one, unitary understanding of what the covenant of the Creator entailed. We wonder why it can be so hard to understand Jesus and his sayings: two millennium, language, culture, political structure, history, social structure and institutions, and religious tradition all separate us. No wonder the difficulty; he can just barely be translated.
The final section is the disturbing and thought-provoking end. Is America the new Rome? Exploiting Middle Eastern peoples, supporting corrupt regimes, waging pre-emptive war to advance our ideology of economic prosperity for our own people, just as Rome extracted the money of peasants to build glorious cities for their elite? Terrorism, both ancient and modern, as the response of the poor and powerless towards outside meddling in their own countries affairs? The argument isn't perfect but it is compelling, especially given our recent adventures in Iraq where it is all but concluded that there was no WMD, no imminent threat. I have thought extensively lately about messianism in general, and observed that all empires see themselves in messianic terms, bringing peace, justice, prosperity, and order to the world. Rome saw themselves as such, and there is no arguing that America doesn't also. But God did not agree! What would Jesus say to us?
If Jesus were to somehow return, he would not go to Tel Aviv, but to Ramallah.
No conclusions can ultimately be drawn, but it certainly stimulates considerable thought.