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Richard Horsley argues that much modern biblical scholarship (and by this he means critical, or what we might call “liberal” scholarship) has interpreted these concepts through a distorted Enlightenment lens, and has therefore denigrated or even dismissed what Jesus was actually about. In the late 18th century, for instance, David Hume’s critique of miracles defined them as aberrations from the laws of nature, and thus imposed a natural/supernatural dichotomy on the gospel stories–a dualism that would have been at least somewhat foreign to first-century Jewish culture.
Subsequent scholarship has continued in this trend; more recent critics that come under Horsley’s scrutiny include the infamous (and now defunct) “Jesus Seminar” and John Dominic Crossan, who has written a series of popular books attempting to free Jesus from the supernatural and recast him as a political and economic revolutionary.
In Jesus and Magic: Freeing the gospel Stories from Modern Misconceptions, Horsley, who is an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts, argues that they’re all missing the point. And, in fact, they are denigrating the real work of Jesus by using terms that, from the perspective of the Enlightenment, have a derogatory connotation. (Do we every really trust a magician?) From the perspective of the time in which he lived, Jesus was neither doing supernatural intervention (miracles) or hocus-pocus (magic); his healing and exorcisms were, in Horsley’s understanding, ritual acts by which he was engaging people in his social renewal program and reminding them of the presence of God with them.
This is the point at which Horsley’s rather fine critique breaks down a bit, for we evangelicals read Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God as more than a social renewal program, and we do see his miracles (a term the gospel writers use) as signs (a favorite word of the Gospel of John in particular) of the supernatural power of God among us. Nevertheless, it is helpful to be reminded that neither the evangelists nor the people experiencing (or observing) such miracles thought in the dichotomous categories employed by Hume and other rationalists, nor did they discredit Jesus for mysteries they could not explain (as modern scholarship is wont to do).
Horsley is a critical scholar writing for his peers, and yet we evangelicals can appreciate his efforts to reclaim and recast the more fully integrated worldview of biblical culture, and to critique the critics for their own unconscious eisegesis, even if we continue to assert that the mission of Jesus was far greater than that assigned to him by critical modern scholars.