Who Should Be King in Israel: A Study on Roman Imperial Politics, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Fourth Gospel (Peter Lang, 2010). By Travis D. Trost.
There has been a rather longstanding presumption that, while the Synoptic Gospels clearly portray Jesus as overtly a Davidic Messiah, the Fourth Gospel either takes no interest in this angle, or directly denies or suppresses it. A few months ago, I served on a review panel for my friend Paul N. Anderson’s new John book and my major critique was precisely this problem that Johannine scholars undervalue the way John paints Jesus in Davidic colors (different from the Synoptics, but not completely absent). I jumped at the chance to read Travis Trost’s Who Should Be King in Israel because it deals directly with the argument that “the Fourth Gospel was written with a deliberate intent to communicate Jesus’ Davidic identity in a different manner” than the Synoptics (p 26). Trost argues that, if the Fourth Gospel was written late in the first century (certainly after 70 CE), the destruction of the temple and the failed Jewish revolt left such political tension in the air that simply referring to Jesus as “son of David” could swell up all sorts of backlash from Rome. However, not referring to Jesus in terms related to David at all would be to ignore such an important part of messianic theology and hope. You simply could not communicate the hope of God for Jews without reference to David.
Trost makes this pointed statement: “The real possibility exists that there were survivors of the Jewish Revolt who were Davidic in their hope for a royal messiah. If the Fourth Gospel embraced Jesus as Davidic, it would be finding itself sharing company with people who were committed enemies of Rome” (p 76). So: “…the Roman authorities became conscious of the Davidic messianic interest because it represented a security threat to their control of both the Diaspora and the Jewish populated areas of Palestine” (p. 101).
I think Trost’s overall frame-of-thought does offer a good way of trying to understand why John represents Jesus’ Davidic Messiahship (in more allusive ways) so differently than the Synoptics. However, I have trouble with taking the direction that Trost does when he writes that “Using the language that focused on a spiritual rather than temporal kingship for Jesus would be much less inflammatory to the Roman authorities” (102). Is that what Jesus was doing? Oh, don’t worry about me, Rome. I am just trying to save souls…
There has been much work on John and Empire and Trost does not seem to be aware of it. In fact, I did not see reference to either the work of Warren Carter or Tom Thatcher (Thatcher’s Greater than Caesar is 2009, so that may have not been available to Trost; Carter’s work is 2006). Thatcher reads the Fourth Gospel quite subversively (politically) and does not think John was limiting Jesus’ role and rule to “spiritual” matters. Perhaps their perspectives could be compatible when we use the language of “hidden transcripts” when it comes to the art of political resistance. (Trost does talk about postcolonialism, but the rhetoric of resistance is not developed much.)
Overall, Trost is to be commended for his historical work. It was a bit weak on the literary and theological dimensions of John’s Davidic Christology, but he made no promises that he would delve into such things. So, we are still awaiting a follow-up to this kind of study that teases out why and how Jesus is a king like David, looking at the whole Gospel. Nevertheless, Trost has given a historical theory that is well-researched and will point scholars in a new and fruitful direction when it comes to Kingship in the Fourth Gospel.