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The Political Aims of Jesus.

The Political Aims of Jesus. By Douglas E. Oakman. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8006-3847-4 . xiii and 192 pages. Paper. $26.00.

This volume by Douglas Oakman, professor of religion at Pacific Lutheran University, focuses on the "political Jesus"--the historical peasant theologian who engaged the power arrangements and economic realities of Palestine in his day. Oakman views this work as an act of recovery since later Gospel layers interpret Jesus after his death as the risen Christ who will return as the eschatological Son of Man, not primarily as the peasant figure concerned with economical and political transformation and restoration.

Oakman develops his tightly argued thesis in six chapters. In the opening chapter he revisits the eighteenth-century scholar Reimarus who pictured Jesus as a worldly Messiah with political aims that were interpreted quite differently by his later disciples. By sketching interpretations down to the present, Oakman shows how subsequent interpreters (including Albert Schweitzer) largely ignored Reimarus' political emphasis, casting Jesus rather in eschatological and spiritual terms. Since 1980, however, scholars active in the current quest for the historical Jesus with their focus on archaeological evidence as well as primary literary sources (e.g., Josephus, Roman and New Testament writings) and with their use of social theory and models have elucidated more clearly "Jesus' first-century, Palestinian context, and in terms that are consonant with Israelite traditions" (16). Growing awareness on that context, Oakman suggests, demands taking Jesus' political agenda seriously.

In chapter two, David Christian's social-scientific model of "agrarian civilizations" is adopted as most useful in interpreting first-century Palestine. These were societies based on agriculture in which patronage of the elite in the state-urbanized areas (cities) controlled peasant labor and surpluses by tributes and taxes. He places Jesus and his political action squarely within the Galilean peasant class, a class both necessary to and exploited by the ruling elite.

Chapter three discusses the changes in power arrangements within Palestine and more narrowly within Galilee under the "aristocratic politics" of Herod Antipas, which fostered social stratification, control of land and peasants by use of taxes, warfare, and conscripted labor, and improvements in infrastructure benefiting the elite, not peasants. In that context, Oakman views Jesus as a peasant theologian who employs "Kingdom of God" as his fundamental political metaphor and brokers this present power of God to subvert political arrangements and to provide social restoration through healing. Chapter four employs the metaphors "tables" of the bankers and the "table" of Jesus to signal Jesus' opposition to "mammon" as representing the economic politics of the Roman Herodian world, primarily in his advocating by actions and words cancellation of debts for the desperately poor. This verbal and enacted opposition led to Jesus' crucifixion as a lestes (common thief and rebel).

Oakman concludes with two chapters--chapter five representing his explanation of the layers of interpretations after Jesus' death that rendered Jesus in apocalyptic terms and eventually as the cosmic savior, and chapter six summarizing his overall argument.

Scholars versed in the current quest will benefit most from this book. Other readers, unless they are aware of the tedious work done by scholars to isolate the earlier layers of the Gospel tradition might get lost in the argument's details. Oakman builds much of his case on this recovery of the earliest version of the Q document as representing the most accurate portrayal of the historical Jesus. Near the end of the book, the author states candidly, "Jesus was not accurately portrayed by his later followers. His 'message' was a worldly engaged politics of resistance. His followers transformed that message after his death into something that Jesus himself probably would have rejected" (131). Was there so great a disconnect between the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus as Oakman concludes? His portrayal of Jesus is minimalistic--a non-Messianic figure who did not speak in apocalyptic terms. Rather, for him, "Jesus was a worldly and world-engaged peasant artisan" (132). Whether or not there is such discontinuity between Jesus and the later interpretation in the New Testament, the emerging picture of a Jesus engaged with the economic and political realities of his time and place is needed in our own day. A spiritualized Jesus will not do.

James L. Bailey

Wartburg Seminary
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Author:Bailey, James L.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2015
Words:700
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