Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Douglas Oakman – The Political Aims of Jesus [Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0800638476″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51LvbQFTHVL.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Douglas Oakman” ]Jesus, Politics, and Sources of Dissent

A Review of

The Political Aims of Jesus

Douglas Oakman

Paperback: Fortresss, 2012
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Reviewed by Daniel M. Yencich


Douglas E. Oakman’s recent The Political Aims of Jesus is a welcome addition to a growing corpus of critical studies of the historical Jesus in his first century Roman context. In the preface, Oakman reveals a deep appreciation for the work of the father of modern historical Jesus studies, H.S. Reimarus (1694 – 1768). In a fragmentary work published after his death, Reimarus argued that the aims of the historical Jesus were at odds with the later (theological) agendas of his post-Easter followers. In The Political Aims of Jesus, Oakman takes up Reimarus’ claim and argues that he was essentially right— that there was a sharp disconnect between the political agenda of Jesus and what Oakman understands to be the “apolitical salvation religion of the New Testament and the early Christian movement” (xii). Following Reimarus, Oakman attempts an excavation of the original aims of Jesus via “a refined tradition criticism” (xi) alongside a sophisticated reconstruction of the political and economic landscape of Roman Judea and the place that Jesus occupied within it.


In chapter one, Oakman reviews the various trajectories within historical Jesus studies—that branch of New Testament studies which seeks to establish the Jesus “behind” the ancient sources—from Reimarus onward. This is a helpful literature review of historical Jesus scholarship. Readers who have not slogged through an extensive survey of the three “Quests” for the historical Jesus will benefit from this short review. Following his summary of the discipline, Oakman then lays out his own method and calls for a revisiting of Reimarus’ controversial claim about the political aims of Jesus and those of his post-Easter followers.


In chapters two through five, Oakman deploys the kinds of social-scientific criticism that he himself has been instrumental in developing in order to redescribe the political agenda and actions of Jesus against the backdrop of Herodian Galilee and Roman-occupied Judea. Oakman draws from recent archaeological evidence from the region (e.g., 33, 52-59) and his own detailed theoretical models to reconstruct the political and economic landscapes that Jesus lived in and navigated. Readers are well served by Oakman’s expertise and ability to distill complex data into lucid prose with the aid of clear tables and charts. Also helpful is the inclusion of Oakman’s own photographs of archaeological sites, which help the reader toward a fuller appreciation of life ‘on the ground’ in ancient Galilee. Oakman builds on this foundation and argues persuasively that Jesus both preached and enacted a subversive praxis against the Roman imperium. Whereas “first-century Mediterranean politics can be conceptualized in terms of how central, powerful families treated all others” (27), the political message of Jesus represented “the network of gifts, redistribution, and the security of the Jesus-group patronage” (94).


Oakman thus constructs a kind of ‘populist Jesus’—an agrarian peasant who suffered under the weight of Roman and Herodian systems of taxation and abuse and was incited to lead a people’s rebellion in response. Such a portrait of Jesus is not without merit. Set against the backdrop of the politics of first century Galilee, many of Jesus’s teachings suggest such a subversive posture. Furthermore, it is clear that the Jesus of the canonical Gospels was very critical of political and economic status quo of first century Palestine. That Jesus assaulted the Temple—the economic epicenter of first century Judea—is evidence enough of this fact (Matt 21:12-17; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 19:45-48; Jn 2:13-22). Yet, for Oakman (and Reimarus), the Gospels just barely retain the political subversion which marked the ministry of Jesus. They “depoliticize” Jesus and mostly divest him of the subversive posture he held toward Rome and the Herodian dynasty. To access the true politics of Jesus, Oakman suggests we must look to earlier sources behind the New Testament texts.

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