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Lecturer speaks on historical context of Jesus

By Colleen Honigsberg

February 25, 2004 9:00 pm

In contrast to the recent focus on the death of Jesus of
Nazareth as a result of Mel Gibson’s new movie, an associate
professor of religion lectured Wednesday on understanding the
context of the historical man and his life.

Douglas Oakman, a professor from Pacific Lutheran University,
focused on examining the historical Jesus and how the context of
his life has affected the interpretation of his legacy.

In his lecture, Oakman shared his view that Jesus was not a
religious theologian, was not educated, and could not write, but
was instead a peasant construction worker. The lecture was
presented by the UCLA’s Center for the Study of Religion.

Oakman began by emphasizing his view that Jesus was a poor
peasant who lived simply in a society very different from Western
cultures today. He said Jesus was not trying to start a new
religion, but was instead trying to improve the life of himself and
his peers.

“People sometimes think of Jesus as a theologian walking
around spouting ideas rather than as a peasant who was
hungry,” Oakman said.

“Jesus was not founding a salvation religion — that was
done by the disciples. Jesus was deeply involved in trying to solve
the problems of his neighbors,” Oakman added.

Oakman showed the packed conference room of about 40 people
slides of his past archaeological digs in Galilee. The viewers, a
group of mostly professors with a few scattered students, consisted
of members of all religions.

In addition to a slide-show of his digs in the Galilee, Oakman
also gave examples from the Bible, which can be interpreted
differently depending upon the context in which they are

Michelle Jackson, a fourth-year religion studies student, said
she was awed by Oakman’s view that when Jesus is reputed to
have sat with sinners, he was actually sitting with people who were
in debt rather than people who are immoral in the sense of Western

“It really struck me that the sinners might have just been
in economic trouble. I’d never heard that perspective
before,” Jackson said.

In addition to giving examples which can be interpreted
differently when placed in their historical context, Oakman
concentrated on the importance of honor and politics over economics
in the era of Jesus. He especially highlighted the birth and death
of Jesus.

“The issue of the birth and resurrection stories was not
whether they were true … but whether he was honorable,”
Oakman said.

Oakman said that since Jesus was born without a genealogy and
died on the cross, which was a form of “public
humiliation” for rioters and those disloyal to the Roman
government, he was shamed at both birth and death. It was important
for the authors of the gospels to downplay this shame in order to
increase the popularity of Christianity.

Oakman said it is important for people to understand the
historical Jesus in order to truly understand the Bible.

“When you read something, you automatically think of your
own situation without question ““ this can cause people to
take verses out of context,” he said.

The Center for the Study of Religion usually has lectures every
few weeks. Oakman was invited to speak by Professor S. Scott
Bartchy, the center’s director and a history professor who
concentrates on Christianity.

Though not many students came to the event, Bartchy said he
hopes students will attend upcoming events.

The next lecture, “Pagan Spell & Christian
Prayer,” will be held on March 4.

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Colleen Honigsberg
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