The Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels

By Wolfgang Stegemann; Bruce J. Malina et al. | Go to book overview

13
The Political Dimension of Jesus’ Activities

Gerd Theissen

How political was Jesus? This question often implies another question that has immediate relevance. How political is the Christian church, and how political should it be? These questions are quite distinct, yet not unrelated. The first focuses on the political dimension of Jesus’ activity; it is an academic question reflecting interest in historical knowledge. The second question looks to contemporary political responsibility reflecting practical interest. Both questions are interdependent, since if we demonstrate a political dimension in Jesus’ activity, we may heighten Christian awareness of the political dimension of religion and of a responsible attitude in politics.

To return to the original question: How political was Jesus? The answer depends on the concept of politics on which we base our discussion. Politics may be understood in a broad or narrow sense. In antiquity, people understood politics in a broad sense only. According to Aristotle, the objective of politics is to realize the idea of a good life within a polis, the Greek city. This concept is normative. It implies standards for a successful life—the goal of politics. In modern times we often encounter a narrower concept of politics that states that politics is the art of gaining and maintaining power. This concept implies no normative objective. It was Machiavelli who developed this idea in the beginning of modern times (Sellin 1978:790). But his concept is not the prevailing modern concept of politics either. The broader understanding is still in vogue. In German, unlike English, the word Politik refers to (1) “polity” in the sense of the political institution, society, its structure and its political system; (2) “politics” as the process of achieving some collective objective in conflict situations; and (3) “policy” as the goals and values that are to be achieved (Münkler 1997:1). While “polity” (the political institution) and “policy” (goals

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