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Jesus, an Historical Approximation

By Jos A. Pagola Convivium Press, 560 pp., $49.99 At first glance this may appear to be just another book on the historical Jesus. Readers will soon discover, however, that this scholarly but popularly-written work offers a fresh view of the life and message of Jesus, not only for academics and theologians, but more specifically for pastors looking for excellent homiletical material and for questing laypersons seeking a faith-expanding understanding of the Jesus of the first century. Interestingly, this book has become a best-seller in Spain, in spite of, or perhaps at least in part because of, the fact that it became controversial when a conservative bishop demanded that religious book stores return their copies to the publisher. Pagola has steeped himself in research from the second and third quests of the historical Jesus and in related scholarship such as sociological studies of the biblical Mediterranean world. He also acknowledges having received significant insights from liberation and feminist theologians. What makes this book unique, however, is the authors stated intent to use the best of this scholarship to present a winsome and endearing portrait of Jesus life and the milieu in which he lived, so as to awaken interest in the historical Jesus, stripped of pious trappings that have discouraged modern people from taking Jesus seriously. Pagola says, I have spent a long time looking for clear, simple, good words to tell a living story. Who was this Jesus? What is this living story? Pagola offers a compelling narrative without dwelling on academic technicalities. The author doesnt deal literally with the Gospels birth stories. He, like many scholars, makes the case that Jesus was born in Nazareth and experiences his call to Sonship in his baptism by John. For Pagola, the entire story is framed within the context of Jesus radical message of the reign of God. The reader is particularly drawn in by the effect of this message on the hearers who embraced it, especially for the downtrodden people who welcomed the joyous liberating nature of Gods in-breaking reign, summarized so well by another theologian, Monika Hellwig, Live as though God alone rules and nothing else has any power over you. One can sense Jesus total acceptance, with no strings attached, of riff-raff and prostitutes, who have no recourse for survival other than being what they are, and making himself suspect by sharing in meals of celebration with them. Pagola beautifully describes the compassion that moves Jesus to healings and exorcisms and captures the seduction of the parables, which show that the reign of God means that life is more than meets the eye. One gets a feeling of the extreme conditions under which Jesus, as an itinerant prophet, and his followers, both men and women, lived as they travel from village to village. For Jesus, the coming of the reign of God no longer has room for a priestly/sacrificial system that only adds to the oppression of the poverty-stricken masses. As he confronts

this system, the reader can sense, at least in part, the motives that led him to turn his face toward Jerusalem. It is Jesus intervention in the temple that probably leads to his arrest and rapid execution. Pagolas reconstruction of this temple scene places this minor tussle in its proper perspective within the massive space of the Court of the Gentiles. Perhaps he knocks over a few tables and stands of animal sellers a small skirmish in an area the size of a football field. But it is a radical prophetic act symbolic of destruction. This act is not aimed at a liturgical reform, but at the elimination of the institution itself, Pagola writes. With the coming of the reign of God, the temple loses its reason for being. But all this is seen by the temple guards and Pilates soldiers keeping watch from Antonia Tower. We share in the deep significance and the foreboding of the Last Supper, which is not a Passover meal; Jesus is executed on the eve of the Passover. Pagolas powerful description of the crucifixion is stunning in its effect as he details the mode of crucifixion and what it does to the human body, based on the condition of the remains of a crucified person found in an ossuary. Pagola concludes his historical reconstruction with his own confessional statement of encountering the Risen One in faith. In an epilogue, he addresses how we can be followers of Jesus and the reign of God, and the need for the church to be renewed in this faith. The end of the book contains a series of helpful appendices including a brief historical profile of Jesus and the tools, sources, and interpretive methods for scholarly research on Jesus. Although the book almost reads like a novel, Pagolas sound scholarship is evident in his well-documented footnotes, comparing his views with the most respected sources in modern research. Pagolas work represents some of the best in recent Roman Catholic biblical studies. This book is a great resource for preaching, teaching, and meditation. Convivium Press is to be commended for making this fine publication as well as other studies by outstanding European and Latin American Roman Catholic authors available to the English-speaking audience. Reviewed by Rev. Thomas Strieter, PhD., retired Lutheran pastor and professor, Chicago, Illinois.