Monday, April 13, 2009

Review of E.P. Sanders' The Historical Figure of Jesus
Dennis Ingolfsland

Sanders began with an outline of what he regarded as nearly certain historical facts about Jesus’ life. According to Sanders, Jesus was born about 4 BC and spent his early years in Nazareth. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, gathered disciples, and preached the kingdom of God in the towns of Galilee. About AD 30 Jesus went to Jerusalem and created a disturbance in the Temple during Passover. He was arrested, tried and executed on orders of Pontius Pilate. His disciples saw him after his death, though Sanders added that in what sense was not sure. The disciples formed a community to await Jesus’ return and to win others to Jesus as God’s messiah (Sanders 1993, 10-11).

Sanders outlined the political situation in Palestine during Jesus’ life, pointing out that Palestine was only governed indirectly by Rome and that Galilee was governed by Antipas who was also semi-independent of Rome. Palestine was governed directly by a high priest with the help of a small council. Romans generally avoided Jerusalem and Palestine was not on the verge of revolution when Jesus ministered, though there was always the possibility of major outbreak as long as Pilate was in charge (Sanders 1993, 31-33).

Jewish religion included a strong belief in monotheism, election and God’s law. Religious Jews believed in repentance, sacrifices, punishments and forgiveness. They worshipped God, circumcised infants, avoided work on the Sabbath and certain foods, and engaged in purification rituals at appropriate times (Sanders 1993, 35-36).

After a brief discussion of non-Christian sources for Jesus’ life, Sanders reviewed the history of Gospel formation, emphasizing that the history of Gospel formation was known only from inference of the finished product. Sander’s view was that the earliest Christians preserved short traditions of Jesus’ words and deeds. Jesus’ words and deeds were later collected and arranged by editors and authors. Some Gospel material, according to Sanders, was revised or created outright (Sanders 1993, 49-77).

After a discussion on distinguishing between the context of Jesus’ life, and the context of the Gospel writers who edited and created material, Sanders provided an overview of Jesus’ life. Having dispensed with the birth narratives as unhistorical, Sanders explained Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as myth. The story of Jesus’ disciples was retained as basically reliable. While Jesus had somewhat remote followers, and even more remote sympathizers, he seemed to have called only a few to be close followers. Women played a central role in the gospel accounts (Sanders 1993, 78-131).

Sanders confessed to sharing the worldview about the impossibility of miracles. He disagreed both with those who saw Jesus’ miracles as proof of Jesus’ divinity, as well as with those who saw Gospel reports of miracles as evidence that Christianity was based on a fraud. Instead, Sanders argued that miracles were best studied in light of ancient thinking about miracles. Sanders concluded that Jesus thought of himself as the agent of the Spirit of God and that his miracles were evidence that the new age was at hand (Sanders 1993, 132-168).

That Jesus preached the kingdom of God was a given for Sanders. The meaning of that kingdom was a topic Sanders discussed at length. Sanders argued that Jesus’ view of the kingdom was not found by picking and choosing among the Jesus sayings, and that since Paul’s letters clearly demonstrated that one person meant different things by the word kingdom, the simplest explanation for the variety of kingdom sayings was that Jesus simultaneously held them all.[1]

Sanders argued that Jesus taught that he would come again in the near future and that his immediate disciples understood and taught the same. When Jesus didn’t return as promised, Christians revised expectations over and over again, as evidenced by later books in the New Testament such as Second Peter. Jesus did not expect the kingdom to involve the destruction of the universe, but rather a return to an idealized golden age (Sanders 1993,169-188).

According to Sanders, Jesus’ ministry involved more encouragement than censure and more compassion than judgment. Jesus preached high standards but was not puritanical (Sanders 1993, 196-204). Jesus taught God’s love and the need for commitment to God, and that love should be shown to everyone. Sanders, therefore, questioned why Jesus ended up dying on a Roman cross. Jesus’ death was even more confusing to Sanders in light of what Sanders considered to be a significant amount of tolerance in first century Judaism. According to Sanders, Jesus was not executed for blasphemy because the things Jesus said and did would not have been regarded as blasphemous in first century Judaism. Jesus was not executed for disputes over the law and food laws since the disputes reflected the later situation in the church and did not come from the life of Jesus. What was offensive was the fact that Jesus told his followers to give up all they had and follow Jesus because he was God’s agent. He regarded himself as God’s viceroy, second only to God himself. According to Sanders, Jesus was executed because Jesus thought that he was in some sense king (Sanders 1993, 205-248).

There were 5 major scenes comprising Jesus’ last week. 1) Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Sanders thought it likely that Jesus had read the prophecy and deliberately set out to fulfill it, rather than the alternative that saw it as a prophecy created by the church. 2) Jesus overturned the tables of money changers in the Temple, which, according to Sanders, possibly symbolized the coming destruction of the temple. 3) Jesus had a last supper with his disciples which Sanders regarded as pointing toward the future kingdom. 4) Jesus was arrested by guards of the high priest because of his prophetic demonstration of the destruction of the temple. To the high priest, Jesus was a potential trouble-maker. 5) Jesus was sent to Pilate who ordered Jesus crucified, probably for being a dangerous, religious fanatic (Sanders 1993, 249-274).

Sanders called the resurrection an intractable problem. Jesus’ followers were certain that Jesus had risen from the dead, but they did not agree on who had seen him. Sanders dismissed the idea of outright fraud as implausible. First, many who proclaimed the risen Jesus spent the rest of their lives proclaiming that message, and some even died for it. Second, deliberate deception would have produced a better consensus.[2] In the end, Sanders concluded that it was a fact that Jesus’ followers and Paul had resurrection experiences. Sanders confessed that he did not know what gave rise to those experiences (Sanders 1993, 276-281).

Sanders study avoided the extremes of radical Jesus scholars and his view of Jesus contained many aspects with which evangelical scholars agreed. Sanders’ conclusion that Jesus’ followers had resurrection experiences and his admission that he, Sanders, could not explain those experiences, appeared to be a more historically sound judgment in light of the strong, early and multi-ply attested evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, than attempts by Mack, Crossan, Funk and others to dismiss resurrection accounts as fiction or myth-making.

Some of Sanders’ conclusions regarding the Pharisees and the law however, appeared to come from placing greater credence on later Jewish sources than on the Gospels. While both sets of sources were biased, the Gospels were written much closer in time to the events they described.[3]

[1] Sanders listed 6 categories of sayings on the kingdom: 1) The kingdom of God was a transcendent realm that people entered at death; 2). The kingdom of God was a transcendent realm that now existed in heaven but would one day come to earth; 3) The kingdom of God would be a future realm introduced by a cosmic event or signs; 4) The kingdom was future, but not otherwise defined; 5)The kingdom of God was a realm on earth consisting of people dedicated to God’s will; 6) The kingdom was in some way present in Jesus own words and actions.
[2] The numerous apparent contradictions in the resurrection accounts had long been a subject of scholarly analysis and debate. For discussions, see Wenahm (1984), Brown (1994), and Osborne (1984).
[3] Compare the Mishna (Neusner 1988), for example, which was written about AD 200 from earlier oral traditions, with the Gospels, which were written from AD 70 to AD 100. Some scholars argued that the Gospels were written even earlier than AD 70. See Wenham (1992), Robertson (1976), Thiede (Thiede and D’Ancona 1996).