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The Historical Jesus of E. P. Sanders

In Jesus and Judaism, E. P. Sanders has given us the clearest and truest picture of Jesus of Nazareth that historical research has offered. Sanders' method was to first determine the evidence which was most secure, the "almost indisputable facts" about Jesus' career and its aftermath which can be known beyond doubt. "Any interpretation of Jesus should be able to account for these." Sanders listed the almost indisputable facts as follows:

  1. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
  2. Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  3. Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  4. Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  5. Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  6. Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  7. After his death Jesus' followers continued as an identifiable movement.
  8. At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement (Gal. I.13,22; Phil. 3.6), and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul's career (II Cor. II.24; Gal. 5.11; 6.12; cf. Matt. 23.34; 10.17).

Sanders insisted that "a good hypothesis about Jesus' intention and his relationship with his contemporaries . . . should offer a connection between his activity and his death."

Sanders' second task was to choose the right starting point. "Once a beginning is made, a context is set which will influence the interpretation of subsequent evidence." He chose as his starting point the controversy Jesus engaged in about the temple. It offered a "point of entry for the study of Jesus' career and historical setting" and provided the causal connection between Jesus' activity and death (10-12).

Sanders maintains that most of the things we know about Jesus fit him into the category of a prophet of 'Jewish restoration eschatology' and 'king' of a restored Israel. He listed his conclusions about the various historical claims made about Jesus in order from "certain" to "incredible":

  1. Certain or virtually certain:
    1. Jesus shared the world-view that I have called 'Jewish restoration eschatology'. The key facts are his start under John the Baptist, the call of the twelve, his expectation of a new (or at least renewed) temple, and the eschatological setting of the work of the apostles (Gal. 1.2; Rom. 11.11-13, 25-32; 15.15-19).
    2. He preached the kingdom of God.
    3. He promised the kingdom to the wicked.
    4. He did not explicitly oppose the law, particularly not laws relating to Sabbath and food.
    5. Neither he nor his disciples thought that the kingdom would be established by force of arms. They looked for an eschatological miracle.

  2. Highly probable:
    1. The kingdom which he expected would have some analogies with this world: leaders, the twelve tribes, a functioning temple.
    2. Jesus' disciples thought of him as 'king', and he accepted the role, either implicitly or explicitly.

  3. Probable:
    1. He thought that the wicked who accepted his message would share in the kingdom even though they did not do the things customary in Judaism for the atonement of sin.
    2. He did not emphasize the national character of the kingdom, including judgment by groups and a call for mass repentance, because that had been the task of John the Baptist, whose work he accepted.
    3. Jesus spoke about the kingdom in different contexts, and he did not always use the word with precisely the same meaning.

  4. Possible:
    1. He may have spoken about the kingdom in the visionary manner of the 'little apocalypse' (Mark 13 and parr.), or as a present reality into which individuals enter one by one - or both.

  5. Conceivable:
    1. He may have thought that the kingdom, in all its power and might, was present in his words and deeds.
    2. He may have given his own death martyrological significance.
    3. He may have identified himself with a cosmic Son of man and conceived his attaining kingship in that way.

  6. Incredible:
    1. He was one of the rare Jews of his day who believed in love, mercy, grace, repentance and the forgiveness of sin.
    2. Jews in general, and Pharisees in particular, would kill people who believed in such things.
    3. As a result of his work, Jewish confidence in election was 'shaken to pieces', Judaism was 'shaken to its foundations', and Judaism as a religion was destroyed (326-27).

Sanders' (pg.334-35) conclusion:

"The connecting link

"There is one vital point, however, at which the results of this study correspond to my own expectations. We went in search of a thread which connects Jesus' own intention, his death and the rise of the movement. We found first a general context which embraces both Jesus and the movement which succeeded him: hope for the restoration of Israel. Second, we found a specific chain of conceptions and events which allows us to understand historically how things came about. Jesus claimed that the end was at hand, that God was about to establish his kingdom, that those who responded to him would be included, and (at least by implication) that he would reign. In pointing to the change of eras, he made a symbolic gesture by overturning tables in the temple area. This is the crucial act which led to his execution, though there were contributing causes. His disciples, after the death and resurrection, continued to expect the restoration of Israel and the inauguration of the new age, and they continued to see Jesus as occupying first place in the kingdom. Also, as we saw in ch. 8, they continued to look for an otherworldly kingdom which would be established by an eschatological miracle, although its locale may have shifted from this world to the heavenly one. The person of Jesus himself was also progressively interpreted: he was no longer seen just as 'Messiah' or 'Viceroy', but as Lord. Some who were attracted to the movement began to win Gentiles to it. The work of the early apostles, which is so well reflected in Paul's letters, fits entirely into known expectations about the restoration of Israel.

"Thus I think that the connecting links are really there. Further, they seem so obvious that it is hard to understand why so many have thought that there is no causal chain from Jesus' own view of his mission and the kingdom to his death and then to the church. I must realize, however, that there is a strong tradition of denying causal connections and that some will think that it is I who have spun the thread which stitches together the pieces. Historians should be self-suspecting. I have tried to be so, but I cannot see that there is any other construction which can be given to the most obvious facts about Jesus, his career and the events which immediately followed it."

E. P. Sanders (1985). Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

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