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E.P. Sanders


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
For much of the twentieth century, many scholars held that we can know very little about the historical Jesus. But Sanders is less pessimistic; he thinks we can know quite a lot, although plenty of questions will always remain.

Jesus was a first-century Jew, and we cannot hope to understand him without a good grasp of the conditions in which he lived. Sanders therefore uses the first part of his book—about a hundred pages—to explain what Jesus's world was like. This brings out some differences with the picture most Christians will have obtained from the gospels. For example, although Palestine was under Roman rule, this did not mean that people's lives were constantly being controlled by an occupying army. The Romans did not administer their minor provinces directly but used intermediaries. Galilee, where Jesus grew up and carried out his teaching, was relatively free under its ruler, Herod Antipas.

Jesus was mainly renowned as a miracle worker and healer; in this he was not unique, for there were several prominent miracle workers in Palestine at about this time. Unlike today, people were fully open to the possibility of miracles; they were quite prepared to believe in the reality of these events although they differed about where Jesus had obtained his powers or what they meant for his status. Sanders does not accept the objective reality of the miracles, but he is mainly concerned to establish what they meant for Jesus's contermporaries and followers and for himself.

Sanders has a good discussion of the Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, two intertwined and obscure teachings that were central to Jesus's message. Like many other modern scholars, Sanders finds that Jesus believed in the imminent arrival of a radically new state of affairs, with the establishment of a new order in which he and his disciples would have a prominent role. He may have still believed this up to the time of his crucifixion, and his despairing cry on the cross probably reflects his realization that the great transformation was not going to happen.

On the question of why Jesus was killed, Sanders takes the view that it was because Caiaphas, the high priest, and his council thought that he was a potential troublemaker who might incite the Romans to intervene militarily, with consequent loss of life. Jesus's disruption of the money lenders in the Temple was the precipitating event in this. He was not sentenced on theological grounds; even if Caiaphas did accuse him of blasphemy, as the gospels say he did, this was merely a pretext; Jesus had to be got rid of for political reasons, not theological ones.

For Christians, the central event in the whole drama is the resurrection. Sanders discusses this in an epilogue, where he points out the well-known inconsistencies in the accounts. But this does not mean that nothing happened or that the whole story is a fabrication. The fact that the disciples were transformed from a terror-struck group of survivors into a movement whose words and deeds eventually affected world history must mean that something happened, but Sanders confesses himself unable to say what it was. The earliest Christians were clear that the resurrected Jesus—whom they often failed to recognise at first—was neither a ghost nor a revived corpse, but something new and different.

That Jesus' followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.
This is a good critical examination of Jesus and his message, with plenty of scholarly discussion but not so much as to overwhelm the non-specialist reader.

20 November 2011

%T The Historical Figure of Jesus
%A Sanders, E.P.
%I Allen Lane: The Penguin Press
%C London
%D 1993
%G ISBN 07139909597
%P xiv + 337pp
%K religion

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