Review of “Jesus and Judaism” by E. P. Sanders

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Timothy J. Christian. Review of E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM Press, 1985).

 

In his other groundbreaking work following Paul and Palestinian Judaism, E. P. Sanders in his 1985 monograph Jesus and Judaism examines the historical Jesus within the framework of his first century Jewish context. In his introduction, Sanders lays out his methodology stressing that the most secure evidence in discovering the historical Jesus rests not on his sayings as a teacher as so many previous scholars had done (form criticism), but on Jewish eschatology (8). He also presents eight undisputed facts about the historical Jesus:

  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 parts of the new movement…and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul’s career (11).

 

These facts, along with knowledge of Jesus’ life and teaching, and knowledge of first century Judaism will help best explain, he argues, the relationship between what Jesus did, said, the reason for his execution, and the later break that the Jesus movement made with Judaism. Sanders’ overall goal is to ascertain the best answer to these connections.

The book has three parts. In part one (The Restoration of Israel), Sanders first argues for a symbolic reading (following Meyer, Brandon, Roloff, and Gaston) of the so-called “cleansing of the temple” in chapter one (Jesus and the Temple). Contra the dominant view, he strongly asserts that it should not be considered a “cleansing” at all, and has nothing to do with “purifying the worship of God” (68). Rather, Jesus’ actions symbolize an attack on the temple, preparing for its destruction and the subsequent new, eschatological temple. In chapter two (New Temple and Restoration in Jewish Literature), he further substantiates his assertions from chapter one demonstrating from a plethora of primary Jewish sources (Second Temple literature) the expectation in Jesus’ time for a “new temple” assumed a prior destruction and subsequent rebuilding, not merely a “cleansing” (90). In chapter three (Other Indications of Restoration Eschatology), Sanders then situates the context of Jesus and later movement by his disciples into Jewish restoration eschatology, showing how Jesus and his movement both operate within and at some points diverge from them. The ministries of John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul all point to Jewish restoration eschatology, along with the “the Twelve” symbolizing a restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel. The point of divergence is repentance. In Second Temple literature, a call to national repentance was common to restoration eschatology. Sanders however does not think that the historical Jesus called Israel to repentance, because John the Baptist already fulfilled this. This point will resurface later when he discusses the meaning of “the sinners.”

In part two (The Kingdom), Sanders begins in chapter four (The Sayings) by critiquing the previous methods used by historical Jesus scholars that focus almost exclusively upon Jesus’ sayings; form criticism more or less. He shows the severe limitations of this method particularly in determining Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God (136). Sanders, therefore, doubts the authenticity of most sayings ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels unless there is an overabundant amount of evidence in favor of its historicity. In this way, then, he is a minimalist. Next, in chapter five (Miracles and Crowds), he surveys Jesus’ miracles and the major scholarly opinions about them. Since most depend upon sayings, he dismisses what most have said previously, but agrees with MacMullen who rejects Smith’s assertion that Jesus was a magician because magician’s used evil spirits (168). As such, the term “prophet” is more appropriate than “magician” (170). Regardless, he concludes that the miracles in and of themselves do not point to Jesus being an “eschatological prophet” (170), but to the fact that he performed them in his public ministry career. This, Sanders deems, is “unsatisfactory” and does not tell us as much as we would desire them to though many previous scholars have purported the opposite (169). In chapter six (The Sinners), Sanders critiques Jeremias’ conclusions that “the sinners” and amme ha-arets are the common people. Using Second Temple and Rabbinic literature, he argues that “the sinners” are actually the unrepentant wicked (177-9). This, he suggests, is what offends the Pharisees, because Jesus was offering the kingdom of God to the wicked, giving them grace, and not requiring them to repent (199-201). In chapter seven (The Gentiles), Sanders critiques Jeremias and Riches concerning Jesus’ view of the Gentile mission. His summary of the OT prophets and post-biblical literature on the Gentile predictions shows Jeremias and Riches to be uninformed about the variegated Jewish views. He does not think that Jesus shared his view about the Gentile mission with his disciples (221), but that they later saw it as a logical extension of his work and ministry (220). In chapter eight (The Kingdom: Conclusion), he summarizes his main points in part two and concludes that Jesus’ movement was not a political threat to Rome and that Jesus emphasized an “otherworldly-earthly kingdom” (237).

In part three (Conflict and Death), Sanders begins chapter nine (The Law) by arguing that Jesus did not possess a negative attitude toward the law. Many before him espoused the opposite and that his negative view of the law led to his crucifixion and death. He examines passages on the temple incident, the quote “Let the dead bury their own dead,” the sinners, the sayings about divorce, and a few others. He deems Matt 5:17, nearly the whole Sermon on the Mount, and the Sabbath passages to be unauthentic. His conclusion is that the prohibition of divorce is the most historically reliable and substantiates that Jesus was not against the law (267). In chapter ten (Opposition and Opponents), he argues that Jesus did not oppose Jewish externalism or legalism (275). Further, he asserts that Jesus’ main conflict in Jerusalem was not with the Pharisees, the Romans, or the crowds, but primarily with the chief priests who ultimately were responsible for his death (286). This opposition and offense stems from his act and sayings against the temple (287), and his sayings about “the sinners” (293). In chapter eleven (The Death of Jesus), Sanders provides two firm facts: (1) Jesus was executed as a would-be king by the Romans, and (2) his disciples formed an apolitical messianic movement (294). He examines the triumphal entry, the betrayal, and the role of the Jewish leaders in his death and concludes that the chief priests played “the primary role” in Jesus’ death (310). He confirms this by also examining places in Josephus where the chief priests played the major role in people’s executions (316). Chapter twelve (Conclusion), gives Sanders’ final analysis of the relationship between Jesus’ actions, sayings, cause for execution, and his movement’s later break with Judaism. His most certain conclusions are that Jesus (1) “shared the world-view that I have called ‘Jewish restoration eschatology’,” (2) “preached the kingdom of God,” (3) “promised the kingdom to the wicked,” (4) “did not explicitly oppose the law,” and (5) “Neither he nor his disciples thought that the kingdom would be established by force of arms. They looked for an eschatological miracle” (326). As such, then, Jesus was not a rare Jew who believed in love, grace, and repentance, the Jews did not normally kill people for believing such things, and hence Jesus did not shake Judaism “to pieces” and thus destroy it as so many scholars had previously purported (326-7).

The strongest critique that I have for Sanders has to do with historical method. Overall, Sanders tends to be a minimalist, especially regarding the sayings of Jesus. This manifests itself throughout the whole work when he quickly and flippantly (seemingly) dismisses passages in the Gospels as being unauthentic, or not really from the historical Jesus. More often than not, he gives little to no reasoning for this (even in his end notes) which comes off as more of an opinion than actual facts based upon evidence. Of course, he could not fight every battle and doing so might detract from his main argument, but it should be unacceptable for scholars simply to say that a certain passage is not authentic just because they say so without due explanation, especially when the evidence would point not in favor to their proposed hypothesis which is often the case with Sanders. The most perplexing example of this is where he claims that “There is no explicit evidence that Jesus was a preacher of national repentance” (115). The most obvious places where Jesus preaches repentance is at the beginning of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15) and “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17). But Sanders quickly dismisses these as unauthentic without much explanation. His denial of this is absolutely vital to his whole argument, because if Jesus did preach repentance, then his theory about “the sinners” being the unrepentant wicked is incorrect, which would then result in the Jewish leaders not being offended at him (though the other main offense was the temple incident), which might result in them not trying to execute him thus disassembling Sanders’ major premises. The other main place where he does this is in chapter nine concerning the law when he dismisses the Sermon on the Mount being authentic (262-4). If authentic, it might give more fuel to the fire that Jesus did oppose the law in some respects or at least challenge the current Jewish interpretation of it. He also dismisses Matt 23 as being authentic when trying to demonstrate that Jesus did not actually oppose the Pharisees (but the chief priests) but purports that Christian redactors put these words on the mouth of Jesus. All in all, Sanders’ biggest weakness is his minimalist historiographical approach, which often times comes across as Sanders changing (or dismissing) the evidence to fit his own proposal.

All of this should not deter the fact that Sanders’ work has many lasting and valuable contributions, not the least of which being that he was one of the first to establish the historical Jesus in his first century Jewish context. The only reason he was able to do this was because of his own expertise in Second Temple and Rabbinic literature, another strong feature of this work. Another strength of the work is his refusal simply to accept the work of other scholars whose views were driven from theological motives rather than historical ones. As such, he spends a great deal of time “slaying old dragons,” and pointing out the errors of previous scholarship uninformed by Jewish restoration eschatology. If one can overlook his dismissal of many sayings and passages in the Gospels, Sanders presents a very strong and novel case for the historical Jesus, providing a new understanding of the cause and effect relationship between Jesus’ actions, words, execution, and subsequent movement. Jesus and Judaism cannot be ignored in NT studies as it has spurned the renewed quest for the historical Jesus in his Jewish first century context.

My Testimony

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This sermon was given on Palm Sunday 2016 at NewDay Community Church in Versailles, KY. It was part of a larger sermon series called “My Easter Story” in which each of our pastors shared their salvation stories with the congregation to emphasize that “the Easter story” (Jesus’ death and resurrection) should always be appropriated on a personal level in our lives. Here I share part of my salvation story, my Easter story. “This is my story, this is my song, loving my Savior all the day long.”
Also, do not be scared away because the audio file is 40 minutes. The sermon is only about 20 minutes, followed by Communion and some singing at the end of our church service.

My Testimony – PowerPoint

SCRIPTURE (JOHN 12:1, 9-19)

1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead…

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!”

14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:

15 “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. 17 So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. 18 It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. 19 The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

MY EASTER STORY

Well, as you may have guessed by now, it is now my turn to share “my Easter story” as we have been calling them. And I am thankful and honored to be able to do so again. Some of you may remember that I shared my salvation story not too long ago here at NewDay. But this morning I get to share it in a new context, Palm Sunday. Our Scripture passage for this morning, sometimes called Jesus’ “triumphal entry,” makes repeated references throughout to Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. If anyone could be said to have an Easter story, it would be Lazarus. Why? Because Jesus literally raised him from the dead. You’ll remember from earlier in John’s Gospel, that Lazarus got sick and died, and upon Jesus’ arrival to the scene, we get the infamous “shortest verse in the Bible.” You know it. “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

But the truth of the matter is that Lazarus is not the only one who has an Easter story, because in fact, all of our stories are Easter stories. Let me say that again: All of our stories are Easter stories. Now sure, they may not be as dramatic as Lazarus’, that is, you had died from some illness and then Jesus himself, Lord of the universe, personally comes to your grave and calls you by name, “Timothy, come out!” and all the sudden your body is resuscitated, your heart is pumping, and you are alive again, and he gets you out, opens your grave (graves in the ancient world were often caves – not caskets in the ground) and dusts some death off of you. However, just because our stories are not that dramatic, doesn’t mean that they aren’t Easter stories.

Now my story began on December 7th, 1987. I was born in Houston, TX as my dad had gotten a job down there about 7 years prior with a company called Hyster which produced and sold fork lifts and the like. A couple months later, my family moved back to central Illinois where both of my parents were born and raised. Now my father was one of six children (4 boys, 2 girls) whose father was a Methodist pastor. What I’ve been told about my grandfather, is that he was fire and brimstone, scare the hell out of you preacher, sort of like Jonathan Edwards, having sermon titles every week like “Sinner in the hands of an angry God!” As you can imagine, growing up in that kind of environment turned my dad and most of his siblings off to Christianity and religion. My mother, on the other hand, was one of six (5 girls, 1 boy) and their father was a farmer. They too were Methodists and as you guessed it, her and my dad met at one of the Methodist churches that my grandfather pastored in a dinky town called Bardolph, IL. After graduating high school, they got married and had 3 children, Nick in ’77, Sarah in ’83, and yours truly in ’87. Now growing up, we didn’t go to church all that much. As I said, my parents (my dad especially) were pretty turned off to religion. But my mom encouraged us to go, especially for Easter and Christmas though I was pretty reluctant. I was baptized as an infant, but as I said, we didn’t grow up in the church and by the time my teenage years hit the fan – doesn’t that happen for everyone? – I had become an all-out, out-right atheist. A number of factors contributed to this in my childhood and early teen years. One of the most significant was my parents’ divorce between my 8th grade and freshman year of high school. They had fought for most of my childhood, never anything physical, but this caused a lot of emotional turmoil for me as a young kid. So I blamed God for the pains and hurts in my life, and decided that he didn’t exist.

After the divorce, I sort of “went off the deep end,” as they say, and began my all-out rebellion; rebellion against my parents, against my friends, against my teachers, against my peers, and especially against God and anything related to Christianity. I was a skateboarder, so that put more fuel on my fire of rebellion, a skateboarder I might add with several classical hair dews, a mullet and my favorite, the Mohawk. As you can tell from this picture, I was one angry kid. I hated people. And people hated me. Now I’ve always had a quick wit about me, and as a kid I used this gift to make jokes at the expense of others. I bullied, though much more so with insults than with my fists. I eventually started experimenting with drugs, drinking, smoking, girls – I smoked and chewed and went with the girls that did. I was addicted, I was hurt, I was angry, and that was my way of dealing with it, delving into the lusts and cravings of my sinful and fleshly desires; alone, wounded, and in need of a lot of love.

Probably the most ironic aspect of this whole time in my life was that although I was a diehard atheist, all of my closest friends were Christians, genuine, devout Christians. So in the midst of my rebellion, my best friends would argue with me about God, and be there for me when I needed them, and they never disowned me when I would openly reject God and their religion. This is my best friend, Lance. Some of you have met him before. The Christmas Eve before Asher was born, he and his wife Jeri (who is Paige’s best friend) came and led worship here at NewDay with us. Lance and Jeri played such a pivotal role in my conversion to becoming a Christian. They always invited me to come to youth group with them, and since it was the popular place to be and I wanted to be popular, I went with them. Now I was in fact going to three different youth groups in town: (1) the very conservative Evangelical Free Church, (2) the charismatic, speaking in tongues non-denominational church, and (3) the United Methodist church. Now being the outspoken atheist that I was, I was the kid at youth group that was causing the ruckuses and would raise my hand in the middle of the youth pastor’s sermon and say, “What about dinosaurs? What about evolution?” to which I would get the reply, “What don’t you come and see me after youth group and we can talk about that.” Of course I never went because my goal was simply to demonstrate my defiance and cause a big disruption.

The climactic moment of my pre-Christian youth group experience happened one evening at the E-Free church where the youth pastor had a special Q&A about topics of life. He selected 2 students of the opposite perspective, and lo and behold, he chose me. So there I was, in front of the whole youth group, with a microphone, and I could say whatever I wanted. Yikes! Jacob, I don’t recommend this. =) Well, this was the time when I thought it would be so cool if I denounced the whole youth group. So I declared in front of everyone that I thought that they were all brainwashed by religion and that not a single word in the Bible was true. You see, that was my chief objection to Christianity, “Not a single word of the Bible was true.” That’s what I believed. And you know how much of the Bible I had read myself? Not a single word. That night was a significant moment when things shifted for me. You see, I thought I was being cool telling everyone that they were idiots for believing in Jesus, but the truth of the matter was that I set myself up for having the entire youth group pray for me.

During this time, some other significant miracles happened in my life, ones that I can’t share this morning. But what was clear was that God was working on my heart. After God saved me from a couple very bad situations that would have ruined my life, he spared me in those moments of trouble and was drawing me to himself through them. I also had some significant conversations and debates with Jeri and Lance which got me reading some of the Bible myself. They showed my 2 Timothy 3 and it struck me to the core because it was describing me. My presuppositions about the Bible came crashing down because if not a word of the Bible is true, yet this was true of me, then maybe something else in there was true. So I started reading the Bible and finding some other things that were true.

And then one night at youth group, at the end when the E-Free pastor would always offer the prayer of salvation for people to get saved, it happened. Something just switched inside me. I had hit rock bottom and I was worn out from running away from God. Something inside me that night just said, “Eh, why not? Let’s give it a try and see.” Well, after I prayed the prayer of salvation that evening, almost overnight, Jesus made me into the exact opposite person. Instead of all that hatred I had, I had love for people. Instead of being mean to everybody, there was kindness in my heart. Instead of pulling people down, I was building people up and encouraging them. I mean, people really gave me the eyebrow. They were like, “Are you the same Tim Christian that we knew last week?” This surprised a lot of people. I started doing really well in school, was no longer failing classes and such. Jesus took my life and literally turned it a 180o. But it wasn’t just that I was bad and God made me good. And it wasn’t even that God turned me into “a good person,” “a law abiding citizen,” “a goody two shoe,” “a holier than thou – look at me.” It wasn’t like that, it wasn’t some effort or now I was trying to be good to impress God or anybody else. But it was a real transformation. Jesus changed me. And it wasn’t just about turning my evil ways into good behavior. It was about taking someone who was dead, and making them alive. I was dead, but Jesus raised me up and gave me life.

FROM DEATH TO LIFE

Now when we come back to our passage this morning, according to the Gospel of John, the main reason that we have Palm Sunday is because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. The crowds went to see Jesus that day because they had heard that he had raised Lazarus from the dead and was on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. The way they put it was this: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” (12:13). Now Hosanna is an interesting word, not common to the English ear primarily because it is not an English word, rather a Hebrew or Aramaic expression meaning “save, I pray!” or “save now!” or “Help!” “Deliver!” It was a common “shout of distress introducing a cry for help.” That was the response of this crowd that gathered to see the One who raised Lazarus from the dead. The way that the Pharisees put it was this: “The world has gone after him!” (12:19). And why is that? Why were these people going after Jesus? Because he raised Lazarus from the dead.

You see, sometimes we get Jesus all wrong. Sometimes we think of him as taking some scoundrel, some really bad dude, tidying him up, giving him a new suit, a new look, making him all pristine and proper, and telling him to put a smile on his face and be a good little boy. That is to say, we often define being a Christian as having to do with being a good person. When asked why they should be let into heaven when they die, people often respond with the reply, “Well, I’m a good person.”  But that wasn’t why the world was going after Jesus in our passage. The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus turned Lazarus into a well behaved person. It says that Jesus took a man who had been dead for four days, opened up his grave, called out his name, and then some knocking came from inside the casket. [chills up the spine – quiver]. This is a person who calls dead men out of their graves. This is a man who exerts power over death. Who is this man that they call Jesus? He raises the dead. And that is why all of our stories are Easter stories. One person put it this way: “The gospel doesn’t make bad people good [and I might add in the middle of this, “though it may do so”]; it makes dead people alive” (Tullian Tchividjian, Surprised by Grace: Relentless Pursuit of Rebels). Let me say that again: “The gospel doesn’t make bad people good, though it might do that; but it makes dead people alive.”

CONCLUSION

We have something that the world wants. We have what the world needs. We have life! New life! New creation! Resurrection life! This is salvation! Hosanna! He has saved us! We praise the one who raises the dead. He is the way the truth and the life! He is the resurrection and the life! And he writes our stories. All of our stories, I know that everyone here has their own story. And they all boil down to Easter stories. All of our stories are Easter stories. Because through Christ, God made us alive again. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, but God raised us to life again by his Spirit in Jesus Christ.

I hope you have been encouraged by my story. I hope to hear your stories, and hopefully we can have everyone in our church at some point share their stories with the congregation. And I hope that you are encouraged and emboldened to share your Easter stories with those around you, through your words, and also through your actions. Being a Christian isn’t about being “a good person” or “holier than thou,” but is about experiencing and sharing the new, transforming life that God has birthed and done in each and every one of us. Let us join with the great crowds that ushered Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the great crowds that went after him because he raises the dead, let us join them in shouting “Hosanna!” –save us O Lord – He has saved us. This is our story! This is our song! Hosanna in the highest. Jesus has saved us, Jesus has given us life. We were dead and he made us alive again!

I LOVE TO TELL THE STORY

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true;
it satisfies my longings as nothing else can do.

I love to tell the story; more wonderful it seems
than all the golden fancies of all our golden dreams.
I love to tell the story, it did so much for me;
and that is just the reason I tell it now to thee.

I love to tell the story; ’tis pleasant to repeat
what seems, each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story, for some have never heard
the message of salvation from God’s own holy Word.

I love to tell the story, for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
’twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.

I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.