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.

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