Book Review of Jesus and Judaism by E.P. Sanders

In my own quest to understand the life of Jesus, pun fully intended. While reading The Historical Jesus of the Gospels by Craig Keener, I noticed he regularly cited E.P. Sanders, particularly Jesus and Judaism.

It seemed the logical next read.

To further improve my understanding of the life and world of Jesus.

Sander did not disappoint.

Short Overview of the Content of Jesus and Judaism

Jesus and Judaism is a moderate size book of 340 pages of medium size print. Plus hundred some pages of endnotes and bibliography. In those pages, there is a lot of material. To truly understand, you are best to read the book, but here is a brief overview of its content.

  1. Introduction p.1-58
    1. The problem of trying to understand Jesus’ life and how Sanders is going to work through them
  2. The Restoration of Israel p.61-119
    1. Sanders intro into Jesus’ life via Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple.”
    2. Discussions of Jesus’ actions in the temple, prophecy along with other Jewish literature of the time.
    3. Jesus’ actions related to eschatology.
  3. The Kingdom p.123-241
    1. Are Jesus’ beliefs and actions regarding miracles, sinners, and gentiles in contrast or parrel first-century Jewish thought?
  4. Conflict and Death p.245-318
    1. In what ways was Jesus in conflict with the leaders of Judaism?
    2. Who may have opposed him?
    3. What ultimately led to Jesus’ execution?
  5. Conclusion p.319-340

Jesus’ death defines him in so many ways, so I loved Sanders’s section on Conflict and Death. The single biggest reason is he doesn’t jump to the “correct theological” reason but tries to work it out on the ground if you only knew the life of Jesus and times and nothing about “the rest of the story.” What we Christians have come to believe why Jesus died, rather than the historical reasons.

Is he right in all his conclusions?

I don’t know, but it gave me a great space to process and think about the life of Jesus.

But before you get lost in all the trees, the key think you must keep in mind about Sanders thoughts about Jesus.

Main Thrusts of E.P. Sanders

Sanders has written many books. 15, if I am counting correctly, along with many other essays and contributions.

Probably his most well-known is Paul and Palestinian Judaism. I have yet to read this one but to my understanding, it and Jesus and Judaism share a common thrust.

Jesus was not in conflict with Judaism.

Sander has gone to great lengths to understand Judaism in the first century better. In particular, the Pharisees. Who are often portrayed in conflict with Jesus.

Sanders does not believe that the Pharisees are the “bad guys” in the life of Jesus. Or even that they were critically involved in his execution.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Before going into details of Jesus and Judaism, Sanders’s main push is we can understand Jesus better, seeing him as a Jew in both faith and culture. That he was not opposing or trying to overthrow the “faith of his fathers.”

(Hypothesis about his Life) “should situate Jesus believable in Judaism and yet expalin why the movement intiated by him evantually broke with Judaism.”

p.18

Nor were the religious thought leaders of his time opposed to his teachings of grace, love and forgiveness.

That thought alone may be worth the read.

It places Jesus in a much different context than the commonly presented idea that the Pharisees are the evil bad guys who killed Jesus because he practised love.

Back Cover of Jesus and Judaism

Helpful Ideas, Concepts or Thoughts for Understanding the Person of Jesus

Here are some key takeaways from reading Jesus and Judaism.

In Sanders’ building of his argument regarding Jesus and his Restoration Eschatology, he does not go to the teachings of Jesus. More on that later.

But focuses on key activities of Jesus’ ministry.

  • Baptism by John the Baptist
  • Choosing 12 Disciples/Apostles
  • National Call of Repentance/Judgement or lack of one from Jesus

I will let Sanders explain his arguments (p.91-116), but it is an interesting twist. Focusing on the actions of Jesus over his teachings.

What matters is not what the Gentiles say, but what the Jew do”

David Ben-Gurion

You can tell a lot from what a person says but even more from what he does. Jesus is no exception.

Indisputable Facts about Jesus

Speaking of what Jesus does. Sanders holds to 8 activities that, from a historical perspective, we can assert that he most probably did.

  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.

It’s not much but it is a good jumping-off point to studying the life of Jesus.

If we can confidently say he did these. Can we better understand other events like Jesus feeding the 5 000?

Or any of the many other actions and teachings of Jesus that are less attested to.

Jesus, The Law and Temple

One of the key actions of Jesus’ life is the “cleansing of the temple,” which Sander also uses as his entry point into understanding the life of Jesus.

A very interesting point Sander makes in regard to the temple is.

“It is hard to convieve that Jesus could have had a fundemenatly different attitude towards the temple and towards other points of the Mosaic legislation.”

p.251

It is important in our framework of understanding the life of Jesus that both “The Law” and the Temple worship practises come from the same source.

God, on Mount Sinai.

Jesus most likely did not separate the two in his faith and practises. They both were from God and worked together.

You can argue that all this changed under the “new covenant,” but is this something that Jesus believed?

The temple and the law must be processed together. Whether he trying to abolish, restore and transform them? They are most likely one and the same in his mind.

Possibly Jesus’ Greatest Offense

Sander focuses on a key aspect of Jesus that was most likely offensive to his peers.

“Jesus’ case-briefly put, that he was God’s spokeman, knew what his next major action in Israel’s history would be, and could specifiy who would be in the kingdom – put him equally obvisously against any reasonable interpretation of the scriptures.”

p.280

Read that a second or third time.

How offensive was Jesus when he told men who had given their lives to understand the will of God? Sacrificing time and energy to study his word. Despite all this, he had a better understanding of what God desired and who.

Is that the main crux of his ministry and teaching?

And if so.

How great of a challenge did Jesus encounter trying to shift people’s focus from the scriptures to him?

Critique of Form Critics

This is not a point about Jesus, but rather, many scholars attempt to authenticate Jesus.

“The form critics were right in thinking that the material changed; they were wrong in thinking that they knew how it changed.”

p.16

The above quote is in reference to the sayings of Jesus.

Originally published back in 1985, when debates over whether the sayings of Jesus were authentic were popular. This has lost some of its shine in the last few years.

More recently, scholars like Dale Allison argue more for understanding the idea behind the “sayings tradition” as opposed to arguing about what the exact words are.

But maybe we all need a little more humility before asserting that our precise wording or understanding is correct.

We can all acknowledge differences but be a little less proud of what is right.

The above thoughts, I believe, are helpful for better understanding the life of Jesus.

Highlights of Jesus and Judaism

Ideas About Jesus Demanding More Thought

But Sander raises some interesting ideas which I think need further thought.

At least for me, as I am still learning who Jesus of history was.

John the Baptist

Two thoughts relating to John the Baptist made me pause.

“Without the resurrection, would his disciples have endured longer than did John the Baptist.”

P.240

This is part of Sanders’ conclusion about Jesus’ view of the Kingdom.

But it does make me wonder. Is this the strongest argument for a resurrection event?

In Acts 18 and 19, we read of people in the first century who still followed John the Baptist after his death.

And there is a small sect called the Mandaeans, who claim to be descendants of John the Baptist’s original disciples.

But the contrasts between the Jesus movement and John are huge.

Was the events after Jesus’ death more important than the events before?

And how people responded to them.

Secondly was in regards to their impact in Judea and Galilee.

“I suggest above that Jesus may have had a smaller public impact than John the Baptist.”

p.289

I have always assumed that the focus of the gospels is on Jesus. With his many miracles and appearances of large crowds listening to his teaching. That he was popular in his time.

Sanders is not denying his popularity but proposing considering Josephus and what the Gospels say about John the Baptist. Was he the more popular of the two?

High Priest Questioning During Jesus’ Trial

Sander does, unfortunately, right off most of the trial of Jesus as not being historically accurate.

“The trial scene is unlikely on all counts”

p.298

But he does raise an interesting question about the narrative of the trial.

“There is nothing in the public teaching attributed to Jesus in the synoptic Gospels to explain the reported question of the High Priest; Are you the Christ, the Son of God (Matt.26:63, Mk.14:61)

p.297

Why is that?

Why would the High Priest believe that questioning Jesus in regard to his relationship with God is the critical question relating to his trial? If nowhere is such a statement made or presented in his public teaching?

Some theorize that this is the part of Judas’ betrayal. Revealing the secret/private teaching of Jesus to the High Priest.

Regardless, it is interesting to contemplate. What had the High Priest heard that we do not by reading the teachings of Jesus in the synoptic gospels?

The Historicity of the Gospel of John

Most modern historical Jesus scholars write off the Gospel of John as not being historically trustworthy. Arguing there is too much Greek thought in play and Jesus teaching and acting in ways unlike the synoptic.

But Sanders, in his conclusion about the death and trial of Jesus, says this.

“The vaguer accounts of John seems better to correspond with the ways things actualy worked.”

p.318

Maybe we should not write of John too quickly.

Maybe there is some history in his account that can help us better understand the events of Jesus’ life.

Missing the Mark in Understanding Who Jesus Was?

Now, I want to be upfront and acknowledge that Sanders has done much more studying and researching about Jesus than I have.

However, I do feel that he may have missed the mark on a few items. That they do not help us better understand the life of Jesus.

Authenticity of the Saying of Jesus

Sanders is a child of his time.

In the 80s, it was popular among scholars to dismiss many of the sayings of Jesus as not coming from the actual mouth of Jesus.

Sander subscribes to some of this as he handles the teachings of Jesus and some of the events like Jesus’ trial, etc.

“There are, however, doubts about their authenticity.”

p.260

This is most prevalent in his section on the law (p.245-267) but is sprinkled throughout the book.

That Sanders will dismiss sayings or events as simply not being historical.

He has his reasons, many he mentions in the introduction.

But sometimes I find people are too ready to ignore or dismiss something about Jesus they don’t know what to do with.

Again, Sanders knows more than I do, but great care should be taken in handling our sources about the life of Jesus.

If we whittle and trim off too much, we are left with nothing.

Will Reading Jesus and Judaism by E.P. Sanders Be Helpful in Understanding Jesus?

Short answer: Yes.

I enjoy the content, the arguments of Sanders along with the wealth of information he brings about first-century Judaism. Information that you will probably never learn by simply reading the gospels or even the Bible in many ways.

Reading Jesus and Judaism will be particularly helpful for those who have done just that. Read the Bible only.

Context is everything. Knowing the context of Jesus’ life will better help you understand his life.

The shift in paradigms is groundbreaking. That Jesus was not in conflict with Judaism. The Pharisees may have debated with him but did not seek his death will change how you read the gospels.

Bringing it closer to our own lives.

I debate. Disagree with fellow Christians on a broad scale, even within my own church, friends and family. And some of these discussions get intense. That does not mean I am actively trying to have any of them killed. At times, my arguments are just me trying to understand their views and even my own better. Why could Jesus’ fellow Jews not be doing the same?

That small shift changes how you hear the discussions and arguments of Jesus.

Less hate, more trying to understand.

So, if you are not a scholar of Judaism, it is worth reading.

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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