Review of The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders

After reading Jesus and Judaism, I turned to his book, The Historical Figure of Jesus.

This book is similar to Jesus and Judaism but is easier to read and uses less scholarly jargon. While still discussing the life of Jesus in the context of Sanders’s learning about first-century Judaism.

Sanders’s Main Thrusts in The Historical Figure of Jesus

Jesus was not in conflict with Judaism.

Sander has put in a lot of effort to gain a better understanding of Judaism during the first century, specifically the Pharisees.

The Pharisees are often portrayed as conflicting with Jesus, but Sanders disagrees with this notion. He doesn’t believe that the Pharisees were the “bad guys” in Jesus’s life or that they played a critical role in his execution.

Sanders’s main argument is that we can gain a better understanding of Jesus by seeing him as a Jew who practiced the same faith and culture as the Pharisees.

Or maybe better said, that Jesus lived out his Jewish faith. A faith shared with many first-century Pharisees even if you interpret things slightly differently.

Also, we must understand that the religious thought leaders of his day did not oppose his teachings of grace, love and forgiveness. That probably supported and even preached similar ideas.

But they probably did not appreciate his acceptance of sinners. It is one thing to call a sinner to repent. It’s another thing to have fellowship with “sinners” while they are actively still sinning. Or even if they do repent, not to call them to repair the damage done through their sins. A practice which is demanded by the Levitical Law and Judaism of his day. It appears that Jesus did not call for such repentance in the gospels.

E.P. Sander Makes some Good Points About Jesus' Life

Highlights of the Content of The Historical Figure of Jesus

I won’t provide a detailed outline of The Historical Figure of Jesus. Instead, I’ll share key takeaways that stood out.

Chapter 3, Political Situation.

Sander takes a polar opposite view of Crossan in his The Life Of A Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, which I also have reviewed.

Crossan presents Jesus and the Galileans living under oppressive Roman overlords. Galilee suffered under Roman taxation and military rule, which had the region simmering in political unrest.

Sander believes that Galiee was not being oppressed.

They were somewhat prosperous under their Jewish ruler, Herod Antipas, at least for the time and place.

Which drastically changes how you read Jesus’ words and actions.

Who was Jesus resisting against? Rome or fellow Jews. And why.

Chapter 7, Two Contexts

Two contexts that Sander feels we need to understand Jesus.

  • The Theological Context: The History of Salvation
  • The Context of Jesus’ Own Career

Lots of good stuff in here, including a discussion about the birth narratives of Jesus.

But two things struck me.

“first century Jews sometimes intentionally modelled their actions on those biblical figures.”

p.84

How many of the prophecies fulfilled by Jesus self-fulfilled?

He read the scriptures as we do and then went about living it out.

When I considered Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, it became clear that he was attempting to fulfill the prophecies of Zechariah.

Looking forward to seeing if this is true in other gospels’ stories. Maybe mythicists are looking in the wrong direction at events. Yes, they are similar to others because Jesus was trying to imitate them.

Another insight was how we understand the gospels.

“the gospels author did not intend to write academic history.”

p. 90

Sometimes, we make things harder by trying to use the gospels as exact history as we understand it, but the authors were never trying to write this.

A classic golden hammer situation.

Just because it’s useful in one way does not make it useful in all ways.

Lastly, this short statement blew me over.

“Jesus himself was a theologian.”

p.97

I feel ashamed that this never occurred to me before.

That Jesus, a religious teacher, would be a theologian with philosophies about God, faith, the world, and everything in between. That his teachings are merely the outworking of his theology.

Mind-blowing!

Chapter 14, Contention and Opposition in Galilee

Related to Jesus being a theologian.

“In view of the indisputable fact that Jesus thought that the Jewish scriptures contain the revealed word of God.”

p.224

If you read the gospels, you will quickly see that Jesus was immersed in the scriptures. Many of his sayings developed from passages in the Old Testament.

That is theology lived out.

But if you read the statement closely, you will also hear some Sander in it.

“contained”

I’m not here to discuss theology, but I am guessing this is Sanders’ view of the Bible. It contains the word of God but is not entirely ” God-breathed. ” Jesus’ theology about the Bible may have been more encompassing or maybe not.

Another theological stand of Jesus. What did he emphasize in his preaching?

A common answer is repentance.

Sander does an incredible job of showing that this was not his topic of choice.

Instead, Jesus spent most of his time teaching about the “kingdom” of God. This minimal focus on repentance may have caused opposition to his teaching. The religious people of his day desired for people to live right lives before God, but Jesus was bringing people into the “kingdom” as they were.

Chapter 10, Miracles

My thoughts first than Sanders’.

Although I may not agree with his conclusion, Sanders did effectively explore various perspectives on Jesus’ miracles, particularly in relation to his contemporaries.

For example, I was unaware of the significant role that exorcism played in Jesus’ mission and ministry. That he spent more time casting out demons than giving sight to the blind.

Whether you agree with him about the supernatural or not, after reading this chapter, you will better understand miracles. And ways that people interpret them.

He provides two examples of how he interprets two miracle stories of Jesus.

The first one is the calling of Jesus’ first 4 disciples on page 120.

Compare Luke 5:1-11 to similar stories in Matthew 4:18- 22 and Mark 1:16- 20.

Luke adds a miraculous catch of fish. Creating an explanation of how Jesus won the trust of the disciples. In Sanders’ opinion, the explanation/miracle is not historical, but it explains/ helps to develop the story.

Another is the story of Mary and Martha.

In John 12:1-8, he sees a contemplation of memories and stories. The sinner who anoints Jesus in Luke 7, Mary and Martha from Luke 10, combining with elements from Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9.

He proposes that these are based on memories, but “details have been exchanged and possibly confused.” These stories, and who knows how many others in the gospels, should not be taken as gospel, but we can draw information from them.

Not sure what to do with that.

Is it just a matter of not arguing the details, or is it a direct assault against the historicity of the gospels?

Chapter 16, Jesus’ Last Week

Related to Jesus living out prophecies is Sanders’ proposal that the significant events of Jesus’ last week, triumphant entrance, temple incident and last supper. These events are Jesus communicating through object lessons or symbolic actions.

“Symbolic actions were part of a prophet’s vocabulary.”

p.253

Jesus was a prophet, or it seems that this is the best way of understanding Jesus. And as prophets have always done.

Jesus used his actions to demonstrate things much bigger than the action itself.

That Jesus intended for his followers and us to look for the bigger meaning behind the action rather than simply what happened.

Jesus was doing more than sharing a meal with his friends in the upper room.

Backcover of The Historical Figure of Jesus

Will Reading The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders help understand Jesus?

Absolutely!

Sanders delves into the historical context of Jesus’ life, in particular his Jewish roots and beliefs. Helping in understanding the cultural and religious background of Jesus.

Giving you deeper insights into his teachings and actions.

In particular how Jewish prophets used symbols. Prompting one to seek to understand the symbolic actions of Jesus.

Jesus did not live his life in a vacuum. the more we understand about the context of Jesus’ life. The more we will understand the life he lived.

Better to Read Jesus and Judaism or The Historical Figure of Jesus.

Both written by E.P. Sanders.

Both books are excellent sources for understanding Jesus within the context of Judaism. This has become more prominent among scholars and more and more regular Christians but when Sanders was writing in the 80’s, it ironically was often overlooked. That Jesus lived and died a first-century Jew. He must be understood in this context.

Otherwise, his actions will not make sense.

So, until I read a better book about first-century Judaism, I will recommend you read Sanders.

But if you can only read one.

The Historical Figure of Jesus is your best choice.

It is an easier read than Jesus and Judaism and explains the life of Jesus better in the context of Judaism. Making it more accessible to more people.

Immediately changing how you read the gospels and think about Jesus.

So, if you can only read one, The Historical Figure of Jesus is the one you should read.

After you finish reading, I suggest checking out “Jesus and Judaism” for a more academic and thoroughly argued read.

I read them in reverse order but still appreciated the material and enjoyed reading both books. I will probably look for more of Sanders’ books. His more famous work is one on the apostle Paul, but I am focused on Jesus for now.

The carpenter turned preacher.

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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