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The Historical Figure of Jesus Hardcover – 30 Sep 1993
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About the Author
E. P. Sanders moved to Duke University as Arts and Sciences Professor of Religion in 1990.
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But he does know his stuff, and the content is excellent as far as my amateur-level interest can discern.
I rate it 3.5.
I'm glad I read Reza Aslan's "Zealot" first, as I am motivated to persevere with this rather dry work, and to be fair to E.P.Sanders ploughing through the pages does fill in many of the gaps and unanswered questions in "Zealot".
As with any similar book from the USA, the author is very careful not to offend the Bible Belt zealots and Creationist Christian extremists. Ironic given that Christianity is the religion of Love. I would have preferred to have had it straight from the hip, the unvarnished facts and truth, without wriggling almost apologetically around the sometimes inconvenient niceties of Faith.
Persevere, it's well worth it.
Sanders does not delve into the development of Christian theology from which Jesus became the centre of a new religion both in historical and theological terms. His purpose is to "discuss Jesus the human being, who lived in a particular time and place" rather than the theological personage of Christian dogma. To achieve his objective he looks for historical evidence. Sanders establishes beyond doubt that Jesus was a real historical person about whom we know more than many other historical figures. The sources used to establish what we do know for Jesus are better than those which exist about Alexander the Great, whose career is derived from secondary sources. He acknowledges the limitations of contemporary accounts about Jesus and the restrictions this places on establishing a full understanding of Jesus the human being. However, there is more evidence than is often acknowledged. Sanders discusses the life and times of Jesus, the political situation in first century Palestine and Judaism as a religion in the context of the time.
Sanders is clear that problems with dating are minor and he clarifies the meaning of BCE and CE as a dating system acceptable to all, including non-Christians, whereas BC and AD refer specifically to the Christian view of history. Although Jesus was born at a time "when Rome was supreme over the eastern Mediterranean" his preaching took place in the towns and villages of Galilee which was ruled by Antipas, a son of Herod the Great. He emphasises it would be wrong to believe that the populace was oppressed by the Romans as there was no official Roman presence in Galilee. Although Jews generally wanted independence they tolerated Roman rule as long as it did not interfere with the religious practices of Judaism. "The Jews were distinctive in having only one temple and in worshipping only one God." Judaism was based on the premise that Jewish customs were divinely ordained not social constructs. Therefore, Jews of the Diaspora could not assimilate with other cultures without compromising their essential Jewish identity. Jewish priesthood was hereditary and in Jesus's time consisted of three distinct groups. The Pharisees who were religious teachers, the Essenes who most scholars associate with the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection.
Sanders conscientiously analyses the external and primary sources referring to Jesus. Whereas some scholars dismiss Josephus's account as pure fiction Sanders explains its weaknesses. In referring to the writing of the gospels he draws attention to the importance of the imminence of the Second Coming had on early Christians for whom a written account was unnecessary. He emphasises "that we do not know.....precisely how the gospels originated" although oral to written accounts is the probable explanation. Roman records are largely quiet about Jesus because they were written by an elite class for whom an itinerant preacher in a distant and backward part of the world was unimportant. He notes that the names ascribed to the gospel writers did not appear until the second century AD. Other "gospels" - James and Thomas - were rejected as heretical. The Gospel of Thomas was an expression of Gnosticism which held that everything material was created by an evil God and thus the world itself was evil. They also held that Jesus was not a real human being. Sanders dismisses the apocraphal gospels as "legendary and mythological".
All history must be seen in context, especially miracles. The medical profession had a poor reputation in ancient times. Pagan and other beliefs encouraged the idea "that human agents could encourage spiritual powers to intervene in the normal course of events." Cicero had argued that "Nothing can happen without cause; nothing happens that cannot happen and when what was capable of happened it may not be interpreted as a miracle." It's a view Sanders shares although he argues "that some rationalist explanations are...far-fetched." It's ironic that modern rationalists appear to believe in an uncaused universe. Jesus's contemporaries understood the escatalogical context in which miracles took place, even if modern explanations are different from tradidional ones. Rather like the Old Testament prophets Jesus preached the message that people had rebelled against God's requirements and should "start living appropriately". It was a spiritual message not a political, economic or social programme.
Sanders is an excellent scholar who conducts his research meticulously, does not avoid difficult questions or allow his own beliefs to influence his conclusions. He weighs evidence and explains why he thinks it is sound or otherwise. He is not afraid to admit that in some instances he cannot reach a firm conclusion. This reviewer does not accept his entire argument but his work stands in stark contrast to the "self-indulgent charade" that passes for research at the Jesus Seminar. Although Sanders is a first-class academic, this book is written for the general reader and in a conversational style. As an introduction to the overall question of the historical figure of Jesus, it's in a league of its own, receives five stars and is highly recommended for purchase.
the purpose of this book is to establish who Jesus was historically rather than theologically and while i have seen some critique this as a methodology, there are enough books on who Jesus was theologically that i think we can let that slide! he does this by trying to work backwards and trying to see what the earliest writers thought of him and how they depict him. he is very happy as a methodology to read with the grain of the text, other writers on the topic (such as j. d. crossan) are a lot happier to read against the grain and redact out the implications and views of the writers in order to find more solid data and of course both methods are extremely critique-able for a variety of reason.
i find myself quite liking sanders he expresses the difficult task of finding a single person in historical accounts without making seem it too complicated, ive read other works by him as well and his work on early Jewish studies is considered pretty authoritative so i definitely recommend him.
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