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on 13 October 2017
An excellent survey of the historical evidence about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Sanders writes very clearly and is balanced and fair in his sifting of the data from the New Testament and from first century Judaism. Indeed, his particular strength is putting Jesus into the religious and political context of Palestine under Roman occupation, showing how Zealotry led to political extinction and how Phariseeism evolved into rabbinic Judaism. He argues that Jesus had more in common with the Pharisees than the Christian tradition allows for, and that the reason for Jesus's execution by the Romans was that he believed his role was to usher in the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem - a promise or threat that the chief priests feared would cause a riot and bloody Roman reprisals, thus leading to their request to Pilate to have Jesus executed summarily. This is a very readable book which is sympathetic to the religious experience of the first Christians,eg, in its sensitive discussion of the resurrection appearances, without assuming any faith position - it's all about the historical question of what actually happened.
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on 23 August 2007
This is a good introduction for those interested in studying the historical figure of Jesus. Deceptively short as the text is quite small, Sanders provides a welcome antidote to the sensationalist pseudo-history such as Holy Blood Holy Grail and others.

Sanders is correct to state that the study of the historical Jesus is a perilous and frustrating task, not least due to the lack of sources. Sanders cleverly provides a setting for Jesus, putting him fully in his times of first century Galilee and Judaea. He places Jesus vis a vis Judaism and the political climate of Jesus' time. The strength of this book is that it is not encumbered with theology, but is an appraisal of Jesus the man, someone who had, or believed he had, an intimate relationship with God and who saw himself as the man to prepare the Jews for the coming of the kingdom. As Sanders correctly concludes, as a result Jesus was more of a teacher and a prophet than a preacher of repentance.

All in all a recommended book for both Christians and non-Christians wanting a good introduction to Jesus, without sensationalism, be it theological or pseudo-historical.
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on 7 January 2018
Excellent book and great for theology studies.
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on 1 October 2005
Whilst books like the Da Vinci Code continue to dominate people's thinking on religion, books like these based in fact provide a welcome read. This book in particular is probably the best historical book I have read.

Sanders has not only created a book that is authorative and intelletucual, but he does what other academics fail to do - he makes it readable. Sanders focuses only on what can be proved or dissproved and rarely goes into speculation. If he does he always tempers it with a 'we infer'. Sanders goes into some detail about the historical setting of Jerusalm and Jewdasim at Jesus' time to build his case.

What he doesn't do is go into great details about his birth or upbringing, because quite simply, he has no proof or knowledge of it.

Very much a recommended read for all those that interested in trying to understand the facts of Jesus' life as opposed to speculating on it.
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VINE VOICEon 2 February 2012
E P Sanders has a written an excellent account of the historical figure of Jesus which serves as a corrective to the anti-Christian message of "progressive" Christianity and its naturalistic allies. He is opposed to, "recent scholarly literature (which) contains what I regard as rash and unfounded assertions about Jesus - hypotheses without evidence to support them." For conservative readers the names of the non-believing Don Culpitt and the self-publicising John Shelby Spong spring to mind. Sanders does not provide a blind assertion of faith but a carefully constructed historical account based on what is known about Jesus in history. The limitations of contemporary documentation and differences in written in accounts of his life and works suggest that records were not perfectly preserved. In addition, the extant written accounts were, in part, written to glorify Jesus rather than provide an unimpeachable historical record. Sanders is no fundamentalist.

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.
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on 17 August 2004
Professor Sanders must be one of those rare academics who can write well for the general public, neither over-simplifying the content nor boring the reader with excessive detail. The book has just the right balance of readability and credibility, and there are new insights on every page. Particularly interesting were the first few chapters, covering the historical and political background. We are all aware that Palestine was "occupied" by the Roman Empire at this period, but what was the nature of the occupation? Was it, for example, comparable to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the early 1940s? The answer apparently is no, and the situation in Galilee was very different from that in Jerusalem. The book paints a clear picture of what life was like for ordinary people living in that region around that time. In dealing with the events of Jesus's life, Sanders always makes clear the degree of certainty of any assertion. There is a scale, with "beyond all reasonable doubt" at one end and "as likely as not" at the other. People who want simple answers in black and white may be disappointed by this, but ancient history is not an exact science. This is surely the honest approach.
Professor Sanders has been studying this period since the 1960s and appears to be regarded as knowledgeable on Jesus (as well as on Paul). I am not in a position to judge, but certainly the book seems more authoritative than some similar titles written by journalists or by those with a proselytising agenda. Although raised in the Church of England, I read this book as a complete layman. I was aware that I had no idea how much of what I had been taught was true in a historical sense and how much was mere legend, tradition or the personal opinion of my teachers, and I was starting to ask questions like "who wrote the gospels, and when?" and "what did Jesus ACTUALLY say?". This book has taught me a great deal about the origins of this vast religion.
There is perhaps too much emphasis on dates. To the lay reader, the exact years of Jesus's birth and death are less interesting than what happened in between. And while I'm looking for faults, I could mention that there are a few things that are not well explained. For example, the Pharisees are referred to as a party, but what is meant by "party" in this context? Is it something equivalent to a modern political party? Obviously not, though just what kind of a group they were is still not clear to me. But there are few such omissions. All in all, this book gave me the information that I wanted in an enjoyable form, and I happily recommend it.
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on 3 June 2000
E.P. Sanders is without doubt one of the most pre-eminent scholars of the New Testament and of historical, that is, Second Temple, Judaism alive today. His expertise and breadth of knowledge are acclaimed by all quarters of biblical scholarship as often as his work is seen in print, which is it to say that this is often. Particularly he has made key entries into the current round of the academic Quest of the historical Jesus. The first was with his 1985 book "Jesus and Judaism", a technical and academic study in which Sanders outlined his position vis-a-vis Jesus as an historical personage about whom we could know a number of things with a substantial degree of certainty. Amongst these were that Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed, that he confined his activity to Israel and that he was baptised by John the Baptist. All in all he stated 8 "almost indisputable facts" in that book which any reasoned and reasonable account of the historical Jesus should be able to account for. With "The Historical Figure of Jesus" Sanders presents a much more reader-friendly (and appreciably less technical though still academically formulated) account of Jesus of Nazareth in which he ups the statements he now considers as "almost beyond dispute" to 15 and attempts to draw his picture of Jesus around these chosen static points. Clearly, then, the things Sanders considers as fixed are crucial here. These demonstrate some modification of Sanders' position from his earlier book and the addition of some "equally secure facts" about "the aftermath of Jesus' life". They are not things which scholars or general readers would find particularly controversial. But then the devil is always in the detail.
Sanders' construction of the historical Jesus as displayed in "Jesus and Judaism" is well known for being based around the incident in the Temple where Jesus turns over tables and drives out animals and/or people. This is seen as the proximate cause of Jesus' crucifixion and the event which gives us insight into his orientation as one interested in "restoration eschatology". But with "The Historical Figure of Jesus" Sanders takes a different tack, assuming much less background knowledge on the readers' part and so, consequently, providing the assumed reader with chapters of background on the political and religious settings of Jesus and on the nature of the documentary sources for his life. These chapters are as erudite as they are compact and would provide even the most novice-like reader of historical Jesus literature with a key to begin opening a number of the locks Sanders later presents. Having given background, Sanders proceeds to give chapters (some of which are so good they should be regarded as set texts on the subjects they address) which orientate themselves around Jesus' assumed interest in the Kingdom of God, his performance of miracles, the meaning of his teaching in Jewish context, Jesus' own view of himself and a programmatic chapter on Jesus' last week (an exercise in lucid brilliance). The Jesus revealed is set within a Jewish eschatological framework (discussion about the end of the current order of things) in which he is depicted very much as traditionally, even typically, Jewish. He speaks, for example, about "the reversal of values and ethical perfectionism" in the coming new age - the Kingdom of God. So what appears is a typically Jewish individual who harbours a view of his own authority to speak as, Sanders suggests, God's viceroy, and with an agenda which looks and works for the establishment of God's eschatological kingdom. All this is usefully garnished with astute discussion of the sayings of Jesus in the context of a Jewish religious situation. Two useful appendices and the addition of thorough indexes supplement the book usefully so that it is a practically orientated product for those who wish to validate or further their reading.
So this is a book which I find exceedingly lucid and wise on the subject of the historical Jesus. Of course, readerly conclusions will always be different and I would not wish to give the impression that I agree with everything Sanders proposes or to suggest that he should be regarded as a fount of infallible knowledge. I would, however, suggest that this book is the perfect one for the general and non-technical reader interested in the historical figure of Jesus. It orientates the reader to the subject at hand, provides useful and relevant background in a way that is very clear and is sure-footed as to the conclusions it reaches and the evidence upon which it is based. I recommend it whole-heartedly.
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on 20 September 2010
This book is a useful counterweight to those who argue that we cannot be sure that Jesus ever existed or, if he did, we can know almost nothing about him. Sanders is clear that Jesus is a real historical person and that the basic facts of his public career are `almost beyond dispute' (p 10) and `we know a lot about Jesus' (p 280).

On the other hand, Sanders is equally clear that we cannot take the Gospels at face value and that a good deal of their content is invention and retrojection (i.e. issues in the early Church were written back into the Gospels).

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, you have to prove that the writers of the Gospels did actually invent material. Sanders argues (p 151-2) that Matthew duplicated the healing of two blind men and made up the healing of the dumb man (Matt. 9:27-34) and claims that `this shows that new miracle stories could be created on the basis of others'. However, in discussing the story that the imprisoned John the Baptist had doubts about Jesus (Matt. 11:2-6), he argues that this is an authentic tradition because it is opposed to Matthew's belief that Jesus is superior to the Baptist (Matt. 3:14). If Matthew was a conscientious historian who included a story that opposed his own conviction, should we not also expect him to be a conscientious historian who would not make up a story?

Secondly, in order to identify particular passages in the Gospel as invention or retrojection, you have to know what Jesus actually did and taught - but the only source materials are the Gospels. This means that Sanders' conclusions are often questionable. For example, he wants Jesus to be `not given to censure but to encouragement; he was not judgemental but compassionate and lenient' (p 204). However, Sanders ignores the `Seven Woes' that Jesus pronounces on the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:13-32). Presumably he thinks that these are Matthew's invention but he does not explain why he thinks so.

Sanders concludes, `we know how much [Jesus] inspired his followers...who were so loyal to him that they changed history' (p 281). But compared with the standard Christian view, Sanders offers us a stripped-down Jesus - and that raises a question which he does not address. How did this uncharismatic, unoriginal, non-radical historical figure manage to inspire his followers to change history?
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on 14 April 2016
Writing style is not easy to read, and the rather yellow cheap paper and low contrast type font don't help.

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.
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on 22 March 2016
The book is an all round well written piece on the matter, it isn't too difficult to read and covers the main ideas within the topic of the historical Jesus. sanders focuses mostly on the biblical texts but is also happy to openly critique this and use other historical documents as well. i would suggest that this is probably the best introductory book to the quest for the historical Jesus that is currently available but if you want something a little more comprehensive then Theissen's book (the historical Jesus) is very good also.
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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