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The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders

Book Review by Ursus

The Vision of Christ that Thou dost see
Is my Vision's Greatest Enemy:
Thine has a great hook nose like Thine,
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Thine is the friend of All Mankind.
Mine speaks in parables to the Blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates,
Thy Heaven doors are my Hell gates.
Socrates taught what Meletus,
Loathe'd as a Nation's bitterest Curse,
And Caiaphus was in his own Mind
A benefactor to Mankind.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But though read'st black where I read white.


--- William Blake 1818
It is hard to think of a more polarizing figure in human history than Jesus of Nazareth, for the very fact his adherents present him as more than human. The historical Jesus, if one exists, usually gets buried; the faithful are willing to take it on faith that Christ existed as he is portrayed in the Bible, while his opponents often consign him to the status of a fairy tale. If there is a middle ground, perhaps it is to be found in E.P. Sanders' The Historical Figure of Jesus.

Sanders is what I would call a liberal Christian. At the end of the day he seems to attach some validity to the internal message of Christianity as ultimately a transcendent, supernatural gift from the god of his understanding; however, he cheerfully acknowledges that Christians were products of their time, that the Bible was a product of men, and therefore many things can't be taken at face value. This attitude of carefully adjusted faith lends itself well to discovery; someone who is inclined neither to blindly accept nor casually dismiss possible evidence might actually approach some definition of objectivity. Sanders is also eminently qualified to lead a discussion on Christianity. He has two bachelor's degrees and a Th.D, as well as a Doctor of Laws and Doctor of Theology. He is generally regarded as one of the world's foremost Biblical scholars, and has published numerous books on Christ, Paul and Judaism.

Sanders is also a terrific prose writer. His language is intelligent but very digestible. This is a work with strong academic basis, but written to convey information easily to a casual reader. There is the obligatory map of Palestine, a chronology of events, an appendix on dates as well as Jesus' disciples, and a thorough section of notes.

In his work, Sanders lays aside theological arguments, supernatural credulity, and sectarian accounts of the Church's importance. Instead, he attempts to portray what we can know of Jesus of Nazareth using verifiable historical methods. This is, as he admits, something of a challenge. The only real scholarly source, Josephus, affords Jesus a paltry paragraph. What is left are four internal narratives called Gospels; these Gospels were written decades after Jesus' time, by people who were not eyewitnesses to Jesus, and who wrote in a language (Greek) that Jesus did not speak as a native.

However, Sanders claims that when one compares the Gospels to each other, and critically place the writings in relation to what is known of the surrounding environs at the time, one might be able to find some kind of truth. The truth, as Sanders sees it, is that there was a Jesus who gathered disciples, taught on the outskirts of Jerusalem, made some statements about a Kingdom of God, entered Jerusalem during the Passover celebrations, and was executed by Caiaphas the High Priest and Pilate the Roman prefect. This, Sanders declared, can be considered almost unassailable. But that leaves a lot of blanks as to the details and deeper contexts.

The book then seeks to fill in some of the blanks and contexts with academic insight. Sanders gives a good account of the basic political environment of Roman occupied Judea, an outline of first century Judaism, and of the external sources from that timeframe. He acknowledges that Roman control over Jerusalem was indirect; the Roman prefect allowed the High Priest and his council to maintain order. The Hollywood image of Roman soldiers bearing down oppressively on 1st century Judeans is patently false. However, what can be acknowledged is that the legalistic Jewish religion, which covered all areas of life in astonishing detail, constructed a unique identity for the Jewish people that opposed assimilation by foreign cultures. There was always a potential for conflict, which both the Jewish and Roman authorities sought to quell; this is key to understanding Jesus' death.

He then discusses the internal sources; what Christians call Gospels. How the Gospels were composed is a fascinating story in itself. Jesus' earliest followers believed the Kingdom of God would transpire in their lifetimes, and thus they felt no need to leave a full written record for posterity. Only decades later did it become obvious that the world was in no immediate danger of ending. The Gospel writers then drew from fragmentary knowledge of Christ's life and works, editing them in such a way that many things were quoted out of context, and producing disparity in details and viewpoints among the Gospels themselves. However, the three Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) share a general flow, and agree on some essential points. The Gospel of John takes a far different tone than the previous three, and departs on some essential details (such as the day Jesus died). In Sanders' view, John is something of a later theological elaboration.

Sanders then analyzes the Gospels themselves for clues to Jesus' life and teachings. The Evangelists placed Jesus in the long history of Jewish salvation. They saw him either as the heir of David or a new and better Moses. Jesus taught only in rural areas, not the major cities. He was essentially homeless, traveling with his disciples (who numbered more than the traditional twelve). He was supported by receptive listeners, many of whom it seems were women.

Jesus and his followers seemed to believe the Kingdom of God was imminent. A Kingdom of God can be interpreted on a variety of levels, both spiritual and political. However, the most common belief (or, rather, hope) of the first century Judeans was for a strong and secure Israel, independent of foreign power, and one taking into its orbit Gentiles who acknowledged the supremacy of the Jewish deity.

Jesus never referred to himself as either Messiah or Son of God. In any event, there were different views on what exactly constituted a Messiah (with many preferring a military leader, which would dovetail nicely with hopes of an independent Israel). Son of God, meanwhile, was a term applied to all observant Jews, rather than the offspring of a deity as in the Greco-Roman world. His status as a miracle worker or exorcist is something many moderns dismiss, but even if ancient peoples believed in these acts, it would not automatically make him superhuman in their eyes (the ancient world was full of self-proclaimed magicians).

What Jesus did seem to think of himself was a kind of “viceroy” to God. He considered himself as having a special intimacy with God (which was not uncommon among first century Judean rabble-rousers) which lent him authority. His twelve major disciples were symbolic of the historic twelve tribes of Israel, and they were intended to act under Jesus as judges in an imminent Kingdom of God. Jesus furthermore seems to have seen it as his duty to preach the coming of the Kingdom in remote areas of Palestine. He did not come to break Jewish law, as has been alleged. But he nonetheless saw himself as a compassionate idealist, and his authority and mission to reach out to the lost and disaffected were ultimately more important than the law.

So why was he killed? He entered Jerusalem during the passover, a time of thronging crowds and heightened religious fervor, when the authorities were keeping close watch on possible riots. He entered Jerusalem provocatively, in the manner of a king. Then he had an altercation with the pigeon-sellers and money-exchangers in the Temple, the most sensitive spot in all of Judaism. He made a cryptic prophecy about the destruction of the Temple – which in his eyes was a metaphor about God rebuilding a new kingdom of Israel, but which the authorities interpreted as a threat.

As Caiaphas' main duty under Pilate was to keep an eye out for troublemakers, he or his councilors interviewed Jesus, and after the interview recommended immediate death. Pilate, who is noted in external sources as being a corrupt administrator all too quick to spill blood, quickly authorized the execution (Sanders believes the story of Pilate's hesitation in the Gospels is pure invention). And so, Jesus was nailed to a cross, buried – and according to his followers, resurrected. The rest is history.

At the end of the day, people will believe or disbelieve according to their own inclinations, of course. While I'm not willing to believe everything in Sanders version, I take it as an excellent basis on which to start a journey of any historical Jesus that exists. This was a fascinating read I highly recommend.

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Book Review of The Historical Figure of Jesus - Related Topic: Christianity History


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