E.P. Sanders: Jesus and Judaism, The Historical Figure of Jesus, Studying the Synoptic Gospels
The Jesus of E.P Sanders stands in contrast to the portrait provided by Crossan as Jesus is not a wandering cynic philosophers but, like Schweitzer, an eschatological prophet. Sanders does not discuss methodology at length, unlike Meier, Wright and Crossan, but an overview of his methodology can be achieved by reading the relevant sections of three of his books. Jesus and Judaism , The Historical Figure of Jesus and in particular the co-authored Studying the Synoptic Gospels.
Sanders has little time, again in contrast with Crossan, for the apocryphal gospels and focussing his attention on the synoptic gospels.
“I share the general scholarly view that very, very little in the apocryphal gospels could conceivably go back to the time of Jesus. They are legendary and mythological… only some of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are worth consideration” (p. 64)1
Within the synoptic gospels ‘some aspects of Jesus’ teaching and career are firmly established, some things attributed to him are disproved, and most of the material is placed somewhere in between’2 In Jesus and Judaism and The Historical Figure of Jesus a list of the indisputable material which is firmly established is given.
Sanders Figure 1 (Taken From Witherignton The Jesus Quest)
1. Jesus was born about 4 b.c., near the time of the death of Herod the Great (only listed in HF).
2. Jesus spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village (only listed specifically in HF).
3. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist (both HF and JJ).
4. Jesus called disciples (both HF and JJ).
5. Jesus spoke of their being twelve (specifically listed in JJ).
6. Jesus confined his activity to Israel (specifically listed in JJ).
7. Jesus taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities) (HF).
8. Jesus preached “the Kingdom of God” (HF).
9. About the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover (HF).
10. Jesus engaged in a controversy over the temple (JJ), and created a disturbance in the temple (HF).
11. Jesus had a final meal with his disciples (HF).
12. Jesus was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest (HF).
13. Jesus was executed by the Romans outside Jerusalem (JJ) on the orders of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (HF).
14. Jesus’ disciples fled (HF).
15. Jesus’ disciples “saw” him after his death (in what sense is not certain) (HF).
16. As a consequence they believed he would return to found the kingdom (HF).
17. They formed a community or identifiable movement (JJ) to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah (HF).
18. At least some Jews persecuted at least some parts of this new movement, a persecution which seems to have lasted until near the end of Paul’s career (JJ).3
This established bedrock is built upon by using a number of criteria against the gospel traditions. The individual pericopes are analysed so that all the synoptic material is placed somewhere on a sliding scale between ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and ‘unlikely‘. These criteria, known as ‘Tests’.
Test 1: Strongly Against the Grain; to much with the Grain: A passage is deemed as historically reliable ‘if it is directly against what the evangelists wised to be so. Conversely, it is historically unlikely if it agrees to closely with what they wished and corresponds to Christian doctrine’. 4 This criteria is similar to the criteria of embarrassment as utilised by Meier, but also includes material which goes to much with the theological concerns of the evangelists, and is therefore related to the criteria of difference to Christianity (CDC). In this sense this criteria is really two criteria.
An example of material ‘going against the grain’ is seen in the virtual certainty which is given to Jesus baptism by John as the early church had a desire to see Jesus as John’s superior5. Other examples include Jesus negative attitude to his family, Jesus befriending sinners and his ‘threat to the temple’. These are all against the redactional tendency of the writers and should be deemed authentic. This is a positive criteria and it seeks to include data from the synoptic.
Material which is ‘to much with grain’ cannot be included in the bedrock of authentic tradition and is therefore a criteria which has a negative function. Jesus inclusion of gentiles within his mission are judged to be to much in line with the theological concerns of the early Church and therefore cannot are judged to be inauthentic,. Sanders using a continuum of probabilities states ‘[I]t is virtually certain that Jesus himself conducted no substantial mission ot Gentiles, but rather restricted himself to preaching in Israel.’6
Test 2: Uniqueness. This is essentially Criteria of Double Dissimilarity (CDD) which is discussed at a further point on in this paper. Sanders does warn of the abuse of this criteria as academia is ‘not infrequently ignorant about and biased against Judaism’7 and we should be ‘hesitant about talking about early Christianity and what is dissimilar to it’ partly because it is not fully known by us.
Test 3: Multiple Attestation: Sanders uses both forms of CMA, that of CMS and CMF. It is interesting to note that Sanders rejects the Q hypothesis and includes the Pauline letters as ‘there are a large number of agreements between the teaching of Paul and that attributed to Jesus’ and Paul provides ‘the greatest possible independent attestation of it.’8
Test 4: Views Common to Friend or Foe. This criteria find reliable ‘what friend or foe agreed on’9 Example of this include Jesus being a miracle worker , for even his enemies do not deny the miraculous but accuse him of performing the miracles under the authority os Beelzebub, and Jesus proclamation of the kingdom as ‘friend or foe alike thought that Jesus made claims which could be summarised by using the word king or kingdom’10 This is a positive criteria as it seeks to include data into the authentic category.
Criteria and Hypothesis
The gospel data which has been categorised into the probability continuum must be made sense of. ‘ ‘Making sense’ of means developing a hypothesis’11 which makes sense of the data and the historical context. Sanders thus has more in common with the methods of Theissen (‘Historical Plausibility’)12 and Wright (Hypothesis/Verification), than Meier who simply lets the data speak for itself.
1 Witherington, Ben: The Jesus Quest : The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, 1997
2 Studying the Synoptic Gospel 304
3 Witherington, Ben: The Jesus Quest : The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, 1997, S. 119 These lists can be found in Jesus and Judaism, p. 11, and in Historical Figure, pp. 10–11.
4 Studying the Synoptic Gospels 305
5 ibid 312-313
6 ibid. 312
7 ibid 316
8 ibid 323-324
9 ibid 330
10 ibid 332
11 ibid 335
12 Wright and Theissen will be discussed later in this paper