The Value of E.P Sanders "Jesus and Judaism": Part I
1.) The conviction that Jesus' words and teaching are the securest way forward to recovering the historical Jesus' message and mission.
The implications for this should be obvious. Once one is committed to finding Jesus' message in his teachings and sayings (exclusively) then one must attempt to ascertain the authenticity of the various sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospel accounts. Sanders indicates two flaws with this particular methodology. First, he points to the problem of such few consensus by scholars as to which sayings are authentic. Moreover, the few sayings that are generally agreed to be authentic are just that: few. In other words one cannot hope to recover Jesus' message and aims from only a few sayings. Secondly, when one focuses exclusively on Jesus' sayings as the key to discovering the historical Jesus there is an important assumption being made, namely:
"that what he really was, was a teacher. ( and if so) He is then either a clear, straightforward teacher whose parables make his message about God and the kingdom plain, or, as in some recent studies, a difficult, riddling teacher, whose meaning is not and was not altogether clear, or even one who intended to be ambiguous. Whatever sort of teacher he is held to have been, it is difficult to move from 'Jesus the teacher' to 'Jesus, a Jew who was crucified, who was the leader of a group which survived his death, which in turn was persecuted, and which formed a messianic sect which was finally successful'." (Sanders, p. 4, parenthetical remark added)
Sanders observation is simply that an undertaking of extracting Jesus mission and message soley from his teachings leads to Jesus as a teacher whom spouts out parables and aphorisms, which in turn is problematic because it lacks the explanatory power necessary to properly account for Jesus' own death and the rise of Christianity itself (p. 1). What is needed is secure evidence, the kind of evidence that "everyone can agree and which at least points towards an explanation..." (5) In light of this observation Sanders provides his own surer, firmer way to reconstructing (at least minimally) the historical Jesus' message and mission. Sanders' more secure method in historical Jesus reconstruction is to begin with the facts about Jesus' life and its consequences. In other words to pivot historical research of Jesus on those incidents in Jesus' life which the mass of scholars agree to be historical and to move from this pivot point while making the study of the sayings of Jesus secondary.
I myself am convinced of this particular method of proceeding with historical Jesus research. In many ways it is very commonsensical. It seems much more reasonable to begin with those things generally agreed to be historical concerning Jesus than to start from the ground up. Moreover history shows that people are more remembered for what they did as opposed to the things that they said. Thus Jesus facts and actions reasonably appear the best way forward. Of course the situations will always be more complex and less linear than we would like. But overall this method does seem to be a better way than trying to authenticate Jesus' sayings to the exclusion of his actions by way of criteria and such which leads us into the second flaw with many historical Jesus studies. This, as well as Sanders remedy, we will look at in the next post. In the meantime, for those who are interested in what initial facts Sanders believe are generally held to be historical by most scholars, here they are:
1. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
2. Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
3. Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
4. Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
5. Jesus engaged in controversy about the temple.
6. Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
7. After his death Jesus' followers continued as an identifiable movement.
8. At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement (Gal. 1.13,22; Phil.3.6), and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul's career (II Cor. 11.24; Gal 5.11; 6.12; cf. Matt. 23:34; 10:17)
Taken from page 11 of Jesus and Judaism.