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Thursday, July 13, 2006 

The Value of E.P. Sanders' "Jesus and Judaism": Part II

Not so long ago Richard M. Weaver in his classic work Ideas Have Consequences observed that when one becomes obsessed with focusing on the particulars of a certain concept the result is inevitably the loss of perspective of the "whole" or "unity" of the object under scrutiny. Weaver's work was in particular a reaction to the philosophical thought typically associated with William of Ockham known as nominalism which denies "universals" in favor of particulars only. In Weaver's opinion Ockahm's victory, as exhibited in the scientific method for example, led to society's obsession with particulars. The result was a society which lost a vision of a metaphysical dream. For Weaver, having a "metaphysical dream" was an important framework for attempting to understand how to, in a sense, "unify" reality. Without this framework the loss of ultimate "truth" was, for Weaver, a certain outcome. Weaver pointed to many things during his lifetime which he felt proof of this degredation of society, especially mankind's "moral stupidity."

Now you may be asking yourself at this point what does any of this have to do with E.P. Sanders or the historical Jesus. Simply this: many historical Jesus studies commit the same error as nominalism in that those scholars who focus exclusively on Jesus' sayings and the use of various criterion by which to authenticate these sayings lose sight of the entire "picture" of the historical Jesus and ultimately engage in a futile pursuit of this Jesus.

Okay, so the correlation I was attempting to make is not exactly one to one. My aim is to show how inconclusive and bizare the results can be when one attempts to reconstruct the historical Jesus from his authentic sayings which in turn have to be authenticated themselves by various criterion that are never wholly agreed upon. In other words, many scholars start at the "bottom" by focusing on the particulars of the Jesus tradition, i.e. the sayings of the tradition and then attempt to "build up" from there. In my opinion such a methodological approach can only yield fruitless results and so is ultimately a futile endeavor, not least because of the problem of the lack of the criterion to provide the kind of "proofs" that the, say, scientific method can provide.

The better and more fruitful alternative is to begin with a good hypothesis which, according to Sanders, must do at least three things:

1.) "situate Jesus believably in Judaism" (Sanders, 18)
2.) "explain why the movement initiated by Jesus eventually broke with Judaism" (Ibid)
3.) "offer a connection between Jesus activity and his death" (22)

Now it should be noted that Sanders is not the only historical Jesus scholar who views the presentation of a viable and essentially verifiable hypothesis as the starting point in Jesus research. I am thinking particularly of N.T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God, the second volume to his present undertaking, Christian Origins and the Question of God. In a way Wright's prolegomena volume, The New Testament and the People of God, functions as Wright's setup for his hypothetical model that he uses in JVC, namely, "restoration and exile." Unfortunately, Wright is a good example of the problem of beginning historical Jesus research with first developing an hypothesis or paradigm by which to construct the historical Jesus. The problem is that one can become overly dependent on one's hypothesis resulting in the forcing of the Jesus tradition to fit the hypothesis in question. Case in point is Wright who, in order to uphold his "restoration and exile" paradigm is forced to interpret apocalyptic images in a wholly metaphorical fashion.

Nevertheless, I still believe beginning with a paradigm or hypothesis which seeks to incoporate those facts known about Jesus and which can be derived from the Jesus tradition provide a better method to a reasonable, historical reconstruction of the mission and message of Jesus of Nazareth. But just as one should proceed in caution when attempting to use various criterion by which to authenticate Jesus' sayings so should one proceed in caution so as not to get caught up in one's controlling paradigm such that it causes one to force interpretations onto the Jesus tradition.

In the next post I will conclude this series by summarizing Sanders' methodological proceedure and its value for historical Jesus research.

Chris, (greetings from just down I40!)

Thanks for reviewing this. Great stuff--I've added J and Judaism to my shelf but it hasn't been read yet save for a few skims. You wrote:
"the problem of beginning historical Jesus research with first developing an hypothesis or paradigm by which to construct the historical Jesus." But can we ever really do any different (esp in the post-Kuhn era)? Even the most naive reader has a hypothesis, a set of working/controlling ideas, about Jesus.

I may have missed it but did you ever update on your plans for grad school?

Hello, J.B.

You are certainly right that in a sense everyone begins their historical Jesus construct with a controllable hypothesis even if unconsciously. I suppose the point is that one should begin by stating clearly one's hypothesis and working from there.

As for grad school I'm still wrestling with where I want to go, but I have narrowed the field down to at least five which are:

1. Notre Dame
2. University of Aberdeen
3. Duke
4. UNC at Chapel Hill
5. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (where Dale C. Allison teaches.)

I am leaning very strongly towards Notre Dame. For one, I would have the incredible opportunity to study under the likes of John Meier and David Aune. But my other reason is they have a realitively new Early Christian Studies MA program which is a combined effort between the Theology and Classics department. Thus along with the study of early Christianity/Judaism it has a strong focus on the wider Greco-Roman culture.

I'd say Duke and Aberdeen would be top of the list (I'm obviously partial to Abdn!) though Notre Dame obviously has some strong suits. I like the British system, the way it makes you study, write, think, etc. is different and I think worth it. Depending on your undergrad work, you'd have a chance to hit PhD level research after a one year Masters...

I agree that everybody begins with a hypothesis, and therefore it's best just to state your position going in. But how do we test these hypotheses? Is one hypothesis as good as another?

Wright says you can test a hypothesis by seeing how much of the data it successfully accounts for. But I'm not sure that's a very helpful approach.

I guess you're saying that if the data have to be distorted to make them fit the hypothesis, that counts against it. That certainly seems reasonable.

It seems to me that Sanders takes a bit from each approach. As you mentioned in your last post, he identifies some of the events in Jesus' life that scholars typically agree on. With respect to Jesus' sayings, Sanders shows an awareness of the findings of Bultmann and others, as I recall). And he also uses the hypotheses you mention.

I think this is one of the strengths of Sanders's work — that he tries to work toward a solution from all of these directions. That becomes a method by which we can test the validity of the hypothesis.

I'm looking at UNC at Chapel Hill for undergrad in a year. Any other good schools you'd recommend for an undergrad in something like classics, history or literature as a basis for jumping into biblical studies postgrad?

Thanks for the insights Chris, well done as usual. It will be exciting to see where you end up for grad school. Rob, for undergrad I recommend classics or literature as a your potential major over any specific school. When you get to grad school, that is the time you should worry about the name and professors. This would also save quite a few dollars.


One of the very reasons I am considering Aberdeen is because my major is Biblical Studies/Biblical Langauges and so I knew that if I got into the MA program I probably could advance fairly quickly into Phd work as you said.


Great insights as usual. I agree with you that the overall contribution of Sanders is that he's able to take a bit from each approach and utliize them in his reconstruction.


I agree with Derek that it probably matters little where your actual undergrad degree comes from (though UNC is still a fine choice) and matters greatly when comes to graduate study.

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