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