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Saturday, July 15, 2006 

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

The Sayings of Jesus

I know that I said I was going to conclude this series of posts in this one but I realized there was one more methodological procedure of Sanders of which I wanted to discuss. In the last two posts I emphasized the problem that plagues many Jesus research scholars, namely, the exclusive focus on Jesus' sayings. In contrast to this, Sanders' method is to concentrate on those facts of Jesus' life which are agreed upon by many scholars and to develop a hypothesis which accounts adequately for these facts. In this scheme, the sayings of Jesus are given a somewhat subsidiary role, mainly because of the problems associated with trying to authenticate the sayings of Jesus. However, this does not mean Sanders views an analysis of Jesus' sayings as unimportant. On the contrary, Sanders says:

"Although the sayings material has just been assigned a relatively secondary role, especially considering the dominance which it has generally enjoyed, it remains important in this study." (Sanders, p 13)

But then how does Sanders utilize the sayings? Here it is perhaps best to quote Sanders at length:

"I belong to the school which holds that a saying attributed to Jesus can seldom be proved beyond doubt to be entirely authentic or entirely non-authentic, but that each saying must be tested by appropriate criteria and assigned (tentatively) to an author-either to Jesus or to an anonymous representative of some stratum in the early church. This appears to be a neutral stance, placing the burden of proof equally on those who would assign a saying to Jesus and those who would assign it to the church. If one were writing a history of the synoptic sayings material, such a position probably would be neutral. When one writes about Jesus, however, this attitude has the effect of shifting the burden of proof to the shoulders of those who affirm the authenticity of a saying or group of sayings. I find that I am not neutrally canvassing the material, assigning it as best I can to an appropriate place. I am looking for information about Jesus, and looking somewhat with a skeptical eye; I want to be convinced that a given saying is at least probably by Jesus before employing it." (Ibid)

Sanders' method of approach to the sayings of Jesus is one that attempts to be neutral but with a leaning towards skepticism. He, quite reasonably, wants to be sure a saying attributed to Jesus was probably said by him before including it his historical data. From a historian's perspective this is, I think, the best approach to take concerning the logions of Jesus. Because of this, the historian must not and cannot take into account things such divine inspiration and so forth. They have to be inclined to deal with the possibility of faith-embellished tradtion. And if the possibilty for that exists then the historian has to reckon with the possibility that the tradition could have become embellished extensively. For this reason, the historian is quite justified in taking a skpetical approach to the sayings of Jesus.

Yet, I must admit that from a faith-persepctive such as I adopt, this position is somewhat unsatisfactory. Because I am a believer, and because I am inclined to view the gospels as an (overall) faithful witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (though I am no inerrantist) I would want to give the sayings of Jesus the benefit of the doubt and place the burden on those who would wish to assign attributed sayings of Jesus to the category of "unhistorical". But from the perspective of a historian who should attempt as much as possible to engage in "objective" history (and yes, I'm well aware that it's quite impossible to be completely objective), adopting a skeptical standpoint concerning Jesus' sayings is a must.

For those who are curious Sanders provides three reasons which cause him to adopt a skeptical view concerning the sayings of Jesus.They are, with much brevity, as follows:

1.) The discipline of form criticism has shown that the traditions have been handed down by the early church and adapted for use by that church. (p. 14)

2.) Form-critical tests that were often used in attempts to discover earlier forms of tradition which in turn were used to make judgements of authenticity are ultimately unreliable. Sanders, "I have in mind principally Semitisms, brevity and details, Saying sin general do not tend to become either more or less Semitic, longer or shorter, or more or less detailed."(p. 15)

3.) The lack of knowledge concerning "the practices and interests of the early church (apart form the Pauline mission) before the Gospels were written." (Ibid)

Okay, next time I promise to complete and summarize the value of Sanders work on the historical jesus. I just thought it best to provide Sanders position on the sayings of Jesus and the reasons for his skepticism.

Many early converts to Jesus-worship denied the general resurrection, and believed the dead were lost. See Paul's letters to the Corinthians and the Thessalonians.

This was despite the fact that their Lord and Saviour had personally proved the resurrection in Matthew 22, apparently to crowds of people.

This makes the sayings hard to credit.

What exactly did Jesus say?

What did he say about divorce for example?

The early manuscripts have some twenty different sayings about divorce. I list just a few of them. All of them are different versions of the same passage :- Matthew 19:9 They give different teachings about whether a man can remarry or whether a man can marry a divorced woman.


Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Ephraemi, Codex Regius - Whoever divorces his wife, except for fornication, and marries another commits adultery.

Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus - Whoever divorces his wife , except for fornication, makes her an adulteress and the person marrying a divorced woman commits adultery

Here there is no prohibition on a man remarrying, but there is a new prohibition about marrying a divorced woman.

Freer Gospels, Koridethi Codex - Whoever divorces his wife , except for fornication, and marries another commits adultery and the person marrying a divorced woman commits adultery

Both prohibitions have been combined

Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (Original Version) - Whoever divorces his wife , except for fornication, and marries another makes her an adulteress and the person marrying a divorced woman commits adultery

The prohibitions on a divorced man remarrying has been removed , but the part saying 'makes her an adulteress' has been added.

So Christian scribes have made it impossible to recover what Jesus taught about divorce

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