Book Review by Steve Solomon

The Historical Figure of Jesus

by E.P. Sanders

Allen Lane/Penguin. © 1993, E. P. Sanders. 337 pages (paper).

HOW MUCH DO YOU KNOW about the life and times of Jesus? As a practicing Christian of over 20 years, I thought I knew quite a bit. Nevertheless, I was in for some surprises when I read a recent book on the topic:

These are just a few of the conclusions drawn by E.P. Sanders in his most recent effort, The Historical Figure of Jesus. The book is timely. Every Easter season, national news magazines publish articles concerning the latest historical research and opinion about Jesus, much of which seems to attempt some sort of "debunking" of traditional Christian concepts. This year's offering in Time, for example, included quotations from two of the more radical members of the controversial Jesus Seminar: one sees Jesus' entire ministry as a sociopolitical opposition to the rule of Rome; the other makes Jesus a feminist.

I am pleased to say that The Historical Figure of Jesus   takes a much more reasonable approach. As the book's title implies, Sanders attempts to illuminate what is known about the life and teachings of Jesus from historical sources. Rather than projecting the concerns and causes of our times onto Jesus, Sanders reconstructs Jesus' own times as completely as possible. Jesus is presented much as first-century Jews, Samaritans, and Romans must have seen him.

Sanders is eminently qualified to search for the historical Jesus. He is a meticulous and honest scholar. Considerable space is devoted to explaining how a historian works, what difficulties writing about history entails, and why ancient history is beset with a number of special problems. Sanders' knowledge of the relevant primary sources is both broad and deep. He quotes extensively from apochryphal scriptures as well as the canon, and from Jewish writers such as Josephus and Philo. Sanders also cites Greek and Roman authors, both as sources of historical facts and as examples of first-century attitudes. The result is a thorough description of the political, cultural, social, and religious environment in which Jesus lived and worked.

The description of first-century Judaism is especially helpful. Sanders explains how Judaism was like and unlike the neighboring Mediterranean religions/cultures; the significance and day-to-day operation of the Temple; the role of priests and elders as rulers; the scope of acceptable legal debate; the teachings of influential parties such as the Pharisees and Sadducees; and the possible meanings of titles such as Messiah, Christ, Son of God, and Son of Man. I found the discussion of charismatic figures from Jesus' era very enlightening. Public and priestly reaction to these purported prophets, miracle-workers, messiahs, and magicians sheds considerable light on how Jesus and his message were received.

I have already indicated that the approach of this book is simply to uncover as much historical information about Jesus as possible, not an effort to debunk Christianity or redefine Jesus as something he was not. However, it is important to note that this is not a book about Christian theology. The author says comparatively little about himself or his own beliefs, but from what little he does say, I suspect that he is probably an agnostic rather than a Christian. Some of his conclusions would be totally unacceptable to biblical literalists, and were somewhat disturbing even to me: The concept of life after death was absent from early Judiasm; it was adopted from the Greeks (immortality) and the Persians (resurrection). The Evangelists may have invented some of the stories in which Jesus fulfills Messianic prophecies. Concerns that arose in the Christian community were "retrojected" into the Gospels and resolved in the form of confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees. Some of Jesus' own prophecies did not come true.

As upsetting as these conclusions may sound, I do not believe that the work constitutes an attack on Christianity. Sanders maintains his objective historical perspective throughout. Perhaps most telling is his treatment of the Resurrection: He rejects on historical and logical grounds the attempts of skeptics to explain away the post-Crucifixion appearances of Jesus (namely, that Jesus was a "resuscitated corpse" buried before he was actually dead, or that the disciples suffered from mass hallucinations, or that the whole story is a calculated deception). Based in part on the disciples' willingness to die for their beliefs, Sanders concludes that they really did experience something powerful and life-changing, something they did not fully comprehend, something they described as the Resurrection. On the reality behind the experience, Sanders, having gone as far as historical fact can take him, wisely declines to speculate.

I found The Historical Figure of Jesus   fascinating, thought-provoking, and enjoyable. If you are curious about what we can actually know about Jesus (as opposed to what we believe about him), or if you've been unsettled by avant-garde theology, read this book. Its objective historical approach is a better antidote to some of the stranger things being written about Jesus these days than any overtly Christian devotional work ever could be. If you have atheist or agnostic friends who are convinced that there is no historical basis whatsoever for Christian belief, lend them this book. It just might help them take the first step from skepticism to faith.

Edited June 1, 1996 / Updated January 2, 1997

Copyright ©1996-97 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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