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The historical figure of Jesus

by E P Sanders

  Print book : Biography  |  First edition

Historical Figure of Jesus   (2006-09-29)


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by D.Ingolfsland

Sanders began with an outline of what he regarded as nearly certain historical facts about Jesus’ life. Among these facts are that Jesus was born about 4 BC and spent his early years in Nazareth. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, gathered disciples, and preached the kingdom of God in the towns of Galilee. About AD 30 Jesus went to Jerusalem and created a disturbance in the Temple during Passover. He was arrested, tried and executed on orders of Pontius Pilate. His disciples saw him after his death, though Sanders added that in what sense was not sure. The disciples formed a community to await Jesus’ return and to win others to Jesus as God’s messiah (10-11).After a discussion about distinguishing between the context of Jesus’ life, and the context of the Gospel writers, Sanders provided an overview of Jesus’ life. Dispensing with the birth narratives as unhistorical and the temptation as myth, the story of Jesus’ disciples was retained as basically reliable. While Jesus had somewhat remote followers, and even more remote sympathizers, he seemed to have called only a few to be close followers. Women played a central role in the gospel accounts (78-131).Sanders confessed to sharing the worldview about the impossibility of miracles. He disagreed both with those who saw Jesus’ miracles as proof of Jesus’ divinity, as well as with those who saw Gospel reports of miracles as evidence that Christianity was based on a fraud. Instead, Sanders argued that miracles were best studied in light of ancient thinking about miracles. Sanders concluded that Jesus thought of himself as the agent of the Spirit of God and that his miracles were evidence that the new age was at hand (132-168). That Jesus preached the kingdom of God was a given for Sanders. The meaning of that kingdom was a topic he discussed at length. Sanders argued that Jesus’ view of the kingdom was not found by picking and choosing among the Jesus sayings, and that since Paul’s letters clearly demonstrated that one person meant different things by the word kingdom, the simplest explanation for the variety of kingdom sayings was that Jesus simultaneously held them all. Sanders argued that Jesus taught that he would come again in the near future and that his immediate disciples understood and taught the same. Jesus did not expect the kingdom to involve the destruction of the universe, but rather a return to an idealized golden age (169-188).According to Sanders, Jesus’ ministry involved more encouragement than censure and more compassion than judgment. Jesus preached high standards but was not puritanical (196-204). Jesus taught God’s love and the need for commitment to God, and that love should be shown to everyone. Sanders, therefore, questioned why Jesus ended up dying on a Roman cross. According to Sanders, Jesus was not executed for blasphemy because the things Jesus said and did would not have been regarded as blasphemous in first century Judaism. What was offensive was the fact that Jesus told his followers to give up all they had and follow Jesus because he was God’s agent. He regarded himself as God’s viceroy, second only to God himself. According to Sanders, Jesus was executed because Jesus thought that he was in some sense king (205-248).There were five major scenes comprising Jesus’ last week. 1) Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Sanders thought it likely that Jesus had read the prophecy and deliberately set out to fulfill it, rather than the alternative that saw it as a prophecy created by the church. 2) Jesus overturned the tables of money changers in the Temple, which, according to Sanders, possibly symbolized the coming destruction of the temple. 3) Jesus had a last supper with his disciples which Sanders regarded as pointing toward the future kingdom. 4) Jesus was arrested by guards of the high priest because of his prophetic demonstration of the destruction of the temple. To the high priest, Jesus was a potential trouble-maker. 5) Jesus was sent to Pilate who ordered Jesus crucified, probably for being a dangerous, religious fanatic (249-274).Sanders called the resurrection an intractable problem. Jesus’ followers were certain that Jesus had risen from the dead, but they did not agree on who had seen him. Sanders dismissed the idea of outright fraud as implausible. First, many who proclaimed the risen Jesus spent the rest of their lives proclaiming that message, and some even died for it. Second, deliberate deception would have produced a better consensus. In the end, Sanders concluded that it was a fact of history that Jesus’ followers had resurrection experiences. Sanders confessed that he did not know what gave rise to those experiences (276-281).

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