RIP: Tribute to E.P. Sanders

The passing of E.P. Sanders hits hard. It was exactly 32 years ago, during my trimester college break (between Thanksgiving and New Year’s) that I first read Paul and Palestinian Judaism, just “for the fun of it”, on the recommendation of a college professor who thought my view of Paul was a bit too Lutheran and I could do better. It was my first biblical-studies book that I read seriously, cover to back, and I learned immensely from it — what the field was really like, and what biblical scholars actually do in pursuing exegesis over eisegesis. I would be reading more of Sanders in the near future.

His impact on New Testament studies is almost legendary by this point. He dismantled caricatures of Judaism and reframed Paul and Jesus accordingly, and here I provide some exemplary citations. If they’re not my “favorite” Sanders quotes, they’re close to that, and I believe they largely stand the test of time.

1. Covenantal Nomism (Pharisees/Rabbis’ view of the law). In 1977 Sanders unpacked rabbinical Judaism, ideas of which probably came from the Pharisees of Jesus and Paul’s day. His book rightly argued that it’s illegitimate to use Judaism as a legalistic foil. He summarized the pattern of rabbinic religion as follows:

“God has chosen Israel and Israel has accepted the election. In his role as King, God gave Israel commandments which they are to obey as best they can. Obedience is rewarded and disobedience punished. In the case of failure to obey, however, man has recourse to divinely ordained means of atonement, in all of which repentance is required. As long as he maintains his desire to stay in the covenant, he has a share in God’s covenantal promises, including life in the world to come. The intention and effort to be obedient constitute the condition for remaining in the covenant, but they do not earn it.

Only by overlooking this large pattern can the Rabbis be made to appear as legalists in the narrow and pejorative sense of the word. Their legalism falls within a larger context of gracious election and assured salvation. In discussing disobedience and obedience, punishment and reward, they were not dealing with how man is saved, but with how man should act and how God will act within the framework of the covenant. They did not think that they earned their place in the covenant by the number of commandments fulfilled. Nor did they think that the transgression of more commandments than were fulfilled would damn them.” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, pp 180-181)

2. The Solution Precedes the Problem (Paul’s view of the law). Then turning to Paul in the same book, he famously argued that the apostle’s thought ran backwards, from “solution to plight”:

“It seems likely that Paul’s thought did not run from plight to solution, but rather from solution to plight. The attempts to argue that Romans 7 shows the frustration which Paul felt during his life a a practicing Jew have mostly been given up, and … it may be further observed, on the basis of Philip 3, that Paul did not, while ‘under the law’, perceive himself to have a ‘plight’ from which he needed salvation…

“Paul’s logic seems to have run like this: in Christ God has acted to save the world; therefore the world is in need of salvation; but God also gave the law; if Christ is given for salvation, it must follow that the law could not have been; is the law then against the purpose of God as revealed in the Christ? No, it has the function of consigning everyone to sin so that everyone could be saved by God’s grace in Christ… Since salvation is in Christ, therefore all other ways to salvation are wrong… It seems to me completely impossible to make the argument run the other way, beginning with an anthropological analysis which shows in advance that humans are bound over to sin because of the desire to save themselves.” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, pp 443, 475)

Returning to Paul six years later, he took on the complexities of Paul’s theology, developing his “solution-to-plight” case more thoroughly. Romans 7:7-25 notwithstanding, Saul the Pharisee had no problems being righteoused by the law, as Paul the Christian now brazenly admits in Philip 3:6. Sanders believed that Philip 3:4b-6 is a key passage to understanding Paul’s critique of the law:

“Paul does not say that boasting in status and achievement was wrong because boasting is the wrong attitude, but that he boasted in things that were gain. They became loss because in his black and white world, there is no second best. His criticism of his former life is not that he was guilty of the attitudinal sin of self-righteousness, but that he put confidence in something other than faith in Jesus Christ.” (Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, p 44)

3. Prophet vs. Teacher (the historical Jesus). Sanders was the first to convince me that the historical Jesus was less an ethical and moral teacher, and more a prophet who expected the end of the world fairly soon, and who acquired a following primarily through his success as an exorcist-healer. I liked the way he toyed with Morton Smith’s eccentric ideas of “Jesus the Magician”, clearly of the mind that Smith went too far with his thesis, but giving it more credence than reconstructions of Jesus that made him a talking-head for modern liberal ideas:

“People like neat categories, and and a good deal of attention has been focused on the question of what sort of figure Jesus was: into what category should he be placed? Morton Smith, for example, thought that Jesus should be considered more a magician than a prophet. I continue to regard ‘prophet’ as the best single category. Jesus was also, however, an exorcist. An exorcist might imitate the behavior of the person whom he intended to cure. This might include thrashing about, rolling on the floor, and the like… According to Mark 3:21 (the Beelzebub controversy], Jesus’ family tried to seize him because he was ‘beside himself’. If he had sometimes behaved in uncoventional ways, people would not necessarily have thought that he was a magician, but they would have looked at him a little strangely…

“I think that we may be fairly certain that initially Jesus’ fame came as the result of healing, especially exorcism. This is an important corrective to the common view, that Jesus was essentially a teacher.” (The Historical Figure of Jesus, pp 153-154)

I could list many more influential citations, but these are the ones that first come to mind when I think of how Sanders influenced my thinking about Jesus, Paul, and the religious world they were born into.


3 thoughts on “RIP: Tribute to E.P. Sanders

  1. RIP. Great tribute. I began reading EP Sanders’ a bit late in my Historical Jesus studies. You hit the nail on the head pretty well, I think. The first point is especially strong. Early Judaism is often-times made into a caricature in order to reaffirm the uniqueness of Jesus and that’s mostly due to the bias of Christian scholars. Sanders was a much needed voice.

    With that said, I should probably dust off some of my books and give Sanders another read. It’s been a long, long while since I ventured into the field. Though I’ll probably focus more on the Pauline epistles, since I feel as though Historical Jesus scholarship has sort of hit another dead end. The third-quest has done a pretty good job (well somewhat) of situating Jesus into the first-century , but as Allison and many others have demonstrated, the various criteria of authenticity that scholars have tried to use in order to extract Jesus from the text have mostly failed. At best, we can only modestly gleam what Jesus may have been about from looking at some of the reoccurring themes found throughout early Christianity.

    I’m curious how well you’ve been keeping up with Historical Jesus/early Christianity studies? Has there been any noteworthy books published in these past several years? I don’t even know where to begin.

  2. As you note, the third historical Jesus quest has been dead for a while, Meier being the significant exception in order to continue his Marginal Jew project (until he died just last month). The next quest for Jesus might look a bit like this.

  3. I was going to mention Meier. After reading your blogpost, I quickly looked up a handful of names I remember from the field and saw that he passed away recently. I was really looking forward to reading what Meier thought about the various Christilogical titles (especially the Son of Man) . He is usually so erudite . Your review on Volume 5 of the Marginal Jew series captured many of the things I liked about that book (as well as the series overall).

    Anyway, I actually was going to link to that very article/whatever it is by Crossley. It was one of the first things that popped up when I looked up recent developments in Historical Jesus scholarship. I like most ideas reflected in that article. Though I’d probably just focus more on studying the evangelist /gospel writers and why they saw fit to write their gospel’s in such a way. As noted, it’s basically impossible really to extract Jesus from these text. Even material long-held as sacrosanct by scholars (the parables) aren’t what we once hoped they would be. I still think that it is more likely than not that Jesus was a historical person, but his earthly life seems to have only played a very small role in the development of early Christianity. That’s not to say that it didn’t leave an indelible character on some of the flavoring of the early church, but Crossley’s point of situating even that within the broader context of various religious movements at the time is well taken.

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