Books That Have Shaped Me: E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism

I am not sure if this will become a regular feature, but in preparing for a lecture this afternoon on the work of E. P. Sanders, I was struck by how deeply I was shaped as an undergraduate by his work on the historical Jesus.  Paul and Palestinian Judaism also, of course, affected me profoundly but the admission must be that at that stage, I never read PPJ for myself, but appropriated its insights through my teacher, John Ziesler.

Jesus and Judaism was different.  My other NT teacher was Meg Davies who at the time was married to Sanders.  She ran a whole term class on Jesus and Judaism, (it must have been the academic year 1987-1988, so the book had only been out a couple of years) and I think I read that book in a way that I had never really read a book before.  My copy is falling to pieces (SCM binding was particularly poor in those days), with annotations, highlighting etc. on almost every page.  I then, in 1989-1990 had the chance to teach that seminar to others, while Meg was away on sabbatical.

Sanders’ influence on me is best described, I think, in terms of his provision of an account of the historical Jesus that was and continues to be fundamentally compelling from a historical point of view.  When I read other books on the historical Jesus, I find myself mentally testing new suggestions, hypotheses and ideas against the basic framework that Sanders establishes.  To put it another way, while I am happy to re-think aspects of Jesus teaching and ministry in the light of work since 1985, I have yet to find an alternative overall account that is likely to displace that found in Jesus and Judaism.  I think that Jesus was a law-observant, Jewish, eschatological, restoration prophet; that table-fellowship with ‘sinners’ was central to his ministry and was a strategy designed to include those otherwise excluded from the covenant; that the temple incident was destruction symbolized rather than reform attempted; that actions speak as loudly as words when it comes to Jesus.

I know that others are fans of Sanders’ work.  I would argue that N. T. Wright works broadly within the framework that Jesus and Judaism sets out, and recent works on the historical Jesus seem to be picking up and refining aspects of that framework, to good effect (I think here especially of Brant Pitre’s impressive monograph, Jesus, The Tribulation and the End of the Exile – see Michael Bird’s review here.)  Mark Goodacre, who studied with Sanders and who now teaches in the same institution, shares similar views to mine on the significance of Sanders’ work.

One more point, Jesus and Judaism was written while Sanders was at Oxford.  The books from this period (including Studying the Synoptic Gospels; Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah and Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE-66CE) cost him a lot, in my view.  There are stories of him waking at 4.00 a.m. to write, before the administrative demands of being an Oxford Professor took over.  We should be grateful: it seems to me that in future years when many of the recent books on Jesus will have simply disappeared into deserved obscurity, people will still be reading and learning from Jesus and Judaism.