What do I think of this book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
E.P. Sanders is really one of the most important writers in recent times on the historical Jesus. His works have been highly influential and while he does not come from the Christian perspective, he does I think seek to treat the Gospels fairly and not always with a hyper-skepticism, although I think there are times that the skepticism that he has is unwarranted.
Let’s start with something he does not say. Not even on the radar at all for Sanders is the idea that Jesus never even existed. This despite the idea that internet atheists will often insist that there is some debate to this. In fact, he will tell you that we know a lot about Jesus. In fact, on page 3, he tells us that the sources that we have for Jesus are better than the ones that we have for Alexander the Great.
Sanders starts us off largely with the political setting and the theological setting of Jesus. What was Rome doing at the time of Jesus? What was going on in Judaism at the time? Both of these are essential questions and readers who want to go with the Bible only and no extra-Biblical information will find that their attempts to understand what was going on in the life of Jesus are highly lacking since they do not consider all the sources. This is remarkable since even Sanders agrees Jesus was not thought much of in his time and Palestine was not thought much of either.
Sanders also even addresses the common charge that the Gospels are anonymous. He tells us on page 66 that in the ancient world, to have an anonymous work implied complete knowledge and reliability. To put a name to the account would be just saying “In my opinion, this is what happened.” Could it be that despite what internet atheists say again that there was an entirely valid reason for a work to be anonymous?
My main contentions are largely twofold. First off, on page 143 he quotes Cicero’s view that there are no miracles. (Despite the ancient world supposedly consisting of gullible people, Cicero would be right at home with the intellectual elite of his day) Sanders says he fully shares this view. Unfortunately, this view is not defended. Now can one investigate miracles fairly despite disbelieving in them? Yes. All one needs to do is take a non-dogmatic stance. It is just saying “I don’t believe in miracles, but I am open to the evidence.” Then look at the evidence and be skeptical, but make sure your skepticism is reasonable.
The other claim is one that shows up repeatedly and that’s that Jesus was wrong about his coming at the end of the age. This too often relies on a more literal reading of the text than on the kind that I believe Jesus fully intended us to get. Unfortunately, this kind of viewpoint has been bought into by several skeptical writers including Ehrman. Many who do this also tend to state repeatedly that we can’t take the Gospels literally. It is quite amusing that we’re repeatedly told to not do this and yet on this point, that is exactly what the skeptics do.
Still, someone is impoverished if they don’t take advantage of reading authors like Sanders. While the Christian will disagree with his ultimate conclusions, there is still much valuable information to learn and we owe it to ourselves as good investigators to do so.