The Historical Figure of Jesus


A nice and objective introduction to the scholarship regarding the historical Jesus by scholar E.P. Sanders. It has an excellent chapter on miracles and how they were seen in the ancient world. Sanders evades dealing with the historical accuracy of the supernatural claims, but why shouldn’t he. You can’t prove a miracle historically. It’s writing style however maybe a little dull, but a good read nonetheless. Rating: 3,5/5


Below are a bunch of interesting quotes from the book.

– About Christians and the term “Messiah”:

“Jewish literature that is earlier than Jesus, or contemporary with him, does not offer a single definition of the word “Messiah”. After his death and resurrection, however, Jesus’ disciples decided that this title, which was one of the highest honorific titles they could think of, belonged to him. In the end the early Christians kept the title “Messiah” but redefined it to accord with their own experience : Jesus became for them a new kind of Messiah. This definition of messiah – prophet, miracle worker and heavenly Lord – is post factum. As far as we know, the term “Messiah” had not been defined in such a way in advance.”E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p. 242/243)

– About the different views Jews had regarding the “Messiah”:

“The second source that sheds light on the title “Messiah” is the library found near the shores of the Dead Sea. In some of these documents there are two Messiahs, one a son of David and one a son of Aaron, the first high priest. The second, the priestly Messiah, is in charge. The other Messiah does nothing. There will be a great war (according to one scroll), but the Messiahs play no part in it.”E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p. 241)

– About the “Son of God”:

“In a Jewish context “Son of God” does not mean “more than human”. All Jews were “Sons of God” or even the “collective” Son of God, as in Hosea 11:1 or Exodus 4:22. Psalm 2:7 refers to the king of Israel as Son of God; Luke applied this verse tot Jesus (Luke 3:21), but there is no reason to say that when he did so he redefined “Son of God” to mean “more than human”.E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p. 161)

– About the Gospel authors and the Gentile audience:

“The Gospels were written in full knowledge of the fact that Jesus’ own movement was spreading much better among Gentiles than among Jews. Thus in some ways the de-Judaized the scheme by emphasising Israel’s partial rejection of Jesus and his acceptance by a few Gentiles.” E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p.80)

– Regarding the authors of the Gospels:

“We do not know who wrote the Gospels. They presently have headings: “according to Matthew”, “according to Mark”, “according to Luke”, “according to John”. These men – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – really lived, but we do not know that they wrote Gospels. Present evidence indicates that the Gospels remained untitled until the second half of the second century. The Gospels as we have them were quoted in the first half of the second century, but always anonymously. Names suddenly appear about the year 180.” – E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p.63/64)

– Why the Gospels were anonymous:

“It is also intrinsically probable that the Gospels originally were headed only “the Gospel (good news) about Jesus Christ” or something of the sort, and did not give the names of their authors. The authors probably wanted to eliminate interest in who wrote the story and to focus the reader on the subject. More important, the claim of an anonymous history was higher than that of a named work. In the ancient world an anonymous books, rather like an encyclopaedia article today, implicitly claimed complete knowledge and reliability. It would have reduced the impact of the Gospel of Matthew had the author written “this is my version” instead of “this is what Jesus said and did”. – E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p.66)

– About Jesus’ unimportance during his lifetime:

“Jesus became such an important man in world history that it is sometimes hard to believe how unimportant he was during his lifetime, especially outside Palestine. Most of the first-century literature that survives was written by members of the very small elite class of the Roman Empire. To them, Jesus (if they heard of him at all) was merely a troublesome rabble-rouser and magician in a small, backward part of the world. When he was executed, Jesus was no more important to the outside world than the two brigands or insurgents executed with him. – E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p.49)

– The Greek world and divine beings:

“In the Greek world there was less of a distinction between human and divine than there was in the Jewish world. Greek mythology depicted gods as consorting with human and producing joint offspring. The Greeks occasionally declared that a human was divine. Though the Romans were originally not inclined to think of humans as gods, the Greek practise tented to spread throughout the Roman empire.”E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p. 161)

– About Jesus and his miracles:

“In the modern world Jesus’ miracles have played a substantial role in the evaluation of Christianity. Some have viewed the miracles as obviously fictional and have concluded that Christianity is based on a fraud, while others find in them proof that Jesus was more than merely human, the incarnate Son of God. Both of these extreme views miss the ancient perspective, which saw miracles as striking and significant, but not as indicating that the miracle-worker was anything other than fully human.”E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p. 132)

– About the Twelve not being twelve disciples:

“It is not the case that Jesus had just twelve disciples. It appears that he had somewhat more, but he spoke of the Twelve in order to indicate that his mission was to all Israel as well as his expectation that Israel would be fully restored in the coming kingdom. In reality Jesus had a group of followers, at any one time numbering more or less twelve. Some of the minor followers fell away, so that later the early Christians did not agree precisely on who counted as among the Twelve. He himself, however, used the number asa a symbol of his mission and his hope.”  – E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p. 122)

– About Luke’s census:

“It is not reasonable to think that there was ever a decree that required people to travel in order to be registered for tax purposes. There are a lot of difficulties with Luke’s census. One is that e dates it near Herod’s death (4 BCE) and also ten years later, when Quirinius was legate of Syria (6 CE). We know from Josephus, supported by an ancient inscription, that in the year 6 CE, when Quirinius was legate, Rome did take a census of people who lived in Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea – not Galilee, and not by asking them all to travel. Luke’s Mary and joseph, whole lived in Galilee, would not haven been affected by Quirinius’ census, which covered only people who lived in the two Roman provinces, Judaea and Syria. Galilee was independent and not a Roman province.”E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus (p. 86/87)


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