I am dedicating this blog post to the memory of E. P. Sanders, one of the truly great scholars of the New Testament in modern times, who died November 21, 2022, age 85.  I was heavily influenced by his scholarship, already during graduate school, and I always considered him as the kind of massively learned and rigorous scholars that all of us should strive to be.  He more or less single-handedly revolutionized three major areas of New Testament studies, in times when virtually no one had a huge impact on *any* area.  In my view he was the most influential NT scholar of our time.

Ed was born in Texas and did his PhD at Union Theological Seminar under one of the greats of the previous generation, W. D. Davies, who was himself unusually erudite scholar who focused on understanding the historical Jesus and the Gospels in light of ancient Judaism – a VERY difficult field to master.  Ed started out with religious leanings, but as he advanced in his education he moved toward a rigorously historical approach, following his mentor into the world of ancient Judaism.

When I first came to know of him he was teaching at McMaster’s University but he then took up a position at Oxford University in 1984 (as you probably know, that doesn’t happen a lot for American scholars).  I came to know Ed personally in 1990, when he came to Duke; I was a very junior person at cross-town UNC, but we had a good deal of professional contact.  He served on graduate committees of my own students and we worked together for other kinds of duties (hiring committees and the like.)

Ed’s early work (for his dissertation) focused on understanding the sources of the Synoptic Gospels (the “Synoptic Problem”) and he made an extremely important contribution to that area – by showing decisively that there were no reliable commonsensical guidelines for showing how an editor/author (Matthew or Luke) changed the tradition they inherited from another (Mark).  Can we expect editors consistently to reword a text to make it longer? Shorter? More pithy? More convoluted?  More this, that, or the other thing?   Redaction critics (those who study the changes of a text by someone who borrows but modifies it) had long assumed that there were some reliable rules of thumb for determining the direction in which a change would go.  Ed showed: yeah, not really.

This work was very important but not revolutionary in the way Ed’s three major books were.  These books all transformed ways of understanding critical features of New Testament studies:  the understandings of Paul, the historical Jesus, and Judaism at the turn of the era.  These are all incredibly large areas of much-worked-over scholarship.  Hundreds, thousands of scholars work on them.  Most scholars spend a career on just one or the other.  Ed was completely expert in all three and determined the course of conversation among other scholars in each one.  Now that don’t happen a lot.

His first really major book was Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977).  During the period of modern scholarship most of the critical study of Paul had been (and is) undertaken by Protestant Christian scholars, and invariably they approached Paul through the lens of Lutheran understandings of the doctrine of “justification by faith.”  According to this view of things, Jews in Paul’s time believed that salvation had to be earned by following God’s law; but Paul believed the law could not be followed; and so every one who tried to follow it was condemned (as, of course, was everyone who didn’t try to follow it).  Paul’s teaching, in this view, was that no one could earn God’s favor.  A person was made right with God only by believing in Christ, not by doing good deeds for other people or being a “righteous” person.  Justification – being made right with God — came by faith alone, not by good works.

Ed demonstrated convincingly that this Lutheran view of Paul’s teaching (and it’s assumptions about Judaism) was simply wrong.  Paul was not focused on whether it was possible to earn salvation by doing good deeds.  When Paul talked about justification “apart from works” he wasn’t talking about trying to earn salvation by being a good person who helped out others.  He was specifically referring to to “works of the law.”  Paul was arguing that BEING JEWISH had no bearing on salvation; “works of the law” referred not to doing good deeds but to being circumcised, keeping Sabbath, following rules of Kosher, observing Jewish festivals, and so on.  For Paul, Christ’s death alone brought salvation, and no one had to be Jewish to benefit from it.  It came to all people, Jew and gentile alike.  (And those who believed and were baptized, *would* of course do “good deeds” – Paul expected that.  But he wasn’t arguing about whether good deeds would bring salvation.)

This basic view is sometimes labeled “the new perspective on Paul” and it came to dominate the field.  As part of his argument, Ed maintained that even though Judaism in the time of Paul was massively diverse, there were common elements shared among most Jews everywhere in the world.  Ed labeled this perspective “covenantal nomism.”   “Covenant” refers to the “agreement” (kind of like “peace treaty”) that God has made with is people the Jews, to be their God, distinctively, in exchange for their devotion to him.  “Nomism” comes from the Greek word nomos which means “law.”  The idea is that Jews kept the law not in order to earn God’s favor but because they had already received God’s favor.  God’s part of the bargain was to favor them; the Jews’ part of the bargain was to do what he commanded.

  They didn’t do the law in order to get salvation but because they had already been provided with salvation.  Paul insisted, though, that being a member of the Jewish community was not sufficient for salvation: one had to believe in the Jewish Messiah/Christ and be united with him in baptism.

In any event, to summarize the entire book would take many pages.  So let that much suffice.

The second of Ed’s major books was Jesus and Judaism (1985) arguably one of the most significant books on Jesus in modern times.  Here Ed intervened in discussions about how to establish what actually happened in the life of Jesus by promoting a new approach.  Ed agreed strongly with those who maintained that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet.  But he thought that earlier scholarly discussions and disputes – there were millions of them – were going nowhere for a specific reason: almost everyone was focused on determining which precise things Jesus said, but the criteria for establishing whether this, that, or the other saying was authentic were disputed and the disagreements were difficult to resolve.

Ed argued for a better way.  He thought that it was much simpler and less convoluted to start with what we can establish as the things Jesus did than what he said.  And so, he worked to establish what things we can say with relative certainty were key actions of Jesus, and to see how to make sense of them in their own historical context of first-century Judaism.  Ed famously started with his key example: he argued that the “cleansing of the Temple” was an actual event – not in the hugely exaggerated way you find in the canonical Gospels, but that Jesus evidently did indeed go into the Jerusalem temple after traveling in the days leading up to Passover, overturned tables, made a disruption (even if a relatively small one), and preached against the temple cult.

But why did he do that and what did it all mean?  Ed argued that this was not just a peripheral event but a key one.  Jesus could not have simply been upset about this or that temple practice.  He in fact was enacting his overarching concern.  Jesus believed that very soon God was coming in judgment and the judgment would not be directed only against the “pagans” but against recalcitrant Jews as well.  God was about destroy the temple in an act of judgment.  Jesus was in effect engaging in an “enacted parable.”  The mini-destruction he caused (by turning over tables and the like) was an indication of what he thought would happen in a massive way soon, and that people needed to repent and turn back to God, not relying on their cultic practices to get them off the hook when God asserted his judgment against the world.  Salvation would not come to the highly religious but to the outcasts and marginalized who trusted in God.

This was Ed’s attempt to put Jesus back into history and to focus on his connections with Judaism, and that too prompted scholars to move into new directions, in the so-called “Third” Quest of the historical Jesus, the first being the one summarized by Albert Schweitzer in his Quest of the Historical Jesus, the second in the mid-20th century with attempts to establish Jesus’ teachings, and the third, now, with a specific focus on Jesus’ connections with Judaism.

Ed’s final major book was the one that he considered to be his most important one:  Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE – 66 CE.  In this book Ed brackets any interest in Christianity per se, and explains what Judaism was really like at the time, between the conquest of Israel by the Romans and the first Jewish uprising against them.  This was the time of Jesus and the birth of Christianity, but Ed doesn’t delve into that so much as on Judaism itself at the time – what the basic beliefs were, how groups disagreed with one another, who the Pharisees actually were, and the Sadducees, and … and lots and lots more.  If you want a scholarly description of Judaism at the time, that takes account of all the important primary sources, this is the place to go.

Well, I have been too brief on all this.  Mainly I want to put up a tribute to Ed (E. P.) Sanders.  There are not many truly great scholars of the New Testament; very few I’d say.  Most in our day who are very impressive are significant in their contributions in one area or another, sometimes a very small area.  Ed was massively learned in lots of areas, and his erudition paid rich dividends in helping us all to understand the New Testament, the historical Jesus, the writings of Paul, and the formation of Judaism in new and far more helpful ways.

Ed had a very good sense of humor though most people didn’t know it.  In one of his books (Paul and Palestinian Judaism;  Jesus and Judaism – I don’t remember which) he included (as scholars do!) a full index of topics he had covered in the course of his discussion.  Among them was the topic “Ultimate Truth.”  When you turned to the pages referenced, they were the blank ones between chapters.  (!)

Over $2 Million Donated to Charity!

We have two goals at Ehrman Blog. One is to increase your knowledge of the New Testament and early Christianity. The other is to raise money for charity! In fact, in 2022, we raised over $360,000 for the charities below.

Become a Member Today!


2022-12-05T15:08:10-05:00December 14th, 2022|Public Forum|

Share Bart’s Post on These Platforms


  1. Judith December 14, 2022 at 7:26 am

    You did him proud with this tribute, Professor Ehrman.

  2. giselebendor December 14, 2022 at 7:27 am

    Most interesting!

    I can’t understand the Christian view of salvation as “they ” believe Jews understood or understand it.

    Christianity has a sinners’ and unbelievers’ Hell;salvation is faith in the Resurrection.

    Jews don’t really believe in Hell.
    Jews (Orthodox view) are to fulfil Torah teachings and Law or else be punished in “this” world.

    Example: after the Holocaust,the Orthodox’s (horrific)view was that Israel had been punished for being liberal,not fulfilling Torah.(Jews by and large are secular).They said so even as they knew well that the Orthodox were slaughtered just like the unbelievers.

    Torah would not have saved them and it never did.

    Jews always hoped for “redemption” from foreign oppression and from Jew-Hatred.
    This redemption would come through a Messiah like Cyrus (Isaiah 41:1) or a king like David.
    The rebirth of Israel,ingathering of the Diasporas,a still hoped for world peace, etc,are seen as the start of the Messianic Era.

    The word for salvation as in Mathew 21.9, “Hoshea Na”, “save us”,meant salvation from the Romans.

    In short,there is no salvation for Jews in Torah fulfilment.Jews don’t believe they are “saved” by Torah fulfilment.

    What did Jewish”salvation” meant for Paul,then,according to Sanders? Salvation from what?Faith in Christ would not bring salvation in this life.Or did Paul assume Hell?

    • BDEhrman December 16, 2022 at 10:12 am

      There were, of course, Jews who did believe in punishment after death (e.g., in the book of 1 Enoch). But for Paul “salvation” meant being delivered from teh massive destruction that was coming on the world at the end of the age, which he believed was very soon. Apocalyptic Jews at the time (including Jesus and Paul — but also the Essenes, the Pharisees, and, from what we can tell, a majority of Jews in Israel at the time, apart from Sadducees) believed that there God was soon to bring this evil age to an end, and when he did there would be a judgment — not only of the living but also of the dead. There was to be a bodily resurrection of all the dead, to face judgment. Those who disobeyed God would be ruthlessly destroyed for all time; those who sided iwth God would be “saved” and brought into an eternal kingdom. THis widespread view ended up being opposed somewhat after the first Jewish War (e.g., by Josephus) and fairly strongly rejected after the Bar Kochba revolt by the prominent rabbis — so it is not representedin the rabbinic tradition that came to form the basis of Judaism thorugh the middle ages down till today.

  3. rezubler December 14, 2022 at 8:41 am

    I have read Jesus and Judaism and found it to be greatly insightful and not a difficult read. I plan on getting another one of Sander’s books, probably his final work.

  4. giselebendor December 14, 2022 at 9:09 am

    Sorry, typo in Cyrus quote
    Isaiah 45:1

  5. seahawk41 December 14, 2022 at 9:54 am

    I just read this, and apart from being amazed at his scholarship, I got a great belly laugh from the part about Ultimate Truth!

  6. thelad2 December 14, 2022 at 12:53 pm

    Oh, no. Ed Sanders was a fine and generous scholar. Thank you for the heartfelt tribute.

  7. Lev December 14, 2022 at 3:23 pm

    I was gutted when I heard the news. I loved reading Jesus and Judaism, and I only knew about it as it was on one of your undergrad reading lists you shared. I subsequently used it in my Masters’ essays and dissertation, significantly impacting my proposals (especially Jesus and the temple).

    I’ve not read Sanderson’s work ‘Paul and Palestinian Judaism’ but from what I can make out, my interpretation is that Sanderson is saying that there is a shared pattern or formulation between the Jewish and Christian experience of salvation:

    Get into the covenant: Being born Jewish and males circumcised.
    Staying in the covenant: Obeying the Mosiac law.

    Get into the covenant: Accepting Christ as Lord effective through his faithfulness/faith of the believer.
    Staying in the covenant: Obeying the spiritual law (ethical laws inspired by the Holy Spirit).

    Thanks for posting such a wonderful tribute to the great man. Really good post.

  8. rburos December 14, 2022 at 3:50 pm

    I had just gifted a copy of The Historical Figure of Jesus to a neighbor; it’s so sad to hear of this loss to the community. We do still have, however, your own abilities to communicate the complexities of this field to the general audience, and for that I am grateful.

  9. Moshe December 14, 2022 at 9:58 pm

    I have all three of the books you mention and consider them among the most enlightening and important in my collection devoted to late Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity. Sanders truly was a giant in your field. Everyone who cares about these topics owes him a great debt.

  10. R_Gerl December 14, 2022 at 10:09 pm

    It’s always sad to hear when a great scholar passes away. I agree with the conclusion that Jesus really did turn over the tables of the money changers. Could it be that he did this because he blamed the temple system for the poverty that was rampant throughout the Galilee? Galileans were spending their hard-earned cash in Jerusalem for sacrificial offerings that may ultimately have gone to Herod’s big construction projects. That would have been a major contributor to the poverty in Galilee. Might that be the reason John the Baptist offered his baptism as an alternative to temple sacrifice? To keep Galilean wealth in Galilee? If so, then that would be one reason, perhaps the major reason, for John the Baptist’s and Jesus activism. They were trying to eliminate poverty in the Galilee and if John’s baptism does for you what the sacrificial stuff in Moses law does then there’s no need for Galileans to make the trek to Jerusalem and spend their hard-earned money there. Perhaps that’s what Jesus really meant when he accused the temple system of being a den of thieves.

  11. jujocruz December 14, 2022 at 10:17 pm

    Excellent tribute. I learned much just from reading your tribute, Bart. I have read some of EP Sanders’ work over the years. He will be missed.

  12. Hon Wai Lai December 15, 2022 at 12:36 am

    The blank pages referenced by the index topic “Ultimate Truth” could mean Sanders is a closet postmodernist, or at least a relativist.

    • BDEhrman December 16, 2022 at 10:26 am

      He would be amused to hear himself described as a postmodernist!

  13. fragmentp52 December 15, 2022 at 1:24 am

    Hi Bart. That’s a nice tribute. Your fondness and respect for Sanders is quite evident. I’ve not heard of him before, but on your (indirect) recommendation I just bought a used copy of “Judaism: Practice and Belief: 63 BCE – 66 CE.”

    No matter how many times I read that whole justification by faith thingy, I just can’t feel it. I find it a bizarre theology. When somebody tells me they have accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour, I don’t even know what that means. I certainly understand the words literally and syntactically, and I imagine there are many Christians who say it all the time, and they probably don’t know what it means either.

  14. AngeloB December 15, 2022 at 2:45 am

    Rest in Peace

  15. RogerWright December 15, 2022 at 8:20 am

    Thanks for this. Are his books, and particularly Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE – 66 CE, written in a style that is accessible to those of us who aren’t scholars?

    • BDEhrman December 16, 2022 at 10:32 am

      Yes, I think they are accessible to non-experts.

  16. Michael.Smith5 December 15, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    I could not find a blog directly related. This memorial reminds me of the general idea I am asking about – methods of scholarship. I am reading “How Jesus Became God”. At pages 108 and 109, you site words of Jesus as either “. . . very close …” to Jesus’ words (Matthew 25:45) or words Jesus is “. . . likely to have said . . .” (Matthew 19:28, Luke 22:30). I am looking now at “The Five Gospels:What Did Jesus Really Say?”. The Jesus Seminar colors all of these sayings of Jesus in black, meaning that the words were “definitely not” or “not likely to have been” actually spoken by Jesus. If I am reading/interpreting correctly, you do not find the work of the Jesus seminar reliable with regard to the actual words of Jesus. There is such a big gap between your and their evaluations. Could you spend a few words saying why that is?

    • BDEhrman December 16, 2022 at 10:46 am

      It is largely based on what criteria are appropriate to apply to ancient materials to decide if they aree historical, and to the overall view of Jesus that emerges. I lay out both at length in my book Jesus Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Short story: the Seminar rejects the idea that Jesus was an apocalyptic Jew, and I think he absolutely was — so in my view they get the matter precisely wrong.

  17. AngeloB December 16, 2022 at 3:58 pm

    I’m currently reading ‘The Historical Figure of Jesus’.

  18. AngeloB December 16, 2022 at 4:19 pm

    I will definitely read more of Sanders’ books. Online or at my State Library.

  19. ander111 December 19, 2022 at 5:09 pm

    Thank you for the introduction to E.P. Sanders. Your respectful acknowledgment to his academic passion was thoughtful. I will definitely try to further educate myself by engaging in his works.

  20. Black Birdy December 24, 2022 at 10:04 am

    Hi Bart —

    Really enjoy your books and talks. I’m a new blog member and former “all the way” fundie who never learned this info about Jesus — and now can’t get enough. I finally feel as though I’m starting to understand the real Jesus — what little we can know — without being forced by “faith” to believe, 25 years after leaving the church.

    I have several of your books and recently purchased Jesus and Judaism and The Quest. Do you have a curated book list somewhere in the blogs? I’ve searched through the forum but would love to read your Top 10 or 20 books related to the historical Jesus, etc.

    Thank you!

    • BDEhrman December 26, 2022 at 8:11 am

      Ah, I give a list at the end of my older book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium; but maybe I should post a newer one.

  21. Black Birdy December 26, 2022 at 4:06 pm

    That would be great!

  22. BenZoma January 9, 2023 at 4:28 am

    I haven’t logged on for awhile so only now saw this tribute to Ed Sanders. For me it brought back memories. I did my graduate work in Bible in the 1980s at McMaster University. I recall many conversations with Ed. Not only a brilliant scholar, he was a fantastic teacher, always finding time to speak with students. He was always engaging and always helpful. And as the entry of “Truth, ultimate” in the subject index of *Paul and Palestinian Judaism* intimates, he had a wry sense of humour. It was dry too, and sometimes people weren’t sure about it. But when he used it he often had a slight smirk, which gave it away. A fine scholar and a lovely teacher. Also something of a gardener. He kept a rose garden on the McMaster campus just in front of University Hall.

    • BDEhrman January 12, 2023 at 7:16 am

      Thanks so much. Yes, when he retired he was very passionate about having more time for his roses….

  23. Pcrtje April 20, 2023 at 10:35 am

    Dear Bart,

    “This basic view [proposed by EP Sanders] is sometimes labeled “the new perspective on Paul” and it came to dominate the field.”
    – Q1: Do you mean “dominate” in the sense of: or ?
    – Q2: Has this new perspective on Paul become the consensus view among most biblical scholars?

    • BDEhrman April 23, 2023 at 3:13 pm

      I mean it became the dominant view, so yes, it is the view generally held today, roughly speaking.

  24. Pcrtje November 2, 2023 at 8:21 am

    Dear Bart, I searched the blog for any posts on the new perspective on Paul, but apart from the tribute post to EP Sanders, I cannot find any. Could this topic get on your list of subjects to write about? I read that there’re different variations and since it can be quite difficult to understand, I’d love if you could devote a few posts to it.

    • BDEhrman November 4, 2023 at 6:13 pm

      Good idea. The basic idea is that when Paul talks about “justificatoin by faith apart from works of the law” he is not arguing that a person does not need to do good deeds to be saved (as interpreted by Luther and most NT scholars until about 50 years ago); he is arguing that person does not need to become Jewish. It’s talking about “works of the JEWISH LAW.”

Leave A Comment