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. (!)
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