Book Review: Jesus and Judaism by EP Sanders

E.P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism attempts to analytically comprehend Jesus’ intentionality in pre-70 AD Palestine. By understanding Jesus’ relationship with Judaism during his lifetime, Sanders paints a portrait of Jesus clearly within Judaism, not against it. Sanders effectively constructs this Jewish Jesus by developing a structural understanding of the events leading to Jesus’ death, and how Christianity developed from the death and resurrection.
Sanders divides his book into three sections: the restoration of Israel, the kingdom, and conflict and death. Each section builds off of its predecessor and continually builds a more complete understanding of Jesus. It is evident from the very beginning of the book that Sanders believes that a focus on the actions of Jesus will provide a greater synthesis rather than the sayings of Jesus (Senior, 571).

Sanders first priority in the book is to understand Jesus’ intentionality. He believes that and understanding should “situate Jesus believably in Judaism yet explain why the movement initiated by him eventually broke with Judaism.” (Sanders, 18) There is unanimous consent that Jesus died as a Jew, but the role that he played amongst his contemporaries plays as the major theme of Sanders’ book. Along with his lateral-Palestinian relationships Sanders questions whether or not the resurrection is the sole explanation for the emergence of the Christian movement, or if there is more than an accidental connection between Jesus’ own work and the beginnings of Christianity. Sanders specifically references Henry Cadbury’s The Peril of Modernizing Jesus in that scholars today are apt to delineate a person’s aim by evaluating their recorded words and actions. Cadbury, in his work, argued that it is too easy to arrive at a man’s purpose by seeing what he accomplished. Cadbury uses the argument that where there is smoke there is fire but the ratio of smoke and fire varies enormously, and the smoke is often misleading as to the exact location of the fire (Sanders, 20). Sanders uses Cadbury’s work to help redefine his own question: can one infer Jesus’ intention from the actions of his followers after his death?

In his first section, the restoration of Israel, Sanders begins to appropriate Jesus most important action from the Gospels: the temple action. Sanders claims that modern scholarship assumes that Jesus’ temple action arrived because of the abuses within the temple: the changing of money, and the purchasing of sacrifices. Sanders notes that those who believe that Jesus was attempting to restore the Temple to its original state neglect the fact that the purpose of the temple was to serve as a place for sacrifice, and that sacrifices require the supply of worthy sacrificial animals (Sanders, 63). During the time of Jesus’ life, thousands upon thousands of people would come annually to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to God because the Temple was the only place where sacrifices could be offered. Because so many Jews had to travel great distances to reach Jerusalem, they ran the risk of destroying the purity of their to-be sacrificial animals; therefore animals were made available for purchase at the Temple. Money changing had to take place because the pilgrims came from so many places and needed to exchange their money into a common coinage that was accepted by the Temple. Sanders brings these misconceptions into the front light to help better understand Jesus’ intentionality in the “turning of the tables.”

The Temple was only doing what it had been doing for hundreds of years, and Sanders belies it quite unlikely that Jesus’ action was a response to these practices. Sanders posits that Jesus’ temple action was a symbolic demonstration. As a practicing Jew, Jesus no doubt understood the divine commandments from God through Moses regarding sacrifice in the Temple. As the Son of God, Jesus would not go against the practices dictated by His Father. If Jesus had intended to purify the temple he no doubt would have used water (Sanders, 70) instead he overturned tables, representing destruction. In the second chapter of the Gospel of John after Jesus overturned the tables and was questions by the Jews about his actions He answered them saying: “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus’ destruction was to lead toward restoration (Sanders, 71).

From his comprehensive understanding of the Temple incident Sanders concludes that Jesus publicly threatened the destruction of the Temple. With His declaration Jesus can be seen to have believed in the arrival of the eschaton, which would bring a new Temple to be given from God in heaven. Jesus’ incident prophetically symbolized the coming kingdom.

Sanders uses the text from Ezekiel 34 and 37 to cite the prophetic declaration of the restoration of Israel, under the leadership of the Davidic line, with the land divided among the twelve tribes. With Jesus’ declaration of rebuilding the temple He directly parallels the restoration of Israel. Jesus from the Davidic genealogical line, and He choose 12 disciples, directly reflected by the 12 tribes. It would thus follow that the followers of Jesus (post-resurrection) would be Jewish. Sanders discounts this logic with a precise understanding of Paul’s actions described in Romans 11.
Paul was fully engaged in the Gentile mission. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, Israel was not established and victorious. Thus Paul believed that the result of the Gentile mission would be to invoke envy in the Jews to accept Jesus as Messiah (Romans 11.14). When the Jews accepted Jesus, Israel would thus be saved. This reading into Paul’s epistle leads Sanders to conclude that:

“A teacher and healer who is executed and believed by his followers to have been raised does not simply, on the basis of those facts, account for the rise of a movement which in a very short period of time starts the activity which characterizes the last act of an eschatological drama, the introduction of the Gentiles […] Peter and the others (Paul), then, must already have been led to see Jesus’ ministry as a key event in the fulfillment of the prophecies.” (Sanders, 95)

The second major portion of Sander’s book is devoted to the Kingdom. The disciples, after seeing the death and resurrection, becoming apostles, acted as the leaders of a Jewish eschatological movement (Sanders, 129). Rather than adopting an understanding that the kingdom was to come, or that it had already been instituted, Sanders defends a harmonization of both understandings. He comes to this belief by analyzing the Pauline epistles in that Paul wrote that Christians were currently justified and that they were a new creation (Romans 5.1 and II Corinthians 5.17) but that salvation was to come in the future (Romans 5.9). Ultimately Sanders claims that though some things about the kingdom had been fulfilled with Jesus death and resurrection, the kingdom itself must be understood to be coming in the immediate future. Because Jesus called his twelve to symbolize the restoration of Israel (i.e. the coming of the kingdom), the expectations of Jewish restoration theology are visibly present in Jesus’ actions.

In his third and final section of the book, Sanders investigates the conflict leading to the death of Jesus. Sanders uses a concise understanding of Jewish law to show that Jesus did not think that it could be freely transgressed, but rather that it was not final. Just as Jesus said in Matthew 5.17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Sanders discounts Jesus’ interpretation of the law as being the reason for His crucifixion, he instead attributes His death as a result of the temple actions. Because the temple was ordained by God, any threat against it would have been deeply offensive, enough to the point of condemning someone to death (Sanders, 271). Jesus offended his greatest opponents, the Pharisees, by offering grace and forgiveness to sinners, whereas the Pharisees relied on their own self-righteousness and merit. Although he often contended with the Pharisees, the priests of the Temple were the go-betweens with Roman authorities in disputed manners. All of Jesus’ previous actions came to a head at the time of Passover in Jerusalem when the Temple incident took place; the priests could not overlook His actions. Therefore, Sanders’ claims, it is easy to understand while Jesus was crucified. Jesus’ followers, after witnessing his death and resurrection, carried through the logic of Jesus’ own position in a transformed situation (Sanders, 340). They synthesized a movement that would grow and continue to change in ways unforeseeable in Jesus’ own time.

Sanders’ greatest strength is his methodology. His writing is reminiscent of Thomas Aquinas in that he carefully presents hypothesis and then systematically defends his ideas against opposing viewpoints. The book enables its reader to gradually comprehend ancient Palestine in the time of Jesus death, and the motivations behind the actions of the New Testament. It is clear that the book poses as a major tool not only to the world of academia, but to practicing Christian ministers and/or educators. The encompassing nature of the book provides a complete contextual background to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

The book is weakened by its lack of theological interest. Sanders’ dedicates so much of the book to the historicity of Jesus’ life that he neglects to analytically investigate the theological implications of Jesus’ actions. He places so much emphasis on the Temple incident as being the decisive moment in Jesus’ life, yet he neglects the fact that the incident was recorded some years after Jesus’ death. It appears almost ironic that he would spend so much time methodologically investigating so many aspects of ancient Palestine, but he doesn’t address the reliability of the Gospels regarding the Temple incident, he takes it as it is. On the whole Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism is an absolutely astonishing piece of academic literature, one that would do well to be read by more in the religious community and academia.