The Science of Jesus?
A book review of The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders
If I look down on a culture because it is from another place, that is regarded as prejudice. But if I look down on a culture because it is from another time, that is regarded as progress. Given this tendency, Sanders has written a refreshingly grounded historical study of Jesus of Nazareth.
On one hand, Sanders is grounded in our current modern culture. He quotes Cicero, “For nothing can happen without cause; nothing happens that cannot happen, and when what was capable of happening has happened, it may not be interpreted as a miracle” and goes on to say, “The view espoused by Cicero has become dominant in the modern world, and I fully share it.” (Cicero’s quote is from De Divinatione 2.28, and this passage is in Sanders p143.) Sanders outlines a number of possible modern ways of understanding things such as miracles, and thus raises the question of how to understand the ancient figure of Jesus from the perspective of our culture.
But on the other hand, Sanders insists on understanding Jesus in his historical context first, arguing that, “Jesus’ miracles are to be studied in the light of other miracles of his day”. (p133) In this Sanders seeks to correct the view that he sees as dominant amongst both Christians and others. “A lot of Christians, and possibly even more non-Christians, think that central to Christianity is the view that Jesus could perform miracles because he was more than a mere human being.” (p134)
In contrast, Sanders argues that, “The idea that he was not a real human being arose in the second century, and it continued for some time, but it was eventually condemned as heresy. (p134) He goes on to explain, “The church fathers believed that it was detrimental to deny that Jesus was human, and so they affirmed it; it was detrimental to deny that he was divine, and so they affirmed that too. Study of why they regarded both denials to be wrong is quite interesting, though…well beyond the scope of this book…denial of Jesus’ true and full humanity would have resulted in a downgrading of the value of the physical world, and fortunately the orthodox Christians clung to the view of Genesis: God declared that the creation is good. ” (p134)
Sanders does a solid job of building a bridge from our modern culture to that of first century Palestine. This is necessary since “…the strictly historical questions become intertwined with what people today think and believe” (p 133). So this includes considering various possible modern explanations for what ancient people describe as miracles. However, there are two striking things that it appropriately does not include.
It does not include changing history to fit a preconceived narrative, whether Christian or Atheist. So for example Sanders states, “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.” (p280)
And it does not include raising philosophical questions, such as, what grounds do I have for valuing my cultural assumptions over those of Jesus?
If you would like to think more about the historical reality of Jesus, you could read the book. Or if you are studying at Murdoch University, you could enrol in Rel 204: Introduction to the Bible. Or we would love to share with you how we connect the story of Jesus with the modern world and everyday life.