Book Review: The Historical Figure of Jesus

The Historical Figure of Jesus

E.P. Sanders

Allen Lane1993

I first became interested in the “quest for the historical Jesus” in college, when I studied early Christianity and read Albert Schweitzer’s famous book of the same name. Coming from a religious background, I was fascinated then (as I am now) with the distinction between Jesus as he appears in the gospels and Jesus as he really existed in history. The gospels present their text as documentary evidence, even though they were written a generation later based on fragments of oral tradition, and I think most people still think of the basic life and teachings of Jesus as a first-hand report.

But start to pull at any of the conspicuous threads—for one, the gospel accounts do not all agree on what happened or what was said—and suddenly you are knee-deep in literary criticism, theology, psychology, history, and a host of other disciplines that complicate the picture (often in very fruitful ways). E.P. Sanders, a legend in the field, is an excellent guide through the latter discipline, keeping the frame strictly limited to what the historian can know given the limited source material (basically, the gospels and Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian).

From this vantage, Sanders maintains, there is quite a lot we do know about Jesus in a general sense, despite the qualifications that have to be attached to most of the details. What makes this case particularly difficult is that, as Sanders remarks, not only were the gospel writers theologians, casting Jesus’ life and words into a larger narrative about salvation history, but Jesus himself was a theologian, most likely interpreting many of the Hebrew scriptures in ways that placed himself within that narrative. In the principal sources, we are never dealing with straight fact, but with layers upon layers of interpretation and meaning, compounded by distance and time from the actual events. In other words, a dream for the Derridean deconstructionist, but more of a headache for the historian.

The clearest picture that emerges of the historical Jesus is that of a thoroughly Jewish eschatological prophet, of a quite well-known type, who expected God’s immediate and visible transformation of the world—albeit in an ambiguous way. The fact that Jesus was essentially wrong and that his expectations were cut short prematurely makes the gap between his failure and the early community of his followers all the more interesting.