We have all heard the stories of Jesus of Nazareth , the carpenter born in Bethlehem , who found that he was the Son of God sent to save mankind from sin and death . The gospels and the letters of Paul expand upon that storyline with rich detail, much of it reflecting fulfilment of the prophecies of the ancient prophets of Israel. As Professor Ehrman has noted in his Misquoting Jesus the authors of the 4 canonical gospels lived and wrote a generation after Jesus, surviving copies of even fragments of their original gospels do not appear for a generation or two after that, after multiple copying by amateur and often creative if well intentioned copyists. We do not have the originals.
Noted American scholar of Jewish 1st century Palestine, E. P. Sanders , writes that even if we had the original gospels, we would still find them a generation removed from Jesus, a momentous generation that saw His death and resurrection – at least his disciples were utterly so convinced – the Gentilification of the Church and meteoric rapid rise in popularity among them, and the destruction of the Temple (just after the Gospel of Mark was written) and the failed Jewish revolt. Although the earliest gospel writers probably had access to some of Jesus’ followers, these followers’ own understanding of Jesus had been transformed irrevocably from the far off days they walked Galilee with their charismatic and enigmatic leader. It is likely that the disciples, for whom a momentous lifetime of purpose, loss, hope and hardship had since intervened, found it hard to remember just how life had been when they, but simple men, were ready to admit they understood not the words of their master even as he spoke them. < br /> The gospels paint a vivid picture of Jesus but is it historical ? It is certainly very powerful theologically and the themes the gospel writers penned have thundered down the ages to a readership that never ceases to be enchanted by them. But what was Jesus the man really like? What was his purpose? These are the questions Sanders treats in this book bringing to bear his extensive scholarship into 1st century Judaism.
Sanders first tries to help us see the world of the Jews of 1st century Palestine and to provide us with their history. He describes the basic historical sources: the Gospels, Josephus, Philo, Talmudic sources and other Jewish historians. He tells of other religious movements that were springing up and what happened to them. He then discusses Jesus’ life and tries to remove what historians have come to understand are retrograde Christian additions to the story of Jesus added to bring Jesus’ his life into agreement with Church doctrine to obtain a basic storyline. Jesus was from Nazareth, not Bethlehem. He was Jewish, charismatic and devout and he apparently began his religious activities joining the movement of John the Baptist. When John was arrested Jesus started his own movement. He taught, healed exorcized and worked miracles around the shores of the Sea of Galilee and occasionally a little further afield – none of this was unusual in the Jewish community of that time and place - and went to Jerusalem for Passover, perhaps about a year into his ministry. He did something that so upset the Roman and Jewish authorities that they arrested him and had him executed.
Sanders concludes that although Jesus did teach, heal and work miracles, these were not central to his purpose nor did he seek to reform Jewish society, but rather announced the coming Kingdom of God (as had John the Baptist who unlike Jesus sought repentance). Jesus told his disciples he and they had a paramount place in the Kingdom. Jesus’ belief in the coming Kingdom was literal and immediate. Sanders reminds us that he called even the sinful, saying if they but followed him they could be first in the Kingdom. This generated intense mixed feelings. (Sanders insists however that gospel references to conflict with the Pharisees are a reflection of much later conflicts between Christians and Pharisees after Jesus’s death. Jesus appears to have been observant of the law– just very tolerant of those less observant as long as they followed him.) Jesus was executed because in Jerusalem he suggested symbolically he was a Davidic King and because when he attacked the Temple merchants, he apparently prophesied that the Temple would be destroyed. Caiaphas and the priests were responsible to the Romans not to allow crowds of Jewish Passover celebrants to get overly wroth and they probably felt that Jesus was just charismatic enough to generate riots both for and against him bringing a brutal Roman crackdown (for which Caiaphas would be held responsible). Jesus’ actions at the last supper indicated he knew arrest was imminent but believed the Kingdom was at hand. He did not aggressively claim the titles Son of God and Messiah and though he did call himself the Son of Man , the meaning does not appear to have been the same as for later generations.
Sanders concludes saying that it was Jesus’ perceived resurrection that energized and revived his scattered followers and their movement. He suggests it was the Paul’s Gentile converts’ interpretations of that resurrection and other aspects of Jesus’s ministry, often in ways more comprehensible to their own religious traditions than contemporary Judaism, that completed the Christianity we finally clearly see in the Gospels.