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Historical Jesus Theories: E. P. Sanders

The purpose of this web page is to explain and explore some of the theories offered up by contemporary scholars on the historical Jesus and the origins of the Christian religion. Issues include the nature of the historical Jesus, the nature of the early Christian documents, and the origins of the Christian faith in a risen Jesus Christ.

E. P. Sanders

E. P. Sanders provides this list of things we know about Jesus (Jesus and Judaism, pp. 326-327):

The Historical Figure of Jesus:  Buy at! I. Certain or virtually certain:
1. Jesus shared the world-view that I have called 'Jewish restoration eschatology'. The key facts are his start under John the Baptist, the call of the twelve, his expectation of a new (or at least renewed) temple, and the eschatological setting of the work of the apostles (Gal. 1.2; Rom. 11.11-13, 25-32; 15.15-19).
2. He preached the kingdom of God.
3. He promised the kingdom to the wicked.
4. He did not explicitly oppose the law, particularly not laws relating to Sabbath and food.
5. Neither he nor his disciples thought that the kingdom would be established by force of arms. They looked for an eschatological miracle.
II. Highly probable:
1. The kingdom which he expected would have some analogies with this world: leaders, the twelve tribes, a functioning temple.
2. Jesus' disciples thought of him as 'king', and he accepted the role, either implicitly or explicitly.
III. Probable:
1. He thought that the wicked who accepted his message would share in the kingdom even though they did not do the things customary in Judaism for the atonement of sin.
2. He did not emphasize the national character of the kingdom, including judgment by groups and a call for mass repentance, because that had been the task of John the Baptist, whose work he accepted.
3. Jesus spoke about the kingdom in different contexts, and he did not always use the word with precisely the same meaning.
IV. Possible:
1. He may have spoken about the kingdom in the visionary manner of the 'little apocalypse' (Mark 13 and parr.), or as a present reality into which individuals enter one by one - or both.
V. Conceivable:
1. He may have thought that the kingdom, in all its power and might, was present in his words and deeds.
2. He may have given his own death martyrological significance.
3. He may have identified himself with a cosmic Son of man and conceived his attaining kingship in that way.
VI. Incredible:
1. He was one of the rare Jews in his day who believed in love, mercy, grace, repentance and the forgiveness of sin.
2. Jews in general, and Pharisees in particular, would kill people who believed in such things.
3. As a result of his work, Jewish confidence in election was 'shaken to pieces', Judaism was 'shaken to its foundations', and Judaism as a religion was destroyed.

Sanders writes of the 'connecting link' (op. cit., p. 334):

We went in search of a thread which connects Jesus' own intention, his death and the rise of the movement. We found first a general context which embraces both Jesus and the movement which succeeded him: hope for the restoration of Israel. Second, we found a specific chain of conceptions and events which allows us to understand historically how things came about. Jesus claimed that the end was at hand, that God was about to establish his kingdom, that those who responded to him would be included, and (at least by implication) that he would reign. In pointing to the change of eras, he made a symbolic gesture by overturning tables in the temple area. This is the crucial act which led to his execution, though there were contributing causes. His disciples, after the death and resurrection, continued to expect the restoration of Israel and the inauguration of the new age, and they continued to see Jesus as occupying first place in the kingdom. Also, as we saw in ch. 8, they continued to look for an otherworldly kingdom which would be established by an eschatological miracle, although its locale may have shifted from this world to the heavenly one. The person of Jesus himself was also progressively interpreted: he was no longer seen just as 'Messiah' or 'Viceroy', but as Lord. Some who were attracted to the movement began to win Gentiles to it. The work of the early apostles, which is so well reflected in Paul's letters, fits entirely into known expectations about the restoration of Israel.

Sanders believes that this reconstruction is the one that gives the most natural explanation of the life of Jesus and of the birth of Christianity.

Please enjoy exploring the varied Historical Jesus Theories offered by these authors through the links below.

Jesus the Myth: Heavenly Christ

Jesus the Myth: Man of the Indefinite Past

Jesus the Hellenistic Hero

Jesus the Revolutionary

Jesus the Wisdom Sage

Jesus the Man of the Spirit

Jesus the Prophet of Social Change

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

Jesus the Savior

For more information on the debate over the historical Jesus, visit the Christian Origins web site.

Go to the Chronological List of all Early Christian Writings

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Early Christian Writings is copyright © Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.

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Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.