Remembering E.P. Sanders
A couple of weeks ago the New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders passed away (1937-2022). Sanders was a monumental figure in New Testament studies and arguably even more influential in his scholarship than someone like Rudolf Bultmann.
Sanders was known principally for his work on the apostle Paul, the historical Jesus, and early Judaism.
Some of his major claims were:
Palestinian Judaism was not a religion of legalism or works-righteousness, but had its own conception of grace through a framework he called “covenantal nomism.”
The historical Jesus was a prophet of Jewish restoration eschatology.
The apostle Paul did not convert to Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism, but was a Jewish apostle to Gentiles, who was convinced that God accepted Gentiles on the basis of faith without performing the “works of the law.”
We can legitimately speak of a “common Judaism” understood as a set of common beliefs and customs shared by most Jews in the first century.
Sanders’ last major book was published in 2015 and was entitled Paul: The Apostles’ Life, Letters, and Thought. See my review here.
I have to share my favourite quote from E.P. Sanders about how Paul recalled much of the Old Testament from memory:
It appears to me that New Testament scholars often think of Paul as having a considerable library, containing the 20 plus scrolls required to hold the Bible, as well as possessing a large study with several tables where the scrolls could be rolled out and compared. This is a view of Paul as the prototype of a modern professor. Reality was quite different. During many of his years, he spent weeks or even months on the road. Did he have enough money to own the Biblical scrolls? Did he have enough ass’s to carry a large library through the Gates of Cilicia and across the Anatolian plateau? And when he was ready to set up a table for leatherwork, to produce tents, did he manage to rent a huge studio or a hole-in-the-wall? His financial difficulties argue against such views and in favor of his carrying the Bible where it should be carried, in his brain.”
E.P. Sanders, “Paul’s Jewishness,” in Paul’s Jewish Matrix, 58.
I guarantee that anything you read on the historical Jesus or the apostle Paul these days has been influenced by Sanders in some way. He set the agenda for so much of the study of the New Testament. His books will continue to be read for some decades to come!