(RNS) — The influential New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders, who devoted his career to promoting more accurate and, for Christian scholars, more sympathetic understandings of early Judaism, died on November 21 at age 85 in Durham, North Carolina.
From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Sanders turned out a series of massive tomes, including “Paul and Palestinian Judaism,” “Jesus and Judaism” and “Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE–66 A.D.,” exploring the relationship between early Judaism and early Christianity. In his work and personally he forcefully called on fellow scholars to reject caricatures of Judaism and to immerse themselves more deeply in ancient Jewish sources.
Sanders came from what he described as modest beginnings, being born in 1937 into a family “at the lower end of the economic spectrum” in the small Texas town of Grand Prairie, he wrote in an autobiographical essay in 2003. After graduating from Texas Wesleyan University in 1959, he went on to Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. “My life basically changed,” he recounted, “when William R. Farmer, the senior New Testament scholar at Perkins, decided that I should have a year of study abroad” to study Hebrew.
His sojourn in Israel was made possible by contributions from both a Methodist church and Dallas’ Temple Emanu-el. “I felt overwhelmed by their generosity, and I especially vowed that the gift from Temple Emanu-el would not be in vain,” he later remembered.
Sanders made good on his promise. While working on a doctorate at Union Theological Seminary in New York with W. D. Davies, a New Testament scholar well-versed with Jewish sources, Sanders made a point of taking classes at nearby Jewish Theological Seminary.
In 1966, his Ph.D. in hand, he took an academic post at McMaster University before moving to Oxford University and then Duke University, where he was Arts and Sciences Professor of Religion until his retirement in 2005.
Of his 10 books, “Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion,” which appeared in 1977, proved to be the most influential. Earlier New Testament scholars had argued that Jews believed that people earned their salvation by piling up good deeds or works of the Jewish law, resulting in what Sanders referred to as “smug self-righteousness” or profound anxiety about their status before God. Judaism, in their view, was a dour religion slavishly devoted to legal minutiae.
Sanders’ own poring over Jewish sources, especially rabbinic texts, convinced him that such scholars had failed to examine them firsthand, drastically misinterpreted them or else willfully misrepresented them. He argued instead that ancient Jews understood Torah observance to be part of the Jews’ covenant relationship with a loving, merciful God. He was impressed by the “humanity and tolerance” of the rabbis, along with their “academic love of precision,” he wrote.
Sanders determined to offer a more accurate and fair-minded portrayal of the religion and “to destroy the (negative) view of Rabbinic Judaism which is still prevalent in much, perhaps most, New Testament scholarship.”
In his reconstruction, the apostle Paul broke with Judaism not because he had long considered it irredeemably legalistic but because, as Paul wrote in his Letter to the Galatians, he had concluded that Christ would not have needed to die to save humankind if salvation were possible through Torah observance. Paul’s reckoning explains his negative comments about Jewish law, which in turn led Christians to negative views of Judaism.
Sanders was not the first New Testament scholar to expose distortions of Judaism, but the sheer force and exhaustiveness of his argument proved particularly effective in drawing attention to the problem. Perhaps the highest praise for “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” came from Jewish New Testament scholar Samuel Sandmel:
I had written elsewhere that it was my hope to be able to write about Christianity in the way in which I would want Christians to write about Judaism. I would cite Sanders as a Christian who has accomplished from that side what I hope I can accomplish from the Jewish side.
The book remains a significant milestone in New Testament studies.
Sanders’ arguments frequently came to be grouped with those of James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright as the so-called “New Perspective on Paul,” but Sanders rejected the label. Dunn and Wright agreed with Sanders that early Judaism had not been a religion of petty legalism, but both held that it suffered other serious shortcomings. Sanders felt such reasoning was still too closely linked to the negative views of earlier scholarship.
Sanders’ work on the historical Jesus also proved to be groundbreaking. In 1985’s “Jesus and Judaism,” he rejected traditional arguments that erroneously claimed a “stark contrast between Jesus, who represents everything good, pure and enlightened, and Judaism, which represents everything distorted, hypocritical and misleading.” Instead, Sanders placed Jesus within the context of the Judaism of his day, portraying him as an apocalyptic prophet who heralded the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God.
Sanders also took care to address the non-academic reader. In 1993, “The Historical Figure of Jesus” provided a readable reconstruction of Jesus’ actions, teachings and context. In “Paul: A Very Short Introduction,” published in 2001, he offered an accessible introduction to Paul’s life and thought. Both are excellent starting places for understanding Sanders’ contributions.
A Methodist in his early life, Sanders later became a “liberal, modern, secularized Protestant,” as he described himself in “Jesus and Judaism.” His obituary notes that he was “deeply honored” when the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations presented him with the 2016 Shevet Achim Award for his “outstanding contributions to Jewish-Christian understanding.”
Certainly, many New Testament scholars past and present have disagreed with aspects of Sanders’ arguments. Few, however, would question the impact of his demand that representations of Jews and Judaism be fair and accurate and not grounded in negative stereotypes. Especially at a time when antisemitism in America and elsewhere is on the rise, his presence will be sorely missed.
(Mark A. Chancey, who studied with Sanders at Duke University, is a professor of religious studies in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)