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Review of The Historical Figure of Jesus


 Review: E. P. Sanders. 1996. The Historical Figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin. 352 pp.

Brief Outline of The Historical Figure of Jesus
Overall Impression of the Book
A Note on the Historical Jesus and Mythical Jesus
Examining Sanders’ Approach
Was Jesus Born c. 4 BCE?
Reconciling the Virgin Birth and Genealogies
Sanders’ Treatment on Old Testament Allusions in the New Testament
The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
The Temple Ruckus Incident


New Testament scholars involved in historical Jesus research typically crown the years spent on it by presenting their personal reconstruction of the historical Jesus. Because of the way in which the Gospels were written, this effort involves painstaking separation of fact from myth. Though they have assiduously attempted to prevent their confessional interests[1] from intruding upon their research, their religious beliefs have doggedly militated against their best efforts, forcing them to question the objectivity of their own scholarship.[2]

Since the 18th century, biblical scholars have tried to use historical rather than religious methods to reconstruct a biography of a historical Jesus free from mythological elements. Albert Schweitzer called this endeavor a quest for the historical Jesus. The first quest was started by Hermann Samuel Reimarus and included William Wrede and Schweitzer himself, among others, and continued up to the 19th century. A second quest started in the 19th century and recognized that the New Testament texts had been redacted over time and that the Gospels were written decades after the death of the putative Jesus. The third quest started in the mid-19th century and used archaeology and extrabiblical texts to attempt to uncover a historical Jesus.

One of the notable figures in the third quest, J. D. Crossan, lamented that “historical Jesus research is becoming something of a scholarly bad joke,”[3] while his compatriot J. P. Meier, who believes that Jesus performed miracles and was resurrected, openly admits in an interview that “it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history.”[4]

Lacking a reliable methodology and dogged by confessional interests, the result of their efforts has been a confusing profusion of divergent portraits of who the putative historical Jesus was,[5] a competitive affair that Peter Steinfel of the New York Times has named “the Jesus wars.”[6] It is in this backdrop that we review Professor Ed Parish Sanders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus (hereafter known as HFoJ). In HFoJ, Sanders presents the historical Jesus as a radical eschatological prophet,[7] a portrait that has increasingly gained acceptance among those that believe a historical Jesus existed, hence the need to scrutinize HFoJ.

Sanders retired in 2005 as Arts and Sciences Professor of Religion at Duke University, North Carolina, where he had been since 1990. He holds a Doctor of Theology degree from the University of Helsinki and a Theology degree from Union Seminary in New York City. His specialty is Judaism and Christianity, and he has authored or coedited over a dozen books and taught in several universities.

Because Sanders avoids technical jargon in HFoJ and provides substantial introductory material before getting down to New Testament exegesis, one can infer that it is intended for laymen. But as a final product marking the end of Sanders’ intellectual trajectory in historical Jesus studies, and bracketing his perspective in the quest for the historical Jesus, it is of great interest to those interested in the origins of Christianity.

Brief Outline of The Historical Figure of Jesus

Sanders starts by outlining Jesus’ life and its political setting under Roman administration and the competing religious parties of Judaea. He then examines Judaism and its effect on the sociopolitical setting of early Palestine. After that, he goes through a few extrabiblical sources that mention Jesus, and points out that Roman sources mentioning Jesus are dependent on Christian reports. He then explains problems with the primary sources (the Gospels), including the fact that they were written anonymously, that they contradict each other, and that they were redacted for theological interests. Then provides a discussion of the messianic hopes among the Jews, how miracles were viewed by the ancients, the coming Kingdom of God, and Jesus’ view of his role and his last week. The book ends with an appendix followed by notes, and an index of names and subjects.

Overall Impression of the Book

HFoJ is a useful resource, especially as an introduction to the view of Jesus as an eschatological prophet. The presentation of mainstream New Testament scholars’ understanding of how the Gospels were developed is informative from a form-critical point of view. Sanders’ description of the historical setting of ancient Palestine and the Roman mode of administration is also very edifying and easily digestible. On the whole, readers are acquainted with how to weigh the truth of New Testament claims, how to detect inventions by the authors, and how to separate theological redactions from preceding traditions.

If Sanders has a religious side, he doesn’t openly show it in the book and maintains a critical and objective tone throughout its 337 pages. At one point, though, a voice that seeks to assure Christian readers interrupts his scholarly tenor and declares that “there is good news”[8] because Christian scribes probably only rewrote Antiquities 18.63. This means that Josephus likely mentioned Jesus, which is good news for Christians seeking affirmation that a historical Jesus indeed existed.

Sanders wins over the critical reader by his open willingness to point out invented passages and by conceding his inability to extract historical information from certain passages–as opposed to contriving such information. However, after making such concessions he sometimes claws back what was conceded and proceeds with his reconstruction. In other instances, he gives up the search and says that it is impossible to reach a judgment about historicity when in fact it is apparent that the historicity of the events can be determined. We shall examine examples of these in this review. Considering the subtlety of this approach, it is no wonder that Sanders has won over many readers.

Sanders does not meaningfully engage other scholars and only fleetingly refutes the idea that Jesus was a reformer. By closing the door on other scholars’ works, he can indulge his chosen approach and pick and choose his sources without having to provide cogent explanations. Because of this, he writes as if there were no difficulties underlying some of his positions when difficulties exist that are not discernible to those unfamiliar with the field of New Testament scholarship.

One conceptual weakness is Sanders’ failure to question the existence of a historical Jesus. When he writes that he aims at “recovering the historical Jesus”[9] he treats Jesus’ historicity as an unstated premise, making no effort to establish that a historical Jesus indeed existed. If any scholar approached the documentary record with the aim of “recovering the historical Ebion,” they would likely be able to extract “a few basic facts about Ebion” paralleling Sanders’ “basic facts” about Jesus–yet it is quite probable that Ebion never existed.[10]

A Note on the Historical Jesus and Mythical Jesus

New Testament scholars generally respond to questions about the historicity of Jesus with derision. In recent years, however, some Biblical scholars have seriously questioned the existence of a historical Jesus. These include Robert Price in Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition? (2003) and Thomas L. Thompson in The Messiah Myth (2005). Though not a New Testament scholar, Earl Doherty developed the Jesus myth hypothesis in The Jesus Puzzle (2001), which proposes that Paul (the first person to write about Jesus) believed that Jesus was an intermediary savior figure who died in an upper realm, and that this mythical Christ[11] was only later historicized in the Gospels.

Though mainstream New Testament scholars dismiss the Jesus myth hypothesis as a fringe theory, they have never demonstrated it to be false or invalid.[12] This neither confirms the Jesus myth hypothesis nor implies that it is irrefutable, but it does indicate that it is worth examining. In recent years, the validity of the question “Did Jesus exist?” has received serious attention.[13] Richard Carrier has examined the subject from a historical perspective and notes that trust and doubt are in balance over all of the existing evidence regarding the historical Jesus. In his review of The Jesus Puzzle, Carrier concludes that compared to the orthodox position, the Jesus myth hypothesis has greater explanatory power and “is a better explanation of this evidence–even if not decisively better.”[14]

Sanders relies on the canonical Gospels for his reconstruction of the historical Jesus without explaining why Paul does not speak of an earthly Jesus in his several letters[15]. Germane questions include: Why does Paul state in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 that demons (arcontes) killed Jesus[16] and not that Pilate killed Jesus as narrated in the Gospels? Why does Philippians 2:8-11 say that a god humbled himself by taking the form of a man and dying and as a result was exalted by being named Jesus?[17] Why does Paul totally fail to mention historical markers like Pilate and Herod while speaking of Jesus? Why is the Pauline Christ devoid of earthly markers like Nazareth, Bethlehem and Galilee? Why is it that almost every unit in the first gospel can be traced back to the Old Testament? These are questions that the Jesus Myth Hypothesis can answer more meaningfully than the mainstream position.

Examining Sanders’ Approach

Sanders states that a historian is required to recognize the fact that the authors of the New Testament had theological convictions and must have redacted the Gospels to support their theology. In this backdrop, he suggests, a historian has a professional obligation to rigorously cross-examine the sources. The aim of the book, Sanders states, is to “lay out, as clearly as possible, what we can know [about Jesus], using the standard methods of historical research, and to distinguish this from inferences, labeling them clearly as such.”[18] As for a methodology for separating fact from fiction, Sanders points out that doing ancient history requires “common sense and a good feel for sources.”[19]

This review is basically an examination of how Sanders employs “common sense,” a “good feel for sources,” and standard methods of historical research to reconstruct the historical Jesus. We shall focus on how Sanders uses the Gospels to arrive at the year that Jesus was allegedly born, how Sanders determines that Jesus was a flesh-and blood man who had no divine pedigree, and how he handles abundant New Testament allusions and borrowings from the Old Testament. In examining the last point, we shall assess his treatment of the triumphal entry in Jerusalem and the temple ruckus incident. It is hoped that this will illuminate the reliability of his methods, the limits of his approach, and his objectivity as a scholar.

Was Jesus Born c. 4 BCE?

Sanders begins his reconstruction by laying out Jesus’ life as described in the Gospels and listing ten statements about Jesus’ life that he says are almost beyond dispute. Before we examine these statements, note that Sanders is appealing to the scholarly consensus on these points. This is important because “the scholarly consensus” and “evidence” are not equivalent. Moreover, an appeal to the consensus of New Testament scholars might be reasonably expected from someone who is not himself an expert in New Testament studies; but as an expert himself, Sanders is in a position to say exactly why New Testament scholars regard these propositions as almost indisputable. What is the evidence compelling this consensus? Throughout the entire 337 pages, Sanders does not say. The lay reader might be forgiven for suspecting that the consensus reflects the common presuppositions of (almost entirely Christian) New Testament scholars, rather than what the historical evidence implies.

The first statement in his list is that “Jesus was born c. 4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great.”[20] Is this statement almost beyond dispute? Actually, on the next page Sanders notes that “The year of Jesus’ birth is not entirely certain,” adding that “some scholars prefer 5, 6 or even 7 BCE” a little further down.[21] Of course, if scholars have such a range of preference in years, one wonders how the claim that “Jesus was born c. 4 BCE” can be almost beyond dispute. Sanders argues that “the decisive fact is that Matthew dates Jesus’ birth at about the time Herod the Great died.”[22] But how does Sanders pick the correct date from the two conflicting dates in Luke? Sanders’ answer appears in the seventh chapter. We examine it below. But first, we must lay down some basic ideas.

Critical scholars, including Sanders, generally regard the birth narratives in Matthew 1:18-23 and Luke 2:1-20 as invented by the evangelists[23]. Sanders notes that the “two gospels have completely different and irreconcilable ways of moving Jesus and his family from one place to the other.”[24] He also questions the likelihood of Augustus (who Sanders regards as the most rational of all of the caesars until him) issuing a decree requiring people to register in their ancestral homes for tax purposes.[25]

Sanders finds several difficulties with Luke’s census. One is that Luke “dates it near Herod’s death (4 BCE) and also ten years later, when Quirinius was the legate of Syria (6 CE).”[26] Luke writes in Luke 2:1-2 that Jesus was born during a census that was held when Quirinius was governing Syria. And we know from the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus that this census took place in 6 CE[27], around ten years after Herod the Great had died. (Herod died in 4 BCE.) But at the same time, Luke 1:5 has the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist “in the days of Herod” and Luke 1:36 states that Mary bore Jesus approximately 16 months after annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist, putting Jesus’ birth “no later than 3 BC.”[28] Yet Matthew 2:1-3 claims that Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still alive, probably two years before he died (Matthew 2:7-16). Thus Luke inconsistently dates the birth of Jesus at 6 CE and at 3 BCE, while Matthew dates Jesus’ birth near 4 BCE.

Another problem is that Rome took a census of people who lived in Judea Samaria and Idumaea; it did not take a census at Galilee, as Luke asserts. Moreover, there was no requirement for travel, as Sanders notes. Sanders suggests that the most likely explanation for all of these problems is that Luke or his source accidentally combined 4 BCE, the year of Herod’s death, with 6 CE, the year when Quirinius’ census took place.[29] After Luke or his source had ‘discovered’ that there was a census at the time of Herod, Sanders claims, he decided to elaborate the event to make it a reason for Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem.[30]

Sanders’ accidental combination argument is based on Roman historian Ronald Syme’s assertion that similarities between 4 BCE and 6 CE lead to confusion. And that assertion, in turn, is based on the fact that W. W. Tarn, “a well-known Hellenistic historian, once wrote that Herod died in 6 CE.”[31] Whether the inconsistent statements about the year of Jesus’ birth were due to a typo, a chronological error, or a genuine mix-up of the dates is not demonstrated in HFoJ. But Sanders treats the error as sufficient evidence of a phenomenon, and then proceeds to ascribe Luke’s error to that phenomenon. By ascribing this alleged error to Luke, Sanders opens the door for Matthew’s date, which is thereafter treated as the correct one. Such spurious methodology amounts to a means to fix a preference for one date over another on the basis of no evidence at all.

By attributing the discrepancy to some 4 BCE-6 CE dyslexia, Sanders is in effect maintaining that Luke probably knew the correct date of Jesus’ birth. The date mix-up can be conveniently explained away as selective dyslexia. Sanders’ harmonization of the dates in Luke and Matthew through such tenuous arguments is more akin to what one finds in biblical apologetics than in historical research. This is a serious indictment against Sanders’ scholarship.

That there are “similarities” between 4 BCE and 6 CE making these two years difficult to differentiate is a peculiar argument. Similar events may have taken place between those two years, like the different instances of rioting Sanders mentions (namely, those in Jerusalem that resulted in the death of James the Just, and later riots during Caligula’s reign). But he fails to show that common events between two particular dates which are ten years apart were sufficient to make these two years almost interchangeable. There is simply no credible evidence that selective dyslexia led Luke to mistake 4 BCE for 6 CE. Moreover, no evidence presented in HFoJ or elsewhere supports Sanders’ assertion that the dating of Jesus’ birth c. 4 BCE is almost beyond dispute.

Richard Carrier has extensively researched the date of the nativity in Luke. On the numerous attempts by conservative scholars and Biblical apologists to harmonize Luke and Matthew, he writes:

There is no way to rescue the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from contradicting each other on this one point of historical fact. The contradiction is plain and irrefutable, and stands as proof of the fallibility of the Bible, as well as the falsehood of at least one of the two New Testament accounts of the birth of Jesus.[32]

One of the most extensive works done on the infancy narratives, Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, departs from Sanders’ attempt at fixing a Lukan date for the birth of Jesus. Brown suggests that there are three basic approaches for dealing with the date conflicts in Luke:

First, one may seek to reinterpret the Herod chronology of Luke 1 to agree with the Quirinius census dating (A. D. 6-7) of Luke 2. Second, one may seek to reinterpret the Quirinius census chronology of Luke 2 to agree with the Herod dating (4-3 B.C.) of Luke 1. Third, one may recognize that one or both of the Lukan datings are confused, and that there is neither a need nor a possibility of reconciling them. Basically, this appendix will come to the conclusion that the third approach is the most plausible.[33]

Against Sanders, Brown notes that 6 BCE is usually assigned for Jesus’ birth.[34]

Ironically, although Sanders admits that we don’t know who wrote the Gospels[35] and that the conflicting, irreconcilable narratives are clearly fabricated, he nonetheless goes out on a limb to date Jesus’ birth on the basis of accounts of the supposed event (the birth narratives) that he himself regards as invented. Clearly, this is nothing more than an attempt to contrive a presumably historical factoid (the year the putative Jesus was born) from ahistorical stories.

Sanders’ historical criticism[36] fails to recognize literary[37], tendenz[38], and redaction criticism. He states correctly that Matthew likely “derived elements of the birth narrative stories from stories about Moses”[39], and that both Luke and Matthew may have had no information regarding Jesus birth–and therefore resorted to “transferring” birth stories from the Old Testament into the Gospels. But then he simply sets these literary critical ideas aside and proceeds to extract “history” from the Gospels.

In the process, he encounters and sidesteps several difficulties, including the idea that there may have been no synagogues in pre-70 Galilee[40], and the idea that very little if anything was known about first-century Nazareth[41] and the etymological problems surrounding the derivation of the appellation “the Nazarene” from Nazareth.[42] To be fair, Sanders does mention that there are problems regarding the presence of pre-70 synagogues, but he barely addresses them. Instead, he offers a one-sided presentation on the matter. He maintains, in the face of gathering difficulties, that “Something of the real Jesus was certainly preserved”[43], and that, although the evangelists had theological views, “nevertheless the Gospels contain material that the theological views did not create.”[44]

These are statements of faith since they are not supported by evidence, and they betray that Sanders did not start his research with a blank slate. Instead, he presumes that the historical Jesus is the fountain that brought forth the Gospel narratives. This concept forms an axis around which all his ideas circulate, and his conceptual and interpretive framework are ineradicably grounded by this basic but unfounded belief. Whether a historical Jesus existed is not at issue for Sanders in HFoJ, but his model of representation and interpretation is caught up in a rhetoric of historicist assumptions and tropes that entirely control his logic. Alongside the alternative theory of a mythical Jesus, there is a question about what literary genre the Gospels can be grouped under which would influence what Sanders can and cannot derive from the Gospels.

Sanders does not even once consider the possibility that Mark may have written his gospel as faux history which was mistaken as actual history by Luke and the other evangelists. This is possible and perhaps probable because ancient literature had considerable plasticity, as reflected in the case of the Sesonchosis fragment.[45] Regarding faux history and historiography, George Orwell wrote that:

The scholarly historian and the undocumented novelist … are confronted with faux history as it is construed by power, as it is perverted for political purposes, as it is hammered into serviceable myth by those who take advantage of its plasticity. For “History,” of course, is not only an academic study. It is, at all times, in all places, hot. “Who controls the past controls the future.”[46]

Orwell’s words are germane to the Gospel of Mark and how it was appropriated later by Christians who were intent on developing a story about a historical Jesus.

Mark’s portrayal of the disciples as ignorant clods, his reversal of the expectations of the disciples (Markan irony), and the use of doublets[47], triptychs[48], and other literary devices, among other reasons (like deriving thematic units, speeches, and structure from the Old Testament almost entirely), dispel the idea that Mark was writing actual history. These are ideas that Sanders does not give due consideration, even as he charges that there must be some real history in the Gospels.

Reconciling the Virgin Birth and Genealogies

Luke and Matthew say that the Virgin Mary conceived when the Holy Spirit “came upon” her. This semidivine conception renders Jesus a god-man, a hybrid similar to the Greek god Dionysus, who was born of an earthly woman (Semele) but sired by a god (Zeus). Like other critical scholars, Sanders does not assign any historicity to the virgin birth narratives. However, we also find genealogies in Luke 3:23-38 and Matthew 1:1-17 that attempt to link Jesus to an earthly father, Joseph, who is also linked to King David. These genealogies contradict each other.

Luke traces Jesus back to the lineage of David’s son, Nathan, while Matthew traces Jesus back to David’s son, Solomon. In addition, Luke has 41 people between David and Jesus, while Matthew has only 26. Sanders does not highlight these contradictions. Below we shall examine how Sanders handles these genealogical accounts and the birth narratives of Jesus. But first, a brief overview of how these genealogies are regarded with respect to the birth narratives is warranted.

Generally, scholars view the virgin birth narratives as later redactions that were grafted on to the earlier stories about Jesus. These earlier stories were presumably written by Christians who believed that Jesus had a human father of a Davidic pedigree. The genealogies are thought to precede the birth narratives because the earliest traditions about Jesus arose from among Jewish communities that believed that the messiah would be a flesh-and-blood man like the Old Testament Joshua. These early traditions are more likely to have sought to confer a Davidic pedigree to Jesus, as opposed to virgin birth traditions which entailed ideas foreign to Jewish theological thought. In fact, the first Gospel (Mark) pointedly argues against Davidic lineage in Mark 12:35-37. We thus infer that Christians who wanted to present Jesus as a divine son of God later added the virgin birth narratives. Anybody with a basic understanding of form and redaction criticism can deduce this since these are two conflicting traditions.

But Sanders departs from other scholars[49] and asserts that Jesus was regarded as the “Son of God” only in the adoptionist sense[50], not in the sense of divine conception displayed when Zeus took the form of a duck and impregnated Leda to bring forth Helen and Polydeuces. He argues that “Son of God” designated one standing in a special relationship to God, and that early Christians did not view Jesus as a hybrid. Sanders writes:

Matthew and Luke, in their birth narratives, do sow the seeds of this view [that Jesus was a hybrid], but even these accounts do not systematically suppose that God directly sired Jesus, since the genealogies trace Jesus’ descent from David through Joseph.[51]

Sanders is trying to argue away two blatantly conflicting genealogies, first by faulting Matthew and Luke for sowing the seeds of hybridism, and then quickly vindicating them for nipping the problem that they had created in the bud. To exculpate the evangelists further, he states that “in any case, the birth narratives did not shape the early Christian conception of Jesus.”[52] The furthest that Sanders goes toward admitting that the early Christians sought to portray Jesus as a (semi)divine being is when he writes: “The only passage that might have a metaphysical meaning–Jesus was something other than merely human–is the question at the trial, since the high priest follows the question by shouting ‘blasphemy’ when Jesus does not deny the title.”[53] The rest of his efforts are expended on valiantly downplaying the import of the virgin birth narratives (which he reminds us would have been heresy in creedal terms) and emphasizing that “Son of God” had no metaphysical connotations.

Sanders’ argument that Matthew and Luke never meant to assign Jesus a metaphysical pedigree is not forthright and denies what is patently clear. It is a fact that the majority of Christians believe that Jesus was a hybrid as a direct result of the virgin birth narratives. At this point, Sanders is engaging in apologetics, not scholarship, and this is one of the lowest points in HFoJ. He focuses on one bit of the evidence and is wholly preoccupied with extracting an eschatological Jesus from the bricolage of myth and invention found in the genealogies and birth narratives.

Sanders’ Treatment on Old Testament Allusions in the New Testament

New Testament scholars generally agree that several passages in the Gospels were borrowed in whole or in part from the Old Testament, including narrative sequences and speeches. Commentators only differ in how they interpret these parallels. The interpretations can be grouped into five broad categories.

  1. Some regard parallels as evidence of creativity by the evangelists using the Old Testament. The use of the Old Testament to create stories was labeled prophecy historicized by John Dominic Crossan.[54] On this basis, some regard the entire Gospels as whole cloth inventions.[55]
  2. Some regard parallel passages as embellished history and assume that there is a historical core behind the Gospels generally and parallel passages specifically.[56]
  3. Still, others argue that such passages indicate that early Christians chose to recast actual contemporaneous events using the more prestigious history and language of the Old Testament, in part to make the Gospels more Jewish. This hypothetical process, termed scripturalization by Judith Newman[57], refers to the casting of events within the language and models of scripture.[58]
  4. Others believe that Jesus read the Old Testament and acted using the Jewish messianic expressions in the Old Testament as a script, and even uttered words and speeches in Psalms and other Old Testament books.[59]
  5. A mixture of (2), (3) and (4).

Sanders’ approach is a mixture of (4)[60] and (2).[61] We shall now examine how Sanders employs (4) to interpret New Testament passages.

It is generally agreed that some Jewish messianic claimants believed that they had the powers ascribed to Old Testament prophetic figures. For example, Josephus narrates in Antiquities of the Jews 20.5.1 that Theudas marched to the Jordan river believing that God would part it for him in the way he parted the Red Sea for Moses in Exodus. Josephus’ Antiquities 20.8.6 also narrates how “the Egyptian” stood on Olivet and issued a command, expecting the walls of Jerusalem to tumble down, the way the walls of Jericho did in Joshua 6 when Joshua blew a trumpet. “The Egyptian” also chose Olivet because Zechariah 14:4 says that that is where the Lord would stand and do battle. As such, the idea of people acting out Old Testament scenes is supported by examples in history.

There are two points to note concerning interpretation (4). First, where crowds act in a manner that is reminiscent of an Old Testament passage, the Josephan examples are not comparable because the crowds are not said to have messianic aspirations. Second, the Josephan examples only vaguely allude to Old Testament passages. Where accounts of New Testament events are clearly guided and structured by an Old Testament passage, this interpretation is inadequate as an explanation, particularly where there are New Testament statements that follow the exact order of words found in the Old Testament. In such cases, invention through literary borrowing is more plausible.

Sanders believes that, like other messianic claimants, Jesus sought to act out Old Testament prophecies.[62] Below we will examine how Sanders uses approaches (4) and (2) to judge the historicity of the temple ruckus incident in Mark 11, and the triumphal entry in Jerusalem in the same chapter.

The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem

Mark 11:1-11 narrates that Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey with crowds welcoming him shouting ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Sanders argues that Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem was a symbolic action meant to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, which talked of triumphal entry on the back of a donkey. Did this event actually take place as narrated in Mark? Sanders writes that he is unsure whether the prophecy created the event or vice versa, but adds that he inclines “to the view that it is Jesus himself who read the prophecy and decided to fulfill it.”[63] Sanders doubts that there would have been a “large” crowd to welcome Jesus, as Mark narrates, because the presence of a large crowd shouting “King” would have been highly inflammatory and would have drawn the reaction of the High Priest or the Roman prefect, who were alert for danger during Passover. His aporetic remarks notwithstanding, Sanders nonetheless suggests that “Jesus’ demonstration was quite modest”[64] and was a symbolic action for insiders “who had eyes to see.”[65]

Even a “modest demonstration” is unfounded because this triumphal entry is not attested by Paul, Josephus, or any other sources not dependent on Mark. Sanders’ assertion does not appeal to historical Jesus methodology or any of its associated complex of criteria, such as the dissimilarity criterion, embarrassment criterion, friend and foe criterion, coherence criterion, and so on. It is pure conjecture, comparable to a historian finding a statement like “Jesus walked on water” and thus concluding that “That is obviously an exaggeration. I suggest that he merely walked on the beach.” History is not done by revising unacceptable claims to make them acceptable. Historical claims require historical evidence; but Sanders has no evidence that there was a modest demonstration by Jesus, and is therefore not doing history when he makes that claim.

In addition, the fact that this event is “presaged” in Zechariah 9:9 impairs its historicity, suggesting instead that it is historicized prophecy. Even the location from which Jesus approaches Jerusalem, the mount of Olives, is presaged in Zechariah 14:4 as the place where the messiah would launch his mission.

First, a number of factoids render this event highly unlikely. For instance, as Robert Gundry notes in Mark: A Commentary on His Gospel (1993):

Though Mark does not tell the mileage to Jerusalem (it is about two miles), the paving of the road from a point farther away than Bethpage and Bethany makes for a “red carpet” the astoundingness of whose length magnifies the VIP [very important person] that Jesus is…. [T]he doubling of the pavement with straw as well as with garments[,] despite the fact that since Jesus is sitting on the colt instead of walking on foot he does not need any pavement at all[,] adds to the astoundingness of its length.[66]

Second, as Randel Helms points out in Gospel Fictions (1988), it would have been impossible for Jesus to ride smoothly on a colt that had never been ridden before. Third, the words uttered by the crowds, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” are pulled from Psalm 118:26. So unless the crowd, like Jesus, was engaged in the agenda of enacting symbolic acts, this speech is clearly fictionalized. Fourth, Jesus is portrayed as one who was coming to Jerusalem for the first time. As such, the residents are not likely to have recognized him, and their spontaneous acts of lining along the road and spreading their garments require organized action and an anticipation by the crowds that is not mentioned in the Gospels. Fifth, it is also very unlikely that the sophisticated ruling elite in Jerusalem, the capital city with its imperial authority, could make a red carpet using their own garments to an unknown peasant from Galilee who could not speak or read Greek, riding on the back of a donkey.

One may object to this argument and assert that if they did this, they were certainly not the elite, but were likely pilgrims from Galilee who were in Jerusalem for the Passover. This argument fails, though, because the evangelists, who were keen on portraying Jesus as endeared to the poor and the meek, would certainly have exploited that event to further distance the aristocrats and the rich from Jesus. The evangelists regularly pointed out the social status of the characters. And while doing so, they portrayed the poor and lowly as more favored and more inclined to be faithful; this spirit is best expressed in the beatitude that says “blessed are the meek.” Luke 6:20 says that the Kingdom of God is for the poor, and Luke 16:19-31 narrates about a poor Lazarus and a rich man with the latter being tortured in the afterlife. Mark 12:38-44 talks of a poor widow giving the smallest of coins who is presented as giving more than the rest. As such, the evangelists are not likely to have been silent on this point if it were indeed the case.

Together, all of these reasons combined leave us with no conceivable reason to assign historicity to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Sanders’ scholarship at this point is patently at odds with critical scholarship, and fails to deal with or even acknowledge the considerable difficulties surrounding the historicity of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. As we have seen, instead of dealing with the passage as it is, or confirming whether the event was attested by independent sources, Sanders instead seeks to redeem the event and make it more realistic–which would be fine if he had a basis for doing so. No external sources or methodology are provided. With an approach like this, one can successfully extract “history” from the parting of the Red Sea by Moses.

We shall now examine Sanders’ take on the temple ruckus incident that is narrated in Mark 11:15-19, which says that Jesus turned the tables of moneychangers and drove them out of the Temple.

The Temple Ruckus Incident

The temple ruckus incident, also known as the temple cleansing scene, refers to the passage in the Gospels where Jesus goes into the temple and throws the moneychangers out, overturning their tables and accusing them of turning the house of prayer into a den of robbers. Notably, Sanders admits that the account of this incident is more “difficult to interpret” than the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.[67] He discounts the possibility that Jesus uttered the words “house of prayer” and “den of robbers” in reference to the temple because those words were derived from Jeremiah 7:11 and Isaiah 56:7, respectively. He also doubts the historicity of Jesus’ statement that the temple was a “den of robbers” because there is no hint that the money and sacrifices offered in the temple were being misappropriated. Misappropriation is not the only avenue that could have attracted that accusation, however.[68] Sanders also deems it unlikely that Jesus was against the temple because first, Jesus paid his temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27), and second, that would have been tantamount to being against Judaism as a whole, as well as “an attack on the main unifying symbol of the Jewish people.”[69] Sanders relegates the incident to a possible flash of Jesus’ anger and discounts the possibility that it was part of Jesus’ mission.

He suggests that the “action of overturning symbolized destruction”[70] and argues that Mark 13:1, which has Jesus saying that none of the stones of the temple will be left upon another, is a prediction of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. He vindicates the evangelists from the possible charge of writing the prophecy after the event by arguing that the prophecy and the event are not in perfect agreement, since the temple was destroyed by fire and not completely torn down. He surmises that “This prophecy, then, is probably pre-70, and it may be Jesus’ own.”[71] He argues that it is likely that Jesus threatened to destroy the temple because the evangelists are at pains to assure readers that Jesus did no such thing. Mark 14:57-59//Matthew 27:40 have Jesus claim that he would rebuild the temple, while Luke excludes the passage entirely. From these denials, Sanders concludes, like Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (III, ii, 239), that “They protest too much. It is probable that he made some kind of threat.”[72]

Sanders conclusion is that Jesus’ demonstration at the temple and subsequent speech as he was leaving the temple constituted a prophetic threat. And for this, the high priest and Antipas wanted him dead because they feared that like John, he might cause trouble by inciting a riot.

The first thing to notice is that Sanders approaches the passage believing that an incident actually occurred. His ten-page vermiculations on this temple incident are geared towards arguing away the idea that Jesus was a reformer engaged in cleansing the temple, and instead presenting Jesus as an eschatological prophet. To facilitate this, he fuses together the “overturning” and Jesus’ speech outside the temple as a single, unified act, which he declares constituted a prophetic threat. Though he correctly denies the historicity of the words uttered in the incident, he is eager to interpret it as an action that constituted a prophetic threat apparently because that is consistent with his thesis that Jesus was an eschatological prophet. Thus, his main goal is to extract eschatological meanings in Jesus’ words and deeds, not to demonstrate that the events actually took place as narrated, or otherwise. This is not historical criticism but biased interpretation on top of the historicist assumption that Jesus existed. We shall now weigh the historicity of this temple incident.

One scholar who has doubted the authenticity of this temple incident is Paula Fredriksen, who writes in From Jesus to Christ that she learnt quite a bit about the temple from Sanders’ book Judaism: Practice and Belief (1992), including the temple’s measurements, which she describes as follows: “The total circumference of the outermost wall ran to almost 9/10ths of a mile; twelve soccer fields, including stands, could be fit in; when necessary (as during the pilgrimage festivals, especially Passover) it could accommodate as many as 400,000 worshipers.”[73]

When Fredriksen visited the Temple Mount, she was aghast at how huge it was, and its size “shrank” Jesus’ alleged action, prompting her to ask herself:

If Jesus had made such a gesture, how many would have seen it? Those in his retinue and those standing immediately around him. But how many, in the congestion and confusion of that holiday crowd, could have seen what was happening even, say, twenty feet away? Fifty feet? The effect of Jesus’ gesture at eye-level would have been muffled, swallowed up by the sheer press of pilgrims. How worried, then, need the priests have been?[74]

Needless to say, her confidence in the historicity of the temple scene diminished as she contemplated these questions, and she states as much in the referenced article.

Had Jesus’ action been as disruptive as portrayed in the Gospels, the Roman soldiers would have arrested Jesus or forcefully restored order because, as Josephus intimates in Antiquities of the Jews 20.5.3 and Wars Of The Jews 2.12.1, the Romans always had soldiers on stand-by during Passover because riots were particularly likely then. The Roman administration also needed the taxes that the moneychangers and other traders paid, and they would not watch idly as the temple activities were disrupted by a lone man.

Though Sanders identifies the Old Testament sources of the speeches in the temple ruckus scene, he does not identify the sources of the structure and components of the temple ruckus narrative. One scholar who has attempted to do this is Geoffrey Troughton, who has identified the ‘intertextual echo’ between Mark 11:15-16, which states that Jesus ejected the moneychangers out of the temple, and Nehemiah 13:4-9, which states that Nehemiah ejected Tobiah from ‘the assembly of God.’ Besides thematic similarities, Troughton also points out the linguistic links between the two passages. In Echoes in the Temple? Jesus, Nehemiah and their Actions in the Temple, he writes:

Perhaps the most vivid similarity between the actions of Jesus and Nehemiah is the overturning of the tables. Both actions involve a direct, physical interaction with the equipment that furnished the ‘foreign’ presence. In each case, violence is enacted against inanimate objects rather than directly against people…. [T]he prohibition against carriage through the Temple is the likeliest source of allusion to Nehemiah. Specifically, … the linguistic connection through common use of the term skeuoj (‘vessels’). In the gospel accounts, it appears that Jesus endeavored to disrupt the carriage of certain objects through the Temple…. NRSV [New Revised Standard Version] translates skeuoj as ‘anything’ (thus, ‘he wouldn’t allow anything to be carried’), but the word is more properly rendered ‘vessel’…. Nehemiah was concerned about the ‘proper’ functioning of the Temple, including ensuring that the items necessary for proper worship were readily available. These included the ‘vessels’.[75]

Although Troughton doesn’t argue the point, his paper suggests that the author of Mark distinctly borrowed aspects of the temple cleansing incident from Nehemiah. This is a further argument against the historicity of the temple incident.

As George Wesley Buchanon pointed out in Symbolic Money-Changers in the Temple? (1991), the temple was the most fortified place in Jerusalem, for it acted as the treasury, and could even be used as a Fortress. As such, Jesus could not have simply walked in and thrown the moneychangers out as depicted in the Gospels. Michael Turton explains in Historical Commentary of the Gospel of Mark:

The moneychangers undoubtedly had their own guards and servants, and so did the local priests. It is therefore unlikely that Jesus could have generated an incident there that was prolonged enough for anyone to notice. There were too many warm bodies to squelch it before it got rolling. A further problem, as Buchanon (1991) points out, is that the Temple was not merely the main religious institution of the Jewish religion; it was also the national treasury and its best fortress. The Temple’s importance should not be underestimated: all three sides in the internal struggle during the Jewish War fought to gain control of the Temple. Not only is it highly unlikely that Jesus could have simply strolled in and gained control of the Temple, it is also highly unlikely that anyone would have permitted him to leave unmolested after such a performance.[76]

In Jesus’ Temple Act Revisited: A Response to P. M. Casey (2000), David Seeley states some of the practical obstacles that Jesus would have had to countenance. For example, at least one of the moneychangers would have been angry at having his table overturned and wrestled with Jesus. It would have been next to impossible for an individual to prohibit hundreds of people from carrying vessels. And if his disciples helped out, that would have been tantamount to an insurrection, which the Roman soldiers would have crushed brutally, and Jesus would not have been crucified alone.[77]

It should be clear at this point that at every unit and narrative sequence, the incident narrated in the Gospels as temple cleansing was a remote possibility, if not impossible. This impairs its historicity.

Further, Josephus mentions several messianic claimants and the prophecies that they made. He never mentions Jesus making a ‘prophetic threat’ through such an incident, though Sanders reads the purported incident as such. Considering the thousands of witnesses that would have been present, and the extent to which it could have disrupted the trading activities, an event of this magnitude would not have missed Josephus’ radar. Even Paul does not mention it. This lack of corroboration outside of the Gospels further argues against its historicity.

Sanders also analyzes the crucifixion scene and identifies literary borrowings by the evangelists of speeches and actions from Psalm 22. Acts such as casting lots for the clothes of Jesus by Roman soldiers (Mark 15:24), which is borrowed from Psalm 22:18 (“They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing”), exposes the weakness of Sanders’ approach of interpreting allusions to the Old Testament as symbolic acts. He guesses, against evidence to the contrary, that in the midst of pain as the iron nails tore through Jesus’ flesh and broke his bones, Jesus recalled Psalm 22:1 and, like a good stoic actor reading a script, cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Sanders states that we don’t know which elements of the crucifixion took place. But he neglects to mention that the very act of piercing hands and feet is also mentioned in Psalm 22:16, and that it is almost impossible that the Roman soldiers who pierced Jesus’ feet and hands and cast lots for his clothing were also acting out Psalm passages. Having arrived at Jesus’ death, Sanders’ reconstruction of the historical Jesus is complete, and he remarks that strictly speaking, the Resurrection is not part of the story of the historical Jesus.


Five main weaknesses in Sanders’ approach have been demonstrated in this review. The first one is treating the existence of a historical Jesus as an axiom. Second is approaching the Gospels with a preconception that Jesus was an eschatological prophet and not a revolutionary, a reformer, an itinerant teacher, or a cynic. His preoccupation with supporting his portrait and refuting the other portraits of Jesus limits his perspective and undermines his objectivity. Third is his failure to give due regard to redaction, tendenz, and literary criticism, and relying largely on historical criticism. The fourth one is his failure to consider the Pauline Christ, which anteceded the Gospel Jesus that had been embellished through historicization and scripturalization. Fifth is the lack of a reliable methodology. “Common sense” and a “good feel for sources” are not methods, but purely subjective approaches that are doomed to yield invalid results.

As noted earlier, Sanders’ book is otherwise useful for anyone interested in New Testament scholarship. But it must be approached carefully with the above weaknesses in mind.[78]


[1] M. H. Goshen-Gottstein writes in “Christianity Judaism, and Modern Bible Study,” Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 28 (1975): 68-88, p. 83: “However we try to ignore it–practically all of us are in it [Biblical studies] because we are either Christians or Jews.” As quoted by Jacques Berlinerblau in “The Unspeakable in Biblical Scholarship” (accessed on 8th May, 2007).

In “Comprehensively Questing for Jesus?” (accessed on 8th May, 2007) Mark Goodacre notes that Gerd Theissen and Anette Merz regard Helmut Koster as “running the risk of reconstructing an ‘anti-canonical picture of Jesus'” in his work. That there are ideas in the field that are regarded as risky to contradict speaks volumes.

[2] Michael V. Fox writes regarding biblical scholarship in “Bible Scholarship and Faith-Based Study: My View” (accessed on 8th May, 2007): “Any discipline that deliberately imports extraneous, inviolable axioms into its work belongs to the realm of homiletics or spiritual enlightenment or moral guidance or whatnot, but not scholarship, whatever academic degrees its practitioners may hold. Scholarship rests on evidence. Faith, by definition, is belief when evidence is absent.”

[3] Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991), xxvii.

[4] Finding the Historical Jesus: An Interview With John P. Meier (accessed on 8th May, 2007)

[5] There are several competing theories of who the historical Jesus was. Jesus has been characterized as a prophet, a charismatic preacher, a magician, a sage, a revolutionary, and so on. Early proponents of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet include Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, and more recently E. P. Sanders in The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993), J. P. Meier in A Marginal Jew volumes I and II (1991 and 1994), Dale Allison in Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (1998), Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999), and Paula Fredriksen From Jesus to Christ (2000). Proponents of Jesus as a man of spirit include Stevan L. Davies, Jesus the Healer (1995), Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1995), and Geza Vermes, The Changing Faces of Jesus (2001). Proponents of Jesus being a cynic sage include: John Dominic Crossan in The Historical Jesus (1991), Gerald F. Downing in Christ and the Cynics (1988), and Burton Mack in A Myth of Innocence (1988). Richard Horsley, Hyam Maccoby, and Gerd Theissen present Jesus as a prophet of social change. Robert Eisenmann presents him as a revolutionary. Luke Timothy Johnson, Robert H. Stein, and N. T. Wright propose that Jesus was a son of God and a savior for mankind. See Peter Kirby’s Historical Jesus Theories for more.

[6] Peter Steinfels, “Jesus Revisionists Draw the Ire of ‘a Jolly Elf.'” New York Times, April 29, 1996.

[7] Eschatos means “last” in Greek. Thus eschatology concerns ideas about the last times. Jewish thought held that judgment and redemption by God was at hand, and through that judgment, God would alter the scheme of things, then reign either directly or through a viceroy (like a messiah).

[8] Op. cit., p. 50.

[9] Op. cit., p. 76.

[10] Whereas Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ, Chapter 15) incorrectly assumed that the founder figure of the sect of Ebionites was called Ebion, in the same fashion Valentinians derived their name from the name of their founder Valentinus, Origen stated that Ebion came from a Hebrew word signifying “poor” among the Jews (Contra Celsum, Book I, Chapter I).

[11] This mythical Christ figure is consistent with that of several pagan religions who believed that their gods also died and resurrected in a mythical realm. The location of this realm shifted upward under Platonism. Most of those ancient religions that had dying and rising gods were linked to the agricultural cycles of seasonal vegetation, like Dumuzi/Tammuz. From Sumerian clay tablets we learn that the goddess Inanna descended to the underworld and was killed and then resurrected after three days (Samuel Kramer, History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Man’s Recorded History [1981], p. 162). Although her resurrection, like that of the Egyptian Osiris, is not exactly like that of Jesus, the underlying concepts are similar because the deaths have the same effects on each set of believers. As such, the common objection from Christian apologists that Osiris’ resurrection was not a true resurrection because he remained a king of the dead is not valid. In The Mystery Cults and Christianity Part Two: On Comparing the Cults and Christianity, Earl Doherty explains the parallels between Christianity and mystery religions:

If Osiris “became ruler over the dead, not the living,” the same can be said for Jesus. The resurrected Christian who goes to heaven is part of “the dead” and not “the living,” in the sense of the departed from this world, the same as “the dead” pagan. And Christ in heaven is the same as Osiris in the underworld. Both are rulers over “the dead” in that same sense. The location of the happy afterlife is hardly significant. (A heaven in the sky simply sounds better to us than an eternity under the ground.) In essence, they are exactly the same, and Osiris gives such benefits to his devotees as much as Jesus to his. We as a culture, and Christianity in its writings, may have managed to paint a brighter, fuller picture of the Christian afterlife than did the mysteries, but this is in large part because we have the greater literary production of the two, and such things were not expressed openly in the cults.

[12] There are superficial refutations of a few passages in the literature, but no comprehensive rebuttal of the Jesus myth hypothesis based on evidence. Moreover, the superficial refutations critique old Jesus myth proponents who did not present an alternative origin of Christianity (unlike the contemporary proponent Earl Doherty), and who relied inordinately on an argument from silence. See the opening chapters of Robert E. Van Voorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (2000). See also Earl Doherty’s comprehensive Alleged Scholarly Refutations of Jesus Mythicism (accessed on 8th May, 2007).

[13] The Center for Inquiry started The Jesus Project, which seeks to explore the question “What if the most influential man in human history never lived?” This means that the question regarding the existence of Jesus is getting serious treatment instead of being as rashly dismissed as it was in the past.

[14] Richard Carrier, Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity (2002) (accessed on 8th May, 2007).

[15] To be sure, there are passages that have human-sounding connotations, like Galatians 1:19 and 1 Corinthians 9:5, which mention “James brother of the Lord,” and Galatians 4:4‘s “born of woman,” Romans 1:3‘s “of the seed of David,” and Romans 9:5‘s “according to the flesh.” These all have alternative interpretations that do not necessarily have earthly meanings. See 20 Arguable References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles (accessed on 8th May, 2007).

[16] Scholars are divided over how to interpret arcontes/archotons (“princes of this world”). Those that favor the idea that arcontes means earthly rulers include James Walther, Gene Miller, Leon Morris, Archibald Robertson, Alfred Plummer M. Pesce, A. W. Carr, and T. Ling. Those that allow a spiritual meaning of the word include W. J. P. Boyd, Paul Ellingworth, Paula Fredriksen, R. Brown, J. Fitzmyer, R. Murphy, S. G. F. Brandon, and Tertullian (Adversus Marcionem, Book 5, Chapter 6). See Earl Doherty’s Who Was Christ Jesus? Note that most scholars who assign a spiritual meaning to the word assume that the demons stood behind earthly rulers. The appeal to scholarly interpretation here is purely on what the word arcontes means, not how the arcontes achieved their ends. Scholars import a lot of unwarranted earthly suppositions when describing how arcontes operated.

[17] The Philippians 2:8-11 hymn is consistent with pre-existent and resurrection Christologies (see note 50), which differ from the Gospel Christologies. In Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth (1995), Burton L. Mack writes:

[A]ccording to the Christ myth, Jesus became the Christ by virtue of his obedience unto death. Here in the Christ hymn, Jesus is the incarnation of a divine figure who possessed “equality with God” already at the very beginning of the drama and had every opportunity to be lord simply by “taking” possession of his Kingdom. His glory however, is that he did not “grasp” that opportunity … but took the form of a slave. Because of this, God exalted him to an even higher lordship (p. 92).

[18] Op. cit., p. 5.

[19] Op. cit., p. 56.

[20] Op. cit., p. 10.

[21] Op. cit., p. 11.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Even leaving aside the supernatural claim of the virgin birth, the birth narratives of Jesus fit the mythic hero archetype. And some of its elements were crafted from the story of the birth of Moses. For example, Herod instigates a massacre of innocents, just as Pharaoh did when Moses was born. These alleged massacres were not attested by either Roman or Egyptian documents, respectively. In The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, Otto Rank characterizes the mythic hero archetype:

The hero is the child of most distinguished parents, usually the son of most distinguished parents, usually the son of a king [Jesus is portrayed as coming from the lineage of King David and alternatively as the son of God]. His origin is preceded by difficulties, such as continence, or prolonged barrenness, or secret intercourse of the parents due to external prohibition or obstacles. During or before the pregnancy, there is a prophecy, in the form of a dream or oracle, cautioning against his birth [the wise men from the east and angel Gabriel], and usually threatening danger to the father (or his representative) [as quoted by Alan Dundes in In Quest of the Hero (1990), p. 57].

In The Birth of the Messiah: A commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (1977), p. 36, Raymond Brown writes that the birth narratives are rewritings of Old Testament scenes and themes. The story of the magi who saw the Star of David, he says, echoes Balaam’s story, Balaam being like a type of magus who saw the star rise out of Jacob. The story of Herod as written above recalls how Pharaoh sought to kill all Israelite firstborn males in Exodus, and Luke’s description of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, is derived from the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah.

[24] Op. cit., p. 85.

[25] Sanders suggests that it is unlikely that everyone would know the place where their ancestors (42 generations according to Luke’s genealogies) came.

[26] Op. cit., p. 86.

[27] Josephus Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.355.

[28] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, p. 547.

[29] Op. cit., p. 87.

[30] Sanders references Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 1981, pp. 404ff. He notes that Fitzmyer “cites the distinguished Roman historian, Ronald Syme. Syme pointed out that the similarities between 4 BCE and 6 CE easily led to confusion and still sometimes do: W. W. Tarn, a well-known Hellenistic historian, once wrote that Herod died in 6 CE.” Sanders, op. cit., p. 300.

It is quite probable that Luke was aware of Matthew’s midrashic attempt at building the birth narrative using the birth of Moses, and knew that it would not resonate well with his (Luke’s) gentile audience. While excising Matthew’s scripturalization, Luke sought to present Jesus as a good tax-paying citizen to his Roman audience, while using Josephus to craft his birth narrative. The dating conflict that remained can be attributed to what Mark Goodacre has described as “editorial fatigue” and the little weight attributed to chronological significance at the time. See Richard Carrier’s Luke and Josephus (2000) and Mark Goodacre’s Fatigue in the Synoptics. Goodacre defines editorial fatigue as

a phenomenon that will inevitably occur when a writer is heavily dependent on another’s work. In telling the same story as his predecessor, a writer makes changes in the early stages which he is unable to sustain throughout. Like continuity errors in film and television, examples of fatigue will be unconscious mistakes, small errors of detail which naturally arise in the course of constructing a narrative. They are interesting because they can betray an author’s hand, most particularly in revealing to us the identity of his sources.

[31] Op. cit., p. 300.

[32] Richard Carrier, The Date of the Nativity in Luke (5th ed., 2006).

[33] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, p. 548.

[34] Op. cit., p. 172.

[35] Op. cit., p. 63.

[36] Working on the assumption that a text refers to actual events, historical criticism deals with the referential function of a text. See Mark Allan Powell, What is Narrative Criticism? (1990), p. 8.

[37] Powell (ibid.) states that literary criticism deals with a text apart from consideration of the extent to which it reflects reality. It seeks to uncover the intended effect that the author would like the story to have on readers.

[38] Tendenz criticism is concerned with the motives or tendencies of the author(s) of the documents being examined. For example, the tendency of the author of Acts was to present the early Church as unified and working in harmony.

[39] Op. cit., p. 88.

[40] In Defining the First Century Synagogue, Howard Clark Kee writes that “the supposed architectural and institutional synagogue of the first century C.E.” is a “highly dubious scholarly construct” (as cited in Evolution of the Synagogue: Problems and Progress [1999], p. 9). On the unlikelihood of that synagogues existed as architectural edifices in pre-70 Galilee, see: Rachel Hachlili, in Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992), pp. 447-54; Joseph Gutmann, The Synagogue: Studies in Origins, Archaeology and Architecture (1975); and L. Michael White, Building God’s House in the Roman World: Architectural Adaptation among the Pagans Jews and Christians (1990), pp. 102-39.

[41] There is a great deal of confusion concerning the size of first-century Nazareth. Sanders writes that Nazareth “must have been a minor village, since it is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Josephus or rabbinic literature. It was not on a major road.” (Op. cit., p. 104). These sentiments are echoed by M. Goguel, Jesus the Nazarene: Myth or Fact (1926), J. D. Crossan and J. Reed, Excavating Jesus (2001), and J. L. Reed, Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus (2000), p. 132. Against the idea that Nazareth was a small village, in The Life and Times of Jesus Messiah (1993), p. 147, A. Edersheim wrote that among the major cities located along the caravan route from the Mediterranean to Damascus was Nazareth; hence it was an important and well-known city. In Sacred Sites and Ways trans. P. P. Levertoff (1935), the Semitic Scholar Gustav Dalman proposed that Nazareth was a radiating point of important roads and a thoroughfare for extensive traffic. J. P. Meier states in Marginal Jew (2001), p. 301 that “Nazareth was not a totally isolated village.” Others like W. B. Smith, A. Drews, and G. T. Sadler argued that Nazareth is not attested outside the of Gospels (in the Old Testament, the Mishnah, and Josephus) because it never existed in the first century.

[42] The appellation Nazarhnos (Ναζαρνος) in Mark 10:47, which is translated as “Nazarene,” cannot be derived from the word Nazareth or Nazaret. Neither can Nazwraios (Ναζωραιος) in Matthew 2:23, which is also translated as Nazarene. The gentilic form for Nazareth would be Nazarethnos (Ναζαρεθνος). The consequence of this is that “Nazarene” cannot mean “of Nazareth” as we find in Mark 10:47. The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament states that “linguistically, the transition from Nazaret to Nazwraois is difficult.” Gerhard Kittel details some of the etymological problems in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1967), Vol. IV. See William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (1957). In The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Raymond Brown writes:

In the story of Peter’s denial, where Mark 14:67 has Nazarenos, Matthew 26:71 has Nazoraios. Some scholars, like Kenard, argue that neither adjectival form should come from Nazaret(h); he would expect Nazarethenos or Nazarethaios. But a larger group of scholars recognize that Nazarenos, at least, is derivable from the place name, especially if it had the form Nazara…. (Parallels are offered by Magdalenos and Gadarenos, derived from Magdala and Gadara.)… [S]o most questioning has centered on the form Nazoraios, which has its clearest analogy in adjectives referring to parties, e.g., Saddoukaios and Pharisaios … and indeed in Acts 24:5 Christians are called “the sect of Nazoraioi.” This fact has led to the suggestion that Jesus was called a Nazorean, not because he came from Nazareth, but because he belonged to a pre-Christian sect of that name (p. 209).

Brown references J. S. Kennard Jr.’s “Was Capernaum the Home of Jesus?” in the Journal of Biblical Literature 65 (1946), pp. 131-141.

[43] Op. cit., p. 90.

[44] Op. cit., p. 91.

[45] Ancient novels had remarkable plasticity, as Mikhail Bahktin observed in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (1981). For example, the Sesonchosis fragment narrated about a historical romance of Pharaoh Senwosret/Sesostris of the twelfth dynasty. When it was first published, it was identified as history and was only later reclassified when another part of it was obtained. See Susan A. Stephens and John J. Winkler (Eds.) in Ancient Greek Novels (1995) for more on this. More recently, a British businessman went on a treasure hunt inspired by H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885).

[46] George Orwell, as quoted by E. L. Doctorow, Notes on the History of Fiction: Who Would Give Up the Iliad for the “Real” Historical Record? (accessed on May 8, 2007).

[47] In literary criticism, a doublet is a parallel narrative, parable, or saying which grew out of, or alongside, an original narrative. For example, Matthew 16:19 is a doublet of Matthew 18:18–the two miracles of loaves and fishes in Mark 6:35-44 and Mark 8:1-9 are probably two accounts of a single event or narrative. See Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen (eds.), Handbook of Biblical Criticism (1989), p. 50. The Sanhedrin trial (Mark 14:53-65) and the trial before Pilate (Mark 15:1-20) are doublets among several other passages in Mark that are also doublets. See Gerd Lüdemann, Jesus after 2000 Years: What He Really Did and Said, (2001), p. 101. Raymond Brown shows that Mark 14:32-43 is a doublet of the Mount of Olives scene and the Gethsemane scene. See Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah, Volume 1 & 2 (1994), pp. 219-220.

[48] A triptych (or tryptych) is a composition or presentation that has three parts or sections. The word “triptych” is derived from the Greek “triptychos,” formed by combining “tri-” (“three”) and “ptyche” (“fold” or “layer”). As Turton (op. cit.) notes, in Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (1988), p. 356, Ched Myers observed that the mockeries of Jesus complete a tryptich in which Jesus is mocked by Jewish guards as a prophet (Mark 14:65), Roman guards as a king (Mark 15:16-20), and Jewish onlookers as the Messiah (Mark 15:30). Compare this with rising on the third day and the transfiguration scene where Jesus was with Moses and Elijah. Referring to Tolbert Mary Ann’s Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (1989), p. 272, Turton (op. cit.) writes:

Pilate makes three attempts to release Jesus, just as Peter makes three denials of Jesus. In the typology of the gospel as delineated back in Mark 4 in the Parable of the Sower, Peter is rocky ground, while Pilate represents thorny ground. Both fail to recognize and respond to Jesus, but whereas Peter makes a comprehensive threefold failure, Pilate nearly succeeds in releasing Jesus, a partial success. This, Tolbert avers, shows the difference between the infertility of rocky ground and the stunted fertility of thorny ground.

[49] See Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions (1988); Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (1993); and David Freidrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1994), translated from the fourth German edition of 1892.

[50] Adoptionist Christology is the idea that Jesus was chosen or adopted by God when he was a grown man, with the Christological moment during the baptism of Jesus. It is argued that Mark does not have a birth narrative because the writer favored adoptionist Christology. Besides adoptionist Christology is conception Christology, said to be present in the virgin birth narratives of the Gospels. Sanders argues on p. 244 that the declaration “You are my beloved son” in Mark 1:11//Luke 3:22 is a “statement of adoption” borrowed by Mark from Psalm 2:7, where “son of man” referred to the King of Israel, a human being. He adds that Pauline resurrection Christology (Romans 1:4) held that Jesus became “son of God” upon his resurrection. Brown mentions a fourth kind of Christology that he calls pre-existence Christology. On p. 141 Brown (op. cit.) writes that “incarnational thought is indicative of pre-existence Christology (’emptied himself taking on the form of a servant; the word became flesh’); and works reflecting that Christology show no awareness of or interest in the manner of Jesus’ conception.”

[51] Op. cit., p. 245.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (1998), pp. 520-521. See also Mark Goodacre’s When Prophecy Became Passion: The Death of Jesus and the Birth of the Gospels (accessed on 8-May, 2007).

[55] This is the position of most of those that favor the Jesus myth hypothesis as presented in Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle. See also Thomas L. Brodie’s The Elijah-Elisha Narrative as an Interpretive Synthesis of Genesis-Kings for more on this. Though Brodie does not believe that the entire Gospels are fiction, he nonetheless believes that Jesus’ life and activity were modeled on Elija-Elisha prophetic biographies.

[56] This is the position of mainstream New Testament scholars. See Joel Marcus, The Old Testament and the Death of Jesus: The Role of Scripture in the Gospel Passion Narratives, in John T. Carroll and Joel B. Green, The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity (1995), pp. 205-233, and John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (1998). The alleged “historical core” is an assumption that they share not in an academic sense, but in a social sense, as it has never been questioned or established by them. It is protected almost impregnably by what Jacques Derrida called “institutional closure.”

[57] Judith H. Newman, Praying by the Book: The Scripturalization of Prayer in Second Temple Judaism (1999).

[58] Goodacre writes in When Prophecy Became Passion: The Death of Jesus and the Birth of the Gospels: “Events generated Scriptural reflection, which in turn influenced the way the events were remembered and retold. And the process of casting the narrative in this language might be described, to utilize a somewhat cumbersome but nevertheless illuminating term from Hebrew Bible scholarship, scripturalization. This term is used by Judith Newman of Jewish prayers in the Second Temple Period, which increasingly used Scriptural models, precedents and language.”

[59] In The Jesus Dynasty (2006), James Tabor argues that Jesus went to great lengths to fulfill Old Testament prophecies and applied Isaiah, Zechariah, and Jeremiah to himself. Sanders employs this interpretation.

[60] Sanders argues that Jesus’ actions were probably all symbolic. “Symbolic actions were part of a prophet’s vocabulary. They simultaneously drew attention and conveyed information” (Op. cit., p. 253). He adds: “I incline to the view that it was Jesus himself who read the prophecy [Zechariah 9:9–which talks about a king riding triumphantly on a donkey] and decided to fulfill it” (Op. cit., p. 254).

[61] Sanders writes that he doubts the authenticity of the “den of robbers” statement in Mark 11:17, which is found in Jeremiah 7:11. He argues that it looks to him “like an easy phrase for the evangelists to lift from Jeremiah to make Jesus appear politically innocuous to Greek-speaking gentile readers” (op . cit., p. 260). See also p. 270.

[62] Op. cit., p. 254.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Robert Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Gospel (1993), p. 626, as cited by Michael Turton in Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (accessed on 8-May, 2007).

[67] Op. cit., p. 254.

[68] Geoffrey Troughton explains in Echoes in the Temple? Jesus, Nehemiah and their Actions in the Temple, Journal of Biblical Studies 3/2 (April 2003), p. 16:

Concern for the ‘proper’ functioning of the Temple also lay behind Jesus’ action. It may be plausibly argued that Jesus was opposing the carriage of sacred supplies that would later be sold to worshippers at a significant profit. Thus, Jesus was protesting against the Temple establishment for turning the sacrificial system into an oppressive profit-making industry.

Troughton references Kim Huat Tan, The Zion Traditions and the Aims of Jesus (1997), p. 181.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Op. cit., p. 257.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Op. cit., p. 258.

[73] Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ (accessed on 8-May, 2007)

[74] Paula Fredriksen, ibid.

[75] Troughton, ibid. For the linguistic connection of σκενοψ (‘vessels’) between Mark and Nehemiah, Troughton refers to W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Volume 3 (1997), p. 134.

[76] Michael Turton, Historical Commentary of the Gospel of Mark (accessed on 8-May, 2007).

[77] David Seeley, “Jesus’ Temple Act Revisited: A Response to P. M. Casey.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 62(1): 55-63 (January 2000), as cited by Michael Turton, op. cit.

[78] I am grateful to Michael Turton, Ben Smith, and Keith Augustine for their helpful comments on this review.

Copyright ©2008 Jacob Aliet. The electronic version is copyright ©2008 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Jacob Aliet. All rights reserved.

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