Notes on The Historical Figure of Jesus

These are my notes from The Historical Figure of Jesus, by E. P. Sanders, an attempted biography of Jesus. I haven't evaluated the veracity of most of the claims he makes.

Historical background
  • The Kingdom of Judah, which David and Solomon had ruled, was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, then the Persians, then the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires.
  • The Maccabean revolt in 167 BCE succeeded in establishing the Hasmonean dynasty of Jewish leaders in Palestine for just over a century.
  • After a Hasmonean civil war, Pompey conquered Palestine in 63 BCE. After further unrest, Herod became the Rome-backed king of Palestine, as Jewish leader of a client state.
  • After Herod's death around 4BCE (also the time of Jesus' birth), his kingdom was split between three of his sons: in particular, Archelaus got Judea and Antipas got Galilee.
  • Popular unrest was common. Archelaus became unpopular, was deposed by Augustus, and replaced by a series of Roman governors. At the time of Jesus' death, this position was held by Pontius Pilate.
  • Even after Judea fell under Roman governance, almost all administrative matters were handled by the Jewish priests, particularly the high priest (Caiaphas, during Pilate's governorship).
  • Pharisees were not an official part of the priesthood, but rather a religious tradition that emphasised strict obedience to religious law.
  • Sanders identifies the key distinguishing feature of Jewish religious law as how "it brings the entirety of life, including civil and domestic practices, under the authority of God". While few individual Jewish practices were strikingly odd at the time, Jewish devotion to them was unusual, and prevented Jews from assimilating into other cultures.
Jesus' life
  • Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee. It is doubtful he was born in Bethlehem, or that his family had to travel for a census, or that they later fled to Egypt; these were likely embellishments from the gospel authors to accentuate the parallels between him and David and Moses. He would have spoken Aramaic.
  • He became a follower of John the Baptist, who was executed by the Romans for preaching that end times were coming (and probably also for speaking out against Antipas). It is likely that Jesus also preached about the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God (which his disciples seem to have expected after his death). Sanders calls Jesus a "radical eschatologist" who "expected God to act in a decisive way, so as to change things fundamentally". This eschatological message became less prominent as Christianity grew.
  • Jesus then spent one to two years as an itinerant preacher in Galilee, particularly near a town called Capernaum. He spent most of his time in small villages and the countryside, rather than in cities.
  • He likely became known as a miracle worker, and particularly as an exorcist. This was not an uncommon reputation to have at the time - there are similar reports about some of his contemporaries. (As my own observation, it's interesting that Jesus is portrayed as emphasising the role of faith in healing, which might have helped create placebo effects).
  • He built up a following of disciples. It is unlikely that there were exactly 12 of them - rather, 12 is a symbolic number representing the historical tribes of Israel (descended from Jacob's sons). While the male disciples were emphasised, there were also women who supported and likely fed and housed the disciples.
  • Jesus went to Jerusalem around 30CE, was involved in an altercation with the Temple, and was subsequently put to death. The altercation may have take the form of a prophecy or "threat" of destruction.
  • Jewish priests were very keen to keep order, especially during festivals like Passover, to prevent the Roman governor from needing to step in.
  • Pilate was known for large-scale and ill-judged executions; it is quite plausible that he agreed to Jesus' execution merely on Caiaphas' recommendation.
Documentation and legacy
  • The gospels were written 30-80 years after Jesus' death. The four gospels chosen to form the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were primarily composed of 'pericopes', small stories about Jesus that circulated orally after his death. The authorship of the gospels is uncertain; names were assigned based on later guesswork.
  • The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) consist of many of the same stories, arranged in different orders and with different emphases. The gospel according to John differs considerably; it was written from a more theological perspective, attempting to convey later insights about Jesus' divine nature and its significance.
  • After Jesus' death, the leaders of the Christian movement were Simon Peter, John, and James (Jesus' brother). Saul/Paul, a converted opponent of Christianity, was also influential in reaching out to Gentiles, although the way he deemphasised Jewish customs was controversial. Paul wrote at least seven of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, and several more may have been based on his writings.
  • The First Jewish-Roman War occurred from 66-73 CE. It was the first of three Jewish rebellions against Roman rule, and led to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
  • Josephus, who wrote The Jewish War in 75CE, was the main Jewish historian of this period. He spent only a paragraph discussing the followers of Christ, prompted by debates that they sparked in Jewish communities.


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