The Bare Bones Facts about Jesus of Nazareth According to E. P. Sanders

Posted by Greg Monette on January 18 2014

It’s extremely rare for scholars to agree on every point concerning the historical details of the life of Jesus. However, most biblical scholars would agree that there are a set of bare bones facts about this figure of history which we can be confident of. These facts are held by Christians on both the left and right of the theological spectrum and by believer and non-believer alike. The ‘facts’ were not conjured up by apologists bent on proving that the New Testament was historically reliable. No, they were established by biblical scholars who heavily scrutinized the New Testament writings using the strictest historical methods available. Although scholars have used different historical ‘tools’ to do their work they’ve largely ended up concluding that there is a common set of points about Jesus of Nazareth that are highly likely to be reliable. 

In his book Jesus and Judaism (1985) E.P. Sanders listed eight “almost indisputable facts” about Jesus. He later added to this list stretching it to fifteen in his popular treatment titled The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993). I will supply Sanders’ list from his later volume which expanded the list:

  1. Jesus was born c. 4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
  2. he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
  3. he was baptized by John the Baptist;
  4. he called disciples;
  5. he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities);
  6. he preached ‘the kingdom of God’;
  7. about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
  8. he created a disturbance in the Temple area;
  9. he had a final meal with the disciples;
  10. he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
  11. he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.
  12. his disciples at first fled;
  13. they saw him (in what sense is not certain) after his death;
  14. as a consequence, they believed that he would return to found the kingdom;
  15. they formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.

This list should demonstrate if nothing else that historians take Jesus of Nazareth seriously. It isn’t just pious believers who study this intriguing first century Jew for devotional reasons. No, Jesus of Nazareth is being studied by thousands of historians in the leading universities in the world. 

This past November I was in Baltimore, Maryland at the annual Society of Biblical Literature meetings where thousands of biblical scholars, many of whom study, or have studied the life of Jesus, congregated for a week of scholarly papers and sharing of results from cutting edge research. If there wasn’t anything to know about Jesus historically it’s hard to imagine why so many universities would pay handsome salaries (some scholars would laugh at this point) to people studying the New Testament and the person of Jesus. 

It’s not as though E.P. Sanders’ list isn’t challenged by historians and shouldn’t be reexamined. It’s just that his representation of the state of New Testament scholarship concerning Jesus still appears to be the present day consensus. In order to overturn one of Sanders’ fifteen ‘facts’ there would need to be a very good reason to do so. It will be interesting to see what this list looks like in the next 10-20 years.

Do you think Sanders’ list will change or remain the same in the next decade or two? Will it grow, shrink, or remain stable? Let us know in the comments section below.

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