Sanders made a name for himself (and virtually launched the New Perspective on Paul) with his 1977 classic, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In The Historical Figure of Jesus, he brings his immense understanding of first century Judaism to bear on Jesus.
In order to understand anyone, you first need to understand the world that they lived in. Sanders takes the first five chapters of his book to set the stage for the life of Jesus. He describes the political and religious situation with clarity and attention to detail. These first chapters were worth the cost of the book!
Throughout the rest of the book Sanders describes what we can know with reasonable certainty about Jesus from an historical perspective. My current reading of Torrance’s Incarnation made this difficult for me. For Torrance, trying to understand Jesus as a historical figure without reference to the hypostatic union is unscientific and misleading.
Torrance notwithstanding, I found his treatment of the life of Jesus well-balanced. In his treatment of miracles, for example, he emphasizes the need to set aside enlightenment concerns and understand Jesus’ actions from the viewpoint of his contemporaries.
Though today somewhere between many and most people in the industrialized countries think that there are no true miracles, in the ancient world most people believed in miracles, or at least in their possibility. (132)
The epilogue on “The Resurrection” reveals the author’s humility and personality. When faced with gospel evidence of the resurrection, the historian in Sanders isn’t quite sure how to respond.
Throughout this book I have offered suggestions about what lies behind passages in the gospels. On the present topic, however, I do not see how to improve on the evidence, or how to get behind it. … That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. (280)
The Historical Figure of Jesus is an engaging, thoughtful, and readable look at the life of Jesus Christ.
—E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993).