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Remembering E.P. Sanders, a New Testomony scholar who provided a brand new take a look at Judaism

(RNS) — The influential New Testomony scholar E. P. Sanders, who devoted his profession to selling extra correct and, for Christian students, extra sympathetic understandings of early Judaism, died on November 21 at age 85 in Durham, North Carolina.

From the late Seventies to the early Nineties, Sanders turned out a sequence of large tomes, together with “Paul and Palestinian Judaism,” “Jesus and Judaism” and “Judaism: Apply and Perception 63 BCE–66 A.D.,” exploring the connection between early Judaism and early Christianity. In his work and personally he forcefully referred to as on fellow students to reject caricatures of Judaism and to immerse themselves extra deeply in historic Jewish sources.

Sanders got here from what he described as modest beginnings, being born in 1937 right into a household “on the decrease finish of the financial spectrum” within the small Texas city of Grand Prairie, he wrote in an autobiographical essay in 2003. After graduating from Texas Wesleyan College in 1959, he went on to Southern Methodist College’s Perkins Faculty of Theology. “My life mainly modified,” he recounted, “when William R. Farmer, the senior New Testomony scholar at Perkins, determined that I ought to have a yr of research overseas” to check Hebrew.

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His sojourn in Israel was made potential by contributions from each a Methodist church and Dallas’ Temple Emanu-el. “I felt overwhelmed by their generosity, and I particularly vowed that the reward from Temple Emanu-el wouldn’t be in useless,” he later remembered.

Sanders made good on his promise. Whereas engaged on a doctorate at Union Theological Seminary in New York with W. D. Davies, a New Testomony scholar well-versed with Jewish sources, Sanders made some extent of taking courses at close by Jewish Theological Seminary.

In 1966, his Ph.D. in hand, he took an instructional publish at McMaster College earlier than transferring to Oxford College after which Duke College, the place he was Arts and Sciences Professor of Faith till 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 essentially the most influential. Earlier New Testomony students had argued that Jews believed that folks earned their salvation by piling up good deeds or works of the Jewish legislation, leading to what Sanders known as “smug self-righteousness” or profound anxiousness about their standing earlier than God. Judaism, of their view, was a dour faith slavishly dedicated to authorized trivialities.

“Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparability of Patterns of Faith” by E.P. Sanders. Courtesy picture

Sanders’ personal poring over Jewish sources, particularly rabbinic texts, satisfied him that such students had failed to look at them firsthand, drastically misinterpreted them or else willfully misrepresented them. He argued as an alternative that historic Jews understood Torah observance to be a part of the Jews’ covenant relationship with a loving, merciful God. He was impressed by the “humanity and tolerance” of the rabbis, together with their “tutorial love of precision,” he wrote.

Sanders decided to supply a extra correct and fair-minded portrayal of the faith and “to destroy the (destructive) view of Rabbinic Judaism which continues to be prevalent in a lot, maybe most, New Testomony scholarship.”

In his reconstruction, the apostle Paul broke with Judaism not as a result of he had lengthy thought of it irredeemably legalistic however as a result of, as Paul wrote in his Letter to the Galatians, he had concluded that Christ wouldn’t have wanted to die to avoid wasting humankind if salvation have been potential by way of Torah observance. Paul’s reckoning explains his destructive feedback about Jewish legislation, which in flip led Christians to destructive views of Judaism.

Sanders was not the primary New Testomony scholar to show distortions of Judaism, however the sheer drive and exhaustiveness of his argument proved significantly efficient in drawing consideration to the issue. Maybe the very best reward for “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” got here from Jewish New Testomony scholar Samuel Sandmel:

I had written elsewhere that it was my hope to have the ability to write about Christianity in the way in which during which I might need Christians to jot down about Judaism. I might cite Sanders as a Christian who has completed from that facet what I hope I can accomplish from the Jewish facet.

The e book stays a big milestone in New Testomony research.

Sanders’ arguments steadily got here to be grouped with these of James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright because the so-called “New Perspective on Paul,” however Sanders rejected the label. Dunn and Wright agreed with Sanders that early Judaism had not been a faith of petty legalism, however each held that it suffered different severe shortcomings. Sanders felt such reasoning was nonetheless too intently linked to the destructive views of earlier scholarship.

Sanders’ work on the historic Jesus additionally proved to be groundbreaking. In 1985’s “Jesus and Judaism,” he rejected conventional arguments that erroneously claimed a “stark distinction between Jesus, who represents every thing good, pure and enlightened, and Judaism, which represents every thing distorted, hypocritical and deceptive.” As a substitute, Sanders positioned Jesus inside the context of the Judaism of his day, portraying him as an apocalyptic prophet who heralded the approaching arrival of the Kingdom of God.

Sanders additionally took care to deal with the non-academic reader. In 1993, “The Historical Figure of Jesus” supplied a readable reconstruction of Jesus’ actions, teachings and context. In “Paul: A Very Short Introduction,” printed in 2001, he provided an accessible introduction to Paul’s life and thought. Each are wonderful beginning locations for understanding Sanders’ contributions.

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A Methodist in his youth, Sanders later turned a “liberal, fashionable, secularized Protestant,” as he described himself in “Jesus and Judaism.” His obituary notes that he was “deeply honored” when the Council of Facilities on Jewish-Christian Relations introduced him with the 2016 Shevet Achim Award for his “excellent contributions to Jewish-Christian understanding.”

Actually, many New Testomony students previous and current have disagreed with facets of Sanders’ arguments. Few, nevertheless, would query the impression of his demand that representations of Jews and Judaism be honest and correct and never grounded in destructive stereotypes. Particularly at a time when antisemitism in America and elsewhere is on the rise, his presence will likely be sorely missed.

(Mark A. Chancey, who studied with Sanders at Duke College, is a professor of non secular research in Dedman Faculty of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist College. The views expressed on this commentary don’t essentially mirror these of Faith Information Service.)

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