Tribute to E.P. Sanders

Ed Parish Sanders (April 18, 1937—November 21, 2022) recently passed away at the age of 85, peacefully in his home in Durham, North Carolina. Sanders was born in Grand Prairie, Texas, was a high school football player (as a good Texan), and earned degrees from Texas Wesleyan College in Fort Worth (1955–1959), the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas (1959–1962), spent a year studying at Göttingen, Oxford, and Jerusalem (1962–1963), and finally earned his ThD at Union Theological Seminary in New York City under W.D. Davies (1963–1966). He studied Rabbinic Hebrew with David Daube in Oxford and Mordechai Kamrat in Jerusalem through the financial generosity of others, who apparently saw potential in him. He taught for nearly 40 years, at McMaster University (1966–1984), Oxford University (1984–1990), and finally at Duke University (1990–2005), where he retired and continued to live, at least in the same city.

Sanders was a New Testament scholar who is probably best known for his work in Paul and Second Temple Judaism. His significant book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), influenced the course of Pauline and Second Temple Judaism studies, and it arguably spurred on the New Perspective on Paul. While James Dunn coined the term in a 1983 essay, apparently based on N.T. Wright’s usage of this term in a less technical way during a paper he gave in a Tyndale House New Testament Lecture in 1978, Dunn’s ideas (and Wright’s) were at least in part based on Sanders’s in Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In this book, Sanders argues that STJ was not, as we post-Reformation Christians have long interpreted, a religion of works and legalism, but it was a religion of grace and covenant. He coined the term covenantal nomism to describe the religion of STJ. Covenantal nomism, simply put, is the notion that one was saved by grace and admitted into the covenant family of God through grace, but it would be works and obedience to the law that kept one in that covenant. Thus, Paul was not arguing against legalism and works-righteousness in his letters to the various churches but arguing against covenantal nomism. Sanders followed up this book with one specifically on Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (1983), since his earlier work had actually very little say about Paul. Sanders then undertook to define what he called common Judaism in his Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE–66 CE (1992). Sanders affected Pauline and STJ studies in a significant way. In fact, he was my (Dave) main conversational partner for my PhD dissertation, in which I argued that Paul’s letter to the Galatians does not appear to be a polemic against covenantal nomism but against some sort of legalism or works-righteousness based religion.

However, Sanders started off as a Gospels specialist, with his doctoral dissertation published as The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition (1969), where he examines and questions the supposed criteria of form criticism in relationship to the tendencies of the Gospel traditions. He ends up disputing truisms regarding increasing length and detail and decreasing Semitisms in the Gospel traditions. This work is now often either overlooked when the scholarship of Sanders is recounted because of his later work on Paul and the historical Jesus or cited only to be ignored regarding its implications for form criticism. Nevertheless, this first book on tendencies already shows Sanders’s penchant for challenging the status quo and problematizing received wisdom in New Testament scholarship. Sanders went on to make his own distinctive contribution to historical Jesus studies in his Jesus and Judaism (1985). The two basic questions this book addresses are: (1) what were Jesus’s intentions in Judaism, and (2) what was Jesus’s relationship to his contemporaries in Judaism? Two further related questions arise: (3) what was/were the reason(s) for his death, and (4) what was the motivating force behind the rise of Christianity? To answer these questions, Sanders outlines the historically indisputable core events in Jesus’s life and then examines the rest of the historical Jesus tradition in light of these events. In line with his view of Judaism, he argues for a more linear and continuous solution between Jesus and Judaism. This volume has become one of the foundational volumes in what is sometimes referred to (errantly we believe) as the Third Quest for the historical Jesus.

Sanders also influentially wrote on other related topics, including interpreting the Synoptic Gospels, and late in his life he returned to Paul and Judaism in several volumes.    

In his obituary, it states:

In private life Ed was an avid reader of all sorts of books, an enthusiastic sports fan and conversationalist, an adventurous traveler, lifelong gardener, devoted friend, and a loving husband, father, and grandfather. He appreciated the finer things in life, from fancy fountain pens and knives to special holiday food and drink, and loved to share his enthusiasms with family and friends. ‘Old-fashioned’ in the best sense, he instilled in the family a sense of formality and an appreciation for traditions, and gently modeled the “right way” to do things, from planting a rose to driving a stick shift to writing an essay. He never forgot his Texas roots and enjoyed reconnecting with old friends from his high school and college days there after he retired.

Sanders published about 15 books, either in Paul, Gospels, or Judaism. We thank him for his contribution to New Testament studies, and although we may disagree on several views regarding the New Testament, we cannot fail to recognize his influence upon the field.

— Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon


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