On the other hand, the non-biblical literature is very limited and we really don’t know how typical, say, the Book of Jubilees, was of the Jews of its era. We have the Talmuds — the Oral Law now in written form — but they weren’t written down until centuries after the Temple was destroyed. It’s hard to say to what extent the Judaism of the Talmud reflects the Judaism of Jesus’ day.
Meanwhile, in Europe and the US, during the 19th and early 20th Century, NT studies became very un-Jewish, due in part of anti-Semitism, and in part due to the influences of Modernity. Efforts were made to read Jesus and Paul as Existentialists or whatever the contemporary philosophers were spouting at the time.
Fortunately, E. P. Sanders famously argued for a “new perspective” on NT studies.
Sanders is known for his “breakthrough in New Testament scholarship.” His “field of special interest is Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman world.” He is one of the leading scholars in contemporary historical Jesus research, the so-called “third quest,” which places Jesus firmly in the context of Judaism. In contemporary scholarship, Jesus is seen as the founder [of] a “renewal movement within Judaism,” to use Sanders’ phrase. He promotes the predominant view that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet.
Sanders’ first major book was Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which was published in 1977. He had written the book by 1975, but had difficulty in having it published.
Sanders argued that the traditional Christian interpretation that Paul was condemning Rabbinic legalism was a misunderstanding of both Judaism and Paul’s thought, especially since it assumed a level of individualism in these doctrines that was not present, and disregarded notions of group benefit or collective privilege. Rather, Sanders argued, the key difference between pre-Christian Judaism and Pauline teaching was to be found in ideas of how a person becomes one of the People of God. Sanders termed the Jewish belief “covenantal nomism”: one was a member of the people by virtue of God’s covenant with Abraham, and one stayed in it by keeping the Law.
Sanders claimed that Paul’s belief was one of participationist eschatology: the only way to become one of the People of God was through faith in Christ (“dying with Christ”) and the Old Covenant was no longer sufficient. But, once inside, appropriate behavior was required of the Christian, behavior based on the Jewish Scriptures, but not embracing all aspects of it. Both patterns required the grace of God for election (admission), and the behavior of the individual, supported by God’s grace. The dividing line, therefore, was Paul’s insistence on faith in Christ as the only way to election. However, Sanders stressed that Paul also “loved good deeds” and that when his words are taken in context, it emerges that Paul advocates good works in addition to faith in Christ.
Sanders’ next major book was Jesus and Judaism, published in 1985. In this work he argued that Jesus began as a follower of John the Baptist and was a prophet of the restoration of Israel. Sanders saw Jesus as creating an eschatological Jewish movement through his appointment of the Apostles and through his preaching and actions. After his execution (the trigger for which was Jesus overthrowing the tables in the temple court of Herod’s Temple, thereby antagonizing the political authorities) his followers continued the movement, expecting his return to restore Israel. One consequence of this return would involve Gentiles worshiping the god of Israel. Sanders could find no substantial points of opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees, and he viewed Jesus as abiding by Jewish law and the disciples as continuing to keep it (cf. e.g., Acts 3.1; 21.23-26, for their worship in the Temple). Sanders also argues that Jesus’ sayings did not entirely determine Early Christian behavior and attitudes, as is shown by Paul’s discussion of divorce (1 Cor. 7.10-16) where the latter quotes Jesus’ sayings and then gives his own independent ruling. In one interview, Sanders stated that Paul felt that “he was the model to his churches.”
Judaism: Practice and Belief was published in 1992 and tested Sanders’ thesis in the light of concrete Jewish practices. Sanders argued that there was a “Common Judaism”, that is, beliefs and practices common to all Jews, regardless of which religious party they belonged to. After the reign of Salome Alexandra, the Pharisees were a small but very respected party which had a varying amount of influence within Judaism. The main source of power, however, was with the rulers and especially the aristocratic priesthood (Sadducees). Sanders argues that the evidence indicates that the Pharisees did not dictate policy to any of these groups or individuals.
In general, Sanders stressed the importance of historical context for a proper understanding of first century religion. He attempted to approach “Judaism on its own terms, not in the context of the Protestant-Catholic debates of the sixteenth century” in order to redefine views on Judaism, Paul, and Christianity as a whole. As Sanders said, he reads Paul in his context, which is “Palestine in the first century and especially first century Judaism.” In this spirit, one of Sanders’ articles is titled “Jesus in Historical Context.”
Sanders is a historian. His work was followed by a number of prominent Pauline scholars, such as N. T. Wright, James D. G. Dunn, and Richard Hays. And there are disagreements among them on a number of points, but all agree that the NT must be read in light of what we know of First Century Judaism from other sources, such as Josephus, Philo, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha. And this has led to a revolution in Christian thought.
I think Sanders made a number of mistakes but that he was certainly correct in arguing for interpretation in light of actual First Century context. He was right that the Jews considered themselves saved by virtue of the covenant with Abraham. He was right that Paul insisted on entering into Christ as a condition of salvation (although it’s more than that), but he failed to realize that the covenant with Abraham continued to be seen as the path to salvation even for Gentiles. What changed is the requirement that faith include faith in Jesus as Messiah. Indeed, Paul couldn’t imagine there being such a thing as faith in God that is not also faith in Jesus.
Most importantly, Sanders’ work changed the questions being asked. Rather than endlessly debating Calvin vs. Luther or Calvin vs. Arminius or the countless other Reformation-era questions, we look for the questions actually being asked and answered in the NT. And no NT author was focused on many of the questions that so absorb the energies of the Post-Reformation church.
For example, when Paul speaks of “election,” he is not thinking of Calvin’s Institutes or Augustine’s Confessions. He is thinking of Torah, the election of the Jews as God’s people, and how Jesus and the cross change that. He was a First Century Jew asking and answering First Century questions. He was re-interpreting Deuteronomy in light of the resurrection.
Just so, Romans 5 may touch on original sin (or not), but Paul wrote the chapter to deal with the salvation of the Gentiles by faith because there were Jews insisting that Gentiles must be saved by becoming Jews — including circumcision.
Therefore, John the Baptist didn’t come and preach and prophesy to answer the Church of Christ/Baptist debates over the timing of salvation vis-a-vis baptism. The questions he was answering are: Where are we in terms of Deuteronomy’s blessings and curses? How does Israel return to God? How does the Exile end and the Kingdom come?
These are very unfamiliar questions to most Christians, because our minds have been conditioned to think in Reformation terms. That is, we are far more interested in doctrines that define and divide denominations than in doctrines that occupied the thoughts of the authors of the Bible.
And so we’re blessed to live in an age when the NT is being reconsidered in light of First Century issues — and brilliant scholars are helping us see how these issues matter to us today. All these questions have implications for the modern church, implications that are still been worked out and sorted through. But we can’t even begin to think about application until we learn to read the text for the purposes for which it was written.
All of which I say in order to explain John the Baptist’s ministry more clearly.