This is a paper I wrote for an undergraduate course about a year ago called “Jesus the Jew”.
In The Historical Figure of Jesus, E. P. Sanders presents a very detailed examination of the evidence available for Jesus’ life. Of the three sources used for this paper, it is the most complete and the most scholarly in nature. F. E. Peters’ unpublished chapters on Jesus are very similar to Sanders’ work, though written in a more conversational way and with more emphasis on Jesus as the Gospels portray him, and on how Jesus viewed himself. Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is written for a mainstream audience and relegates complex arguments about sources to the endnotes, but it also presents a scholarly view of Jesus with an emphasis on social unrest.
Sanders is very clear about the evidence relating to Jesus. He writes that “the more or less contemporary documents, apart from those in the New Testament, shed virtually no light on Jesus’ life or death, though they reveal a lot about the social and political climate.” He is probably referring to Philo, who did not mention Jesus, and Josephus, who was born after Jesus was crucified. Sanders explains that using the New Testament as a source is problematic because it was not written as a history; it was intended to be a theological document and though historians can glean information from it, as Sanders, Peters and Aslan all do, it is impossible to know whether the information is accurate or not.
A good example of this is the contradictory reasons given to explain why Jesus grew up in Nazareth in Galilee rather than in Bethlehem. The device used to reconcile this apparent scriptural contradiction is a census that required people to travel to the hometown of their ancestor of forty-two generations. Sanders describes this method as being the result of a difference between how history is thought of today and salvation history, which required Jesus to be placed in a narrative that met traditional models or types based on scriptural precedents. Aslan also points out the obvious inaccuracy of the census but explains it as the inability of writers at the time to think of history scientifically because they were attempting to reveal truths, rather than facts. Regardless, the point is that the New Testament is not a document that is meant to convey factual history; it is a theological document.
Sanders relies heavily on Josephus and also references Philo as a source of information to describe the historic and social setting that Jesus acted in. Sanders writes in detail about the problems of using the New Testament and explains how it was formed, starting out orally and evolving into pericopes that could be rearranged into stories depending on the author’s needs. Because of these issues, he believes that understanding Jesus can best be done by understanding the social and historical setting of first century Palestine. Aslan is also heavily invested in exploring the social setting of Palestine to try to understand how it may have influenced Jesus as a man. He also uses Philo as source for information about Judaism and Palestine, but does not mention him within the text of the book itself. Rather, he uses extensive endnotes to mention his sources. He seems to rely more heavily on Josephus and does not engage in the sort of literary critique of the New Testament that Sanders does, perhaps because his book was written for a less scholarly audience. Peters uses the same sources, but also references post-Biblical literature like the Book of Enoch.
The limited number of resources available results in all three authors having very similar arguments and conclusions about Jesus. Sanders presents Jesus as a man who had very little impact in his own society based on Jesus’ lack of a major following and Rome’s inaction in terms of suppressing him and his movement. Aslan mentions that the authorities were highly sensitive to any hint of sedition, but Sanders points out that, despite Josephus’ narrative of steadily increasing social unrest, this was just a plot device he used to build up to the revolt in 66 CE. Aslan’s interpretation implies that Jesus’ activities were more notable than Sanders believes they were, though Aslan also acknowledges the routine nature of Jesus’ crucifixion. All three authors agree that Jesus was crucified for political ideas that undermined Rome’s position, though Peters seems to place more blame on the Jews than either Aslan or Sanders.
Both Aslan and Sanders express similar ideas about the purpose of Jesus’ mission. Aslan writes that Jesus was not interested in gentiles, at least not during his ministry. He was solely concerned with the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Sanders is more specific and explains that Jesus was also concerned with Jews of a specific social class: poor, rural Jews like himself. He also examines the symbolism of Jesus’ use of terminology like “the Twelve” and “the kingdom” to try to discover what Jesus thought he was going to accomplish. We’re left with an image of a devout Jew that felt he was attempting to bring about a new Jewish kingdom of God on Earth that would appear soon after his death. According to Sanders and Aslan, Jesus was not trying to establish a heavenly kingdom and he did not anticipate the dissolution of the physical universe. He was attempting to recreate the golden age of Jewish sovereignty, which may be why he symbolically referred to his primary disciples as “the Twelve,” referencing the twelve tribes of Israel. Peters’ work seems to imply a more apocalyptic meaning (in the Christian sense) in Jesus’ message, but that may simply be due to the unfinished nature of his unpublished work.
Sanders spends the majority of his book whittling away at source material to try to find a believable middle-ground that describes who Jesus might have been and what he might have thought about his role in society. Aslan, on the other hand, spends more time focusing on the social conflict between the Jews and Rome and between different Jewish groups. Peters puts more emphasis on the content of the Synoptic Gospels and Jesus’ role as a messiah with a scriptural basis, but all provide similar images of a historical figure based on the limited sources available. Who Jesus was as a person is likely lost forever, buried in layers of theology, revision, addition, and interpretation by later writers. Most of what can be known about Jesus, barring a new discovery, is already available and all that is left to academia is creative interpretation.
Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Kindle Edition. New York: Random House, 2013.
Peters, F. E. “Chapters 1-5 concerning Jesus.” Unpublished Work. New York, 2012.
Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. Kindle Edition. New York: Penguin, 1995.
 E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1995), 3.
 Ibid., 85.
 Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random house, 2013), Kindle Location 682-688.
 Quoted in Zealot…. The translation is the author’s own.