Sanders was a New Testament scholar and not, strictly speaking, a historian, but his life’s work took place at the intersection of those disciplines. I think that work is something historians really need to attend to and to appreciate. E.P. Sanders changed our understanding of the New Testament by changing our understanding of history. He helped to correct a massive mistake in our (for limited values of “our”) historical understanding.
Here’s Mark Chancey on Sanders, for RNS:
From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Sanders turned out a series of massive tomes, including “Paul and Palestinian Judaism,” “Jesus and Judaism,” and “Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE–66 A.D.,” exploring the relationship between early Judaism and early Christianity. In his work and personally he forcefully called on fellow scholars to reject caricatures of Judaism and to immerse themselves more deeply in ancient Jewish sources.
… Of his 10 books, “Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion,” which appeared in 1977, proved to be the most influential. Earlier New Testament scholars had argued that Jews believed that people earned their salvation by piling up good deeds or works of the Jewish law, resulting in what Sanders referred to as “smug self-righteousness” or profound anxiety about their status before God. Judaism, in their view, was a dour religion slavishly devoted to legal minutiae.
Sanders’ own poring over Jewish sources, especially rabbinic texts, convinced him that such scholars had failed to examine them firsthand, drastically misinterpreted them or else willfully misrepresented them. He argued instead that ancient Jews understood Torah observance to be part of the Jews’ covenant relationship with a loving, merciful God. He was impressed by the “humanity and tolerance” of the rabbis, along with their “academic love of precision,” he wrote.
Sanders determined to offer a more accurate and fair-minded portrayal of the religion and “to destroy the (negative) view of Rabbinic Judaism which is still prevalent in much, perhaps most, New Testament scholarship.” … Sanders was not the first New Testament scholar to expose distortions of Judaism, but the sheer force and exhaustiveness of his argument proved particularly effective in drawing attention to the problem.
Sanders’ work is the basis for what has come to be called the “New Perspective” on Paul and on the world of first-century Judaism that shapes the New Testament context. The implications of this New Perspective — as I’ve written here before — are tectonic. That’s because the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of first-century Judaism wasn’t only the basis for the contemporary scholarship of most of Sanders’ NT Studies colleagues, it was the basis for a great deal of the theology of the Reformation.
If E.P. Sanders was right, then Martin Luther was, well, wrong. And it sure seems like Sanders was right.
Luther was neither a New Testament scholar nor a historian. He was an Augustinian monk dealing with a European church that was calcified and, in many ways, corrupt. And thus Luther read Paul as though Paul were also an Augustinian monk struggling against corrupt medieval Catholic bishops. As I wrote earlier, Luther recast Paul as:
… Paul the Reformer who was converted from his former life as Saul the medieval Catholic bishop, and first-century Judaism was recast as the embodiment of late-medieval Catholicism. [He] imagined that first-century Judaism was all about works righteousness instead of salvation by grace and so Paul was read as someone writing about a theological clash that coincidentally mirrored [his] own.
The evidence in support of Sanders’ position is formidable. This is why I think it helps to regard him as a historian as much as a New Testament scholar. The latter term conjures up an image of some professor sitting in his study, reading and re-reading the 27 short books of the New Testament, and scrupulously conjugating ancient Greek verbs. But Sanders’ work was based on his study of primary sources — of everything he could find written by and for and about first-century Judaism itself. And his interpretation of those primary sources was bolstered by a rich wealth of information that had been shamefully untapped by much of previous New Testament scholarship, which is to say that he learned about Judaism by actually talking to and studying with actual Jews.
That’s something Martin Luther might have benefitted from but never did. Luther wrote a great deal about Jews, but never listened to them or sought to understand them, and so what he wrote was not just inaccurate, but downright awful.
Worst than that. However bad you’re thinking it was, Luther’s writing on “the Jews” was worse than you’re imagining even if you’re already trying to account for the fact that it’s probably worse than you’re imagining. Martin Luther was a raging antisemite. His 1543 tract Von den Jüden und iren Lügen called for ethnic cleansing, conscription into forced labor, deportation, lethal violence, and the burning of synagogues. It’s toxic, venomous, evil stuff.
Luther’s naked, indefensible, disgraceful antisemitism is something we Protestant Christians have to contend with. We are Luther’s heirs, inheriting both the good and the (very, very, very) bad of his legacy. And so, over the ensuing centuries, we have tried to sort out the good from the bad, keeping the former while discarding the latter. We’ll treasure the 95 Theses and the commentaries, but reject Von den Jüden, excising it as an isolated and isolatable malignancy that can be neatly removed like some cancer the doctors caught in time.
Alas, it turns out it’s not so easy to compartmentalize the antisemitism of a man who did not himself compartmentalize it. Sanders’ work shows us, among other things, that Luther’s misrepresentation of den Jüden also pervades his commentaries on Romans and Galatians — pervades the whole of his theology. Unweaving those threads is — and will be — a lot harder than we’ve previously acknowledged.
This shouldn’t be surprising. This is, after all, is something else we inherited from the great theologians of the Protestant Reformation — an appreciation for the pervasive and comprehensive corruption of sin. The idea that the obviously untainted good bits of Luther’s theology might be easily set apart from the obviously tainted, bad bits is, itself, not easy to reconcile with the strongest insights of Luther’s theology (or of Calvin’s, or Augustine’s, or Paul’s).
This is grim and more than a bit daunting. And it’s not at all limited to our consideration (and necessary reconsideration) of the inheritance we receive from Martin Luther.
It would be nicer and easier, for example, if we Americans had a Declaration of Independence or a Constitution that hadn’t been bequeathed to us by slave-owners, or if the taint of that atrocity were somehow easily and simply excisable from those great legacies. But, alas, few things turn out to be so very nice and easy. (Glances over at the bookshelf containing a once-unreservedly revered copy of The Politics of Jesus and sighs heavily.)
As the heirs of Luther and Jefferson, etc., we have our work set out for us. As the Reformers taught us, that work will require and rely on grace, but that grace will not — despite what we pretend they’ve taught us — exempt us from the necessity of that work.
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P.S.: You may note that I haven’t said anything at all here about statues. I’m mourning the passing of E.P. Sanders and celebrating the revelatory insights of his work (and of his approach to that work), but I haven’t been demanding that we erect statues in his honor. Nor have I been demanding that we tear down statues of Martin Luther.
It ain’t about statues. Or about names on buildings or plaques, placards, posters, or T-shirts. Those aren’t wholly irrelevant, but they’re a tertiary concern, at best — a distraction for procrastinators daunted by the difficult prospect of the work we have to do as the heirs of legacies pervasively tainted by evils we can scarcely bear to look at directly.
Nor is it about reputation — theirs or ours. And, let’s be candid, whenever we attempt to defend their reputation, what we’re really doing is defending our own. And — let’s be even more candid — when we focus on attacking their reputation, what we’re usually doing is also defending our own. Reputation isn’t a helpful category. It inevitably sends us off to ask and to answer the wrong questions.
“Opinion” isn’t a helpful framework to consider here either. I’m not trying to diminish your opinion of Martin Luther here any more than I’m trying to express my own. Luther composed and signed his name to Von den Jüden und iren Lügen and neither my opinion nor yours matters a whit compared to that. We can go ahead and try to place our thumbs on either side of the scales of history there and it won’t matter. Our thumbs aren’t that heavy and, in any case, this isn’t about our thumbs or where we choose to stick them.