Reflections on E.P. Sanders, primary sources, and ancient Judaism

Goodacre posted a link today to E. P. Sander’s recent intellectual autobiography entitled "Comparing Judaism and Christianity: An Academic Autobiography." I needed something good to read this morning before getting to work, so I thought I would give it a try. I have read some of his Paul and Palestinian Judaism but most of my exposure to Sanders was through word of mouth (which has usually been either "man he was smart and changed the world of scholarship", "he was liberal," or a combination of both) or through footnotes (which generally said the former rather than the latter).

I’m glad I read the article. Here is my favorite quote:

"When I began lecturing at McMaster University, I tried to present a Bultmannian Paul. I soon realized that this just did not work (the theory did not fit the text) and that I needed to do something else. By then I had learned THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON OF MY LIFE: you really know what you learn for yourself by studying original sources. I would never have come to my understanding of the Rabbis by reading secondary literature." (page 14)

Amen. Related was the clear idea that came through was that ancient Judaism was essential to understand if one wants to understand the NT. Time had built up a false understanding of Judaism, and therefore any contrast between the false Judaism and Christianity is necessarily going to skew both.

I came to a conclusion a while back that is related, but I’m going to wait to say anything about that until I’ve made two more points. There are two things that happened to me in seminary that got me thinking in that direction. First, DTS invited I. Howard Marshall for a lecture series at the school. It was pretty interesting. It is just about the only chapel messages of which I can remember the topic, actually. Anyway, a friend of mine and I asked Marshall if he would eat lunch with us one day after the lectures. And he agreed. It was a nice lunch and one thing really stood out to me from that conversation. One of us asked him what he would have done differently in his scholarly life. He said, in rough quotation, "Study Second Temple Judaism more."

Second was my thesis. My friend Ragan proposed a problem that I sought to solve. The book of Hebrews is focused in many ways on how the coming of the New Covenant has replaced the old, very much like Paul. But unlike Paul you don’t see any discussion of the Spirit as a transformative agent for obedience like you do with Paul. And the question is, what’s up with that? The quest involved a long search through mostly useless secondary material. The material, I should say, wasn’t useless, but it was clearly insufficient when it came to the topic. Actually, I found that practically no one had ever said anything about this (I actually found, I think, one person, but if you are interested you can take a look at my thesis which is online at -- shameless plug). So, I decided to pour my time into the study of the primary sources of Second Temple Judaism. I ended up spending most of my time reading large amounts of Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Not only did I find lots of fodder for my thesis, I also found what I think is an incredibly important quotation from Enoch that my friend Ragan was able to use in his thesis (which was on the identification of Babylon in Revelation as Jerusalem, which is also online at -- yes SHAMELESS). I learned two things from my thesis experience that will forever shape the way I think. First, I am convinced that there is a wealth of information in the primary sources of Second Temple Judaism that greatly enhances our understanding of Judaism at the time and Christianity as an emerging group. Second, I am convinced that very, very few people in conservative circles actually read the primary sources.

So, here’s my conclusion. I think those outside of conservative circles have come to grasp the importance of actually studying the primary sources of Second Temple Judaism, though not fully. But conservative scholarship has not. This is why I now have the tendency to avoid most of conservative scholarship. Don’t get me wrong. I think some of them are brilliant men. I am friends with a number of DTS professors who are very well educated and have spent time in the primary sources. But for the most part I think most of conservative scholarship is myopic, especially in its lack of concern for understanding Second Temple Judaism and time spent in the primary sources. You can get through a ThM at DTS with spending practically no time at all in that material (I think it was required reading in only one class, and that was only for a project or two). This is very, very bad, and is something that conservative scholarship needs to correct. I do think that conservative British scholarship is much better in this regard than American scholarship. N.T. Wright can be taken as a great example in this regard. But, by in large, I am quite convinced that this is the case.

Right now I am almost entirely focused on programming and Greek syntax. One day I really want to get seriously into research in this area and hope the time will be available. Maybe I’ll even go back to school to continue my education in this regard. But in the meantime I’ll just have to sit down with my copies of Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha or Garcia Martinez’s and Tigchelarr’s Dead Sea Scrolls and read for my own personal fulfillment. And maybe I’ll even say something online once in a while :)