Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Question of Uniqueness in the Teaching of Jesus

This week's reading for my Historical Jesus class includes a really wonderful piece by E. P. Sanders.  It's been available on the web for a while courtesy of Rob Bradshaw.  It's a real gem:

Professor E P Sanders
The Ethel M. Wood Lecture 15 February 1990
One of the favourite things which New Testament scholars and, probably, Christians in general say about Jesus is that he was ‘unique’. If we think historically, we know two things about the topic from the outset: no two people are alike; there is nothing new under the sun. Like all clichés, these two are true, and the hard thing is to know how to apply them. In this respect these two statements are like general moral maxims and folk wisdom: one or the other will meet every situation, but you do not know in advance which formula to apply when. I live by two maxims: nothing ventured nothing gained, and better safe than sorry. My trouble has been venturing when I should have played safe and the reverse. But one of these two maxims is always true. So it is with regard to similarity and dissimilarity among human beings. Either 'nothing new’ will apply, or ‘no two people are alike’. They might even both apply at the same time, as clichés often do. My wife once said to me, on the same topic, ‘that’s just like a man’, and ‘only you could do something like that’.
That's how to begin a lecture! And he goes on with quotations from Jeremias on Jesus calling God "Abba" and from Hengel on Jesus' difference from Theudas and comments:
One of the most interesting things about saying that this or that is unique is that the claim implies what one might at first think to be uniqueness on the part of the claimant: that he or she is omniscient. Omniscience, it will turn out, is by no means unique to any individual New Testament scholar: most have it, or claim to have it. We should all, however, grant that our knowledge is limited. We have very few personal prayers from other Jews of the first century, and so are not able to prove a negative, that no ‘Jew’ (that is, no Jew other than Jesus) could have said abba. We possess no stories at all about how Theudas and others called their followers, and so we cannot say that only Jesus called people with an authority ‘grounded in God himself’.
And so it goes on. Great stuff.

1 comment:

Brian Springer said...

Thank o' so much for sharing this with us, Mark. I should share it with my parish's bible study or RCIA program. Many of the faithful [and this extends to scholars] wrongly believe that Jesus must be in some way set totally apart from his own social context, which is a rather strange thing to say for those who accept the incarnation. E.P Sanders is spot on in this case and I applaud him.