Jesus Remembered

  • James D. G. Dunn
  • Jan 1, 2003
  • Series: Volume 6 - 2003

Dunn, James D. G. Jesus Remembered. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans. 2003 xvii + 1019 pp. $55.00. ISBN 0-8028-3931-2

Recent years have disclosed no subsiding of the flood of large, even multi-volume works on the historical Jesus. This book takes its place within that rapid current, as volume one of a projected three to form the series, Christianity in the Making. In many ways, this series will form the crowning climax of the publishing career of James Dunn, the soon-to-be retired Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the University of Durham, England. Jesus Remembered is most comparable to Dunn's Theology of Paul the Apostle in size and format, minus the individual section bibliographies that appeared in Paul. Five parts encompass nineteen chapters, with copious footnotes that interact with virtually all the important recent secondary literature. The first two parts form prolegomena; the latter three comprise the actual study of Jesus.

Part One treats "faith and the historical Jesus." Dunn summarizes the key trends of modern biblical scholarship, organized particularly under the post-Enlightenment "flight from dogma" and the post-K�hler "flight from history." The former is misguided, not least because some dogma may have originated with Jesus himself. The latter is misdirected, preeminently because incarnation by definition means the commitment of God to time and the historical process. The key, therefore, is to understand the role of faith as trust, operating with probabilities not certainties, the role of critical realism in studying history, and a hermeneutic that takes seriously the unalterable (if not always fully discernible) meaning of the text. With K�hler, the result is a Jesus who is never free from interpretation, but, with less ahistorical approaches, one recognizes that such interpretation began with Jesus and with his pre-Easter followers. Thus the Jesus that emerges from such historical investigation is always "the remembered Jesus."

Part Two discusses how to move "from the Gospels to Jesus." Dunn analyzes the sources available to us. He accepts Markan priority and the Q-hypothesis but recognizes there is very little we can know with any confidence about Q. Though Thomas may often be independent of the canonical Gospels, it is rarely if ever more original than they. Only a minority of distinctively Johannine data may be employed. Dunn's key distinctive here is to stress the probably ongoing role of oral tradition even as written sources were being formed and utilized. Using regular charts presenting the Synoptic texts in parallel columns throughout the rest of the book and underlining the closest parallels, Dunn builds on the work of Kenneth Bailey on "informal, controlled tradition" to suggest plausibly that the differences among Synoptic parallels reflect a complex interplay between literary editing and the use of oral tradition. Dunn also concisely surveys what he has unpacked in detail in numerous disparate writings about the unity and diversity of the Judaism into which Jesus was born. As he prepares to move into his formal study of Jesus, he suggests the guiding criterion of sweeping broadly through the Synoptic tradition on various topics looking for what is at the same time most characteristic and most distinctive as that which is most likely to be authentic.

Part Three then begins this process, treating "the mission of Jesus." Dunn gives the infancy narratives scant credence, because of the nature of the theologizing that occurs there (though here would have been a good place to begin his use of oral tradition especially in light of Farris' work on the infancy narratives). With John the Baptist, we can begin to make more confident historical pronouncements. John distinguished himself particularly by implying that his own ritual offered an adequate alternative to the temple cult. Jesus' baptism, with its embarrassing link to the forgiveness of sin, is securely anchored in history, as is his emerging out of the Baptist's orbit. A detailed analysis of the kingdom of God yields the fewest fresh insights--God's reign is both present and future--but in light of the Jesus Seminar's jettisoning of the latter, this reassertion proves welcome. One may not avoid the conclusion that Jesus spoke of coming judgment and rewards, including an eschatological reversal involving especially the exaltation of many of the poor and vulnerable, whom Israel's leaders had consigned to a second-class status of sinners. Along the way Dunn challenges Crossan's peasant Cynic-like Jesus, Sanders' "repentance-free" Jesus, and even Wright's grand narrative of Jesus proclaiming the "end of exile." But with Sanders and Wright, Jesus is clearly directing his mission to Israel, to all of Israel, and to scarcely anyone but Israel (though there are the barest of hints of a Gentile mission). In the process, however, the full extent of Jesus' challenge to Torah seems to be played down and the extent to which Jesus confidently proclaimed "the end" in his day exaggerated.

Part Four moves to the question of Jesus' self-understanding. Beginning with the question of what others may have thought of Jesus, Dunn, like Wright, works backward chronologically from the trial before the Sanhedrin to point out the number of times expectations for a regal Messiah appear. Then working forward from the feeding of the 5000, he shows how Jesus consistently rejects this role. A more promising category is that of prophet (again with Wright), which embraces a large amount of authentic material, but still there is a surplus leading instead to a "more than a prophet"-figure. Here fit the "extraordinary deeds," as Dunn calls the miracles, relying on one possible English rendering of Josephus' testimony. The healings and exorcisms are clearly grounded in authentic material; the nature miracles prove more tricky but seem to reflect at least some genuine, striking events. Jesus' own understanding, however, is better dealt with via the various uses of Son, Son of God and Son of Man. The Abba intimacy of the former two terms can be overplayed but remains legitimate. The debate about backgrounds for the latter can be resolved via a "both-and" hypothesis. Both Ezekiel's "a mere man," and Daniel's exalted, heavenly figure are involved, but, because the latter seems to go to heaven from earth rather than vice-versa, any clear hope in the Gospels for a "second coming" may be a post-Easter creation.

The climactic Part Five considers Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Despite some secondary anti-Jewish biases retrojected, here events are in general firmly anchored in history. The temple demonstration provided the key stimulus for Jesus' arrest and indictment. As with the Baptist, Jesus would have been perceived as inappropriately bypassing the temple cult. Jesus probably set out deliberately to Jerusalem in hopes of restoring the kingship but also likely anticipated the conflict that would await him there. After John's execution, predicting his own would not have proved difficult. Jesus could well have viewed his coming death as that of a faithful martyr, God's chosen eschatological agent who had to endure tribulation to bring about Israel's renewal and inaugurate the new covenant. He would have envisioned vindication, perhaps even resurrection, though probably as part of the general resurrection of all people. As for the resurrection accounts, the empty tomb is the most authenticated datum. The appearances themselves can be ranked in terms of probability, with the experiences of Mary Magdalene and the other women being the most solid, inasmuch as they were least likely to have been invented. The resurrection traditions were being firmly believed and taught within months (not decades) of Jesus' death. If the disciples were merely objectifying beliefs about Jesus' spiritual exaltation, there is no explanation for them couching their faith in terms of resurrection appearances for which there was no precedent. But ultimately resurrection remains a metaphor for the interpreted Jesus and thus more a "paradigm of hope" than a "criterion of faith."

Attempting so much not surprisingly can lead to a few factual errors (Theissen's criterion of historical plausibility is not "more a restatement of historical method than a criterion" [p. 83]; in fact, it is an independently developed four-part criterion remarkably similar to Wright's double similarity and dissimilarity), to strange words ("swingeing criticism" [p. 528] or "unwisdom" [p. 762]), and to an annoying proliferation of sentence fragments every few pages. Which apparently do not bother either Dunn or Eerdmans. The last sentence and this one being their favorite kinds of fragments. But these are small quibbles compared to the enormous value of the volume.

While not replacing Wright in boldness of hypothesis and scope of coverage nor Meier in painstaking analysis of minute detail, Dunn's work deserves to take its place with that of Wright and Meier as one of the three most significant, comprehensive historical Jesus studies of our generation. Others may claim greater innovation, but one or more of these three, in some combination, "get it right" more of the time than anyone else. Now if only someone would take the Gospel of John seriously enough as history to include a larger portion of it in their database as well (see my Historical Reliability of John's Gospel)!

Craig L. Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary