Jesus, Paul and the Gospels

Jesus, Paul and the Gospels

By James D.G. Dunn
(Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge UK: Eerdmans, 2011),
224 pp., $21 (paperback)
Reviewed by Sean Freyne

By any standards, the academic output of British New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn is highly impressive. This latest book is a distillation of his opinions on the two principal figures of early Christianity, Jesus and Paul— insights that have been more fully developed in his earlier works, The Theology of the Apostle Paul (1998) and Jesus Remembered (2003). The volume under review is written for a wider audience, yet Dunn succeeds in addressing key current debates within the discipline with clarity and characteristic thoroughness that many readers will appreciate.

Dunn’s approach has always been marked by a careful attention to what the texts are saying. Recourse to the various “turns”—literary, sociological and cultural—that have marked North American scholarship in particular over the past decades, is not for him. For that reason his work may be seen in some quarters as somewhat conservative. Yet his detailed engagement with the texts and his ability to see convergences between what others might deem to be different strands within early Christianity make his work informative and challenging.

One key feature of Dunn’s later work, beginning with his presidential address in 2001 to the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (Society for New Testament Studies), is his stress on the oral, as distinct from the literary, context of the early Christian movement. This feature, he recognizes, is difficult for us who live in a post-printing age to comprehend fully. Yet for him, an awareness of the oral culture from which the Gospels emerge is key to a proper appreciation of the shared pool of tradition that was available to the Evangelists.

For Dunn, the tradition was anchored in the memory that Jesus’ first followers had of his actual deeds and words. That memory continued to have an impact on them after his death. Their oral performances developed the tradition, while at the same time being always rooted in the original experience.

Here, however, one must begin to ask questions about Dunn’s understanding of the precise role that memory played in the experience of the early Christians, and, consequently, their sense of what constituted faithfulness to the tradition. For Dunn, memory is the guarantor of the historical reliability of the tradition. Thus the continuity and authenticity of the pre- and post-Easter phases of the tradition history is assured.

On two occasions, however, the author of the Fourth Gospel appeals to the vital role that a post-Easter remembering played in the Johannine disciples’ arrival at a proper understanding of pre-Easter statements by Jesus (John 2:21 and 12:16). Dunn sees these two references as confirming his understanding of memory as accurate recollection of the past (p. 79). However, this is in danger of underplaying the totally new situation in which all the pre-Easter followers of Jesus found themselves after the Resurrection experience. In other words, memory in general, and for early Christians in particular, is, or at least should be, always a combination of recalling and reflecting on the past, but in the light of the present.

For the followers of Jesus, that present was transformative in ways that they did not anticipate or could not have comprehended before the crucifixion. The extent to which this experience may have transformed their memories of the earthly Jesus is indeed debatable. For this reviewer, however, the distinctive creativity of each of the Evangelists in their handling of the tradition that they received is still an important dimension of the newness of the early Christian witness as a whole.

The other interesting facet of Jesus, Paul and the Gospels is Dunn’s handling of the age-old question of the Jesus- Paul relationship. Is Paul the founder of a different religion to that of Jesus, given the fact that he relies so minimally on the tradition about Jesus as we encounter it in the Gospels? Here again Dunn has called on a shared pool of tradition to close the gulf that some scholars have detected between the two men. His treatment of convergences between the Jesus tradition and the Pauline proclamation, as this is developed in chapter 5, certainly challenges those who want to speak glibly of early Christianities in the plural, or who see Paul as the real founder of the new movement.

Yet again, however, to appeal to oral tradition as pointing to a shared vision is to flatten what was surely a sizable mound, or, to change the metaphor, bridge the gulf between them. Are the convergences between the two attributable to other factors such as their shared belief in Jewish restoration hopes? Why does Paul not cite more than four of the Jesus sayings? Were he as grounded in the Jesus tradition as Dunn’s treatment suggests, one might have expected him to appeal to some of Jesus’ deeds and sayings that would have answered his critics more effectively than having to emphasize his own pedigree as an authentic Jew, as he does in Galatians and Philippians, for example.

While it is important to be reminded that there are real convergences between Jesus and Paul as Dunn points out, it is the points at which they differ that raise the interesting questions. These have to do with Paul’s own creativity, and the factors, social, cultural and theological, that gave rise to these. After all, Jesus was an ascetic Galilean teacher/healer focused on the restoration of Israel. Paul was a Diaspora Jew who traveled the Mediterranean world with a message of salvation that was indeed grounded on the death/ resurrection of Jesus, but which also drew on very different wells of inspiration in articulating that message for both Jews and Greeks.

Sean Freyne was professor of theology at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1980 to 2007. He had previously lectured in Ireland, United States and Australia. His scholarly output has focused mainly on the study of Roman Galilee and the formation of the Gospels. He is currently working on a new book, provisionally titled Between Galilee and Jerusalem: Jesus and his First Followers (Eerdmans, forthcoming).

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