Another Biblical Scholar Explains His Interest in Historical Jesus Studies

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

James D. G.JimmyDunn FBA (born 21 October 1939) is a British New Testament scholar who was for many years the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at the University of Durham, now Emeritus Lightfoot Professor. He has worked broadly within the Protestant tradition. — Wikipedia (12th October 2015)

Other scholars in this series: Dale AllisonRichard BauckhamScot McKnight. To appreciate the coverage of Dunn’s works see a selected list in Wikipedia.

James D.G. Dunn’s view of the historical Jesus was one of five sought for an exchange of views in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy. The others were Robert M. Price, John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson and Darrel L. Bock. Dunn’s earliest forays into the historical Jesus were in response to a controversial 1984 London Weekend Television series Jesus: The Evidence in which doubts were raised against the traditional Christian narrative and even the existence of Jesus. The idea that controversial views should be aired publicly without being simultaneously framed in the condemnation and scorn they find among conventional Christian scholars was too much for Dunn and other critics. Dunn himself reveals his own poor view of the intelligence of the general public in an overwhelmingly Christian nation led by mainstream clergy when he wrote in his preface to his response to the program, The Evidence for Jesus (1985)

From what they saw and heard, viewers who lacked training in biblical studies or theology were unable to distinguish be­tween the weightier and the less weighty opinions. They were given too little advice as to whether what was projected was accepted by the majority of scholars in this field or only by a lone voice resisting the larger consensus. Of course, scholarship does not and should not pro­ceed by majority vote! One scholar in a hundred may be right, and the remaining ninety-nine wrong. But when lay people are being exposed to the claims of scholarship, they at least have a right to know how well these claims have been received by other scholars.

evidenceIn fact there was ample follow up to the original TV program to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about where mainstream biblical scholars stood. As another scholar, Howard Clark Kee, explains in his Foreword to Dunn’s book,

British television offered a follow-up series in an attempt to give more moderate biblical scholars a chance to present their side of the case and to respond to the radicals. As a result the controversy was, if anything, extended and enlarged. Coming in conjunction with the heated debate that arose when a theologian with controversial views on the virgin birth and resurrection was consecrated a Bishop of the Church of England, thoughtful people—in and out of the churches— raised serious questions: Is the traditional faith of the church obsolete? Is the church not being honest with the public? Have such recent discoveries as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic library in Egypt discredited the Gospel picture of Jesus as we have known it? Is the evidence not being candidly presented and discussed?

In other words, the public was well and truly aware that most scholars did not accept views that radically questioned Christian origins. But what was under threat was public confidence in the intellectual integrity of the bulk of those theologians. Damage control was called for and James Dunn stepped in to do his part to bolster the confidence of the devout.

Fortunately, there were scholarly and churchly leaders across Great Britain who raised serious and responsible challenges to these radical conclusions. Among the latter was James D. G. Dunn, Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham in northern England, an active churchman and a prolific writer. Professor Dunn is personally interested in the daily life and faith aspects of Christianity as well as in its intellectual dimensions. It was appropriate, therefore, that the Durham Council of Churches should ask him to give a series of lectures to an interchurch audience on the same topic, “Jesus: The Evidence” . . . . (Kee, writing in the Foreword about the origin of the book)

Or in Dunn’s own words:

One of the attractive features of Durham was an active Council of Churches, which Meta and I helped to revive . . . as Churches Together in Durham. Initial involvement was a sequence of lectures in response to a London Weekend Television series entitled Jesus: the Evidence (1984), a series which had proved to be very unbalanced.  The puzzlement and distress caused by the series prompted me to offer a four-lecture response, better rooted in the New Testament evidence and more truly reflected of the range of scholarly opinion. These were published as as The Evidence for Jesus. . . .  

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.   —  (my own bolding and formatting in all quotations)

So Dunn assures readers from reading the gospel narratives themselves that beneath the theological elaboration is indeed “historically reliable” and genuine “historical information” that “clearly” derived from oral traditions going back to the earliest eyewitnesses of Jesus himself. Even the evidence for the resurrection, the “fact” of the empty tomb and the transformation of the disciples after claiming to have witnessed the resurrected Jesus, must leave any well meaning jury with the conclusion that the gospel stories are “attempts to say something which goes beyond human description” and that “there must have been powerful and compelling factors which resulted in the first Christian confession, ‘ God has raised Jesus from the dead’!” (p. 76)

Translation: As a scholar who expects to be judged by the secular norms of the day you cannot say Jesus was resurrected from the dead but if you deny this you still have to admit that something equally miraculous and mysterious was the cause of Christianity. “Something beyond human description” is not very cryptic code for the theological claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. And all of the evidence comes from the narrative details of the gospels that were written to inspire just that belief.

When Dunn’s turn came to respond to Robert Price’s sceptical chapter in Five Views he was evidently perplexed and unable to squarely register, let alone respond to, Price’s words. See an earlier series of posts for the details.

For what it’s worth, Dunn was also the thesis supervisor of another anti-mythicist equally incapable of comprehending let alone coherently addressing Christ Myth arguments, James McGrath.

James Dunn’s Approach to Biblical Studies

believeIn Why I (Still) Believe Dunn helps us understand the foundations and motivations of his scholarly interests. Central to his personal belief is “the reality of the Spirit” and the need for this Spirit to lead the Church today.

The fruits of this research [i.e. his doctoral research into what was meant by “baptism in the Holy Spirit”] resulted in a further volume — Jesus and the Spirit: a study of the religious and charismatic experience of Jesus and the first Christians as reflected in the New Testament (SCM/ Westminster 1975). It remains one of my favourite writings, probing the reality of faith and experience in a way and to a degree I had never thought to do before then. One of the principal conclusions remains with me today: that the liveliness and success of earliest Christianity was very much bound up with the experience of the reality of the Spirit; with the somewhat sad corollary, that the increasing institutionalization of the new movement in second and third generations was in danger of institutionalizing (diminishing?) the power and inspiration of the Spirit. This research led in turn to explore what was primary and what was secondary in Christian faith.

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 60). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Such an interest for Dunn is bound up with the theological belief in the incarnation, or the theological belief in the reality of Jesus in history and how this figure came to be understood in the doctrine of the incarnation:

Having come to the conclusion of the centrality of Christ (one might say the sole centrality of Christ) for Christian faith and the beginnings of Christianity, it was a natural corollary to study this central feature more closely — more precisely, how the doctrine of incarnation came about. This resulted in a fourth volume, Christology in the Making: an Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation (SCM/ Westminster 1980; second edition, SCM, 1989/ Eerdmans, 1996).

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 61). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Dunn was nonetheless no inerrantist. His interest in “the Spirit” led him away from a literalist or fundamentalist view of the Bible. The passage of 2 Cor 3:6 in the following contains the famous phrase “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” Such a “liberal” view is about giving scriptural authority a more intellectual rationalisation; there is no hint of relegating the ancient texts to contemporary irrelevance.

With my personal evangelical history as a Christian, the issue of the authority of Scripture was never far from me, from my more conservative days in Glasgow through the deepening of insight and discussion in Cambridge and thereafter. So the invitation to deliver the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures in Wycliffe Hall, Oxford in February 1987 provided an opportunity and challenge which I could hardly ignore. The lectures were quickly published as The Living Word (SPCK/ Fortress, 1987), the publication including two other essays on “The Authority of Scripture According to Scripture” (1982) and “Levels of Canonical Authority” (1982). This plea for a more scriptural view of scriptural authority (for example, giving 2 Cor 3: 6 due weight), and the critique of the narrowness of Christian fundamentalism, saw a second edition of the same volume published by Fortress in 2009, with four further essays included.

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (pp. 63-64). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

The opening words in the above passage refer back to Dunn’s outline of his history and commitment to Christianity ever since his childhood.

The first book by Dunn that I read was Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?. I was interested in the works of Hurtado and Bauckham arguing that Jesus was worshiped alongside God almost from the moment he was raised from the dead. I had heard that Dunn was offering a contrary view.

Retirement from Durham University (2003) did not result in a quiet life. A sense that major works on earliest christology by Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham did not give the whole picture caused me to ask Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? (SPCK 2010), with a more qualified answer — not least because it is important that the Christianity of the New Testament be properly perceived as a monotheistic faith.

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 66). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Dunn’s qualification was very slight. Jesus was the “content” of the praise offered to God by the earliest Christians as “distinct” from being the object of praise and worship. Notice in the above words that Dunn is motivated to a concern to maintain orthodox views of monotheism and his reason for entering the debate was at least partly for this purpose.

rememberedMore recently Dunn has been among the pioneers of the new approach to historical Jesus research via postmodernist historiography and memory theory. The scholar continues to assume the gospels are historical records of sorts, but this time they inform us of how Jesus “was remembered” by his followers. What they tell us is not “the exact words and deeds” of Jesus but what the memories and impressions of what Jesus said looked like when “recorded” in the gospels.

Having put Paul’s theology “out of the way,” as it were, I could hope to provide a more balanced account of Christianity in the Making, sociological as well as theological. A research fellowship in Durham allowed me to spend the bulk of two years on volume 1, on Jesus — Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans 2003). The key thesis is given in the title: that the impact made by Jesus is still clearly discernible in the Synoptic tradition. This included the protest against attempts to analyse the Jesus tradition solely in terms of written tradition and redaction. Such an approach simply debarred the researcher from penetrating into the first twenty to forty years of Christianity. Yet the Synoptic tradition, with its character of the “same yet different,” allowed a clear perception of how Jesus was remembered in the period before the tradition was transcribed in the Gospels. The impact evidently made by Jesus neatly dovetailed into the different emphases the Synoptic Evangelists drew from the Jesus tradition. The “same” material allowed us to derive a substantial picture of the historical Jesus, while the “different” emphases showed us clearly how the remembered Jesus impacted his disciples and the communities with which they were linked. The volume caused something of a stir, as indicated by R. B. Stewart & G. R. Habermas, eds., Memories of Jesus: A Critical Appraisal of James D. G. Dunn’s Jesus Remembered (B& H, 2010). And in The Oral Gospel Tradition (Eerdmans 2013) I put together the essays/ lectures in which I had highlighted the importance of recognizing the oral character and development of the Jesus tradition before it was put into writing.

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 67). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Of course the oral tradition hypothesis is entirely speculative. By its nature there can be no remaining evidence for its existence. (Claims that “oral features” in the written gospels are evidence for an oral tradition are special pleading at best and made without due consideration of the broader context and nature of ancient literature generally — see oral tradition archives for details.)

Dunn remains a devout Christian believer. He may be somewhat “liberal” in his faith but only in a way that he would consider makes his faith more grounded in the truth of the Spirit and the centrality of the life, death and resurrection of the historical-theological Christ. Following where the evidence leads “without fear or favour” means trusting in the words of Jesus as remembered in the Gospel of John.

As I draw nearer to the next stage of my journey, my faith remains strong, though I find myself often less satisfied that the words used to express that faith are adequate. We worship at our local church, and so find ourselves, with a wry smile, now Anglicans in one of the most conservative Anglican dioceses in Europe. The eucharist every Sunday is quite a departure from the Lord’s Supper three or four times a year which I recall from my Scottish days. And saying the Nicene Creed every Sunday, as though the mystery of God can be put satisfactorily into words (including the Filioque!), can be theologically disquieting.

How would I like to be remembered? . . .  I hope too that my writings will encourage those considering a career in biblical scholarship to persevere in acquiring the necessary skills and to pursue exegetical and historical questions as the evidence indicates without fear or favour. Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8: 31 – 32).

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship (p. 68). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

That freedom, according to Dunn’s own testimony, is the freedom to recognize the authority of Scriptures in their spiritual intent rather than their letter. That includes embracing the Gospel story of Jesus Christ not as literally true in all details but as a true impression and memory Jesus made on his followers.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

13 thoughts on “Another Biblical Scholar Explains His Interest in Historical Jesus Studies”

    1. I’ve hyperlinked your apt Vico reference. Yes, Dunn explains that his doctoral thesis, the beginning of his scholarly career, was an attempt to understand what lay at the heart of becoming a Christian, that is, the receiving of the Spirit of God. Like McGrath he appears not even to be able to comprehend any analysis of the source material that from any other perspective. Indeed, voices from outside the faith perspective are treated as a threat to be condemned. All the better to have a few atheists in the guild speaking from that same faith-perspective (e.g. Michael Goulder) to testify to the supposed intellectual independence and integrity of their field of studies.

  1. Neil said: “Of course the oral tradition hypothesis is entirely speculative. By its nature there can be no remaining evidence for its existence. (Claims that ‘oral features’ in the written gospels are evidence for an oral tradition are special pleading at best and made without due consideration of the broader context and nature of ancient literature generally — see oral tradition archives for details.).”

    Well put

    1. l wonder if McGrath’s extreme hostility to even widely recognized parallels between certain miracles of Jesus and those of Elijah and Elisha — along with the fairly obvious inference that the gospel episodes have been borrowed and adapted from the OT narratives — is grounded in a fear that such “parallels” white-ant the premise of oral tradition.

      1. Don’t get McGrath started on Brodie, lol. I’ve been trying to get Ehrman, on his web site, to admit Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 inspired the crucifixion narrative. Ehrman rejected these Parallels in “Did Jesus Exist” because the original Hebrew scriptures of Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 didn’t refer to the messiah. This doesn’t really work as an argument because the original Christian writers were known for taking Hebrew scripture out of context to apply them to Jesus (such as Hosea 11:1 “Out of Egypt I have called my son”). The evidence suggests that the intertextuality between Old and New Testament was there right from the earliest days of the Jesus movement. Paul says “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,…1 Corinthians 15:3-4.” Of course the Hebrew scripture that you could most naturally interpret as the exegetical beginning of Pauline atonement theology is Isaiah 53.

    2. I’d add that even if you traced the origins of Christianity to an oral tradition, you may have thereby traced it to unreliable folk tales and false stories.

      Was it Dale Allison that made that point about Fortuna, or oral markers?

      Oral culture is an unreliable Telephone Game at best. One that typically drifts completely away from any origin.

    1. Dunn’s argument is not that we have any first-hand eye-witness accounts of Jesus in the Gospels but that what the Gospels relate is what their authors heard from oral traditions that can be traced back to those who witnessed Jesus. The Gospels record memories and impressions left on others, and as those memories and impressions were filtered through others — with theological significance and interpretations of these things being added at every step. It’s a “beautiful” theory. It explains why the Gospels are often at sharp variance from one another, sometimes even contradictory, mixed with obviously fantastic tales of the unbelievable, along with messages of theological import — yet still be meaningful to modern historians and lay believers alike.

      1. Neil I like your point on special pleading and the so called oral tradition in the written tradition.
        The better and simpler explanation is that they redacted from each other, which most scholars agree happened. Its know now that ancient writers did this, modified other stories to fit their ideals/purposes. No need of an oral tradition.

      2. Thanks for your great post here, Neil. It’s tme to take on liberal Christianity: its lip service to an implausible historical Jesus, while supporting the equally destructive Christ of Faith.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading