Jesus According to the New Testament (James D. G. Dunn) - A Review

JESUS ACCORDING TO THE NEW TESTAMENT. By James D. G. Dunn. Foreword by Rowan Williams. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019. Xv + 211 pages.

                When we think of Jesus and his story, we think of the Gospels. We're not wrong in doing so. The Gospels provide us with much of what we know about Jesus. However, Jesus plays a central role in the entire New Testament. The question is, what does the New Testament as a whole have to say about Jesus? Let us remember that the oldest parts of the New Testament are not the Gospels but Paul’s letters. Therefore, if we want a full picture of Jesus—or as full as is possible—we need to consider the entire canon of the New Testament. Who better to guide us along the way than James D. G. Dunn, the Lightfoot Professor Emeritus of Divinity at Durham University.

I first encountered Dunn in seminary through his work on the Holy Spirit. I have since come to know him to be one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our day and a mentor to a number of younger scholars. He has written broadly on matters relating to Jesus through the years, largely for a scholarly audience. In Jesus According to the New Testament, he writes for the general audience. This book is the product of presentations given first in the Diocese of Chichester, and later at Canterbury. In these presentations Dunn spoke of "Jesus according to Jesus," "Jesus According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke," and then "Jesus According to John." Once he wrote up these presentations, he decided to pursue this topic of the identity of Jesus by examining the rest of the New Testament. Thus, the origins of this book.

Dunn writes as a New Testament scholar, and that expertise is on display throughout. Having completed his task, he discerned it would be useful for others—church historians—to carry the story further into history. As a church historian myself, I'm intrigued by his suggestion, though I must note that there have been others who have taken up the task, most notably Jaroslav Pelikan in his Jesus through the Centuries.  He also suggests that someone might add a volume that shared testimonies from modern Christians, with "everyday believers bearing witness to what attracts and intrigues them about Jesus" (p. xv). So, work remains to be done, so that we might gain a fuller picture of Jesus.

Dunn breaks the book into nine chapters, beginning with aforementioned chapters on "Jesus according to Jesus," "Jesus according to Mark, Matthew, and Luke," and "Jesus according to John." From there he offers a chapter on Acts, two chapters focusing on Paul, one on Hebrews, a chapter looking at the catholic epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude, and finally a chapter on "Jesus According to Revelation." 

In the opening chapter— "Jesus according to Jesus" —Dunn raises the pertinent question of whether we can get back to Jesus' own view of himself and his message. Dunn seems to believe that it is possible to gain at least some understanding of what Jesus thought of himself and his mission by looking at the biblical witness. There are lessons, he believes, we can learn from scripture about Jesus and his legacy. Among the lessons we can learn from Jesus are the love command, the priority of the poor, that sinners are welcome—he writes this was a particular feature of Jesus' ministry, which shocked contemporaries as he demonstrated "openness to those regarded as unacceptable in religious company" (p. 4). He also takes note of the women who were close followers, his openness to Gentiles, openness to children, the relaxation of food laws, and the account of the Last Supper. These all reflect elements of Jesus' life and ministry reflected in the Gospels, and, he believes, we can fairly confident that these are reflective of Jesus' identity. We can also affirm that Jesus preached about the kingdom of God. While the kingdom is mentioned more than fifty times in the synoptic Gospels, he finds it interesting that it is much less present in the rest of the New Testament. As for titles, that of teacher is the most common title for Jesus. He most likely taught by parable as seen in the Synoptics. He also exorcised evil spirits and concentrated his ministry in Galilee. We can also get a sense of what Jesus understood himself to be through his baptismal commission, his statements about being sent, references to him as messiah, his reference to God as Abba, as well as the designation of Jesus as Son of God and self-designation as Son of Man. While many scholars have been skeptical as to whether we can know much of Jesus' own self-understanding, Dunn disagrees. He might not be a maximalist, but he is certainly far from being a minimalist. He writes that "there is in fact no good reason to deny that what has been reviewed above was rooted in good and authentic memory that Jesus' first disciples largely shared—not only the emphases and priorities that they learned from him but also the distinctive features of his ministry that they did not seek to imitate in their own ministries, and particularly what were remembered as statements and claims that revealed Jesus' own understanding of his mission and of his role" (p. 25). Dunn is a careful scholar, who recognizes the challenges to reconstructing the life of Jesus. But he is willing to give much more credence to the testimony of the gospels than is true of many. For me, this is welcome news.

With this foundation—what we can with some degree of certainty know about Jesus—Dunn takes us step by step through the New Testament. While Dunn drew much of the first chapter from the Synoptics, which he explores in chapter two as well, he notes that John tells the same story very differently. Rather than tell a straightforward account of Jesus' ministry, John tries to "bring out the significance of Jesus' ministry and his death and resurrection." The synoptics tell us what, John tells us why. Thus, John alone tells us that Jesus is the "incarnation of God's creative agency specifically articulated as never before." (p. 62). As for the Book of Acts, Jesus tends to disappear from the story. He's talked about but not present in the story, except for a few occasions, such as Paul's vision on the road to Damascus. It takes two chapters to explore Paul's thoughts about Jesus. Among the things Dunn notices is that the word gospel owes its importance to Paul. Of the seventy-two uses of the term, sixty are found in Paul's letters. It is Paul who defined much of the Christian message concerning Jesus, and who continues to influence the Christian faith to this day, second only to Jesus himself. 

While we tend to focus on the Gospels and Paul, there is still more to know. There are still more books of the New Testament to explore. The chapter I found most interesting was his discussion of the Book of Hebrews. It is his view that Hebrews may express an early version of an Alexandrian Christology. He notes the questions raised about its presence in the canon and suggests this is due in part to the fact that it has been considered the "finest Greek composition within the New Testament." In other words, it doesn’t fit with the remainder of the New Testament. However, it had a significant impact on the churches around the Mediterranean. There is, he suggests, significant parallels here to Alexandrian Judaism—especially Philo. From what he can see here, Hebrews is reflective of the wisdom tradition. What he finds interesting is that there is irony here, considering future developments within the church. While Hebrews seems to suggest that Jesus is the final priest, fulfilling the earlier priestly calling, early Christianity, unlike Judaism, became a priestly religion. 

With regard to the remaining books, he sees them coming relatively late. This includes James. He notes that James identifies himself as a servant of Jesus, but James only mentions Jesus once more after that initial identification. From that reference, Dunn notes that this gives us a clue as to how Jesus was remembered in the Jewish Christian diaspora: “It was not so much his death (and resurrection) as the concern he had for the poor which he showed and taught during his ministry” (p. 159). There are, in addition to these two specific mentions of Jesus’ name, two references to the “Lord.” With the lack of direct references, Dunn is left with the need to demonstrate echoes of Jesus’ teachings from the Gospels found in James’ letter. These echoes are rather significant in number. If James, who is understood to be the brother of Jesus, makes few references to Jesus, it is also intriguing that 1 Peter also lacks personal reminisces. He also finds it strongly Pauline in its language. Regarding the Johannine letters, Dunn suggests that what is most striking is the references to Jesus as Paraclete, connecting this to the references to the Spirit in the Gospels. Then there are Jude and 2 Peter, which are connected to each other. Taken as a whole, Dunn notes that these letters are largely overlooked, with few sermons or meditations taking them up. However, “they are an important reminder of the breadth and depth of the founding generation of Christianity” (p. 174).

The final chapter focuses on “Jesus according to Revelation.” What we find here is an exalted Christology. We have intriguing imagery, such as Jesus as the lamb of God. What we should take from this book, regarding Christology, in Dunn’s mind “is that in John’s visions Jesus was seen again and again as the key to making sense of the crises confronting the churches and as at the center of the hope for a successful resolution of these crises” (p. 186). The details are not of as great a concern. It is that Jesus is the center of their hope. Thus, the need for an exalted view of Jesus.

Although there isn't a study guide provided, this would make for an excellent study book for congregations who wish to gain a deeper understanding of Jesus. It brings to the fore in an accessible a full and fulsome vision of Jesus as he his presented by the writers of the New Testament. It is neither a narrow, defensive book, nor a product of skepticism. There is a healthy dose of scholarly realism, combined with Dunn’s belief that the New Testament is fairly reliable in its presentation. That is appealing to me. It is helpful at points to break things down into their parts, and scholars often do a good job of that. Unfortunately, some leave the text in pieces. In fact, they leave Jesus in pieces. Reconstructions—Jesus Seminar—leave us with very little of Jesus left to us. My sense is that after years of hearing that we can’t know much about Jesus, this will be appealing to many. Perhaps Rowan Williams puts it best: “This is a book that will nurture a faith that is not uncritical but is also being directed constantly back toward the wonder of the first witnesses. It is as we make that wonder our own that our faith grows and deepens; Professor Dunn helps us toward that enrichment of joy, trust, and gratitude” (p. xi). With that I agree completely! 

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