Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels

Book Review

James D.G. Dunn, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2011, 221 pp.

The back cover promotes this book as a “compact theological primer,” a description that could be improved in accuracy as “compact biblical theological primer.” This monograph is a compilation and adaptation of lectures that were delivered to Catholic and Jewish audiences in Europe and Israel. If a reader is looking for an accessible avenue into Prof. James Dunn’s thoughts, this book is a good place to start. The book has a clear connection to these oral texts, maintaining its focus on audiences across the Christian and Jewish faiths. Prof. Dunn admits that the bulk of his work to prepare the lectures for printed publication was accessorizing it with footnotes (p. xi). This reviewer believes that it would be useful to college students, pastors, and lay church leaders.

Chapters 1-2 are a distillation of his lengthy treatment of the prehistory and character of the Gospels, which he has articulated in Jesus Remembered. Dunn continues to promote his criterion of looking for the “characteristic Jesus” rather than just the “distinctive Jesus.” This criterion issues from his presupposition that Jesus’ work, even in his own day, was influential on many people, inspiring their trust and hope. Dunn’s conviction is that the variety of Jesus-traditions, which are evident in the NT, are testimony to Jesus’ legacy and that they cannot be attributed primarily to the theological musings of the early Church. The result of his study is a basic outline of Jesus’ life (p. 20), a tracing of his life through eight essential parts from his baptism through his proclamation of the promise of the Kingdom of God and miraculous exorcisms.            

Chapters 3-4 trace the core Jesus traditions along a chronological line from Paul through the Synoptic Gospels and lastly to John. This survey begins by linking Paul’s early adaptation of euangelion  to the passion of Christ. Dunn argues that while the meaning and function of “gospel” may have some connection with the promulgation of imperial news, Paul chiefly found inspiration from Isaiah 57 and 61. Mark, who wrote after Paul, also told his gospel with a focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection. Matthew and Luke, however, both made adaptations to the “gospel of Jesus” in the later decades of the first century CE and these adaptations began to focus on the life of Jesus as gospel (pp. 63-66). The Fourth Gospel again focuses on the suffering, death, and resurrection, and in fact heightens this, for example by re-positioning the cleansing of the Temple to the beginning of book (pp. 73-79).

In chapter 5, Dunn explores the questions about continuity between Jesus’ message and Paul’s. He argues here that discussions of their differences have too long dominated NT discourse and thus obscured their critical similarities. Paul’s message of realized eschatology was presaged by Jesus’ own emphasis on the present reality of the Kingdom of God. Likewise, Jesus’ promise of a future coming of the kingdom and emphasis on the repentance of sins comports with and inspired Paul’s inclusion of the Gentiles, according to Dunn. On the topic of the law, Dunn again draws a line of continuity between them, now through the use of Lev 19:18, the command of Love. While both Jesus and Paul drew lines of discrimination in their use of the Law, both saw in this elegant summary the ongoing relevance of the Law for their audiences.

Having transitioned from Jesus to Paul, the book now focuses in chs. 6-7 on identifying Paul, who it must be admitted is the most influential founder of the Christianity after Jesus. Paul lived in a transitional period in the history of Christianity, as Dunn points out. He moved the faith from a messianic Jewish sect towards a global religion. Both Paul’s work and his person have understandably ignited much controversy. That is to say that Paul himself had to transition from Pharisaic zealousness for the Torah, to one who was “dead to the Law” (Gal 2:19-20, p. 129) and was “in Christ.” Nevertheless, Dunn rightfully reminds us that Paul did not wholly forsake his Israelite identity. Dunn concludes that Paul would have resisted the charge of apostasy, because Paul believed he was fulfilling “Israel’s own apostolic mission—to be a light to the nations” (p. 146).

Dunn argues in ch. 8 that the trajectory of Paul’s work, including his conviction that the Holy Spirit’s presence confirmed his work, should be seen as an ongoing call to constructive dialogue between Jews and Christian as well as compassionate ecumenism within Christianity (pp. 162-164). On the latter count, Dunn is particularly poignant: “For Christians today are all in one degree or another in a position similar to that of Peter and the other Jewish Christians…. And in effect they make their traditions and distinctive beliefs as important as the gospel itself…” (p. 164, emphasis his).

The concluding chapter is a brief description of Paul’s legacy, the churches which he founded. Some of this discussion is historical in nature, but the author’s chief the aim here is on the theological character of the body of Christ. One must admire Prof. Dunn’s ability to make relevant the historical context of the texts to understanding better these ancient documents. In ch. 9 we see him depict how Paul’s language (ekklesia and soma) brushed the shoulders of typical political discourse, yet nonetheless parted company with it too in important practical and theological ways (see e.g. p. 172). Paul saw these new assemblies as part of the historic assembly (qahal) of YHWH God, the body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit. Dunn’s impassioned plea, then, to his oral and written audiences is to remember the historic foundations, the gracious inclusiveness, and the Spirit led dynamism of Paul’s vision of the Church.

Again, this is an accessible and helpful book that will help many students and pastors revisit the New Testament and re-grasp the significance of the Christian faith’s two greatest founders, Jesus and Paul.

Douglas Mohrmann, Cornerstone University

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