Book Review: James Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels

Dunn, James D. G.  Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2011. 201 pp. $21, pb. Link to Eerdmans

There have been a number of books on the relationship of Jesus and Paul published recently. For example, J. R. Daniel Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? addresses the embarrassment of Pauline theology in some quarters of the church. It is well known that some scholars (primarily Jewish, but some Christians) consider Paul the “founder of the church” and not Jesus. James Dunn’s new book is a contribution to this conversation.

This is a collection of nine essays connecting Jesus and Paul. Each was originally a paper delivered in 2008 and 2009 at various conferences celebrating Paul’s bimillennial year or other international seminars. Five of the nine chapters were addressed to Christian audiences, the other four to Jewish audiences.

Part one contains four essays on the Gospels, although two of the four would be better described as Historical Jesus studies. Dunn presents a much abbreviated form of the main thesis of his Jesus Remembered in the first two chapters, showing that much of the gospels are historically reliable as true memories of what Jesus did and said during his ministry. He rejects the so-called criterion of dissimilarity which states that the things Jesus said which are not like later Christian theology are more likely to be authentic. Dunn’s point is that it is unwise to assume Jesus had no impact on the thinking of his followers, the source for “later Christian theology” is most likely to be Jesus. He includes a chapter on the value of John’s gospel for the study of Jesus.

Part two is a single essay which argues that there is a close connection between Jesus and Paul. In this heart of the book Dunn tries to argue against the persistent characterization of Paul as a “second founder” of Christianity. This language is found as early as Wrede, but still turns up in more contemporary writers. Dunn lists several of the common contrasts one encounters in the literature: Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, Paul preached Jesus; Jesus’ message was primarily for Israel, Paul’s mission was to the Gentiles; Jesus was a local Jewish teacher, Paul was influenced by the religions and politics of his day.

Dunn answers these objections by tracing several unique teachings in Jesus which appear in Paul as well. Jesus’ message was that God’s kingdom was present in his ministry, and that kingdom was good news for sinners and the poor. Likewise, Paul taught that God is justifying sinners now, and that this salvation is good news for Gentile sinners. These comparisons revolve around the “eschatological tension” – we are already saved but we are not yet saved. In addition, Dunn finds the foundation for ethics in both Jesus and Paul to be the same: the law of love. There is no “gulf” between Jesus and Paul, and Paul certainly did not corrupt the simple message of Jesus (p. 115).

In general I agree with Dunn, but I think that the problem is defining “church.” If we think of the church as “what Paul was planting all over Europe in the book of Acts” (i.e., Gentile churches, not practicing the Law), then Paul has to be considered the founder of the Church “as we know it.” If by church we mean “those who are trusting in Jesus for salvation,” then Paul is not the founder at all since that type of church existed before Paul even recognized Jesus as Lord.

Part three contains four essays on Paul. The first two concern Paul’s self understanding: just who did Paul think he was? This section deals with Paul as a Jew. Did he really convert from Judaism to Christianity? Dunn collects the data which shows Paul continued to live as a Jew, he is far from an apostate who corrupted Jesus’ teaching.

This book is a good introduction to themes which are covered in much more detail in Jesus Remembered or Beginning at Jerusalem. The essays introduce ideas and hint at solutions, the details are in Dunn’s larger works. Even so, this is an enjoyable read for people interested in both Jesus and Paul.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: James Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels

  1. Thanks for the short, excellent review, which aptly summaries Dunn’s perspective. I studied with Professor Dunn in Durham between 1996-2001.

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