Book Review: James D. G. Dunn, Jesus according to the New Testament

Dunn, James D. G. Jesus according to the New Testament. Foreword by Rowan Williams. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2019. 211 pp. Pb; $20.   Link to Eerdmans  

Dunn observes in his postscript to his new book on Jesus that the impact Jesus initially made on his earliest followers continues to be felt today (p. 187). A study of Jesus cannot be simply a sequence of historical events or some ancient teachings with no significance for contemporary Christians. In fact, much of Dunn’s work has focused on the memory of Jesus among his earliest followers. See, for example, his magisterial trilogy Jesus Remembered (2003), Beginning from Jerusalem (2009) and Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity (2016), his collection of essays on The Oral Gospel Tradition (2016) or his earlier collection, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels (2011). This new book targets a broader audience. It is written in a more popular style and Dunn does include many footnotes.

The book begins with “Jesus according to Jesus.” For most non-scholars, this seems like the likely place to start, but as Dunn observes, there is some skepticism concerning how much of Jesus’s teaching actually appears in the Gospels (p. 25). Dunn lists a series of “lessons” and distinctive features of Jesus’s ministry as recalled by his earliest followers. Most of these are not at all controversial, such as the Love command, Jesus’s priority for the poor and his welcoming sinners and other outsiders (including gentiles, women and children). That Jesus was a teacher who spoke in parables is in all strands of the tradition, as well as his exorcising evil spirits. Dunn does not include Jesus’s healing ministry here, although it is closely related to his exorcisms. He also surveys some of Jesus’s titles which imply he understood himself to be the messiah, the one who was sent by God, the son of God and the son of Man.

Dunn surveys the nuances of the three Synoptic Gospels in chapter two and John in chapter three. Since the canonical Gospels were written at least thirty to forty years after Jesus, Dunn briefly explains his view of the oral traditions about Jesus which circulated in this time. For each Gospel he briefly sums up their distinctive contributions (Mark’s messianic secret, Matthew’s focus on Israel, Luke’s focus on Jesus’s mission to sinners, John’s entirely different approach to demonstrating Jesus as the Messiah).

In “Jesus according to Acts” Dunn begins by comparing the commissions of Peter and Paul which may express Luke’s conviction that the greater mission to the gentiles was inspired by God (p. 77). It is the sermons in Acts which present the memory of Jesus, so Dunn examines these closely and makes note of the some disturbing absence of theology concerning the death of Jesus in the book. Luke presents the death of Jesus as fact, but it is not interpreted as it is in the Pauline letters.

Dunn includes two chapters on Jesus according to Paul, first focusing on the uniqueness of Paul’s Gospel as well as Paul’s own emphasis that his Gospel is not distinctive from the other apostles (with respect to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus). Much of these two chapters reviews Paul’s metaphors for salvation as well as Paul’s view of the future. For the details, Dunn’s The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Eerdmans, 2006) is an indispensable resource.

The book of Hebrews is perhaps the most distinctive book in the New Testament with respect to how it understands Jesus. It is the only book which focuses on Jesus as a high priest. Dunn thinks it is remarkable the book was included in the canon not only because of its anonymity, but also for this presentation of Jesus as a Jewish priest. He observes that in Judaism priestly ritual gave way to expounding the word of God, but in Christianity the word was subordinated to the “revived priestly ritual” (155).

The contribution of James, Peter, John and Jude to the New Testament understanding of Jesus are combined into a single chapter. In fact, James has remarkably little to say about Jesus, at least directly. Dunn demonstrates James new the Jesus tradition, at least in its oral form, by drawing parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount. So too for 1 Peter and 1 John (2-3 John are more or less ignored). Jude and 2 Peter are a troublesome pair of letters; Dunn asks “how much of Christianity would have been lost if Jude and 2 Peter had not been included in the canon?”

Finally, Dunn describes how the book of Revelation understands Jesus. This chapter is frustratingly brief considering how much Revelation says about Jesus. Dunn comments briefly on the initial vision of Jesus in chapter 1 and the letters to the seven churches before tracing the Lamb of God theme through the book. Much more could be said about how the end of the book presents Jesus as a conquering king who returns to restore God’s kingdom to the world.

Dunn hints this book could be extended into the early church (so, “Jesus according to Ignatius”), but also to any reader of the book (“Jesus according to Me”). Since everything we know about Jesus is due to the personal testimony of his followers, why not call on contemporary readers of the New Testament to continue to bear witness to the story of Jesus? This short book succeeds in laying a foundation for this contemporary reflection on Jesus.

 

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

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