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.

Why Not Ephesians?

Ephesians is one of the books in the Pauline collection which is frequently assumed to be pseudonymous.  Despite the fact that Paul refers to himself four times in the letter (1:1, 3:1, 4:1, and 6:19-22), the majority of scholarship in the last 150 years denies the authenticity of the letter. Rather than written by the “historical Paul,” the letter was created in the late first century, perhaps as a companion to the book of Acts.

P49 Verso

While there are many variations on this argument, many introductions to Paul reject the letter as authentic on the basis of vocabulary, style, and theology.  For many, the letter does not sound enough like Romans, Galatians, or 1-2 Corinthians to be accepted as authentic.  Usually the letter of Ephesians is thought to be a post-Pauline compendium of Paul’s theology.  It was written by a disciple of Paul (“Paul’s best disciple,” Brown, 620).  Sometimes the reconstruction of the circumstances are quite complex. For example, Goodspeed suggested that Onesimus returned to Philemon, was released from his slavery and eventually became the bishop of Ephesus. After Acts was published, there was a great deal of interest in Paul, so Onesimus gathered all the various letters Paul sent to the churches of Ephesus as an introduction to Paul’s theology.  As Brown says, this is interesting but “totally a guess.”

There are some differences between Ephesians and the other Pauline letters.  For example, the common Pauline term brethren is missing (except 6:23), and the letter never calls the Jewish people “Jews” in the epistle, even though the Jews are an important part of his argument.  More surprising is the fact that the verb “to justify” is not used, even though while it is common in Galatians and Romans and might have been useful in the argument of 2:11-22.

Does it matter if Paul did not write the letter himself?  If the letter contains the actual “voice of Paul” then the letter can be considered Pauline.  By way of analogy, in the study of the Gospels there is a great deal of discussion over the words of Jesus.  When I read the words of Jesus in my ESV Bible, can I know that these are the real words of the historical Jesus?  The answer which satisfies me is that the words of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are true “voice of Jesus,” even though they are not the actual words Jesus’ words were originally spoken in Aramaic, translated to Greek and then to English for me to read!

In the same way, even if Ephesians was not written by Paul, the true “voice of Paul” can be found in the letter.  As it happens I think Paul did write Ephesians, albeit much later in his life during his Roman house arrest.  The letter was intended to go to all the house churches in Ephesus and there is no burning problem which Paul has to address (as in Galatians or Corinthians).  This explains why the letter is generic in terms of theology and practice.

Considering Ephesians to be an authentic Pauline letter may change the way we envision Paul’s  theology.  While Romans and Galatians are concerning with justification and the struggle to define the Church as something different than Judaism, Ephesians is a witness to the universal church which includes Jews and Gentiles in “one body.”  Unity of the church seems to be Paul’s main theme in the letter.  Rather than drawing lines, Paul is arguing for unity among those who are “in Christ.”

How might taking Ephesians seriously change the way we think about various elements of Pauline Theology?