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A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed (Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology)
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While not arguing against documentary theories (e.g. "Q"), he feels many avenues have not been suffiently explored in explaining the gospels. Specifically, he argues that scholars have not sufficiently reflected on the nature of a largely oral (as opposed to literate) society; also that Jesus' positive influence on his hearers has been likewise overlooked.
His view seems to honor the gospels as accurate, historical pictures of Jesus. This small book is useful for apologetics and for better appreciating the world of the New Testament.
Dunn explains a number of implications of an oral paradigm. For example, the "Christ of faith" and the "historical Jesus" cannot be separated, because the oral tradition was faith based from the beginning. An "excavation" method of trying to uncover the historical Jesus is doomed to failure because there is no single account to go back to. There would have been multiple faith based accounts right from the beginning, because different followers would have heard or understood various sayings differently. Also, to determine historicity scholars have tended to focus on what was unique within the first-century Jewish or early Christian contexts, but Dunn argues that emphasis should go onto what is characteristic of the oral tradition, and the events that could have given rise to it.
This book left me with a sense of the gospels as a snapshot of a dynamic oral tradition. My impression after reading this book is that the gospels are historically reliable providing one comes to them with expectations appropriate to this tradition. This book is highly readable, but those without any knowledge of the historical quests may prefer to begin with an introductory text, perhaps something like NT Wright's "The Contemporary Quest for Jesus."
This is a revolutionary book of biblical scholarship. Yet it is a mere 125 pages long. And it's written in Dunn's usual clear style, so that it's accessible to anyone interested in the subject.
For almost 200 years, scholars have been trying to find a different, more 'historical' Jesus from the Jesus of faith presented in the gospels. Their assumption was that the historical Jesus must be different from the Jesus of the New Testament, and that, with enough research, they'd be able to tease out this other Jesus.
But as Dunn points out, the quest was flawed. Where could they find this other Jesus? "The only Jesus available to us...is Jesus as he was seen and heard by those who first formulated the traditions we have--the Jesus of faith, Jesus seen through the eyes and heard through the ears of the faith that he evoked by what he said and did" (p 31). Yet there is an entire industry of alternatives to the actual gospels, suggesting all sorts of dark conspiracies. Jesus as a mushroom! Jesus as Caesar! Jesus as the hippie Cynic sage! Alll of them based on hot air and a vivid fantasy life.
The problem for all these desperate alternatives to the gospels is that "to discount the influence that Jesus actually had, to strip away the impact that Jesus actually made, is to strip away everything and to leave an empty stage waiting to be filled by...the historian's own imagination. If we are unsatisfied with the Jesus of the Synoptic tradition, then we will simply have to lump it; there is no other" (p 34).
This would make a terrific Christmas present to any biblical scholars you know.
Dunn's next point is to attack the overly literary mindset of historical Jesus scholars in their primary focus on getting to the written sources behind the gospels like Ur-Markus or Q. Dunn is not claiming that such investigation is useless but that at best it partly tackles the issue because the earliest tradition was transmitted orally before it was committed to writing. Dunn offers some interesting views about how this was done though an "uncontrolled authoritative" means rather than the "controlled authoritative" rabbinical tradition or the "uncontrolled un-authoritative" of a contemporary game of telephone. Dunn rightly emphasizes that 1st century culture was very much orally based even when things were written down like the gospels or the letters of Paul. It is a whole different paradigm of thought as compared to the literary mindset.
Dunn's last main point is that instead of using the criterion of dissimilarity like a bludgeon to produce a strange Jesus wholly different from his Jewish background and the Christianity that followed him, historians should look for the `characteristic' Jesus who was both influenced by his Jewish background and also in turn influenced the early church.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
The paradigm for the study of the "historical Jesus" has been all wrong. This is the essential thrust of James D.G. Read morePublished 6 months ago by Garrett Craig
It's not about Jesus. It's about what scholars ought not to attempt to do when studying Jesus. Given that qualification, it's a fine book.Published 11 months ago by FHH
If one were to judge what 'The Quest' missed by the length of this book, the conclusion would be 'not much'. But this book packs quite a punch for it's size. Read morePublished on August 20, 2013 by Grant Marshall
James D. G. Dunn (born 1939) is a British New Testament scholar who was Professor of Theology at the University of Durham prior to his retirement; he is also a minister of the... Read morePublished on June 17, 2013 by Steven H Propp
So, you want to begin to study the scholarship on the "Historical Jesus." Where does one start, for the published works have almost become an industry unto themselves. Read morePublished on July 4, 2011 by Rev. John D. White
Professor James Dunn has written a marvelous introduction for someone new to the questions regarding the study of the "historical Jesus. Read morePublished on April 1, 2007 by Rev. John D. White