Christianity in the Making, Volume 1: Jesus Remembered

By James D. G. Dunn
Grand Rapids : Eerdman's (2003). xvii + 1019 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
16.2 (Fall 2005) : 337-340

In what promises to be one of the most significant series of contemporary works on early Christianity and the early church, James D. G. Dunn has prepared a massive first installment of Christianity in the Making, ultimately planned as a three-volume work designed to chronicle, interpret, and evaluate the first 120 years of Christianity.

Dunn, the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham in England, is the author of several significant works, including the commentary on Colossians and Philemon in the New International Greek Testament Commentary, the two-volume commentary on the Book of Romans in the Word Biblical Commentary, The Theology of the Apostle Paul and Christology in the Making: Jesus and the Spirit. In recent years Dunn along with E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright has also become a leading advocate and apologist of the New Perspective on Paul position. Dunn is without question a leading biblical scholar, exercising great influence within both evangelicalism and the larger sphere of non-evangelical biblical studies.

In evaluating a work such as this, one must understand the foundational principles of the author. In addition to his New Perspective position (to be fully fleshed out in the next volume) particularly problematic for the evangelical is his view of Scripture. Through affirming a “high” position for Scripture, he is not an inerrantist. He stated his position clearly in another work in which, commenting on the historical reliability of the Synoptic Gospels, he stated,

We therefore can make the strong and confident affirmation that the Synoptic Gospels are a source of historical information about Jesus; the Evangelists were concerned with the historicity of what they remembered; in burden of proof terms we can start from the assumption that Synoptic tradition is a good witness to the historical Jesus unless proven otherwise (“The Historicity of the Synoptic Gospels,” in Crisis in Christology: Essays in Quest of Resolution, ed. William D. Farmer [Livonia, Mich.: Dove Booksellers, 1995], 216).

In the present work, Dunn, in discussing the “sources” for his studies, places high value on the Synoptics, but tends to follow a critical view that the Gospel of John was more “theological” in its construct at the expense of factual information. He states, “In what follows, therefore, we shall certainly want to call upon John’s Gospel as a source, but mostly as a secondary source to supplement or corroborate the testimony of the Synoptic tradition” (167). One wonders how the recent discovery of the Pool of Siloam (cf. John 9:7ff) and the affirmation of no less than James H. Charlesworth (whom Dunn cites frequently in this work) that, “Scholars have said that there wasn’t a Pool of Siloam and that John was using a religious conceit to illustrate a point. Now we have found the Pool of Siloam … exactly where John said it was. A gospel that was thought to be “pure theology” is now shown to be grounded in history” (,1,3097577. story?coll=la-news-science, accessed 8-9-2005). One of Dunn’s goals in this work is to make a more thorough examination into the “oral tradition” that underlay the Gospel accounts (the canonical Gospels, the non-canonical Gospels [e.g., The Gospel of Thomas], and the supposed Gospel accounts [e.g., The Q Document]). He states,

The most distinctive feature of the present study will be the attempt to freshly assess the importance of the oral tradition of Jesus; mission and the suggestion that the Synoptic Gospels bear testimony to a pattern and technique of oral transmission which has ensured a greater stability and continuity in the Jesus tradition that has thus far been generally appreciated (6).

In this regard, Dunn offers the thesis that the traditional “literary dependence” model of the Synoptics, “is far too limited to explain the complexities of the Jesus tradition” (336). He affirms that he cannot offer “proof positive” of his thesis that the Synoptics find their foundational source material, not in written texts, but in the oral transmission of the material. But he also insightfully asks, “in dealing with Synoptic traditions, who can realistically hope for proof positive of any thesis?” (336). He requests that “the same judgment of plausibility which convinces most scholars of the priority of Mark and the existence of Q be exercised in relation to Synoptic texts where literary dependence is less obvious and is at least arguably less plausible” (336).

Dunn falls into the category of a “maximalist,” that is, one holding the text of Scripture to be largely reliable in terms o f historical accuracy. As such, Dunn lambastes the recent tendencies in postmodern criticism of the Bible, stating, “To conceive the hermeneutical process as an infinitely regressive intertextuality is a counsel of despair which quickly reduces all meaningful communication to impossibility and all communication to a game of ‘trivial pursuit’” (121). He also criticizes conservatives who, he claims, have a “lust for certainty which leads to fundamentalism’s absolutising of its own faith claims and dismissal of all others” (105). Still he affirms, “The meaning intended by means of and through the text is still a legitimate and viable goal for the NT exegete and interpreter” (122).

In this massive work Dunn has put together an impressive bibliography of over 50 pages, a Scripture (and other Ancient Writings) index (verses in which some exegesis or interpretation is offered are rendered in bold type), a subject, and an author index. The subject index is a little skimp y, only 7 pages, but with generally helpful access points. Evangelical and conservative scholars, though present in the bibliography, are a decided minority. Dunn has provided excellent footnotes and the breadth of research is impressive by any standard.

The first two parts of the book, comprising the first ten chapters, lay the foundation for Dunn’s work as he discusses the background of the Gospels and chronicles and critically interacts with research into the “Historical Jesus” in the last 100 years. Dunn carries a two-edged sword, affirming much of what German rationalism, liberal scholarship, historical critics, the Jesus Seminar, and the more recent movement toward sociological investigations of Jesus and the first-century world (which he correctly notes is becoming the leading discipline in current Jesus and Gospel studies). Yet he is also piercing in his critiques of the shortcomings, inadequacies and incongruities of these different methodologies. That he only critiques those on the non-evangelical end of the spectrum is a significant weakness. He never engages evangelical or inerrantist scholars, though he clearly departs from those positions at several junctures. In reading this work, one would never know that a significant body of literature on the Synoptics from an inerrantist position exists.

The first ten chapters (336 pages) could easily be a highly valued standalone volume of immense value for the student of the NT as an introduction to Gospel studies. The remaining three parts of the book examine the life of Christ. Space prevents a review all the aspects and lines of thought that Dunn presents. He deals with all the major events of Christ’s life, both historically and more thoroughly as they interrelate in a meaningful whole, or what Dunn refers to as “the Jesus tradition.” Some observations are possible on the major features, commonly viewed as the “flashpoints” in the discussions between inerrantist and errantist biblical scholars: (1) the Virgin Birth; (2) miracles, (3) the resurrection, and (4) the deity of Christ.

On the Virgin Birth, or “the virginal conception” as he puts it (345), Dunn spends relatively little time (339-48). He presents the material, but never specifically affirms or denies the Virgin Birth. He concludes that the Gospel accounts affirm the “core conviction that Jesus was born of God’s Spirit in a special way” (348). On the miracles of Jesus, while he ridicules some “explanations” of the miracle accounts by anti-supernaturalist theologians (31), in places he seems to report merely the miracle accounts as part of the text and “Jesus tradition” without offering a personal affirmation. He does make a strong presentation that Jesus’ healing and exorcism ministry was widely attested, even outside of the NT (670-96). With regards to the resurrection, though he affirms it (879) and presents the textual data and proposed explanations for the resurrection accounts, he nonetheless states, “In short, ‘the resurrection of Jesus’ is not so much a criterion of faith as a paradigm for hope” (ibid). Finally, in regards to the deity of Christ, the volume has no specific affirmation.

In brief, it is not so much what Dunn affirms or denies in his presentation as what he fails to affirm (Is Jesus God, the Second Person of the Trinity? Was He born of a Virgin? Did He perform miracles? Did He rise on the third day and bodily ascend into Heaven?). These doctrines are foundational to biblical Christianity.

The work is must reading for any student of the NT, and contains many of the author’s insights, evaluations, and critical interaction expressed in a manner second to no similar works currently in print. That he affirms and desires to defend the reliability of the Synoptics and the biblical text in general is also laudable. However, though he decries a “lust for certainty,” he has in many places reduced the essential doctrines of biblical Christianity to mere “probabilities,” which is wholly unsatisfying to those who “would see Jesus.”