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A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed Paperback – 18 Apr 2005

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About the Author

James D G Dunn (PhD Cambridge) is Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham. He is widely recognized as a creative and provocative scholar, and is a key figure (along with E P Sanders and Tom Wright) in the articulation of the 'new perspective on Paul'. Dunn is the author of numerous books including The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Eerdmans, 1997) and Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making (Eerdmans, 2003).

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 11 reviews
53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
Helpful for a balanced approach to Jesus studies 19 May 2005
By Kenneth M. Shomo - Published on
Format: Paperback
James Dunn's small book on the origin of the synoptic gospels (Matt, Mark, Luke) is apparently a slice of his other work titled "Remembering Jesus." This is a helpful introduction to issues related to the character of, and indirectly the historicity of, the gospels. Dunn argues, against more liberal/skeptical scholarship, that the similarities and differences in the synoptic gospels are best explained by oral transmission of these events and teachings in the early church.

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.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
The oral basis of the Jesus tradition 17 Jan. 2008
By h20man - Published on
Format: Paperback
In this brief book (125 pages) James Dunn argues that the quest for the historical Jesus has been incorrectly operating out of a default literary paradigm rather than an oral one. Dunn accepts the Q hypothesis, but argues that the gospel writers would have also relied heavily on the oral traditions of their respective communities. Even after the gospels were written this oral tradition would have remained primary due to high illiteracy in the first century. Oral tradition by nature had both stability and variation; it would not change dramatically within a community due to the commitment of its members to the ideas, but at the same time there would have been flexibility over details that were not considered essential.

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."
22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
"A New Perspective on Jesus" dares to ask the big questions. What if the entire long quest to find the historical Jesus was fundamentally flawed from the beginning? What if all those scholars, all those books, starting in 1832, had missed the very obvious?

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 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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A New Direction for Historical Jesus Research 10 July 2010
By Ronald C. Payne - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a look at historical Jesus research with fresh eyes which is much appreciated. Dunn questions much of the assumptions of the field and offers suggestions for the future direction of scholarship. He makes the obvious observation that separating the "Jesus of history" from the "Jesus of faith" is a false dichotomy in that Jesus from the very beginning was the kind of person that provoked faith in people. It wasn't just post-Easter faith that affects the tradition but it is that pre-Easter faith of his disciples that colors the Jesus tradition through and through.

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.

Basically, James Dunn argues for a more open view of the Jesus tradition and is critical of the anti-Christian biases that has affected historical Jesus research since its beginnings in the 19th century.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Steven H Propp - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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 Church of Scotland. He has written many other books, such as Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, The Evidence for Jesus, Jesus and the Spirit, etc.

He wrote in the Preface to this 2005 book, "I soon realized that what I regarded as the key methodological contributions made by 'Jesus Remembered' might become lost in the scale on which I found it necessary to operate in the book. Fortunately, the invitation to deliver the Hayward Lectures [in 2003] ... gave me the opportunity to spell out these insights more fully and to carry them further forward in the light of my continuing research." (Pg. 8)

He suggests, "we may say that the 'Gospel of Thomas' is like the Gospel of John: they both attest the influence of later faith, in the one case the gnostic faith, in the other Christian faith; that is, both exemplify in their different ways the Christ of faith in protest against which the quest of the historical Jesus was first undertaken." (Pg. 32)

He argues, "The brutal fact is that we simply cannot escape from a presumption of orality for the first stage of the transmission of the Jesus tradition. So if we are to 'get back to Jesus of Nazareth' in any confident degree, we have no choice other than to use well-informed historical imagination to attempt to enter into what was happening to the Jesus tradition during that initial stage. I believe these identified characteristics of oral tradition help us to do just that." (Pg. 53)

He asserts, "Where a particular saying or episode reflects such a characteristic motif, scholarship should be asking not 'Why should it be attributed to Jesus?' but 'Why should it NOT be attributed to Jesus?' ... I therefore conclude... the Jesus tradition was a way of remembering Jesus, showing how Jesus was remembered... My threefold thesis can be summed up simply. First, Jesus made an impact on those who became his first disciples, well before his death and resurrection. That impact was expressed in the first formulations of the Jesus tradition... Second, the mode of oral performance and oral transmission of these formulations means that the force of that original impact continued to be expressed through them... And third, the characteristic features running through the Jesus tradition give us a clear indication of the impression that Jesus made on his disciples during his mission." (Pg. 77)

This is an excellent summation of his points, for people who don't have the time or inclination to work their way through 'Jesus Remembered.'
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