This book is a most enjoyable, fascinating read. It asks `Does modern scholarship support or undermine Christian belief?' James D.G, Dunn suggests the answer is both yes and no, and clearly shows why this could be so. However, it is telling that in all chapters the weight of evidence seems to suggest that Christianity has nothing to fear from modern scholarship and research, and that the case for belief in Jesus and the central beliefs of Christianity are actually strengthened rather than challenged. This may be quite a surprising conclusion given the wealth of books out there casting doubt on so much of the gospel contents. This is perhaps as good a reason as any to read this eye opening book so as to get a more balanced and scholarly informed view.
This particular book was written in response to a TV series that looked into how historians now view the beginnings of Christianity. The series, despite good intentions, ended up lacking the kind of balance to clearly answer this question, spurring the author to write this book.
This book asks 4 main questions: 1) The gospels: fact, fiction or what? 2) Did Jesus claim to be the son of God? 3) What did the first Christians believe about the resurrection? 4) Earliest Christianity: One church or warring sects?
Each topic is covered clearly and in good detail: facts are presented, analysed and conclusions drawn. His explanation of the content of the synoptic gospels is the clearest I have come across. Using examples of similar passages found within Mark, Mathew and Luke he clearly illustrates just how close the contents in many cases. He looks at close parallels, differences in combinations, different lengths, different emphasis, corrections, and different versions that appear in synoptic passages and explains why these might have happened. It is the most illuminating and easy to follow explanation of the synoptic contents I have come across, and has helped me come to the conclusion that despite (or even because of) irregularities the synoptic stories are grounded in historical truth, something I wasn't so sure of before reading this chapter.
This chapter, plus the chapter on resurrection - did it happen? - which is extraordinarily strong in its examination and conclusions, more than make this book a worthwhile read. Chapter 2 looks in depth into John's gospel and how it compares to the synoptics in trying to answer the question as to whether Jesus ever claimed to be the son of man. So, in addition to getting the answer to the chapter question I learnt an awful lot about the issues surrounding John and the synoptic gospels - really fascinating! The final chapter on Christian origins was very illuminating too.
Whilst all this may sound that the book content is rather `dry' I found it in fact a riveting and thoroughly enjoyable read. If you want to understand the truth of what Jesus is reported of doing and saying, and the likelihood of it being true, you need to understand the strength and reliability of the sources reporting these deeds and life in Palestine at the time of Jesus. This book covers this aspect in admirable but easy to read detail. It's not a huge book but the content delivers a punch far more than the count of its pages. I was really impressed with the book and its author, and on subsequent research, was not surprised to find that James D.G. Dunn is considered one of the pre-eminent scholars in his field. This is evident in his grasp of material, his ability to explain, and the authoritive and commanding ability to draw sound conclusions.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about Jesus and the New Testament cannon. I will certainly be seeking out other D.G. Dunn works to read in future based on this impressive introduction to his skills as scholar and author.