A Brief Literary Biography of James D. G. Dunn

JAMES D. G. DUNN: A LITERARY BIOGRAPHY

The Holy Spirit

Presently, James D. G. Dunn is Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University. He served until recently as the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity (1990–2003) when his incredible mantle passed to John M. G. Barclay ­(though Dunn initially began teaching at Durham in 1982). Dunn received his PhD in New Testament studies from Cambridge University in 1968 under C. F. D. Moule. His revised dissertation was published in 1970 as Baptism in the Holy Spirit: A Re-Examination of the New Testament Teaching on the Gift of the Spirit in Relation to Pentecostalism Today, a work that evaluated “certain contemporary views concerning the Spirit and the Christian life in light of the New Testament,” (The Holy Spirit and Christian Origins, xix).[1] Dunn’s interest in the Holy Spirit continued for several titles before his publications branched out into all areas of New Testament studies. Additionally, Dunn would write Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians As Reflected in the New Testament in 1975, and his later two volumes titled Christ and the Spirit, both published in 1998; the two volumes covered Pneumatology and Christology respectively.

This firm footing in the Holy Spirit certainly animates his work. As Richard Hays has pointed out in the Preface to Jesus and Paul: Global Perspectives in Honor of James D.G. Dunn for His 70th Birthday, Dunn’s work is characterized not as the thoughts of a disinterested historian, but as a spirited theologian. Hays summarizes the point this way: “Therein lies the secret of the wide appeal and influence of James Dunn’s scholarship: while pursuing the most rigorous and technical historical research, he has never lost sight of the theological significance of his inquiry.” (xiii). While Hays’ reading of Dunn is unquestionably more experienced than my own since picking up Jesus Remembered only four years ago (2012), his appreciation for Dunn’s lively and spirited labors as a careful historian were not unlike my own when I first began reading about Dunn’s Jesus and the impact that he made on his disciples, and the disciples’ subsequent performance of a living tradition. Where Dunn’s interests intersected with the Last Supper, a specific area of interest for me, I found his work all the more exciting! The portrait he illustrated was one I could enter as a reader, bringing an entire new (third) dimension to the text (130-2; 205-54, esp. 229-31). In summary, Dunn’s care for the Holy Spirit is demonstrated by noting that there are over twenty-five publications of Dunn (as of 2004) that have “Spirit” in their title (The Holy Spirit and Christian Origins, xxi n.16).

Variability and Stability

Interestingly, it was Dunn’s care for the Holy Spirit that arguably led to the most important work of his career – Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (1977). The Editor’s Preface to The Holy Spirit and Christian Origins: Essays in Honor of James D.G. Dunn states: “The fourth section of Jesus and the Spirit deals with diverse varieties of Christian religious experience as reflected in the New Testament. This part laid the foundations for his third monograph, published just two years later in 1977 but crafted earlier in a Master’s course of the same name Unity and Diversity…” (xix). In his review of Dunn’s groundbreaking book, Larry Hurtado writes that: “The book is based on a series of lectures Dunn developed as part of a course in NT theology for undergraduate theological students at Nottingham, where he teaches, and the material was written up primarily with advanced undergraduates or students beginning Masters degree programs in mind” (Journal of Biblical Literature, 98.1, p. 135). Dunn further seems vindicated from Hurtado’s concern where the latter writes in an earlier review that “The publisher’s blurb on the dust-jacket heralds this new book, somewhat immodestly (since it has by no means been time-tested), as a ‘modern classic,’ and so perhaps one is geared to expect too much!” (136). Given that the work is now in its third edition and is a standard text for seminary level New Testament studies, the publisher’s blurb may be closer to the truth than an initial analysis could have understandably afforded. More importantly, as will be discovered in a later essay, is Hurtado’s revealing statement that Dunn’s book “shows familiarity with the work of… F. C. Baur” (135).

The importance of Unity and Diversity in the thinking of Dunn is demonstrated by his frequent return to its findings in his later studies, particularly in his mammoth and (positively) incredible volumes of Christianity in the Making. Picking up on Kenneth Bailey’s model of “informal-controlled” oral tradition history, Dunn finds in this model an analysis of tradition transmission that fits the entire pattern of the New Testament data. The tradition, Dunn writes, is both variable and stable. However, reviewers, such as Markus Bockmuehl who writes that the model is “anecdotal” and that it is “supplemented only by one M. Phil. student’s ‘hopes to carry out more scientifically controlled fieldwork’,” were critical of the model (The Journal of Theological Studies 56.1, p. 145). (The student’s work, however, was published in a prestigious German publication: Terence C. Mournet, Oral Tradition and Literary Dependence: Variability and Stability in the Synoptic Tradition and Q, WUNT 2.195.) Other critics of Dunn’s reliance on Bailey include Paul Barnett, who states it is his “deepest concern” (The Reformed Theological Review 63.3, p. 158) and Samuel Byrskog (“A New Perspective on the Jesus Tradition: Reflections on James D. G. Dunn’s Jesus Remembered”), though each has varying degrees of criticism of Dunn, with Byrskog being more welcoming. Proponents who appreciate the model’s explanatory power include Dennis Ingolfsland (“Jesus Remembered: James Dunn and the Synoptic Problem”). (Scholars David Wenham and Michael Bird do not evaluate the model in their published reviews.) I count myself somewhere between Ingolfsland and Byrskog.

Paul

Dunn’s reputation as a Pauline scholar is immense and would only need an introduction for one who has managed to burrow under a large stone – and stay there for thirty years. He has published a two-volume commentary on Romans in the Word Biblical Commentary series, a Colossians and Philemon NIGTC commentary, a very large Pauline theology volume, and a recent collection of new perspective essays. Following E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Dunn was the earliest to voice a carefully nuanced and sociologically sensitive redefinition of the much discussed ἔργα νόμου. Early on Dunn may have overstated his case (at least according to Dunn himself in The New Perspective on Paul: Collected Essays, 18) in maintaining that the phrase (almost) exclusively identifies Jewish boundary-markers, specifically with regards to circumcision, or dietary laws as in the Antioch incident involving Peter (Gal 2 = Acts 15; Beginning from Jerusalem, ch. 27). While The Theology of Paul the Apostle explored these ideas in great detail, critics such as Schreiner could still write (with surprising relevance for the continued discussion today) that: “Paul’s fundamental complaint with the Jews is not that they exclude Gentiles, but that they do not keep the law themselves (Rom 2:1-29; 3:9-20; Gal 3:10),” (Trinity Journal 20.1, p. 98). On my reading of Dunn’s careful and at times humble introductory essay in The New Perspective on Paul: Collected Essays, the arguments he presents still do not convince me beyond the value they offer for better appreciating the horizontal implications of the gospel and Christology. So perhaps it is best to point readers to Preston Sprinkle’s review (European Journal of Theology 15 no. 2, p. 172) who more fairly writes: “he gives a very strong affirmation that his famous (or infamous?) interpretation – that these refer to boundary markers (such as but not exclusively circumcision, Sabbath, dietary laws) – is simply an expression of the more fundamental theological reasoning that ‘no individual or people can achieve acceptance by God by his/her/its own efforts.’” Lastly, within the  πίστις Χριστοῦ debate and based on my last reading (which is admittedly not fully up to date), Dunn espoused an objective genitive contra Wright, Hays, and Campbell, who all prefer a subjective genitive, particularly with regards to Gal 3:22-26. To be candid, I have not fully understood the logic driving Dunn and others in their new and fresh exegeses of Paul. And it seems that what began as bold and exclusive definitions for certain technical terms in Paul, has softened over the years. The definitions now seem less polemical than before. And the new perspective architects, such as Dunn, seem to desire only that Pauline students appreciate the newer contours that their fresh readings offer. And based on my reading of the literature, it seems critics have in fact conceded appreciation for many of the fine sociological implications and nuances of Dunn (I am thinking of Moo, Schreiner, and others).

In closing, what I like about Dunn, and I speak as both a Christian and a careful student of the New Testament, is that whether I agree with his conclusions or not, the amiable character of Dunn’s writing always rewards. He discusses the research with extraordinary care that is unparalleled in New Testament scholarship. One always finds a friend within his pages.

[1]All parenthetical page references are to the immediately preceding text cited – in order to save space. For bibliographical details see the attached bibliography.

Bibliography

Selected work by James D. G. Dunn Organized by Year

1970 – Baptism in the Holy Spirit: A Re-Examination of the New Testament Teaching on the Gift of the Spirit in Relation to Pentecostalism Today. Naperville, IL: A.R. Allenson, 1970.

1975 – Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians As Reflected in the New Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975.

1977 – Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977; 3rd edition, London: SCM, 2006.

1980 – Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980.

1988 – Romans 1–8, 9–16. Two volumes. Word Biblical Commentary series 38A, 38B. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1988.

1989 – Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, A.D. 70 to 135. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 2:66. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1989; reprint Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

1990 – Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990.

1993 – The Theology of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

1996 – The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

1998 – The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

1998 – The Christ and the Spirit: Christology. Volume 1 of Collected Essays of James D.G. Dunn. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

1998 – The Christ and the Spirit: Pneumatology. Volume 2 of Collected Essays of James D.G. Dunn. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

2003 – Editor. The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

2003 – Jesus Remembered. Volume 1 of Christianity in the Making. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

2005 – The New Perspective on Paul: Collected Essays. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 2:185. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005.

2005 – Edited with Scot McKnight. The Historical Jesus in Recent Research. Sources for Biblical and Theological Study volume 10. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005.

2005 – A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

2009 – Beginning from Jerusalem. Volume 2 of Christianity in the Making. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

2009 – New Testament Theology: An Introduction. Library of Biblical Theology 3. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009.

2013 – The Oral Gospel Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.

2015 – Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity. Volume 3 of Christianity in the Making. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015.

Works Cited

Barnett, Paul. “Jesus Remembered: Review.” The Reformed Theological Review 63.3 (2004): 157-9.

Bockmuehl, Markus. “Jesus Remembered: Review.” The Journal of Theological Studies 56 no.1 (2005):140-149.

Byrskog, Samuel. “A New Perspective on the Jesus Tradition: Reflections on James D. G. Dunn’s Jesus Remembered.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26.4 (2004): 459-71.

Hurtado, Larry. “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: Review.” Journal of Biblical Literature 98 no.1 (1979):135-7.

Ingolfsland, Dennis. “Jesus Remembered: James Dunn and the Synoptic Problem.” Trinity Journal 27.2 (2006): 187-97.

Oropeza, B. J., C. K. Robertson, and Douglas C. Mohrmann. Jesus and Paul: Global Perspectives in Honor of James D.G. Dunn for His 70th Birthday. London: T & T Clark, 2009.

Schreiner, Thomas R. “The Theology of Paul the Apostle: Review.” Trinity Journal, 20 no.1 (1999): 95-100.

Sprinkle, Preston. “The New Perspective on Paul.” European Journal of Theology 15 no. 2 (2006) 171-3.

Stanton, Graham, Bruce W. Longenecker, and Stephen C. Barton. The Holy Spirit and Christian Origins: Essays in Honor of James D.G. Dunn. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004

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