Memories of Jesus: A Critical Appraisal of James D. G. Dunn’s Jesus Remembered

Robert B. Stewart and Gary R. Habermas, eds. B&H Academic, Nashville, TN July 1, 2010
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Stewart and Habermas have assimilated an excellent companion to James D. G. Dunn’s Jesus Remembered. The essays in this book were developed from a variety of interactions with Dunn at the 2005 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. These essays raise a number of critical points about Dunn’s approach. In the preface Stewart and Habermas point to the irony of producing a book about a book. Nonetheless the reviews of Dunn’s work through journal articles and now this compilation have proven invaluable in understanding the contours of Dunn’s Jesus Remembered. Dunn himself recognizes that a single person cannot write the “final word” and that this type of endeavor must occur within a community. This volume has taken steps in that direction.

Bocksmuehl, Byrskog, and Witherington focus largely on Dunn’s omission of eyewitness testimonies of Jesus as custodians of the oral transmission. Dunn has addressed this criticism ever since the publication of his book. In his reply he states that the function of eyewitnesses was implied as the starting point of the remembered Jesus and his focus was on how later communities developed these traditions; nevertheless he admits that more attention could have been given to this point. Davis and Habermas argue that Dunn’s distinction between Jesus’ apperance to Paul and His resurrection appearances in the Gospels is false. The editors state, however, that Paul most likely saw the resurrected Christ in a manner similar to what the Twelve saw. Quarles notes disappointment in Dunn’s lack of reference to Jesus’ birth narratives. Dunn responds that the narratives represent a post-Easter celebration of Christ. Schöter and McKnight criticize Dunn’s historiographical approach. McKnight indicates that Dunn’s “remembered Jesus” is something close to a historical reconstruction of Jesus, which Dunn himself thinks cannot be developed. Schöter criticizes Dunn’s approach for developing a picture of Jesus through faith statements without clearly defining the faith that is required.

Other essays complement Dunn’s work by filling in gaps or advancing the research laid out in Jesus Remembered. Blomberg analyzes Jesus’ parables to show how oral performance indicated variation. Warren shows that textual criticism highlights the oral activity in the second century. Evans developed the criterion of dissimilarity to show how it can be used to develop historical fact but that it must be used carefully.

Of the many issues raised in this book three were noted consistently. First, everyone praised Dunn for his “reset of the default settings” of reading Gospel traditions as written texts. The implication is that instead of one original with multiple variants, variation is caused by multiple performances. Several reviewers criticized Dunn for not pursuing this line of thought more. In Jesus Remembered Dunn left a number of studies on oral transmission or oral history untapped. In a later work that responded to Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), Dunn backed off from this proposal by arguing that written sources do stand behind the Gospels.

Second, several authors investigated what Dunn meant by the “remembered Jesus.” This discussion often helped define his methodology. Consistently he is applauded for his concept of a “remembered Jesus” that cuts through the traditional division of the “historical Jesus,” or the Jesus derived from historical data amassed by scholars and the Jesus of the Gospels. The remembered Jesus bridges the gap between the real Jesus and the Jesus described in the Gospels as early memory of the actual person of Jesus. The result, according to Dunn, is that any distinction between the remembered Jesus and the evangelists’ Jesus cannot be clearly made (p. 296). Issues of the accessibility of the historical Jesus are helpful pieces that are often missing from works on the historical Jesus.

Third, Eddy’s criticism that Dunn ignores Jesus’ messianic self-consciousness should be investigated in more depth. In Jesus Remembered, Dunn argues that Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah but that He maintained a clear vision of His own mission. When approached with the title of Messiah, Jesus rejected it, Dunn says, because His mission of rejection and death contrasted with the popular concept of the Messiah as a warrior-like king. The church later reshaped the concept of the Messiah to fit the mission Jesus undertook. Eddy argues, however, that Jesus accepted the title, but that He redefined it for His disciples. Dunn remains unconvinced. The problem with Dunn’s position is that if Jesus rejected the title outright during His ministry, the early followers would have abandoned the title altogether. While the difference might be academic, the evidence indicates that Jesus used the title, but in a manner in which He was able to shift the focus from a triumphant messianic figure to one who suffers. 

—Benjamin J. Simpson

July 1, 2012
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2012 vol. 169 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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