Review of Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels by James D. G. Dunn

James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011).

In the compass of a relatively short book Professor Dunn has assumed a monumental task. He describes it, ‘to fill up the gap between Jesus and the Gospels, as well as to explain how the Gospels formed a new literary genre, and how the Fourth Gospel fitted with the others.” In addition to this he considers the relationship between Jesus and Paul. It is refreshing that Dunn undertakes this task with humility, reverence and impressive scholarship. It is clearly not his intention to undermine either the Gospels or the Christian faith but to reveal the historic movement from the ministry and sayings of Jesus to the apostolic ministry of Paul and to the four written Gospels.

In speaking of Jesus the author begins with four important presuppositions. First, there was a historical person called Jesus. Second, Jesus was a Jew. Third, Jesus was a figure of some influence. Fourth, the Galilee of Jesus was an oral society. The importance of the fact  that Jesus was a Jew is seen in the author’s question, ‘What is Christianity if it is not defined and characterized by the blessing of Abraham?” He urges that the Jewish roots of Christianity must be rediscovered event though there is at present a gulf between Judaism and Christianity.

Among the most interesting sections of the book is the treatment of an oral society and the oral transmission of historical material. Jesus was a person of great influence, and His sayings and His central proclamation of the kingdom of God were widely known before a written form appeared. It is Dunn’s opinion that the evangelists’ use of oral tradition helps explain the divergences as well as the similarities among the synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John did not abandon the Gospel format given to the Jesus tradition by Mark. However, John was “addressing a new situation, of tuning the Gospel format to be heard by those seeking to know God and the secrets of heaven more fully.” He concludes: “These [Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John] are not different Gospels, but the same Gospel. There may be four Gospels, but for Christians there is only one gospel.”

In dealing with Paul, Dunn asks, “Is Paul the real founder of Christianity?” His answer is no! He carefully reveals the similarities between the teachings for Jesus and Paul. Paul did make an impact on the shape of the church. “It was primarily Paul whose mission to non-Jews transformed the Jewish sect into an ethnically diverse religion, into what became a predominantly Gentile religion.” In his conclusion to the chapters on Paul, Dunn asks the following: “Should we then speak of a gulf between Jesus and Paul? No! Should we deduce that Paul departed from or corrupted the good news which Jesus brought? No! Should we conclude that Paul transformed Jesus’ message into something that Jesus himself would not have recognized? No!” This is a welcome change from the conclusions of theologians who cheerfully widen the imagined gulf between Jesus and Paul. The final section of the book deals with Paul, apostle or apostate, and with his continuing impact on the church.

Lutheran theologians may differ with Dunn’s brief criticism of the Lutheran emphasis on the proper distinction between Law and Gospel. They may also question the author’s extending the means of grace beyond Word and Sacraments. However, the book is a valuable contribution especially in the sections dealing with oral tradition, the unity of the Gospels, and Paul’s enduring contributions to the church. It is highly recommended to parish pastors and serious students of the New Testament.

Thomas Nelson Green is the Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Mt. Vernon, New York and the emeritus Dean of Students at Concordia College-New York.

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