Memories of My Doktorvater, James D. G. Dunn (1939-2020)

Memories of My Doktorvater, James D. G. Dunn (1939-2020) June 26, 2020

It comes with great sadness that biblical scholarship has lost a great man this week, my mentor, James D. G. Dunn. He leaves behind his wonderful wife, Meta, and his children, Catrina, David, and Fiona. An excerpt from his festschrift that I, along with C. K. Robertson and Doug Mohrmann, published says it well:

“Future eras of biblical scholarship, when looking back at this time in history, will confirm what is already clearly evident – that James D. G. Dunn was among the foremost scholars of the New Testament during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Dunn, affectionately known as Jimmy to his friends and colleagues, has now influenced a generation of scholarship in numerous areas, including Christian origins, early Jewish and Christian relationships, Christology, Pneumatology, unity and diversity in the New Testament, the New Perspective on Paul, and more recently, the New Perspective on Jesus” (Jesus and Paul: Global Perspective in Honor of James. D. G. Dunn, p. ix).

As a young adult influenced by the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement, the first book I read by Jimmy was Baptism in the Holy Spirit. I was amazed at the depth of knowledge and sophistication of Jimmy’s handling of Scripture. I revisited Jimmy’s writings again when taking classes at Fuller Theological Seminary, including Christology in the Making, an article of his on the New Perspective on Paul, and once again, Baptism in the Holy Spirit when taking a course with that same title (taught by Prof. Russell Spittler). When revisiting that book, and his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12:13, I came to accept his position that the Apostle Paul associated baptism in the Spirit with conversion-initiation.

His work came in handy again, along with his Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament, as I investigated a controversial spiritual renewal that was eventually named, “The Toronto Blessing.” This led to one of my early books entitled, A Time to Laugh: The Holy Laughter Phenomenon Examined.

It was 1995, and after praying and fasting, I sent a letter to James Dunn and R. T. France expressing my interest in doing my Ph.D. at their universities. Jimmy wrote back first, saying that he was interested in my proposed thesis on perseverance and apostasy. I moved to Durham, and despite problems I and my family experienced when living in England, I have never regretted my decision. I loved living and studying in Durham.

One of my highlights during those years at Durham was that Ph.D. students met together on Monday night to learn from Jimmy himself and other faculty and guest lecturers. One term we had the opportunity of reading and critiquing drafts of Jimmy’s upcoming tome, The Theology of Paul the Apostle.

As my dissertation advisor–Loren T. Stuckenbruck was my other advisor–I recall Jimmy critiquing my work in minute detail. That is something both he and Loren had in common! I appreciated the critiques and am hopefully the better scholar because of it. I also partly learned how to teach undergraduates when Jimmy had me review his curriculum and sit in his undergrad class to watch him teach.
And then there were the special evenings when Jimmy and Meta would invite his students over to their house for conversation, fellowship, fun, haggis, and hot fruit punch. The punch was Jimmy’s specialty, and he would greet each of us at the door wearing his colorful polka dot apron. His affectionate way of greeting me was very fatherly, “BJ, my boy!” Jimmy was wise, witty, friendly, thought provoking, and always writing something new.

After I left Durham to move back to the States, I was hired at George Fox University for a one-year full-time professorial position. After that it was hard times as an adjunct, and I can’t even begin to count the number of letters of recommendation Jimmy wrote for me as I tried to find full-time work. One position that was almost certain did not finally go through, and he sensed my discouragement, giving me a good pep talk.

During the early 2000’s, I did not see Jimmy for quite some time. The last time he saw me I had my signature long hair in a pony-tail, but those days were behind me now as I worked full-time at Azusa Pacific University. Then at a Society of Biblical Literature conference, I met up with him again at a gathering with his old students. When he recognized me, he grabbed the top of my hair, shook me, and said, “BJ!! Is that really you??”

I was able to stay in somewhat regular contact with Jimmy over the last couple of years, helped by his contribution of a fresh article on the New Perspective on Paul for my upcoming book co-edited with Scot McKnight, Perspectives on Paul: Five Views. In the book, Jimmy also writes critiques on the other four perspectives, as well as a rejoinder in response to the four critiques of his position.

In some of my final conversations with Jimmy, I told him I was working on a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, and he said that he envied me as he anticipated the wealth of insight I would learn in that letter—he had such an experience when writing his own Romans commentary for Word Biblical Commentary. His favorite chapter was Romans 8. How appropriate it is now to affirm regarding Jimmy, that “neither death, nor life … will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38–39).

Rest well, Jimmy, the best is yet to come.

From left to right: Douglas Mohrmann, B. J. Oropeza, James and Meta Dunn, and C. K. Robertson at the presentation of Jesus and Paul: Global Perspectives in Honor of James D. G. Dunn.  A Festschrift for his 70th Birthday. Society of Biblical Literature conference, Nov. 2009.

Some influential works by James D. G. Dunn:

Baptism in the Holy Spirit: A Re-Examination of the New Testament Teaching on the Gift of the Spirit. London: SCM, 1970.

Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament. London: SCM, 1975.

Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity. London: SCM, 1977.

Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation. London: SCM, 1980.

“Paul and the New Perspective.” Bulletin for the John Rylands Library 65 (1983): 95–122.

The Evidence for Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985.

Romans 1-8/ Romans 9-16. Two Volumes. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco: Word Books, 1988.

Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians. London: SCM/Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990.

 The Partings of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity. London: SCM Press, 1991.

The Epistle to the Galatians. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993.

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

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

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

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

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

The New Perspective on Paul: Collected Essays. WUNT 2/185. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2005/ Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

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

New Testament Theology: An Introduction. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Living Word. 2nd edition. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.

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

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

The Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Jesus According to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019.

“The New Perspective on Paul,” along with responses to other perspectives on Paul, in Perspectives on Paul: Five Views. Scot McKnight and B. J. Oropeza, eds. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Festschrifts in honor of James Dunn:

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

Jesus and Paul: Global Perspectives in Honor of James. D. G. Dunn. A Festschrift for his 70th Birthday. B. J. Oropeza, C. K. Robertson, and Douglas C. Mohrmann, eds. Forewords by N. T. Wright and Richard B. Hays. LNTS 414. London: T. & T. Clark/Bloomsbury, 2009.


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