James Dunn Interview

James Dunn Interview January 21, 2014

The Eerdmans blog shared an interview with James D. G. Dunn about his work on the oral Gospel tradition:

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  • Just Sayin’

    Fascinating; thanks. I wonder how this correlates (or doesn’t) with the new Walton book?

    • I’m not sure. If Walton is dealing with oral tradition in the context of the Hebrew Bible, then that can be significantly different in practice if not in principle, due to the very different amounts of transmission time envisaged.

  • That Jesus made an impact seems like a much bigger assumption to me than it does to Dunn.

    It is easy for me to imagine any number of pious first century Jews who were experiencing cognitive dissonance as a result of (1) fervently praying for God to send his anointed one to deliver His people from the Romans (2) avidly hoping that anyone who seemed to pose a challenge to the Romans might be the one, and (3) sinking into despair each time a challenge was brutally crushed. Anyone of these people who was searching the scriptures for an answer might stumble upon the idea that it was all part of God’s plan and might be susceptible to some visionary experience confirming that.

    As a result, it is easy for me to imagine that there was a specific historical person associated with the visionary experiences of the earliest believers without those believers having been followers of that person during his lifetime and without that person’s teachings or activities forming the basis for either the visionary experiences or the theological understanding of them. As I understand it, the usual Roman practice would have been to crucify a challenger’s followers along with him so there might well not be many people left who knew much in the way of true stories about Jesus.

    It would be perfectly natural for early believers to create a character that fit the idea of the kind of man who God would choose to exalt as the risen anointed one, and I’m just not sure that modern Jesus scholars are doing anything different. They assume that it was the impact of Jesus’ personality that led to the visions, and try to figure out what kind of a person might be sufficient to have such an impact. However, I am hard pressed to see why one might not just as well assume that it was the impact of the visions that led to the creation of the character of Jesus.

    • As I have said before, I think the reason that these options seem comparable to you is because you are not doing justice to the meaning of what our earliest sources say when understood within the context of their time. Nor are you explaining how you get from “it is easy for me” (as a layperson not steeped in the relevant data) “to imagine” to apparently assuming that this imagining on your part offers something that is equally if not more probable than what historians all but universally conclude on the basis of their extensive familiarity with the relevant sources.

      • If I were proposing my own conclusions as more or equally probable, I would concede the validity of your criticism. However, I am not challenging the conclusions drawn by trained scholars. I am asking about what Dunn himself labels an “assumption.” Are we justified in assuming that the gospels reflect the impact that the historical Jesus had upon his immediate followers or should we allow for the possibility that the oral tradition behind the gospels had its roots in the visionary experiences of people who were not companions of Jesus during his lifetime?

        • Once again I would respond by asking what evidence suggests to you that it is more likely that the traditions behind the Gospels, which rarely mention visions, nonetheless arose from visionary experiences. Obviously one can assume all sorts of things, but the assumption Dunn talks about is one that is a premise which does good justice to the relevant evidence. One could call it a theory, something that is not simply what the evidence points to, but a framework that makes good sense of disparate evidence. What does your alternative framework offer that is preferable?

          • I am not saying that the stories arose from the visionary experiences. What I am saying is that they could have arisen in communities founded by people like Paul who did not know Jesus during his lifetime. I am saying that a tradition that arose in such a community might not reflect the impact that the historical Jesus had on his followers during his lifetime.

            We can of course call Dunn’s assumption something else to make it sound more substantial, but I respect the fact that he is honest about what it is. Personally, I suspect that the preferred framework is underdetermined by the data and that there may be several different frameworks that must be acknowledged as possibilities.

          • So it seems once again that you are not saying anything specific, or offering any sort of case, and yet you are happy nonetheless to say that undeveloped hypothetical scenarios with no clear case or evidence might deserve equal recognition as possibilities alongside one that scholars have developed at length and in detail.

            I think that you need to offer specifics and details comparable to what mainstream historical scholarship offers, or stop comparing the well-established to vague ideas for which you can’t be bothered to make a substantive case.

          • Dr. Dunn did not develop a case at length and in detail. He said that it was an assumption and I am asking what justifies that assumption. I don’t know what your mother used to say about what happens when you assume, but I remember what my mother used to say.

          • I’d take a look at how he justifies the assumption in the books he has written on the subject – such as Jesus Remembered p.384. Treating his wording as though it involves saying something which involves going against his published works on the topic makes it seem like you are quote mining the interview, and I am pretty sure that you do not wish to do that.

          • What I read on the Google Books preview of page 384 is this:

            The phrase ‘kingdom of God’ occurs regularly in the Evangelists’ recollection of Jesus’ words—thirteen times in Mark, another nine times in the material shared by Matthew and Luke (q/Q), a further twenty-eight times in tradition distinctive of Matthew, and a further twelve times in tradition attested only by Luke. It is hardly possible to explain such data other than on the assumption that Jesus was remembered as speaking often on the subject.

            Doesn’t Paul also refer to “the kingdom of God” a number of times without ever attributing the phrase to Jesus? Wouldn’t anyone who believed that Christ had risen have interpreted that event as a sign that “the kingdom of God has drawn near”? Isn’t it an obvious possibility that this phrase was used by the earliest visionaries in describing their experiences and then later ascribed to Jesus?

            Once again, I respect Dunn for being honest about what he is doing because “assumption” certainly looks like an accurate description to me. If it’s not possible to distinguish things Socrates really said from things that Plato merely attributed to him, how can it be possible to distinguish things Jesus really said from things that early Christians attributed to him?

          • If your next-to-last paragraph envisaged a plausible scenario, then what your your final paragraph mean? what would “things Jesus really said” mean? Perhaps in the interest of coherence you should challenge the assumption that Socrates was a historical figure whose teachings were entirely derived from people who experienced visions of him? Surely if it makes sense to think people claimed that someone they saw only in visions was the rightful king, then that can work all the more so for a philosopher.

          • I’m sorry, but it is hard for me to find much that is coherent in that comment. I am not aware of anyone who is making “the assumption that Socrates was a historical figure whose teachings were entirely derived from people who experienced visions of him,” nor am I aware that anyone was thought to have had visions of him.

            Things “Jesus really said” means things Jesus really said as opposed to things that were attributed to him later.

            Can I at least infer that you will concede that the scenario I envisaged in my next-to-last paragraph is in fact a plausible one?

          • No. And I would encourage you to keep looking at your comment until you see the puzzling contradiction I tried unsuccessfully to draw to your attention.

          • A straight answer would be more helpful than encouragement. What is implausible about some early believer in the resurrection (e.g., Paul) using the phrase “kingdom of God” and some subsequent believer (e.g., Mark) attributing it to Jesus?

          • The phrase “kingdom of God” does not originate with Jesus on any scenario. And so your question illustrates the problem of concocting scenarios and declaring them plausible or implausible without being acquainted in detail with the literature of the period.

            But I ask again, what does “Jesus really said” mean if you are positing that Jesus was a figment of someone’s imagination?

          • What makes you think that I am positing that Jesus was a figment of someone’s imagination? What I have posited is that “there was a specific historical person associated with the visionary experiences of the earliest believers.”

            I don’t think that anything in my scenario depends on where the phrase “kingdom of God” originated. The question I am addressing is whether it is possible to explain its frequent occurrence in the Synoptics without Jesus having taught about it frequently. What I am suggesting is that the earliest believers used the phrase to describe the significance of the resurrection and that it would be perfectly natural to attribute use of the phrase to Jesus regardless of whether he really did so.

          • Thanks for the clarification. That is certainly possible. How might we test it against the evidence in comparison with alternatives?

          • I don’t know how you could possibly test it.

            I suggested the possibility above that the people who had the first visions of the risen Christ might actually have not been followers of Jesus during his lifetime, but just pious Jews who were fervently anticipating the Messiah, but I don’t think that is the only problem. Even if it were Jesus’ followers who had the first visions, they would have interpreted and/or reinterpreted his mission and message in light of their belief that God had raised him from the dead.

            Dunn suggests that “[i]t is hardly possible to explain such data other than on the assumption that Jesus was remembered as speaking often on the subject,” but that’s not really true at all, is it? Even if Jesus had been a revolutionary Zealot who only ever mentioned the coming kingdom of God twice, once his followers came to believe he had been resurrected as part of some eschatological plan, those two mentions would have been rehashed and dissected, they would have quickly come to be understood as the core of what Jesus was all about, and they would have been the core of the message that was preached about him. I think you could reasonably expect the stories about Jesus to be filled with discussions of the coming kingdom of God regardless of whether Jesus actually discussed it a little, a lot, or not at all. That is how his resurrection was understood and the resurrection is the reason that people were telling stories about him at in the first place.

            That might explain why Paul would have so little to say about what Jesus said or did during his life even if he knew him to be a historical person. For Paul, Jesus was an instrument in bringing about the kingdom of God, but not a prophet of it.

  • Sean Garrigan

    I’m really happy to hear that the 3rd volume of Dunn’s history will be sent to the publisher at the end of summer. I’ve been waiting for that one, and wondering whether we’d ever see it in light of the fact that his time keeps being hijacked with other projects, and he obviously has a hard time saying “no”.