I was heartbroken to learn yesterday that my dear mentor, my doctoral supervisor at the University of Durham, my dear friend ever since James D. G. Dunn (Jimmy to his friends) has died. No one who has studied the New Testament at any level will be unfamiliar with the name. He is perhaps best known of late for his work on Paul, in particular his role in taking the insights of E. P. Sanders about ancient Judaism and finding a better way to make sense of Paul in light of them, an approach that came to be known as the “new perspective on Paul.” But he also worked on and made a huge impact in other areas. The one that brought me to Durham to work with him was Christology. His book Christology in the Making was one whose thesis I resisted as a still fairly conservative undergraduate. But it was persuasive. Both that and his Unity and Diversity in the New Testament convinced me of, among other things, just how different the Gospel of John was from other New Testament texts, particularly in the manner in which it depicted Jesus. And so I applied to study with him, and he accepted my proposal. His feedback in response to my thesis proposal had two points, a section to sum up, and “in conclusion.” I remember when I showed it to my wife she said it is just like Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. I don’t think I had thought about it. Her observation was right on target. That is indeed precisely the way he writes in his books as well as in letters and in feedback on student writing, with the same clear logical precision. I don’t have the same instinct and have always admired it. I so appreciated then and will always appreciate his ability to engage in the kind of big-picture synthesis that he was famous for in his books, and yet also dig down into the nitty gritty details to support that.
As I worked on my thesis that first year I churned out quite a bit of writing. Perhaps the most memorable comment Jimmy wrote on my work at that phase was something I still refer to as the most discouraging compliment I ever received. He wrote in the margin of something I had submitted to him, “You write well – perhaps too well for this early phase in your research.” I asked him what he meant, and he explained that I was able to produce a large quantity of material but had yet to really clarify the details of my thesis and my methodology sufficiently for the content to reflect that kind of clear and detailed work it would need to in order to be a viable (my punny instincts want to say “viva-able”) PhD thesis. As I struggled to make that transition it was, at times, disheartening. One of my other favorite and vivid memories was from sometime around the middle or perhaps towards the end of that first year. My wife and I went to the home of Jimmy and Meta together with other students for a party he hosted. He answered the door in an apron which I think said “equal-opportunity kitchen” on it. At the end of the evening, before we left, my wife decided to seize the opportunity and make a casual remark to Jimmy. “You know,” she said, “James comes home depressed after his meetings with you.” I wished the floor would open up and swallow me. Jimmy was taken aback not because of her directness (he was perfectly capable of being direct himself) but because he was genuinely sorry to hear that. It was then that he revealed his approach to doctoral supervision. He explained that he tried to make things as challenging for his students as possible, to find as many weaknesses in what we were producing, so that when it came time for the viva, the doctoral examination, we would pass, and beyond that what we wrote should also be able to find a publisher. That proved true in my case – my dissertation John’s Apologetic Christology was published by Cambridge University Press in the SNTS Monograph Series. Knowing that was his aim, and that his critiques were not an expression of disappointment (they did not reflect a belief that my work would never be good enough, but on the contrary, the belief that they could be and needed to be, and that this was the best way to help me get there) turned what had been disheartening into something encouraging, now that I knew how to appreciate it. Jimmy loved when his students disagreed with him and argued their case vigorously, engaging with his work in ways that did to it what he sought to do to our work, challenging one another to make what we wrote better and our conclusions stronger. He was not one of those scholars who expected his students to fall in line in support of his views and I always admired that, both in terms of the strength of character and integrity it reflects, and also simply as the most healthy approach to research and scholarship.
Jimmy has been a fantastic role model, and I am saddened that I, his family, and the academic community have lost such a treasure.
Scot McKnight was also one of Jimmy’s students, and shared a tribute on his own blog. John Squires and Elizabeth Raine, who were at Durham simultaneously with me, shared their fond tribute:
B.J. Oropeza was also a student of Jimmy’s at the same time I was and wrote a tribute. Here is another from Nijay Gupta:
I am sure there will be others in the near future. None of our pieces will begin to do justice to the life and legacy of this great human being. Hopefully they will at least bring some small measure of comfort to those now mourning his passing.