Professor James D. G. Dunn has had a remarkable impact on the shape of New Testament studies over almost fifty years. Since the publication of his first book, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (first published in 1970), Dunn has produced a flood of books and articles, many of which have had a significant impact on the direction of academic discussion of the New Testament. From my earliest days of theological studies, I noted the importance of Dunn’s work. Initially, however, reflecting an attitude that is perhaps typical of new theological students of evangelical convictions, I was wary of Dunn’s work, since it appeared that he frequently challenged evangelical views on both introductory matters (such as the traditional ascription of authorship of certain New Testament documents) and theological convictions (such as the pre-existence of the Son). Over the years, I have continued to disagree with several conclusions that Dunn draws, but I have also learned to appreciate his vast learning and his clear presentation of information as an invaluable aid to my own thinking.
Here I wish to draw attention to the project that has capped Dunn’s academic career, his three-volume study entitled ‘Christianity in the Making’. The first volume in this series, Jesus Remembered, was published in 2003. The second volume, Beginning From Jerusalem, followed in 2009. The final volume, Neither Jew Nor Greek: A Contested Identity, was published in 2015.
This is an astonishing achievement. These three volumes amount to a total of approximately 2900 pages of discussion (not including the substantial bibliographies and indices)! This is all the more impressive when one considers that Dunn published the first volume when he was about 64 years old. This series is, to a significant extent, a retirement project!
I have been working through these volumes in order to write a review for SBET. That will appear, all being well, in due course. In this post, I wish to highlight briefly three aspects of careful historical inquiry that I have learned from Dunn’s work and which I think may be particularly worthy of attention by students, ministers, and others who are required to think, speak and write about Early Christianity.
- Engage with primary sources: At the outset of each of his three volumes, Dunn devotes a considerable amount of space to discussion of the most important primary sources (JR, 139-72; BFJ, 52-130; NJNG, 43-183 [two chapters!]). He identifies the various sources available and then proceeds to weigh them. Throughout his books, Dunn gives priority to careful attention to such primary sources, often discussing specific details in some depth.
- Ask probing questions: I am not always convinced by Dunn’s answers, but I have learned a great deal from his questions! To note only a few section headings from BFJ, chapter 25 on Paul (322-77), we have the following questions: ‘A Roman Citizen?’; ‘On Whose Authority?’; ‘Why Did Paul Persecute?’; ‘Why Damascus?’; ‘Antiochene Influence on Paul’s Theology?’; plus many more questions asked in the body of the text. Dunn consistently asks probing questions and then attempts to answer them, drawing on the available sources. Even when his readers may disagree with his answers, Dunn’s questions provide helpful direction for research.
- Listen to a range of viewpoints: Dunn’s footnotes are a masterclass in careful, respectful interaction with a vast range of scholarly opinions. Looking through the lists of names with whom Dunn engages, one is struck by the diversity of perspectives. Unlike some authors, Dunn does not neglect or ignore the writings of competent scholars on the basis of their theological viewpoints. Though his engagement with secondary literature does not lead to neglect of primary sources, it is evident that Dunn has read a vast amount of contemporary, and older, scholarship in a number of languages.
I am grateful for what I have learned, and continue to learn, from Dunn’s remarkable feat of scholarship in this series (and in his other writings), with respect to both the content of his research and his method. I do not commend his writings to readers for uncritical consumption. I am certain that Dunn would not appreciate that. But for the careful reader who wishes to become a more careful, better-informed reader, Dunn’s ‘Christianity in the Making’ will repay careful attention.