Book Review: James D G Dunn, ‘A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed’ (Baker 2005).> Dunn’s thesis: the modern (last two centuries’) ‘quest for the historical Jesus’ is seriously flawed, and was flawed from the outset. Modern Western scholars tend to look back at Jesus ‘through the lens of a long-established literary culture [with] too little appreciation of how the impact of Jesus would have made lasting effect in an oral society. The overall impression left by Jesus has been subjected to fine-detail critique and reconstruction without adequate appreciation of the extent to which that damaged the whole picture. These quests failed because they started from the wrong place, from the wrong assumptions, and viewed the relevant data from the wrong perspective.’> What was/is this ‘quest’? Its key feature was an alleged contrast/antithesis between ‘the historical Jesus’ and ‘the Christ of faith’. So basically its task was to liberate the real/historical Jesus from many layers of subsequent dogma.> The quest began partly as a reaction to the Chalcedonian Christ (‘perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man’), and the Johannine Jesus, who, as Schleiermacher put it, was distinguished from the rest of men by ‘the constant potency of his God-consciousness… a veritable existence of God in him’.> The latest round appears of course in the work of the Jesus Seminar. Robert Funk, ‘the doyen of the Seminar, makes no secret of his desire to rescue Jesus from Christianity.’ Thus ‘faith is a hindrance’ in this quest: ‘Faith is bad; history is good’ (Dunn).> Dunn begins his critique by asking how and why Jesus made such a lasting impact on his followers. ‘The impact was not a slight one… his mission changed their lives.’ This impact did not first arise with Easter: Dunn makes a strong argument for the Q material emerging in Galilee and being given lasting shape there before Jesus’ death; Jesus’ teachings were accurately remembered, and endured in that form – which is why Dunn called his ‘magnum opus’ ‘Jesus Remembered’: ‘we have access to none other than to Jesus as he was remembered’ (the last five words Dunn italicizes for emphasis). IOW ‘The only Jesus available to us is Jesus as he was seen and heard by those who first formulated the traditions we have’ (this whole sentence in italics). (But yes, he notes, the Gospels of John and Thomas both attest the influence of later faith). The result of stripping away the impact that Jesus actually made ‘is to strip away everything and to leave an empty stage waiting to be filled by some creative amalgam of the historian’s own imagination and values.’
Dunn’s second strike against the Jesus Quest involves their ‘literary mind-set – the assumption, the taken-for-granted presupposition that written text is the only way in which important words can be preserved and passed on.’ The great majority of Jesus’ disciples were almost certainly functionally illiterate. But we in the educated West have a dominant literary paradigm and therefore a negative evaluation of oral tradition (remember the game of ‘Chinese whispers’?). As E.P. Sanders points out, the problem is ‘that we do not know how to imagine the oral period.’ Oral tradition is a group tradition. ‘Social’ or ‘cultural’ memory would have given the group of Jesus’ followers their identity. Kenneth Bailey (who lived in Middle Eastern villages for thirty years) points out that the gathering of the community at the end of the day saw those people telling stories, sharing news, recalling matters of importance to the community – not least stories from the village’s own history.
An oral performance is not like reading a literary text, and the majority of the early Jesus-followers learnt about him by hearing, not reading. The community ‘performed’ important traditions regularly (which is why the NT letters quote Jesus so rarely, but allude to the Jesus tradition). One or two in the community would be recognized as having primary responsibility for maintaining and performing the community’s traditions. Such an oral tradition ‘subverts the idea(l) of an “original” version: … there may well have been several traditions, or versions of the tradition from the first.’ Oral tradition is a combination of stability and diversity. As Funk observes, the Synoptic evangelists ‘tend to reproduce the nucleus of the story – the core event – with greater fidelity than the introduction or conclusion.’ Despite redaction criticism, Dunn asserts, ‘the brutal fact is that we simply cannot escape from a presumption of orality for the first stage of the transmission of the Jesus tradition.’
So far: it is a mistake to assume faith is a hindrance to the quest for the historical Jesus; and it is a mistake to study the transmission of the Jesus tradition only in literary terms.
The third mistake, according to Dunn, has been the tendency to look for a distinctive Jesus, a Jesus different from his environment. ‘Christianity’, from Ignatius of Antioch onwards, has been understood as an antithesis to ‘Judaism’ (this idea is sometimes termed ‘supersessionism’). Quest scholars have tended to look for a distinctive characteristic about Jesus and from that narrow base develop a top-heavy conclusion. Examples: the authority of Jesus versus that of Moses (Kasemann), eschatological fulfilment (Bornkamm), the imminance of the coming of the kingdom (Kummel), the Lord’s Prayer (Schurmann), Jesus’ aphoristic sayings (Jesus Seminar). The way forward, according to Leander Keck: ‘Instead of the distinctive Jesus we ought rather see the characteristic Jesus.’ Jesus talked about typical Jewish concerns – what obedience to the Torah really means, how to observe the Sabbath, what counts as clean and unclean, the purity of the temple etc. But there were distinctive features about Jesus too: the ‘Son of Man’ label was not a confession used by his disciples; the tradition of its usage derived directly from Jesus’ characteristic usage. Similarly too with Jesus’ distinctive use of the term ‘Amen’: the early Christians, on the other hand, used the term in in accordance with the traditional pattern. ‘As the doyen of British NT scholarship, C.H. Dodd put it in his last significant book The Founder of Christianity: “The first three gospels offer a body of sayings on the whole so consistent, so coherent, and withal so distinctive in manner, style and content, that no reasonable critic should doubt, whatever reservations he may have about individual sayings, that we find here reflected the thought of a single, unique teacher”.’
Dunn’s Appendix is a summary of his three-part thesis, attacking again the Quest’s and particularly the Jesus Seminar’s ‘default setting’ of a literary paradigm. ‘The oral tradition model recognizes that where an influential teacher was in view, there was bound to to be a concern among his disciples to remember what he had taught them.’ Our challenge is to ‘shake ourselves out of the literary mind-set and attempt to revisualize the part of the process that must have been largely if not entirely oral in character.’ ‘In an oral culture tradition, oral tradition – is communal memory…’ Dunn’s alternative default setting underscores the importance of ‘hearing the Jesus tradition… as it was heard in the beginning, and of hearing it also as a tradition that still lives and still demands response from its hearers as it did from the beginning.’ Why would the Jesus Seminar scholars miss something as obvious as this? Simple: none of them (to my knowledge) has ever lived for at least a year in a traditional culture. As Kenneth Bailey and others tell us, we in the post-Enlightenment, post-Gutenburg Western cultures are seriously handicapped in terms of understanding the Sitz im Leben of the biblical peoples. James Dunn (PhD Cambridge) is Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham. (Review copy supplied by Openbook.com.au)
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