James Dunn on Faith and Scholarship

To complement the current series on faith and scholarship over at Café Apocalypsis, we might note some interesting comments from James Dunn’s Jesus Remembered. Dunn favorably mentions Gadamer’s alliance with “those who want to maintain that faith is not in principle at odds with the hermeneutical process in its application to the study of the NT” (123) because the whole Jesus tradition began from a “faith stimulus” (127). That is, “the original impulse behind these records was . . . sayings of Jesus as heard and received, and actions of Jesus as witnessed and retained in memory” (129; emphasis original). This tradition emerged and was preserved “as an expression of faith” (132). All this is to say, as Dunn helpfully summarizes, that:

(1) The only realistic objective for any ‘quest of the historical Jesus’ is Jesus remembered. (2) The Jesus Tradition of the gospels confirms that there was a concern within earliest Christianity to remember Jesus. (3) The Jesus tradition shows us how Jesus was remembered; its character strongly suggests again and again a tradition given its essential shape by regular use and reuse in oral mode. (4) This suggests in turn that that essential shape was given by the original and immediate impact made by Jesus as that was first put into words by and among those involved or eyewitnesses of what Jesus said and did. In that key sense, the Jesus tradition is Jesus remembered (335).

Thus, because the Gospels are, self-evidently, documents originating from a belief in Jesus’ messiahship, all else being equal, the hermeneutical horizon (i.e., the interpretive possibilities allowed and preferred for the available data) of modern people who believe in Jesus’ messiahship is one step closer to the hermeneutical horizon from which the Gospels originated than that of modern people who dispute Jesus’ messiahship. Many other contingencies, of course, can still make fusing these horizons a difficult task that may produce different results ini different contexts, but this similarity of perspective on Jesus provides at least one firm point of tangency from which to begin.


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James Dunn
James Dunn

Jesus and History

In his Jesus Remembered, James Dunn makes the following, insightful observations about the interplay between the study of Jesus and the study of history:

For those within the Christian tradition of faith, the issue [of Jesus’ relationship to history] is even more important. Christian belief in the incarnation, in the events of long ago in Palestine of the late 20s and early 30s AD as the decisive fulcrum point in human history, leaves them no choice but to be interested in the events and words of those days. For the incarnation, by definition, means the commitment of God to self-manifestation in Jesus at a particular time and place within human history, and thus places a tremendous weight of significance on certain events in Palestine in the years 28-30 (or thereabouts) of the common era. Christians cannot but want to know what Jesus was like, since he shows them what God is like. . . . [T]he new questers of the third quarter of the twentieth century showed that faith could and does have a theologically legitimate interest in the history of Jesus. Honest historical inquiry may be granted insights regarding Jesus which are crucially (in)formative of honest (self-critical) faith. . . . The point of [this historical] otherness of Jesus is, in part at least, . . . the otherness in particular of Jesus the Jew—again something we ‘moderns’ have forgotten at our cost. Without that sense of Jesus ‘born under the law’ (Gal. 4.4), of Christ ‘become servant of the circumcision’ (Rom. 15.8), with historical awareness of what that means in terms of the particularities of history, then the humanity of Christ is likely to be lost again to view within Christianity and swallowed up in an essentially docetic affirmation of his deity. Although the failures of earlier lives of Jesus at this point . . . are now widely acknowledged, the instinctive compulsion to extricate Jesus from his historical context and to assume his [a-historical,] timeless relevance still has to be resolutely resisted (101–102).


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James Dunn
James Dunn

Joachim Jeremias – Interaction

Joachim Jeremias
Joachim Jeremias

Rediscovering the Parables has become a modern classic in the field of parables research (see Blomberg 10), and upon even casual perusal, a reader should be able to see clearly some of the reasons for this much-deserved status. In addition, far from being merely a dry, academic treatise, Jeremias sought to recover Jesus’ exact words (ipsissima verba) because “only the Son of man himself and his word can give authority to our preaching” (7; cf. 181). Consequently, for Jeremias, this work represented an attempt to advance both scholarship and piety. Particularly valuable is Jeremias’ extensive knowledge of Palestinian religion, culture, and sociology, which enables him at many points to suggest interpretations for Jesus’ parables, or explanations for their elements, that may genuinely enrich one’s understanding of these parables (cf. 107, 111–12, 142–43, 166).

Even so, a few occasions exist in which more recent scholarship has, perhaps, uncovered better explanations for some facets of some of the parables than Jeremias gives [e.g., 108, 164; see Martinus C. De Boer, “Ten Thousand Talents? Matthew’s Interpretation and Redaction of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:23-35),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50.2 (1988): 217]. Moreover, Jeremias’s stated purpose of recovering Jesus’ exact words (ipsissima verba) can downplay the historical faithfulness of the text as it exists. Yet, this step is needless on the vast majority of occasions, and its effect is wholly so. The Gospels present us with the ipsissima vox (the very voice) of Jesus. Thus, although the Gospels may summarize or paraphrase Jesus’ words at some points, they do so with fidelity to the actual, historical occurrences that they record (cf. Carson, Moo, and Morris 38–45). Nevertheless, while certain portions of the work might require qualification or revision, Jeremias’ little classic, Rediscovering the Parables, remains a veritable treasure trove of historical, cultural, and sociological information for those seeking to understand the meaning of Jesus’ parables in the historical contexts in which they were originally spoken.


In this post:

Craig Blomberg
Craig Blomberg
D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris
D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris

Joachim Jeremias
Joachim Jeremias
  • Martinus C. De Boer, “Ten Thousand Talents? Matthew’s Interpretation and Redaction of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:23-35),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50.2 (1988): 214–32