In A New Perspective on Jesus, renowned author James D. G. Dunn critiques the quest for the historical Jesus. He claims that the quest has been largely unsuccessful because it started from the wrong place, began with the wrong assumptions, and viewed the evidence from the wrong perspective.
Dunn’s study offers three criticisms of questers’ methods. First, Dunn contends that scholars have failed to see how the disciples’ pre-Easter faith shaped the Gospel traditions. Second, he claims that a focus on literary transmission has led scholars to ignore the fact that the Gospel traditions arose in an oral culture, which shaped the way the stories of Jesus were told and passed on. Third, Dunn challenges scholars’ preoccupation with finding what is distinctive about Jesus and rejecting portions of the tradition portraying Jesus as characteristically Jewish. Dunn concludes by rethinking accepted views of Synoptic relationships in light of the oral nature of the Jesus tradition.
This work offers a compelling critique of the presuppositions that inform much of contemporary Gospel study, and the alternatives Dunn proposes are sure to stimulate scholarly debate. It will interest students and scholars of the Bible, pastors and church leaders, and anyone wanting a fresh perspective on Jesus studies.
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“First of all, they forgot the impact made by Jesus. The disciple-making, faith-creating impact of Jesus should be a fundamental given and an indispensable starting point for any quest for the Jesus from whom Christianity originated.” (Page 16)
“It is this whole thrust that I find it necessary to question and challenge—on two grounds: first, we must recognize that the first faith of the disciples is what makes it possible for us to gain any information about or insight into the Jesus of Galilee; and second, we must also recognize the fallacy of thinking that the real Jesus must be a nonfaith Jesus, different from the Jesus of the Gospels.” (Page 22)
“The task was to liberate the real Jesus, the historical Jesus, from the chains and obscurations of later faith.” (Page 18)
“The only Jesus available to us, I repeat, is Jesus as he was seen and heard by those who first formulated the traditions we have—the Jesus of faith, Jesus seen through the eyes and heard through the ears of the faith that he evoked by what he said and did.” (Page 31)
“oral tradition is essentially communal in character.” (Page 48)
Although this is a small book, the issues are large, and Dunn’s critique of so much that historians of Jesus still take for granted is salutary. He thoughtfully asks the hard questions, and his informed answers not only orient us in the right direction but outline further paths for research.
—Dale Allison, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
What Dunn did for Pauline studies, when he called for a ‘post-Sanders new perspective,’ he is now doing for historical Jesus studies. Dunn’s ‘new perspective’ on Jesus is post-tradition criticism and contends that the foundation of the Jesus traditions was shaped by faith. There never was a historical Jesus who could be understood apart from faith. This book summons the academy to the table and contends that it has been epistemologically irresponsible.
—Scot McKnight, North Park University
A New Perspective on Jesus takes a serious look at the Jesus tradition in its earliest form as oral tradition. The impact of faith, the nature of oral communication, and a focus on the ‘characteristic’ Jesus are affirmed in a context where faith is often undervalued, form and redaction criticism are said to rule, and the ‘dissimilar’ Jesus is treated as the authentic Jesus. This work brings needed balance to a study of Jesus that is often out of whack.
—Darrell Bock, author of Jesus According to Scripture
At last, here is an accessible book by a noted New Testament scholar who takes seriously, and thus builds a strong case for, the role of orality/aurality among the early followers of Jesus. In doing so, Dunn also builds a strong case for the essential reliability of the Gospel materials. I am glad to commend this book as an introduction to the study of Jesus and the Gospels.
—Gordon Fee, Regent College
The past twenty-five years have brought a Copernican revolution in our understanding of Jesus. We now know that Jesus was Jewish by cultural commitment as well as by birth, that his disciples conveyed this perspective in their teachings, and that his disciples taught by word of mouth—not in writing—during the earliest years of Christianity. In this accessible book, Dunn provides a lucid introduction to one of the intellectual pivots in the present generation of scholarship.
—Bruce Chilton, Bard College