Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dunn's Partings 8: "Jesus and the One God"

I've skipped three chapters in my review of James D. G. Dunn's The Partings of the Ways because the summer is nearly gone and there is so much I still want to do. Maybe some time I'll come back and fill in the gaps before archiving the review.

But I'm skipping his consideration of election and covenant and going to the set of chapters in which Dunn considers monotheism, beginning with chapter 9: "Jesus and the One God." Dunn's conclusion about Jesus is, "Jesus himself still stood well within the boundaries of second Temple Judaism at the point of Jewish monotheism" (240).

I might preface the following discussion by noting the absence of John from much of the discussion. It is not that Dunn does not consider John. It is that he has concluded that John at these points reflects later Christian reflection on Jesus more than Jesus' own words and self-presentation. Whether you agree with him or not, it is instructive to consider the synoptic portrait in itself, because you realize just how different John's portrayal is--and how much we shove its presentation down the Synoptic gospels throat without truly listening to them.

1. Jesus was a devout worshipper of the one God.
Dunn agrees with the general sense that "Jesus proclaimed God and not himself" (216). Jesus had a regular prayer life. Dunn decides not to speculate on Jesus' participation in temple sacrifices, although he notes that "It would presumably have been regarded as extremely odd if he had never done so" (217). On this matter the silence of the biblical record does not mention any oddness or issue in this regard.

The Shema shows up in his language at times, and Jesus deflects Satan by reference to it. Finally Jesus called for faith in God. Faith in him did not seem to be a feature of his call for faith.

Thus no contradiction of monotheism here. Jesus squarely placed himself under the one God.

2. Jesus as Messiah
Dunn makes an excellent case that people certainly wondered if Jesus was the Messiah. What is interesting is that Jesus rather consistently deflected these questions or distanced himself from this identity. Dunn puts it this way, "there is an indication on the part of Jesus of an unwillingness to accept what those who put the question would understand by the term (Messiah/King)" (222).

In any case, the Jews were not expecting the messiah to be superhuman anyway. So definitely no contradiction of monotheism here.

3. Jesus as God's son
Dunn considers it very clear that Jesus considered himself God's son. His use of Abba makes the case particularly for Dunn. However, there is no connotation of divinity here. "At the time of Jesus 'son of God' was a way of characterizing someone who was thought to be commissioned by God or highly favoured by God" (225). At most it might be a reference to the Messiah as Son of God, but even this use does not imply superhuman status.

4. Jesus as son of man/Son of Man
Dunn first rightly observes that the phrase "son of man" appears almost exclusively on the lips of Jesus himself in the NT. He concludes "the phrase must have been a very firm and clear characteristic of Jesus' own speech" (227).

After looking at several references and their parallels, Dunn concludes that Jesus must at least some of the time have used "son of man" simply as a way of referring to "man," to himself as a person. This is almost certainly true. The controversy comes when we ask whether Jesus ever referred to himself by this phrase as the Son of Man of Daniel 7.

Dunn does not commit to a position here. He does argue that the Parables of Enoch and 4 Ezra post-date Jesus. These writings do see the Son of Man as an exalted figure involved in the judgment. 4 Ezra dates from around AD100. The date of the Parables is disputed, but I think they must be roughly concurrent with the rise of the Christian movement or else the phrase son of man would impact the NT more.

In the end, Dunn concludes, "even if Jesus did draw on Dan. 7:13 to express his hope and conviction regarding his future vindication in particular, that would not be un-Jewish in character, and would be quite consistent with a strongly held monotheism" (230).

5. Jesus' authority
Here Dunn rehearses suggestions that Jesus' claims to authority might supercede the human. Not so. Priests had authority to pronounce sins forgiven (as we saw, this more the point of contention). There were other exorcists, other miracle workers who called themselves God's son. The Teacher of Righteousness claimed incredible authority.

6. Jesus in John
In this section, Dunn argues that the Fourth Gospel reflects a later stage of christology rather than the first stage and Jesus' historical self-presentation. "Had Jesus spoken in the terms ascribed to him in the Fourth Gospel the crisis [of parting] must have come must sooner" (234). He catalogs the stark difference between the way Jesus speaks in the Synoptics and the way he speaks in John. He notes the consistency of style across characters in John and 1 John and concludes that "the teaching of the Fourth Gospel can hardly be explained as other than the much developed theological reflection of the fourth evangelist" (253). If Jesus had historically said these sorts of things so early, "it is astonishing that there is no greater mark of it elsewhere in the NT, not just in the Synoptics, but also in the other NT writings" (234).

7. The eschatological plus
Dunn ends the chapter with features of Jesus' ministry that begin to move beyond the normal, elements that must have been "uncomfortable from the first" (235). While Jesus self-identified as a prophet, it was not just any prophet but the eschatological prophet of Isaiah 61. Jesus strikingly modifies the prophetic, "Thus says the LORD" to "I say to you." He was not just an exorcist, but the exorcist who would end the rule of Satan. Jesus saw himself as empowered by the Spirit. His use of Amen of his own sayings was striking when others used it of others' sayings. He called disciples, 12 of them, but did not include himself among them.

In short, "Jesus taught with a degree of self-consciousness of being God's spokesman, able to act and speak in God's stead, which is only partially paralleled within the Jewish tradition" (238). He saw himself as the eschatological spokesman for God, a role beyond any human role before him.

What do we conclude from all this? We conclude that Jesus could probably have been understood by those around him in human terms. At the same time, he also seems to have given hints of something unprecedented, of something more.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Your explaination of Dunn takes the text as true, as any fundametalist would. This rendition combines the historical with the eschalogical. Is this Dunn's view or yours?
I think the whole problem (at least for me) of the text, is that it is based on a perspective, which is eschalogical. This was Paul's rendering of "truth", wasn't it?
The real world functions on a different plane, which is realistic and based on realism. And that realism is harsh reality of suffering, prejudide, hatred, death and disease...that is what humans experience and I don't think it is compassionate to be one of Job's comforters... It is a matter of trust in a text and in the people that wrote the text (and God for the fundamental and evangelical). Faith has to accept this view, as it is not based on historical science per se...but on tradition. And traditions are based on myth.

Ken Schenck said...

The word true is probably not what you mean, as has long been pointed out. A novel can be true. Do you mean historical? Dunn does not assume the historicity of the gospel stories. He regularly argues for those quotations he traces to Jesus or he makes some argument like, "this is how Jesus is remembered" in some part of the early church.

The debate over the historical Jesus is over two hundred years old and there is an immense body of literature discussing method, defining terms like myth and tradition. These are well run paths and the days of simply consigning the historical Jesus to unknowable myth have been over for about 60 years.

Our postmodern context has, in my opinion, encouraged some sloppiness among historical scholars of the Bible and some evangelical scholars have probably used it as an excuse not to do the hard work of historical reconstruction.

But there are rigorous historical methods that remain sound. I respect Dunn highly because he rigorously follows this method and submits to its critique.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I guess I will remain "behind" in my understanding(s) by 60 or so years (but what else is new, I've always been behind). The real history is our experience of life and when our faith no longer colaborates with what we believed to be true, because, historically (experientially), we do not "see" how it CAN be true and it becomes absurdity to continue to believe as we have...(hope deferred makes the heart sick). We, then, seek another explaination.
God doesn't "cover" those questions...but experiencing life's gifts, as gifts, and not having any expectations as to "others", can lead to a "contentment", because we take responsibility for ourselves and embrace or move on.
Ethics will always interest me, though. And because of that interest, I will "judge" by that paradigm.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I have to add, that your rendition of Jesus "consciousness" is an important one, as that was his identity.
We must all seek our identity and intially children seek to identify with "another" as a "model".(This is where fundamentalism and evangelicalism is). A child needs a real person in space and time that they deem "morallly exemplary" ( loves them and is oriented toward forming "self"). After self-awareness has developed, then there is a more unique and specified identity. This is a formation according to psychological development models...Each child must grow into adulthood learning what they value most and where their giftings are to give back to the "world". This is what teachers and parents do in forming the individual person.

Ben Robinson said...

Have you run across Kavin Rowe's "Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke"? It previously was only available as Rowe's published dissertation, but it is being released soon in paperback (for considerably cheaper obviously!). I'd be interested to hear your take on it. This is the Amazon link.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for the reference Ben. I'll order it for our library and maybe the paperback for myself :-)