Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday Dunn: Jesus Remembered 3

I'm not going to finish by Easter, sad to say. Looks like it's going to end up being a chapter a week from here on out. Today I'm on to chapter 6 of James Dunn's Jesus Remembered, the last chapter of his Prolegomena on faith and the historical Jesus. This chapter is titled, "History, Hermeneutics and Faith." My first two reviews were basically:

Flight from Dogma
Flight from History

If the preceding material has largely gone through the history of the discussion, Dunn now presents his hermeneutic. This is good reading. I think what has impressed me the most about this book so far is the breadth and depth of Dunn's reading. Usually I am impressed with his ability to conceptualize and organize complex bodies of thought--something I pride myself on and that has therefore always attracted me to him.

But this time I am less impressed by this talent of his and more by the breadth of literature he covers, particularly in his footnotes. His footnotes in this book are not mere references to other literature. They are smatterings of significant quotes in the history of interpretation and hermeneutics. We find everything from Schleiermacher to Lonergan to Husserl.

Let me go through the chapter using a list:

1. "... history and hermeneutics are close companions, Siamese twins perhaps. That will no doubt be part of the reason for the failure of history and faith to bed well together: hermeneutics is the too little acknowledged third partner -- a somewhat uncomfortable ménage à trois" (99).

Indeed, this is the fly in the ointment, the ghost in the machine, the elephant in the room. If the process of connecting reader and text is not clarified, then we have the chaos that is Christians reading the Bible.

2. "Christians cannot but want to know what Jesus was like" (101).
I think this is true. It ultimately is not the Jesus of the Gospels that is the object of historic Christian faith, at least in terms of traditional, orthodox Christianity. If it turned out that the Jesus of history was significantly different from Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels, that would be of great interest and moment to everyone, including Christians.

Indeed, while Christianity can remain substantially true even if vast amounts of biblical narrative turned out not to be historical (in fact even if almost all of it was not historical), this is not true of Jesus. If Jesus was not a real person, indeed, was not God incarnate, if Jesus did not truly die and rise from the dead in history, then historic Christianity is to be rejected. Certainly there are forms of Christianity that can and have exist without a historically risen Jesus, but they are fundamentally different in character.

3. Dunn affirms Troeltsch's "probability rather than certainty" in historical inquiry. He is more careful about Troeltsch's "analogy" (things now are like things then) and "correlation" (the universe is a closed system of interrelationships). The first seems to make it hard to affirm the unique as historical, while the second was more appropriate to a Newtonian rather than a quantum world.

Dunn prefers to speak of a distinction between event, data, and fact (drawn from a book from his own education by Collingwood). The event belongs to the irretrievable past (check). Data is what is available to us, which has come down to us through history (check). Such data is of course extremely partial and somewhat arbitrary. Where I don't really like Dunn's definitions are in how he defines "fact." Facts for him are what the historian tries to reconstruct. They are interpretations of data.

I personally find this approach to "fact" confusing.

4. In his sections, "What Rights Does the Text Have?" and "The Priority of Plain Meaning" Dunn takes the expected position that "respecting the text and allowing the text so far as possible, using all the tools of historical criticism, to speak in its own terms is still valid. Any less a goal for exegesis would be self-condemned" (115). Certainly this is true for exegesis.

However, I ultimately disagree with Dunn's apparent implication that texts have inherent rights. People have rights. It is respectful to heed a text's intent when its author is aware we are reading it and is trying to communicate with us. I would even say it seems most natural to read a text for its original meaning. But ultimately, I agree with Robert Morgan, "Texts, like dead men and women, have no rights" (114).

I agree with Dunn's sense of the plain meaning of a text as rich and extending beyond grammar and syntax to the social and historical world behind it.

5. I thought this sentence was interesting as Dunn critiqued a certain tendency with regard to current thinking on pre-suppositions. The inductive Bible study book we use in the undergraduate program at IWU draws what I believe is an artificial distinction between "pre-understanding" and "presupposition." Dunn apparently collapses the two:

"The point is sometimes missed when more conservative biblical scholars deem it sufficient to declare their presuppositions before embarking on what most of their fellow scholars would regard as uncritical exegesis, as though the declaration of presuppositions somehow vindicated the exegesis itself (since 'Everyone has presuppositions'). But the point is not simply that any reading of a text is shaped by the pre-understanding brought to it. The point is rather that as the exegete moves round the hermeneutical circle between pre-understanding and text, the text reacts back upon the pre-understanding, both sharpening it and requiring of it revision..." (121).

6. "Hermeneutics is best conceived as a dialogue where both partners must be allowed to speak in their own terms, rather than as an interrogation of the text where the text is only allowed to answer the questions asked" (124). "It is not that the encounter is a 'picnic' to which the text brings the words and the reader the meaning, to pick of Northrop Frye's engaging metaphor."

This is one valid approach, although I can't see how we can deny the other as well.

7. "... the 'historical Jesus' is the Jesus constructed by historical research" (125, italics his), not the real Jesus or the Jesus of history.

8. With Kähler, "We do not have a 'neutral' (!) portrayal of Jesus. All we have in the NT Gospels is Jesus seen with the eye of faith" (127).

9. Form criticism missed its chance to connect to the initial reaction to Jesus in oral tradition. Instead, it got stuck in the literary forms themselves and the tradition in process.

10. "The Synoptic tradition provides evidence not so much for what Jesus did or said in itself, but for what Jesus was remembered as doing or saying by his first disciples" (130). Here we get to the title of the volume and, I believe, what Dunn wants to be known as his signature approach.

We cannot really get back to what Jesus did or said. What we might get back to is the impact that Jesus had on those who heard and saw him. The Gospels give us entry to Jesus remembered in distinction from some absolute, objective sense of who Jesus really was. This Jesus bears a relationship to the "historic" Jesus, but our reconstructions are a "historical" Jesus of our reconstruction.

11. Also signature is the connection between faith and that impact. The Jesus of history created faith in those around him. Dunn is not committing at this time what kind of faith that was, but there was faith created as part of his impact.

One of Dunn's signature ideas in this book is that we have here to do with pre-Easter faith. It is conventional at least since Bultmann to speak of Easter faith. But Dunn rightly argues that if the life and teachings of Jesus had not made a faith impact of some sort before Easter, then we cannot make sense of the Gospels.

"However great the shock of Good Friday and Easter for the first disciples, it would be unjustified to assume that these events marked a discontinuity with their initial disciple-response" (133).

12. Dunn ends the chapters with two broad corollaries (in the queen's English said, co-ROL-laries). The norms of the quest are a) the Greek text, b) the plain meaning, c) the Synoptic form. Dunn shows himself thoroughly Protestant here. "It is this readiness for self-criticism in the light of tradition... which marks out the western church -- its willingness to recognize and acknowledge when it has departed from its norm, whether in the condemnation of a Galileo or in its centuries-long tradition of anti-Semitism -- a dialogue of criticism which remains something of a barrier and bewilderment for the Christianity of East and South" (135-36).

Secondly, "the foundational documents of the Christian tradition should still be heard to speak meaningfully to the present day" (136), outside the church. If all we have of Jesus is the reading of a Christian community--rather than one anyone might access as appropriate to more normal historical understanding, then Jesus is unable to speak to the world.

Til next week...

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