Monday, June 29, 2020

On the third day of Dunn...

On Friday the magisterial scholar James Dunn passed. For twelve days I am highlighting different works of his that have influenced me. Previous posts so far include:

1. The Evidence for Jesus
2. Baptism in the Holy Spirit

Today I want to highlight his 1977 work, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament.

1. Before I get to Unity, I want to point out that he wrote an intervening book. After Baptism had explored what baptism in the Holy Spirit was in contrast to the understandings of Pentecostals and sacramentalists, his final sentences promised a work that would explore what those experiences looked like for the early church. The result was Jesus and the Spirit. In this 1975 book, the numbered sections first appear to help hold our attention and show us the logical flow. I use these too and suspect I got the idea from Jimmy's work.

His italicized key points also appear for the first time in this book. Let me just say that if you want people to quote you, this is helpful. Some writers write in an intentionally difficult way to filter out only those who are "worthy" (e.g., Hegel). I have little time for them. It is no coincidence that Dunn's writings had such a following. He actually wanted people to understand him.

Jesus and the Spirit finds the spiritual experiences of Jesus himself as the paradigm for early Christian experience. This focus on the experiential side of the early church strikes me as somewhat unusual among the scholars of the seventies. The early Christians were not ideas for Dunn but real people with real spiritual experiences. In the end Dunn favors the experiential vision of the church found in Paul's writings, a vision that he thinks began to wane and institutionalize in the second generation. It is there or later that he would place the Pastorals, which he considered pseudonymous.

2. Now on to Unity and Diversity. 

I did not grow up reading the books of the Bible in context. I defined its words according to a mixture of the tradition I had inherited growing up in church and the way I understood English words as an English speaker. I also used Scripture to interpret Scripture--a verse in Genesis might help me understand a verse in Hebrews and vice versa.

The path toward reading the books of the Bible in context involves a certain disconnecting. First you realize that an English dictionary is not a good source for knowing the meaning of Greek and Hebrew words. You realize that Paul does not approach things exactly the same as John. You realize that the Ancient Near East of the Old Testament was a different setting than the Mediterranean world of the New Testament or the Galilee of Jesus. You realize that varying situations even change Paul's rhetoric from letter to letter.

3. Once you begin to read the words of the Bible in their original literary and historical contexts, you eventually face what we might call the problem of biblical theology. The unity of the Bible can begin to fall apart. The more detail-oriented a scholar is, the more they may struggle to find a unified theology in the Bible at all. There are few whole Bible theologies written, especially by scholars with a strong historical awareness.

Old Testament theology has always been a challenge, given the scope of the Old Testament writings. We can name on one hand the masters who have tried (von Rad, Eichrodt, Bruggemann). New Testament theology has typically disaggregated into "Pauline theology," "Johannine theology," and so forth. A hyper-detail oriented scholar like Heikki Räisänen had a difficult time even identifying a coherent Pauline theology among the Pauline letters.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Unity and Diversity ends with the question, "Has the canon a continuing function?" To give away the end of the story, he answers yes in that "the NT in all its diversity still bears consistent testimony to the unifying centre" (376). That unifying center was "the unity between the historical Jesus and the exalted Christ" (370).

4. We can thus locate Dunn's Unity and Diversity in the New Testament within a quest to find unifying elements within the early church. One aspect of Dunn's greatness is that he not only could handle the details of the biblical text and a myriad individual scholarly opinions, but he could find overarching patterns to see a coherent big picture. This drive to see the big picture is yet another reason why I was drawn to his work and thinking.

Some scholars might consider this drive for overarching coherence and for applicability a negative. The guild of biblical studies is full of experts on minutia and extremely competent technicians. "Generalist" is not typically a compliment. Dunn knew the details, but his ability to move beyond them made him a great scholar rather than just a run of the mill one.

5. Unity and Diversity was intended to be a textbook. I smile again at Dunn's canny to see a felt-need and respond. But this was not a run of the mill New Testament Survey or introduction. It was meant to be a "second level" introduction. It does not focus on the individual books of the New Testament. His concern is to get behind the literary evidence we have to the very "character of earliest Christianity." And he seeks a unifying core in history more than in the text of the New Testament itself.

No doubt if Jimmy had written this book in the year 2000 it would have looked differently. Even when the second edition came out in 1990 he acknowledged that developments in sociological and literary studies, not to mention the epochal work of E. P. Sanders in 1977, could have prompted a complete rewrite. The discussion changes. New evidence often arises.

This book is not an easy read out of the blue. It is like the kinds of math and science courses you take after calculus or first year physics. The first step to reading the New Testament in context gives you a sense of the situations under which the books were written. Dunn now goes beyond the books to the people and strands of tradition of which those books are instances. If you want a baptism by fire into seeing the early church from a historical perspective, this book is one way.

6. He begins the book with a significant question. "Is orthodoxy a meaningful concept within the New Testament period?" He will conclude that it is an anachronistic concept. After the whole book is through he concludes that "there was no single normative form of Christianity in the first century" (373). He concluded that what we now call "orthodoxy itself is based on a canon within the canon." [1]

His second chapter looks at the content of the various kerygmata or proclamations in the New Testament. He sees significant differences. He does not believe that Paul would have agreed with Matthew or James' version of the kerygma. (Here we might remember that he first wrote this before the new perspective really got going.) Then there is the fact that "Jesus proclaimed the kingdom, the first Christians proclaimed Jesus; Jesus called for repentance and faith with respect to the kingdom, the first Christians called for faith in Jesus..." (31).

You can see where he will see the unity of the New Testament in the person of Jesus rather than in the content of what was preached.

7. Part I of the book looked for unity in diversity. He continues through early confessions, concepts of ministry, patterns of worship, sacraments, experience, Christology, and more. Again, the unity he finds is that between "the earthly Jesus and the exalted one" (57). The highlighted material in this section shows that I read it before going to Durham (I started exclusively taking notes exclusively in pencil from then on), probably between 1990-93.

This was next level thinking for me. Dunn was looking at the New Testament as a sort of archaeological dig, hypothesizing about development lines that became fossilized in the collection of writings bequeathed to us in the canon. Take his concluding remarks on baptism and the Lord's Supper. First, he notes a complete absence of sacramental practice by Jesus himself. He does not see baptism as a practice of Jesus' ministry and what we call the Lord's supper was a one time event.

Then he sees that the initial emphasis of baptism and the Lord's supper was eschatological. Then, he argues, it "was increasingly replaced by the backward look to Jesus' death" (172). This historical, developmental way of looking at the New Testament was completely different from the static, pre-modern way I had read the Bible growing up.

When I first began teaching New Testament survey, the question arose, "Do I teach the books of the New Testament in their canonical order or their historical order?" The same question arose when I wrote my New Testament survey book. Each time I teach, it is paradigm shifting for my students to realize that the Gospels were not written until after Paul was dead, that Paul's letters are arranged by length rather than historical order, that Mark was likely a source for Matthew and Luke.

8. Part II of the book then looked for the diversity in the unity, focusing especially on sociological groups. These groups are "Jewish Christianity," "Hellenistic Christianity," "Apocalyptic Christianity," and "Early Catholic Christianity." It would be interesting to know if he would have stuck with these headings if he had written the book at a later point.

For example, the Hellenistic Christians to which he refers were also Jews. Language of early catholicism is strange, perhaps a fossil of the significantly debunked F. C. Baur from the late 1800s, who imposed a Hegelian dialectic on early Christianity. There is a great deal of discussion of gnostic tendencies, perhaps an artifact of that mid-twentieth century period when Gnosticism was a major filter in processing the New Testament.

But when you dive into the chapters themselves, the excesses of the titles are not there. For example, "no NT document can properly be described as gnostic in character" (306). And we are delighted to find that Dunn does not formulate early catholicism in the way Baur did. There is much food for thought in these last chapters.

9. Unity and Diversity is full of seeds that would blossom in Jimmy's later writings. For example, his chapter on Christ and Christology, as well as his chapter on primitive confessional formulae, would expand to form his next work in 1980, Christology in the Making.

[1] His approach to the canon begins with the claim that "all Christians have operated with a canon within the canon" (374). He thus cleverly suggests that the validity of the canon is found in its very diversity. "To recognize the canon of the NT is to affirm the diversity of Christianity" (377).

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