Friday, September 17, 2010

Beginning “Beginning from Jerusalem”

James Dunn is one of my favorite New Testament scholars. Not only am I quite taken with much in regard to his "New Perspective" readings of Paul and his seminal Romans commentary, but he's a scholar that is worth following on a number of levels. First, he is intellectually honest. He is willing to draw conclusions that he sees in the evidence. Obviously, "evidence" only speaks when put to use in a historian's argument, but there is a way to do this that is activist and a way that is honest, or at least as honest as possible. I find Dunn wrestling to be as honest as possible, both with himself and his "evidence." Second, he is diligent in working through primary sources. I often find myself buried in piles of books written about the NT and its milieu. This is certainly a worthwhile pursuit, but there is simply no way to think through the NT without constant direct engagement. Third, Dunn is creative and insightful. Say what you will about the "New Perspective" but Dunn's imaginative reading of Paul post-Sanders is nothing short of a brilliantly reexamination of Paul's work in Romans and Galatians. For these reasons and many others James Dunn is a scholar worthy of much attention.

Currently, Dunn is producing a trilogy called "Christianity in the Making." The first volume, Jesus Remembered (2003), was a comprehensive (992 pgs) look at the "historical Jesus." I have not read the first volume, so I won't pontificate ignorantly. There are a couple of reviews of the first volume here and here. Dale C. Allison Jr. a notable NT scholar in his own right (and another personal favorite) described Jesus Remembered this way,

This is not just one more book on Jesus but rather an esteemed scholar's wide-ranging presentation of conclusions arrived at over a lifetime of informed, critical reflection. It is full of good sense and much learning. As always, James Dunn's work is characterized not only by a genuine familiarity with Jesus' first-century Jewish world but also by an unsurpassed knowledge of the vast secondary literature. Especially suggestive is the consistent appeal to continuing oral tradition, which often appears justified.
So, if you're interested in something like that, go read it.

Beginning from Jerusalem (Christianity in the Making, vol. 2)My current focus is Dunn's second volume, Beginning from Jerusalem. This volume focuses on the rise of the church from 30 to 70 AD which combined with Jesus' mission (the subject of Jesus Remembered), "are probably the most thoroughly investigated periods and subjects of all history" (xiii). This makes for an array of hypotheses and debates that baffle historians and informed laymen alike. Dunn's critical acumen and honest assessment is a welcome voice that I'm sure will bring much clarity to the period under consideration. 
The only problem with Dunn's book is that it commands about 3 ½ inches of shelf space consisting of 1347 pages! This is not really a problem if one desires a thorough account of the most thoroughly researched period in all of history. It is a problem, however, if you don't have hours to devote to one book. This morning, as I was choosing between the collection of literary options clamoring for my attention, my gaze landed on Beginning from Jerusalem. I was saddened by the fact that I knew I would not be able to read it through any time soon.

Then I thought, "Why not?"

Rather than trying to plow through all 1347 pages in large successive chunks, I will work through it slowly. It will allow me to reflect more and get through the book in at least a year. The added bonus of this approach is that I can blog through the book. It would be virtually impossible for me to write one critical review of this tome, though Michael Gorman has done just that here. Reading manageable portions will allow me to reflect and gain input from anyone else willing to comment. As always, I welcome the thoughts and challenges of anyone willing to offer them.

Today I began Beginning from Jerusalem. I hope you'll join me in the journey.

As an opening question for consideration I wonder what others like or dislike about Dunn's work? Why?

1 comment:

Thom Stark said...

I second your appraisal that Dunn is that rare scholar who strives to be honest with the material, even when it rubs against his own confessional sensibilities. It is scholars like these that carry our knowledge of the material forward, rather than cause it to stagnate in the mire of confessionalism.