Book Review: A New Perspective on Jesus

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This book review can also be found at Stained Glass Collective.


In the book New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed,  James D. G. Dunn attempts to distinguish the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. Attempting to unravel the tension between the two, Dunn helps the reader understand how the historical Jesus was characterized. Dunn also attempts to analyze the way Jesus has been studied within the context of scholarship and bring about a new way of approaching this study. There have been many flaws in the studying of Jesus in the New Testament, thus why Dunn felt compelled to compile this work. Dunn seems to argue that many scholars have used germane data in their research, yet failed to approach their data from a proper perspective, forcing scholars to make mistakes. Dunn’s book is split up into three key short chapters. These three chapters consist of analyzing faith and its role within the Jesus tradition, the meaning behind the Gospels and their meaning in remembering the Jesus of the early days, and exegesis of Jesus’ character and the transition into its consistent emphasis. These are intended to cater the understanding of how three major mistakes have been made by Jesus scholarship. The first of these mistakes was assuming that faith was hindering or removing the quester from the quest of gaining a clear view on the historical Jesus. The second mistake that Dunn notes is that the seeking of reliability in literacy terms is not necessarily going to provide one with all of the answers they’re looking for, instead, looking at the oral tradition can reveal the true character of the Synoptic Gospels. Thirdly, the mistake has been made by looking distinctively at Jesus as opposed to looking at Him from the perspective of Jesus in His environment. These have been the issues in Jesus scholarship that Dunn is attempting to address, while developing a new perspective of studying Jesus that will provide proper context for scholars studying Jesus.

It is important to understand that all of these are crucial for the way one analyzes the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith. If one solely relies on the history of Jesus, then they will fail to understand the reality of who Jesus really is. Studying the history of Jesus will forces scholars to presume Jesus in a way that is contrary to the Jesus of faith. Studying the topic of historical Jesus versus the Jesus of faith, it is evident that the historical Jesus is not the Christ of faith. The historical Jesus approach focuses too much on ideologies that can conclude in heresy and misinterpretation of what the Son of God came to accomplish. After all, the majority of Jesus’ teachings were faith based as Christ called many to come and receive Him in faith, which brought a union between Jesus and the believer. This is contrary to the historical Jesus approach as it is difficult to prove. After we put our faith in Christ, Jesus manifests Himself through the Holy Spirit, who dwells inside the believer. This affirms that Christ has indeed saved the one who had faith to believe that Jesus is the Lord. Jesus makes righteous the one who believes in Him (Romans 3:22), trusting that He lived, died, and resurrected, bringing eternal hope for all who believe.

I am greatly appreciative of the efforts that James Dunn has put into this book because I think it is very important to study Jesus the proper way, as He is vital to the Christian faith. In the first chapter, Dunn analyzes when faith became a role in the Jesus tradition. The focus in this chapter is exactly what I mentioned earlier about the difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Dunn’s book introduces this tension and rightfully so. I believe it is crucial to not mistake the two perspectives and side with the Christ of faith, so that we can rely on Christ as He is, as opposed to the Christ that is presumed according to historical study alone. Historical Jesus study can cause confusion and tension between scholars, which can lead to doubts. Historical Jesus studies also rely heavily on manuscripts because this is physical evidence that can help these studies prove something. I think what Dunn tries to do in chapter two of his book is very helpful for Jesus scholarship, that is, the study of oral components in Jesus scholarship. I also believe that this is a vital aspect of Jesus scholarship. There are five oral components in Dunn’s perspective that I think are necessary to understand for anyone doing Jesus scholarship. These components are: oral performance (unlike written, happens only once and unless recorded, one cannot rehear what was said), communal in character (characteristic context of communication), primary responsibilities from more than just one person who is communicating orally, oral tradition undermines idea’s from previous traditions, and the oral tradition is characteristically merges fixity and flexibility in stability and diversity.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is pursuing pastoral ministry and other church related roles. It is important to be aware of the mistakes in Jesus research for all who are going to pursue teaching Jesus for congregants. These mistakes should not be the sole focus though, as I think the most important lesson is that leaders in the church should keep relying on the Christ of faith as opposed to the Jesus of history. Some may be compelled to study the historical Jesus, and this is okay, but it should not lead one to trust these studies as reliable. It is the Jesus of faith who reveals Himself and continues to push His work forward within the body of Christ. Dunn’s conviction to highlight the mistakes of doing Jesus studies is extremely helpful for those who have indeed studied Jesus in any context. It exposes the reader to the misconceptions that have been made in modern Jesus studies, while helping the reader see how changes can be made for the edification of the church.

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