A (Sort of) Book Review: “Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels”

James D. G. Dunn Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

As I noted last week, I’ve been doing an in depth look at the Pauline corpus, which is also working itself out in our current sermon series through Philippians. I picked up several Pauline resources, trying to grab from differing viewpoints. One of the scholars I turned to was James D.G. (aka “Jimmy”) Dunn. Dunn (currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Durham) is a widely known, and occassionally controversial scholar. He has advocated for the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) which suggests that the traditional Protestant view of Paul’s theology (Paul abandoned the assumed legalistic works righteousness of Judaism, embracing justification by grace through faith alone) requires revision. The NPP began in the late 1970s, mainly stemming from E.P. Sanders’ tome Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In that work, Sanders suggests that Judaism in Paul’s time doesn’t fit the characterization of later Christian assessment. He argued for what he dubbed “covenantal nomism” what said that salvation and justification was accomplished through the agency of God alone, who covenants with his people and law obedience does not earn acceptance, but simply flows from covenant relationship and marks those in the covenant. In other words, Sanders suggested that Jews did not actually believe that Torah obedience would “earn” salvation. Dunn, though not in complete agree with Sanders on everything, has advocated for the view of Paul’s theology as in continuity with the Jewish view, except that entry into the New Covenant is by the gospel not identification as an Israelite. In other words, the gospel which Paul preached, says Dunn, is that the covenant promises once believed to be for the seed of Abraham alone, has through the gospel become available to the Gentiles also.

So, I recently purchased Dunn’s 2011 release Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels to bridge some of my thinking about how the New Testament holds together as a whole. This book is based on a series of lectures which Dunn gave to a mixed audience of Jewish and Catholic folks, adapted into book form. It is meant to be a “compact theological primer” (back cover) on the relationship of Paul’s writings to the Gospels.

What it’s about:

Dunn’s main argument here is developped in 3 parts. First (Part 1; chapters 1-4), Dunn asks “What are the Gospels?” in which he investigates the nature of the 4 books we call the Gospels. Where did they come from (Dunn has also presented more of his research in a new work, The Oral Gospel Tradition [Eerdmans, 2013])? How do they function as a genre of writing? How does John’s structure and theological thrust relate to the synoptics? Dunn’s basic thrust is that Mark uses the oral Jesus tradition to develop a genre, called Gospel, which communicates both the kerygma of Jesus’ death and resurrection (passion narrative) along with the oral Jesus tradition (teachings, ministry miracles) as background (or “an extended introduction” to the passion narrative [p. 54ff]). Dunn suggests that it is through the writing of Mark’s Gospel that the Jesus tradition came to be considered “gospel”. So although the term Gospel doesn’t refer only to the “container” but to the content, Dunn makes a clear distinction that in the composition of this new genre, “gospel” is somewhat redefined to include the “extended introduction”. Matthew and Luke make use of this new Gospel genre and build on Mark’s content, incorporate additional portions of the oral tradition. This is, according to Dunn a modification of term gospel (euangellion) which Dunn suggests Paul uses in the Isaiahnic sense (from the LXX of Isa. 52:7 & 61:1-2) which sees the good news that God has accomplished reconciliation for his people- thus the gospel in the way Paul uses the term refers to work of the cross and resurrection (46-50).

John however works in a different structure and style. He tells the Jesus tradition from a different methodology altogether. Thus, the historicity of John’s Gospel is not to be understood in the same way as the synoptics. John is not trying to put the Jesus tradition into a structured presentation (i.e. he is not writing “an extended introduction” and passion narrative), but is “presenting Jesus as the one who above all others had brought revelation from God, and as one, indeed, who had revealed God most clearly.” (p. 84, emphasis Dunn’s). John is reacting to the apocalyptic texts of Second Temple Judaism and their “visions” and merkabah mysticism. He is arguing that God comes to reveal himself to us, not that we are “caught up” to him.

Second, Dunn then investigates the movement from the ministry and proclamation of Jesus contained in the oral Jesus tradition to the gospel proclamation of Paul (part 2; chapt. 5). Why is Paul’s writing so dissimilar with what we see in the Gospels? How did the oral Jesus tradition produce the Pauline proclamation? Dunn emphasizes three aspects: 1) Jesus proclaimed the kingdom, Paul proclaimed Jesus. 2) Jesus’ proclamation was mainly to Israel, whereas Paul translates it for the Gentiles (i.e. what does the Jewish Messiah do for Gentiles?). 3) Jesus taught Jews as a Jew, using Jewish methods and Paul, a Jew relating to Gentiles used a mix of both Jewish and Gentile images and methods.

In this, Dunn argues we see the transition- the Jesus message of the offer of grace to repentant sinners among Israel and Paul offer of the gospel which declares Gentile sinners to be welcomed into the covenant of the Jewish Messiah. Both Messages speak of the royal ascendancy of the Messiah (Jesus through the language of Kingdom of God, Paul through the declaration “Jesus is Lord”). Both are “good news for sinners”, and both also have attached to them movement of social justice/action (“good news for the poor”) (pp. 95-106).

Third, Dunn addresses the issue of how did Paul understand himself and his mission. Did Paul understand himself as an apostate Jew (i.e. did he reject Jewish identity and Judaism?) or as Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles? Dunn of course decides the latter. He suggests Paul would probably have been viewed as an apostate by Pharisaic Jews. Pharisees (the word presumably coming from the Hebrew/Aramaic term for “to separate”) would have been exclusive, so Paul’s ethnically inclusive message would be seen by his peers as a violation of purity rules, and law obedience (i.e. he had broken with the identity markers as a member of the covenant community by intentional breaking legal obligations of separation). Paul however still identifies as Jewish (mainly when it is to his advantage) but an apostle of Christ sent to bring covenant blessings to non-Jews. Paul’s gospel, therefore, is that the divisions of Jew and Gentile are no longer and Jews and Gentile can, through the Gospel share fellowship while remaining Jews and Gentiles. Gentiles can fellowship as Gentiles with Jews, and Jews as Jews can fellowship with Gentiles. Paul’s “conversion” is not from Judaism to Christianity, but from zealous segregationalist to inclusive Jew of the fulfilled messianic prophecy.

The Good

Dunn, and the rest of the NPP advocates, are needed voices in our overall assessment of Paul. For all the strengths of traditional protestant readings of Paul, we have to be honest to blinders created by Luther and Calvin’s readings of Paul. They read Paul within their own context, and reacted against the “popish” late medieval Roman Catholicism, and saw Paul as enemy of the religious trappings of that theology. They found in Paul freedom from that mentality. This created an interpretation of Paul as anti-legalism (he is, just not necessarily in the way Luther understood it). Therefore Paul’s detractors (Second Temple Jews) were painted in a certain light, and certainly Paul is at odds with all forms of legalistic works-righteousness.

More recent (by recent I mean late 20th century onwards) research (like Sanders’, Wright’s, Neusner’s, and Preston Sprinkle’s recent contribution which I am reading right now) has shown a lack of uniformity in Judaism of Paul’s day. We probably shouldn’t speak of 1st century Judaism, but Judaisms. This is where NPP is helpful. What was Saul of Tarsus like, and what did he leave behind (and not leave behind)? How was he programmed to think and talk and write? This will colour how we read his writing. To read Paul may require we know the world of Saul of Tarsus.

Dunn’s contribution to the discussion (here in this volume, and also his many other works) is perhaps still up in the air. This volume is perhaps a good place to start investigating some of the issues of Gospels and Paul (although I think J.R. Daniel Kirk’s, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? is more successful and helpful than this book). Dunn’s depiction of the Jesus tradition preserved in the Gospels is in many ways helpful. Dunn unpacks the nuanced usages of the term gospel by the synoptics and Paul and John. Matthew, Mark and Luke didn’t have material fall from heaven 30 years after Jesus’ ministry ended (not that scholars have really argued that). So we need some sort of understanding of how the 4 books we call “Gospels” came into existence. And it’s important to track Paul in this early Jesus movement; how his message grew up within the Jesus tradition, and yet seems on the surface to be so different from James, Peter, Jude, John, Matthew, Mark and Luke. How did these two (the Pauline gospel of God’s fulfillment of the promise to bring Gentiles to himself and the Jesus tradition of God working to bring the lost sheep of Israel back from theological exile) co-exist and compliment each other? Did they compliment each other? Is there a discontinuity between Paul and the Palestinian Jesus Movement? Some readings of Paul can be somewhat misleading, as they paint Paul’s message as a reckless abandon of all things Jewish, which can hardly be said of James or the Jesus presented in the Gospels. By framing Paul as the one who took the Messianic message into a new context, we see how Paul is both very much in continuity with the apostolic movement in Palestine, but also an innovator in a certain sense. This “both worlds” approach to Paul is something which proves helpful, as Paul retains his Jewishness but also reworks his identity around the Messiah and the new inclusive community which emerges as a result.

Dunn’s contextual research is incredibly helpful, framing Jewish usages of certain terminology and themes in ways which illuminate the scandal surrounding Jesus (e.g. the role of Isaiah in defining the gospel in Paul’s mind). By opening Pharisaic segregation and the implications of the label “sinner” as one in collusion with lawlessness and thus a threat to the purity of God’s people, Dunn is able to bring to life what the synoptic writers are trying to tell us of this Jesus and the boundaries he began breaking, which find further description in the Pauline proclamation of a breaking down of boundaries separating Jew and Gentile, in contrast to his earlier life as a zealous Pharisee.

Certain sections (esp. chapter 2 which is made of a number of charts comparing parallels in the synoptics) get into nitty-gritty linguistic comparisons of synoptic transmission and how Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to share material, but with variations. This can be helpful if you’re into nerdy language stuff like that. It helps us to understand how the final product of the New Testament comes together the way it does. Of course, for some this becomes needless technical jargon.

The Not so Good

Dunn’s conclusions, while thoroughly researched, and persuasively argued still lack a certain something. I find his overall point reductionistic; that Paul’s gospel is basically that ethnic separation is over and God’s covenant promises flow freely among all people. I just can’t get where Dunn is trying to lead me. I find myself seeing a valid point, but that point doesn’t invalidate other assessments of Paul, and what he means by “gospel”. Paul’s letters, by nature of the fact that they are letters, can’t be reduced and systematized like this (both NPP and traditional protestant thinking have done too much of this in my assessment). Any Pauline theology is going to be somewhat messy. Dunn tries to do a bit too much tidying up. That Paul advocated for a removal of the barriers of segregation and opened the promises of the covenant to non-Jews is of course an obvious yes. But I appreciate what Blake White wrote regarding his appreciation of N.T. Wright (also lumped in with NPP): “I agree with many who have noted that the so-called “new perspective” is not so much wrong in what it affirms as much as in what it denies.” (White is also critically engaged with Dunn’s writing, and is certainly better qualified than I am to comment in a more educated way than I can here). This point is something I really have to agree with. Dunn’s conclusions are largely true, but here he offers them as the conclusion and dismisses other conclusions about what Paul has in mind when referring to the gospel which may compliment his own.

Also, I have a problem with the discussion of Mark as founder of the Gospel as genre. The designation “The Gospel According to Mark”, I would argue doesn’t indicate a claim of genre, but of content. What Mark has recorded is the gospel, not a prototype of a new genre of literature known as Gospel. Mark (and I think Paul too, following Dunn’s former student, Scot McKnight) saw “the gospel” as the retelling (or heralding) of the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. Thus, the copyists who assigned the title “The Gospel According to Mark” were not recognizing a unique genre, but saw that Mark 1:1-16:8 (or whatever ending of Mark is authentic) is the gospel. Gospel in the sense of the synoptics does not really indicate a shared genre, but a shared declaration, which is why John as gospel makes sense. If the synoptics embody the genre of “Gospel”, John hardly fits the designation “Gospel”.

In terms of style, I struggled a bit with some elements. There are frequent bullet point lists. Because this book is based on a series of lectures, some of that book style is lacking. At times it looks like lecture notes which haven’t been effectively converted over. This comes out further is the final chapter (“The Church- Paul’s Trinitarian Ecclesiology”) which isn’t necessarily a bad chapter, it just doesn’t really lend much to the overall impact of the book. The Holy Spirit, which had been somewhat absent in earlier chapters (the Spirit features prominently in the section of chapter 5 “Eschatalogical Tension and the Spirit” [106-110]) is treated in a limited way here, almost feeling like an afterthought. It feels like an add on, not supporting argument in his overall trajectory. While the church is part of his intention (the inclusive nature of God’s new covenant people) this chapter fits very awkwardly.


Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels is a decent book, and well worth a read. It makes some important comments on the apparent discontinuity between the Jesus material of the Gospels and the gospel which Paul proclaimed. I wrote a paper for the one course I took on Paul on the topic of Paul’s usage of historical Jesus/Jesus tradition stuff. In that paper I argued (largely supported by W.D. Davies’ Paul and Rabbinic Judaism) that Paul not only did bring the Jesus tradition to bear in his writing (through rabbinic allegorical-interpretive method instead of narrative-historical methods) Paul’s paranaesis, although not quoting directly, is absolutely complimentary to the teachings of Jesus on several occasions. So, while I won’t be so arrogant as to say Dunn is wrong in his assessment of Paul’s gospel vs. the Gospels, I will simply say Dunn is one voice among many who present valid statements about the relationship between the Jesus tradition and the missionary work and writings of Paul. This book is by no mean conclusive and comprehensive (I don’t think it’s meant to be) but is a good introduction for a newcomer to the Pauline discussions and students and pastors who want to be critically engaged with scholarship. This isn’t something to hand to anyone. It also should be read in conjunction with other views (for instance I am working through Frank Matera’s God’s Saving Grace: A Pauline Theology and just began Sprinkle’s Paul and Judaism Revisited and completed NT Wright’s What Saint Paul Reall Said and Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? just prior to beginning Dunn). If held up alongside other perspectives we can better appreciate the complexities of doing Pauline theology, which, as noted above, is, and probably will remain a messy business.

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