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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 64, 2016

JAMES D. G. DUNN, Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity. Christianity in the Making, Volume 3 (Grand Rapids; Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015). Pp. xiv+946. Hardback. US$60.00.

This final part of James D. G. Dunn’s magnum opus, Christianity in the Making, is a sprawling work, any one part of which provides enough material for a book on its own and, indeed, Dunn himself has previously written some of them! The book covers the transition from oral gospel to written Gospels, Gospel production and reception (Part 11), the so-called parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity (Part 12), the reception of the figures of Paul and Peter (Part 13) and the impact of John and the Johannine writings (Part 14), among other things along the way. The diverse material is united here under the general framework of “reception” (41), interpreted as tracing the “impact” of Jesus, James, Paul, Peter and John from the destruction of the Jerusalem temple to Irenaeus (187, 505, 675, etc.).

The introduction (Ch. 38) lays out the principle questions addressed throughout the work, though the questions are not mirrored in the structure of the book: the emergence of catholic Christianity, Christianity and Judaism and the church’s relation to gnosticism. This is followed by two chapters (Chs. 39–40) in which Dunn supplies fairly conventional Einleitungen for his sources, ostensibly divided between those originating in the first and second centuries though in practice divided between canonical and non-canonical sources.

Part 11 continues the work from the first volume of this trilogy, Jesus Remembered, in covering the textualisation of oral gospel traditions in the synoptic gospels, John and Thomas and their reception. Chapter 41 addresses the transitional process itself and Dunn argues that the gospel form captured by Mark, famously described as a passion narrative with an extended introduction, represents the oral gospel forms already circulating during Paul’s ministry. The term “gospel” itself, therefore, designates a narrative of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection and was “given genre status” by Mark (208). In Chapters 42–43 Dunn addresses more fully the gospels themselves (including Thomas) with two questions: how did the gospel writer “contrive his gospel from the Jesus tradition available to him” and why did the writer compose their gospel (221, 246, 276, 327, etc.)? Chapter 42 chapters feature Dunn’s well-known emphasis on continuing oral tradition in service of explaining how it is that one can have “confidence that these [Synoptic gospel accounts] are the memories of Jesus’ own disciples” (309). In his discussion of John and Thomas (Ch. 43), Dunn argues that John’s distinctive material is an organic development “from the inside” of the Jesus tradition while Thomas adds material “from the outside” (403), thereby explaining their respective inclusion and exclusion from the canon. Chapter 44 surveys Jesus tradition in the second century from the Apostolic Fathers, where Dunn argues for continuing oral tradition (generally following the trend, if not always the conclusions, of Koester’s Synoptische Überlieferung), through the Apologists, fragmentary witnesses, Gnostic gospels, other narrative gospels (like GPeter and the infancy gospels) and the emergence of the four-gospel canon.

From the reception of Jesus tradition to the impact of James, Part 12 is concerned with the “parting of the ways” and Jewish Christianity. Though somewhat repetitive between the two chapters, this section is the strength of the book and the place where Dunn’s subtitle, A Contested Identity, comes most into play. The first (Ch. 45) traces the continuing “Jewishness” of the early Christian movement, even after it was self-consciously distancing itself from Judaism, while the second (Ch. 46) attends to the stresses and tensions that led to various (and incomplete) partings between Christianity and the emerging rabbinic Judaism. For those familiar with Dunn’s previous writing on the subject, the arguments here will not come as a surprise.

The final three chapters, which focus on the impact of Paul, Peter and John, are relatively briefer than the preceding discussions. Each figure is followed through their (later) canonical witnesses (the Pastorals, 1–2 Peter, Johannine letters and Revelation) and into their early reception through the second century. Paul, it is argued, was generally misinterpreted insofar as his subtle thought is flattened by later thinkers, though Dunn argues that the misreadings of the Marcionites and Valentinians were most egregious and well rebutted by Irenaeus and Tertullian. Peter emerges as a centrist figure who unites the divergent impulses of the early church and John’s Christology (rather than ecclesiology) is highlighted for its subsequent impact. The conclusion (Ch. 50) draws the various threads together and reflects further on the emergence of the rule of faith and later creeds.

For a compendium of this mature scholar’s views of early Christianity, Dunn’s work is highly valuable. It is rare to find such breadth in a single-author volume. Individual readers will undoubtedly find some arguments more plausible that others, but that perhaps only testifies to the richness of the study and its material. Still, there are some criticisms to raise here.

Despite its length—a fulsome 824 pages of prose—the expansive ground covered means that Dunn relies regularly on assertion, summary and dot-points rather than full argument. (The book could be shortened by roughly 140 pages if one omitted Chapters 39–40 and simply included relevant Einleitung information as needed). The arguments themselves are often deferred to his previous publications, which fill almost three pages of the bibliography. Further, the length of the work and breadth of material means that while the bulk of the book is up to date with current scholarship, such is not always the case. Perhaps most conspicuous is the absence of engagement with Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing (Eerdmans, 2013), which covers the same ground as Dunn’s Part 11. No doubt much of Dunn’s argument was in place well before Watson’s book appeared but the latter is an important work that challenges Dunn’s views and could have been a helpful sparring partner. Closer to this reviewer’s own hobbyhorse, there are notable omissions in relation to Pauline reception (e.g., Richard Pervo’s The Making of Paul [Fortress, 2010], Daniel Marguerat’s “Paul après Paul” [NTS 54:3, 2008]). Engaging these works could well have added more depth to Dunn’s analysis, even further supporting his own impulses. For instance, while Dunn emphasises the role of oral tradition in relation to Jesus, James and Peter, he does not exploit its potential for Paul, a potential that Marguerat (among others) has highlighted.

Also problematic is the underdetermined adjective “Jewish,” which does so much work in Part 12, noted above. Dunn rightly argues that one cannot presume Rabbinic Judaism to constitute Judaism tout court in the second Temple period or between the two Jewish revolts. Dunn thus removes the rabbinic framework as that which determines “Jewishness” but does not replace it with anything else; there is no discussion of what constitutes “Jewishness” or now it could be manifest in texts or people. He appears to work from the ground that a text is Jewish unless proven Gentile, with implicit criteria including dependence on Jewish scriptures and worship of the God of Israel. As part of his overt concern for Jewish-Christian dialogue, even rapprochement, Dunn understandably (and rightly) wants to highlight the continuing debt Christianity owes to Judaism. But while this is a praiseworthy concern, it is not one shared by the early Christian materials and it is very difficult to discuss the “Jewishness” of Justin Martyr or Irenaeus in any meaningful way, however much they appropriated Jewish scripture and worship of Israel’s God. Dunn’s own discussion of Justin’s Dialogue (663–65) suggests that Justin did not consider himself “Jewish” and recognised the validity only of those Jews who confessed Jesus as Messiah and refused to ask Gentiles to follow the Law. Otherwise, the “Jews are at fault in failing to recognise that (Jesus) Christ was the one for whom the scriptures were looking” (561–62).

Finally, underlying Dunn’s arguments is an apologetic, pastoral, ecumenical concern that shapes his analysis. He tries to demonstrate that the Irenaean account of the Gospels is fundamentally correct—that is, the four (now) canonical Gospels are qualitatively distinct from the foreign “gnostic” Gospels—and decides in favour of Irenaeus and Tertullian against Valentinus and Marcion in their reading of Paul. This is manifest most prominently in Chapter 43, on John and Thomas. As noted, Dunn argues that John worked from “inside” the Jesus tradition while Thomas, despite the extensive overlap with synoptic material, worked from “outside” that tradition. To make this argument Dunn does not minimise the differences between John and the synoptics but rather employs the metaphor or growth: John is the natural outgrowth of the Jesus tradition after years of reflection and devotion, also working in early traditions passed over (but known) by the synoptic writers. The “distinctive material” in Thomas, on the other hand, is labelled as an external addition, something foreign and definitely not arising from years of reflection or devotion. But the matter of whether something is “inside” or “outside” is precisely the question. John develops and adds striking material to the Jesus tradition, going his own way from his synoptic predecessors (assuming he knew them, as does Dunn). Thomas is, in one sense, much more faithful to the synoptic traditions insofar as they remain undeveloped, apophthegms of the Saviour. His non-synoptic material lacks many of the later “gnostic” distinctives (dualistic anthropology, evil or foolish demiurge, etc.) and even the “hiddenness” motif related to Jesus’ revelation to Thomas (Thom 1, 13, etc.) finds parallel in other early Christian texts transmitting special or visionary teaching (Revelation, Shepherd of Hermas). Dunn goes out of his way to de-gnosticise John, giving the canonical author great latitude for his developments, even as far as defending John against much later concerns of christological subordination (353). Thomas is not treated with similar nuance or generosity. When the conclusion of Part 11 is a resounding affirmation of Irenaeus’ preference for the four (now) canonical gospels and the account is punctuated with concerns for “confidence” in the Gospels, it is difficult to read these differences of treatment as something other than a canonical bias swaying historical analysis. Rather than labelling later interpretations or developments as “inside” or “outside,” it would be more useful to ascertain why these early readers interpreted the texts and traditions in the way they did and what that tells us about their own hermeneutical needs and the contours or resources of the texts themselves.

Even with these criticisms, however, Dunn’s work is well worth reading for scholars. Its breadth will stretch one’s critical imagination and it is a testament to his very full and worthy career. Indeed, the above criticisms themselves are only made possible thanks to the incredible output of a fecund mind. Without a doubt, many scholars will find great value here.

Review by
Australian Catholic University