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A New Perspective on Jesus

What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed

series: Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology

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"This is the fruit of long reflection upon the methodology of the Quest. . . . This book is an excellent companion to Dunn's recent Jesus Remembered. . . . A welcome and timely contribution to the discipline."--David J. Bryan, Journal for the Study of the New Testament

In A New Perspective on Jesus, renowned author James D. G. Dunn critiques the quest for the historical Jesus. He claims that the quest has been largely unsuccessful because it started from the wrong place, began with the wrong assumptions, and viewed the evidence from the wrong perspective.

Dunn's study offers three criticisms of questers' methods. First, Dunn contends that scholars have failed to see how the disciples' pre-Easter faith shaped the Gospel traditions. Second, he claims that a focus on literary transmission has led scholars to ignore the fact that the Gospel traditions arose in an oral culture, which shaped the way the stories of Jesus were told and passed on. Third, Dunn challenges scholars' preoccupation with finding what is distinctive about Jesus and rejecting portions of the tradition portraying Jesus as characteristically Jewish. Dunn concludes by rethinking accepted views of Synoptic relationships in light of the oral nature of the Jesus tradition.

This work offers a compelling critique of the presuppositions that inform much of contemporary Gospel study, and the alternatives Dunn proposes are sure to stimulate scholarly debate. It will interest students and scholars of the Bible, pastors and church leaders, and anyone wanting a fresh perspective on Jesus studies.


"Although this is a small book, the issues are large, and Dunn's critique of so much that historians of Jesus still take for granted is salutary. He thoughtfully asks the hard questions, and his informed answers not only orient us in the right direction but outline further paths for research."--Dale Allison, Errett M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

"At last, here is an accessible book by a noted New Testament scholar who takes seriously, and thus builds a strong case for, the role of orality/aurality among the early followers of Jesus. In so doing, Dunn also builds a strong case for the essential reliability of the Gospel materials. I am glad to commend this book as an introduction to the study of Jesus and the Gospels."--Gordon Fee, professor emeritus of New Testament studies, Regent College

"What Dunn did for Pauline studies when he called for a 'post-Sanders new perspective,' he is now doing for historical Jesus studies. Dunn's 'new perspective' on Jesus is post-tradition criticism and contends that the foundation of the Jesus traditions was shaped by faith. There never was a historical Jesus who could be understood apart from faith. This book summons the academy to the table and contends that it has been epistemologically irresponsible."--Scot McKnight, Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies, North Park University

"A New Perspective on Jesus takes a serious look at the Jesus tradition in its earliest form as oral tradition. The impact of faith, the nature of oral communication, and a focus on the 'characteristic' Jesus are affirmed in a context where faith is often undervalued, form and redaction criticism are said to rule, and the 'dissimilar' Jesus is treated as the authentic Jesus. This work brings needed balance to a study of Jesus that is often out of whack."--Darrell Bock, author of Jesus according to Scripture

"The past twenty-five years have brought a Copernican revolution in our understanding of Jesus. We now know that Jesus was Jewish by cultural commitment as well as by birth, that his disciples conveyed this perspective in their teachings, and that his disciples taught by word of mouth--not in writing--during the earliest years of Christianity. In this accessible book, Dunn provides a lucid introduction to one of the intellectual pivots in the present generation of scholarship."--Bruce Chilton, Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion, Bard College

"Dunn's call for systemic reform in the field of historical Jesus research is a must read for anyone interested in understanding Jesus' significance and impact. Is it really possible to arrive at a credible, historical understanding of one who so quickly became the object of religious faith? Dunn says it is, but first we must ask why Jesus became the object of faith. By front-loading that question, Dunn turns the quest for the historical Jesus on its ear, providing new and potentially fruitful avenues for research. In this engaging book, Dunn maps out his plan for such study in terms that are understandable, reasonable, and accessible to all who are concerned with the intersection of faith and history."--Mark Allan Powell, author of Jesus as a Figure in History

"After writing remarkable works on Christology and Paul, Dunn is turning his productive energies to the historical Jesus. In doing so, he must inevitably come to terms with contemporary research on the sayings of Jesus (Q)--in both moderate and exaggerated forms of that research--as well as with the results of the Jesus Seminar in California. In the process, Dunn has come to see that although the search for early, reliable, textually-transmitted material is preeminent in the construction of a portrait of Jesus, this material is liable to be misunderstood if the original context is ignored--namely, that of a living tradition transmitted orally by disciples who had known Jesus even before the cross and Easter. Dunn's careful methodological exploration of the Gospel texts is thus also a contribution to the ecumenical reconciliation of Scripture-only and tradition-over-Scripture types of Christian believers."--Benedict T. Viviano, OP, University of Fribourg, Switzerland

The Author

  1. James D. G. Dunn

    James D. G. Dunn

    James D. G. Dunn (1939-2020; PhD, DD, University of Cambridge) was C. K. Barrett's successor at Durham University for twenty-one years and then served as Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity. He was a fellow of the British Academy whose numerous books...

    Continue reading about James D. G. Dunn


"In this small work, Dunn lives up to his reputation of being a reliable scholar who is both accessible and full of content. He faithfully critiques the proponents of previous quests while being mindful that he stands upon their shoulders and owes them much. The result is a book that will give new focus to New Testament and first-century Palestinian scholarship, and will allow the reader to open up the Gospels in a new light. . . . It should prove to be a valuable companion to pastors, students of the historical Jesus controversy, and recreational readers alike."--Lars Stromberg, Covenant Quarterly

"This is an excellent book, highly recommended. In some ways it is a distillation of Dunn's magisterial work, Jesus Remembered (2003), but its succinct and lucid survey of the historical Jesus question gives this much briefer work a value all its own. . . . Dunn's thorough scholarship and sound common sense make his perspective particularly valuable and welcome."--Bible Today

"This text offers a soft rebuke to denominations that have elevated the Bible to a fourth seat of the Trinity. In contrast, it will also serve those groups that respect too little the words of Scripture by warning them that authenticity lies not only in its pages but deep down in the gut we label the 'Jesus tradition.'"--Zachry O. Kincaid,

"[Dunn's] thesis is bound to influence the scholarly community and I expect that we will see many references to his work in future studies of the Gospels and the historical Jesus."--David W. Jurgens, Reformed Review

"A New Perspective on Jesus offers some well thought out responses to the two-century-old attempt to recover the historical Jesus. And in particular, Dunn offers some new and informative information that can be used in any kind of evangelical response to the historical Jesus studies, namely the latest research on the nature of oral communication or orality: that during the earliest years of Christianity Jesus' disciples communicated His life and teachings by word of mouth (a now proven means of communication), and only later in the inspired writings of the New Testament."--Barry Leventhal, Christian Apologetics Journal

"This small volume represents a new perspective on the Jesus tradition or, better, a return to what Martin Kähler stressed more than on hundred years ago in his The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ. . . . The use of much more recent studies of the nature of the oral transmission of epic stories in pre-literate Middle Eastern communities provides added weight and credibility to the argument. . . . [Dunn's study is] programmatic and fresh. . . . Scholars must come to grips with Jesus Remembered; everyone else can choose if they want to do so or not, after a careful reading of this more concise offering. In either case, Dunn has provided a crucial corrective to many scholarly 'consensus' claims."--Craig L. Blomberg, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

"This is the fruit of long reflection upon the methodology of the Quest. . . . This book is an excellent companion to Dunn's recent Jesus Remembered. It provides an entrée to Jesus studies. . . . A welcome and timely contribution to the discipline."--David J. Bryan, Journal for the Study of the New Testament

"Dunn's focus on the faith-impact Jesus made during his lifetime is particularly helpful for maintaining the link between christological assertions and the Jesus of history. But more important than its contribution to second-order reflection is the work's service to the church community that seeks to encounter Jesus. The book succeeds in its task of helping readers enter into the experiences of the early Jesus tradition. It also forms a concise and accessible argument for the reliability of the gospels' witnesses to Jesus. Perhaps the feature pastors will find most beneficial, however, is its call for a renewed emphasis on the oral transmission of the Christian community's tradition."--James R. Wilson, Word & World

"These revised lectures comprise a helpful précis of Dunn's thousand-page Jesus Remembered."--Robert J. Miller, Religious Studies Review

"Dunn's writing is, as usual, lucid and fantastically interesting and informed. A New Perspective on Jesus effects a tremendous articulation of the real faith-inspiring person of Jesus Christ. . . . Dunn certainly does have a valid point in calling the community of biblical scholarship to dare to 'envisage a world strange to us, a world of rampant illiteracy, a world where information was communicated orally, a world where knowledge in the vast majority of cases came from hearing rather than from reading'. And if this is the case, which it does appear to be, then I, for one, look forward to seeing a change in the face of this field of scholarship. More, though, it appears that Dunn is helping the church itself to experience 'life,' as outlined in Jewish tradition and even simply in Jesus' earthly (pre-Easter) life, rather than being a constrained cult of the passion and Easter-day. And for this we should all be extremely grateful to Dunn for what he is saying, work hard to understand his thoughts, and enjoy living in a relationship with God every day of our lives."--Rob Goodwin, TCZ Journal of Theological Reflection

"Dunn's work presents a compelling critique of certain guiding assumptions used in contemporary Gospel research. The volume provides a helpful but brief overview of the last two hundred years of critical scholarship relating to Jesus and the Gospels. . . . The work would be useful as a supplementary text for graduate (or upper-level) courses in NT introduction or Gospels, but any detailed study in these areas should undoubtedly consult this volume."--Clay Alan Ham, Stone-Campbell Journal

"Professor Dunn persuasively argues that faith and history stood together from the very beginning. The Jesus of history had a lasting impact on the attitude, actions, and faith of people. . . . Happily, for this reviewer and others, Dunn's methodology leads to the conclusion that the picture of Jesus in the New Testament accurately reflects the impact the historical Jesus made on people. . . . Dunn's small monograph merits study by the wide readership he envisions. It exposes long standing fallacies and offers thought provoking consideration of the importance of oral tradition."--Robert Holst, Concordia Journal

"Dunn brings a welcome and long-needed correction not only to the quests for the historical Jesus in particular, but to numerous errors in handling the Synoptic Problem and New Testament higher criticism for the last two hundred years. . . . [Dunn is] a prolific writer and expert in many New Testament subjects. . . . He presents solid evidence to justify his claims, and he offers thoughtful correctives. . . . Dunn clearly and compellingly sets [these correctives] forth. Demonstrating a lucid writing style with good examples as well as helpful summaries and transitions, Dunn's book is both accessible to the novice and enlightening to the expert. . . . Dunn's primary strength lies in his call for an acknowledgement and reassessment of an oral stage of transmission of Jesus material. . . . Dunn's assertions reveal the need of a total reopening of the Synoptic Problem. This book . . . present[s] important corrections to the field of Gospel studies."--James R. Wicker, Southwestern Journal of Theology