Review of Dunn’ BFJ (Sources)

In our last post on Dunn’s Beginning from Jerusalem we noted his discussion of how a Jewish sect became a Gentile religion (i.e. Jesus to Paul). Dunn goes on (in ch. 20) to discussion various solutions to this issue including F.C. Baur’s approach, the history-of-religions approach, gnosticism theories, and sociological approaches. Dunn sees that a solution can only be found when one reckons with this question: ‘What was it that caused the first Christian evangelists to take the gospel to non-Jews?’ (50).

Before making the long and arduous journey through the primary resources in defense of his own perspective, Dunn discusses the ‘sources’ in ch. 21. He quickly mentions external sources such as Josephus, Epictetus, Tacitus, Suestonius, Pliny, and Cassius Dio. Then he concentrates on the most important source: Acts. The challenge here is that questions are raised as to the reliability of this document for making historical conclusions about the emergence of Christianity. Here are some key points he makes.

‘We’ passages. Dunn defends the fact that the ‘we’ passages reflect first-hand witness of the events described. Here is his defense: ‘the abruptness of the transitions from third person to first person and back again is more obviously explained in terms of personal presence and absence, and overall it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the narrator intended his readers to infer his personal involvement in the episodes described’ (p. 66).

Genre and historiography. According to ancient standards, Dunn argues that ‘it has to be accorded the title “history” in at least some sense’ (p. 68). The integration of theological (or ideological) interests in an attempt at recounting historical events was not unusual. Dunn refers to Acts as ‘tendentious history’ where Lukan distinctives are emphasized in the midst of his historical account. He generally concludes:

No doubt it is necessary to discount, or at least take account of, the “spin” which Luke puts on his narrative, but the twenty-first-century reader (or viewer) of historical studies and portrayals is well accustomed to doing so. It is of first importance in all this that we neither attribute to Luke an unrealistically idealistic quality as an ancient historian nor assume that his mistakes and Tendenzen show him to be unworthy of the title “historian” (87)

The Speeches in Acts. Dunn points out that there is great suspicion about the historical validity of the speeches in Acts. The speeches of Paul, for instance, are generally recognized as not ‘authentic’ (i.e. actually preached by Paul verbatim). Dunn does not try to defend a view that these speeches are historically accurate. However, he does think that Luke seems to have drawn on tradition that is ‘related to and….representative of the individual’s views and well suited to the occasion’ (p. 89). There is a creative mixture of the thought of the speaking character (e.g. Peter, Paul, etc..) and the mind of Luke; ‘it is history and theology seen through Luke’s eyes and reflecting also his own concerns’ (p. 89).

Other Sources

Beyond Acts, Dunn also discusses Paul’s letters as well as what we can learn from ‘Jesus tradition’. This brings us to page 132 and just before Dunn’s third new chapter (technically ch. 22). This will have to wait for the next post!

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3 thoughts on “Review of Dunn’ BFJ (Sources)

  1. I don’t think I’ll be getting round to BFJ for a while. Can you tell me if Dunn takes Pervo’s case against the historicity of Acts (and for its very late dating) on in any detail?

    • I don’t think Dunn engages with Pervo. Dunn follows a non-controversial approach to dating and authorship that sees it written in the ’80s or early 90s’ as it must come after the Gospel of Luke (as it is Luke’s second volume) and it had to be written by someone who had probably been a companion of Paul’ (p. 67).

      • Thanks, Nijay. I think that’s unfortunate. While I think Pervo’s wrong, I feel he has made a fairly strong cumulative case that shouldn’t just be ignored. I’m hoping someone with Dunn’s level of expertise will write something engaging with him. Some of Dunn’s arguments sound as though they could help make a case, which is why I asked

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