Dunn’s BfJ (The Quest for the Historical Church)

This is the first installment of my review of James D.G. Dunn’s Beginning from Jerusalem (Eerdmans, 2009) where this master theologian and biblical historian treats the emergence of ‘Christianity’ in the period 30-70CE.

The first chapter (ch. 20, following the chapter numbering ending from Jesus Remembered) engages in the ‘quest for the historical church’.  ‘After Jesus, how did it all begin?’ (3).  Here Dunn picks up on a major issue.  What do we identity as the ‘it’?  Can we realistically call ‘it’ Christianity (p. 5)?  Dunn shows concern that this is ‘historically inaccurate’.  What other labels are possible? Dunn explores several.  Church?  This implies some unification which surely did not exist.  Better called ‘churches‘ (p. 7).

Synagogue (p. 8)?  Probably not sufficient.  Disciples? No.  Believers?  This is better (p. 10).  Saints?  Also on the right track but not distinctive enough.  Dunn offers several more, but they all seem to be inadequete as ‘there is no single term which served to designate or describe those who participated in the sequel to the death of Jesus and its immediate aftermath’ (p. 15).

Dunn observes, despite the diversity in this new movement, that a common factor is Jesus.  I think, then, though Dunn does not come out and say it, that ‘Christian’ is an acceptable term if it is understood that this refers primarily to one who worships Christ.  This raises, for Dunn, the important question of continuity with the ministry of Jesus.  How did the transition happen from following Christ as disciple to worshiping him as lord?

Also, how did this group go from primarily a Jewish sect to a ‘Gentile religion’ (see pp. 16-17)?  Dunn can ask it this way: ‘how [do you] bridge the gap (or gulf) between Jesus and Paul…how it was that Jesus’ message of the kingdom became Paul’s gospel of the crucified Jesus as Lord’ (17).

Dunn goes on to describe various scholarly answers to this question.  But a review of this very excellent summary of the history of the interpretation quest for the historical church will be forthcoming in the next part.

Evaluation: It is certainly true that we are benefiting from Dunn’s lifetime of study of Paul and early Christianity.  His diagnosis of historical and social quandries is incise.  Sometimes scholars, in their latter years, write off the top of their heads with little depth in research.  This is not the case with Dunn.  The footnotes demonstrate a thorough engagement with scholarship that is up-to-date.  We will see in the next part that he is an excellent reader of scholarship and finds trends and the ‘bigger picture’ in the trajectory of the study of Christian origins.

The weighty-ness of this volume can be demonstrated by the fact that I have brought you to page 20 of the book and we are yet less than 2% into the tome!


One thought on “Dunn’s BfJ (The Quest for the Historical Church)

  1. nijay,

    congrats on finishing your phd! i’m looking forward to seeing your developments.

    i am also looking forward to your take on this dunn book. it is very interesting!


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