The Book that Breathes New Life: Scriptural authority and biblical theology
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
Fortress Press £19.99 (0-8006-3667-8) Church Times
Reviewed with A New Perspective on Jesus: What the quest for the
historical Jesus missed
by James D. G. Dunn SPCK £10.99
(0-281-05742-7) Church Times Bookshop £9
"THE STRANGE new world within the Bible" is a memorable phrase of Barth's
which is quoted more than once in this collection of Walter Brueggemann's
published articles on the Old Testament; and it expresses one of his deepest
convictions. Above all, the biblical text must never become familiar and
domesticated - whether by the straitjacket of the historical-critical method,
or the ideology (as Brueggemann is ready to call it) implicit in canonical
The Old Testament is a series of texts that continually "deconstruct"
themselves. There are indeed themes - covenant and exile, hymn and lament,
presence and absence, among many others - but none of these permits the
construction of a dogma or a theology, for they are all ruthlessly challenged
and destabilised within the text itself.
The propensity to systematisation, to which Christian interpreters of the
Hebrew scriptures have been particularly prone, is something to be resisted.
For these scriptures are the testimony of human beings who had the honesty and
the courage (as Christians so often do not) both to engage with the Holy One on
his own terms, and also to question, and even subvert, the conventional wisdom
that so often took the place of real engagement.
To minds trained in the logic of traditional Western systematics, it is
indeed "a strange world"; and Brueggemann's exploration of it, illustrated by
12 articles mainly concerned with the principles of Old Testament
interpretation, consistently resists the temptation to adopt any hermeneutical
or theological paradigm that would impose a definitive interpretation on any
James Dunn, by contrast, finds "strangeness" in the biblical record of
Jesus, not so much in the person of Jesus himself (as did Albert Schweitzer,
for example) as in the process by which the record came to be written down.
This short book grew out of a series of lectures in which he sets out the
method and approach that he adopted in his monumental Jesus Remembered
(published in 2003), and which he feared might have become smothered in the
detail of that massively erudite work.
After exposing some of the contradictions and fallacies that have beset the
successive quests for the historical Jesus, he invites us to enter the world,
certainly strange to modern readers, of oral transmission as it is likely to
have been practised in the time of Jesus. It will have depended on repeated
performance, within a community, of a remembered tradition. The performer will
have been required to be faithful to the best-remembered words and details of
the story, but required also to retell the story in such a way as to command
attention by subtle innovation.
This process will necessarily have begun well before the crucifixion, since
it was the way in which the impact Jesus made in his lifetime was remembered by
his followers; but it continued after the resurrection, as that impact was
communicated by his followers to those who had not been there to see and hear
As an introduction to, but also as a challenging account of, the progress of
Jesus studies in modern times, these three short chapters (with an appendix on
the implications of this model of oral transmission for the study of the
Gospels) could hardly be bettered.
Dunn also proposes a principle for discerning material concerning Jesus
which can be regarded as authentic: that it should be "characteristic". This
allows him to go a certain distance in building up a portrait of the historical
figure. Here there is little "strangeness": the eschatological thrust of much
of Jesus's teaching (which made him seem so strange to Schweitzer) receives
As readers of Jesus Remembered will have noticed, James Dunn's
Jesus is not a disconcerting figure. But his account of the way in which the
Gospel records may have come into existence as the result of countless
community performances of the story is one that, taken to its logical
conclusion, could well prove disconcerting to those whose "default setting"
(Dunn's phrase) is the standard two-document hypothesis explaining the
relationship between the first three Gospels.
Canon Dr Anthony Harvey is a former Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey.
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