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Book reviews >

The Book that Breathes New Life: Scriptural authority and biblical theology

Fortress Press £19.99  (0-8006-3667-8)  Church Times Bookshop £19

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 criticism.

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 biblical passage.

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 for themselves. 

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 little emphasis.

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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